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Chapter Thirty-Four—A Breath of Fresh Air Blowing

"I do not understand what you are telling me."

Severus was sure that his words were prim enough to drive Potter off, but Potter just grinned at him and shook his head. His face was flushed with a shine that Severus had never seen before, not even when he was training him in Defense and Potter was dancing along the edge of a spell he knew well. And the buzz of the shield mark on Severus's arm suggested that there was an even stronger emotional component to this.

Severus rubbed the mark thoughtfully. Come to think of it, he had felt a sharp sensation through it earlier, not so much like a sting as like a wave crashing down against a rock. He had meant to ask if anyone else had felt it, but the only member of the bond nearby had been Mr. Zabini, and he was asleep.

"I mean that you can be released from the bond." Potter leaned forwards and lowered his voice. They were in the library, and he seemed to have remembered that the walls had no Soundproofing Charms. "I can free you. I wanted to tell you first, before anyone else, because I know that you have special reasons to hate the bond."

Severus went still, staring at the boy. He wondered for a moment how Potter had understood all the complex tangle of Severus's emotions, his desire to be set free from serving a master after he had served two—

And then shook his head. It was less complicated than that. Sensing Severus's desire to die must have told Potter all he needed to know about Severus's hatred for the bond.

"You are not serious," Severus whispered. "And I hate the bond less than Mr. Zabini does. You should have told him first."

Potter laughed, sounding absurdly cheerful. "You wouldn't be yourself unless you were criticizing my actions. At least I know the bond hasn't entirely tamed you." He gave Severus a fond look that was entirely inappropriate, as though he might reach out and ruffle Severus's hair, or some nonsense of that nature. "Anyway. You ought to think about this. Zabini was asleep. I'll tell him later."

"You cannot manipulate the bond to that extent," was the only thing Severus could think of to say next.

"Actually, I can." Potter leaned back in the large chair he had used yesterday to sit while researching and looked utterly at ease. "I meditated on it, the way that Hermione and Pansy told me to do, and I caught it."

"I am unfamiliar with the term catching." Severus folded his hands in his lap. "At least as employed in this text. Is that a technical term that you learned from the books you were reading on the bond?" He pressed his hands harder into his lap to keep them from shaking, and to try and crush his hope before it grew too large.

"No," Potter said. "I was picturing the bond as a Snitch, and I chased it that way. And now I caught it, and now it does what I want."

"A captured Snitch does not," Severus said, and gave Potter the deepest look of disapproval he could manage. It was hard, with the hope kicking against his control.

Potter only smiled at him. "It was a useful metaphor at the time, but it's only a metaphor. I can make the bond do what I want it to now. Do you want me to free you?"

Severus shut his eyes. "Do not promise what you cannot give me," he whispered, and his voice shook, and he did not care.

"I'm sure that I can deliver on this, Sna—"

"Why should I believe you, when you cannot even keep the promise that you made to call me by my first name?" Severus snarled, and felt the ground steady beneath him. It did not lessen the hallucinatory value of Potter's incredible offer, but at least it taught him more about how he should respond. He opened his eyes and glared into Potter's startled face. "If you pair it with my first name, I might be more inclined to believe you."

Potter scanned him keenly, with eyes and maybe with the bond. Severus felt another tingle from the mark on his arm, and frowned. He would not be much surprised to discover that Potter had learned to use that to manipulate him, too.

"All right," Potter said at last, and repeated himself. "I'm sure that I can deliver on this promise, Severus."

Severus took another breath as the universe spun out of control again, his heart pounding.

What was wrong with him? He ought to be rejoicing that there was so much hope of freedom, and it seemed that Potter believed it, at least.

He was afraid of what might happen if he suddenly found no protection standing between him and the Ministry. That was part of it. He could admit that, brutally, to himself. He didn't like the admission, but that did not change the truth of it.

But the other part was that he did not want to think of what would happen if he left the bond and Potter was left with Draco and Blaise—both of whom distrusted him—Pansy—who would serve his goals only so long as they coincided with hers—and Greg—who would serve his goals too well.

The bond is affecting me, Severus thought in disgust. He had been half-sure of it before; he was fully sure now. Since when have I cared about the idea that Potter might not advance his goals?

And then he grimaced, mocking himself more than Potter. Since he had spent most of the war struggling to make sure that Potter survived long enough to obey Dumbledore's plans for him, of course. It might not exactly have led to preserving Potter's life, but he wanted to advance Potter's goals of taking down the Dark Lord, and then of dying for everyone involved.

