Title: A Thousand Days of Fire
Warnings: A few brief scenes of intense violence
Story notes: War AU, Horcruxes, attempted self-sacrifice, Voldemort, happy ending
Word count: 31,500
Summary: Pushed too far by Harry's determination to kill him as he and Draco flee the Astronomy Tower, Snape reveals the truth behind Dumbledore's death much sooner than he meant to. And that changes everything-from the war to the relationships between three men.
Disclaimer: Characters are the property of JK Rowling, et al. This was created for fun, not for profit.
Betaed by: L. and K., who are officially the best at everything ever.
Author's Note: Written in the hds_beltane 2013 fest for alafaye. I used her suggestions of war AU, intensity, seduction, UST that gets resolved in the end, happy ending, and sex in front of fire. Also, while this story does begin when Harry and Draco are still underage and Beltane is far away, I promise that everyone is over 18 when the sex happens and we get there in the end. Happy reading!
A Thousand Days of Fire
Part One: On Fire
The little brat.
Severus cast a searing glance behind him as he ran, enough to cause any normal boy to turn and scuttle whimpering back to his friends. But it didn't deter Potter, who continued to pelt after him, dodging the curses and hexes that Severus tossed negligently over his shoulder. The boy's talent would be Defense, of course.
And his eyes would be green, and the rest of him would look like James. Severus would never escape their shadow, the past's shadow, and his throat filled with bile and acid as he raced, raced, raced for the Apparition point.
Beside him, Draco was uttering the whimpers that Potter wouldn't, low sounds of pain and fear. Severus knew he could not keep running for as long as Potter would pursue them. He pulled up and stretched out his arm to Draco, willing to try and break the ancient wards around Hogwarts in order to move them away as fast as possible.
And then Potter redoubled his speed, and roared, "Expelliarmus!" Draco cried out like a wounded rabbit as his wand soared across the space between him and Potter and slammed into Potter's hand. Potter roared back in victory and redoubled the pace again. He would be up with Severus in a minute.
Draco stared at Severus, and his eyes spoke the words his lips would not form: I can't leave without my wand.
Severus knew it. As he knew that Potter would not give it up, as he knew that nothing would content Potter except part of the truth that Dumbledore had designed that he should not learn. And Dumbledore-
But Severus could not step into that void part of his own soul. He whirled towards Potter and met his eyes, his heart beating so hard that it overpowered the sound of Potter's pounding footsteps. He saw the way Potter jerked his head back, meeting his gaze fearlessly, foolishly. What the Dark Lord couldn't do with that unguarded mind...
What was important at the moment, however, was what Severus could do with it. And he showed Potter, snarling, "Legilimens," and snatching at the whirling memories of the last three conversations he'd had with Dumbledore about the damn Unbreakable Vows, and shoving them forwards, through the fragile barriers in front of him.
Potter cried out and slammed his hands up in front of his eyes. Severus stared at him, and then closed his eyes, and turned to run again. That had been beyond furious, beyond frantic.
Draco grabbed his arm and tugged at it, though, and Severus realized that the boy still lacked his wand, pressed against Potter's face with Potter's own holly one as it was. Severus nodded shortly. He had just realized no other Death Eaters were running with them, and none of Potter's friends had come up, either. They were near the lake, near trees that rustled with silence and shadow, and the chances that anyone else would find out about his near-suicidal gifting of those memories to Potter was slim. Unless Potter told, of course.
He cast a Summoning Charm on Draco's wand, but the moment it started to slip through Potter's fingers, he snatched it back and slid it under his arm, glaring at them. But his eyes were wider than normal, and Severus saw the green almost lost in the black. He frowned and stared at Potter. He had no idea what the boy would come out with next, and he didn't know why he hadn't started hurling more curses at Severus. Dumbledore was still dead, no matter how one looked at it.
Potter took a step forwards, but kept his double wands down at his sides. "This-you did this on his orders?" he whispered.
Severus stiffened. He had done the very thing that he was not supposed to do, given Potter the knowledge of his real reasons for murdering Dumbledore. And now the Dark Lord might take that from his mind, and the whole gamble to save Draco's life and earn Severus the highest place in the Death Eaters would fail.
"It doesn't matter," Draco said, in that shrill tone he always got when he was on the edge of sobbing with fear. "Sir, take my wand back, and let's go."
Severus could not obey that sensible advice. He had caused this rupture in Dumbledore's confidence, and he had to take care of it in turn. He held his wand out casually, so that Potter would not see where it was aimed, and began, "Oblivi-"
"I-that was stupid."
It was the kind of childish, ridiculous thing Potter would say when he had no knowledge of the circumstances, but it wasn't the curse or the denunciation of hatred Severus had expected, and that stilled his tongue. He stood there with his wand in hand, staring mutely at Potter, the adrenaline and the horror crashing through his head. He still couldn't hear much beyond his own heartbeat, but he couldn't move, either. He wondered if Potter had cast a Body-Bind when Severus was being distracted by Draco.
"That was stupid," Potter went on, marching up to him, his eyes never waving from Severus's, as though by the sheer force of his gaze he could convince Severus to agree with him. Severus swallowed again and again, and still couldn't find the words inside him to deny Potter's proclamation. "To think he could make Vows like that, and you could just run away, and-what would you have told them about why Malfoy didn't kill him? The way he was supposed to? And what would happen when everyone was hunting you? Dumbledore didn't think this through." He shook his head rapidly, and focused on Draco, who stood in Severus's shadow. Severus could feel the bolt of energy that traveled through Draco's body when Potter stared at him, nearly making him fly in the opposite direction, wand or no wand.
Severus seized Draco's shoulder and held him still. He didn't understand what was happening here, but he knew that losing sight of Draco now could be the blow that turned this from fall to freefall.
"I was there," Potter whispered. "When Dumbledore f-fell." His hands closed tight about both wands he held. "When he said that he would protect you, keep you safe. He w-wouldn't want you to run away." He set his teeth and shook his head as if furious at his own stammering, but his eyes, as compelling as the Dark Lord's, didn't leave Draco's face. "And if this whole stupid thing about the Vows is true, then you still deserve protection."
That gave Severus his voice. "You cannot keep Draco from the Dark Lord, Potter," he said, because it was the first thing Potter should have thought of and the world might still fall apart because the boy was not quick enough with his mind in any of the ways that mattered. "He is Marked. The Dark Lord will call him, and he will have no choice but to answer."
Potter's eyes came back to him, and his lips curved in a fierce smile that Severus could have done with seeing years ago, when he had first learned this scrawny nothing of a boy was to carry all their hopes on his shoulders. "Oh, really?" he asked, quietly. "But I know that he summoned the Death Eaters in that graveyard, and you didn't go to him. So you must be able to resist the call of the Mark."
And when he must use his brain, it is in a situation like this, Severus thought, staring at him, aghast. He watched as Potter turned back to Draco and looked at him again, a long, steady, assessing stare that the best of Moody's might not match.
"Here." Potter abruptly threw Draco's wand at him, and although Draco had to fumble for it, he did that, not holding back, staring warily, wildly, at Potter from behind his fringe. "You're right. Malfoy probably can't resist the pain. You have to escape. I still think Dumbledore's plan was stupid, but I suppose we have to let it play out, since it came this far." He turned and stared back at the school, seeming to judge the noises and flaring lights of spells by some alchemy Severus couldn't define. "But you'll have someone to help you inside the Order of the Phoenix, at least."
"Potter!" Severus could not contain his voice, the bellow that broke out of him, more desperate than it had ever been during any of the detentions or classes where Potter might have spilled scalding liquid all over them. "Potter! You cannot keep this secret! The Dark Lord will-"
Potter gave him an acid-tipped smile. "No," he said simply. "I know other things that he can't know, things Dumbledore told me. I'm going to learn Occlumency if it kills me. Hermione will help. And this is the way it is." He flipped his wand up to his forehead in an odd gesture that Severus did not understand, then turned and ran back towards the battle as fast as he'd run after them.
Severus stared after him, and then Draco cleared his throat and said, "Did he just salute us?"
That was what the gesture with the wand had been. Severus shut his eyes and shook his head, in hopes that would help his jumbled thoughts fall into order. It did not. This night had become a freefall indeed, and he could not remember the moment when he had lost his footing. That Potter might have come with them in the freefall was no comfort.
"Did he?" Draco repeated, insistently, like the sixteen-year-old he had so recently stopped being.
Severus opened his eyes and sighed. Then he said, "We must leave, Draco. The Dark Lord will expect me to see the killer of Dumbledore at his side soon, and the one who was supposed to kill him as well." He began to pull Draco with him, then shoved him with a hand behind his shoulder blade, until Draco picked up the hint and ran.
But Draco kept glancing over his shoulder, and when he looked at Severus one more time as they reached the Apparition point beyond the Hogwarts gates, Severus nodded in silence. Not that he knew why Potter had, not that he knew what would come in the future, but there was no reason to deny the gesture.
And for some reason, it made Draco shut his mouth and lower his eyes to the ground, and that meant they might survive the next half-hour with the Dark Lord. Severus took his shoulder to Apparate him, resolutely not looking back. He had more than enough things to concern him along their path in front.
Draco huddled on the couch in his parents' bedroom-what had been his parents' bedroom, until the Dark Lord moved in-and shivered again and again. Nagini had already eaten one person that evening. The Dark Lord had made it clear she could eat another, and even made comments on Draco's resemblance to rabbits, her favorite prey. Draco had watched Nagini dance in front of him for perhaps five minutes before she gave one of those hisses that so resembled a laugh and slithered after her master.
Draco pressed his hands over his eyes and shuddered. What was he supposed to do?
There had been a straight road in front of him, once, the road that led to where he was certain he wanted to go. Become a Death Eater, show the Dark Lord that the Malfoys were still his most loyal and useful servants, demonstrate his power, and take a high place in the world that pure-bloods would create once they had eliminated Muggles and Mudbloods. Simple. Oh, maybe not from the outside, but on the inside, Draco knew exactly where every twisting path would lead.
And then his father had gone to prison. And Potter had laughed at him. And the Dark Lord had made him a Death Eater on condition that he carry out an impossible task. And then his parents were going to die.
His parents weren't dead yet. Otherwise, nothing that Draco had wanted in the last two years had worked out. He pressed his hands harder into his eyes and wondered if it would be easier to be dead.
Something tugged on his trousers leg.
Draco leaped back, reaching down instinctively, thinking it was Nagini come back with permission to bite him. Instead, a strange, ethereal owl stared at him, its beak open a little. There was a letter clinging to its misty silver leg, which it offered him again with strong insistence.
Draco swallowed and reached out. This was probably a trick from one of the senior Death Eaters that would hurt him when it opened, but not taking the letter, and thus failing whatever test the Dark Lord had wanted him to learn from it, was not an option.
The owl faded away the moment Draco took the letter. Draco hesitated again. That hadn't happened last time, when the letter had simply appeared in the same room and begun to whisper horrible things in Greyback's voice the minute he opened it.
This one didn't open, and the parchment was an ordinary dull white, not the rich colors or vellum Draco had come to associate with Death Eater letters. At last, when he knew he would have to go downstairs soon and would look like a right fool-a tortured right fool-if he didn't know what the Dark Lord was talking about when he asked, Draco tore it open.
It fell open in an ordinary way in his hand, too, and simple letters stared up at him. There were only three lines, not counting the salutation and signature.
I know you don't have much reason to trust me, but I hope that you know I'm working towards the end goal you always thought I was. If you can tell me whether your aunt is trusted enough to guard a treasure really important to one of your guests, then I'd be grateful.
Draco stuffed a fist into his mouth to stifle his laugh, which would have come out like a scream. Potter had written to him? He'd dared? Even granted that the spell, and the owl had to be a spell, had safely carried the letter through the wards, he couldn't know that ahead of time. And he wanted Draco to help him? Draco didn't even understand the question.
Then he read the letter again, although his hands kept flinching with the desire to hurl it into the fireplace, and he did. The references to Potter's end goal and his aunt were clear enough, and what guest could be important but the Dark Lord? Draco didn't know what treasure he might have given Aunt Bellatrix to guard, but that wasn't what Potter had asked. He just wanted to know if the Dark Lord trusted her enough.
Of course, how was Draco to write back?
Draco bit his lip hard enough that he tasted blood. He should get rid of the letter and pretend it had never arrived. There had to be other ways Potter could get this information. Draco was no longer a willing Death Eater, but he wasn't a traitor, not to him. The consequences of treachery were too terrible to imagine.
Draco closed his eyes, and the image that came to him was the one of Potter staring into Professor Snape's eyes that night outside Hogwarts. He had said some words Draco didn't understand, but his actions were the important things. He'd gone back to his Order of the Phoenix and other people, and hadn't betrayed them. He'd let them escape.
For whatever value of "escape" this is, Draco said, and once again the bubble of a scream rose into his throat. He choked it back, and shook his head.
Potter wanted him to take a risk. He knew Draco was a coward. He'd called him that often enough, even before he had the proof. Why would he bother to ask?
Maybe because he has no one else to turn to. Maybe he could get the information another way, but there's no way so sure.
Draco ran a hand over the parchment, smoothing it out and staring at the letters again. His heart had slowed its beating, and despite the risk that crowded the edges of his mind, he felt as if he were thinking clearly for the first time in months. Maybe years.
Potter knew Draco and Professor Snape were Death Eaters, but he had let them go anyway. Potter knew Draco was a coward, but he had reached out and asked for help anyway. It was as though he had made the decision to trust them, instead of going off past experience and instinct the way he did for his friends.
Draco clasped his hands, so they didn't tremble. Potter had made his choice, and now he, Draco, had a different one to make.
It would be so dangerous.
Draco almost smiled. That idea was familiar, at least. He had repeated it over and over to himself in a thousand different ways as he hurried along the corridors of Hogwarts to the Room of Hidden Things, while he thought about ways to repair the Vanishing Cabinet, and at night in bed, when visions of rebelling against the Dark Lord rose in his thoughts.
Potter, of course, didn't have any choice about taking risks. The Dark Lord had picked him out, and he had to fight him. But he might have considered Draco's position before asking him to do this.
Draco looked back at the letter.
I know you don't have much reason to trust me...
I'd be grateful.
Draco sighed. Maybe Potter didn't put as much thought into how hard it would be for me as I would, but he knew it wouldn't be easy.
In the end, Draco thought, picking his way back to the memory of those twisting paths that led to power, a Malfoy should always be on the winning side. So this ultimately came down to who he thought was going to win the war.
Or even who he wanted to win it.
Draco stuffed the letter into his robe as the door crashed open, and he had to think about other things for a while. But in the back of his mind, the decision had been made.
Severus came awake so suddenly that it seemed he passed straight from a confusing dream where he was arguing with Black about Lily to sitting up in his bed with his wand drawn. But something must have awakened him in this dark little room he still kept in the dungeons. Let others think he slept in the Headmaster's quarters. The Dark Lord could not have persuaded Severus to spend time there.
The sound repeated. Severus recognized it this time, though: the ticking of owl's talons on a perch. He went out into the one room that bore a small passage through the stone for owls' use, no less alert but more ready.
The owl was Draco's. Severus cursed under his breath as he hurried across the room to it. He had told the boy to contact him only in extreme circumstances. The Dark Lord had granted Severus any boon he pleased for killing Dumbledore, and Severus had begged for Draco's life. He had already taken enough risks to save it, and he wouldn't watch it thrown away now.
So Draco lived, and although he owled Severus at first about what a horrible life he had, Severus's swift responses reminding him who was responsible for Draco having a life at all had stopped that.
Severus unlooped the letter now. The owl immediately took off, soaring back to the little tunnel in the stone. Severus frowned. Normally, Draco wouldn't send him a letter that wasn't meant to produce a reply.
He opened it carefully, with his wand at hand to make sure that he could disarm any curses that might have come with it. The curses wouldn't have been Draco's idea, but that wasn't the point.
Dear friend, began the salutation, the one Draco had come up with on his own to hide that he was writing to Severus. Sometime the boy had a good brain; Severus's objection was that he did not often use it.
That person we saw that night at the Astronomy Tower wrote to me. I couldn't believe it! It surprised me, and shocked me. I was a little lost as to how I should respond. But in the end, I decided I could. I just have to make sure that I'm not too encouraging when I tell him about the Dark Lord. He doesn't take just anyone into his inner circle, after all.
The signature was Draco's, loose and smooth and flowing.
Severus sat down without meaning to, still staring at the letter in his hand. If he understood all the coded references-and he should, since he had been a spy long before Draco was born-Potter had written to Draco, about something to do with the Dark Lord. And Draco had chosen to answer.
The bravery stupefied Severus, and he sat there with the letter in his hand for so long that his fingers began to cramp. In the end, he touched the candle burning on his table with the edge of the parchment, and watched it flicker and vanish into ash.
It had become clear why Draco's owl hadn't waited for a response. He had merely wanted Severus to know that he had chosen to respond, to put himself madly at risk, as Severus wanted to shout, and that Potter had written.
Thinking about it, Severus was not sure which was the most remarkable fact.
But he had exchanged something more than memories with Potter that night near the Astronomy Tower, and he knew Potter reaching out to Draco would have seemed, to Draco, not simply an insane claim on his patience. It mattered that Potter had reached out. He had decided that they were people whom he could trust, rather than Dumbledore's killers, to be despised.
Severus went back to his bed, to sit and stare for a time. He wondered what he wished for more: that Potter would never reach out again, therefore not putting at risk the lives Severus had fought so hard to preserve...
Or that he would be the one to receive an owl next.
"We don't know that it's there."
