Once he was certain that the entire household was safely slumbering, Arthur Weasley walked out into the night and to the shed in the back on the garden where, he assumed, Snape was still awake.
It didn't take him long to spot the dark silhouette, wrapped in his cloak and leaning against an old bag of sand. With a sigh, Arthur cast a Lumos to light the small room.
The black-clad wizard who'd terrorized Hogwarts students, his own children included, for more than a decade didn't make the slightest effort to stand up, merely blinking to get accustomed to the light.
Feeling awkward, Mr Weasley stepped towards him.
"I'm sorry," he finally murmured, shifting his feet uncomfortably. "The house is really full tonight with wedding guests. But that's no excuse not to make this place more comfortable." With a quick wave, he transformed a wheelbarrow into a bed and a barrel into an armchair. "It's not fancy," he apologized, "but it's only for tonight. Tomorrow we'll find you a room in the house."
"I doubt Mr Potter would approve of your plans," the wizard answered flatly, still without bothering to move.
"Harry is still overwhelmed," Arthur explained, deciding to sit down as well. He transfigured a bucket into a stool and sat down next to the former teacher. "This whole situation has been very hard on him, and it was completely unexpected. Give him some time to get used to the idea."
"I don't need to give him anything," Snape said calmly. "Mr Potter will do as he wishes."
"You will protect him, right?" Arthur asked nervously. "He needs an adult, a protector. I know they are up to something, him and his friends..."
"I cannot leave my master and I am bound to protect him. Does that answer your question?"
"Not really," Mr Weasley sighed, "but I guess you are right, my question was stupid. Anyway, you will need this."
Searching his pockets, he found the black wand and handed it to Snape. He saw a flash of greed flash through the other wizard's eyes, but he didn't move to take it.
"It belongs to my master. He obviously doesn't want me to be armed, I can't accept it," he said tonelessly, turning his eyes away.
"Harry simply didn't think," the other man protested. "I thought you might not accept this... I know I should tell Harry, but... he needs to understand. I want him to figure it out for himself. It's unfair, but I promise, you are safe here, and we will ensure that you have all you need."
"Tomorrow's the big day, the wedding of my son and... well, you know, Miss Delacour. You've met her, I believe. Considering the situation, it would probably be best if no one sees you. We'll have more time, when the wedding is over, to think things through. But there is something I would like to know. That I need to know. I saw Dumbledore just before his death, and I thought he looked weakened, sick..."
He leaned slightly towards the man in black.
"He was dying, wasn't he? And he knew?"
For a moment, the dark eyes only studied him intensely, then Snape nodded sharply. Again, Arthur sighed.
"Have you told Harry?"
"Mr Potter didn't want to hear about it."
"I understand. Molly tried to explain that you couldn't have murdered... well, your master, but he was too angry."
Groaning, Arthur Weasley stood up.
"Give him time, Severus. He is a good young man. He will understand."
"I've already told you, I don't have any choice," the professor snapped irritably. "Mr Potter officially accepted his role as my master today and that is more than I was expecting. I don't entertain any of your delusions about your idol or about what this sudden access to power will do to him. Give him a month, and you can add another crime to my file: corrupting Saint Potter."
"You don't intend to..." Arthur started.
"I only intend to survive your hero and his good deeds. Mark my words. Mark them well, and remember it someday when you realize that your lamb has transformed into a wolf. Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely."
With these words, the slave leaned back on the sand bag and drew his cloak more tightly around himself, pointedly ignoring the bed and armchair.
Shaken, Mr Weasley made several steps toward the door before turning back.
"You've got to protect him, Severus. Even if it's from himself. He is our only hope."
Then, without waiting for an answer, he closed the door behind him.
From his sandbag, Snape let out an exasperated sigh. To protect his masters from themselves... that was the one thing he didn't have to do, and the one he had never managed. If he could have convinced Lily not to fight Voldemort, not to trust Pettigrew... but Lily was brave and confident. She hadn't listened.
And today he was at the mercy of her son, that carbon copy of James Potter that walked the line between the Marauder and sweet Lily, and teetering toward the former... Severus Snape wasn't sure that he wanted to know the outcome of that balancing act.
In spite of his exhaustion, he woke up at dawn the next day. This habit, formed when he was a young child, was very hard to break. Today, however, he wasn't the only one... outside, he could hear the voices of the Weasleys and their guests, busy setting up everything for the wedding. A wedding in the middle of a war... did people have any common sense at all?