This bond had still influenced him, he thought. Did something to the way he thought, or the latitude he was prepared to give Potter. Still, perhaps the difference was not as great as he had thought it would be.

"What would happen if I was free?" he asked, to reduce the aching in his throat and his mind when he thought about Potter.

"The same thing that would have happened if you were free immediately after the war, I imagine," Potter said, in a blank voice that indicated he didn't understand Severus's response. "You would go—I don't know, brew Potions or teach in another school or do whatever you wanted to do now that you didn't have a master."

Severus was aware of grimacing horribly when Potter suggested teaching in another school, but Potter didn't pursue it. He sat there, eyeing Severus curiously instead. Did he even know what he was saying?

"I would have been under arrest," Severus said. "If not the bond and the circumstances that conspired to make you my Lord and me protected by you."

"You're under arrest anyway," Potter pointed out.

"I mean that I would have been under worse arrest," Severus snapped, and then abandoned that line of reasoning. It sounded absurd even to him. "Thanks to your protection, I can survive now, and have a chance of them listening to my story of Unbreakable Vows instead of sending me to Azkaban on sight."

Potter frowned in silence for a moment, thinking. Severus did not see what he had said that was so complicated, but he wanted to enjoy the unusual sight of Potter thinking before he leaped, and didn't interrupt.

"You want to remain my vassal until the trials are over with, then?" Potter finally asked.

Severus nodded. "I think it would be best."

Potter considered some more. "What about Blaise? He seemed determined to be set free immediately, and I could do that, I think. They would still question him, but he doesn't have the Mark and he might be able to make the argument that he did it under duress if anyone brings up him torturing students." He paused when Severus shook his head. "You don't think it's a good idea? Why?"

"Because Mr. Zabini needs to be protected from himself, for right now, and from the woman that he would undoubtedly head back to if given half a chance," Severus said. He was glad that he could be so blunt, in a way that he could not have been with either of his previous two masters—at least, not with any effect other than a Cruciatus Curse from the Dark Lord and a merry laugh from Albus. "As long as you have the bond, you have a claim over him. Release it, and there is nothing to keep him from going back into the Ministry holding cells."

"Where Mrs. Zabini could reach him," Potter finished, and sighed. "All right. I don't like this feeling of deciding for someone else, but I'll do it."

"You are deciding on my advice," Severus said. "If that makes it any better for you."

He expected Potter to flare up, since he had never liked obeying an adult's advice before, but he received a grin instead, once that was almost grateful. "Thanks," Potter said, shaking his head. "I just don't like the feeling that it only depends on my decision, you know? Even when I was walking to my death, at least it was something that you and Dumbledore had already decided would work. I never would have dared to do it if I wasn't sure of that, just because I would be afraid of messing something up."

"Do not blame that decision on me," Severus said, more harshly than he meant to, and more harshly than he knew Potter merited, from the way the boy was staring at him. But he could not bear to hear Potter speak as if Severus had agreed with Dumbledore's mad plan of risking everything on the willingness of a seventeen-year-old boy to commit suicide. "That was Albus's idea."

"Okay," Potter said slowly, and then nodded at the door. "Do you mind if Ron and Hermione join us? Hermione had some ideas about the bond."

Severus snorted and turned to face the door as it opened. "I am surprised that you did not have them with us the entire time, instead of reduced to eavesdropping in the corridor."

Potter said nothing, and Severus finally turned around when he realized that no answer was forthcoming. Weasley and Granger had both halted in the doorway, as if reluctant to come further in, although Severus was the one who felt a tingle from the shield mark on his arm, sharp and cool as if his skin was tasting peppermint.

The look on Potter's face made him flinch more than the feeling of the shield mark. That could have come from many things, but the expression on Potter's face from a limited number of them.

"I gave you time to talk to me yourself because I wanted your input on the state of the bond, and Blaise, and whether you wanted to be free," Potter said quietly. "That's the kind of thing you should decide for yourself, and without feeling that you needed to prop up your pride because there were two other Gryffindors in the room. I would never demean my friends to eavesdropping on any conversations that actually concerned them." He turned to face Granger. "And you think that extending a shield over the house from the bond would help?"

"More than that," Granger said, giving Severus a minute examination that reminded him of the way that Pomfrey would look over some potions that he had brewed for her, and then ignoring him entirely. "I think that it's possible to turn that shield on their arms into a real shield." She marched to the library table and spread out a piece of parchment that she'd been carrying.