"We have the best information we can hope for," Harry told Hermione. He was sick of having the same argument over and over again. He sat back and grimaced as he picked up the cup of Polyjuice in front of him. They had used it successfully to get in and out of the Ministry, and acquire the locket Horcrux, without alerting Umbridge or anyone else. He had to believe that using it to get into Gringotts, and the Lestrange vault he was almost sure held a Horcrux, would go as well.
"From Malfoy." That was Ron, leaning over the kitchen table to catch Harry's eye. Harry's heart twisted a little in him. It reminded him of the earnest way that Sirius had often looked at him from the same chair.
"I know," Harry said. "But he took an enormous risk replying at all. He doesn't know for sure, but neither do we. And all I really wanted to ask him was whether Voldemort trusted Bellatrix that much, or whether she was an insane fanatic exaggerating her own importance."
He touched the letter that had come from Malfoy some days past, resting in his shirt above his heart. The letters had been half-formed and blobby, as though Malfoy's hand shook when he wrote them. Harry could understand that, none better, and he honored Malfoy for his choice to help anyway.
He honored him for not being the utter coward he had thought he was. But then, he had thought Snape was a murderer, too, until he glared into Harry's eyes beneath the Astronomy Tower and shoved all those memories into his head.
Harry had told Ron and Hermione that Dumbledore had told Harry his death was coming. It was as close as Harry could come to telling them Snape had killed Dumbledore on orders without putting Snape in danger if Ron or Hermione ever got captured and Legilimized.
There was other information in those memories, too, that Harry didn't intend to share with them yet, for the same reasons and different ones. He reached up and brushed his fingers against his scar, snatching his hand back when his friends looked at him nervously.
"We'll be fine," he said, and picked up the cup of potion again. Hermione had found hair of regular wizards with Gringotts vaults for all of them, since the main challenge would be getting in without being snatched immediately. Harry was willing to leave the challenges of getting into the Lestrange vault up to his imagination for now.
"Bottoms up," Harry said, smiled at his friends, and downed his Polyjuice, tapping his empty cup against theirs just seconds before the wracking change began to work its way through his body.
By sheer bloody coincidence, Draco was in Gringotts when Potter decided it would be a good time to assault the Lestrange treasures.
He had come with his aunt, who spent a lot of time looking around and muttering about whether the Dark Lord would approve of various decorations on the walls or the way that the vaults were built. Draco didn't know why, since so far he hadn't made any attempt to take over Gringotts or stop the bank from operating the way it always did. Maybe it was just because his aunt needed to relate everything back to her obsession.
I know what that's like.
After Draco had sent the letter to Potter, he had to spend hours working on his Occlumency, so that a random, paranoid glance into his mind from the Dark Lord's eyes wouldn't uncover what he was hiding. And then there was more work so that Aunt Bellatrix couldn't pierce his Occlumency shields, either. She wasn't more powerful than the Dark Lord, but she had a twisted, warping, corkscrew kind of attack that could burst through defenses due to the sheer unexpectedness of it.
Draco had come with her because she'd demanded it. He had no idea why they were there, and tried to stand back while Aunt Bellatrix prowled around in front of the vault and muttered and measured.
And then, around the corner, came a cart with a goblin riding in it, and three wizards, all of them hunched over as though they wanted to hide their faces.
With good reason, Draco saw, when he stared. They were Harry bloody Potter and his two friends.
Draco's mouth dried out, and all he could think was, Shit, shit, shit, they're going to get captured, and he'll find out what I did, and why couldn't you keep yourself safe, Potter, when I took the risk to help you?
And why had they come without disguises, anyway? Almost worse than their appearance was the way that Draco saw his aunt's eyes light up as she turned around.
"Draco," she whispered, pointing one finger at Potter as the cart jerked to a stop and they leaped off in front of the vault. "You're going to take his friends, and I'm going to grab little baby Potter."
That was marginally better than her ordering him to go after Potter himself, the way Draco had thought she would. He nodded miserably, feeling as if someone had put off his execution by five minutes, and drew his wand.
But Potter leaped out and whirled to face them. His face was furiously bright, red with exertion and something else, Draco thought. Anger, maybe? He aimed his wand straight at Bellatrix and shouted something, and blue light soared towards her. She flew backwards, pinned against the vault. Potter ran up to her and grabbed her hand, pressing it against the vault door and shouting something else.
The door swung open, prompted to do so by Lestrange blood, and they stumbled inside.
Draco whipped back around to face Granger and Weasley. The goblin sat there, shaking his head and clutching at his ears in the way that Draco had seen wizards do when they were waking up from being under Imperius. That made him want to laugh aloud and sneer at the same time. Really? They used Imperius? The Good Gryffindors?
Weasley leaped out to face him. His hair was longer and shaggier than normal, and he aimed his wand straight at Draco, with no hesitation.
Draco did the only thing he could. He lowered his wand in front of him, held both hands up over his head, and croaked, "I surrender."
Weasley stared at him, then turned to Granger. "He can't do that," he said plaintively. "Can he do that?"
"I should think he can," Granger said, and her quick glance at Draco was approving. She nodded a little and whispered, "Move!" in Weasley's ear. They both ran past Draco into the Lestrange vault.
Draco stood there, panting and wondering why he hadn't heard anything from his aunt since Potter used her to get inside the vault. Things had happened so fast that he still felt like adrenaline was pouring into his system.
And then Bellatrix screamed from inside the vault, followed by Potter's scream.
Draco ran to the door of the vault, not knowing what he was going to see, or what he expected to do once he was there. He probably couldn't do anything. Just stand around like a useless lump, the useless lump he'd been since Professor Snape rescued him, except for torturing people and writing one letter.
The inside of the vault was filled with bouncing golden cups and mounded coins and other, dark, blood-stained things that Draco turned away from with a shudder of horror. Potter and Bellatrix were struggling towards the top of one sliding hill of coins, practically tap-dancing to keep themselves in place. There was a golden cup between them, Draco saw, a two-handled thing that-
He flinched from it as the edge of its aura touched him. It felt tainted, foul, in a way that he had never experienced before.
Or only around the Dark Lord.
He remembered the question Potter had asked him about his aunt, and swallowed.
Potter whipped his head back. Blood cascaded down his face, from around one eye. As far as Draco could see, he still had both of them, but the blood was making it hard for him to see, and some of it was on his hand, and also making it hard for him to hold onto the cup. Bellatrix shrieked again, and said something Draco couldn't hear over the pounding of his own heart, and cast another spell.
Potter screamed aloud as two of his ribs broke through his skin.
Potter's friends were trying to get to him, to help him, but the coins kept sliding beneath their feet and bearing them backwards, and they had to concentrate on keeping their balance and not being crushed. Draco was standing off to the side, with a clear view of his aunt and Potter, but he didn't think either Weasley or Granger could see as well as he could.
Draco's hands grew so cold that he could no longer tell if he held his wand. He held one of his arms up in front of him and saw the way it shook. His throat ached. He wanted to vomit. He wanted to faint.
Yes. That would get you neatly out of having to make the decision, wouldn't it?
Draco screamed aloud from the taunting voice in his head, and cast.
The spell was weak when it left his wand, as though it had picked up on Draco's confusion and didn't really know what it wanted to be or where it was going. But it whirred through space, and it hit his aunt below the breast and cut into her. Not deeply, because Draco couldn't manage to call up the hatred that would power a really good battle spell. But it still razed a line of blood, and Bellatrix slipped to her knees, mouth open with shock.
Once again, Potter cast a spell that pinned Draco's aunt against a wall, and then he reached out and grabbed something off her finger. A ring, Draco thought. He'd seen her wearing it this morning, a large silver ring with an oval black stone, edged with pearls, but he had no idea what it was or what it did.
Potter turned around with the ring, stood there waving it back and forth a second, and then threw it forwards. It stuck to something in the midst of the treasure, and suddenly half the coins and cups bouncing around them all vanished. The ring floated into the air, tugging a different cup than the one Potter and Bellatrix had been fighting over with it.
Potter's face relaxed a little, the tight lips less pinched. He used a large white cloth to fold the ring and the cup as they came to him, and then he turned around and gestured urgently at-
At Weasley and Granger, Draco thought at first. But then he turned around and realized they were standing behind Draco, gaping at him foolishly, and that he was included in the sweeping motion of Potter's arm.
"Come on!" Potter gasped, slithering down the heap of treasure. Bellatrix still looked dazed, bleeding, her head bowed, but Draco could see she was already fighting against the invisible bonds that tied her to the wall. "We have to get out of here before someone comes and finds us."
He grabbed Draco's arm and bore him along before Draco could protest.
I don't belong with them, Draco thought, numb to the bones, even though his feet had enough feeling to start running up the tunnel that led past the vaults. They're not my friends. They'll desert me as soon as they can, especially that Weasel.
But somehow he had chosen his side when he cast that curse on his aunt. She would remember that. She would come back to consciousness feeling that, and even if by some miracle she didn't, there were tests she could perform to show whose wand had cast that spell.
Draco closed his eyes tightly, and ran.
Harry could feel the cup Horcrux trying to burn him through the cloth that he'd wrapped it in. Or maybe that was the Lestrange ring, which was far Darker than he'd thought it was when he grabbed it off Bellatrix's finger. He'd become good at identifying Dark magic in these past few months.
But he was still panting, still exhilarated. They had it, the cup Horcrux that he'd thought would be the most difficult of all to get. Well, there was the fact that they still didn't know how to get to Nagini or how to destroy the one behind his scar or what and where the last Horcrux, the Ravenclaw Horcrux, was at all, but they could worry about that later.
And Malfoy had chosen his side.
Harry kept watching him from the corner of his eye as they ran up the tunnel, Malfoy gasping for breath and bending over to wrap his arm around his side and running, running, running. He'd always been good at running, Harry thought. Running away from responsibility and the scenes of his pranks, running for a professor when he thought there was the chance that he could get Harry in trouble.
But now he'd done something that he could only run from in company.
A deep, warm glow was happening in Harry, a fire that seemed to burn up from his soul level. He put an arm on Malfoy's shoulders when they had to pause and check around a corner, and hugged him.
Malfoy stared at him. Harry winked and bounced ahead, clapping a hand to his own side when the cup Horcrux tried to wiggle away from him, and to brace his broken ribs, which didn't seem to matter now.
Malfoy had done this. He had done wonderfully, and probably made the difference to Harry's battle with Bellatrix, which had turned out to be a lot harder than Harry had anticipated. He was never going to forget that.
"All clear?" he whispered to Hermione, as he bent over near her.
Hermione gave him a worried glance. The traps of Gringotts had washed away their Polyjuice, and now Harry could hear distant horn-calls and shouts. Hermione was probably just as upset at breaking the rules so badly as at the consequences of being caught, he decided. But she responded gamely. "I think this is the best chance we're going to get. So far, the goblins are keeping out of our way. Maybe they can feel that." She nodded to the cloth-wrapped bundle at his side. "But I think-"
Suddenly she stopped, and went pale.
"Do you smell that?" she whispered.
Harry frowned and turned his head. There was a foul odor coming from somewhere behind them, he had to admit, somewhere deep down the tunnels. But he could hear something, too, or feel it. There were vibrations coming up the tunnel, like something large and heavy-footed walking softly.
"What is it?" he asked. "A dragon?"
Hermione drew her wand, but clutched it as though she didn't know what to do with it. "No dragon stinks like that," she whispered. "Harry, I'm afraid it's a Nundu."
Harry shuddered himself, while his mind ran with information from Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. A Nundu's breath was toxic...a Nundu walked silently...it was impossible to subdue them unless you had a hundred wizards...
"Bloody run!" he yelled, and shoved his friends and Malfoy along ahead of him.
As they ran, Harry glanced over his shoulder. He still couldn't see the Nundu, except for a wavering shadow on the floor that stretched around the corner. He swallowed. That was probably it, and he was going to get all his friends killed because he had insisted that they come to Gringotts to check if there was a Horcrux in the Lestrange vault.
Then he straightened his shoulders and shook his head a little. No, he had been right. And they had wanted to come.
The one he most regretted was Malfoy, who probably hadn't chosen to come with his mad aunt.
The Nundu had leaped around the corner the next time Harry looked. It stood staring at them with a lowered head, a great leopard with blazing eyes so fiery it actually threw flame and light down the corridor. Harry could see their shadows racing ahead of them, and thought he could see a smile settling onto the jaws of the Nundu.
He shivered and swung around in response. No, he wasn't going to let this happen. He would die if he had to, and that meant the Horcrux in him, the one Snape had told him was there without meaning to, would be destroyed, also. So long as that happened, his death would serve some purpose. Harry thought anyone could probably defeat Voldemort as long as he was dead and the other Horcruxes destroyed. It was the thing hidden in his soul that kept Voldemort alive, in the end.
He thrust the cup at Hermione, who took it because he wouldn't take no for an answer, and spoke as calmly as he could. "I want you-I want you to get out of here and do what we discussed doing with that."
"I have to," Harry said, and began walking towards the Nundu, who stopped when it saw him coming. It probably didn't expect prey to come to it, Harry thought. But he'd also read that Nundus were cats, and they liked to play with their food. It might stay occupied with him for a little while and give his friends time to go away. "Go on."
"Stop it, Potter!"
Harry had to stop walking, because Malfoy was clinging to his back like a monkey, compressing his ribs, and practically screaming with terror in his ear.
"I betrayed my side for you!" Malfoy wailed, not seeming to care who would hear him. Of course, everyone here who mattered would already know, Harry decided a stunned moment later. "You have to survive and take care of me!"
Harry hesitated, watching the way the Nundu's eyes blazed, and the way it was already looking past him, at Ron and Hermione. He knew what he would see if he looked back: Hermione with tears running down her face and the cup Horcrux clutched firmly in her arms. She would destroy it if she had to, and store it safely until then, the way they'd stored the locket Horcrux.
Harry swallowed. If there was any way out of this, of course he wanted to take it, and live, and be with his friends, until the Horcrux in him demanded to be destroyed and he had to do something about it...
And then he thought of something. It was stupid, but it couldn't get them in more trouble than they were already, and he could hear the goblins running after the Nundu. Maybe it would stop them, too. He had no idea.
He aimed his wand at the ceiling and bellowed out the Blasting Curse, in a way he liked to think would have made Moody proud of him.
The stone spread in cracks. The Nundu didn't pay attention to it, maybe because it was too involved in stalking Harry and Malfoy, or because it was an outside creature and it didn't know what it meant when underground tunnels started making threatening noises. It raised one paw almost delicately, as if it meant to spear Harry on its claws.
Then the roof collapsed on top of it, and made that rather hard.
The Nundu snarled from beneath the stones filling the tunnel, indicating it wasn't dead, but it was thoroughly buried, and Harry turned his back and ran after his friends again with renewed confidence. He did have to pause near the bank's entrance to shake Malfoy off, since he was still clinging to Harry's neck, but even that didn't take long.
Of course, it made him wonder how soon he would be able to destroy the Horcrux that festered in his own soul, and what it would take to destroy it.
He shook his head a little and concentrated on the run in front of him. He would get there when he had to, and maybe Snape would have some idea how to make sure that he could do it without dying, since he had been the one to tell Harry about the Horcrux in his soul in the first place.
Severus sat still for a long time, staring at the letter on his lap. It had come by Draco's owl early that morning, and the bird had spent so long fluttering anxiously while he read and reread that Severus knew Draco wanted a reply this time.
It was hard to know how he could do anything but sit here, though.
Dear Professor Snape,
Sorry, but no code this time. I was in Gringotts this morning when Potter and his merry little band of Dark Lord slayers broke in. Potter and Bellatrix were fighting and I chose to cast against her. So, you see, I had no choice but to join Potter and escape with him. To his credit, he's treated me decently.
I hope that this finds you well. But Potter is afraid that me being gone from the Death Eaters might reflect badly on you, since you took over my task and worked to save me from the consequences of my own stupidity. We have to get you out of there. (I don't need to worry about telling you that so openly, because Potter trusts you, and I know that you're a strong enough Oclcumens to hide the knowledge).
But Potter's friends are starting to suspect something about the truth now, too, and if they're captured and tortured...
Please, Professor Snape. Don't argue with me about your duty. I think that Potter already knows a lot about what he has to do to defeat him. You've done enough. Please come with us and get out of there.
Severus Snape closed his eyes and leaned his head back on his chair, shaking it a little. Draco's concerns might be justified. Although Severus was indeed a strong enough Occlumens to conceal any knowledge that might conflict with his role as a spy, the Dark Lord was growing more and more enraged with every day that passed and didn't lead to Potter's capture. Severus could feel his throat drying out when he thought of what that rage and suspicion might do, turned in his direction.
And there was knowledge that he could contribute to Potter's side, which would be more than enough to purchase his cordial reception. Well, perhaps not cordial, since Granger and Weasley would still think of him as Dumbledore's murderer, but they wouldn't turn him out.
Severus's gaze strayed sideways and upwards, in the direction of the Headmaster's office.
There was the possibility that he might want to bring something more substantial than information, just in case Potter knew had picked up more than he thought, that night by the Astronomy Tower.
And he knew what it was.
Harry woke from the sound sleep Hermione's healing charms had induced with Malfoy shaking him, his face so pale that it stood out in the darkness like a moon. Harry fumbled with his glasses and his tongue, trying to get coherent words to come out of his mouth.
It seemed that Malfoy didn't want to wait for that. "It's Severus," he gasped. "Professor Snape, I mean. The Dark Lord's angry. He's angry at him. We can't wait for him to make up his mind. We have to go to Hogwarts and get him out now."
