The blond standing in front of Severus wore a superior smirk that was oh so familiar. This was definitely Lucius' child, which made Severus doubly suspicious as the teen held out a dark red envelop. The same color red as the missive he'd received from the Dark Lord. He ignored the letter, instead shifting his attention to the bearer.
"Why should I deliver it? Do it yourself."
Draco's smile became lazy as he tapped the thick envelope against his chin. It was a pose of utter arrogance, but it also signaled Severus that the paper wasn't doused in poison. That didn't mean it was safe, however. "I wonder what exactly bonds you and Potter. Last I knew, you and he were mortal enemies. In fact, godfather, your older self had quiet the animus against Potter before your change. So I find myself wondering what could have possibly happened to make you two such good friends so quickly."
There was something knowing in the blonde's eyes. It was dark and ugly, and Severus needed no Legilimency to understand the undercurrents of Draco's poisonous words. The teen believed he and Harry were bound by sex. Draco resented the intimacy, seemed to imply Severus was failing his duty as godfather because of it. Severus was beginning to believe he understood what Harry meant when he said he'd abused Draco. But if it were as simple as rape, why was Draco so viciously jealous?
Not that Severus would ever be able to forgive Potter for committing an act so heinous. And there was that time Severus had found Harry tortured in an abandoned classroom with evidence of sexual abuse. Draco was the more likely rapist. The whole puzzle baffled him, actually, and it wasn't a sensation Severus enjoyed. In fact, it annoyed him greatly.
Impatient, Draco held out the envelope once more. He was done playing. "It appears they removed my name from the acceptable list of visitors. Yours remains. So give this to Potter for me. If you don't, I'll simply find someone else who will." A malicious glint appeared in the blond's eyes. "Can you guarantee they'll check it over as well as you? I'd hate for something to happen to Potter."
It was a good tactic to use. Severus had no choice but to accept the missive now. To protect Harry. Severus silently, wandlessly, cast a barrier around his fingertips and accepted the letter. Should the parchment be cursed or poisoned, it would offer at least minimal protection.
Draco flashed him a sharp smile and gave a little bow. "I'll be seeing you around, I expect."
Severus watched him go, not saying a word. Once he was alone in the corridor, he continued on to the Hospital Wing. He was already late for his turn to sit with Harry. As he walked, he pointed his wand down at the paper and mumbled a constant string of revealing charms and diagnostics. He found nothing. It was normal parchment, nothing magical about it except that it had been sealed with a charm. Severus tested that area twice.
After seven spells, it appeared to only be an innocent sealing charm. However, he still felt uneasy. What were the chances that the person the Dark Lord had asked him to report on now wanted to deliver a mysterious letter to Harry Potter? Well, Harry and Voldemort were supposedly allies. There was no reason to withhold the letter even if it was from the Dark Lord, but why was Voldemort going through Draco Malfoy of all people? Why had the Dark Lord asked Severus to report on the teen's behavior and activities if Voldemort could evaluate Draco himself?
Due to the late hour, or should he say early morning hour, there was only one healer and an unfamiliar man in Harry's private room. He was halfway across the room before he realized who the man had to be. He froze in mid-step, heart instantly beginning to rocket against his ribs as fear flooded his system. Nearly golden eyes lifted and pinned him in place. Those eyes widened comically.
"Severus?" Remus Lupin exclaimed in shock equal to Severus' own. "What…? But…? How?"
The healer lifted his head from the corner where a common desk sat. "Perhaps you should take this conversation outside? My patient needs rest."
Lupin unpinned his stare to glare at the arrogant man, an inhuman growl slipping past his lips. Severus shivered, feeling sick. The healer sniffed, unimpressed, but Severus noted he had abandoned his attempts to kick them out. Animalistic eyes swung Severus' way once more. They mirrored the eyes from Severus' nightmares, and Severus' magic spiked around him. The empty potion vials sitting by Harry's bed shattered. Lupin flinched, his arm swinging wide to cover Harry's limp form, as if to protect him.
"Get away from him," Severus hissed, fingers and toes going ice cold as adrenalin sent blood rushing to his head.