"What, the mark isn't a real shield already?" Potter relaxed into his chair, grinning at her. "I'm offended!"

Severus eased backwards to the door, watching the way that Potter's face softened when he smiled at his friends. He would not leave unless Potter ordered him to; he valued the opportunity to watch Potter in his natural environment too much. Well, the one that his friends created for him, at least.

"Not a shield that binds the person to you in anything other than the bond." Granger was speaking quite seriously, her hair dangling over her ear as she consulted the parchment. Noting the bewitched look on Weasley's face, Severus sneered. There was a match made in dim-witted heaven. "If you were somewhere else, the way you were when they were kidnapped, then you couldn't necessarily do anything else to protect them. But this would let you turn the mark into a shield that would cover most of their body."

"Only most?" Potter was on his feet in seconds, twisting around the table so that he could see the parchment from over Granger's shoulder, as she seemed to have no intention of actually raising her head. Severus rubbed his arm. Yes, the bond was much more animated now, small sparks trailing down his arm as if the shield was being newly-forged. Potter was animated most by talking about defending people.

Of course he was. If he was not, none of us would be in this ridiculous situation.

Severus grimaced. Even to himself, that thought failed to have the necessary bite.

"I don't think the bond would cover the shield mark itself." Granger frowned harder than ever and rapped a quill against the parchment. She was the only person Severus had encountered who knew how to make such noise with a feather. "It's weird. It's a chink in the armor no matter what permutation of the bond I read about. Apparently affecting the bond mark is impossible with the bond itself."

"But that would be okay." Potter's eyes were bright. "It would at least protect their heads and hearts and most of the blood in their body."

"Someone could still bleed us dry with enough force that cut into the bond mark," Severus interrupted, holding his arm up.

Weasley and Granger gave him odd looks, and Severus reminded himself of his earlier impulse to vacate the room. Why hadn't he done so?

"But in that case, the bond would go crazy, and I understand how to use it to bring me to you now." Potter dismissed the possibility with a flick of his hand. "I'm less worried about you being kidnapped, and more about you being attacked and maybe murdered when I'm not there." He turned insistently back to Granger. "I want to try it. How do I flex the bond?"

Granger showed him some notations on the parchment that Severus doubted would have made sense to him even if he was right there. Potter was the one who had done the meditation on the bond, and would understand them. He was the proper person to take it up—

Severus froze as he realized what he was thinking. He was actually leaving something in Potter's hands. Thinking that Potter was the proper person to take care of it.

That was the concrete way the bond had affected his thinking, much more than by making him interested in what became of Potter. Everyone in the wizarding world had had to be like that in the last few years, if only for self-preservation's sake. But he could think back over the last few days now, and see where he had trusted Potter where he would not have done so before. Even appreciated his power, as though he was proud of it.

Severus opened the door and stepped through.

"Severus?" Potter called after him, and if his friends started at the name, Severus did not look back to see them do so. "I thought you might want to stay. You'll be the first one that I try this modification of the bond on, if you're willing."

Severus thought it best to shut the door and walk away. If that did not tell Potter what he thought of the notion, the utter rejection flowing down the bond ought to.

No, he was not interested. No, he would not trade even a full-body shield for the right to be independent and think his own thoughts, to choose who he trusted (no one), for the ability to make decisions for himself.

As soon as the trials are over, I will ask to be released from the bond.

"I must admit, I do not really understand your plan, Draco," his mother murmured, staring at him in perplexity.

Draco knew the words would have crushed him once. So would the cold stare coming from his father's direction, as Lucius sat on the bed in the room they had chosen for their own and sipped his tea.

But his father was going to prison. His mother had tried to make some sort of bargain with Potter, and hadn't succeeded. His parents were never going to become Potter's vassals of Potter's free will, and that meant this sort of plan was the only thing Draco could try.

"I already explained it to you," Draco said, glancing from one of their faces to the other. "It's so simple that you would scorn me if you'd come up with it and I said that I didn't understand it. Why don't you believe me?"

He stopped. There was a whining tone creeping into his voice, and he knew that he wouldn't convince his parents that he could be the savior of their family if he sounded like that. He shook his head a little and started again.

"I know that the bond would sense any move I made against Potter, and would punish me if I did manage to hurt him," he said. "Potter already proved that with Blaise. But it's really bad at anticipating sudden actions, or I would never have been able to punch him. That means I can do this."

