Disclaimer: Harry Potter and his world belong to J.K. Rowling. This story belongs to me.
A/N – Hello again my wonderful readers! I'm so sorry for the long wait for this update, but my muse has recently taken me elsewhere and as such I've struggled to find the time to come back to this story. As you can see though, I haven't forgotten it, and your reviews (all of them wonderful!) have kept me going. This chapter's not as polished as I would like, but I hope you enjoy it!
~Strength in Weakness~
The voice – the desperate, panicky, almost muted voice – sank slowly into his mind, bringing with it an unwelcome and not entirely complete return to consciousness; a return that was so overwhelming that Harry struggled to even think through the foggy pain that was clouding his mind. His head hurt, his body hurt; god, thinking hurt.
He clenched his fists almost instinctively, but it did little to offer him any relief from the world of pain he now found himself in. Harry felt almost as if he was in between states; not unconscious enough to feel any relief, but also not conscious enough to understand even a fraction of what had happened to him. He caught brief flashes of memory as they battered around his mind, but whenever he managed to fixate on a particular image, a fresh wave of pain would rush through him and he would lose the ability to think again…
"Harry…just stay with me…"
Harry groaned, simply because he didn't know what else to do. He couldn't move – he physically couldn't do so much as lift a finger – and it felt as if his mind was caked in mud, making his thoughts feel slow and almost useless, and making his body feel beyond the realm of his control. He was hot, cold, in pain and numb, all at once.
God, it was agony…
"I know it hurts, Harry," continued the voice gently, desperately. "But you're going to be okay. You're going to be fine, I promise. Madame Pomfrey has just gone to get you some more pain potions. She have you fixed up right as rain in no time, and then you'll be able to go back to sleep. Just hang on a little bit longer…
Easier said than done, Harry thought, his mind finding a brief moment of clarity within the flashes of pain, although the thought flittered away as soon as the pain in his head flared to a sickening crescendo.
"Please, Harry, just stay with me…"
The voice sank slowly into his mind again, and this time, Harry really felt the desperation the person – a man, he realised - was trying so hard to hide. Harry's body begged for him to give in to the complete darkness once again, but for a reason he couldn't quite comprehend at the moment, Harry knew that he couldn't give up. Mainly because he didn't want to let the voice down, but also because – in spite of the fact that he could barely think straight, could barely think at all - somehow he knew that if he allowed himself to fall asleep now, he might not wake up.
So with a superhuman effort that took every little bit of persistence and stubbornness he had left in him, Harry listened to the voice, and pushed away the darkness edging into his mind, forcing back the pain that ravaged his body as he fought for control.
Who was that? He recognised the voice, soft and strong in equal measures, but tinged with a definite trace of fear that sent a shiver of concern through Harry's spine. Harry had the distinct feeling that he could trust the owner of the voice, but the pain pounding at his mind was making it difficult for him to work out who it was…
Harry felt a hand grip onto his, and he instinctively held it tight, using it as an anchor. With a final, exhausting push that somehow made everything feel even worse, Harry focused all his energy on his heavy eyes, willing them to open.
"That's it, Harry…"
Harry blinked his eyes hard, finally opening them a crack. He blinked again as the white light hit his retinas, and it took a moment for his vision to focus.
Finally a face began to swim into his vision, and Harry almost smiled when he recognised who it was.
"Lupin…?" he croaked, his throat dry and sore. He didn't know what was going on, or why he felt as bad as he did, but he couldn't help but be glad to see his old professor.
Lupin's relief was palpable in the air. "Oh, Merlin, Harry, you have no idea how worried you've had us."
"What…happened?" Harry asked with great difficulty. Merlin, it was hard to speak. His throat felt as it was made entirely from sandpaper.
"Don't worry about that now," Lupin said gently. "We'll talk about that later. For now, just rest."
Harry nodded, too tired to voice his agreement.
"Harry, everything's going to be okay," Lupin continued.
"No, it's not," Harry replied hoarsely, because the memories were starting to trickle in now – the punches, the frying pan, the pain – and he knew, with more certainty than he had ever known anything in his life, that everything wasn't going to be okay. He didn't quite understand everything that had happened, but one thing was sticking out in his mind, haunting him with everything he knew was yet to come; they knew now, they knew everything, and it meant nothing would ever be the same…
Harry swallowed deeply and turned his head slightly, not wanting Lupin to see how scared he was, how vulnerable he felt now. He didn't want to talk anymore, and any relief he felt at waking up safe had now vanished into nothingness. His mind hurt, his body was battered, but with this last realisation, his spirit seemed to almost shatter in his chest. Harry couldn't face this; no matter what Snape told him, he knew he wasn't ready…
Then a thought hit him, and ice seemed to rush through his veins as he cursed himself for not thinking about it sooner.
