For once, he was grateful for Narcissa's Charm. Albus ordered him to sit, the concern on his face impossible to hide. The Headmaster attributed the sheen of sweat on his skin and labored breathing to the lingering effects of Phoenix Flu, not racing to the seventh floor then down to the dungeons and back to the Defense classroom.
Watching Dumbledore administer the Veritaserum to Barty Crouch made his heart race for a much different reason. There weren't many people whom Severus feared, but the man who now sat magically bound to a plain wooden chair was close to the top of a very short list. Both he and Bellatrix Lestrange were true fanatics, unswervingly loyal to that monster Voldemort and all he espoused. Worse, Crouch's intelligence made him doubly treacherous. He'd served the Dark Lord while maintaining an impeccable cover as the dutiful son of the Head of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement. More impressively, he had somehow faked his death while in Azkaban; he was not to be underestimated.
"How did you escape Azkaban?"
The Headmaster's thoughts must have paralleled his own. Snape listened intently as Albus expertly interrogated the man. Crouch, Jr. revealed that his dying mother had switched places with him, thus allowing his father to secretly imprison him in the family home. He had spent a decade under the Imperius Curse, slowly fighting it until the night the Dark Lord and Pettigrew had appeared at the door. In fact, he had managed to throw off the curse long enough during the Quidditch World Cup to steal Draco's wand and terrify Death Eaters and general public alike by casting the Dark Mark. Now, though, it was Crouch, Sr. who lived under the Unforgivable Curse.
"And how did Voldemort learn of your father's secret?"
The bound wizard glared murderously at Dumbledore, his face coloring to match his freckles. With the Truth Potion, however, he was compelled to answer.
"Pettigrew found Bertha Jorkins in Albania. The Dark Lord could sense that she'd been Obliviated, so he ripped her mind apart to learn her secret. He never expected that secret to be me, but my devotion pleased him greatly."
His eyes suddenly bored into his former colleague. "Just as your treachery enraged him. Mark my words, Snape, he will make you suffer before you die, like I hope he makes all of the faithless cowards suffer! You betrayed him! Betrayed those who accepted you despite your questionable origins! You chose the daughter of that filthy Mudblood over your master! I hope he makes her beg for death in front of you before Cruciating you to the point of insanity! You don't deserve to live!"
Spittle flew from the deranged man's mouth, and Snape forcibly had to remind himself that Barty could only bluster. Bound as he was, there was no way he could summon the Dark Lord to make good on any of his threats. Even so, he had to fight the urge to kill the unhinged wizard where he sat.
Steely-eyed, Albus appeared remarkably unperturbed by the Death Eater's outburst. In a far too reasonable tone of voice he asked, "Speaking of Miss Potter, what are your master's plans for her?"
The wizard's face contorted into a rictus of pain as he fought the effects of the powerful Truth Potion. After struggling for a few seconds, however, the answer poured unwillingly from his mouth.
"Rose Potter is to be entered into the TriWizard Tournament. When she wins, the Cup will take her to my Master. He will use her blood to resurrect his body. Then, he will kill her so all will know that the Girl-Who-Lived was nothing more than the Girl-Who-Died."
The flash of exultation in Dumbledore's eyes extinguished so quickly that Snape questioned whether it had been a figment of his imagination. However, the Headmaster's stiffened posture indicated the importance of the next question.
"How will her blood be used?"
This time, Crouch answered more readily. The Potions Master had to fight the urge to hex the arrogant sneer off the prisoner's narrow face.
"Blood of an enemy, forcibly taken."
This time, the spark of triumph was unmistakable, although Snape could not fathom the reason. He knew of no spell or ritual to grant the foul shade a new body. He had hoped that with the destruction of the Philosopher's Stone such a thing had been rendered impossible. To discover that Rose's foolish bravery against Quirrel had been for naught brought the sour taste of acid to his throat.
"That Potion takes almost a year to brew. No wonder Tom is waiting."
Dumbledore spoke conversationally, as if he had engaged in a polite discussion rather than a forced interrogation. The younger Crouch strained against his bonds, his eyes alight with madness. Frowning, Severus wished he could ask the Headmaster how the hell he had knowledge of such an obviously Dark Potion. Dumbledore's specialty was Transfiguration, although the wizard who had discovered the twelve uses of dragon's blood must have more than a little familiarity with Potions.