Harry shook his head. He hadn't felt any pain in his scar, hadn't seen any visions from Voldemort, although he'd had a horrifying one a few nights ago where Voldemort was screaming in anger at Bellatrix and had nearly tortured her to death while she crawled and kissed his feet. "I don't understand. How do you know that it's going to happen if Snape didn't send you a letter?"
Malfoy thrust his arm at Harry. The Dark Mark was more vivid than Harry had ever seen, except on Snape's arm right after Voldemort came back. The snake and skull gleamed as black and fresh as if oil had been poured on them.
"He's angry," Malfoy whimpered. "And he's calling everyone to come. The only time he does something like that is when he's going to punish somebody and wants everyone to watch. And he didn't call everyone to watch my aunt being punished even though he must have done it." Harry nodded and then winced, because he didn't mean to tell Malfoy about his visions yet, but luckily Malfoy didn't notice. "Who else but Snape can he be that angry at?"
Harry thought Malfoy might be exaggerating, but a time when all the other Death Eaters would be away from Hogwarts might be a prime time to get in and sneak Snape out if he was there, or maybe the Sword of Gryffindor, which Harry was growing increasingly convinced they needed to destroy the Horcruxes. "All right," he said, and stood up, reaching out a hand for his trousers next to the bed. "Just let me wake Ron and Hermione up. And they'll need Pepper-Up Potion, too." Harry was a lot better at waking up in the middle of the night than his friends were, maybe from all the time he'd spent wandering around Hogwarts under his Cloak.
Malfoy didn't move. Harry looked up, about to repeat that they were going to do their best to rescue Snape, and found Malfoy staring at the wall with his cheeks apparently on fire.
"You sleep in the nude?" Malfoy's voice rose to a sound on the last word that only bats could probably hear.
"No, I sleep in my pants," Harry said. "You're sort of a kid sometimes, aren't you?" He slid his legs into his trousers, and went to wake Ron and Hermione, Malfoy trailing him all the way and protesting that he was not a kid, and normal people slept in pyjamas, why wasn't Harry normal?
Ron thought Harry was mental to keep Malfoy around, although he could understand the concept of a life-debt. Harry thought Malfoy provided a few well-needed reminders that there were lots of ridiculous things and people in this life, and someone would be fussing about normality even if Voldemort won.
Severus kept his head bowed, and breathed. He knelt at the Dark Lord's feet. The summons that had torn the night apart, made his arm blaze as if dipped in boiling oil, had been too imperative. He had killed his mentor to retain his place among the Death Eaters, and refusing now would imperil it.
He should have. Or perhaps the part of him that longed to survive and had not accepted the necessity of his death, the part brought roaring back to life by Draco's letter, thought that.
The Dark Lord paced back and forth in front of him, his feet rustling with the slight sound of scales and nails together on the floor of the Great Hall. This was the first time since the proper beginning of the war that he had called the Death Eaters together in a place that was not Malfoy Manor. He had ordered the students awakened as well, and they stood silent and still along the walls of the Great Hall, like useless statues. And nearer in, somewhat, Severus hoped, blocking his sight, stood his fellow Death Eaters, not much less rigid. None of them had ever thought to see Severus fall.
Not that some of them wouldn't be secretly rejoicing, of course. But they had not expected it.
The Dark Lord halted in front of Severus. Severus knew it would begin now. There was too much deliberation in that one pause, and in the hand that the Dark Lord reached down and placed on his shoulder.
"You must have known, Severus," he whispered, tender as smoke. "You saved the Malfoy brat's life, and he does not take a shit without your permission. When did you tell him to try and gain his freedom by hurting Bellatrix?"
Severus lifted his head. He met the Dark Lord's crimson eyes, wondering if he might conceal the truth behind his Occlumency barriers and fend off the suspicions even now...
No, he saw, when he stared into the face of the man who had come back from death. This was not going to be a case of Occlumency. Draco had taken action, and for the Dark Lord, that had little or nothing to do with the words Severus might or might not have known. He only wanted the confession because it would make things smoother for him, and sweeter, to let Severus linger in hope that confessing would spare him, before he struck down.
Severus licked his lips and freed his voice from confinement. "I did not know, My Lord," he said, because that was the truth. And it was also a last gesture of defiance, since he knew the Dark Lord would begin the torture soon, and that he would not be able to say anything else.
The Dark Lord watched him in long, lingering silence, so that Severus began to wonder what sort of show he had planned for the audience. Then he opened his mouth, and out came the long, savage hiss that Severus had learned to recognize as he would a word in another language he was studying. "Come."
Nagini slithered slowly across the Great Hall. Severus heard more than one child cry out in fear or disgust as she passed them, and knew Nagini would remember the sounds, and use them to torment the children later, stalking the ones who had given those cries.
He could not worry about it. His eyes were locked on Nagini's, and on the fangs that showed a minute later when her mouth opened in a slow yawn.
He had once brewed an antivenin against her poison, but he had not carried it since he had killed Dumbledore. For one thing, he had believed then that his position was secure in the Dark Lord's service and he would never need to make another such sacrifice, and for another, the complicated brewing that it demanded was simply too much of a burden for him to keep up with.
The snake halted near enough to him that she could flicker out her tongue and lick his eyelids. Severus knelt rigid, staring past her. Yes, bravery was a small enough defiance for him to enact, and in truth, a stupid one. Why did he care about going to his death the way a Gryffindor would? Why not whimper and plead the way everyone did?
But perhaps it was because he had chosen to speak the truth, and now he was going to act it. He did not have that whimpering or pleading inside him. He regretted, savagely, that he would not get to know whether the Dark Lord truly died or not, whether all his Horcruxes were destroyed, whether Potter could bring himself to walk to his death. But it had so little to do here, with this silent moment in the circle of Death Eaters, and Severus could stare and not bow his head as Nagini began to lean towards his neck.
The whole room jerked and flinched, and luckily, Nagini's flinch was in a backwards direction, away from him. She flailed her neck and hissed, but everyone else, including her master, was staring upwards at the ceiling of the Great Hall.
Severus knew that it was Potter before he looked up. Only Potter would make that ridiculous noise.
As it turned out, however, he was slightly wrong. It was Weasley who was clinging to a broom and yelling his lungs out. Granger clung on behind him, turning green. Granted, there was another broom beside them, plunging downwards, with Potter in the front and Draco right behind, but Potter was bent forwards, silent and intent, and actually glanced once at Weasley, shaking his head.
Then he focused back on Severus, and it became perfectly obvious what they had come for.
Severus opened his mouth. He was going to scold them. He was going to refuse their help. He was going to accept it, and die. He couldn't recall, later, exactly what thoughts had swarmed through his head, and perhaps that was a good thing, because they would have made him ashamed of his own hesitance.
Potter didn't give him a choice. He whirled his wand around his head, and giant webs struck away from him, arching down, falling on Severus's fellow Death Eaters and entangling them when they tried to move. At the same time, Granger whispered and stuttered something, and a giant ball of webbing exploded into being around Nagini. She hissed and snapped, but not even her fangs could break it.
Severus had the impression that the girl had also tried to snare the Dark Lord, which took more nerve than he had thought she had, but the Dark Lord stepped free and continued looking up. He was fixated on Potter, of course. Severus half-closed his eyes, praying the boy would survive the next ten seconds. Potter's Horcrux would be destroyed if he died, but Severus had no idea how much progress the idiot had made on the quest for the others.
The shout came from right in front of him, and Severus looked again. The broom with Potter and Draco on it was stooping straight towards him. Potter strained downwards, hand out and extended.
He is a fool, Severus thought, fast and clear. That broom will not hold three people.
But he saw, more clearly than that, the Dark Lord lifting his wand as if he had all the time in the world.
Severus should have drawn his wand. Instead, because he was kneeling, that didn't seem to be an option, and he lunged forwards and tackled the Dark Lord around the ankles.
He was vaguely aware that Granger and Weasley had flown out of the room, and Draco and Potter had curved up for another pass, while the Dark Lord hissed promises in Severus's ear in Parseltongue. He switched to English as the great yew wand came up and under Severus's chin, forcing his head back.
"You will not cease to regret this until you have lived under my torture a hundred years," he whispered. "Oh, Severus, if you knew, if you knew the pleasure I will take in cracking your bones and feeding you, piece by piece, to dung beetles, you would beg for the mercy and sweet release of my Nagini's fangs in your throat right now..."
That had always been the greatest flaw of the Dark Lord, Severus thought distantly. He talked too much.
Potter had swung around on the broom. Some excited Death Eater who'd struggled free of the webbing cast a fire spell at him, but Potter dodged. Always magnificent on a broom, Severus thought, and still his mind seemed to move so much faster than anything going on around him, and the danger from the Dark Lord did not seem quite real.
Potter closed his eyes. He reached back and touched Draco, and said something, although the blood whooshing in Severus's ears meant he couldn't hear what it was. Draco bit his lip and nodded, and then fire and light came whistling down the Great Hall, aimed straight at Severus.
Or so it felt, later, given the Summoning Charm cast by two wands that snatched him out of danger and into the air.
Severus found himself catapulting along, robes over head, heels over ears, and landing with jarring force on the broom behind Draco. Draco promptly turned and wrapped his arms around Severus, keeping him in place and making the landing even more awkward. Had it been anyone but Potter flying them, Severus thought, as he pulled cloth out of the way and turned to snarl at the reckless moron who had "rescued" him, then it was certain they would have crashed.
"You-that was not what you were supposed to do," he said, and he thought his words some of the sharpest-edged he had ever produced, certainly worthy of being attended to more than Potter was attending to them at the moment, the way he steered their broom, dipping under the extra weight, over the center of the Great Hall. "You were supposed to-"
"Please, Professor," Draco whispered, leaning against him. "I was the one who told him that you were in danger, because I felt the Mark burning on my arm, and I knew that you were probably going to die. Can you be quiet for a while?"
Severus turned his outraged gaze on Draco, but Draco just watched him with a faint, sad smile. After a long moment, Severus inclined his head and turned as he heard screams from beneath them. He had not seen the spell Potter must have launched.
It wasn't Potter. The Death Eater who had cast the curse earlier had used Fiendfyre, of all things. The brilliant red flames were literally climbing the walls, wreathing themselves into semblances of dragons and lions, and chimeras as the two blended, all snarling and hungry. The webbing that encased the Death Eaters proved flammable.
And so did the webbing that encased Nagini.
Severus winced and clutched his ears as there came a series of screams from that direction: the Dark Lord's shriek of loss, which Severus had heard from him before when a disguised Auror escaped him, and something that must be the death cry of the Horcrux inside the snake. The sounds twined around each other, thinner and fainter and farther, and then faded away to leave a ringing silence in their place.
Severus could see no sign of students in the flames they soared over. He hoped that they had run early enough to get away before the fire began to spread.
Then he saw a flash of a tall hat, and smiled grimly. McGonagall was herding students out the front door onto the grounds of Hogwarts, and heading already for the point beyond the anti-Apparition wards where she would be able to get them to safety. Severus flung her a salute that she did not notice.
"Now," Potter said, and the noise drew Severus's eyes around again. He saw Granger and Weasley darting back to them, clutching the Sword of Gryffindor. Severus opened his mouth to say something else, especially when he realized it was the real blade, but there was no time. Potter made a circling motion with his hand, and both brooms darted for the entrance, speeding along above the students.
Voldemort must have spoken the words in Parseltongue, Harry thought. There was no other reason that no one else reacted to the dark, thick sound coming from behind them, except to whimper a little.
Harry turned backwards, ignoring Snape's snarl as he did so. Had Snape ever been the youngest Seeker in Hogwarts history? No, Harry didn't think so.
Voldemort's face was rising up out of the flames in the center of the building, his hands spread wide as though to clutch them, his cheeks bulging and his eyes bright and terrifying. "Harry Potter," he repeated, and the flames spread towards them.
"Hang on," Harry said grimly, and flung the broom into a sideways evasive spin.
He could hear Draco yell something. Or that might have been Snape, honestly. Harry had better things to use his brain cells on than trying to tell their voices apart.
Around, up, down, behind trees, across the lake, down to the grass, past fleeing students, through curls of fire that singed their eyebrows, they rode. Harry flew with his heart hammering in his ears harder than it had done at any time since Draco had flung that stupid Remembrall, years ago, and made Harry dive after it. Now he knew he could fly, sure, but he also knew that there was someone behind him who would kill him if he could.
And not just me. Harry would have felt better if he was flying alone, honestly. But he gritted his teeth and hung on.
The fire roared up behind them in a wall six times the height of the school. Harry thought of its spreading up until it consumed Gryffindor Tower, and Dumbledore's office, and the Astronomy Tower, and all the places and classrooms and corridors and stairs where Harry had felt at home. From the way he had seen the flames climbing the walls in the Great Hall, he didn't think that was impossible.
No. No, damn it. Harry whirled the broom around and faced the flames. He heard Ron and Hermione, this time, shriek off to the side, and Draco clutched his waist as though Harry was a wild horse he could tug back onto an alternate route. Harry ignored that. He drew his wand. He wasn't going to let Voldemort destroy Hogwarts any more than he would let him destroy his friends.
The fire had lost the likeness of Voldemort's face, but other faces had taken his place, demon masks and gamboling lions and dragons with their mouths open. Harry pointed his wand directly down the throat of one of the dragons, and yelled, "Tempestas!"
There was a warning rumble from above him at the same moment as the skies opened, and rain began to pour down. Draco yelled something in his ear about how no normal water could put out Fiendfyre, but Harry didn't care. This was magical water, just like the Fiendfyre was magical flames. He was going to save Hogwarts.
The water struck the flames, and at first evaporated and sizzled away before it could ever touch it. But there was a lot of it, and the skies kept darkening as Harry's spell called the clouds that had any rain from miles around. Snape had taught them this spell in Defense last year, actually, though he had also insisted that one had to think carefully before using it.
Well, Harry had. He had decided that he couldn't watch Hogwarts destroyed.
The storm finally began to win, beating down the lions, destroying their shape, making the red flames that composed them run and drip like water themselves. Or paint, Harry thought, watching as they melted away from the sky they had painted scarlet and gold. That was an even better way of thinking about it.
Hogwarts still stood when the flames had died, though with huge black marks all along the stone walls. Harry hovered there for a second, watching it, and saw the small black shape on top of the Astronomy Tower. Only small from this distance, he knew, because that was Voldemort, and he was holding up his wand towards Harry, in silent challenge, in hatred, maybe even in grief for Nagini. Harry's scar flared with pain.
They'd done what they'd come to do. Harry nodded back to Voldemort, looked around to make sure they weren't still over the part of the grounds that the anti-Apparition spells protected, and Apparated the broom, Snape and Malfoy and all, back home.
Part Two: From Fire Into Fire
Severus opened his eyes and stared around. He could hardly believe that he was looking at normal, if peeling, wallpaper and lying in a bed with clean, if musty, sheets. His last clear memories were of fire, of flying, of yelling and monsters coming after them.
Severus sat up so fast that he nearly fell out of bed. The room was almost bare, with only a table beside the bed and an open cupboard door that revealed no clothes inside. There was another door opposite the largest one that presumably led to a bathroom, but Severus couldn't care about that right now, not when Potter was still running around somewhere and might have burns from Fiendfyre that he had no idea how to treat.
Severus flung back the sheets, relieved beyond measure to find that he was still in his own robes, and made for the door.
It opened before he could get there, and Potter darted in. He relaxed when he glanced around and saw nothing, then nodded to Severus. "Sorry, sir. We have wards all through the house now that let us know when someone's angry or frightened. I reckon it was just that you were having a nightmare, right?"
"I was not frightened," Severus said, unable to take advantage of the out that Potter offered him, because it was too humiliating to think about. "You must understand that. Anger is more likely."
"Right, sir," Potter said, with a flash of a smile come and gone too quickly for Severus's liking, and he lowered his wand. "Well, do what you need to do, and then come down and eat in the kitchen, if you want. We pretty much keep all our food on the table under Warming Charms now, since we never know when someone will get done with research and need it." He turned and walked out of the room.
Severus relieved himself and cast a Cleaning Charm on his robes with the slowness of someone moving in a dream. He remembered other events now, and was beginning to shiver a bit with sheer disbelief. Could Granger and Weasley in fact have taken the Sword of Gryffindor from the Headmaster's office? Had Fiendfyre destroyed Nagini?
Had Potter Apparated all three of them, and his broom, to Grimmauld Place without Splinching them?
He made it down the stairs and to the front hall without missing a beat, but when Moody's curse rushed at him, roaring, he flinched despite himself.
A mutter behind him, and it collapsed into dust. "Sorry about that, sir," Potter said from behind him. "We haven't managed to make it go away permanently, just slowed it down a bit." He slid from behind Severus and into the kitchen.
Severus followed him, and watched covertly as Potter made himself a cup of tea, tilting it back so that he could drink thirstily. Potter looked taller than he had been, though that was doubtless merely Severus's odd perspective due to not seeing him for almost a year. His hair was shaggier. He looked leaner, or perhaps lean in a different way, not like someone who did not eat enough but someone who had turned all the strength he did have into whipcord.
Severus found himself watching the way Potter's throat worked, and looked hastily away.
"Whatever you want," Potter said, waving a hand at plates of buttered toast and bacon, cups of tea, and small jars of what Severus thought was probably marmalade. He picked up his teacup and wandered out of the room.
"Why did you bring me here?" Severus asked, working his tongue against the invisible bit that seemed to have slipped over it.
Potter looked at him and raised his eyebrows in a way that Severus had always hated when Albus did it. "Well, you did want to be rescued, right? Not have your life thrown away the way Voldemort wanted to?"