"Harry?" Lupin began, clearly worried. "Are you okay?"
"No." Harry swallowed deeply and forced his eyes up to meet Lupin's worried gaze as he shook his head. "Professor…where's Snape?"
Severus Snape woke slowly.
At first, he wasn't even really aware that he was waking up. On some level, he knew – or at least felt that he was alive, but his mind was so clouded by pain and the remnants of fever that he could barely comprehend anything beyond the fact that the darkness in his head was beginning to lift.
Eventually though, after what seemed like an age, his mind began to register other things as well. The beating of his heart, a little too fast but still pumping nonetheless. The air being pulled into his lungs on instinct alone, keeping his body working while his mind fought to catch up. The white hot pain in his shoulder in particular, a pain so intense that it pushed all other aches into the dark recesses of his brain as it took over all his senses.
After a few more moments, he was able to gain control over that too, and then he began to register other things as well. The feel of soft sheets below him, the warm sense of comfort, the soft chatter of unknown people, speaking words he couldn't quite make out.
And then there was silence as those unknown people moved away; but it was the sort of silence that wasn't really silence at all. The sort of silence where it was possible to hear all manner of noises if one really took the time to listen properly. The soft chirping of the birds outside, the faint buzz of magic that fizzled through the air, the gentle clinking of a spoon in a tea cup as a drink was stirred…
Snape focused in on that last sound, his mind almost drawn to it. Despite the exhaustion that was clambering at every inch of his body, Snape knew, from experience, that he couldn't afford to let himself fall unconscious again. His instincts, honed by years as a double agent, wouldn't allow it, because he knew that until he worked out where he was and what had happened, he might not be safe. And the clinking of the cup indicated that, wherever he was, he wasn't alone…
Snape managed to open his eyes a crack, blinking at the brightness of the room. His vision took a few seconds to clear, and even then it took a few more seconds before his brain registered what he was seeing. It didn't make sense.
"Headmaster?" he croaked, his throat dry and sore.
Dumbledore, for once, looked tired, a fact that Snape noticed almost immediately. Tired and old…
Nevertheless, Dumbledore smiled. "How are you feeling?"
"What happened?" Snape asked, his mind still reeling from the Headmaster's shock appearance. He didn't know what to make of it, how to feel about it, because he had spent the last few weeks wishing for the man's presence, and he couldn't help but be angry that he hadn't been anywhere in sight.
Dumbledore frowned. "You do not remember?"
Snape thought hard as memories flashed across his mind. They didn't make perfect sense, but they were enough. More than enough…
"I remember what caused me to be in this…condition," Snape began hoarsely. "But I do not remember how I came to be…here."
"Harry used the telephone at the Dursleys to call Mrs Figg," Dumbledore replied quietly, moving closer to Snape's bedside. "She notified the Order immediately, and those who were available were able to organise a rescue. It took some time, but they managed to get both of you to Hogwarts without further incident."
Snape blinked slowly again, and finally saw the hospital wing begin to take shape around him. He almost couldn't believe it, and the relief that flushed through him almost took his breath away. They'd made it to Hogwarts…
Then concern hit him like a train. "The boy?"
"He is…recovering," Dumbledore replied, pained expression on his face.
The Headmaster's answer instantly filled Snape with dread. Because as far as he could remember, the boy had been a bit battered and bruised, but ultimately fine...
"What happened to him?"
"We are not entirely sure," Dumbledore answered quietly, and Snape knew that there was something Dumbledore was holding back from him. He felt his dread increase. "We were hoping you would be able to fill in the gaps."
He frowned as the pain pulsed in his forehead. "And there I was thinking you were here simply to check on my well-being."
"You have had us very worried, Severus," Dumbledore replied, though he didn't deny Snape's accusations. Oddly, the Potion's master felt reassured by that.
"Fever?" he asked hoarsely, trying to take a mental inventory of his injuries. He had a vague recollection of the old abandoned house, of the ill-fated trip to Grimmauld place, and of the change in plans that had led them to the Dursleys, but everything felt like a blur in his mind, almost as if it had happened to someone else…
"Yes," Dumbledore told him softly. "The injury to your shoulder was infected."
"The infection is gone now?" Snape asked, though he already knew the answer. He could feel the remnants of fever, but his mind was mercifully beginning to clear.
"Madame Pomfrey believes so," Dumbledore replied with a nod. "It was, as they say, touch a go for a moment or two, but she is confident that you will make a full recovery in time."