Lupin's eyes grew flinty as a nearly subsonic growl began to resonate from his chest. "I'm not going anywhere, Severus."
"Stop." The weak voice drew his attention, and Severus was instantly caught up in deep green eyes. "Sev'us." Harry's pale, dry lips turned up into a smile even as sweat began to bead his forehead from the effort of speaking. Still smiling, those eyes left him to rest on the monster hovering at the bedside. "Moony. Sev'us best… friend."
Severus' cheeks instantly went hot despite his best efforts. He could hardly hold Harry's eyes as the teen looked across at him once more. Best friend? He had grown up sneering at such inane, childish titles; he'd scoffed at the idea of friendship, and yet here he stood, heat rushing to fill his face at the simple truth in those words.
"Moony. Like father. Please. Don' fight."
Severus couldn't deny the gentle plea of his first real friend, but he couldn't deny his utter terror in the face of his almost-killer either. Lupin had nearly eaten him alive, and the monster didn't seem to be too far from the surface. Not like it had been before, when Lupin had been his age and stumbled around acting meek and human.
"Don't talk, pup." Lupin leaned over to brush Harry's hair from his face.
The proximity of the werewolf's mouth and hands to Harry made Severus' gut clench. His heart was racing in his chest. Severus didn't think he could hold his magic back from attacking much longer.
Lupin's luminous eyes lifted to meet Severus'. "I don't know why Severus looks like a teenager again, but I can smell how uncomfortable I make him. I'll let you two have a moment. I promise I'll be right outside if you need me."
"Thanks," Harry whispered.
Severus nearly jumped out of the way as Lupin came toward him. For a split second, those eyes softened into the brown he knew from the teenaged Remus Lupin and filled with regret and sorrow, but then that flash was gone and the glowing amber came back. Neither said a word as Lupin slipped out of the room, shutting the door behind him.
Severus tore his eyes away from the feeble barrier separating him from the werewolf and hurried to Harry's side. He still felt sick with fear, but he'd been trained from childhood to hide it. When he spoke, his voice was steady. "How are you feeling?"
Harry gave another wane, pale smile.
"That good, huh?" Severus took a seat and lifted the envelope so Harry could see it clearly. "Draco asked me to give this to you."
Green eyes looked past the missive to Severus, a question written clearly there.
"Would you like me to read it?"
Harry gave a small nod, so Severus tore open the paper and pulled free the thick card held within. His eyes widened as he read aloud the words printed there. All thoughts of the werewolf instantly disappeared.
"Harry Potter, I believe you recall the two debts you owe me. I call upon you to fulfill the first by taking on Draco Malfoy as your sworn protector." Severus looked over at Harry. "There is no signature."
Harry had his eyes closed. "Never is."
Severus read a world of unhappiness in the way his friend twisted the bed sheets helplessly in his fists. The way his lips were pressed so tightly together they blanched white. Severus regretted bearing news that had upset Harry, especially in his current condition. He neatly folded the letter up and slipped it back into his robes, denying his first impulse of crumpling it. Severus was aware that it might be useful at a later time. Taking a deep breath, hands now free, he reached for Harry's clenched fist. Heart pounding, Severus covered his friend's hand, and he was pleased to see some of the tension drain out of Harry's body.
Pained green eyes opened. "Must do."
Severus nodded in full understanding. Dealing with the Dark Lord often led to situations where you had no choice except to submit, but Severus didn't understand why the Dark Lord had chosen Draco Malfoy of all people for the position. There were dozens of candidates more qualified to act as Harry's bodyguard. Not to mention that after the assassination attempt most everyone in Hogwarts would close ranks around the powerful young Lord. In particular, Harry's close friends and the Order of the Phoenix were going to be more protective than ever. Harry would hardly need an official bodyguard when a whole army of people would be more on guard than ever before.
Harry loosed a tired sigh. "Vold can't get close. Not 'til people… calm down. He can control… Draco. Knows how to get… in his head. Draco next to me… is like Vold next to me."