"Do not say that name," Severus hissed. "If you've said it before now, I am amazed that you are still free."
"Fine," Potter said. "Draco was the one who told me that his Mark was burning and he seemed sure that meant you were in danger. So we all got together and went to rescue you. Besides, we needed the Sword of Gryffindor anyway. According to what Hermione's researched, it's about the only way to destroy Horcruxes. Though maybe Fiendfyre can, too," he added, in a thoughtful tone that told Severus the boy had also recognized the significance of Nagini's death.
"Should you be speaking of such information in front of me?" Severus asked.
Potter turned around, and Severus caught his breath before he reminded himself that the boy was no good at either Legilimency or Occlumency. His eyes were that piercing, however.
"I know you realize lots of things about what he did to stay alive," Potter said quietly. "I saw it that night at the Astronomy Tower, sir. And I know you know or suspect where most of the Horcruxes are, and I know you know where the last one is." He flipped back his fringe from his forehead and tapped the scar there.
Severus swallowed, or tried to. A boulder had appeared in his throat. Lily. I promised-I have kept no promises, but I would have liked to keep this one.
Potter gave him a small smile and walked away. Severus sat down nerveless at the table and stared at the food before shaking his head and reaching for a piece of toast.
That odd maturity he had wondered at in Potter was now explained. If he had lived the last few months with the knowledge that he would have to die in order to conquer the Dark Lord, he could have come to terms with many of his most annoying traits, put them behind him, and looked ahead to his death.
And had he told his friends?
Severus shook his head again as he finished the toast and reached for a cup of tea. No. Of course not. Otherwise the Granger girl would be talking about it already, and Potter would have referred to it openly, which he had not.
What can I do, but aid Potter in fulfilling Dumbledore's plans? There is no other way, not when any living vessel of a Horcrux must die to free the shard of soul.
Severus ate because he must, to live and keep his strength up. He had eaten far more unpleasant food, done far more unpleasant things for the sake of survival. But it was harder than it had been a week ago.
Draco paused outside Professor Snape's door and spent a minute smoothing his hair down. This wasn't Hogwarts, but the Professor had a way of looking at you when you were untidy that made Draco flinch. He had always been surprised Potter could stand it, but then, maybe Potter didn't make the distinction between glares about his looks and glares about everything else he did.
Then Draco knocked.
"Come in," said Professor Snape's voice, and Draco stepped in and shut the door behind him.
Snape was busy Transfiguring some of the extra pillows from the bed into black robes. He nodded to Draco as if his presence was entirely expected and said, "Since you chose to snatch me away from Hogwarts without the chance to retrieve any necessities, you will tell me what sources of Potions ingredients you have noticed around this house, and the best place to set up a lab."
Draco blinked, swallowed, and seized the chance to be useful and avoid talking about some of the things that it was obvious the Professor didn't want to talk about. "There's some belladonna and aconite in the garden," he said. "Lots of wildflowers, too. I didn't make a precise count. I don't think anyone would care if you used the doxy eggs or other magical creature leavings around the house. And there's all the various kinds of wood and paper you could ever want from the walls."
Snape grunted under his breath, and examined the latest robe he had Transfigured before making a few quick adjustments in the length of the hem. Then he stripped off the dirty clothes he wore casually, with a single quick movement. Draco whipped around to face the wall, his face burning.
"Um, I thought Potter was going to give you some clothes," Draco babbled, in utter embarrassment and utter stupidity, simply because he must have something to say, and staring at the wall wasn't going to provide him with enough. "That's what he did with me. He gave me some of his old clothes, and I Transfigured the cuffs and things that weren't right for me. I thought he was going to do the same for you."
There was a long silence except for some rustling, which made Draco imagine Professor Snape still emerging from his clothes. He coughed, and his cheeks underwent another desperate flare. He kept his head turned aside.
"Do you imagine that Potter and I are anywhere near the same size?" Snape said at last, his voice as arid as it was when Draco made a drastic mistake in class. "What suits me would not suit you."
Draco turned around, partially because he sensed that the professor was at least dressed, and partially because the words acted like a pin jabbed into the small of his back. "I'm sorry!" he cried desperately. "I mean-if you would have preferred to die, I'm sorry, but I didn't know!"
The professor stared at him, his face paler than usual. Then there was an odd clenching motion in his jaw that made Draco cringe.
Noticing, Snape relaxed enough to shut his eyes and hold his breath instead of speaking. Draco swallowed. That probably meant the words would burst out with flying violence when he did speak them.
Finally, Snape said, "I am glad to be alive. That part of your particular adventure, you need not worry about, Draco."
Draco waited to hear what part he did need to worry about, at least until Snape opened his eyes and said, "Do you understand the risk you took? You, who I sacrificed so much to keep safe? Yes, I know, you had already run from the Dark Lord," he said, fluttering his hand at Draco when he opened his mouth to justify himself. "But there is the fact that you took the risk, that you leaped headlong into my rescue when you did not have to. I have felt the wards on this house. You cannot expect me to believe that Potter would have feared leaving you here by yourself. The wards would have sufficed to confine you to a single room if he had wanted to do that."
Draco swallowed several more times, but none of the delays gave him the right words to speak. Finally, he took the plunge with what he had. "I had to come. I had to see. I thought-I thought there was the chance that Weasley and Granger wouldn't want to rescue you, and they would persuade Potter to leave you there."
Snape had the oddest expression on his face when Draco looked up again. "But you had no such fears of Potter," he murmured.
"I did think they could persuade him to leave you there," Draco began.
"But you thought that he wanted to rescue me on his own, left to do that," Snape said, and turned his back to pace slowly across the room and stare at the wall. "You have changed, Draco, since the last time you were at Hogwarts."
Draco's blush, which had started to die, rushed back again, and he turned his head to the side. The last time he had spoken to Snape anywhere inside Hogwarts, instead of running away from the school, he had insisted that he had the right to do as he liked, that he was an adult wizard, or almost, and that Snape shouldn't have any right to control him. He had said that he didn't need to have any faith in anyone but his family, and no one could protect him anyway.
He had regretted speaking to Snape that way later, when he knew everything, but he hadn't realized until the professor said it that he had widened his circle of trust to include Potter, too.
He had changed, and Snape recognized that change. Maybe it was because he couldn't change in reverse, couldn't go back, and Draco suddenly knew it, but he managed to clear his throat and said, "I do think he would have. I know I've changed. I mean-I know Potter would have rescued you, sir."
"Why?" Snape was standing there with his hand on the wall, staring at him.
Draco could feel himself stretching desperately towards the attention, as though he was one of those flowers in the Black garden struggling to grow after years of neglect. His parents hadn't meant to neglect him, it was this war, and when he got attention, it was from people like Aunt Bellatrix, and it was the kind that could stunt him, instead.
"Because-because of the way he talks about you," Draco said, stumbling through the answer to the question. Of course he did, because that stare was overwhelming, and he thought Snape would turn away in contemptuous dismissal. But instead, he kept staring, and Draco babbled on. "He shuts Weasley and Granger up when they make fun of you, and once the Weasel said something about you killing the Headmaster and Potter told him to be quiet, that he didn't know anything about it. And he got up and went to Hogwarts when I told him about the Mark burning, even though I know he didn't really believe me. He said he wasn't willing to take the chance."
Snape closed his eyes and bowed his head, swaying for a second as if he would slide down the wall, and Draco wondered for a moment who had really affected him that way, Draco or Potter. But then he shrugged the notion aside. What mattered was that Draco had spoken those words, and so part of the effect was his.
"I see," Snape said after a moment, and straightened. "When you rode behind him-did you decide to-no, you have answered that question already." He opened his eyes and reached out to grip Draco's shoulder. Draco wanted to stop breathing, but instead he gave a great noisy gasp, because his lungs refused to stop working.
Snape shook him a little, watching him all the while. "I want you to remember," he said, "that I am proud of you."
Draco swallowed. "For acting like a Gryffindor and dashing into danger?" He had always heard Snape sneer at courage, but it had occurred to him, sometime in the last year, that that might be a form of the professor sneering at himself, since he had more courage than anyone Draco knew. (Well, maybe as much as one other person).
"No," Snape said. "For making a determination and sticking to it."
Then he released Draco's shoulder, and Draco crept out of Snape's room with his heart pounding furiously, and made his way to his own room, to sit and tremble a little. And he couldn't even have said what he was trembling for. His father would have laughed to see him set off that way by a compliment from someone who didn't even have a pure-blood name.
Then Draco thought of the last time he had seen his father, sitting at the table where he had once entertained the Minister, his head bowed in the shadow of the Dark Lord's snake. The snake that had died last night.
Maybe not. Maybe he wouldn't.
"So what are we supposed to do? Just stab the bloody things?"
Harry winced a little as a throbbing headache began behind his scar. That happened lately whenever they talked about Horcruxes. Harry thought the one in him was reacting to mentions of killing them all.
"Why not?" he said slowly, looking from the locket and cup that stood on a shelf in the attic to the Sword of Gryffindor, which lay across Hermione's lap. "There's no reason they could resist that."
Hermione gave him a look deep enough to eat up all the world's supply of skepticism for the next year. "Really."
"We can at least try," Harry said, and picked up the Sword before Hermione could stop him. It felt heavier than it had when he used it to kill the basilisk. He took hold of the hilt, took a deep breath of the air that now felt still-because Ron and Hermione weren't breathing it any longer, his mind dimly registered-and stabbed the blade at the locket.
The locket glowed, rustling, turning grey. Smoke poured out of it, forming a number of different images in the air. Harry, his heart unexpectedly pounding so hard that he thought he was going to pass out, thought he saw his parents there, and Sirius, and Dumbledore. He clutched the Sword harder. If the locket thought it was going to make him back down with pictures of all the people he had lost, it had better think again.
But the image it finally created was one that Harry didn't recognize at all. It was a tall woman with long hair who stared at him, and then turned around and put her back to Harry. There was a wound there, bleeding, and dripping, and Harry could see that it went all the way through her. He shuddered, and Ron made a quiet gagging noise behind him.
"This is what happened to me," the woman said, even as her voice altered, and she became a man whose picture Harry had seen in the Daily Prophet weeks ago, dead from a Death Eater attack. And then she was one of the children who had died from a Death Eater raid on a "resistance fighter's" house. And multiple people, all of them victims, Harry was sure, all of them present in his mind at one point or another while they'd had the locket. Even the first woman must have been someone he saw in a picture, although not someone he'd paid real attention to.
"All the victims," said the chorus of voices, growing every time the image changed and a new person appeared. "All the people you could have saved if you'd acted faster. But you've gone slowly, haven't you? Because you didn't ask Dumbledore enough, the way you should have, the way you could have. He was telling you the truth towards the end, why didn't you ask him? You could have. You could have saved us..."
Harry screamed, loud enough that the voices fell silent as though in shock, and stabbed the Sword of Gryffindor straight through the heart of the locket. The locket froze, and shook, and hissed, and the smoke writhed around and around, forming a loop like a noose that lashed towards Harry's neck.
Harry lifted the Sword again, but it wasn't necessary. The smoke faded before it touched him, and then the locket fell into two pieces. Harry stood there, panting, and holding the Sword, and staring down at it.
Ron swallowed nosily. "Well, that's four," he said. "With the diary and the ring, I mean."
Harry shut his eyes and nodded fiercely. Then he turned towards the cup, only to find that Hermione had stood up and got between him and it.
"I think someone else ought to do this one," she said firmly. "We've proven that they do defend themselves, and I think you've heard enough lies for the day."
Harry bit his lip, and said, "But-it wasn't true. I know that." And he knew it wasn't true. Even just thinking about it from an intellectual distance, he didn't believe it. He knew the locket was wrong, was stupid, that there was no way all those people would still be alive if he'd moved faster. They hadn't known where the Horcruxes were. How could they move faster?
And Dumbledore had told him a lot of truth at the end of last year, but a lot of lies, too. He hadn't told Harry about Snape. That had been to keep Snape safe, but it was still a lie. The Horcrux was wrong.
"Let me kill this one," Hermione said, and took the Sword from his hand as she turned to face the cup.
Harry watched her as she lined up, checking to make sure that both he and Ron were out of the way before she would position her hand to thrust. Would she do that for him, if he asked her to? Kill him with a single stab? Or would it matter that the Horcrux was probably behind his scar? Would she have to cut off his head?
Harry shivered and pushed the thought away. He just had to keep going and find the rest of the Horcruxes. The diary, the ring, the locket, the cup, and Nagini. That left one more other than him. Harry was pretty sure, from Snape's memories, that Voldemort had never meant to make him into a Horcrux, and so he wouldn't know about Harry.
The cup began to rock in place the minute the Sword came near it. Harry held his breath, and cast a Bubble-Head Charm on himself while Ron did the same for Hermione, a minute before he did for himself. Harry had to smile, bit of a Dark Lord's soul about to die and all. Yes, Ron really was in love. Harry wished he felt like that about someone.
The smoke seemed undecided about what form it wanted to take, but it solidified quickly as Hermione took a step towards the cup. It was two people Harry had only seen from a distance, but he knew them. Mr. and Mrs. Granger both leaned against each other and stared at Hermione with such sad looks that Harry didn't blame her for faltering.
"It's lying, Hermione!" Ron yelled through the Bubble-Head Charm, but his voice was faint, and Harry wasn't sure Hermione could hear him. "Don't believe it!"
"How could you do something like that?" the shade of Mr. Granger whispered. Harry knew that it should have been faint, too, coming to him through the charm, but it was probably part of the Horcrux's magic that it could make itself heard, because it spoke like it was standing right next to him. "Our own daughter. Obliviated us." He shuddered and clutched at his wife, who Harry didn't think had spoken yet. She was just crying, her shoulders shaking. Harry thought she looked a lot like the way Hermione did when she cried, not that Harry saw it often.
"That's not them!" Ron was shouting. "They wouldn't know the name of the bloody spell!"
It was a good point, but Harry knew that Hermione wasn't listening. The Horcruxes were speaking the truth of the voice that lay in the deepest parts of Hermione's mind, the part that whispered to her when she lay awake at night staring into the darkness. She had done the right thing when she Charmed her parents, hadn't she?
Maybe. But Harry had to wonder about whether he had done the right thing by searching for the Horcruxes so slowly, too, and it wasn't easy to tell himself the locket had been lying when the words felt like desperate justifications.
Hermione's face was streaked with tears, and Ron reached out as if he was going to take the Sword. But Hermione shook him off, and her jaw was set as she stabbed the Sword straight through the heart of the cup.
This time, there was something that sounded like a stifled shriek, and the cup tipped back on its edge and spun around so hard that Harry thought it had broken before he saw the first fracture actually work its way through the thing, from handle to handle. Then the cup shuddered into pieces along the cracks, and Hermione sagged to the ground, crying, her hands limp around the Sword's hilt.
Ron grabbed her and started to comfort her, and Harry picked up the Sword and studied it for a second. There was nothing unusual about it, now. Even the faint dark mist which had clung to the tip of the blade when it stabbed the Horcruxes was gone now, melting into nothingness, the way blood never would. Harry told himself to be glad about that, because it meant that the Horcruxes weren't alive, and they didn't have to feel bad about killing them.
But what would happen when the Sword stabbed him? Did it mean that greasy smoke would boil out of the scar, and then come clean, while he fell lifeless? Nagini and the cup and the locket hadn't survived the destruction of the soul shard that they held, and the diary was torn and the ring blackened.
"What are you doing?"
Harry started and whipped around. They had agreed to try and destroy the Horcruxes in the attic, because that was the room farthest from the rest of the house, and there was a chance Snape and Malfoy would escape unhurt even if something went badly wrong. But now Snape stood with his hands on either side of the attic doorway, staring at them as if they were mad, and Harry could see Malfoy behind them, his jaws stretched as wide as Nagini's when she swallowed someone in Harry's visions.
"Destroying things that matter to You-Know-Who," Harry said, just remembering in time not to talk about Horcruxes and not to say Voldemort's name.
Snape gave him a single deep sneer which said he understood and wasn't impressed, and then grabbed Harry roughly and spun him around. Harry nearly spitted him with the Sword of Gryffindor. He laid it down on the floor and rolled it over to Ron with his foot instead, but he was seething inside. It made sense that Snape would treat him like a child even when he knew that Harry knew the truth, and that he had to die to kill the Horcrux inside him.
"What are you doing?" Harry demanded back, tilting his head so he could meet Snape's eyes. That wasn't as hard as it would have been last year, he realized with a little shock. He was never going to match Snape's height, or Ron's, but he wouldn't be the scrawny little kid Dudley could beat up forever, either.
"Examining you for wounds," Snape said, and turned away, his hands briefly closing into fists that looked like Vernon's. Well, all right, not as fat, Harry conceded. "You foolish children-do you know what you could have done?"
"What are those things?" Draco asked. "Why does the Dark Lord want them so badly?"
Harry lost count of the ways the glares and glances went in that moment, Ron and Hermione warning him with sharp looks not to tell Malfoy the truth, Snape staring at Harry as if to say he should, Harry trying to shush people, and Malfoy declaring, a minute later with his words as well as his eyes, that he was not a child and he was an enemy of the Dark Lord now and had the same right to know as any of them.
"You can't know because you might be captured and tortured," Snape said, ending that. "And you are not good enough at Occlumency to hold the Dark Lord out of your mind."
"I saved your life!" Malfoy yelled, turning to look at him. Harry blinked. Malfoy had acted like a shadow the last few days, until he had woken Harry up in the middle of the night to demand they go and rescue Snape. Harry had thought he had used all of his bravery to demand that. But it seemed not. "You owe me something more than fobbing me off with ridiculous stories! You need to tell me! Everyone else knows!"
