Chapter 1: Part One
“Fight! Duel! Draco and Harry are –!”
I throw down the pathetic excuse for an essay I have been perusing and am on my feet before the full sentence leaves her mouth.
“Where?” I growl, and she stammers out the location of a bathroom she should not be haunting.
I instruct her to collect Minerva and Albus, already sprinting, suppressing a shudder as I push through Moaning Myrtle's ghostly form.
My wand is drawn as I burst through the door, prepared to counter whatever hexes Potter and Draco are currently hurling at each other, and am astonished to hear curses instead. The first syllables of Crucio leave Draco's lips, but Potter cuts them off with his bellowing.
“Potter, no!” I scream, recognition twisting my stomach like an icy fist. My command startles Potter into lowering his wand, and his gaze fixes on me in horror. Draco is not nearly so affected by my presence. His face is aglow with mad hatred, and before I can stop him, his wand is focussed on Potter once more. My heart stops with his next words.
“Avada Ked –”
I’m stunned. It takes me a split-second to recover, to raise my wand.
I’m too late. Oh, sweet Jesus, I am too late. Emerald light rushes from Draco's wand to Potter lying prone on the floor. He jerks back, but there is no chance he'd be quick enough to cheat death this time. It strikes his face, drawn to his scar as though magnetised. His expression registers shock as he is enveloped in green, and then he's –
Not figuratively, but literally and completely gone. He has vanished. I round on Draco, but his uselessly flapping mouth tells me he has no more notion of what has just happened than I. Somehow Draco has lost us the Boy Who Lived, and with him our one chance of freedom from the self-fashioned Dark Lord. An ache settles in my chest as my eyes flick back to that empty space, and away again. It hurts to look. I want to chide Draco, to tear him apart, but there are no words. I open my mouth to speak, my mind blank, when a thud and a groan interrupt me. I swivel to the source of the noise and am greeted by a heap of robes, which I have no doubt hide Potter's body.
My instinct is to drop to my knees at his side and feel for a pulse, but I control it enough to first incapacitate Draco, who is so stunned he doesn't seem to notice his wand whipping from his grasp and soaring over to me. I scramble through the sodden cloth covering Potter, pushing away enough to reveal a wrist. A slow, stuttering pulse answers me, and my relief is so great that a sob catches in my throat.
He is alive. Somehow, against all the laws of magic, Potter has survived. I hurry to remove his robes, needing now to assess the damage this ridiculous fight caused. I hear wet footsteps and in the back of my mind acknowledge that Draco has approached us. Stupid, fussy fastenings... I can't get this thing off! I tear at the clothes, terrified that the water-logged fabric might be suffocating Potter.
The seams give, and Potter is revealed. I draw back in horror. He is pale, sunken. He looks as though he has been dropped from a great height. I cannot fathom how Draco's curse could have had this effect, but do not stop to consider it. Carefully, I levitate Potter, intent on taking him to the Hospital Wing. I have forgotten my call for back-up, but Albus and Minerva are in the doorway staring at me when I turn.
“Mister Malfoy,” I say, my voice as unsteady as my wand is not, “you will remain here and explain what has just occurred while I deliver Potter to Madam Pomfrey.”
I make my way through the corridors, wand trained on Potter unfalteringly. The expression on my face is enough to prevent even the most curious of students from asking questions; the sight of an injured Boy Who Lived being carted to the Hospital Wing, though nothing new, is enough to fuel the flames of gossip in this school for weeks. They'll never guess what happened to him this time, that Harry Potter is now the Boy Who Lived Twice...
I barge in, the doors crashing into walls with the force of my entrance, shouting for Poppy even as I settle Potter on the nearest bed. I almost don't recognise him, and I wonder what Draco could have possibly done with that damnable curse. If Potter doesn't wake, there won't be enough of Draco left to salvage for potions ingredients.
Poppy answers my shouts in her usual brisk, business-like tone. She's pushing her sleeves up to her elbows as she approaches.
“What is it, Severus?” she asks, eyes moving from me to the desperate picture Potter makes against the lily-white sheets. “Oh, Merlin! Is that Harry?” she gasps. I can't begrudge her the exclamation, nor the disbelief. There is no doubt that the boy has been changed, and I drag my eyes away from his supine form in order to answer the question.
With a great deal more difficulty than I have had since I mastered language as a child, I attempt to explain what happened. Words, so often my armour and my weapons, fail me.
The house was almost completely levelled. Rubble lay like a miniature mountain range encircling the half-collapsed chimney, the only part of the building that remained even partially erect. Amongst the shattered glass, the broken stones, and the splintered wood that had made the house were the sentimental paraphernalia that had made the home. Photographs lay curling in the light rain, blankets soiled by dust trapped beneath bricks, children's toys torn apart viciously with stuffing spilling like fluffy white blood from their gashes.
A beam of wood shifted as Harry pushed it off himself. His head felt as though it had been cleaved in two and roughly glued back together. He groaned as he shifted himself into a sitting position, causing more debris to tumble off him. Still groggy from what felt like a good few hours of sleep, he squinted, trying to make out something familiar. He had no idea where he was.
He tugged his glasses off and wiped away some of the rain with a dry patch of his shirt. With muffled curses, Harry attempted to tug his legs free of the rubble lying on top of him. It took three tries before he managed to wriggle enough space loose to pull out. Standing shakily, Harry looked around at the debris. What had happened? The last thing he remembered was duelling with Malfoy in Moaning Myrtle's bathroom, and now it was morning and he was at a demolished house.
Well, standing around staring was getting him nowhere, so Harry began to stumble his way to the nearest road. His whole body ached. He tripped often, and eventually turned his gaze wholly to the ground in front of him. He was several feet short of where the front of the house would be when he saw the photo, weighed down beneath part of a sofa, fluttering in the wind. The photo's subjects were waving at him, wearing smiles incongruous with the environment around them.
Harry nearly fainted, falling to his knees as he examined the family within the picture.
“Mum?” he whispered, finger trailing over Lily Potter's bright young face.
He turned his attention to the fallen house once more, and understood. This was Godric's Hollow. And with the looks of things, the dust had only just settled.
Poppy is shooting an impressive series of diagnostic spells at Potter, her expression growing grimmer with each reading.
“Will he live?” I ask, reluctant to interrupt but desperate to know. I feel useless, stood watching her work.
Poppy doesn't tear her gaze from her patient, but she does address my question. “Without a doubt. He's dispensed a lot of magic and is suffering exhaustion. Aside from that, his injuries appear to be from some sort of impact, which I can heal well enough.”
My relief is so palpable I can taste it, bittersweet and heavy on my tongue. All hope is not lost yet. My mind is so distracted with these thoughts that I almost miss Poppy's enquiry.
“– some of your potion to heal heavy internal bruising? I swear he must have dropped about ten feet to have acquired this level of damage at once.”
I offer my assent and quickly stride to the fire, Flooing down to my quarters to fetch the potion in question. By the time I return, I am back in control of myself. Having recovered marginally from the shock that this war may have been lost, and having been assured by Poppy that Potter will once again survive, I can begin to contemplate how I'm going to punish the pair of schoolboys for the use of Dark Arts.
Draco should know better than to use the Unforgivables, and in front of a member of Hogwarts staff? That boy is surely too foolish, too impetuous, to be one of my Slytherins. And Potter... The mystery of his rapid improvement in Potions has at last been answered; there is only one place he could have learned that spell.
Poppy herds me over. “I can't get him to stay upright. Hold him while I administer your potion, please.”
I don't bother to protest, though I sorely want to. I hook my arms beneath Potter's and pull him to sitting, then manoeuvre him until his head is cradled awkwardly on my forearm. I pry his lips apart and hold them that way as Poppy carefully dribbles in a dose and a half. He swallows convulsively.
Before I can rearrange him, Potter's eyes flicker open. They are unfocused, bloodshot, and the pupils unnaturally dilated. They are not even trained on me when he whispers, “Severus.”
Before I can rebuke his forwardness, his eyes fall shut and he has once more lost consciousness.
My regained calm serves me well as I spend the night brewing whatever standard potions with a considerable shelf-life I imagine Potter to have depleted from the Hospital Wing. My mind is too active for decent rest until about four in the morning and it is just as well that I achieve something in my restlessness as not.
When I finally sink into sleep, it is with more than twice what will be needed to replace the potions Potter might use over the course of his visit, and I make a mental note to deliver them to Poppy before breakfast
It is the fulfilment of this task that leaves me eavesdropping at the pulled curtains around Potter's bed before the sun has bothered to properly rise. Poppy is shrill and annoyed, and I do not want to face her until the source of this irritation has been cured. And so I wait, and cannot help but overhear the argument going on a mere sheet of fabric away.
“... you thinking, trying to hide an injury like that?” she is demanding, and I can see her silhouette throw its hands up in exasperation. “You cannot leave this ward until you are fully healed, Mister Potter.”
Potter laughs darkly. “I'm not going to be fully healed, Madam Pomfrey. I know more about this type of injury than you, and there is absolutely nothing in your – or anyone else's – power that’s going to have any effect when dealing with this.”
The last word is laced through with disgust, and I wonder what precisely Potter is so confident cannot be healed.
“I am quite capable of living with it, I assure you. Now, was there anything else, or am I actually permitted to leave?”
Even I believe it is too soon for the boy to gallivant off to his next adventure, and am gratified to hear Poppy speak words to that effect.
“You should not have recovered so quickly. One night of bed rest is not sufficient for what happened to you.”
Potter laughs again, this time with what sounds like genuine mirth. “There's hardly much of a precedent for what's happened to me. I'm sure one night of bed rest is just fine. It's about the same as I got the first time a Killing Curse bounced off my head.”
“But there are visible effects this time that we should at least attempt to counter, if you would just –”
Potter interrupts. I am incensed at his obvious arrogance. This incident seems to have served only to inflate his head further.
“Madam Pomfrey, unless someone has figured out a way to bottle youth and I've not been told about it, I reckon I'm stuck this way.”
Poppy doesn't reply, and I cannot blame her. What could one possibly say to that? The attempts to bottle youth over the centuries have only ever been disastrous. I wonder what Potter would want with such a commodity in the first place.
“Now,” he says imperiously, “if there are no further problems you'd like to address, I think it would be prudent for me to go visit the Headmaster and explain a few things to him.”
Prudent? Just what did Draco curse him with before I came in? Was he forced to swallow a dictionary?
Potter begins to stride to the seam between curtains, and I back away stealthily. He is stopped when Poppy places a hand on his shoulder.