Severus echoed his sigh. Of course Harry was absolutely correct. Although Draco was relatively inexperienced, he was Harry's peer and familiar to everyone in the castle. Slytherin or not, Draco would be accepted by the students and staff more readily than an outsider. Also, no one else would be completely loyal to Lord Voldemort they way Draco would be, considering that his family had been Dark for ages and his father was within the Inner Circle of Death Eaters. As for his inexperience, Draco's youth would only make him easier to manipulate and control. Finally, there was this mysterious act that Harry was supposedly guilty of. It would motivate Draco. Where others would stop or admit defeat, Draco's obsession would drive him on. Taking all this into account, the Dark Lord choosing Draco as his agent wasn't that surprising or even unwise.
"You want me to be your overseer?" Severus asked in surprise.
"Trust you," Harry whispered before wincing.
A soft alarm sounded and the healer rose quickly to attend to Harry's pain. Severus quickly backed away as Lupin came striding into the room, returning to his post beside the bed. Severus shivered, very glad he was not the healer and did not have to work with those terrible eyes fastened on him.
Harry's eyes slipped closed as the healer's sedative began to take effect, and when Severus looked up, he saw that Lupin was watching him. Keeping his face as stoic as possible, Severus turned and left the room. He had a ritual to prepare and a godson to speak to. He most certainly did not have time to have staring contests with monsters.
Draco felt black jealously churn beneath his skin, black as Severus' soul. He tried to push it down, but it refused to die completely. It was all so tangled in his head. It made his chest feel full of taffy and shattered glass. Harry had taken a new lover to bed. Severus had to be destroyed; so what if he'd been Draco's godfather? Harry was Draco's, it didn't matter who the lover was. They had to be removed.
Not that Draco wanted to be Harry's lover; no way was he falling into that abyss again. He had sworn to himself that he'd never again let Potter control him. And as for Severus, his godfather was dead. This wasn't the same man who'd sat by him when he was alone in the manor, who'd taught him chess, who'd guided him and cared for him. So it was ridiculous that Draco felt so betrayed.
It burned to think of Severus lying underneath Harry, taking pleasure from the person Draco knew so well. Worse, he imagined Severus on top, dominating the indomitable. Flashes of Harry, vulnerable, flushed, and crying against a classroom wall, had Draco sweating, his pulse racing. Lust, betrayal, rage, and a deep abiding hurt… Draco had no idea what to do with the maelstrom raging in his head.
He'd opened himself to Harry, allowed the Gryffindor into the deepest part of his soul. Draco had let him into every desire; let Harry utterly control his body. Draco had loved him in a way he knew he'd never love again. No one would be allowed as deep as Harry had gone because Draco would never survive it. He'd given himself over completely, and it had all been a lie. Harry had manipulated him. He had used Draco shamelessly. Worse, he'd seen all of Draco's soul and had sneered as if it were worth nothing.
With a roar, Draco flung the last of his clothes into his trunk and slammed the lid. He leaned, head hanging, against the trunk, breathing hard. He didn't move as he heard the door to his bedroom open. Only two people would dare enter without obtaining permission first.
"Draco?" That was Pansy, her voice soft as it only was with him.
"Is everything all right?" And Blaise, his closest friend.
Draco turned and gave them a sharp smile. "Everything is perfect. The Dark Lord has agreed to become my personal tutor during the weekends."
"Is that why you're packing?" Pansy asked carefully.
"No." Draco looked down at his trunk, hunger in his eyes. "No. I'm packing because I'll be living elsewhere starting tomorrow."
"This have to do with Potter?"
Draco turned to look at Blaise. His friend's dark eyes were colder than Draco had ever seen them before, and Draco felt his body tense, his blood strumming with the urge to do battle, to destroy anything and everything that stood in his way. "Yes. As of tomorrow, I will be his foresworn protector."
Pansy's hands lifted to her face. "Oh, Draco, no. How could you swear your life to that arrogant lowlife? Are you really willing to die for him?"