But not everyone does, do they? Snape asked Harry silently with his eyes. Your little friends don't know that you're a Horcrux, and it's not the sort of thing you could tell Draco, either.
Harry ignored that and faced Malfoy. "But he doesn't know that we know. That's the crux of it, Malfoy." He winced at the way Hermione sucked in her breath. All right, it had been stupid to use a word that sounded so much like "Horcrux," but it had been the word that was uppermost in his mind at the time, and it fit. "If he knew, he would do worse than torture you. He would kill you."
"He'll do that already. I'm a traitor to his cause." Malfoy's hand fell on his left arm. He turned from one to the other of them, his nostrils quivering. "The real answer is that you don't trust me. You trust him," he told Harry, jabbing his thumb at Snape. "Someone you saw kill Dumbledore. But you don't trust me."
"It's complicated," Harry said, awkwardly, wretchedly.
"Sure it is," Malfoy said. "Enough that you can tell him, but not me." He turned and clattered away down the stairs before Harry could explain that Snape already knew.
"You are a master of diplomacy, Potter," Snape said, shaking his head. "For someone who risked his life for you and made you his guiding star." He followed Malfoy with a grand sweep of his robes before Harry could ask what exactly he was supposed to do. Tell Malfoy the truth? When that would be a stupid thing?
Harry turned to his friends. Hermione bit her lip and shook her head. "I don't know what's best," she muttered. "Malfoy's risked a lot, but so have we."
And we'll have to risk more in the end. Harry kept his hand away from his scar, but it was with a lot of effort. He sighed and nodded. "I'll-think of something. Leave it to me."
Potter was following him. Draco had had quite enough of that in sixth year, thanks, and tried to keep away from him. It shouldn't have been difficult. The house was a big one, and Potter was always busy with his little friends or Professor Snape.
With the people who knew things.
Draco had just wanted to go down to the kitchen and get some food, and then go back upstairs and sulk and brood. If they weren't going to tell him, why the hell should he sit around and wait for them to decide he was good enough? Better to turn his back and show that he could at least be independent, that he didn't need to eat with other people in order to enjoy himself.
But no, there was Potter, entering the kitchen from another door just when Draco had almost assembled a plate of food that included sandwiches, and he reached past Draco to take some sandwiches himself, as though he had the right to it. Which Draco supposed he did, since it was his house and his house-elf that ventured out to get the food in the first place.
Complaining to Potter would have made him look petty, and Draco was resolved to avoid that, since it seemed to be part of the criteria they used to decide that he wasn't fit to know things. He turned his back stiffly instead, and walked up the stairs to his room.
His first name was the only thing that might have made him really pause, and Potter had found it. Draco turned around, wondering irritably what would happen when Potter's luck ran out, and thinking he'd like to be there to see it.
Then his scowl deepened, and he realized he couldn't even wish for that. Not when he thought about what the failure of Potter's luck would mean for the rest of them.
He sniffed when Potter came to a halt in front of him, hands out on the walls to help him balance on the stairs. Potter didn't have any food with him. Draco had known that was just a ploy Potter was using to help him get close. "What do you want, Potter?"
"I need your help."
Draco was afraid he gaped at Potter for a second before he slammed his mouth shut, and by then, it was too late to look good, too late to look dignified and pretend that he wasn't interested in whatever Potter wanted him to do. Draco settled for turning his back and continuing up the stairs instead.
"Why would you want me to help you?" Draco asked, keeping his eyes focused ahead. "Someone you don't trust to know the purposes of your quest." Yes, it sounded grand when he said it like that, grand and less like he was a whining little child mortified by the adults ignoring him.
"Because even though I don't what you to know what we're hunting for, you still might be able to help us find it."
Draco had to stop there and turn around, because he could still hear Professor Snape's words in his head, and Potter's, and Granger's, and Weasley's, from the arguments he'd overheard in the last few days. "No one else knows you're making this offer to me, do they?" he demanded. "Because they would have stopped you if they knew."
Potter flinched a little, but kept his eyes on Draco as he nodded.
"And I'm supposed to be flattered?" Draco rolled his eyes. "Going against Professor Snape's advice is what you do. And you don't even listen to your friend Granger as often as her intelligence would demand."
"I know they won't like it," Potter said, rather softly, rather quickly. "But you risked your life to join up with us, and you made a choice that I really forced you into making."
"You didn't," Draco snapped. He wants to think about what he did as a choice, not a sudden impulse driven by fear and not something someone manipulated him into. It would become so much less grand, so much less something he could do himself, if that happened. "I made it. I knew-I knew what could happen."
"What's going to happen?"
Draco swallowed. "He must not have started torturing my parents yet," he said. It was stupid, but he felt sure he would have known, somehow, the bond of blood reaching out across the miles. His father had told him again and again that nothing was as important as family, and his parents were the only family Draco had left.
"Maybe that's true." Potter's voice was as neutral as an unenchanted mirror. "He must have thought Snape would know the most about your escape, if anyone did. Maybe he's waiting to see if they betray something."
"So," Draco said, and pulled his head back, and shook it. "You didn't force me into making that choice. Maybe it was stupid, after all the things I did to keep my parents safe. But I made it."
Potter nodded once. He stared past Draco, up the stairs, rapping his fingers on his thigh, and Draco wondered if he had changed his mind about asking Draco to help with-whatever it was. Then he looked back at him, reached out, and took his hand.
Draco jumped. The significance of the gesture was probably lost on Potter, but maybe not. Draco had noticed since he'd been with Potter that he'd grown up in some ways over the past year, grown more thoughtful and intent.
"Listen," Potter said, his voice so low and close to Draco's ear that Draco had to concentrate to make out the words as separate sounds rather than just one long blur of noise. "I don't think-they don't think you should know, but I reckon you'll have to if you do research. And you've taken more risks for us than I knew about, and paid a higher price. And you're not a good enough Occlumens to keep him out of your mind, but neither are Ron or Hermione. So I think you deserve to know."
Draco's tongue was so heavy in his mouth that he couldn't have spoken even if he had known what he wanted to say. He ended up nodding in an exaggerated fashion, and hoped Potter would understand from that how very interested Draco was in hearing more.
Potter hesitated long enough that Draco wanted to stamp his foot in impatience, sure that someone would come along, guess from one glance at Potter what they were doing, and force Potter away from him. Then Potter's breath came rushing out again, and he spoke in that same rustling, whispering voice.
"So. Look. Vold-he's made these objects out of pieces of his soul and powerful artifacts. That cup we needed belonged to Helga Huffelpuff. And he had a locket that belonged to Slytherin. And there was Nagini."
Draco shivered. "What are you saying?"
"That he puts pieces of his soul into those objects," Potter hissed back, close enough to Parseltongue to make Draco shiver for entirely different reasons, as memories of the Dark Lord feeding Nagini came flooding back. "They're called Horcruxes. Only special things can destroy them. We know that Fiendfyre can, because of what happened to Nagini, and we know the Sword of Gryffindor can."
"That's why you wanted to come to Hogwarts," Draco said, torn between admiration that Potter could be so sneaky and a little appalled that he hadn't gone to Hogwarts out of a pure desire to rescue Professor Snape.
"Well, one reason," Potter said. He was still hissing, and Draco shut his eyes, the better to listen to it. "But what you have to know is that there's still one left. One missing. He made lots of them, but we've got all but-one of them." He went on again before Draco could remark on the strange hesitation in his voice. "But we think it would be some powerful artifact that Ravenclaw had. Something he would think was important enough because of its history to make into a Horcrux. Do you know anything like that?"
Draco nodded without thinking about it. He wanted Potter to stand there and keep hissing, but Potter pulled back and held his shoulders, staring into his eyes.
"You do?" Potter breathed. "What is it?"
Draco restrained the temptation to pull Potter back to him, and said, "It would have to be Ravenclaw's diadem. There's really nothing else she owned that would be important enough. The legend says her daughter stole it and hid it somewhere in a forest. But the Dark Lord would have found it, of course. He's clever enough."
Potter shut his eyes. For a minute, his body shook as though he was going to be sick, and Draco found himself reaching up to clasp Potter's shoulders. But Potter stepped back from him and shook his head. "I'm all right," he said thickly. "It's just-Draco, thank you. I know that I saw a diadem, once before, when I was doing-well, something I shouldn't have done." His eyes were open so suddenly, Draco flinched. "I know exactly where it is."
"Where?" Draco demanded.
Potter smiled at him. "You've done enough," he said. "I don't think the others would like it if they knew I was telling you something they didn't know. You should go find them, though, so they can know about the legend of Ravenclaw's diadem."
Draco blinked, and blinked again. Something wasn't right about Potter, and he wondered for a moment if the Dark Lord could have possessed him. But that would have been stupid, and impossible. If the Dark Lord could do that, why wouldn't he have done it before now, when Potter was capturing these Horcruxes and dragging them off somewhere? Or when they were at Hogwarts and Potter was causing all sorts of damage?
"Are you all right?" Draco asked, his voice lower than he meant it to be, his touch on Potter's arm softer than he meant it to be.
"Yes," Potter said, with a firm bob of his head. "And I can't wait to tell them where the diadem is. It's in a dangerous place, though. I want to tell everyone all at once, so we can come up with a plan together. Can you go and get the others, and assemble them together in that library on the first floor?"
Draco stepped back. There was still something wrong, he could feel that. But he had never been Potter's close friend, not the way Weasley and Granger were, and he had no idea what was going to happen if he didn't do as Potter said.
"They won't want to talk me," he said. "Not when I've spent the last few days snapping at them."
"They'll be happy you've finally come around," Potter said, waving his hand lazily. "You can tell them I told you, if you want. That'll get them angry at me instead of you."
But Draco didn't want to think about that, didn't want to think anyone would be angry at Potter for simply doing what he should. He edged dubiously backwards, his eyes on Potter, and Potter snapped his head down and glared at him.
"I know you've sacrificed a lot," Potter said, his voice cool. "But so have I, and I would appreciate it if you would go and do what I asked."
Draco swallowed one more time, and then turned and ran.
Harry remained standing where he was until he was sure Malfoy wasn't about to pop back around the corner, like the inconvenient, spying little prick he was.
The prick who joined our side, when he had to know what it could cost his parents...
Harry turned and sped up the stairs. His steps were steady, and his hands were clenched on the banisters as though nothing could tear him away. But he would tear himself away. He knew what he had to do now, how to destroy the diadem and the Horcrux in himself and even how to keep Malfoy's parents safe.
The minute he realized that he had seen a diadem hanging from the ear of a statue in the version of the Room of Requirement where he'd hidden Snape's book, he knew that he couldn't stop, couldn't slow down. There was one way to destroy both the diadem and the Horcrux behind his scar, but it was a hideous way. It would do what he had to do, get rid of Voldemort, destroy him, but it would require the desperate courage that he'd felt when he picked up the Sword of Gryffindor in the Chamber and stabbed the basilisk.
He felt as if the basilisk poison was sliding through him again. He shook his head and bolted into his room, Sirius's room, grabbing his broom and his Invisibility Cloak and a piece of parchment he and Hermione had been making useful notes on-including the incantation for Fiendfyre-and one more thing, which he held gently.
The Marauder's Map. He was going to use it now, use it for something that he hoped would make his dad and Sirius proud of him.
He snatched his broom and flew out the window. He couldn't Apparate at Grimmauld Place until he was beyond the wards, but he thought he had proven conclusively by now that he could Apparate while on a broom.
And I don't even have two other people with me this time.
The thought made him smile, desperately. He wished they were. He wished Snape and Malfoy were here, or Ron and Hermione.
No time to stop, no time to slow down.
He spun the broom in place above the street and Apparated.
"What's wrong, Professor?"
Severus held up a hand, turning his head back and forth, his nostrils flaring in spite of himself. He could feel Weasley and Granger, who had been having yet another futile argument concerning whether they should tell Draco about the Horcruxes, pause and stare at him. He ignored them. Something had gone wrong. Someone had passed out of the house. It was nothing more than a minute twitch of the wards, but Severus had made himself sensitive to the wards immediately after his initial meal here. It was easier to do than at Hogwarts, where there was immensely more area, both to attune himself to and for the wards to cover.
He started up and strode to the door of the library, a heavy dark oak thing with a brass handle. He feared that Draco had finally had enough of the arguing and might have gone to "prove" himself.
But the door flew open before he could get there, and nearly hit him in the nose. Severus took a step back, gritting his teeth. Draco rushed through, collided with him, and flushed. But his eyes darted to Potter's friends even as he muttered an apology.
"It's Potter," he said. "I think he went somewhere."
"That's ridiculous," Granger said, rising to do battle with Draco the way she had been all this week, tossing her head back and watching him with folded arms. "Where would he go? He knows You-Know-Who is hunting him. And we still have to do research-" She clenched her teeth, then shook her head. "Anyway, we have to do research."
"Listen, he told me about the Horcruxes," Draco snapped, and ignored both Granger's and Weasley's dangling jaws and the thump of a dark boulder within Severus's heart. "I told him about Ravenclaw's diadem. It's the only famous thing she owned. And he went all weird on me. He seemed to think he knew where it was hidden, or something, and he hurried away. And then I heard the whoosh that that broom of his makes."
Severus turned his head. And now that he thought about it, wasn't that the distant pop of Apparition?
He turned, not thinking, except that if he paused, he would lose Lily's son. "Where would he have gone?" he demanded of Granger. "What do you know about this?"
"Nothing!" She had her fists rubbing furiously at the corners of her eyes. "We just knew that the last Horcrux was probably something either Ravenclaw or Gryffindor owned, because he had Horcruxes that were important to Hufflepuff and Slytherin. And we thought it probably wasn't Gryffindor, he would hate Gryffindor too much, we'd narrowed it down to something Ravenclaw, except I'd never heard of her diadem and I don't know where he went and why did he do that?"
Severus held up a hand, his mind turning and racing down a new track. Potter had thought he knew where the diadem was, which should have been impossible. It was known as Ravenclaw's lost diadem for a reason.
But he also knew where the Dark Lord was, and he knew what hid behind his scar. Potter knew lots of things he shouldn't have.
"He will have Apparated to Hogwarts," Severus said, his voice distant and clinical. He had to keep it that way. If he showed a shred of his worry, the children would insist on going, and they would only slow him down. "If nothing else, he would go there to confront the Dark Lord. Perhaps he thought the diadem was hidden there as well."
He knows. He knows more than that. He plans to go to his death, to destroy the Horcrux within himself so that someone else can kill the Dark Lord.
But who was going to kill him, you foolish child?
Severus had to grit his teeth when he remembered what he knew, and what Potter knew he knew. Perhaps he had even planned on Severus following him and killing the Dark Lord once the last Horcrux had died and he was mortal.
"I do not enjoy being manipulated," Severus said, aloud because the words would tear open his chest otherwise, and whipped around. "Granger, Weasley, stay here. If he comes back with the diadem and tries to persuade you to come with him, hold him here by whatever means you know." Severus doubted that would happen, but he had to leave a guard here just in case, as well as to keep Weasley and Granger out of it.
"You're following him?" Granger started forwards. "We're going with you to Hogwarts."
"No,' Severus said, and he had at last found the tone to quell her, because she shrank. "You will not. You will stay here, or I will Stun you with a curse of my own making that will keep you still."
Weasley took her hand, and neither looked like protesting further. Severus turned around-
To meet Draco's desperate eyes.
"Take me with you, please," Draco said, and his hand gripped Severus's robe in a way that Severus wanted to shake off, wanted to scold him for, because no one he had trained and risked his life to protect should look that childish. "If I was the one who told him the diadem was there and I'm the reason he's risking his life-"
"The last thing you need is to be assigning yourself Gryffindor guilt," Severus snapped at him, and reached to remove his hand.
Draco straightened up and clenched his jaw. "You're right," he said, and a ripple ran through him, as though he was listening to a bell ringing in the distance. A second later, he nodded to Severus. "What I want to do is repay the life-debt I owe him for Hogwarts. And the other debts, for accepting me and rescuing you."
Severus paused, looking into those grey eyes. They held their own kind of light, and for a moment he gripped Draco's shoulder and squeezed.
"Come, then," he said, and swept Draco out of the library before Weasley and Granger could argue any further.
Harry came down near the Shrieking Shack, hissing a little as the broom bounced beneath him. He hoped he had made his landing silent and swift enough that none of the Death Eaters who undoubtedly patrolled the castle's grounds would be looking for him.
He paused a few seconds with his eyes closed, his wand tracing around him, but no one fired a hex at him or used Dark magic anywhere within a hundred meters. Harry nodded, and swallowed, and opened his eyes, laying the broom down gently.
Then he stepped up to the Shack.
This was the safest place he knew to get onto Hogwarts grounds from. Once he was on the grounds, he would use the Cloak to sneak into the school proper, and the Map to avoid people and maybe take secret passages as he sought out the Room of Requirement.
Don't think about then, Harry reminded himself as he nearly slammed the Shack's door behind him. What's going to happen then will be painful, but it's the way it needs to be. If nothing else, Snape will know what it means when you die, and Draco can tell him about the diadem.
Snape would probably be the one to kill Voldemort. Harry stood there enjoying the irony, wondering how Snape would feel about killing the two most powerful wizards in recent history.
Then he smiled a little, and shrugged. It wasn't like he would be able to ask him.
He moved towards the mouth of the tunnel, and cast a few incantations that would detect rodents. The last thing he needed was for Wormtail to surprise him right here, and he was probably the only one in Hogwarts now who knew about the tunnel.