“Harry, will you at least allow regular check-ups so that I can see how your injury progresses?” she pleads, and the genuine concern in her voice gives me more than a moment's pause.
Potter's hand comes up to rest atop hers and he speaks in a low tone clearly intended to comfort. “Just try to keep me away.”
He bursts out from his cordoned-off bed, and my mouth actually falls open in surprise. Yesterday, beneath the bruises and pallor, Potter had looked as young as always. Now, however, there is a marked difference in his appearance, the sort that only comes with age.
He is taller, by at least several inches. His shoulders have broadened and his chest filled out. His hair has grown inexplicably, reaching his shoulders. His face no longer has that boyish roundness, the jaw squared and darkened by the faint shadow of stubble. There is no question now that Potter is no longer a teenager. The idea troubles me.
“Professor,” he murmurs in a carefully controlled voice, backing the address with a tight nod.
I barely have control of myself enough to return the nod before he is gone. What in the name of Merlin's staff has happened to him?
Harry had found no reference to travelling forward in time so far, but he was far from ready to give up.
At first, Harry had tried to research the Killing Curse, which was a profoundly stupid thing to do, given that he knew he was the only person known to survive it. However he’d got here, it was because he’d survived the Killing Curse once before. And because something had gone wrong with Malfoy’s curse. There was not going to be a tailored counter to send him back.
So he started looking for any way to reach the future.
The library on Diyurn Alley had seventeen floors and Harry had not yet finished looking through the ground floor. Six months. He had been looking for six months and still had two shelves left. At this rate, Harry wouldn't finish searching the whole library for almost a decade. He’d be as well off waiting it out.
Harry tugged his thoughts back to the task at hand. There was no use in worrying about that and wasting time that could be better spent on today's books. There were twenty-nine today, if he wanted to get this shelf finished by the end of the week. Twenty-nine books that mentioned time travel and the future. Harry had originally spent months checking the contents pages and indexes of almost every book until he’d hit on a book about research methodology. There was a charm that could be used to make books mentioning key words glow. Hermione had probably been using it for years. Without the charm, Harry knew that any attempt to find his way back would have been hopeless. He pulled the first of today’s stack towards himself and began the laborious search for the context of his key words.
Hours later, Harry slid the books back onto the shelves in the order he'd found them. He hadn't figured out how the books were sorted yet, which made it all the harder to find what he was looking for. But it was hardly something he could ask about: “Excuse me, but I got sent back in time by a Killing Curse. Any copies of Back to the Future I can borrow?”
His snort drew the attention of a wizened old witch seated at a nearby desk, who scowled at him as though he'd started singing loud and off-key songs about pornography. Mind absorbed with the task of composing one such song, Harry managed to walk right into someone. He bounced off the solid chest and fell to the floor with an 'oomph!'.
“Are you okay?” the man inquired, hand reaching out to pull Harry to his feet. Harry took the hand, surprised to find it warm despite being ice-white.
“Fine,” he answered a little breathlessly, peering up at the owner of the hand.
“You are here a lot.”
Harry nodded. “Uh, yeah. I'm looking for something.”
A wry smile. “Aren't we all,” the man replied dryly.
Harry found himself smiling back.
“So, uh, you must spend quite a bit of time here yourself to have noticed me,” he commented, wondering why he was so reluctant to leave.
“I work here.” He pointed to a small gold brooch on his lapel which read, 'Assistant Librarian, First Eight Levels'.
Harry nodded. “Great,” he said, then immediately felt stupid for saying it. “I'm Thomas, by the way.”
“Hello, Thomas,” he answered, extending his hand once more. Harry shook it. “I'm Morgan. And I just got promoted.”
“Congratulations, Morgan,” Harry said uncertainly. Why would he tell Harry that?
“Which means I need a new assistant for the first through eighth floors. You interested?”
So that was why. Harry thought about his job in Muggle London, working in a cramped, greasy spoon café. Then he thought about how much time he would save if he was at the library already when he finished work. Then he thought about his boss, Milo, a man who reminded him unfavourably of Uncle Vernon, and looked at Morgan, who was watching him expressionlessly, waiting for an answer.
“When do I start?”
I deliver my potions to a grateful Poppy and depart from the Hospital Wing hastily. I hope to catch Potter before he is ensconced in Albus's office so that I can menace him personally when I share the news of his first detention. No doubt Minerva will be only too happy to join me in supervising – and lecturing – the pair later this evening.
It so happens that I am in luck. When I turn the corner, I can see that Albus must have been on his way to visit the boy and they plainly crossed paths. I am torn between making my presence known so that I can reprimand Potter in the manner he has earned, and waiting to see what information he has to impart to the Headmaster. As is my wont, my curiosity wins out.
“Harry, your education is of paramount importance. You have always been well aware of this,” Albus says gravely, his tone chiding.
Potter looks irritated. “There is nothing remotely useful that I can learn from carrying on with classes. I need to be trained to fight, and you know it.”
I am startled at the demand. It seems ludicrous, even coming from that spoilt, arrogant brat. Surely he does not expect the Headmaster to excuse him from classes as a result of this accident? But it seems that is exactly what Potter expects.
“There is time enough for you to learn to fight, my boy –” Albus begins, but is interrupted by a frustrated noise.
“There’s not. Killing Voldemort is more important by far than my NEWTs, especially now.”
I suppress a shudder at the name, astonished at the boy's continued gall in speaking it.
Albus shakes his head, almost sadly. “What I shared with you last spring was not intended to influence your attitude to your learning, Harry. I do not understand your urgency. There is still much that needs to be done before you can face Voldemort.”
Potter grimaces “There’s not,” he repeats, his voice taut with impatience. “That’s what I’m trying to say. I mean, I couldn’t do all of them because I didn’t want to take unnecessary risks –”
That does not sound like something Potter would say.
“– but the path has been mostly cleared. All that’s left is Nagini.”
I can make neither head nor tail of what Potter is saying. Nagini is all that’s left of what?
“Harry, it was dangerous for you to undertake such a task yourself. I do not need to inform you of the repercussions, had you been killed,” Albus says, sounding almost angry. I cannot fault him; Potter wants to risk everything to storm ahead. And by the sounds of things, he’s risked it all already.
“It needed to be done, and when better? I was careful, I promise you. I did actually think about it before I went ahead.”
“Harry, there is something yet you must do before –”
“The thing is...”
He trails off, and suddenly he looks much younger again, though still not quite his usual sixteen year old self.
Albus does not continue his sentence and I cannot blame him. Potter looks as though he is at the breaking point, and what Albus wants to tell him would break most. Instead, Albus tilts his head, waiting for Potter to continue.
Potter’s eyes are beseeching and when he next speaks, there is a quiver to his tenor.
“I don't have the sort of time you'd like to get this sorted. I... I'll take my NEWTs before summer if you'd like me to have them, but I won't need them. I'd like to be prepared to face him sooner rather than later because I – the locket – I didn't learn, even after you –”
He breaks off, but the strength of eye contact he shares with Albus convinces me that the Headmaster is performing Legilimency. The boy does not seem to be struggling, meaning he permits it. I wonder what it is he cannot voice aloud. A spiteful part of my mind supposes that he has likely managed to embarrass himself in some way, and that he is trying to regain his pride by confronting the Dark Lord prematurely. This supposition is not supported by Albus's reaction.
“Oh, Harry,” he cries softly. He brings a hand to rest on Potter's arm. “Come to my office. This discussion does not belong in the corridor. And I have a sudden desire for tea.”
Potter smiles without humour and nods. They walk away, leaving me to contemplate what Potter has accomplished now to hurt that old man's heart so keenly.
Draco is slumped in his seat across from me, eyes cast down and a sullen expression pulling at his brow and lips. Neither Potter nor Minerva has arrived yet, and I elect to use this time to impress upon the boy the stupidity of his actions.
I lean forward, stood behind my desk with my hands resting on its surface. In a dark, low, hiss, I begin my lecture. “An Unforgivable, Mister Malfoy?”
His eyes dart up for a moment before continuing their study of the hands folded on his lap.
“He deserved it,” Draco mutters.
“Without question,” I concur. “But that does not make you any less of a fool. You will be expelled for this.”
Draco shrugs. His assumed ambivalence grates.
“Did you imagine that you will simply leave the school and have the Dark Lord greet you with open arms?” Draco flinches. It is clear that his thoughts do run along those lines, and he is irked at being so transparent. “The Dark Lord would not be pleased, had you succeeded, Draco.” My voice has softened, and is all the more dangerous for it. “To be bested by a school boy? To have you do what he famously could not? You would follow Potter in minutes.”
That raises some vehemence in the boy, at last. “He's already given me a task to get someone powerful. He'll be pleased with me.”
I sigh inwardly. Perhaps I should have addressed Draco concerning this matter before now. “And you expect this task to be easier away from Hogwarts, do you?” I ask, allowing Draco a moment to understand the implications before I continue. “You have failed already. You are a fool, and the Dark Lord does not suffer fools well.”
Draco looks aghast. “That's not true!” he cries, but the protest lacks sincerity. He doubts his value to the Dark Lord now.
“Casting an Unforgivable is grounds for Azkaban. You are beyond lucky that you are not yet capable of casting that particular curse successfully, that the damage you inflicted is merely superficial. The Headmaster has not yet intimated to me whether you will be taken to trial. You will undoubtedly be expelled. I warn you against returning to Wiltshire.”
Draco looks to be on the verge of tears, but his plaintive expression is wiped blank the second he hears a knock at my door.
I straighten myself. “Enter,” I say. My door pulls back to reveal Minerva and Potter. The changes to his appearance are still startling.
“Professor Snape,” Minerva says curtly with a nod, which I return. “I assume you have already begun to elucidate the seriousness of this situation for Mister Malfoy’s benefit.”
I incline my head. “Indeed. He has been made aware of his impending expulsion. Potter, should I assume you will be taking this to court?”
Draco cringes. He knows better than to rely on Potter's mercy. And he can no longer rely on his father's reputation to shield him from the worst.
“Uh, I was figuring we could keep it in the school, actually,” Potter says, startling me and Draco both. “I reckon it's best that people think I was the victim of an ageing curse gone wrong, or something.”
I frown, expecting Minerva to reason with him, but it appears she has already been apprised of this plan. “Why?”
Potter raises an eyebrow at me, and a smile toys with the corner of his lip. He looks at me as though he believes the answer to be obvious. “I don’t want anyone to know about this. If Malfoy gets dragged into court, it’ll be impossible to keep the reason for it quiet.”
Understanding flashes through me, and he smiles as though he knows it.
“I don’t want anyone knowing that Malfoy managed to get a curse in on me.”