Draco strode across the room, rage overwhelming him. She flinched and lifted her arms in defense, but he batted those away easily. His left hand snapped forward and grabbed her by the throat. "I'm not going to die, Pansy. And neither is he. If anyone tries to harm him, I will tear them apart. That's my duty, and I'm not going to fail. Is that understood?" He released her with a little push, and she fell back gasping, tears freely streaking her face.
"Determined to be a lapdog, Draco?" Blaise's voice was harsh with scorn.
Draco met his stare head-on. "I'm no one's lapdog," he whispered, voice laced with venomous warning. "I will gain power at Potter's side. And at the end of it all, it will be they who will come to depend on me, who will need me. I will hold the true power." He stepped forward and gently traced a finger down Blaise's cheek. "And if you ever question me again, I will rip your face off. Is that clear, Blaise darling?"
"Don't be that way. You know we love you, Draco." Pansy reached out to lay a hesitant hand on his arm. "We'd follow you anywhere."
Draco held Blaise's gaze until the teen looked away. He turned to Pansy and offered her a cool smile. "Thank you." He lifted her hand to his lips and lay a soft kiss across her knuckles "Your loyalty honors me."
She blushed hotly as if he hadn't just offered her violence a second before. "Can I help you pack?" she asked, wiping away her tears.
"I have everything arranged." Draco gestured them out of the room. "How about a game of chess? We shouldn't waste this time we have together."
"That's a wonderful idea," Pansy enthused. "I'll set up the board."
Draco turned to Blaise, who still stood with his face angled down.
"I will always be on your side, Draco, but don't ask me to ever forgive him for what he wrought. I cannot."
Taking a quick step forward and pressing his body against his friend's, Draco swallowed Blaise's gasp of surprise with a brutal kiss. Stepping back, wide brown eyes stared at him in shock, and Draco reached up to grasp his best friend's jaw. "Potter is under my protection," he stated, eyes nearly glowing in fury. "Don't ever forget that, Blaise." Draco released him, leaving small, bloody crescents pressed into Blaise's cheek.
Hermione felt her heart beat race against her chest as she stepped into Harry's private ward. Severus and Headmistress McGonagall had reported Harry was staying conscious longer and longer as the days passed. It was only a matter of time before Harry was awake during one of her watches.
As she approached the white bed and the pale teen lying so vulnerable and ill within it, she felt her body relax. Harry's bruised eyes were shut, his expression peaceful with sleep. Hermione wasn't afraid to talk to him, but she wasn't certain she had the strength to see it through, either, and she was afraid that if she let Harry get away with not telling her the truth even once, he'd never get around to answering all of her desperate questions.
"You can have the chair."
Hermione lifted her eyes to Ron and offered him a smile. Ron had been with her as much as was physically possible since she'd been back. She almost hadn't recognized him. He was so serious now and considerate. He was also taller, his body hard and muscled from the intense training he'd been undergoing. But his bullheaded stubbornness was the same as always. "Thanks," she said softly and took the single seat. She'd learned to pick her battles, and the seating arrangement wasn't worth it. She watched quietly as Ron's attention shifted to their friend.
He stepped up close to the bed and rested his hand on top of Harry's. "Hey, mate. Hope you're feeling better. We really miss you out there."
Hermione felt tears burn her eyes. It was true. Even with all the doubts and the sick fear, she still missed her best friend. Harry had always understood her, often better than Ron, and he'd been the first one to reach out to her when Ron had hurt her feelings all those years ago. In many ways, even though Ron became her friend the second that Harry did, Harry was her first. She loved him. She loved them both, and she wanted all the darkness inside her to go away.
Ron tensed, anticipation spiking around him, and she flashed her eyes up to see Harry's face become lit with awareness. Hermione held her breath as glassy green eyes fluttered open. An innocent, drugged smile stretched across Harry's face as he stared up at his best friend. Ron instantly bent down, his red hair shockingly bright against all the white in the room, an answering smile on his face. Guilt speared her insides that she couldn't find it in herself to smile with them.
"Rise and shine, Sleeping Beauty. You with us?" Ron asked softly.
"Ron," Harry answered in a whisper. "Miss you."
Ron squeezed Harry's hand in answer.