"How dare you speak of the Dark Lord in such a manner! Mark my words, he will destroy you all!"
The powerful wizard regretfully shook his head. "Such a waste. Severus, do you have any questions for our prisoner?"
His eyes snapped disbelievingly to the older wizard, who had just popped a sweet into his mouth. Of course he had questions. Steadying himself, he focused on Crouch.
"Do your instructions include harming Rose Potter in any manner before she is to be taken to the Dark Lord?"
"Is anyone else to harm her whilst she is at Hogwarts?"
Hardly comforting given Crouch's overall objective, but Severus did allow himself to relax just a bit. At least she was not currently an active target of Voldemort. He continued with a different line of questioning.
"How are you to report to the Dark Lord?"
Through his clenched jaw, the Death Eater ground out, "I'm not."
"Then, are you to report to someone else?"
Surprised by the answer, he rephrased the question so that there could be no mistake. "You have been given sole responsibility to ensure that Rose Potter be delivered to the Dark Lord?"
Again, he spit his answer out like it burned his tongue. "Yes."
"And, you are not to report your progress to anyone in any manner?"
Severus leaned back in the chair, astonished by the answer. If he hadn't brewed the Veritaserum himself, he might have doubted its efficacy. Briefly, he wondered what Black made of such a revelation before Occluding his mind and focusing on the task at hand.
"Then, how will he know of your progress?"
Struggling against the magical bindings, Crouch bit his tongue so hard that blood gushed from his mouth. Even that did not save him from answering, although his speech was difficult to understand.
"Da Daiwy Proppef."
Before he could follow with another question, Dumbledore stood, his eyes twinkling brightly with satisfaction. The Headmaster stemmed the blood pouring from Crouch's mouth with a wave of his wand. Then, he cast a Silencing Spell on the enraged wizard.
"We are indeed fortunate, Severus. Alastor can resume his duties and no one will be the wiser. So long as we ensure that Rose is entered in the TriWizard Tournament, Tom will think nothing amiss until far too late. The final task isn't scheduled until the twenty-fourth of June."
As the Headmaster spoke, Snape stared fixedly into Barty Crouch, Jr.'s eyes, discovering a level of malice he had rarely encountered. It reminded him of the killer instinct Remus Lupin unleashed when he transformed into a werewolf. Gripping his wand, he coldly stunned the Death Eater before turning towards the Headmaster.
"Have you so readily forgotten the dangers of the TriWizard Tournament, Albus? There is a reason participants must be of age. It would hardly benefit your cause if Rose were to die competing."
Growing unexpectedly somber, the powerful wizard peered intently at his Potions Master over his half-moon spectacles. Severus hated when he did that; he invariably felt like a schoolboy caught in a petty misdeed.
"Defeating Lord Voldemort was once your cause as well, my boy. Or have you forgotten the prophecy? Either must die at the hand of the other. . . ."
". . . .For neither can live while the other survives." He finished resignedly as he prayed that the old man hadn't heard the soft gasp coming from the far corner of the room. So much for Black bearing silent witness. "I think of the prophecy every day. Why do you think I've pushed Rose to learn so many spells? Given time, her power will rival that of the Dark Lord's."
"It is not her dueling skills which will defeat Tom, Severus. We have discussed this many times. It is the power he knows not which will prove to be his downfall."
"Surely you're not again spouting that ridiculous notion that love will defeat the Dark Lord, Albus? This isn't Phantom of the Opera. I doubt a kiss from a maiden will convince a Dark wizard like Voldemort to change his ways."
The infuriating old man had the gall to chuckle. "Severus, you never cease to amaze me. I never pictured you as a devotee of Muggle musicals."
"Do not attempt to change the topic." He spoke waspishly, half irritated that the Headmaster refused to see the danger and half embarrassed that he had been caught making the Muggle reference. "Entering Rose in the TriWizard Tournament would be foolish. She would be ill-prepared for such a challenge."