Draco looks smug, clearly ungrateful for his reprieve. Just as Potter wanted, I have no doubt; Draco will not question Potter’s clemency.
And I cannot contest his logic. Potter’s survival of a second Killing Curse is an anomaly, even one cast by an unqualified school boy; it is inadvisable for Potter to allow this incident to be widely publicised. However, I doubt he is aware of the full repercussions of his decision and it is better he knows now than figures it out later and reacts recklessly. “Mister Malfoy cannot be expelled on the grounds of a poorly cast ageing curse,” I warn him. I am surprised to see him nodding, expression dark.
“No. But he won't be the first student to get away with attempted murder at this school. Or worse.” I am not sure whether he is alluding to Black or not. He gives nothing away with his expression. His face could have been carved from marble. “It might be best if we keep an eye on him, though,” he adds.
Draco’s ego is rapidly deflated at this insinuation that he is a child to be watched, and a sulk settles over him.
I was certain that Potter would use this to land his rival in that Dementor-swarmed prison, and cannot credit his handling of this matter. It is almost adult, and transcends the pettiness and childishness I have been led to expect from him. He has taken the time to consider the larger picture.
A moment later, it occurs to me that likely Albus convinced him to take this course.
“Very well. Both of you will, however, need to be punished.”
Minerva finally becomes active in the conversation as we decide on an appropriate means of punishment that will not too openly implicate the severity of the crime. I barely repress a cruel smirk. Oh, I'm sure that we'll think of something.
Albus's eyes are bereft of their customary twinkle, and as damnably irritating as it tends to be, I miss it now. Whatever the root of this meeting – and I find myself at a loss to explain it – it can only be bad news. Albus's dull eyes and grave face would be cause enough for concern, but there was no offer of sherbet lemons upon my entering his office. As ridiculous as it seems, that alone suggests that this matter is serious.
I shuffle my chair closer to his desk and lean forward, closing the gap between us. It is enough to prompt him into speech.
“The matter of my hand, Severus,” he begins, and I close my eyes for a moment to gather my strength for this conversation.
“You have already forced my agreement in this,” I whisper harshly. My breath catches in my throat as a thought occurs to me. “Has the incident with Draco altered circumstances?” My inflating hope is punctured with his soft sigh.
“Draco's wavering does not affect the Vow, Severus. Let my leaving offer you some protection, some manner of rank amongst those peers, and let it not bring about the destruction of another young boy caught up in things he cannot yet comprehend. No, if the time comes, I must hold you to that promise, my boy,” he says, voice firm.
I press my lips in a thin line, and nod. It was a whimsical notion, and I was a fool to entertain it. I dread the day I must raise my wand to him. “Then what is the purpose of this meeting?” I demand.
“Do you believe that, given more time, you would have been able to prevent the inevitable course of this curse?” he asks seriously, lifting his hand for illustration. I cannot fathom his reason for asking.
I shake my head. “I doubt it. More so that my hand won't be forced before then by some rash action on Draco's part. He fears the Dark Lord will find out about his attack on Potter, and believes that completing his task will stem the Dark Lord's wrath.”
Albus is nodding, but he dismisses my worry. “I am asking whether you believe it is possible to live through this curse, not whether I will die at your wand.”
The statement hits my gut with iron-force. I ignore the rapid beating of my heart as he reminds me that his death will be my responsibility, and instead consider his question. “I have not given up my research yet,” I admit slowly, unsurprised that he acknowledges this as though prescient of it. “It may be possible to counter the curse, if I had this summer. I am close, but not close enough. Draco will undoubtedly make his move before then.”
“Undoubtedly,” he agrees, but my news seems to have cheered him somewhat. He strokes his beard thoughtfully and considers me over his glasses. His eyes have a burgeoning twinkle, and I wonder that I ever missed that expression. “Severus, I am about to ask you for an unusual favour.”
My hands clench around the arms of the chair and my nostrils flare. “Have you not asked enough of me already?” I say, knowing regardless that I will agree to whatever he asks.
Albus stops stroking his beard. “I have asked more than enough of you, my boy, and I regret the weight I have burdened you with. But I must ask you to continue your research.”
I snort. “Is that all? I have no intention of stopping the search for a cure up until the moment you take your last breath.”
He smiles then, as though warmed by my loyalty. “And I am grateful for it. However, it is my wish that you continue even after that moment. Irrespective of what happens to me, you must not forsake this research.”
I do not bother to question him. Likely, he means to have it available should anyone else fall foul of a Horcrux on this hunt. I nod. “Very well.” I am relieved that he asks no worse of me.
“Excellent!” he says with a very real smile. “Now, would you care for a sherbet lemon, my boy?”
I shake my head. I wonder if one day I'll regret always refusing those infernal sweets. Perhaps tomorrow I'll accept.
Chapter 2: Part Two
Warnings for this chapter include obscene language.
Harry found something. It was nothing that would return him to his place in the future, but it was something significant nevertheless. He carefully replaced the book, heart thudding in his chest. He strode unsteadily to Morgan’s office and knocked on the door.
“Come in,” Morgan’s disembodied voice bade him.
Harry eased the door open and waited with barely contained impatience until he had Morgan’s attention.
“Tom!” Morgan cried out in surprise. “What brings you here?”
Harry couldn’t blame Morgan for his reaction, as Harry hadn’t once sought him out in the entire year he had worked for him. “I’m sorry to ask this of you, but I’m not feeling well. Is it possible to cut my shift short today? I’m really not feeling great.”
Morgan swept his gaze over Harry, eyes narrowed. “You haven’t asked for time off yet, so I’d have to be something of an ogre to refuse,” he said. “You understand that you would leave me understaffed?”
“I’m sorry, sir,” Harry said with a cringe. He opened his mouth to retract his request, but Morgan waved his unspoken words away with a hand.
“Tom, it’s fine. Friday is not a peak day for our services, as you well know. And any customers who did drag themselves in at the start of the weekend would no doubt be frightened away at the sight of our pale, shaking librarian.”
“Sir?” Harry prompted.
“Go, Tom, and get some rest. You’ve more than earned it.”
Harry flashed him a tired smile. “Thank you.”
As he left the building, his mind raced. If what he suspected was true – but first, he’d need to figure out a way to get in. If Grimmauld Place was as impregnable now as it was in his own time, he didn’t stand a chance. He wondered how the Fidelius Charm worked, whether his being told over a decade in the future would prevent him from seeing the house now.
He wouldn’t know until he tried.
He was so distracted by his thoughts, he didn’t notice when the normal sounds of bustling crowds faded to jeers. He did notice when he was shoved to the side as someone pushed past him. Looking around, he saw that a circle had formed around some sort of spectacle. Frowning, he walked on, and was almost out of earshot when he heard a familiar name.
“Snape,” spat a cold voice, and Harry turned to the sound. “I don’t know how you dare show your face on streets meant for decent folk.”
The owner of the voice, a tall man with broad shoulders, had his wand pointing threateningly at Snape. Snape’s wand was clutched in the man’s other fist.
Harry’s eyes narrowed. The scene was terribly reminiscent of another circle in which Snape had once stood, unable to defend himself. He was fairly sure that this attack too must have been unwarranted for the man to have bested Snape. Harry felt the same burning shame he always associated with that memory of his father.
Snape, as unpleasant-looking as ever even without the permanent frown etched between his brows, stood with his hands fisted and mouth pulled into a sneer.
“I have as much a right to walk these streets as you do, Higson,” Snape said dangerously, belying his vulnerability.
The tall man, Higson, barked out a laugh. He shot a Stinging Hex at Snape, the volume of his laughter increasing when Snape was forced to dodge rather than defend.
Harry felt the blood in his veins heating.
“You have a right to Azkaban, Snape, and nothing else. We’ve all seen that pathetic tattoo of his that you wear.”
Snape’s right hand automatically came up to clutch at where the Dark Mark would be, even as his expression twisted in denial. Before he could utter a syllable in his own defence, the flash of a spell struck him from behind and he grunted and stumbled forward a step.
“How does it feel, to be without your wand and surrounded by enemies? Maybe you’re starting to regret what you’ve done to helpless Muggles and children, Death Eater.”
Snape’s face was white, his lips pressed in a thin line as though to hold back a retort. Doubtless he didn’t want to antagonise his aggressors when he couldn’t fight back.
Well, Harry was not thus constrained. He pushed his way forward until he could face the tall man, and spoke to him directly.
“I’m sorry, but are you privy to some special knowledge that Albus Dumbledore is not?” he said, his tone level and almost purely inquiring.
“Who are you?” Higson demanded.
“Someone who has not forgotten who it was that vouched for Snape during his trial. If you have access to information that Dumbledore doesn’t, you should take it to the Wizengamot. If not, then I suggest you keep your unfounded accusations to yourself.”
Higson raised his wand threateningly, but before he could fire off a spell, Harry caught his left hand with a Stinging Hex and Summoned Snape’s wand.
Harry ducked, feeling the heat of a hex graze his shoulder. Heart hammering, having been in the company of nothing more violent that books for so long, his wand raced ahead of his mind.
He shot a fountain of water from his wand. While Higson was blinking droplets out of his eyes, Harry disarmed him.
Nobody protested when Harry handed Snape his wand back, though Higson did growl and there was a disbelieving mutter amongst the crowd.
Harry walked away without another word, very aware of the many eyes on him. He tossed the unfamiliar wand over his shoulder, hearing a harsh voice Summon it before it could hit the ground. He didn’t stop walking, even when a hand caught his elbow.
“Hey!” a familiar voice called to him as he walked on. “Explain yourself!”
Harry glanced behind him, seeing Snape scowling less than two feet away, long legs having eaten up the distance between them. He sighed and stopped. If Snape was as tenacious now as he would be in the future, then Harry might as well answer his questions rather than allow him to dog his steps. It would only complicate matters, anyway, if he wanted to access Sirius’s house and Snape were to follow him there.
“Let’s go to the Leaky Cauldron,” Harry suggested. “I could use a drink and a sit down.”
He didn’t wait for a response, which was just as well, because Snape didn’t give one. He could feel Snape’s presence at his side, a dark flash in the corner of his eye every few steps, but he didn’t turn to look at him.
This would not be an easy conversation; that much Harry knew.
This is the second week of classes from which Potter has been absent. Not two days after his release from the Hospital Wing, he stopped coming, and he hasn't been back since. It has gone unremarked long enough, and I decide to wait in the staffroom until Minerva is free, and raise the issue with her.
As I wait, I pore over another Dark Arts book. I am barely seen without one these days in my fervour to keep my word to Albus. It is fortunate that I am the Defence teacher here, or my choice in literature would be even more questionable.