But no rats, no mice, and no moles moved in the tunnel. Harry licked his lips and plunged in, having to duck a lot more than he had in third year. He found some confirmation that he had grown since then nice.
Don't think about it. Keep moving.
Soon he had to crawl on hands and knees as he came out between the Whomping Willow's roots. He whipped the Cloak over his head and knelt there for long, silent minutes, studying the view between the tree's branches. He didn't know if he dared press the knot on the trunk that it would keep those branches quiet. Someone might notice and come to investigate.
On the other hand, the sun was setting and the tree stood there with most of its boughs drooping. Harry thought he could take the chance that it wouldn't even notice him. He stood up, edged across the grass, and slipped between the leaves.
Hogwarts was that, Harry thought, as he ran silently across the grass around the lake and towards the castle doors. The only place he had ever felt safe, the only place he had ever thought he would die to defend, even now. Sirius's house had done a good enough job of keeping him and Ron and Hermione away from the Death Eaters the past few months, but it would never feel like home.
Harry paused for a few breaths of the deep night air. He looked up at the sky, and the stars, and the clouds sliding across them.
Then he turned and walked into the school, casting more spells that would hopefully make him aware of wards and traps.
It was time.
Severus Apparated as close to the school as he felt comfortable with, which left them on the outskirts of Hogsmeade. Draco was silent beside him, other than darting his head around as if he would spot Potter that way.
Severus pulled his cloak over his head and closed his eyes, wishing he was better at Transfiguration for the first time since he was a Hogwarts student. But he was good enough to Transfigure the spray of flowers he aimed his wand at into a Death Eater mask, and that was all that mattered. He slipped it over his face and opened his eyes.
Draco was staring at him with a dropped jaw. Severus gestured at him, and Draco pulled his own cloak over his face, shaking his head a little.
"That's your brilliant plan?" he whispered, because Draco wouldn't be Draco if he didn't think everyone needed to know his every opinion. "You're going to pretend that you're a Death Eater bringing in a prisoner and hope we're not stopped?"
"This is no time for brilliant plans, only workable ones," Severus snapped, and his hand descended on Draco's shoulder hard enough to make him wince. Well, good. This was the way it had to be.
He began to move, dragging Draco rapidly along the darkening streets. As long as Draco kept his head bowed and whimpered now and then-something Severus had personally tutored him in, when they faced the Dark Lord after Dumbledore's death and Severus had begged for his life-there was no reason for anyone to pay particular attention to them.
Now and then they did see patrolling Death Eaters, but no one tried to stop them. Severus received stares mostly from Hogsmeade wizards who promptly scurried into their houses and shut their doors or windows. He let his mouth tighten. As cowardly as Albus used to say they were, when I complained about the way they were depending on an undistinguished teenage boy to save them.
The maelstrom that threatened to sweep over him with the memory of Albus did him no good at all. Severus paused, briefly, near the gates of Hogwarts to gather his emotions, and then jerked his head up sharply as Draco exclaimed.
There was a long, lazy wisp of something rising from Gryffindor Tower. For a moment, Severus thought it was the Dark Lord gone flying, or that someone had released all the owls in the school at once. But the night was not yet so dark that he could not see, and even if he hadn't recognized the smoke, the bright flames that sprang through the windows a few seconds later would have told him.
"It's Potter," Draco whispered by his side. "It has to be."
Severus nodded in silence, and began to run. He didn't need to drag Draco now; Draco ran at his side, his face trained upwards and his eyes wide. Severus didn't know what he was thinking right now. He knew only that Draco was keeping up.
As they had run from the school on that night more than a year ago, now they ran towards it, while the outlines of Potter's plan etched themselves, burning and clear as lines made of sparks, in Severus's mind.
It will be painful. Far more painful than the casting of the Killing Curse at him that Dumbledore envisioned.
Another image of Potter flashed into his mind, the Potter who had looked at him evenly in the kitchen of Grimmauld Place and walked away again.
But I don't think this Potter is afraid of pain.
If he was going to die, Harry had decided, he might as well die in a place that was familiar to him. Although he was going to be sorry to burn part of Gryffindor Tower to the ground.
Never mind. Magical water stopped the Fiendfyre once before. Someone will cast the spell this time.
And if I don't do this, then there's never going to be any more Hogwarts or Gryffindors living here, anyway.
Finding Ravenclaw's diadem had been easy. Harry had walked into the room that haunted his memory, the room where he'd buried Snape's book, and there was the diadem, still hanging over the ear of a statue. He'd picked it up, waited a few minutes in the room until the Map had showed him that the nearest patrolling Death Eaters had wandered down the corridor, and then stepped out under the Cloak and gone his own way.
He wondered, as he turned around in the small circle of Gryffindor beds and looked at his own, whether Voldemort would feel the destruction of the Horcruxes. He didn't think so, though. As far as Voldemort knew, the diary and the ring were still safe.
Now the last two would go. And even if Voldemort did feel it, he was too late to do anything about it.
Harry clutched his wand, wishing he had taken the time to say goodbye to Ron and Hermione. But if he'd paused to write a note or anything, he would have lost his nerve. This was the only thing he could do. Maybe Snape could explain it to them so they could understand, always assuming that Snape survived killing Voldemort.
Harry did frown a little when he thought about that. He'd just assumed that Snape could kill Voldemort, both that he would understand what had happened when Harry died and also that he was good enough to beat Voldemort in a duel. What if he was wrong? What if Snape died trying and no one else ever realized that Voldemort was mortal now, because they were too afraid to challenge him?
But I can't do anything about that. The only thing I can do is destroy the Horcruxes.
As I was always meant to do.
Harry's hand didn't shake as he chanted the Fiendfyre incantation. He remembered that burning was supposed to be a really painful way to die. He kind of hoped it was, for one part of him.
The fire started near the beds. Harry threw the diadem straight into it and watched in some satisfaction as a flame-bodied leopard crunched it up, leaping straight up and swatting at a small dark shadow when it tried to flutter away. The shadow was pinned like a butterfly on the leopard's claws, and died.
Then the leopard, and the other creatures that formed and melted alongside it, turned their attention on Harry.
Harry hesitated one more time. Should he stand here or walk forwards to meet it?
What the hell. He was a Gryffindor to the end.
He walked towards his doom, head up and arms open in a wide embrace.
Professor Snape was running, but Draco knew they weren't going to get there in time. And he also knew that if they did make it up to the school, they would probably have to get past Death Eaters and the Dark Lord himself. Maybe his parents were even here, somewhere...
He shook the thought off, and cast the only spell he could remember in that moment, one Potter had used before. He knew Potter had to get here somehow, and it made sense that he would have left his broom behind when he no longer needed it. "Accio broom!"
Snape spun around and stared at him, silent, wide-eyed, furious. But Draco ignored him, holding his hand up as the broom crashed into it with a solid slap. Yes, Potter hadn't taken it with him. And maybe it was time that someone got to go riding to Potter's rescue for once, he thought, as he climbed onto it.
"Are you coming or not?" he asked Professor Snape, and tried to arch an eyebrow the way Snape had always done.
There were plenty of things that Snape would have liked to say to him, from the expression on his face. But he slapped a hand out, and Draco grabbed it and hauled him onto the broom. Snape didn't weigh that much, so it was easier than Draco would have expected.
Then Draco aimed the broom upright and remembered that he was a Seeker and this was the most important game ever, even more important than the House Cup for Slytherin, and let himself fly.
The broom was a marvel underneath him, twisting, turning, responding, aiming. Draco leaned sideways around one of the lesser towers of the castle and laughed aloud for sheer joy. Snape clutched at him spasmodically in response. Draco tried to remember if he had done that when they were escaping the last time and couldn't recall. He'd been too terrified of dying a fiery death.
And now they had to worry about that again, he thought, as he watched flaming dragons coiling around the roof of Gryffindor Tower, opening their flat, scarlet-scaled jaws, their tongues curling out and flickering up and down on the sky like the tails of comets.
But this time, he was in control, finally doing something-the first something ever since he had hit his aunt with a Stunner.
"Hang on!" he shouted over his shoulder to Snape, imagined the flames beating on either side of him as Bludgers, and plunged between them, shining, straight to the open window where there were no beasts at the moment.
Harry caught a glimpse of something flying in at the window, and ducked and rolled instinctively, away from the leopard that was dancing on Ron's bed, into a corner where the air was cool instead of thick with smoke. Fiendfyre didn't behave a thing like normal fire, he had already learned that. It went where it wanted and changed how it wanted, and although the first one that stupid Death Eater had cast had roared over everything in the Great Hall, wanting to consume it as soon as it could, this one seemed content to devour Gryffindor Tower slowly.
A moment later, Harry realized how stupid it was to be worried about something like a broom aiming at him. He was going to die, wasn't he?
But I have to die the right way, or I'm not going to kill the Horcrux, and I have to do that.
He rolled back upright and glared at the broom hovering near the bathroom door. The broom that was his broom, and had Malfoy sitting on the front and Snape behind him, looking as if he would never take his hands off Malfoy's waist.
Until he saw Harry looking, anyway. Then he snatched them back as suddenly as though Draco was the one who had caught on fire.
"What are you doing?" Malfoy and Harry asked at the same time. Malfoy glared at him, but Harry plunged hastily ahead. Snape already knew, and Malfoy was pretty practical. Maybe he would understand if Harry could explain it quickly. "I'm a Horcrux. Voldemort made me a Horcrux the night he tried to kill me. He didn't mean to, I'm the last one, I have to die so someone else can kill him, get out of the way!"
Malfoy kicked the broom up, out of the way of the leopard's lazily reaching paw. The leopard didn't try reaching again, instead turning back and changing the headboard of Dean's bed into a roaring cascade of color and heat. And Malfoy was staring at him in a way that said he hadn't understood, after all.
"You need not die like this," Snape said. He had fallen to the floor when the broom moved, and he sat up now. There was something cracked in his voice.
"Death by Fiendfyre is the most painful imaginable way to die out of lots of imaginable ways," Malfoy said, shaking his head. "Don't you know? The flames'll play with you until they decide they're bored. That's the only time you really start burning to death."
Harry gritted his teeth. "It doesn't matter one way or the other how painful it is! I couldn't stab myself with the Sword of Gryffindor because I didn't have the diadem and it would be useless." He turned to face Snape, a little. "I'm the only Horcrux left, sir. I destroyed the diadem. But you have to tell him. You have to tell him what Dumbledore told you, that I would have to die to defeat Voldemort. It's all in the prophecy. Tell him," he added impatiently, since Snape only sat there looking at him.
"I have been thinking," Snape said. "And there must be another way."
Harry wanted to bang his head against the wall. He had counted on Snape agreeing that he had to die, and showing up and dueling Voldemort, and-for so many things. And now Snape, who knew the truth, sat there nodding like some idiot, and Malfoy was nodding along with him, and they seemed to have forgotten that Harry had lit the bloody fire.
Then Harry's head snapped around, and he winced as his scar began to ache, a pain that had nothing to do with the amount of heat in the air.
He knew where Voldemort was. He had just placed his foot on the steps that led up to Gryffindor Tower.
And even though he could have flown faster, could have come in at the window if he wanted, there was no reason for him to do so. He knew Harry was up here and wasn't going anywhere. He was climbing slowly, savoring things. A dark, icy calm surged up around the thoughts that were overwhelming Harry, the vision of the stairs, and he jerked himself away and turned to Snape, shaking his head.
"There's no other way," he whispered. "Please. Dumbledore counted on you to kill him. Can't I count on you to do the same thing?"
Snape gave him such a revolted look that Harry winced. He had forgotten how much Snape had hated it when Dumbledore asked him to do that. But Harry had no other choice. He waited, eyes on Snape's face, and waited, while in his head the Dark Lord counted stairs.
Severus did not want to speak the words that welled in him, because Draco was there, and Draco had no way of understanding the complexities that bound them together, must be staring hard and obvious even at Potter's assertion that Dumbledore had wanted Severus to kill him.
But this was the end of all things, perhaps, or certainly the end of their lives if they got it wrong, and what did an audience matter? The audience would either die along with them or have to swallow his share of strange sights in the end, anyway.
Severus took a step forwards. The world seemed to blur around him as memories returned to him, probably some of the same memories Potter had seen when he pierced Severus's Occlumency barriers that night in June.
I should have known that Harry was a Horcrux long before now, Severus. Yes, a curse would leave a curse scar, but the Killing Curse leaves no scar, and that holds true even when it is defeated by the power of a mother's love. The scar is the visible sign of what Tom placed inside Harry, the true mark.
Severus reached out with his wand, gesturing, and Potter's fringe sprang aside, revealing the lightning bolt scar. Severus took a deep breath, and was aware Draco had moved the broom to the side, covering the door that opened down the stairs into the Gryffindor common room, for what good that would do.
"I think," he said, "that the scar is the visible sign of the Horcrux, the soul shard. The other objects had to be destroyed because the Horcrux was woven all through them. They were pure evil, as you must have felt when you touched the cup." He spoke fluently, not taking his eyes from the scar, although he could see the way Potter's own eyes were widening, hear the harsh breath that came from the side where Draco waited. "But you have retained your own personality, Potter, and you did not turn Dark. That means that only part of you is tainted. If we direct Fiendfyre against the scar..."
"You don't know that it will work." Potter's eyes were wide and wondering, and Severus would have barked at him in impatience if he hadn't seen the way Potter's hand was shaking on his wand. The boy didn't really want to die. He had only done what he thought he had to do, on Dumbledore's orders, as always. "You don't know."
"I know it will work, because Fiendfyre destroys a Horcrux," Severus said, and snapped his head to the side. "Draco. I need your help."
Draco's jaw dropped, and he looked as if he would fall off the ridiculous broom. Then he leaped off it, and marched across the room to Severus's side. "What can I do?" he whispered, glancing around as if he thought that the flame-beasts climbing the walls and feasting on the shutters would come for them any second. And they might, Severus had to admit. That was the unpredictable temper of Fiendfyre.
"Suppress the flames," Severus said, and turned back to face Potter. "I cannot concentrate on destroying the Horcrux if I am continually distracted by attacks from the side."
"I don't know how..."
"Summon a storm," Potter said, his voice so gentle and encompassing that Severus had to concede the stories Draco had told about Potter welcoming him in Grimmauld Place were probably true. Potter understood Draco's weaknesses, for whatever reason, and did not despise them. "The incantation is Tempestas, and the wand movement is up and to the side, like the one you use for the Tickling Charm. I know you can do it," he added, when Draco stared at him as though he was mad.
Severus thought he could feel it, the encouragement and praise and belief that poured forth from Potter to Draco. It was enough to make Draco swallow and nod and turn to face the Fiendfyre, drawing his wand back.
Severus motioned Potter to kneel down, as he did the same. He did not know how close the Dark Lord was or exactly what would occur, but he did know that trying to keep their feet was likely to be a bad idea, for both of them.
Potter knelt down in front of him, and his jaw was set and the flames reflected in his green eyes, and Severus thought he could see why so many people in the wizarding world had come to love him.
"This will hurt," Severus warned him, leaning his wand against Potter's scar.
And perhaps that wasn't false bravado, the way Severus would have thought before now. Perhaps it was just acceptance, the same acceptance that had made Potter come here, intending to die on a pyre.
Severus chanted the incantation for Fiendfyre. Potter watched with his eyes open the whole time.
Draco, his hand shaking as he faced the flames, wondered what the hell they expected him to do, and why this had been left up to him in the first place.
He had to do it. There was no way he could cast the Fiendfyre incantation on Potter, and he didn't have a Horcrux in his head to kneel there like Potter did, which meant he had to stop the fire.
And he could do it.
Draco closed his eyes. He told himself to stop acting like he was a coward, a wizard too pathetic to carry out the task the Dark Lord had assigned to him. He had never been meant to succeed in that task, he knew that now. It had always been Professor Snape's to complete. If he had seriously tried, he would have ended up dead. And he was more use to his parents and his family and Professor Snape and Potter and himself alive.
He had cursed Bellatrix Lestrange, and survived. He had given Potter valuable information, even if it was information that had made him charge off to the Hogwarts without adequate backup and get them all into this situation in the first place. He had been accepted by Potter. He had helped rescue Professor Snape-Potter never would have gone to Hogwarts that night if not for Draco-and he had flown a broom here, through Fiendfyre, one of the deadliest spells known to wizards.
He had done more than enough.
He might have condemned his family to death.
But he wasn't going to think about that, and he opened his eyes and spoke the spell with all the confidence he could muster, all the confidence he'd earned because of the remarkable things he'd done, flooding through him. "Tempestas."
The storm rose faster than he had thought it could, faster than the storm Potter had summoned when they were escaping from Hogwarts, or so he thought. Suddenly little black clouds blew past his vision, and the darkness outside the Tower windows seemed to billow inwards, and there was rain, streaking down Draco's face before he thought to cast an Impervious Charm. Then the Fiendfyre beasts squalled and cried as the rain began hitting them, turning them into so many puffs of steam.
Draco spun around, panting. He wanted to say something, or at least make someone notice him.
But Potter was screaming, his forehead on fire, and in the door of the room stood the Dark Lord, still and pale as death.
Draco clapped his hand over the Dark Mark on his arm, wondering why he hadn't felt him coming. Then he realized the Mark was burning. He had just been able to ignore it in his intense concentration on what needed to be done.
Draco swallowed and lifted his hand, staring at the flaring black skull and snake. It hurt, it did hurt, but he had resisted it. He had never thought he could do that.
If he could do that, what else could he do?