All traces of humor left the Headmaster's face. "Severus, you cannot argue both sides. You say you are training her to face Voldemort in a duel, and yet you tell me she is too unskilled to test her mettle in the TriWizard Tournament. While I can understand your desire to safeguard Miss Potter, I must remind you that you promised to do anything to redeem yourself. This is the best opportunity we shall have to defeat Tom before he returns to full strength. Don't you wish to avoid an all-out war?"
"I made a far more important Vow, Albus, a vow to Lily to protect her child. Unlike you, I do not believe that forcing Rose to compete in the TriWizard Tournament comes anywhere close to protecting her. As her guardian, I trust that I will have the final say in this matter."
The bearded wizard pulled off his spectacles to wearily rub his eyes. When he faced Severus again, the former spy tensed at the regret in his mentor's dampened blue orbs.
"You made that promise to me, my boy, not Lily. Lily Potter couldn't accept your Vow because the wizard to whom you had sworn allegiance killed her as she stood in front of him to save her child. I regret it has come to this, Severus, but please believe me when I say that I am doing my best to protect Rose. She will be entered into the TriWizard Tournament. You will not warn her beforehand. You will not contest her participation. You will encourage her to win. I assure you; it is for her own good."
The reminder of his betrayal of Lily wounded him. But, his mentor's use of it as emotional blackmail delivered a much harsher blow. Paling, he stared dazedly at the open trunk until he felt a gentle pressure on his shoulder.
"I shouldn't have burdened you with this tonight, Severus. I forget that for all your resilience, you are still recovering from an illness that almost killed you. For that, I am sorry. You have done the wizarding world a great service. You should be proud, my boy."
"Proud?" he asked in a broken voice. "Do you know Rose's greatest wish, Headmaster? It isn't fame or glory, but the chance to be normal, something that will not happen if she is mysteriously chosen as the Hogwarts Champion. Have you thought of her fellow students' reactions, Albus? Do you think they will rally around your golden girl, or shun her as they did when she revealed her talent for Parseltongue?"
"Rose Potter has never been normal, Severus. You know—"
"All I know," he bitterly interrupted, "is that even with this plan of yours, there is no way to guarantee her safety. What if the Dark Lord changes his mind and takes Rose earlier? What if he sends Pettigrew to Hogwarts? The rat will know Crouch has been captured. Your plan is riddled with suppositions, and you've put your trust in the words of a madman. How the hell do you expect me to take comfort in that?"
The pressure on his shoulder increased. Looking up, he saw Albus' eyes rimmed with tears. Not trusting his own thoughts at the moment, he quickly looked away.
"I wish I could assure you, my boy, but you know I cannot. There is always an element of risk, which you have rightly voiced. However, the possible reward in this instance is simply too great to dismiss. Rose deserves the chance at a normal life, but such a dream will forever be denied her while Voldemort hunts in the shadows. Trust me, Severus, participating in the TriWizard Tournament is her best chance of defeating Tom once and for all."
His shoulders slumped in defeat. The old man had made up his mind. He could rant, rave, throw a tantrum like an overtired toddler, threaten, cajole and flat out scream, but he knew from bitter experience that Albus Dumbledore would not be swayed. One way or the other, Rose Potter would be entered in the TriWizard Tournament. She would compete. Somehow, she would win. The afterwards, however, would be anyone's guess.
"If she so much as suffers a paper cut, Albus, I'm holding you responsible."
His disgruntled protest brought a sad smile to the Headmaster's face. As usual, the bespectacled wizard was gracious in his victory. "I know, my boy, and I thank you for your cooperation. Rose's participation in the Tournament will buy us valuable time, time which will be well spent. He will finally be vanquished, Severus. I'm certain of it."
"I can only hope you're right." Resigned, he wearily gestured to Crouch's unconscious form. "How can I be of assistance?"
Unsurprisingly, the older man refused his offer of help.
"I'll take care of this, Severus. You need your rest. I don't think Alastor will be ready to teach tomorrow. I'm afraid I'm going to have to ask you to cover his classes."
"Of course. I'll leave you to it, then."
He walked out of the room and quickly closed the door behind him—deliberately too quickly for Black to follow. Sirius would be able to provide invaluable information on Dumbledore's treatment of both Moody and Crouch. The Potions Master suspected his mentor had once again kept vital information secret. Something about the Dark Lord's plans had piqued the wizard's interest, but what?