I have not come across any useful inferences before Minerva comes in. I mark my page carefully and call her name to draw her attention. She sits in the wing-backed chair facing mine and nods at me to continue.
“Potter has not attended classes recently. Are you aware of this?”
Minerva laughs and I find myself feeling somewhat bewildered.
“Am I aware? Yes, Severus. Did you not get the memo I sent round a fortnight ago?”
I scowl. Though I refuse to admit it, I tend to ignore staff memos. More often than not they are drivel. I should have checked the originator of the last one I blasted, but I was working on a potion and was impatient at being disturbed.
“I did not. Is he back with Poppy?” I am fairly certain that Potter's absence is caused by a relapse. He could not simply bounce back from a spell that wiped years of his life away.
Minerva shakes her head and purses her lips. “No, he is studying independently. He intends to sit his NEWTs with the seventh years, and somehow procured Albus's backing.” The tone of her voice tells me that she does not approve. I am not surprised; had it been one of my Slytherins proposing such a ridiculously out of reach ambition, I would be appalled.
“Why on Earth would Albus agree to this? There is no way Potter will pass,” I say, unable to control the scathing in my tone.
Thankfully, Minerva does not take offence. “I voiced the same objection myself, but apparently Harry has proven his ability satisfactorily to Albus.” Her gaze leaves mine to examine the room before – assured that we are alone – she leans forward and continues. “I fear Albus is allowing Harry to leave school so that he can focus more on the war effort.”
I snort. “Obviously. What concerns me is that the boy is clearly not ready.”
“How could anyone be ready at his age?” Minerva asks sadly. “I don't understand how Albus can begin preparing him to fight now. Harry is only sixteen.”
“Not that you'd notice,” I comment. “His manner is as altered as his appearance; I suppose that’s caught your attention?”
She nods. “I couldn't fail to when my lecture on fighting with his rival was reversed into him explaining to me how we could minimise the damage. Normally he wouldn't be able to stop himself from blaming young Mister Malfoy for his actions. Harry is not known for keeping his temper.” She smiles fondly and I return a scowl. She does not see his wrath the way I do, as the tantrums of a boy accustomed to getting his own way. She sees them as harmless rather than a prelude to rash, dangerous and selfish actions.
“Perhaps,” I wonder, “Draco's spell took more than just the semblance of youth.”
I am back from another gathering at Malfoy Manor. My hands are clenched so tightly at my sides that I wonder whether I will be able to unfurl them. I tear my mask away and begin the march up to the castle. Little happened that Albus needs to be informed of urgently, and I contemplate allowing myself a chance to relax before making my report. The Headmaster could not begrudge me that.
There is a room on the seventh floor I have discovered that is ideal. I pace thrice by the familiar stretch of blank wall until a door appears. I wrench it open and stand shocked in the doorway. My sanctuary is sheltering two others tonight.
Albus is sprawled on the floor with Potter stood over him, hand outstretched to help him stand. Albus accepts with his good hand and an air of geniality. “Good shot, my boy,” he says. “You may be ready sooner than I had hoped.”
Potter snorts derisively. “Please. I'm not near close to being ready.”
Albus chuckles good-naturedly. “You say with my wand in your hand.”
Thrusting the wand back to Albus, Potter continues his protest. “Fluke. We need to go another round.”
Albus is shaking his head before Potter gets the sentence out. “I am tired now, Harry. You have stretched me too far tonight. We will have to wait until my strength is recovered before we try again. I have an appointment I must be getting to, regardless.”
It is now that I realise that they are unaware of my presence, and should I wish it to remain that way, it would be in my best interests to leave immediately. As I back slowly out of the door, I hear Albus chide Potter.
“You shouldn't push yourself so hard, Harry.”
The door disappears before the end of Potter's outraged tirade. I hurry to Albus's office.
As I wait in my customary seat, a cup of tea warming my hands, my mind whirls with what I witnessed. There is much to think about, but before I have a chance to even absorb the scene fully, the sound of stone grinding announces Albus's return, and I push my thoughts to the back of my mind, buried far beneath my defences.
I nod tightly when Albus enters the room, allowing him to sit before launching into my report as though nothing has occurred between my leaving the Dark Lord's side and arriving in this office.
“If you would only tell me what you are planning, it may be in my power to help you,” I insist, teeth gritted.
Draco scowls and still refuses to answer. I am forcibly reminded of a child repeatedly and energetically denying having eaten a chocolate cake despite the frosting coating its face. The boy knows that I am already aware of the nature of his mission, and yet he refuses to acknowledge this in favour of a stubborn façade of ignorance.
“Draco, your target will not be easy to isolate. It would behove you to accept the advice of someone who knows him well.” I am ready to give up. I know that Draco will not be persuaded to share his latest plan with me, and his Occlumency shields are such that I have no chance of hunting the information out for myself without alerting him of my presence. Damn that mad aunt of his for preparing him to shield his mind only from those who do not wish to harm it. I could slice through these shields in an instant were it not the case that I prefer his mind intact.
Draco’s arms are folded stubbornly over his chest. “You just want to steal my glory. It has to be me, you know that. If it’s not, he’ll... Mother and Father... It has to be me.”
I wish I could counter what Draco is saying, but he is right. The Dark Lord has taken up residence at their home, and has all too open access to Draco’s family. Should he fail, someone will be made an example of.
I am not convinced, however, that it would be Lucius or Narcissa. Not that there is any comfort for Draco in that.
The Leaky Cauldron was busy, but that suited Harry just fine. He didn’t want to risk being overheard, or drawing any more attention to himself. It was bad enough that he had managed to earn Snape’s focus, which was as scrutinising as ever; the man had not lifted his eyes from Harry’s face in their entire walk here.
“What are you having?” Harry asked, gesturing to the bar. He could just about get served alcohol now, though not in many places. Tom had never hassled him for proof of age.
“I want answers,” Snape said tersely. “Nothing more.”
Harry shrugged. “’S’up to you. I’m having something, though. So if you want to get us a table, and I’ll be over in a minute.” He raised an arm to Tom to indicate he was waiting.
Snape sighed. “Get me a Firewhisky.”
And with that demand, he was gone. Harry held back a smile at the behaviour; Snape acted as though he fully expected Harry to obey him, despite the manner in which they had met. Of course, Harry mused, it wasn’t as though he was wrong there. Harry had every intention of getting Snape his drink.
It took a full minute of scanning the crowd to find Snape, plastered against the wall like a shadow, arms folded over his chest, and eyebrows raised condescendingly.
Harry made his way over, lifting the drinks up to avoid the jostling of the crowd. He smiled when he saw that Snape had managed to save him a stool (albeit one that looked slightly worse for wear when compared with the one Snape had procured for himself). He thrust the tumbler of Firewhisky into ungrateful hands and plonked himself down.
“Thanks!” Harry said with a smile. “Considering how packed it is, I was worried we’d have to share a seat.”
Snape glared at him, downing his whisky without shifting his gaze, and Levitating the glass back over to the bar. “Who are you?” he demanded in a low hiss.
“No one you know,” Harry replied airily, enjoying the sensation of not being required to answer to Snape.
Snape’s lips tugged into a sneer. “Truly not?” He looked ready to spit nails. “And yet you know so much about me.”
“Not that much,” Harry said carefully. “Nothing that wasn’t made public after your trial.”
Shaking his head, Snape brought up a hand to lean white-knuckled against the wall and shifted closer. “But,” he whispered dangerously, “you seem to have put your own spin onto matters.”
Harry shrugged, affecting nonchalance; he didn’t do it well. “I read between the lines a little. It takes a very stupid man to underestimate Albus Dumbledore. I flatter myself that I’m not quite that stupid.”
Snape eyed him suspiciously for a long moment, and Harry chugged down his drink to give himself something to focus on apart from his own discomfort. When the glass was empty, he rested it on his lap, watching as his hands rolled it repeatedly back and forth.
The sound of Snape’s voice brought his head up instantly. “Your faith is in Dumbledore?” he asked. He sounded uncharacteristically uncertain, his head bowed so that his hair hid his face.
Realisation slammed into Harry with all the gentleness of a freight train: Snape, this Snape, was barely older than he was, and had suffered. A lot of time separated Harry from the spiteful man who criticised and ridiculed him in the class that had once been his favourite. Enough time that Harry wanted to remove the uncertainty in Snape’s manner that had been put there by a lifetime of exclusion and shunning. When he answered, it was with this in mind.
Harry would not absolve Snape of all sin. He doubted it would mean anything to Snape if he did. But he could offer Snape something other than forgiveness: acceptance. “You do not deserve the way that man was treating you. He... He had no right to victimise you when you had done nothing to him. I don’t need to have faith in you to want to intervene. That said,” Harry added, seeing the way Snape’s face fell automatically into a disappointed frown, “I do have some measure of faith in you. I suppose I must, to assume you hadn’t brought that on yourself.”
Harry felt disproportionately pleased when Snape’s expression cleared, his frown transforming from one of displeasure to one marking thought.
“You are a fool to have that measure of trust in a stranger,” Snape said. “You know nothing about me, and yet you choose to imagine the best of me.”
Harry shook his head, smiling. “Oh, don’t get me wrong, Snape. I’ve no doubt you’re a bastard. I just don’t think you’re a Death Eater. Takes a lot to accuse a man of that, if you ask me.” Harry had been accused of a number of hideous unfounded crimes in his lifetime. It was just now occurring to him that the same might be true of Snape.
Harry felt he had said enough. He needed to leave so that he could investigate Grimmauld Place before it was dark. That old mausoleum was creepy enough in broad daylight. Even beams of sunlight falling through the dust-coated windows appeared sinister in the Noble and Most Ancient House of Black.
He stood, placing his glass on the sideboard and offering Snape a grim smile.
“I have to go now. I was actually in a bit of a rush before bumping into you,” Harry said.
“You were in a rush, and you still chose to stop.” Snape was scowling, but it appeared to be born of confusion rather than anger, for once.
Harry couldn’t blame him. He had trouble explaining it to himself; when had he stopped thinking of Snape as the enemy?
Snape was still waiting for an answer. “You chose to stop, and for what? To help a Death Eater.”
There was something in the way Snape said Death Eater that gave Harry pause.
“Severus is now no more a Death Eater than I am.”
Looking at this man – at this barely-more-than-a-boy – Harry could finally believe it.
“I stopped to help you,” Harry said pointedly. “I had time for that.”
Snape shook his head. “Why do I recognise you? I know I'd remember someone so irritating had I come across them before.”