As the Dark Lord started to lift his wand, Draco screamed and sprang at him, directly over Professor Snape's and Potter's heads.
Severus felt Draco fly, knew that the boy he had tried to protect was intent on having his romance with death, and wanted to murder someone. Preferably Draco, who had forced this situation in the first place.
But he couldn't look away from Potter, couldn't remove his eyes for a minute, because the clear, stabbing Fiendfyre was there, cutting into the scar on Potter's forehead, and although Severus knew an incantation which was supposed to dismiss it, he did not trust himself to cast it while distracted. Draco would simply have to live on his own for a few moments.
Severus was watching, and he saw the moment when Potter slumped forwards on his hands and knees, nearly unconscious, and something white and roaring fluttered into the air. White only because it was wrapped in white fire, Severus knew, and in the center was a shadow. The flames carried the shadow out the window. What would happen to it after that, Severus didn't know, but he doubted Fiendfyre was survivable.
He would have to act quickly to make sure that that declaration did not apply to Potter, as well.
He threw his wand forwards and then called it back, easily, into his hand, the motion he needed for the incantation, while he hissed, "Finite araneum."
Potter screamed again, although Severus hoped it was at the cessation of pain or the blast of magic, as the spell shriveled the webs of power that bound the Fiendfyre to reality. No matter whether or not it was controllable, Fiendfyre still needed to exist in the world, and if Severus drained the power that allowed it to do so, it could not go on existing. It snapped out of being, and Potter lifted a shaky hand to his scar.
Severus caught a bare glimpse of it, no longer lightning-shaped but a sickly, melted-looking patch of skin, before he looked into Potter's eyes. Potter nodded to him, and then turned, clutching his wand, and rose to his feet.
Severus scrambled up. His heartbeat was quicker than it had been, and he wanted to vomit.
Not because of the way Potter's scar looked now. Not because of the pain he had caused Potter, since that was necessary.
But because Potter had looked at him with forgiveness in his eyes, and that was worse than all the rest.
The Dark Lord stood over Draco, staring down at him as he arched his back again and again. Severus did not know what the spell was, since Draco's jaws were clamped shut instead of open in the screams of pain that would have followed the Cruciatus. It could even have been one of the pain spells the Dark Lord had invented.
Severus shook his head and lifted his wand. He could not force the Dark Lord to release Draco, perhaps, but he could force him to turn his attention elsewhere.
Potter's spell, loud and probably seeming louder than normal in a room that had known the thunder of the Fiendfyre, struck Draco. Severus saw his mouth fall open, and then he collapsed into a limp and shivering heap. Potter flicked his wand again, performing the spell nonverbally this time, and Draco flew into Severus's arms. Severus cradled him, but turned to place Draco down quickly behind him. He dared not be holding him in the middle of a duel like the one he suspected was about to erupt.
But the Dark Lord did not attack. He only stood there gazing at Potter. Potter looked back, and there was no fear in his eyes. Perhaps there never had been, Severus thought, not once Potter had accepted his fate as the final Horcrux.
He was past that, now. He knew he might die in agony in a different way. That would have been, for most people Severus could name, the death of hope.
But Potter smiled slightly and said, "You're mortal now for the first time in years, Tom. How does it feel?"
It was a minute hesitation, a flicker of eyelids and a dipping of the long yew wand so small that Severus doubted must have would have seen it. Nor, perhaps, would they have seen the way Potter's eyes darted to Severus.
But Severus knew. Severus understood. There was no choice, and he attacked with everything in him, roaring the first spell that he knew he could perform successfully and which stood a chance of getting past the Dark Lord's defenses because Severus had invented it.
Potter attacked at the same time, a spell from the side that Severus didn't hear. On an ordinary day, it would never have been enough to take the Dark Lord off-guard. He could have formed a shield against both of their curses at the same time, killed them both in the next instant, and still had more than enough breath left in him to torture Draco to death.
But this was not an ordinary day, and in the midst of battling his confusion and dread, the Dark Lord was indeed off-guard. He blocked Severus's spell from hitting his chest with a simple twist and sting, but that made it hit his left arm instead. Blood began to spill.
Potter's spell had clearly failed, but he yelled another one without pausing. "Emulgeo!"
Severus twisted, snarling in his own right. Where had Potter learned that Dark curse, and who had taught it to him, and how long would he hold up his head after a talk with Severus-
But the spell had done its work, hitting the blood flowing from his wound. The Dark Lord had shielded instinctively, but that didn't matter. The target of the spell was the blood, exactly as it should have been.
Perhaps Potter had known what he was doing during his year on the run, Severus had to concede.
The blood sparked bright red, and then yanked on all the blood in the Dark Lord's body at once, draining him of it, exactly as it was supposed to. It happened so fast that there was no reprieve from it, no counter, as swift as the Killing Curse, far swifter than the end that would have awaited Potter if he had leaped into the Fiendfyre as he intended.
For that matter, Dark as the spell was, Severus found himself at peace as the Dark Lord's exsanguinated body dropped to the floor of the Tower room. He was white, he was still, his wand was still clutched stiffly in his hand as though he had expected to be able to raise it to deliver a killing blow while Potter was casting.
And there was no final speech, no words of hate or a curse that would cripple his killer, as Severus had always believed there would be. He took a deep breath and blinked, wondering how long he had been confusing nightmares with reality.
Potter turned and smiled at him. Severus stared back at him. Potter pushed his hair back from his forehead and showed the webbed scar again.
"It's over," he said quietly.
Part Three: From the Ashes
Draco stared up at the ceiling. It was the ceiling of his room in Grimmauld Place, and it took him long moments to realize why that was wrong.
Then he sprang to his feet and nearly fell out of bed trying to wrestle the sheets away from himself.
It was Potter who sat by his bed, arms folded and one leg kicking the chair back so that its legs were hovering off the floor. And it was Potter who smiled at him, a brilliant, blinding grin, and it was probably Potter who had stripped Draco naked to put him under the sheets, too, the bastard. Draco clutched the sheets close while feeling himself turn as red as a Weasley.
"What right do you have to call me Draco?" he demanded, coughing when Potter's smile deepened into something that might have been either amusement or joy. "And why did I fall?"
"Because you're still suffering from the aftereffects of a pain curse that Voldemort probably invented," Potter said, ignoring how Draco flinched with his eyelids and every other part of him. "We can't take you to St. Mungo's. You'd be arrested on sight, and I'm having enough trouble making people believe that Voldemort is gone."
"He is," Draco said, but his voice didn't come out as a question, the way he had intended. Yes, he could remember it, if he thought through it, if he forced his mind to work. Yes, indeed, there was the Dark Lord falling drained of blood. For a long second, Draco attempted to convince himself that Professor Snape had been responsible for that.
But he shook his head and said, "Why won't they believe you?"
Potter shrugged. "Voldemort hid himself well before. There are plenty of people who think that he's gone back into hiding and he'll just seize some new moment to come forwards." He rolled his eyes. "Of course, the one time when it would benefit me for people to believe he's gone for good, and they can't do it."
"So what are you doing?" Draco asked.
"Making sure that everyone tells the truth," Potter said, bending down. His fringe swished back from his scar, and Draco caught sight of an apple-red patch of skin that had a thick, web-like pattern in the sight of it. He swallowed a little. Well, what had he expected, when Snape lit a bloody fire in the center of Potter's forehead? Potter came up holding a Pensieve, which he shook at Draco. "I've already testified under Veritaserum three times, and this Pensieve is full of memories of the battle, from me and Snape and anyone else who was in the castle and close enough to see Voldemort go running up to the Tower. A lot of the Death Eaters have turned Ministry witnesses in hopes that they won't be put in Azkaban."
Draco nodded numbly. "And they still won't believe you?"
"Some of them would be willing enough to believe I defeated him." Potter put the Pensieve on the floor again and shook his head. "But they don't want to know that you and Snape played a part in destroying him, too."
"Snape, sure," Draco said. He recalled that Snape had used the same spell Potter had used on him in the bathroom, a year and a lifetime ago. "But how did I?"
"You leaped at him and kept him occupied until we could deal with him," Potter said, and caught his eye. Draco wanted to look away, he really did, because he thought Potter's eyes might be more dangerous than Fiendfyre, but he couldn't. "Which was the bravest thing I've ever seen someone do, by the way."
Draco cleared his throat. That still didn't help break the awkward stare, though. Well, so be it. "It couldn't have been."
Draco winced a little, and mustered up anger as a defense against what Potter seemed to be asking him to believe. "You've done braver things yourself. What about your second year that Granger mentioned the other day, when you were fighting a basilisk?"
"That might be the bravest thing she's ever heard of," Potter replied peacefully. "But she wasn't there to see you leap, like I did."
"Let me guess," Draco said, his heart fluttering, his throat aching, and his hands playing furiously with the sheets. "She's one of the people who don't believe that we should get any credit for helping to defeat him."
"Right in one," Potter said. "But it doesn't matter. I'm going to make sure that everyone believes it, in the end."
He sat there with his jaw clenched, and changed scar or not, Draco was sure he could still crush his will into reality if he wanted to, still smash it into rubble and stamp it with his changed image. And he looked at Draco as if...
As if Draco could call on that power to defend him if he wanted it. As if Draco could call him a friend. As if he really did intend to testify that Draco had done the bravest thing he'd ever heard of, along with just being there to help defeat the Dark Lord.
Draco shut his eyes. He appreciated it, he did, but he could feel tremors invading his muscles that it was easy to pretend were the result of the pain curse, and right now, hiding seemed the bravest thing he could manage.
"I-suppose that you'll testify for me at the trials, then," he whispered.
"There won't be a trial," Potter said, and leaned forwards in the chair. Draco thought he was tracking every movement Potter was making, but he still leaped under the covers when Potter touched his shoulder. "I'll testify for your parents, though. You were right. Voldemort hadn't touched them yet, probably because he wanted to prolong the torture. They're still alive, and they're sane, and you'll see them soon."
And then he left, which proved he was still kind, because when Draco began to shake in earnest, there was no one to witness it.
"Another long session?"
Potter must have known Severus was in the kitchen, because he tilted his head back and smiled at him instead of leaping in surprise when he spoke. "Yes. The Ministry still stubbornly refuses to believe that Dumbledore ordered you to kill him, but they had a Legilimens look into my mind today and see those memories I accidentally stole from you. So they might believe now." He reached over and picked up one of the cups of tea that still sat on the table under a Warming Charm, sipping deeply. "That feels better. Bloody Ministry officials and their questions that dry out my throat."
Severus sat still, cradling his own cup in his hands, gazing at him. Potter didn't really look at him, instead holding his tea and staring at the opposite wall, but Severus knew there was no hatred in the way Potter avoided his eyes, simply abstraction.
"I am surprised that you can stand to be in the same room with me," he said softly.
Potter blinked and looked up. "Well, Draco's still asleep, and Ron and Hermione are still angry at me for the way I ditched them to go to Hogwarts," he said, his eyes far away. "We'll make it up, we always do, but they want some distance from me for a while, and I can't say I blame them." He sipped once more at the tea. "And I reckon I forgave you over the year we had to wait. For killing Dumbledore, I mean."
"I set fire to your head."
Severus did not mean the words to come out the way they did, sharp and loud enough to send spittle flying. He slammed his mouth shut in the next second. This was not the way that someone should speak who understood sacrifices, who had agreed with Dumbledore that Potter would have to die.
Potter only blinked at him as if he didn't understand, and that was intolerable, because it meant Severus would have to explain it. But then Potter's eyes softened, and he leaned over and let his hand rest on the table near Severus's.
Severus remained still, like that. It was as much as he could tolerate. He did not want to know what he would have done if Potter had actually tried to touch him.
"You did what you had to do," Potter said. "You kept me alive, the way you always have. I was a few seconds away from throwing myself in the fire, when you got there. Of course I'm grateful I'm still alive."
"But the pain," Severus said, and stopped, because there was a queer look in Potter's eyes.
"The pain was horrible," Potter said. Severus decided he did not want to question what lay behind that announcement, either. "But it burned the Horcrux away." He met Severus's eyes, and smiled, a sliding, quicksilver smile that Severus could not pin down to either his memory of James's face or of Lily's. "Believe me, I wouldn't have forgiven you if it didn't."
Severus blinked a little, shifting his hand away from Potter's to take up his cup of tea.
"You did a lot of things that didn't have a purpose," Potter said, his voice low and clear. "But a lot of things that did. As far as I'm concerned, there's no life-debt. We all went through horror back there."
He stepped back, and Severus flinched. It felt as though a bolt that had connected them had snapped apart, and now Potter stood on the threshold of a door Severus hadn't realized was open, looking back at him.
"The Ministry is still insisting on a trial because you killed Dumbledore," Potter said. "I don't think I can prevent that. Sorry. But you won't be tried for Death Eater crimes, and at least that's a victory." He nodded to Severus. "You can leave whenever you want. I'll see you at the trial." He turned and walked through the physical door of the kitchen.
Severus swallowed through a throat that felt bruised, and returned to contemplation of a dizzy, distant future, only a trial away.
"It is your contention that Severus Snape is not guilty?"
Harry wanted to roll his eyes. They had asked him variations of that question for the last hour and a half.
But rolling his eyes would be playing into the Ministry's evaluation of him, the traps it was trying to set. So Harry only said, "It's my contention that Professor Severus Snape was forced into what he had to do by Unbreakable Vows. There was no way he could have done anything other than what Headmaster Dumbledore asked of him." Use the titles, and maybe they would remember who Snape was, and who Dumbledore had been. "He obeyed orders. I ask for immunity for his war crimes the same way I ask for immunity for mine."
Out in the audience, Harry could see Hermione bury her head in her hands. She had thought it was a stupid idea for Harry to admit to using Unforgivables during the war, even if it was mainly the Imperius Curse.
But Harry was insistent. He didn't want to have to constantly remember all the different lies he'd told. That was one of the major reasons Voldemort had won so much of the Ministry, because he could lie and entrap people who would further his lies, because otherwise they were the ones who would get into trouble.
Harry knew exactly how much trouble he could get into, and the Ministry could never equal what Voldemort had done. So there was that. It was a little comforting to know that he had already gone through the worst experience of his life.
He looked up at the ranks of the Wizengamot arrayed around and above him. They looked a lot like they had when he was on trial before his fifth year of school, except less awe-inspiring. He knew who they were now. He knew they would convict Snape if they could, and Narcissa and Lucius Malfoy-who Harry still didn't like, but who he had testified for because he did like Draco.
But they couldn't convict them. Because Harry was standing in the way.
He had never particularly wanted to use his name to get himself out of trouble, but this wasn't himself.
There was a long whispered discussion instead of a next question, he realized now. He raised his eyebrows. Some of the Wizengamot members had leaned forwards and started gesturing at the others, their movements sharp.
Harry smiled a little. It seemed that some of the older wizards were as tired of being here as he was. Harry himself would rather have been at home, celebrating his eighteenth birthday, but Snape's trial had been delayed long enough. God forbid that it spin out as long as September, the way the Ministry had threatened at first.
The nearest witch leaned forwards and cleared her throat. "You're not going to budge on this issue, are you, Mr. Potter?" she asked, shaking her head at him.
"You wouldn't, either, if you'd viewed those memories all the way through instead of stopping at some convenient point," Harry snapped, and then bit his lips when the witch glared at him. Right, she was trying to be his ally and he wasn't cooperating. He really should, if this was heading in the directions he suspected it was heading.
"Sorry," he said. "But, yes, Madam, I do think he's innocent. Of this," he had to end. "But that's what he's on trial for, so it doesn't matter. He didn't have any choice. Yes, he could have died, but in that case Dumbledore would have got someone else to kill him and we would be here for someone else."
"Without you testifying for him, maybe?" The witch leaned forwards over that high railing until it looked as if she would fall down.
"Maybe," Harry said. The way things had shaken out was so impossible already that he couldn't really imagine how it could change.
The witch nodded thoughtfully, and then turned and talked with a few more people. Harry waited, placing his hands palm down on the sides of the witness box. Perhaps this could be finally be at an end. Perhaps the opposition in the Wizengamot was what he had thought it was all along, a few stubborn people with grudges against Snape or Dumbledore or Harry sticking it out to the end.
When the witch turned around again, nodding, Harry relaxed with an explosive breath. He knew what the next words would be before they were spoken, and so he no longer thought he needed to keep his eyes solely on the Wizengamot. He turned to look at Snape instead, sitting in that same chair where Harry had sat so long ago. Snape had his head bowed.
"Then we pronounce Severus Snape acquitted of the crime of murder, on the testimony of Harry Potter-"
Snape lifted his head. Harry had a momentary fear that he would protest, despite everything, not wanting to owe Harry this.
But he had meant what he said about the last time paying for all, and it seemed Snape knew that and had accepted it, too. He was staring unblinkingly into Harry's eyes, but it wasn't resentment that shone in his own.
"And this is the end of the trial," the witch proclaimed, and sat back, as smugly complaisant as though she had done a good deed.
Harry shut his eyes and let himself melt down from the witness box. Snape was free now, and so was a part of Harry that had dreaded this day might never come.
"Then you do not intend to go back to Hogwarts, Draco?"
Draco started and turned around. He had just finished packing a trunk, and certainly hadn't heard anyone enter the room. He would have heard his parents, he thought. Their trials were just past, and Draco was still half-dizzy with joy at having them around again, although they were under house arrest for the next two years, and his father couldn't buy a new wand until after that time.
But it was Professor Snape who stood there in his thickest black robes, exactly as though the sweltering August heat wasn't shimmering in through the open windows. He had his arms folded and a scowl on his face that might have seemed forbidding to someone who hadn't spent the past few months with him, the way Draco had.