As he walked down the stairs to the Defense classroom, he tried to come up with a plausible excuse for Rose and Draco, but his thoughts were simply too disorganized. He finally came to the untenable conclusion that he would have to share some version of the truth. Knowing what would happen if he attempted to enter his quarters through the door, he made a detour to the History of Magic classroom.
Binns slept soundly in his chair; or more likely, the ghost gave a good impression of sleeping. Snape walked past without comment, searching for the hidden doorway that led to the instructor's former apartments. Predictably, it had been hidden as a bookshelf, and with a little pressure, the entire section of wall opened up to reveal a cobweb covered archway. Closing the hidden door behind him, he quickly found the disused fireplace.
Soot stained the entire firebox black while piles of ash spilled over the grate. Severus idly wondered if it had been cleaned since Binns' death as he searched for a bowl of Floo powder on the dusty wooden mantel. He eventually found it in a covered Chinese vase on a nearby table. Taking a handful, he threw it into the cold hearth. Brilliant green flames burst into existence, and he wasted no time announcing his destination.
Stumbling out of his own hearth, he dusted off his robes only to find a wand pressed painfully against his neck. Draco and Rose looked on nervously from several feet away.
"What is the last request you made of me before you left for Hogwarts?"
"That you take a flat in London rather than return to Malfoy Manor."
The witch standing behind him took her wand away from his neck. Spinning to face her, he aimed his wand directly at her chest. Although she looked and acted like his beloved, he refused to let his guard down.
"And, what was your response?"
The proud widow glanced uneasily at the teens standing behind him, and he wanted nothing more than to take his question back. When she leaned towards him to whisper in his ear, he didn't push her away.
"I said that I would gladly live in a hovel so long as it was with you. Otherwise, I would return to Malfoy Manor until my son comes of age."
"Narcissa, I apologize. I did not mean—"
She pressed her finger to his lips, effectively silencing him. Her eyes swept his body, from his sweat-dampened, lank hair to the scuffs on the toes of his black boots. Taking her finger away, she nodded to herself, as if in answer to a very important question, and then her manner became brisk and businesslike.
"Sit down, Severus. You look like you could use a drink."
He sat. Narcissa wordlessly handed her traveling cloak to Rose. She then ordered Draco to find napkins, cups and saucers and a tin of biscuits. Before Snape could mention that there were no biscuits to be found, she placed a glass of Firewhiskey in front of him and then performed a Heating Charm on the water in the kettle.
As he stared dully at the amber liquid in front of him, Crouch's interrogation again played in his mind. The Dark Lord intended to resurrect his body using Rose's blood. Rose's blood . . . . Fucking hell! He planned to take away Lily's blood protection by using Rose's blood to give life to his new body. Voldemort would be able to touch her. She would not be able to defeat him as she had Quirrell. But, why would it matter? If the Dark Lord planned on killing her immediately, why would he care if he could touch her? Unless . . . unless he wished to use her for something before he killed her.
"Drink it before you faint."
He thought it excellent advice. His thoughts had taken such a sickening turn that he needed the alcohol as a distraction if nothing else. Drinking down the potent spirit, he felt the familiar burn down his throat and then a burst of soothing warmth which spread throughout his body.
"Are you alright, Professor? Do you need to have a lie down? What happened? Are you hurt?"
He smiled tiredly at Rose's concern. If he had taken the time to notice, he would have seen the same anxiety in Draco's expression, but his skills in observation had been overtaxed by Barty's interrogation.
"I am uninjured, Rose."
"But something happened to give him quite a shock. Give him a moment to compose himself, Rose. If we were in any immediate danger, Severus wouldn't be sitting at the table."
Narcissa's blunt observation only made the two teens more anxious. Draco appeared especially agitated, and he belatedly realized the boy must be wondering about Sirius' absence. Still, he did as the witch had suggested and took a moment to compose himself. She was correct; they were in no immediate danger.
He watched as she calmly poured the boiling water over the tea leaves in his chipped porcelain teapot, idly wondering if she had ever done so before. The Blacks and Malfoys prided themselves on using house-elves for menial labor. However, the regal blonde appeared to be quite at home in his cramped kitchen. She took his empty glass without asking and replaced it with a cup of strong, hot tea. Then, she proceeded to pour a generous amount of milk into Draco's half-filled cup. While she had to ask Rose how she liked her Earl Gray, Narcissa prepared hers as well before pouring the last cup and primly stirring in a lump of sugar. Taking a small sip, she gazed at him expectantly.