Harry's heart started thudding like an elephant falling down a flight of stairs. His disguise was Muggle; bleached hair, coloured contacts, and prosthetic skin over his scar. There was no way Snape could detect it with magic. But Snape hadn't been raised just by wizards, so it was possible he could see through what Harry was rapidly realising was a pathetically flimsy disguise.
“I’ve no idea why you recognise me,” Harry answered, hoping the quiver in his voice wouldn’t give him away. “I can honestly say that I don’t get out much –”
“You work at the National Library of Magical Reference!” Severus said, his words accompanied by the enthusiastic whoosh! of realisation.
Harry nodded, the tension is his body leaving it so swiftly that he almost slumped to the floor. “Right. Well, it was nice seeing you –”
“I’m sure that you are lying, but nevertheless it was nice, as you say, for me to see you. I have no doubt that lacking your presence, my day would have been much worse. I will not forget what I owe you.”
Harry knew better than to argue with Snape over debts. The man was the epitome of Slytherin, and the thought of someone having something over him was likely repellent. He wouldn’t believe Harry if he said that he expected nothing in return.
“Fair enough. I’ll see you around, then.” And finally, finally, he managed to draw away, attempting to reach the door at a sedate pace while his mind was screaming for him to run from Snape’s penetrating gaze. It wouldn’t do to arouse suspicion, though. Not now. Not when Harry had a Horcrux to destroy.
Harry had travelled back in time once before – and then only for three hours – but it had been impressed upon him quite stringently that he mustn’t alter the future, no matter how much he might desire it. Even the slightest difference could have unforeseen results.
Breaking into Sirius’s house to steal a potential Horcrux would alter the future, and Harry was pretty sure that it would make some sort of paradox. If he took the locket now, then it would not still be there in Grimmauld Place for Harry to see when decontaminating the house; if Harry had not seen the locket, he would not have recognised it when he saw it in Remnants of the Past; and had Harry not recognised the locket in Remnants of the Past, he would not be sitting here debating what to do about it.
Harry had already reached his conclusion, but it was not a good one, and he rather hoped something better might occur to him if he thought hard enough.
He would have to break into number twelve, Grimmauld Place and steal Slytherin’s locket, then destroy the Horcrux it contained, and then break in again to return either the locket itself (if it survived undamaged – Harry remembered the Gaunt ring with its cracked stone) or an exact replica. Given that Mrs Black was not yet dead, and Kreacher was not yet mad enough to not notice anything not stamped with the Black crest, Harry would need to wait for them both to leave the house at the same time.
Right, thought Harry. This should be no problem at all.
I see the disturbance at the Gryffindor table before Minerva does. As much as I would like to investigate personally and have the chance to take points, I know that she will notice before I have the chance to deprive the miscreants of their chance at the House Cup. So instead, I resolve to inform Minerva, and allow her to proceed however she chooses, much as her choice will likely irk me.
“There is unrest amongst your sixth years,” I say, turning to focus on Minerva. “I’m sure you’ll be surprised to hear it, but it centres around Potter.”
Minerva narrows her eyes at me before turning to look at her House table. The sigh that leaves her is heavy enough to sink ships. “That boy... When will he ever get through a week without getting into bother?” she says. The question isn’t directed at me and, though I am sorely tempted to speak, I refrain from answering.
I watch as Minerva rises from her seat, her face sculpted into stern disappointment by the time she reaches Potter and his cohorts.
Weasley is angry. He is gesticulating wildly as he attempts to explain himself to Minerva, who is thin-lipped and deadly still.
Beside him, Potter does not lift his gaze, only shrugging when Weasley directs something to him. I can see that the man-child is discomfited by the situation he finds himself in, fists clenched and resting on the table, shoulders tensed. He looks ready for battle.
Minerva is talking to Potter now. She is unimpressed. Whatever Weasley told her, she does not approve.
Potter attempts to defend himself, his face reddening as he is interrupted again and again.
Minerva does not back down.
This is like watching statues face off, for all that they are both immovably convinced they are right.
Ah, but Minerva has the authority, and the inevitable conclusion can be seen now, as Potter nods stiffly, glaring. He says something more, something that raises Minerva’s ire enough so that I can see an aborted gesture to cross her arms over her chest, and then he stands.
He does not storm from the room, as I might expect after losing a fight so spectacularly, nor does he run. He strides, as though he has simply remembered that he has somewhere more important to be.
As Minerva makes her way back to her seat, still fuming so visibly I wonder if she will be able to reheat her abandoned meal with the force of her anger alone, I narrow my gaze and peer around the Hall.
Surely someone else has noticed the unnatural stiffness of Potter’s gait?
I catch Albus’s eye, and he nods marginally.
Ah. He noticed. Of course he did.
The next time I see Minerva is at breakfast. She has had time enough now to cool off, and so I unleash my curiosity enough to probe.
“The issue with Potter, yesterday?” I say leadingly.
Her nostrils flare; she almost whinnies in irritation.
“Potter, for reasons I can’t even begin to grasp, has decided that, with just one match left, he would like to desert the Quidditch team.”
I am surprised. I know the boy was changed enough by Malfoy’s spell that now he sees little beyond the war, but I never imagined him dropping himself from the Quidditch team. I control my expression, but cannot help but ask more.
“Did he give a reason?”
Minerva shakes her head. “He gave something that might be a reason if it made any sense. Apparently, he is too old to be playing Quidditch with the other students. He believes it would be unfair.”
I snort, almost choking myself on a chunk of sausage.
“He really considers himself older than the other students?”
Minerva glares at me. “He is older than the other students, in body. That much is obvious. In mind... Well, in many ways Harry has always been older than the other students. There is no reason to take him off the team now. I told him that as long as he is enrolled at Hogwarts, he can play on the Quidditch team, and that if he is to leave this summer, I will not have him miss his last chance.”
“You believe that he will leave this summer?” I say incredulously. He will be back in autumn, no doubt humiliated by the shame of demanding to sit his NEWTs and failing appallingly. Or, I suppose, he will be dead. That is always a possibility in his life.
Minerva makes a frustrated noise. “There is no way he will pass these exams. It is possible that he will not be coming back, regardless. I do not know Albus’s plans for Potter. I’m not sure I’d want to if he offered. More importantly, Potter believes this to be his last term. He has been convinced to play one last match before he has to face the world at large. He is not happy about it.”
“I don’t doubt it,” I say, and Minerva follows my gaze to Potter, who has just arrived looking sleep-ruffled. His entire face is pulled down into a frown that looks unnatural on someone so young.
But then, as Minerva observed, Potter is not so young. Certainly not anymore.
The stands are packed. The last match of the year tends to attract the attention of every student, without exception. I marvel at the fact that Potter apparently decided he didn’t want to be the focus of such attention.
I am stood near the pitch, close enough for the practice lap of the Ravenclaw Seeker to toss my hair about my face. I can see Potter leaning against the door of the stands with his arms folded over his chest. His head is dropped back, eyes closed. He looks bored, one finger tapping impatiently where it rests on his arm.
Rolanda Hooch is on the pitch, and she beckons Potter and Bradley to her. Bradley lands and marches over, broom flung confidently over his shoulder. Potter listlessly makes his way across the pitch, broom held barely aloft. They shake hands.
The balls are released. With a sharp blow of her whistle, Hooch throws the Quaffle and the game begins.
Potter instantly plasters himself flat to his broom, and shoots through the air as though loosed from a cannon. He attains more height in a matter of seconds than the other players combined. The spectators barely have time to draw in a breath to gasp when he stops, fist held up in victory.
He has caught the Snitch. The game has been in play less than a minute, and it is already over. Some of the players are scarcely airborne.
As the others mill about aimlessly, still in shock over the short-lived nature of their final match, Potter dives. He falls to the earth with all the speed gravity can provide him, finally pulling out at the last second, literally feet from ending his life as a smear across the pitch. He hops from the broom ungracefully, giving the Snitch to a startled Rolanda.
Then he simply leaves, walking unevenly towards the changing room. I notice his hand drop to his thigh, clutching white-knuckled, as he disappears. Even injured, he has proven more successful than has been seen in recent Hogwarts history.
Perhaps he was right after all. Against him, the other players didn’t stand a chance.
“Fuck. Wanking, shitting, buggering FUCK!”
The notice attached to Harry’s door informed him that his landlord was taking an indefinite trip, and as such his lease was up. With all the extra hours he’d signed up for at work, Harry had no idea when in the next week he might look for somewhere new to live. Especially considering that normal avenues were closed to him, as they led to legitimate landlords who would require legitimate identification from him.
He didn’t have time to deal with that now. He needed to stash his research, renew the Disillusionment Charm on the trunk where Slytherin’s locket was hidden, shower, find and don a clean uniform, and then head back to the library to start a ten-hour shift.
Fifteen minutes later, he was dressed in navy robes and striding through the atrium of the library, damp hair temporarily under control. He signed himself in, only five minutes late, and immediately took up his station at the front desk.
He spent most of the day seeing to the upkeep of the library’s eccentric shelving system, mentally taking note of any book that might prove useful in either of his current projects. It was near closing time before he was approached by a customer.
“Why is this building filled with naught but fools!” someone said pointedly.
Harry sighed and slid Ruinous Runes: How Misreading the Signs can Spell Disaster home before turning to face the elderly man with a smile pasted on.
“Can I help you, sir?” he asked politely, making his way over.
The man scowled, giving his heavy brow the impression of having collapsed. “Yes, you can help me, you impertinent young man: I want to check out this book, but the damned spell isn’t working.”
Harry led the man over to the reception desk. “May I just take your wand for a moment, sir?”
The man grumbled, but did as he was asked. Not without shooting Harry a mutinous glare, though.
Harry calmly cast a charm at the wand’s tip, bringing up patron details like a disturbed Penseive projects memories. “Ah, here’s the problem, Mister Johnston,” Harry said. “You have an outstanding fine, and until you have paid it you won’t be able to borrow any more books.”
“Rot and poppycock! I’ve never been a minute late for anything in my life,” Mister Johnston said, outraged. “I’ll be taking your name to the manager over this.”
Undaunted by the threat, Harry threaded the wand through the scanner once more, only to be told the same information. “I’m sorry, Mister Johnston, but it is clear that you brought back a copy of The Seduction of Serenity Singletoad three days late. At eleven Knuts a day, that makes your fee one Sickle and three Knuts.”
“I can do the maths, boy, I’m not senile. But you must be, to think I’d read a book like that.” Mister Johnston was blushing a fierce red, a fact he apparently had decided not to acknowledge. “That there’s the title of a women’s book. I wouldn’t be caught dead reading the work of Millicent Boon.”