Snape groaned as he straightened on his sand bag. He certainly wasn't as young as he had once been, and he probably could have done without the childish show of pride by ignoring the bed Arthur had transfigured for him. But, you had to take what you could while it was available… or as the case may be, not take it.
At least he was allowed to remain far away from the stares and occasional curses of the wizards gathered there. He harboured no illusions about the feelings he inspired in other people, especially after long - far too long - years as a teacher. Teacher, spy, Death Eater... why couldn't he have specialized in gardening?
But no, apparently his intelligence and natural talent with potions had opened up the path for him to become a valuable slave. Valuable... that could have been a good thing if he hadn't belonged to the Malfoys to start with. Life in a potions lab might have been rather enjoyable without the additional stress of being a spy.
He shook his head; it hardly mattered now. He needed only care about the brat whose voice he could hear outside, coming dangerously close.
The door suddenly opened on the teenager, wearing a disgusted look on his face.
"Your meal," he said, putting the tray on the ground. "Keep quiet, OK? There are people outside."
He then walked out, without looking back. Snape sighed with relief and relaxed; if Potter had decided to ignore him, that was perfectly fine with him. Spending the day simply resting was too. And Molly Weasley's cooking was true to its fame...
In the windowless shed, Severus relied on sound to make out what was going on outside. The wedding preparations continued, and Molly Weasley was becoming increasingly nervous with every passing hour. He realized that the bride and groom had arrived when a cheerful crowd gathered in the garden to greet the young couple.
Still, he could decipher a hint of nervousness in their voices.
As time went by things calmed down, and not long after that, Snape clearly heard the couple pronouncing their wedding vows, and the crowd cheering. But suddenly, it wasn't cries of joy but panicked screams that reached him, and he was suddenly all ears. That voice in the distance... it was Kingsley's! A Patronus, the Death Eaters!
Snape swore under his breath. He should have guessed, but why hadn't he been aware of that particular attack? A few days ago, he was still a fully trusted Death Eater!
Potter was apparently wondering the same, as it took his new master only a few seconds to break in the shed, slamming the door, face red with anger.
"You! You got them through the wards!" he spat, his wand aimed at Snape.
"Don't be stupid, Potter, I haven't had any contact with..."
But before he could finish, a bushy haired tornado joined them, panicked.
"Harry! We need to leave, now!" cried Hermione, quickly followed by Ron.
"We can't just leave everybody like that, we need to help..." the young man protested, to no avail.
"Harry, they're after you! We need to leave immediately, I've got everything," said Hermione, displaying her beaded bag. Outside, the screams were increasing in frequency.
"She's right, we need to go, but we need to figure out where," said Ron.
"Grimmauld Place," Snape stepped in. "It's the safest place."
Potter squinted suspiciously.
"Is this another trap, Snape? One of your tricks?"
"No, he can't lie," Hermione reminded him. "Professor, answer to Harry, is the house booby-trapped? Is there any risk in our going there?"
"Not that I know of," the wizard answered. "The place is under Fidelius, only Order members can enter."
"You didn't reveal the hideout to Voldemort?" Harry demanded.
"No, for Merlin's sake!" the professor bellowed. "Miss Granger is right, they are after you, you cannot stay here!"
"Very well," said Harry, defeated. "To Grimmauld Place, then... quickly!"
They could hear footsteps racing to the shed, and so they didn't waste a moment. When the shed's door was kicked open, the Death Eaters only found an empty shed with an unused bed...
At Grimmauld Place, the four wizards cautiously entered what had once been Sirius' house.
"It's strange there isn't more protection after what happened," said Ron, stepping hesitantly. "I guess Moody..."
He was interrupted by the sudden appearance of a ghostly grey figure that started moving towards them, its tortured face hollow. They all recognized it instantly.
"Dumbledore," Harry muttered.
Snape, livid, didn't make a move.
"It's only a spell," he finally said in an empty voice, "nothing but a trap constructed by Moody..."
But the ghostly silhouette kept moving forward.
"We didn't kill you," Harry finally whispered, "he did..."
But the apparition had already disappeared, scattering in the air like a firework. All faces turned towards the still ashen Snape.
"Albus' death wasn't my doing," he said.
That was enough to make Harry jump at him, clenching his robes.
"Not your doing? How dare you?" he hissed. "He came to get you! You killed him, and Moody too!"
"That was staged, Potter, a trick, even you should understand that!" Snape shouted without trying to get away. Harry thought he saw a flash of fear in his eyes, but it did nothing to appease him.
"So I'm stupid, right? Well, I might be stupid, but I still am your master, you would do well to show me some respect!"