He could think of no way in which to soften the blow. Wrapping his hands around the teacup for added warmth, he straightened in his seat.
"I discovered that a Death Eater had infiltrated Hogwarts. He had been using Polyjuice Potion to disguise himself as Alastor Moody. At the time, I couldn't be sure that he was the only one. So, I ordered Rose and Draco to my quarters as a precaution. Draco, your dog is currently guarding the prisoner. The Headmaster has not decided what to do with him as yet."
Narcissa studied her teacup, though not before giving him a skeptical glance. He had left enough unsaid for her to know that there was much more to the story. As the two teens erupted with questions, she searched for the nonexistent biscuits.
"What Death Eater? Won't he be sent to Azkaban? How long has he been impersonating Moody? Since school began? Before? Why'd he come here? Does it have something to do with Voldemort?"
Narcissa sniffed audibly in disgust at the young witch's choice of words. She had spent too much time as a Death Eater's wife to be comfortable with that name. Remarkably, Rose seemed to understand.
"Sorry, Cissy. It makes sense, though, doesn't it? That this all has something to do with You-Know-Who? I mean, it can't be a coincidence, can it?"
"It is no coincidence," Severus admitted gravely. The wizard impersonating Moody had orders to deliver you to the Dark Lord."
Draco spilled his tea much like Neville Longbottom had just that afternoon. Merlin, but it had been a very long day. The hot liquid poured over the edge of the table onto the Slytherin's lap, causing the boy to jump out of his seat. Narcissa performed a quick, "Scourigfy," without pausing her search of the pantry.
Rose had gone very quiet, although he could hear the faint tinkle of silver as she fingered her charm bracelet. Finally, she said with a strained nonchalance, "Well, I guess it's lucky you found him out, then, Professor."
"Indeed," he solemnly agreed, wishing he could warn her of the trials yet to come. He took little comfort in Crouch's capture while Albus plotted towards his own ends. Still, it could be much worse. The rabid fanatic could have already taken Rose.
"I trust I don't have to tell the two of you to keep this to yourselves."
"Keep what to ourselves?" Draco asked sarcastically. "You haven't even told us who Polyjuiced themselves into Professor Moody. Besides, won't everyone know by the morning? I mean, a Death Eater posing as a teacher at Hogwarts isn't exactly the type of news one can hide."
"Which is why Professor Dumbledore has no intention of turning the man over to the Aurors. Or am I wrong, Severus? Please, tell me I'm wrong."
He couldn't, and as soon as he made eye contact with her, she understood. Rose, however, could not reconcile her perception of the Headmaster with his patently illegal actions.
"But . . . ." She paused, as if trying to work something out. Severus bit the inside of his cheek as he watched a parade of emotions march across her face. Confusion, denial, anger, and then, a terrible look of betrayal before her chin jutted out in defiance.
"It's a trick, isn't it, sir? Professor Dumbledore is going to trick him to come here."
"He believes this is the best chance to defeat the Dark Lord before he can return to power."
Just a bloody minute! He can't use you as bait, Rose! We'll tell the Ministry ourselves! We—"
"Shut it, Malfoy! I don't need you treating me like some damsel in distress! I want to hear what Dad thinks! He knows Professor Dumbledore a lot better than you ever will!" As all eyes snapped to her, she added somberly, "Voldemort, too, I imagine."
"What do you wish to know?" In this one instance, he knew better than to assume anything.
"Do you agree with the Headmaster's plan?"
Her question was the crux of his dilemma. How much did he trust Albus Dumbledore? It wasn't that he didn't think the aged wizard could succeed. He simply didn't know what price his mentor might be willing to pay to bring down the Dark Lord once and for all.
"I admit I have my reservations. However, in fairness to the Headmaster, I believe he has a reasonable chance of success. Though I do not know how costly such a scheme might prove to be. The Dark Lord's death would be a hollow victory indeed if you are not there to see it, Rose."