“And yet you know which books she’s authored,” Harry said wryly. “Either you did indeed read the delightful trappings of Miss Boon’s latest, or someone else has stolen your wand in order to borrow a romance novel from the library. Whichever is the case, your account has been frozen until the fine is paid. If you wish, you may contact the Aurors and have them investigate the temporary usurpation of your wand; I daresay they could track down your thief and force them to pay the amount for you –”
“All right, you cheeky young thing, I’ll pay your damned fine. But I’ll hear no more about this, you understand.” He fished deeply in his pockets, extracting a handful of coins, a great deal of fluff, and something sticky Harry would rather not contemplate.
Harry accepted the four coins proffered with a smile. “Certainly, Mister Johnston. Now, shall we get Romance on the Riverside checked out for you?”
With Mister Johnston on his way, cheeks flaming and book buried within the folds of his robes, Harry turned to the clock and let loose a great sigh.
“Excuse me? I require some assistance,” Harry heard behind him.
“I’m actually off-duty now, but I’d be happy to – oh!”
“Thomas,” said Snape. “My enquiry is actually unrelated to books.”
“It is?” Harry said cautiously, wondering how Snape had discovered his assumed name. And then remembering the name embroidered on his lapel.
Snape nodded. “I am at risk of losing my apartment because I cannot secure a tenant willing to live there during the three quarters of the year when I board at work.”
Harry frowned. “Why would you still need it?”
“It is advisable for me to have somewhere to spend my summers, and it is difficult for me to reacquire lodgings due to my... history.” Snape’s face was a stony mask, but Harry saw his left arm twitch.
“Right,” Harry said uncertainly.
“Oh, for heaven’s sake! I know that you are about to be made homeless, and as you are one of the few people willing to take Albus Dumbledore at his word, it occurred to me that you might be interested in renting my flat. We can make arrangements for next summer, but I will be out in two days when term starts.”
Harry started. “How did you know about my lease?” he demanded, hand automatically going to his wand.
“Lethario’s decision to move abroad was not as abrupt as he would like many to think. I am familiar with the circles he moves in, and there has been word for some months now that his debt would drive him out of the country. Of course, he has given you as short a notice as possible so as to secure the maximum amount of rent from you, thus I can only conclude that you found out some time yesterday.”
“Today actually, but then I was out last night,” Harry said. He took a few moments to process what he had heard. “So you want me to move into your place?”
“It seems convenient for both of us. Of course, I expect you’d like to view it before making any concrete decisions –”
“Nah,” Harry interrupted. “I don’t reckon I’ll get a better offer in the next week. You’re on.”
He stretched his hand out; when Snape took it, Harry felt a jolt of surprise, even though Snape had no way of knowing whose son he was.
“Very well,” Snape said briskly, releasing his firm grip. “Your shift is over, is it not?”
“Then would you care to join me for a drink while we determine the details?"
I fly up the spiral staircase to Albus’s office, manoeuvring the turns with more grace than I could have managed on a broom. He needs to be warned: it will be tonight. Whatever damnable plan Draco has been hatching will hatch tonight.
When I burst through the door, panting, I see the room is empty. One of Albus’s silver trinkets works maniacally. My heart leaps to my throat, thrumming apace with its panicked whistle and high pitched whirring.
Albus will die tonight; of this, I have no doubt. Draco will likely fail to kill him, but my hand will be forced. I can feel the Vow weighing on me like a shroud, thick and heavy with the scent of the grave. God help me, I will kill Albus tonight.
But first I must find him. At supper, I saw his eyes catch Potter’s again, for a moment holding the gaze and nodding once. They are surely together.
I remember the room I go to after meetings, where the castle caters to my sour mood, and where I caught them duelling. It’s the only lead I have, and with the conviction of desperation behind me, I am now certain I will find Albus there.
If Apparition were possible, I would be there now, but I lose minutes navigating stairwells, pelting down corridors. Doors crash open with a jerk of my wand before I can slam into them. I look mad, and for a wild moment I consider how much more terrified the first years would be of me if they were to see me now, tearing through the air, hands reaching, face twisted, my maligned mane swept back by the speed. The corridors are empty.
I reach the eighth floor and hear two familiar voices below me. I was right. Albus is here.
As is Draco. There is no chance now, no time when I could intervene. It is set in stone.
I will kill Albus tonight.
Albus speaks soothingly, which only riles Draco further. The last thing you want from your victim is understanding.
Potter is not here.
“... the Vanishing Cabinets. I fixed them up, put one in Hogwarts: the Death Eaters will be able to step right through.”
So that’s his plan. I cannot help but be impressed; Draco is nothing if not creative, and this possibility did not even enter my thoughts. Would it have been worth the risk of infiltrating his mind?
“Ah, very clever, my boy. Very clever indeed. Had you intended to kill me before they arrived, or were you hoping to make a performance out of it?”
From anyone but Albus, that would sound sarcastic, harsh, incendiary. He sounds merely curious.
“Shut up! Shut up, I have your wand. I could kill you any time I want. Any time.” Draco is panicking.
“I have no doubt that you could. In fact, you have been in such a position for several minutes now. You have yet to act. Draco, are you sure you want to tread this path?”
I won’t intervene. Draco is wavering. If left to his own devices, perhaps he will lower his wand, walk away. And the Vow, that damnable Vow, can be ignored just a while longer. My hand needn’t be forced tonight. Albus needn’t die.
“You don’t understand,” Draco says. Coming from any other teenager, it would set my teeth on edge, but Draco has cause for feeling this way. “He’ll kill my family. I have to do this. My mother... He has my mother, and he’ll kill them if I don’t succeed. I have to do this.”
“But if your family were protected? It is within my power to protect you, Draco. You have a choice. It is our choices that determine who we truly are, Draco. Please, choose carefully.”
Nothing. Draco doesn’t speak. I can’t hear robes shifting. I can’t hear my own breathing. I am half certain that my pulse must have stopped because the silence is complete.
And then it is shattered.
A stream of heavy footsteps, a flood of loud voices. I descend the last flight of stairs and see black robes and white masks pouring out of the one door on this corridor. And that quickly, that simply, the matter has been determined.
I will kill Albus tonight.
“Fenrir, I cannot say I am pleased to see you at all. Quite the reverse, in fact.” There is chiding in Albus’s tone and Draco cringes. Even now, with his wand raised to him and the Killing Curse on his lips, he cannot stand to be chastised by the Headmaster.
“No? What a shame, Dumbledore, because I’m ecstatic to see you tonight. Well, Malfoy, what are you waiting for?” Fenrir says, filthy lips smacking as he talks. I cannot help but be horrified to find him in a school. What the hell was Draco thinking?
What the hell is Draco thinking? He hasn’t made a move to respond to Fenrir or to cast the curse. He has been struck dumb, but if he does not act soon he will suffer for it.
I stride down the corridor, distracting the Death Eaters from the awkward moment stretching between Fenrir’s question and Draco’s answer. My wand is in my hand.
Albus looks at me. There is still a twinkle in those blue eyes when they meet mine. Even now, even facing this, his next grand adventure, he is pleased to see me. I don’t want to do this.
I will kill Albus tonight.
I have wondered whether I would be able to mean it. Whether it is in me to lift my wand to Albus, cast the Killing Curse, and will him dead.
I mean it.
Green envelops him. He is rocked backwards by the blast, falling in an arch through the window. The glass shatters, but I do not hear it. I close my eyes against the spray of shards and it takes almost every inch of me to pry them open again.
Sound returns in a rush. Voices calling, jeering, cheering, feet hammering away now that there is no longer anything to see. I turn to follow them.
Potter stands in a corner, Invisibility Cloak pooled around his feet. His face is white. He stares at me, mouth open in a little ‘O’. His tongue darts out to wet his lips. He nods to me once, gathers up his cloak to stuff in his pocket, sucks in a deep breath and then hollers.
“Snape, you bastard! I knew it! I knew Dumbledore shouldn’t trust you!”
I take Draco by the arm and run. The Death Eaters – the other Death Eaters – are pelting down the stairs now. We race after them. I turn abruptly, taking another path. Draco nearly falls.
Order members – the other Order members – have started to arrive. I can hear a battle raging, voices harshly calling out curses, the rush of spell light, the soft thump of bodies hitting the floor.
I cannot face the Order.
Potter does not pursue us. His voice joins the cacophony and I lose track of him.
My feet pound against stone, steady as my pulse. Draco’s arm is solid and warm beneath my grasp. He is all but a dead weight I drag behind me, his legs working frantically to keep up. I do not slow down. We’ve reached the Entrance Hall; the main doors have been thrown open, wind curling in and teasing the tapestries. It is not yet fully dark, but shadows spill across the lawn, the grass transformed into blades of basalt.
The quickest path to a point from which we can Apparate is via Hagrid’s hut. The thing is blazing, like a lighthouse guiding us safely home. I can feel the heat of the flames against my face when a shout makes me spin round.
He is stood in the doorway, a silhouette almost invisible against the huge backdrop. The wind must have carried his voice this far.
He calls me coward.
I am so incensed I step towards him, but the pulse beneath my fingers reminds me of my responsibility to Draco (the damned albatross around my neck), and I turn my back. We stumble into the Forbidden Forest, the darkness heavy here under the canopy of lush leaves. Once I have measured the distance to be sufficient, I jerk Draco to me and with a crack, we disappear.
Chapter 3: Part Three
Warnings for this chapter include violence, blood, and death.
Too weary to make it as far as his room, Harry collapsed on the couch. His head was spinning. With all the effort he could muster, he peeled off his wet clothes. Of course it was snowing today, the one day his research had led him outside. It never snowed. Bloody weather.
Harry could hear the sound of persistent tapping as he lost his grip on consciousness. He wondered idly whether it was the sound of hail pelting against glass, or perhaps just the sound of icicles rattling against his bones.
Harry was jerked awake by a crash and a stream of profanities. He sat up like a jack-knife, eyes wide and wild, wand in hand.
Snape was home.
“You’re back,” Harry said stupidly, wand still grasped in an unsteady hand.
Snape nodded impatiently. “I sent an owl ahead of time to alert you I would be home for the season. Why then, pray tell, have I come back to you all but naked, lounging in full view?”
Harry’s teeth were starting to chatter, and he finally lowered his wand so that he could wrap his arms around himself.
“’M cold,” he murmured.
“Well, you’re going the wrong way about counteracting it,” Snape said with a sneer. “Normally I find more clothes will inhibit coldness, rather than less.”
“’M clothes’re wet.”