His father closed his eyes. His mother said, "But the potion takes time to brew. Or were you intending to buy some?"

"I know where some can be found," Draco said quietly.

That made both his parents pay attention to him. Draco was glad of that, at least. He raised his head, his heart hammering so fast that he knew it was probably visible in his throat, and that that would mark him as weak, but he didn't care. What mattered was that he had a plan, finally, one that the bond shouldn't mark out before it happened, because, after all, it would cause no physical harm to Potter. It would simply make Draco someone that Potter had to protect and value. The bond would make Potter behave that way, the way it had made him act like a responsible Lord so far.

"Where would it be?" his mother whispered, as if she was trying to coax the secret from him. Maybe she was, Draco thought. If there was some in the Black house, there could be other secrets here, ones that she didn't know about and wanted to. Any weapon his parents could grasp might benefit them.

Which meant that it only made sense that he should turn himself into that kind of weapon in order to save them. That they wouldn't put him in the same category they always had, the category of someone who could save and benefit the family, was maddening.

"At Hogwarts," said Draco as calmly as he could. "I doubt that Professor Slughorn's got rid of all of it. He was smart enough to keep his head down and survive when Death Eaters ruled the castle. He still has it."

"That still leaves the problem of how you planned to obtain it." His mother rubbed her hands as if she was cold, and then noticed him watching her, and stopped.

Draco did not smile, but he wanted to. And it would have been sadly. They raised me to take on adult responsibilities, but they balk when I try. I don't understand them. "Potter let Blaise send the house-elf with a letter to his mother. He let Mrs. Zabini in the door, for Merlin's sake. And I think the house-elf would do more favors for me, since I'm of Black blood."

His mother shut her eyes. "I should be the one who asks for it. I am a Black, through and through."

Draco peered at her. "But you don't approve of this." In the back of his mind lingered the suspicion that she might tell him she would ask, and then direct the house-elf to bring back some harmless potion instead.

This time, she stood up. "If my own son is going to take Amortentia and then make himself that he's in love with Potter so that Potter has no choice but to protect him," she said starkly, "I think I should have a say at some point in the process."

And she swept out of the room. Wincing a little, Draco looked at his father.

"I think it a faulty plan in many respects," his father said, softly shaking his head. "How do you know the bond won't differentiate between real and potion-induced love? How do you know that Potter will not?"

"I think he'll understand what happened," Draco said, as calmly as he could. He turned away and paced slowly towards the fireplace to hide his pulse this time. Useless to try calling out of the fireplace, of course. It was dead to them without Floo powder, and the house-elf probably wouldn't bring them that. "But it doesn't matter. The bond runs on feelings, not realities, or none of us would be in this situation in the first place. And that means that Potter will be obliged to protect me, and in the meantime, I'll be—"

It took him a moment to say it. He didn't want to. This was a desperate plan.

But it was also the only plan he could come up with that would let him get close to Potter, and oblige Potter to protect his parents.

"Helpless," Draco said at last, forcing the word out. "He'll have to bring me close, defend me more than the others, since I won't even be able to question his decisions anymore, and I'll think everything he does is perfect."

"If you think that," his father murmured, "you will not question his decision to put me in prison, or beg him to bring us in as vassals under the bond."

Draco turned a smile on him that made his father give him a complicated look. Draco turned away, because he was too afraid that Lucius would see pity in that smile.

"I'll beg him," Draco said simply. "For lots of things. It just—won't be the same kind of begging." He knew he was flushing, but as long as he didn't look at his father and his father didn't acknowledge him, he would be doing all right. "He protects the helpless, the weak. He makes a fetish of it. And the bond'll push him to do even more. This is the best chance we have of making him agree to protect our family."

"I am surprised that you did not suggest giving the Amortentia to him."

Draco shook his head. "Those friends of his would realize right away what was wrong. This way, everyone knows what's going on, but he has to do it anyway."

"And the only one sacrificed," said his father, "is you."

Draco lifted his head and nodded, his neck feeling brittle.

They didn't look at each other again, until his mother stepped into the room and announced that she had sent the house-elf to Hogwarts, and he had gone without demur and promised to bring her back anything she wanted.

Draco wiped his hands on his trousers. For a moment, his chest ached. Here he was, trying so hard to protect his parents, and his mother still had to help him.

But it was all right. It would be all right as soon as he was under the influence of the potion. He would be doing his part.

And if a sacrifice is what I have to be, then that's what I'll be.