When he saw strong-willed determination hardening those beautiful emerald eyes, he felt his heart constrict in his chest. This was not the path he would have chosen for her. She had completely ignored his doubts, focusing solely on the desired outcome. Healer Wellby's words came back at that moment to haunt him. She truly was primed to be a martyr. If she died because of it, he would kill the old man himself.
"Rose, I . . . ." Standing, he imploringly looked to Narcissa.
Coming to stand beside him, she unreservedly pulled the young witch into a hug, a gesture which Rose unabashedly returned. They clung tightly together for almost a minute, and he had to resist the urge to embrace them both.
"There is another way."
Green eyes met blue, wary with disbelief, but Severus counted it a victory. Perhaps Rose would listen to the reasoning of a woman.
"You could spend a year or two studying abroad. There's no reason to deliberately subject yourself to the Dark Lord's attentions. Although he doesn't like to acknowledge it, Severus is a renowned Potions Master. You could have your pick of schools and return in a few years when Dumbledore has vanquished He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named for good. Leave the scheming to the Headmaster for once. I assure you, he is more than capable."
Biting her bottom lip much like her friend Hermione Granger, Rose fiddled mindlessly with her charm bracelet. Severus took this as a hopeful sign of indecision. Narcissa used her hesitation to sweeten the offer.
"Draco and I could accompany you and Severus. My son is free to live where he likes until he comes of age. A year or two living oversees would do him worlds of good. And, you could have a friendly face in your classes."
Despairingly, Severus saw Rose stiffen at the phrase 'friendly face'. He knew exactly what she would say, and was therefore unsurprised when his ward deliberately stepped away from the older witch.
"I'm sorry, Cissy, but I can't. I know you mean well, but I can't just go away someplace safe while the rest of my friends are in danger because of something I could prevent. This is my home, and I won't let Voldemort take that away from me like he's taken so much else. I won't."
Stupid, foolish, brave, bloody Gryffindor. He couldn't have been prouder of her at that moment even as her answer threatened to bring tears to his eyes. Of course she wouldn't abandon her home or her friends. Such loyalty was her greatest strength and utmost weakness. She truly was Lily's daughter—and damn it, Potter's, too.
"Professor! Mother is right. You can't possibly let her stay. It would be suicide!"
Immediately, her hands balled into fists, and Severus wanted to warn the boy that he stood on a crumbling precipice.
"Thanks for that, Malfoy. I suppose I know how little confidence you have in me now."
"Confidence?" he drawled in his most haughty tone. "The only thing you can be confident about, Potter, is that the Dark Lord has years more experience than you. You can't possibly believe you're powerful enough to beat him."
Raw anger reddened her face as she pulled out her wand. "Oh yeah? And, who do you think beat him twice before? Hagrid? You don't know anything, Draco! I'm the only one who can!"
The teen's fair skin blanched white. Crossing the small space, he gripped her shoulders as if he could will her to understand. Severus had the uncomfortable feeling of being a voyeur in the face of such raw emotion. Glancing at Narcissa, he knew she felt much the same.
"Leave with me, Rose, please. I'll renounce my inheritance. We can go away, far enough away that no one gives that scar of yours a second look, wherever you like. You can live a normal life. We both can."
He watched as her anger drained away. Draco noticed too, and a hopeful smile stole over his face. But the smitten boy didn't see the determination still shining in her eyes.
"I'd like that, Draco. You can't begin to believe how much I'd like that. But, I can't leave. It would feel too much like running away. And, if I do that, he's won already."
The Malfoy heir's entire body went rigid as if her words had Petrified him. Then, he dropped his hands from her arms and coolly walked towards the door. In a voice as cold as Lucius' had ever been, he said, "Do you know the problem with bait, Potter? It gets eaten. So, don't expect me to cry over your dead body. You've made your choice, and it isn't me."
The door closed behind him with a soft snick. As Rose stared blankly at the dark wood, a cold chill sank in Snape's gut. Malfoy's words had sounded forebodingly like an epitaph. He would do everything he could to prove the angry young man wrong.
Author's Notes - Happy New Year! I took a few weeks to enjoy the holidays with my family, but as the kiddos are back in school, I'm looking forward to catching up on my writing and posting. Hope you enjoy the chapter!