A strangled sound came from Hermione's direction. Snape, on the other hand, ground his teeth together.
"Forgive me, master."
Harry's lips stretched into a humourless smile.
"Hermione, let it go. If we have to live with him, it's best to make things clear from the get-go. There is no way he's going to treat us like we're still at Hogwarts," the young man replied.
"That's still not an excuse for..." Hermione started before being interrupted by Ron's impatient voice.
"Hey, if you're going to squabble, I'd rather we ensured the house doesn't have any more nasty surprises first. If you guys don't mind."
Hermione blushed slightly.
"Hominum revelio," she cast.
The two boys watched her, perplexed.
"We are the only ones here," she explained. "But I don't know if any other curses have been set up."
"Snape, go check out the house, then report back to tell us if it's trapped," Harry ordered.
The wizard nodded and left quietly.
"Harry, that isn't fair," Hermione commented.
"Why not? He is the adult and the teacher, as far as I know. And the expert in dark magic, too."
"You know what I meant", the young woman warned. Ron let out a long-suffering sigh, but the discussion didn't have a chance to go further. A high, screechy voice suddenly echoed from down the corridor, making them jump.
"Mudblood! A mudblood in my house! How dare you! Shame! Shame and pestilence on you, dregs of wizardkind!"
"Oh no, not her again," Ron groaned.
"Traitor to your race and your blood! Leave my house at once, you corrupted cockroach!" the hysterical voice of Walburga Black shrieked.
"I thought she'd been removed," Harry said. "I don't know how, but we need to shut her up or she'll drive us crazy before the day's over!"
"And the worst part is, she's still behind her curtain right now," Hermione noted.
"Silence, you half-bloods! Get out at once, you have no right to tread on the noble Black home!" the portrait bayed.
"Actually, you are the one in my house," Harry pointed out with some amusement. "I inherited it, and the first thing I am going to do, now that I'm settling here, will be to send your portrait straight to the dump. I wonder if we could burn it?"
"You impertinent brat!" Mrs Black shrieked. "Lies, it's all lies! A pureblood's house will never belong to a half-blood like you, horrible creature! You will pay for your insolence!"
"Seriously, we need to find a way to destroy that thing," Ron said. "If she calls Hermione a mudblood one more time, I don't know what I'll do."
"Nothing, of course," the young witch answered. "It's just a portrait, that woman has been dead for years. Don't pay attention to her, she can't do anything to hurt us."
"Except for getting on our nerves, you mean," Ron corrected. "As far as I am concerned, that's more than enough. When I think that the Death Eaters are attacking my home right now... how are we going to get any news? People might have been killed, and we have no way of knowing!"
"We'll find a way," Hermione tried to sooth him. "I'm sure everybody is fine. The Order was probably on its way to help, and there were a lot of people at the Burrow. It's the Death Eaters that should worry."
"Ah!" Ron said, his face going red with anger. "I really hope they shot a few of those dirtbags down! Otherwise, I can still get to the one currently roaming in the house..."
"Ron! Take that back, that's horrible!" Hermione exclaimed. "He certainly had no choice when doing what he did, and even less in being what he is!"
"That's what he says, but you know him, he can't be trusted."
"We'll have to, though," Harry sighed. "At least he'll be useful. I wonder what he's doing, he sure is taking his time..."
"Traitors! Mudbloods! Ignoble wizards!" the portrait continued shouting, before suddenly dropping an octave. "Ah, and here comes the slave! Not so haughty now, are we? We've got a new master, a half-blood, and everyone knows! Ooooh yes, no more playing the professor, the slave is back at his master's feet!"
The three teenagers turned to see Snape walking toward them, acting like he hadn't heard anything.
"The house is safe," he announced calmly, jaw clenched.
"Good, let's settle in, then," Harry said.
"And thank you, professor," Hermione thanked him with a smile. Snape nodded curtly.
"Well, what rooms then?" asked Ron, still nervous. "The same as last time? I guess we'd better stay together."
"Yes, that'll be simpler. Snape can sleep on the ground floor and keep guard," Harry said acidly.
"About that, is there any way to communicate with the outside world? The floo or something?"
"No," the professor answered. "It's been shut off."
"They'll send us news as soon as they can, Ron, don't worry," Hermione said soothingly.
"Can't we send Snape to check?" the red head suggested.
"Ron!" Hermione shouted indignantly. "That's out of question!"
At his side, Harry rubbed his forehead discreetly. Not discreetly enough, though.
"Harry, your scar! Is it hurting you?" the young witch demanded.