Harry's eyes drifted lazily to the side and found Hermione. At first she feared he wouldn't recognize her. She'd lost a lot of weight, her face unattractively thin, and her bushy, frizzy hair had been sheared close to her skull. She feared for nothing. He knew her instantly, and his smile grew brighter.
"Mione," he said on a sigh.
She gathered her strength and stood. Carefully she put her hand over Ron's. "Hey, Harry."
Harry's smile wavered as his eyes filled with tears. Then it disappeared completely with a look of utter sadness. "Sorry. So sorry, Mione. Didn't know."
"Didn't know what, Harry? What happened?" she asked quietly, but it was said with steel in her voice. She wanted answers and she was determined to have them. Ron shot her a disapproving look, but she ignored him.
"Didn't know. Thought you'd be safe." Harry's face crumpled as he began to cry. Ron instantly began to stroke his hair with his free hand, trying to soothe him. "So stupid. Shouldn't've risked it. Love you so much. Sorry. So sorry!"
"Shhh," Ron shushed him as the spells around Harry began to light up and pulse warningly. The infirmary door opened and Remus came into the room, his strides inhumanly graceful. At the same time, a side door opened and a disgruntled Healer came hurrying over.
"He's not allowed to get worked up!" The Healer already had his wand out and was gesturing for them to step back. Remus took a protective stance by the head of the bed and stared hard at Hermione.
She backpedaled quickly, heart racing. She had more questions than before, and yet again people were getting in her way, preventing her from finding peace. Tears streaked her face and she clenched her fists in utter frustration. Ron grabbed her arm, after saying something to Harry about being back, and pulled her out the doors.
"What is your problem? Can't you wait until he's well before you go demanding answers? You think I don't have questions of my own? But he's sick, Mione. You can't just push him like that. Not now."
She spun to face him, instantly furious. "I was driven literally insane, Ronald! You have no idea what this is like for me! How unbearable! He can help me! He can give me answers!"
Ron's blue eyes blazed. "I may not know how it feels, but I know dissecting someone when they're still in critical condition and drugged up on potions is unacceptable. And if you can't see that, if you can't look past your own hurt to see even that much," he flung his long arm out to the side to point back at the door to Harry's room, "If you can't see how sick and weak Harry is, then maybe you should go back to St. Mungo's. Maybe you shouldn't be back at school."
Hermione gasped, her hands covering her mouth as she stared up at Ron in shock. He watched her impassively before turning and striding down the corridor, leaving her there. Hermione literally felt gutted. She staggered to the side. Her shoulder impacted the stone wall hard. Her legs trembled under her, and she nearly slid to the floor. Covering her face, Hermione gave in to the sobs tearing at her throat to escape.
Gasping, she peeked through her fingers to see Remus Lupin standing in front of her. His expression was impassive and in his outstretched hand rested a letter.
"Harry wrote this to me. It doesn't have all the details, I'm still not sure what's going on, but it might help you to understand a little more." He pulled the note away when she reached for it and stared hard into her eyes. "Understand that I'm giving this to you only because Harry would be hurt to know how unwell you are. Don't come back into that room until you are able to be civil. I swore I would protect Harry, that I'd do it right this time. If that includes protecting him from you, then so be it."
Trembling, Hermione reached for the letter, undeterred by the threat glittering in her professor's once gentle eyes. If that letter really did have answers, then she had to have it no matter what. He released it this time, and she quickly unfolded it, eyes devouring the words.
One section in particular stood out:
… I don't recall our last meeting, but by your absence I fear the worst.
You see, I was under the influence of a Dark spell since the Department of Mysteries. Dumbledore discovered the truth, and in the process of freeing me, he died. He died for me. Other people have died for me, too. Cedric, even Severus died for me in a way. So here I am. Free now, with little to no recollection of my actions during the seven months following the battle in the Ministry. I can't tell you how sick I am over what I've learned I'm guilty of…
Hermione's hands spasmed around the paper, ripping it. Remus was long gone. She stood alone in the corridor and she stared blankly at the wall across from her. The letter had told her some but not all. She still had so much to understand. What did that mean that he had no memory of those months? Was that even possible or was this a lie?