Snape closed his eyes, as exhaustion pulled at his senses. "If that is all then…"
"I'm afraid not, Severus," Dumbledore replied, although he looked pained to do so. "If you are feeling up to it, we must know what happened."
"Has the boy not given his account?" Snape scowled, though inside his heart was fluttering in worry.
"Harry is…very angry with me at the moment," the Headmaster began with a heavy sigh.
"With good reason," Snape interjected, still not quite sure how deep his own anger ran.
"With very good reason," Dumbledore agreed sadly. "Harry has been very reluctant to speak with me at all."
A small part of Severus took great vindictive pleasure in that, however the larger part knew that he himself would not be granted that same excuse, no matter how angry he also was with the old man.
"What about the mutt?" Snape asked, though it felt as if it burned his throat to do so.
"Sirius has returned to Grimmauld Place," Dumbledore replied. "Remus has tried to talk with Harry, Minerva too, but…well, Harry demanded to talk with you first."
"That is…unexpected," Snape managed to get out, his mind whirring. Really, it wasn't, not when taking into account the last few days and weeks, but a small part of him had been certain that as soon as Potter was back with his peers, his role in the boy's life would no longer be needed.
"Is it?" Dumbledore asked, his piercing gaze fixed on Severus.
Snape tenuous hold on his anger broke free. "No matter what you believe you have so cleverly deduced about what has occurred in your absence, Albus, you know nothing. You cannot comprehend the affect you have had in leaving the school in that evil toad's hands, and if something has changed between me and Potter, it is because you were not there. I was forced to keep him safe, because you would not."
"I had no choice but to leave."
"Everyone has a choice," he snapped, unconsciously mirroring the conversation he had had with Potter recently. "In this instance, you chose wrong."
"Where is Potter, then?" Snape asked, unwilling to allow his anger to take hold any more than it already had.
"He is over there," Dumbledore replied sadly, gesturing over to the other side of the room. With some difficulty, Snape managed to pull himself up enough to follow the Headmaster's gaze. What he saw worried him.
"What happened to him?" Snape asked, his eyes fixed to the boy's unconscious form. He was too far away to make out much, but from the way that Dumbledore was looking at the teenager, Snape knew that it was as bad as he feared…
"It appears that Harry's Aunt and Uncle…" Dumbledore trailed off, as if unable to actually form the dreadful words.
"They hurt him," Snape said, his dread increasing, the feeling matched on by his horrific sense of failure. He had taken Potter there with the promise that he would keep the boy safe, and he had failed irrevocably…
"It appears so," Dumbledore replied, looking older than Snape had ever seen him. "I am…"
"You are too late, old man," Snape interrupted hoarsely, glancing over at the boy as he lay prone on the bed on the other side of the room. "We are all too late."
"Not you, Severus," Dumbledore replied, his own gaze fixed on his tea. "You noticed something."
"By accident," he replied bitterly. "And I was too late as well, make no mistake. The damage that has been done to that boy already is irreversible."
"I do not believe that," Dumbledore replied, though the doubt was clear in the old man's voice. That worried Snape more than anything else.
"Believe what you want, Headmaster," Snape continued, taking a deep breath as he tried to calm down. "It does not change the facts. Potter has been forged in a lifetime of abuse. It has left its scars inside and out."
If anything, the Headmaster looked even more horrified at that. "Lifetime?"
Snape stared at him, almost in disbelief. "You truly did not know?"
"I am…human," Dumbledore said quietly, his voice barely above a whisper. "I have never denied that. I am as capable of making mistakes as anyone, Severus."
"You are a great man, Albus," Snape told him. "But your mistakes tend to have correspondingly greater consequences."
"Had I known…" Dumbledore continued, nodding at Snape's words. "I would have put a stop to it, Severus. You have to believe me."
"It is not me you have to convince," Snape replied somewhat stubbornly.
"Oh, but it is," Dumbledore replied, a faint trace of his usual twinkle momentarily returning to his eyes. "Whatever it is that I…do not understand about the last few weeks, something has changed between the two of you. Harry…your opinion obviously matters to him."
Snape sighed. "I will speak to the boy, Albus. Parts of this story are not mine to tell."
"His opinion matters to you, too," Dumbledore stated, a faint flicker of surprise in his expression.
Snape considered his answer carefully. "He is…not who I thought he was."
"I will not ask you to break his confidence," Dumbledore told him after a minute's consideration. "But Severus…we need to know what happened."