Snape’s eyes narrowed. “So you stripped them off and fell asleep on the couch, despite having a perfectly comfortable bed in your room.”
Harry nodded. “Dizzy,” he supplied by way of explanation. “Didn’... didn’ know you were comin’ back.”
“You didn’t know, despite the fact that my owl should have arrived two days ago at the latest.” Snape sighed heavily. “You had plenty of warning that I would be back on Christmas Eve –”
“Christmas Eve,” Harry said with a gasp. He could feel his arms trembling against his ribcage. “I’ve been out since Monday.”
“Out,” Snape repeated.
Harry couldn’t work up the energy to reply. This conversation had already drained him and he let his head fall back against the arm of the chair.
He could make out the indeterminate sounds of Snape mumbling, though could discern no words, and felt something warm and heavy wrapped around him. He tried to open his eyes (when had he closed them?) so he could see what had been settled over him, but some unnamed force stronger than Harry was keeping them shut.
His bones ached with cold and exhaustion and he let himself slip into sleep, the smell of Hogwarts cradling him and a familiar voice softly calling him a fool.
Snape sounded anything but filled with Christmas spirit, but then, Harry supposed, he had never really been the kind to spread the word of the joy of the season. Harry eased himself up into a sitting position, clutching the blanket to his chest when it occurred to him he was still just in his boxers.
“Uh, Happy Christmas,” he said.
Snape snorted. “You don’t sound very certain.”
“Just surprised that it’s already Christmas, I guess.” Harry wrapped the blanket carefully around himself so that he would remain covered when he stood, surprised to find that it was not a blanket, but a cloak. Snape’s teaching cloak, in fact. “I lost quite a few days. Lucky the library’s shut for the holidays, really, or I’d be out of a job.” He pulled the cloak tighter around his shoulders and made his way over to the bathroom.
“Cheers, by the way,” he said. “For the cloak, I mean.”
“Don’t mention it,” Snape said, his tone imperative rather than dismissive. “When you emerge from there, I expect you’ll tell me why you have been passed out for half the week.”
Harry ducked into the bathroom without answering, the call of warm water so strong he couldn’t work up the dread for having to explain himself to Snape. He was already under the hammer of the shower when it occurred to him that, no matter what he said, however dodgy his excuse, Snape couldn’t take points or give him a detention. He laughed out loud, tilting his head back to soak his hair as relief flooded him.
Washed and drip-dried, Harry poked his head out of the bathroom door to check whether the coast was clear.
“Thomas, I have taken the liberty of leaving a towel and bathrobe by the door.”
Harry glanced down and saw the two, then grinned sheepishly as he fetched them.
Maybe spending Christmas with Snape wouldn’t be as bad as he’d feared, he thought, roughly towelling his hair. Of course, knowing Snape, it could be a great deal worse.
A strong white glow suddenly augments the guttering light of the candles I have been reading by; I turn to see its source – Potter’s Patronus – bow its head to me and wait patiently.
“What is it?” I snap. If Wormtail saw the ghostly stag canter into my study, he would know at once to whom it belonged.
The Patronus opens its mouth and Potter’s urgent whisper spills out. “Snape, have you set up privacy wards?”
I silently Summon my wand, resentfully obeying as the stag surveys my work with knowing eyes.
“We must meet. I need your help before I can face Voldemort,” I wince and damn that boy for foolishly running his mouth, “and the situation is growing urgent. Get in touch.”
The stag dissipates. I do not appreciate direct commands from a boy less than half my age (and he remains less than half my age, however he may look), but it is not possible to challenge Potter in this. He would not risk contacting me if it were at all possible to avoid it. I am surprised that he does not hate me too much to approach me in the wake of what I did to Albus. My ruse has fooled all the others and they have all condemned me as Albus’s...
Albus... Albus must have told the boy what to expect. I would be resentful, but where Albus is concerned all of my emotions are used up and spat out in a dry lump of hurt.
Whatever Potter wants from me, I must act quickly to give it to him. He has much to do if we are ever to see the Dark Lord slain. My wand is still in my hand, and I raise it, closing my eyes so that I can better picture a wide smile and expressive eyes.
My Patronus stands before me, head cocked to one side as she awaits instruction. It is with a wry smile that I relay my message for Potter; the Shrieking Shack may not be neutral ground for us, but it is as good a meeting place as any other I could name.
It is quarter to nine when Potter arrives, appearing mid-step in front of me and folding his Invisibility Cloak over his arm.
I tuck Albus’s watch back into my pocket and scowl at him. “You are late,” I say, allowing my irritation to bleed through into my voice. He had better have a good excuse.
His eyes snap up from the pocket where I have secreted Albus’s watch and he meets my gaze steadily. “I know,” he says blandly. “I had every intention of being late when I received word to arrive at half past.”
I could throttle him; that I do not is a miracle akin to his survival of the Killing Curse. I do not have time that I can afford waste, and neither does he
“I got here half an hour ago. Scouted the perimeter in my Cloak, you know, made sure no one was lying in wait for an ambush, and I put up some wards. I watched you arrive and waited a decent amount of time to ensure you had not been followed.”
My ire dissipates. I am surprised at his fore-planning; I have never thought Potter capable.
“Fine. What is it you require of me that’s so sensitive as to motivate the likes of you to be cautious?” I say, wearing my familiar sneer.
The sneer freezes on my face. For a second, it feels as though my entire body has stopped.
And then my heart thumps painfully in my chest, and I suck in a gulp of air and I remember that I am alive. And the boy... the boy cannot be dying. It is impossible. He spoke in a voice of quiet resignation, so I cannot believe that he lied, but surely he is mistaken.
“How?” I ask, finally ungluing my tongue from the roof of my mouth so I may speak. I sound incredulous, but he must have known this would be hard to believe.
He stares at me, as though wrong-footed by the question. His mouth flaps uselessly, apparently unable to put the horror of his fatality into words. I do not attempt to urge him to answer quickly; I am not a merciful man by nature, but I have time enough to wait for this.
His hands move to his fly, and he ignores my shocked protests, tugging his jeans down to his knees, revealing baggy boxers, skinny legs, and a wound I recognise in an instant.
Horcrux damage; he has been as burnt by one of those damned things as the Headmaster was, his thigh blackened by necrosis and withered as though fixed to a corpse. This, then, is why he limps. This is the injury he has been concealing, living with, since before Albus’s death.
Potter was not mistaken. He is dying.
Unless it is in my power to stop its progress. I was unable to save Albus, but I continued my research past the day he died at his behest. It is clear now why he asked that I do so.
“You managed to contain the spread?” I say at last, my voice hollow.
Potter shrugs. He makes no move to cover himself. “Albus... Whatever you did for him, he did for me. It barely hurts now. My compliments, on that formula.”
I nod my acceptance. “I am further along with my research than I was even a month ago. It might be possible for me to prevent your death, though it is by no means certain.” Potter is a Gryffindor; I hope my proclamation does not bolster him too much.
“No need,” Potter counters. “Albus assured me you were informed of my... fate. I just need to get to Voldemort and his snake first. After that, any effort you’ve put into me will be wasted.”
His voice breaks, though it is clear he tried to keep it even. His expression doesn’t flicker, but his eyes are damp. For all that Draco’s Curse aged him, he is still a boy. No one could expect him to face his death stoically.
My lips feel parched. I lick them and say, “It is best that you are at full strength when you face the Dark Lord. I have access to Darker texts now than I had before I... earned the Dark Lord’s favour. I can reverse the damage you have sustained, perhaps permanently.” And doesn’t it rankle to be instilling optimism in the once-chronically optimistic?
Potter scowls, at last wrenching his trousers back up to his waist. “There’s no time. I showed you that so that you would appreciate the urgency. I need to get to Voldemort, and soon. I’ve a while yet before it’ll do me in,” I wince at his irreverent choice of words, “but I won’t be able to walk much longer, which will put me at too much of a disadvantage. You can take me to him.”
I wonder if the boy means for me to take him now. Did he come here expecting this to be his last day? Expecting to die?
“No,” I say.
“What do you mean, no? Of course you can take me to him! He will let you bring a prisoner through his wards. Listen, if I don’t get the chance before he kills me, will you off Nagini for me? It’s possible Voldemort’ll take no chances this time and Avada me on sight.”
I take a step towards Potter, and he clearly thinks this a sign that I’ve accepted his desperate plan. I shake my head sadly. “You are right; of course I can take you through his wards,” I say, and Potter’s face is torn between triumph and fear, “however, I won’t.”
I hold up a hand to request silence, and surprisingly he obeys, though not without narrowing his eyes. “You will submit to my attempts to cure you before I will even consider taking you to the Dark Lord. There are matters that need to be dealt with first, you understand?”
Potter attempts to advance on me, but whatever effect he was hoping for is lost when his legs buckle beneath him. I reach out with both hands and catch his elbows, not letting go even when he has managed to arrange both feet beneath him again. He flinches at my touch. “Lean on me,” I advise, but he stubbornly stands on his own. I keep my hands on him.
“What else needs dealt with?” he says through gritted teeth.
“Albus suspected a number of Horcruxes in addition to –”
“I know,” he says. “They’ve been taken care of.” He finally gives in and leans against me, lifting the weight from his injured leg. One of his hands tightens around my arm, the other clutching his thigh; he glares at his leg as though to chastise it for being so useless.
“How is that possible?” The last I heard, there were three Horcruxes outstanding, in addition to Potter and the snake.
“I took care of them,” he says as though it is an answer and not a worthless repetition. I will get nothing further out of him without Legilimency, I know. No doubt the reason he is avoiding my gaze. “Does that mean you will take me to Voldemort?”
“You must not persist in saying his name,” I say, realising now that the boy has been using it for the duration of this conversation. It was careless of me not to notice earlier, but given what the boy was revealing, my carelessness is understandable, if not forgivable. “The word is gaining strength, and you risk discovery if you keep saying it.”
Potter smirks at me. “Is that so?” he says, his voice a dead whisper.
“You risk both of us,” I say in a rush before he can take advantage of this information. “And further, it will not be the Dark Lord who comes for you, and the prize of you dead is worth as much as you living. It needs to be the Dark Lord who kills you, you are aware.”
“Of course I’m aware,” Potter says viciously. “If it didn’t need to be him, do you think I’d still be alive now?”
I wonder how long Potter knew about his death before he could talk about it in that cavalier way.
“I will not be taking you to the Dark Lord until I have healed your leg. We cannot risk the consequences of interplay between your injury and the Horcrux in you.”
Potter winces against me, stumbling slightly and using a hand against my chest to steady himself.
“When will you be able to do that?” he says sullenly. “After how many more deaths?”