They would have noticed, wouldn't they? Ron and her, and everyone else. They would have noticed if he'd become a completely different person…
There was the gambling and the political maneuvering with Slughorn. That hadn't been like Harry, but at other times Harry had seemed himself; perfectly normal if a little broody.
But Sirius had just died, and Harry had been abused by his family that summer. They'd thought that explained his weird behavior. Now Harry was saying he'd been cursed so badly that he didn't even remember those months!
But even cursed, she would not have thought Harry capable of hurting her like he had. Of hurting his lover. She'd seen the way he'd treated Draco, and it hadn't been right. In fact, it had been downright abusive.
What kind of Dark curse could do that to a person? Was there evil in Harry somewhere that the curse had unleashed? Was Harry really gay or was that part of the curse, too? And why would a curse make anyone gay? What was the point?
Or had something else happened? What exactly happened back then? Why had he Obliviated her? Because she was certain that it had been Harry who had done this to her.
Then there were Harry's words of a few minutes ago. He'd said that he shouldn't have risked it. Did that mean he'd had a choice? She was so confused. She didn't know what to believe.
"Answers are like books," a soft, whimsical voice said, pulling her head around. Hermione stared teary-eyed at the strange, blonde Ravenclaw. "They can trap you in a spiral, downward and downward, until all that is are words. You need to see the people, the earth, the trees. Visit the words in the books, but leave them there."
Hermione closed her eyes and finally let her legs give way. She slid down the wall. Wrapping her arms around her legs, she wondered if Ron was right. Maybe she should go back to St. Mungo's. Maybe she wasn't well enough to be back in the castle; maybe she wasn't well enough to search for answers.
"Don't fall down, Hermione Granger. You returned in order to stand up. To stand with the Forest King and his Red Knight. Remember?"
Stung, sensitive about her memory, she glared fiercely. "I remember."
Luna gave her a sweet, gentle smile. "Good." She continued passed Hermione's crumpled form, patting her head as she went, and turned the corner without another word.
Hermione sighed and closed her eyes.
The room was dark, lit only by a few candles. The Minister had no energy left to light more. Even that simple spell was beyond him at this point. In any case, his guests didn't seem to mind or even notice the poor lighting. The Dark Lord and the Order of the Phoenix's second in command crossed the room without saying a word and took the chairs in front of his desk.
Scrimegeour eyed the Dark Lord's blood-soaked robes, but couldn't find any disgust for his ally. At this point, seeing the blood of their enemy could only bring him joy. Voldemort's eyes were alight with battle, and he flashed a smile with teeth. Scrimegeour didn't smile back. Soot smudged the Minister's cheek and his hair was fluffier than usual. McGonagall looked equally grim. She was clutching her arm that she had injured yet again.
"Italy and Japan have fallen," Scrimegeour announced, seeing no need to delay. There was no way to soften such a blow. "Russia and China aren't sure how much longer they can stand against the Invaders."
Voldemort's magic stirred dangerously, thickening the shadows in the room to true black. "They are keeping us pinned here, so that we cannot leave to assist the other communities."
McGonagall made a choked sound, clearing her throat. "Are the Muggles aware?"
Scrimegeour rubbed a hand over his face. "No. Once the magical communities were eradicated, all attacks in those countries stopped."
"We should interweave ourselves with the Muggles," Voldemort spoke slowly, thoughtfully.
Scrimegeour and McGonagall turned to him with shocked expressions.
Voldemort's dangerous smile returned. "Obviously the attackers are being careful not to involve Muggles or to gain the general populace's attention. Only purely magical towns and quarters are being raided. We should make it that a raid on us will mean the equal loss of precious Muggle lives." He drawled the word precious as if it were the most disgusting word he knew.
"Everyone's terrified of the Muggles now," McGonagall argued tiredly. "They hardly leave their homes anymore. They aren't going to go mingle in Muggle London."
Before Voldemort could say anything scathing, Scrimegeour spoke up. "I'll make an announcement explaining the situation. Those with town homes in the city will be encouraged for their safety to return to them."
That was all that they could do.