Snape nodded somewhat jerkily, and took a deep breath, willing away his exhaustion in the face of his latest duty. He knew that he wouldn't be able to keep the Order in the dark any longer, but he had hoped that he would be allowed a brief respite before being forced to launch into his tale. He was…not entirely proud of his recent actions, particularly his decision to chase after Potter by himself. Had he notified the Order as to the boy's location at the Ministry of Magic immediately, he knew most of this ordeal would have been avoided.
Regardless though, with only the briefest of glances towards the unconscious teenager on the other side of the room, Snape dutifully began to recount the events of the last few weeks, starting with the poisoning that had instigated it all.
It was more difficult to speak than he had expected, Snape found, and not simply because his throat was dry. The memories flashed across his mind, less coherently than he would have liked, and he found himself speaking almost defensively in parts, though Dumbledore was the last person he felt he needed to defend his actions to.
The headmaster, for his part, remained silent and contemplative, asking only the occasional prompting question to keep the account on track. When Snape began to recount his suspicions about Potter's less than stellar home life, and the way he had eventually confronted the boy with them, he noticed a lone tear began to track slowly down the Headmaster's face, though to his credit, Dumbledore didn't try to defend himself or the mistakes he had made with regards to Potter. Snape knew in that moment that Dumbledore – great wizard or not – would be haunted by his mistakes for the rest of his life. And though he didn't divulge too much of what the boy had told him, Snape felt satisfaction in the knowledge that Dumbledore wasn't going to stop until the matter had properly been investigated and the muggles brought to justice.
Too late it may be, but it was still something.
When Snape began to recount their discovery of Umbridge's role in the poisoning, he saw another side of the Headmaster; fury and power and emotion combined to make an intimidating sight, and when he went on to explain how Potter had been tricked by the Dark Lord into going to the Ministry, that anger mixed with a determination that made Snape – despite his lingering anger towards the man – glad that Dumbledore was back with them, and more importantly, on their side.
With tiredness lingering on the edge of his mind, Snape forced himself to continue on, and finished with his account of the events that had led them to finding refuge at the Dursleys house. His memories were sketchier by this point though, and he found himself less certain as to what had actually happened, and how much of the past day or so had occurred in his fever-struck mind. He continued on as best he could, but it didn't take long before the words would no longer come...
Dumbledore sighed deeply when Snape had finally finished, and he looked as exhausted as Snape felt.
"We will carry on this…discussion later, I think," Dumbledore said finally, sighing deeply and without relief. "For now, I believe you should rest. The two of you are safe at Hogwarts, and that's all that matters at the moment. We shall worry about the future when it comes."
Snape watched silently as Dumbledore pulled himself up out of the chair and began to make his way out of the hospital wing. Something though, compelled him to say one final thing.
"Albus," he called, just as Dumbledore reached the door. The old man turned almost as if he has been expecting it.
"Yes, Severus?" Dumbledore replied quietly, looking as if he had the weight of the world on his shoulders.
"We are at Hogwarts, that much is true," Snape warned quietly. "But do not delude yourself as to think that the boy is in any way safe. None of us are. Not anymore."
"But," Snape interrupted. "The boy…he is stronger than I think even you know. In the last few days I have seen Potter shoulder burdens that no one could hope to carry, and he has shouldered them like a man. He has a long way to go, there is no doubt, but with the right help, he will get through this."
Snape saw the Headmaster's shoulders straighten, just slightly, at his words, and he felt utter relief run through him at the sight.
"Quite right," the Headmaster nodded, looking a little bit less lost, a little bit more determined. "Quite right. He will have all the assistance he needs, of course." The Dumbledore's blue eyes pierced him, as if staring into his soul. "Will you help, Severus?"
"Until my dying breath, Albus," Snape said quietly, and he knew, despite everything, despite all the arguments and disagreements and anger that was yet to come, despite the fact that even now, after everything that had gone on, he still didn't like Potter, and that the boy himself was bound to be more trouble than he was worth, Snape was speaking nothing but the truth about this at least. "Until my dying breath."
A/N – So hands up, who thought I was going to leave Snape at the mercy of the Dursleys? Well, I'll be honest with you, I did consider it for a second, but then I decided that I'd made Harry and Snape suffer enough. For now, anyway. Also, I know a lot of you aren't going to agree with my portrayal of Dumbledore in this, but I'm sticking by it. I honestly believe that this is the way Dumbledore should be seen; as a kind-hearted genius who is quite capable of making mistakes and struggles with the moral fight between the big picture and the small details. If it makes you feel any better, he isn't going to play a huge part in the story, so I hope you continue to read anyway even if you don't agree with me. Let me know what you think, and most of all, thanks for reading!