"Not much, it's just... irritating me. It's weird, by the way, I should have clearer visions by now. I don't like it."
"Is that some kind of joke?" Hermione inquired, crossing her arms. "It's a good thing Voldemort can't access your thoughts! The connection is way too dangerous; and you should start working on your Occlumency, it's a good thing Professor Snape is here, you can get back to it."
"Absolutely not," both men voiced at the same time. Harry sent a murderous look at Snape who dropped his eyes to the floor.
"You will do as you're told," the young man lashed out. "And if I do want these lessons, you will ensure they aren't torture sessions like before!"
"You don't understand," Snape said, frustrated. "I cannot enter your mind without your permission, which makes the whole exercise pointless. You, on the other side, can delve into mine as you wish with no effort or training. Any lessons would be pointless."
"Well isn't that convenient for you!" Harry shouted. But when Snape only stared at him, arms crossed over his chest with a vaguely puzzled expression, he couldn't help but blush. No, it probably wasn't convenient for Snape that he could read his thoughts effortlessly...
"Anyway, do you have a way to communicate with the Order?" Ron asked. "We need to know what's going on at the Burrow!"
"No, Mr Weasley, I'm sorry."
"Dammit, if they hurt anyone, I swear I..."
"Stop swearing, Ronald Weasley," Hermione said icily. Then softening, "I'm sure they'll contact us. Just give them some time."
"I don't see why we can't send Snape, it's not as if they'd shoot him down or something, he's with them after all!" Ron said frantically.
"I don't think it's a good idea, they would probably love to get their hands on him, it wouldn't be safe," Harry told him.
"So if I understand you correctly, you'd rather protect him than my family?" Ron demanded, his fists clenched.
"That's not what I said!" Harry protested.
"Stop it, both of you, you're being ridiculous," Hermione tried to intervene
The argument was cut short by a silver weasel, which made its way between them, glowing brightly. Mr Weasley's voice filled the sudden silence.
"Everything is alright at home, everyone is safe and sound. Don't answer, we are being watched."
Ron let out a small cry of relief and collapsed onto the floor, where Hermione joined him, putting an arm round his shoulders.
Then the Patronus faded away, leaving behind an object that rolled across the corridor's carpet. Intrigued, Harry stepped closer to pick it up and stood, shocked. A wand. A black wand. And an easily recognizable wand too, this one was strongly associated with the image of the most feared teacher of Hogwarts, who was right now standing a few steps away from him, staring at it with a shadow of hope in his dark eyes.
Wordlessly, Harry went to Snape and handed him the wand.
"Mr Potter?" the man asked.
Ill at ease, Harry held out the wand.
"Take it, it's yours," he barked, irritated. "It's all yours."
"If that is your wish," Snape said, accepting it.
"What kind of game are you playing?" the young wizard snapped. "All this time, you've been unarmed? What exactly did you do, to check that the house wasn't trapped?"
"I simply entered every room and handled every potentially dangerous object. As nothing happened, I assumed the place was safe," the professor quietly explained.
Harry was speechless. He had sent Snape as a scout without a hope of defending himself. He hadn't even realized that he hadn't returned the wand after that night, under the oak... And that stupid git hadn't said anything about it.
"Is another ritual required for you to use it?"
"No. My wand belongs to you, but if you want me to keep on doing magic, it will, of course, be at your service," the slave said.
Harry suddenly felt tired. His slave... at his service. If his relieved look was to judge by, Snape had thought he would forbid him from using magic. Probably the worst punishment for a wizard like him. He shook his head; no, he wasn't going to pity Snape. His gaze lingered on the black wand and the long, elegant fingers softly caressing it. The last time he had seen this wand in action, it was on top of the Astronomy Tower, when Dumbledore...
He ground his teeth.
"Very well. Then make yourself useful and go cook something to eat. And then make sure there's no trace of black magic in this house one more time. And while you're at it... find a way to shut up that harpy!" he growled, pointing at Walpurga Black's portrait, which was still going strong.
He turned toward his friends, who were hugging each other tightly and whispering to each other. The sight nearly made him smile, but then the voice behind him killed it.
He shivered. And for whatever reason, Harry realized at that moment that, yes, at least from the mouth of that traitor... he liked that word.
Annnd a lot of thanks to Dash11 again! I'm pretty sure I am messing up with her English with my Frenglish, but for some reason, she hasn't yet told me to get lost, so guys, a big hurrah for her!
And thanks to everyone for the nice reviews, it's nice to get this story I started a long time ago in French now in English! Enjoy!