"Why not?" Draco asked, lifting his head so that they were closer to equal, although Snape would always be taller than he was. "You won't be there."
Snape stepped back before he thought about it, or at least it seemed so from the abrupt way he moved. Then he stopped, near the blue wooden cabinet that Draco had made into the first of his ingredients storage cabinets. His fingers traced the brass knobs of the small drawers, but he didn't pull them open.
"Does that matter?" Snape's voice was low enough that Draco wouldn't have been able to hear him if he was a step further away.
"Yes," Draco said, because there was no use in denying it. He had lived with Snape. Snape had saved his life. He had traded the favor of the Dark Lord to keep Draco safe, and received his letters, and advised him, and taken Draco with him to rescue Potter, on a journey so desperate that Draco still marveled his plea to go along hadn't simply been rejected. "Because I'm tired of you thinking that it doesn't, I'm going to tell you why."
Snape paused, and looked at him, although his fingers were still tracing the brass knobs as though he would find some hidden password to open the cabinet on them.
"Because I want to learn Potions," Draco said, "and not in the way a Hogwarts student wants to. I want to be powerful. I won't learn that if I stay here, under my parents' protection. They love me, but they don't want me to change. My father is already talking like his house arrest is going to end tomorrow, like I'll be his son and he'll be powerful in the Ministry in the same way again." Draco paused to sigh. He wouldn't have wished for his parents to be harmed, of course not, but he did wish they had woken up. "I learned how much I like freedom and having my own will when I broke away to join Potter. I'm not going back now."
"What makes you think that I would agree to teach you?" Snape's voice had gone beyond low now, into a boneyard hiss.
Draco took a bold step forwards. Snape didn't recoil or turn away. He lowered his head, though, so his hair fell in front of his face.
"Because you know it, too," Draco said softly. "Because things have changed, and that's why we can't go backwards. Because you're not going back to Hogwarts, and that's your acceptance that this is for the best." He hesitated one more time, because he knew his feelings but wasn't entirely sure about Snape's, and then reached out and took his hand. "Because you want to teach me."
Snape looked once more at their joined hands, then up at him.
And it was his expression that told Draco he could smile and say, "Severus."
"But what are you going to do?"
Harry grinned at Hermione as they walked out of Gringotts, him with a clinking bag of money swinging low at his side. It drove her crazy not to know what he intended with the money, which was one reason he had waited until today to tell her. He set out down the middle of Diagon Alley, Hermione almost chasing him.
"I'm going to enjoy my life," Harry said, and clucked his tongue at her when she glared at him. "And living in Grimmauld Place isn't conducive to that anymore."
Hermione blinked at him, and then at the money. "You're buying a house," she said. "But where? I know I would have heard about a house being for sale in Hogsmeade, or in wizarding London."
Because she and Ron were looking for a house for themselves, Harry knew. It was one reason he had chosen the place he had. He loved his friends, he had made up the argument they'd had, but he wanted a little space and time to breathe, and think. The pressure to go back to Hogwarts when the term had begun a month ago had been intense, and he knew Hermione would have started talking to him again if she had detected the slightest trace of Harry starting to yield.
"Godric's Hollow," he said.
Hermione's mouth fell open a little, and she reached out as if she would stop him. But Harry turned his shoulder, and her hand settled on it instead, and she smiled at him, so radiant, so approving, that Harry grinned in spite of himself. He would have done it even if she didn't like it, of course. He had promised himself that much.
"The only thing I'm surprised at is that you're not inviting Snape and Malfoy over," Hermione said.
Harry choked a little. "Excuse me?" He had been writing owls to both Draco and Snape for months now. They seemed to spend their time split between the house Professor Snape owned-Harry had never been sure where it was-Malfoy Manor, and somewhere in Ireland. The notes were friendly enough, but they had never invited Harry to visit, and Harry had accepted that. They probably needed some distance from the war. God knew Harry did.
"You're not?" Hermione stared at him for a second, and then put her hands on his shoulders and shook him, right in the middle of Diagon Alley. Harry tried to back away from her as people stared. Hermione pulled him right up to her again and shook her head. "Are you a fool?"
"No," Harry said, and this time struck her hand away when she would have continued shaking him. "What the hell, Hermione? What are you-I mean, I write to them. Why would I invite them, though? It's not like the place would mean anything to Draco, and I'm sure Snape has enough bad memories of it, since it was where my mum died." He didn't know everything about Snape's friendship with his mother, but from some of the things he'd said in his letters, Harry knew there had been something there, something that day he had called her a Mudblood had destroyed.
"I think you should invite them," Hermione said firmly, and walked away. Harry gaped at her for a bit before he remembered the money and put his hand firmly on the bag. He had an appointment with the man who was supposed to sell him the house in Godric's Hollow, a house right next to the deserted Potter property. He didn't want to be late.
But the thought lingered in the back of his mind as he began to walk. Maybe-maybe it wouldn't be such a bad idea. Maybe not being invited to join Snape and Draco didn't mean that they would reject an invitation to join him.
So. This sounds stupid, but.
I have a house, now. It's in Godric's Hollow, right next to the one that my parents died in. That sounds morbid, I know, but it's a way to work through the past for me, and a way to join the past to the present. I've had enough experience cutting them off. This is the best way to heal from the war that I know.
Severus had to snort through the mouthful of potatoes, ignoring Draco's curious look. He was the apprentice. That meant he read the amusing letters last, and the usual ignorant demands for love potions first. That was the way reality worked.
Draco frowned at him, and went back to picking at his own breakfast. He was never very hungry in the mornings, Severus had noted. Well, there was no reason he had to be. He worked well, and he had made the house they had chosen in Ireland into almost a replica of Grimmauld Place, and Severus was willing to remain silent until Draco told him why that was.
I wondered if you would want to visit? I know we haven't seen each other since the trials, really, but it's almost the end of November. I feel-that's long enough, you know? That you could come if you wanted.
Severus paused, and lowered the letter to the table. He had suspected something like this would come, sooner or later. Only Potter's lack of a settled home in the last few months had kept it from coming sooner, he suspected.
Severus nodded, and pushed the letter towards Draco. Draco read it quickly. Severus watched the pulse jumping in his throat, and nodded when Draco raised his eyes to Severus's face. There was a faint pink tinge to Draco's cheeks; the hand clutching the teacup had become a bit shaky. Draco took a large gulp of tea as though to prove everything was fine, and promptly choked.
"You want to go," Severus said.
"Not if you don't want to." Draco leaned back in the chair, staring at him. "I mean, God knows we've done enough for Potter. We shouldn't have to go if we don't want to."
"Draco," Severus said quietly, and watched the way Draco ducked his head, his eyes closing. They sat like that for some time, Draco all but stirring his tea with a finger. Severus could tell that he wanted to.
Just as he wanted to go and visit Potter.
Something that Severus could say he had perhaps-awaited, along with expected. He would not rejoice in seeing Godric's Hollow again, but he had not rejoiced in anything much since Lily died. Except the cleverness of his new apprentice, and the way he had survived the war, and every breath he drew in this new world.
Perhaps it would not do too much harm to indulge his new apprentice's wishes, and assuage his own curiosity to see Potter again.
"When shall we go?" he asked, and yes, he could take delight in the way Draco lifted his head as fast as a Seeker plunging down the pitch, eyes wide with incredulous joy.
From the moment they entered the house at Godric's Hollow-small but neat, with a kitchen that had an enormous dining table Draco suspected Harry had swiped from Grimmauld Place, or at least imitated from there-Draco found it hard to take his eyes off Harry.
Or decide what name I want to call him, for that matter.
Potter seemed taller than he had been, though perhaps that had happened simply because his shoulders were no longer bent beneath the weight of the burdens he had carried during the war. He laughed when he spilled the tea in his eagerness to serve them. He made a joke about Potions knowledge that left Draco's jaw dangling a little, because he wouldn't have thought Potter learned enough in Potions to catch it. And he practically danced with eagerness to bring them food, and laugh at their jokes, and do anything else he could to serve them.
He shone. Draco had to wonder, now, whether a Harry Potter who had grown up without the fame of the Boy-Who-Lived would have been like this all the time. Maybe it was a good thing he hadn't been. Draco knew he wouldn't have escaped Hogwarts with his heart intact.
Draco did glance more than once at Severus, because there was another reason that he wouldn't have escaped Hogwarts with his heart intact, if things had been different. And Severus sat there with his hands still on the table, instead of busy the way he liked them, and his gaze was on Potter and the way he seemed to pause in shafts of sunlight specifically so they could light up his green eyes.
When his gaze wasn't on Draco himself.
Finally, Draco nodded a little. He didn't know exactly what Severus had thought, what Severus wanted to happen next, but he could see the way relaxation trailed like a line down Severus's shoulder at the gesture. And Severus leaned forwards and caught Harry's hand the next time he went past the table.
"What?" Harry paused, blinking at them. "Did the tea go cold?"
Severus looked to Draco one more time. Draco got up and moved around the table towards them, coming up so that Harry could see him, but probably wouldn't sense in time what he was aiming for.
Harry glanced back and forth between them. "Are you leaving already?" He sighed, and some of the light left him. "Well, I suppose it has been a few hours, hasn't it?"
Severus tightened his hold on Harry's hand, and Draco stepped up behind Harry. Harry tilted his head back to look at him, and his lips flickered a little in a smile. Draco wondered if the smile would disappear as Draco leaned in to kiss him.
It didn't. Instead, Harry tilted his head back and opened his mouth further, and Draco was suddenly sure that some of it-posing in the sunlight, certainly, maybe other things-had been deliberate on Harry's part.
He and Severus hadn't come here with a plan. It seemed Harry had had one, though.
Seductive little bastard, Draco thought, a moment before Severus surged to his feet and Draco kissed Harry, hard and fast, Harry's hands rising to cup his chin and hold Draco's face still, even as Severus kissed their faces from the other side.
Draco could feel his heart hammering hard enough that he swayed on his feet, while Harry kissed him comprehensively, sliding his tongue up and down Draco's, nudging it into corners of Draco's cheeks that flared red and slick with heat in return, and sliding his hands down Draco's chest and under his shirt until Draco jumped and squeaked. Severus chuckled from the other side and separated them a moment later, hands on their shoulders. Draco licked his lips and swallowed.
"Do you mind?" Severus breathed, leaning in. "I find this addicting."
And he kissed Draco.
Draco gaped beneath his kiss for a moment, before he moaned. Harry was stroking Draco's back, now, his hands sliding under Draco's shirt on the opposite side. Draco shuddered at the heat curling up and over his shoulders, which met the heat Severus was stirring in his mouth, and both of them raged up and down, tongues of fire-
Safer than Fiendfyre-
Curling into each other, overcurling, rippling, eddying, singing.
Draco pulled back at last, panting as he rested his forehead on Severus's shoulder. And then Harry leaned over Draco's shoulder, still keeping a firm hand in the middle of Draco's back, beneath his shirt, and kissed Severus.
Draco leaned back to watch. Severus stood there like a statue at first, letting Harry guide and control the kiss, and then pushed them both up against the table, Harry and Draco against Harry, and kissed strongly enough that Harry was panting when they broke apart. Harry stood there with his hands beneath Draco's shirt and his eyes so wide and wonderful that Draco found the only thing equally wonderful was looking into Severus's.
"So," Severus said, his voice low enough that Draco thought he could feel the buzz in his bones. "I trust we can stay a little longer?"
"Consider this a home," Harry said, and lunged up to continue the kiss before Draco could think through all the implications of that advice.
Not that they needed to think through all the implications, not yet, he thought dazedly as, together, they made their six-legged way towards Harry's bedroom. There would be a long time to do that, to think through what they had become, to understand everything Harry was offering, and everything Severus could, and everything Draco could give in return.
They had saved the world, after all. They deserved some time to think, if they wanted it.
Harry leaned back against Draco's arms and shook his head, laughing. The sweat was running down his face, and the muscles were trembling in his back and legs, and he knew that Draco was probably about to insist he should leap over the fire again, because God knew three times weren't enough.
"Make Severus do it," he said, when he saw Draco's mouth opening. Draco shut it again and arched his eyebrows. Harry looked around, wondering where Severus was, and if Draco thought he was really too old to make a successful leap over the fire.
"I shall do what I wish to do," Severus said from behind Harry, and arms wrapped around his waist, binding him further into Draco as Severus's hands came to rest on Draco's hips. Harry closed his eyes, smiling. It seemed it was his turn, the way it often was, to stand between the two of them and receive the benefit of their warmth beating on him like twin suns.
They stood on the grounds of Hogwarts, not far from the lake, where the bonfire built to commemorate the first-year anniversary of Voldemort's death leaped and bristled at the air. In truth, Harry was amazed that he had managed to leap the bloody thing at all. The flames weren't dangerous like the ones that heralded Fiendfyre, of course, but they billowed so high into the air that Harry knew he had scorched his feet.
But Draco had asked him to, and Severus had smiled, and Harry would have done far more than this to please his lovers.
"Shall we?" Severus whispered into his ear.
Harry shivered without opening his eyes. He knew what that whisper meant. The other Beltane dancers-or anniversary-dancers; privately Harry thought the Headmistress had really seized on Beltane to have an excuse to build a bonfire and distribute lots of drinks on the anniversary of the end of the war rather than have a tame and organized Ministry celebration-had moved further away into the shadows. They were alone on the grass in the light of the flames, and Severus, from the feel of the tingling magic around them, had already cast a Privacy Charm.
"Let's," Harry said, and turned around, and kissed Severus.
Cushioning Charm after Cushioning Charm piled on the grass, and Harry grinned; Severus was practical. He said one had to be, when one was a forty-year-old man with two insatiable eighteen-year-old lovers.
Just thinking about Severus's voice, imitating the way it echoed in his head, made Harry roll his hips. Severus hissed and reached down to take off his robes. He wore nothing underneath them, which was apparently traditional on Beltane. Or so he claimed. Personally, Harry had his doubts about that.
Draco laughed from behind him, and cast his own robes from his shoulders, letting them slither to the ground. Harry turned around to admire the way Draco's pale skin gleamed in the firelight, nearly enough to shed back reflections of the flames like water.
"Ready?" Draco whispered, Vanishing Harry's thicker and more numerous clothes with a sweep of his wand.
"Yes," Harry said, and dropped to his knees, eagerly pressing his arse back. He had cast a few charms to prepare himself earlier, when Severus first suggested that Beltane was a fertility festival and it was a shame not to celebrate it with sex in front of the fire. Harry had shied away from that a little, at first, just because of the number of people who would be at the celebration, but Severus's Privacy Charms were second to none. They had kept Ron and Hermione from noticing anything untoward going on in Harry's bedroom when his friends had stayed over in Godric's Hollow.
Draco laughed softly behind him, and knelt down, and pressed into him. Harry hissed softly beneath his breath, his head dangling, his neck muscles aching as he felt the twist and strain that jumping over the fire had put into them. In front of him, Severus stroked himself lazily as he watched, and then bent down and showed that he was still far more flexible than he claimed to be as he crawled beneath Harry.
"Ah-" Harry's mouth fell open, and he flicked his eyes down briefly to where Severus was sucking his cock. He would have tried to do something to Severus's cock, close enough to his lips to tempt him (well, be honest, it was a temptation all the time, no matter where it was), but Draco had begun to move, and his thrusts rocked them both back and forth on the blanket, in long, sweeping movements.
Harry let his neck roll with the thrusts, the tension creeping out of his muscles despite the incipient ache in his knees, and the pleasure rising and curling around his groin, around his arse, around his heart. God, they were good at this. And Harry loved them for other reasons-the flight and the fire and the trust they had earned and coming to save him and tea at the kitchen table and the way Severus wrinkled his nose when Harry tried to brew potions and the proud tilt to his head Draco had acquired-but it didn't hurt at all that they were also good at this.
Draco bent down and kissed the middle of his back at the same moment as Severus flicked his tongue wickedly around Harry's cock. Harry bowed his head, tucking it towards his chest, and cried aloud as he began to come. Draco was shuddering and cursing above him, Harry's pleasure bringing his own on, and when Harry could force his eyes open, it was to see Severus's hand moving furiously on his cock.
Harry sagged as the pleasure, the fire, roared through him and nearly dropped him straight down on top of Severus. Luckily, Severus had twisted away before that happened, and lay there watching him, eyes firelit, hand quick, before he arched his head and shook, and Draco was shaking, and when both of them fell down on top of Severus, it was into his welcoming arms.
Harry sighed and nuzzled his chin into Severus's shoulder, sweat-slick, wet enough to reflect the fire like Draco's skin had earlier. Severus kissed his ear silently, and Draco pulled out of him-making Harry wince a little-and crawled up beside them, exchanging kisses with shoulders and spines and eyelids for a long time before he finally wandered up to lips.
"This is better than I thought," Severus murmured, and Draco made an incoherent noise of agreement.
Harry shut his eyes. His thoughts were spinning, light and lazy, and he only came back to the moment when he felt Severus reach up and rest his hand on Harry's fire-ruined scar.
Harry looked. Severus was gazing at him, solemn as he could be at odd moments-it was one of the stranger things Harry had learned about him, how changeable this man was-and Harry could see the apology there that Severus had tried to give him a year ago, after another fire, in Grimmauld Place.
Then Draco leaned over and put his hand over Severus's.
And Severus's eyes changed, and Draco was smiling, and Harry shut his eyes and leaned into the touch and said nothing.
Because there was no way to apologize, no reason for it, no need. No debt remaining between them. No Fiendfyre. No hatred or anger or burning rage of hatred anymore.