Enraged, I grab his chin and force him to meet my eyes. “Would you like me to keep count for you, Potter? So that you can walk to your death knowing how many lives it cost for you to live this long?”
He doesn’t answer me. He doesn’t move. He doesn’t breathe. He just stares and stares at me, eyes wide, lips parted, cheeks flushed.
It feels like aeons before he moves, eyes closing as though in pain. I feel him pull his chin free of my grasp and he turns away.
“Fine,” he whispers. “You can heal me. Contact me in the usual way when you’re ready.”
He steps backwards, supporting himself once more. His leg seems to have gained strength from its brief respite; he turns on the spot, not looking at me once before he Apparates away.
I wrap my arms around Potter’s torso and wrench him back against me. I can feel his feet scrabbling against mine, and he squirms so violently I can barely keep hold of him. I don’t let go.
Two feet in front of us, a jet of green light hits Weasley in the chest. He drops like a stone.
Potter’s still fighting to get to him, hands clawing at mine, feet scrambling and pushing off from the ground repeatedly so that for drawn out moments I’m supporting his entire body weight myself as he kicks furiously at my shins.
“Potter,” I hiss in his ear. “Pull yourself together. This isn’t over yet.”
He turns on me, his face an inch from mine, hot breath ghosting across my lips, eyes glaring with such ferocity that for a second I expect to combust.
“I could have saved him. You stopped me. Why? I could have saved him!”
I want to turn away, but I meet those accusing eyes steadily. “If you had been killed, that would be the end of it for all of us. It was not worth the risk.” I sound cold, calculating. Every inch the Slytherin.
“Ron was worth it,” Potter says, his voice low and furious.
I grip Potter’s shoulders firmly and shake. “Remember yourself,” I say. There is no time for these histrionics; a battle rages around us, and were we not in this foul trench a spell would have decimated us both by now.
Potter looks at me blankly. I feel a flare in my left arm, and Potter flinches, hand reaching to his scar.
“He’s here,” Potter says, suddenly wearing a horrific grin. He breaks free of my grasp and strides away down the trench, the six inches of mud not slowing him one whit. Before he turns a corner of the serpentine tunnels and leaves my sight, he turns back to me and calls, “I’ll see you around, Snape.”
His gaze lingers on my face and he smiles so sadly I can almost feel the prickle of tears. I blink, and the sensation is gone. As is the boy.
Harry heard a key scrabble against the lock, and poked his head out of the bedroom.
“Alright?” he called when the door didn’t open. “Need a hand?”
He wandered over to the door and dragged it open, revealing Snape struggling to juggle an owl cage with a screeching bird inside with one arm, and manoeuvre the key in his other hand with more dexterity.
Harry righted the cage and carried it into the flat, bouncing the door open with his hip so that Snape could follow.
“You’re a bit late; I’m afraid I’ve already cooked and eaten dinner,” Harry said, settling the cage on a side table and fishing in his pockets for some treat to appease the miserable creature inside.
Snape collapsed onto the sofa, tossing his head back and closing his eyes. “I decided to purchase an owl, a task which took more time and effort than I have ever been led to believe. The retailer was rather reluctant to accept that I intended to use him to deliver mail, rather than as ingredients in my next brew.”
Harry grinned. “What’s he called, then? If you’ve named him after a potion, I can understand the man’s concern.”
Snape peeled open one eye to glare at Harry, closing it again with a heavy sigh that rattled through his entire body.
“Don’t be ridiculous. It doesn’t have a name.”
Harry looked at the owl, which shook out its wings in what was unmistakably the avian equivalent of shrugging. Harry rolled his eyes back and said quietly, “Never mind him; I’ll think of something.” How he could have forgotten Snape’s preternatural hearing after six years of his classes, Harry didn’t know.
“You’ll do no such thing. Merlin knows what you could come up with, and hence what ridiculous name I’ll be stuck calling every time I want the blasted thing to carry a message for me. It doesn’t need a name, it responds well enough to owl.” Snape pushed himself up so that he was sat normally on the sofa rather than slumped across it, toed off his shoes, and plonked his stockinged feet up on the coffee table.
“I think he’d prefer a real name, like... Oscar or something,” Harry said, addressing the owl rather than Snape so he had a greater chance of approval.
He heard Snape snort. “Oscar the owl? How... original.”
Harry ignored him, but unfortunately the as yet unnamed owl did not seem any keener than Snape on ‘Oscar’; it turned its head away in a fairly uncomfortable-looking contortion so that it was facing the wall rather than Harry.
“Okay,” Harry said, defeated, “not Oscar. How about Icarus? He liked flying, though a bit too much. What do you think?”
The owl hooted, turning back to Harry. This was likely prompted more by the offer of food than a great liking for the name, but Snape didn’t need to know that Harry had bribed his owl.
“Perfect! Icarus it is.”
Harry turned back to Snape triumphantly, taking in the scowl and laughing softly.
“Come on, Icarus isn’t that stupid a name,” he said.
Snape only grunted in response. He looked exhausted.
“You’ve got to be hungry. Want me to sort out some food for you? I’ve a better idea what we have in.” Harry didn’t wait for an answer before heading into the kitchen and getting to work on a quick stir-fry. He made more than he usually would, heaping the vegetables onto a generous plate of rice. Snape seemed grateful to see the mountain of food, digging in without any complaints when Harry set it down before him.
Harry waited until there was little left before asking the question he had been wondering since he’d been informed Snape was on his way back.
“So, how long before you want me out? I’ve been looking, but there’s not anywhere yet, really. At least, not that I’ve seen. My stuff’s all packed and ready to go, though, and I know a hostel that might have a vacancy if you wanted me gone tonight.”
Snape dropped his fork, letting it hit the plate with a painful clink, and stared at Harry.
“You are prepared to leave tonight?” he said, voice oddly pitched.
Harry held back his disappointment. He knew Snape would want him out as quickly as possible – hell, it wasn’t like he wanted to live in a one-bedroom flat with Snape – he had just hoped he would be able to find somewhere better to move on to. And maybe go there in daylight.
“Sure,” he said, his voice carefully controlled. “I couldn’t reserve a booking, but the owner of The Fox and Hound said that often travellers didn’t show, so there’s a good chance one of the rooms has since freed up. I’ll just –”
“Sit,” Snape said, and Harry sat, forgetting when confronted with that tone that he didn’t have to obey Snape’s every word.
“I was not insisting that you depart immediately. Or at all, in fact. I was merely remarking the fact that you had readied yourself to be ousted the moment I returned.”
Snape leant forward, resting his elbows on his knees, and Harry felt pierced by his stare like a butterfly pinned to a board.
“Now, did you find it unbearable sharing my abode over Christmas?”
Harry dumbly shook his head.
“And were you misleading me when you informed me you now work night shifts and sleep during the day?”
Harry shook his head once more. “No, I –”
“Very well,” Snape said smoothly. “Then there is no reason why we can’t cohabit as we did the last time I was here. Granted, you spent most of that time sleeping on a Transfigured sofa, but as your sleeping habits now complement my own, we can simply take it in turns using the bed.”
Harry didn’t reply, but he hoped his expression communicated his disbelief for him.
Snape relaxed his posture, allowing one hand to drop so he could rearrange the knife and fork on his plate.
“I do not have many allies at present, or, rather, there are few willing to proclaim themselves as such. It may be some time before there are enough landlords willing to let to me for it to be a viable choice for me to move. It makes sense for you to continue to lease this place from me while I am working, and in that instance you may as well continue to live here. Do you agree?”
Harry licked his lips, thinking it over. He didn’t exactly want to live with Snape, no, but truthfully they would not see a lot of each other, and Christmas had been an unexpectedly tolerable experience. There was really no need for him to leave.
“Sure, sounds great,” Harry said, smiling with a relief he hadn’t realised he would feel.
“Very well,” Snape said, his own lips quirked in what could almost be called a smile. He reached a hand over, and Harry took it. Snape’s grip as he shook was firm. “It looks as though we have an accord, Thomas...”
“Uh, Jones,” Harry supplied, taking his hand back.
“Jones,” Snape said. “Your name is Thomas Jones.”
“Yeah, Jones. It’s not that unus– ah, uncommon, is it?”
“No,” Snape said, and he was definitely smiling now. “No, I suppose it’s not unusual at all.”
I never expected to be alive to see it. Somehow, whenever I pictured this day, this moment, I always assumed I would be dead.
I have the perfect view. All of the Death Eaters in my path have been slain and at the bottom of the slope I can see Potter on his knees facing the Dark Lord. I am close enough to see Potter’s face screwed up in effort against mental intrusion.
My Mark burns dully, only one of a myriad of hurts.
Potter’s scar pours blood down his face. It is smeared over the inside of his glasses, which sit crookedly on his nose. He makes no move to check the flow, and I find my hands itching to wipe it away.
“See something you like?” he says, teeth clenched.
The Dark Lord’s face is twisted in fury. There is something else there, something I have never seen on him before.
“You’ve killed Nagini,” he says, his voice low and dangerous.
Potter smiles. “Oh, yes. She’s very much dead now.” He glances over his shoulder, whether intentionally or not I do not know, and both the Dark Lord and I follow his gaze to a sword lying discarded like so much litter, stained with blood and filth.
If not for the rubies glinting in its hilt, I would never have guessed the true worth of the sword.
“It was quite easy. Almost as easy, I’d guess, as killing a baby. Not that you’d know.”
I want to intervene. I know why the boy is taunting the Dark Lord, what he is goading him into doing, but still I want to shake him for allowing his foolish mouth to run.
Voldemort lifts his wand idly. “I will not repeat my mistakes,” he says. He aims and Potter doesn’t move an inch, continuing to look him straight in the eye as though he has nothing to fear. “Goodbye, Harry Potter.”
I do not hear the words. The verdant light has the attention of everyone on the battlefield. We stare uselessly, wand arms dropping and incantations dying on our lips.
Both Potter and the Dark Lord have fallen.
It is silent as the grave, and I count my heartbeats as I stare.
Still no one has moved.
A masked Death Eater steps forward.
She takes another step, and then another. And then she sprints.
She falls to her knees at the Dark Lord’s side. Still, no one else dares to move.
I can hear her crooning. Bellatrix Lestrange mourning the death of her Lord. Her voice is abruptly cut off.
A white hand clasps hers, and together she and the Dark Lord rise to their feet.
Potter remains on the ground, lying awkwardly on his back with his legs folded beneath him. The Dark Lord’s face will feed nightmares forever. You can see, as plainly as if the word were written there, victory spelled out across his expression.
“Harry Potter is dead!” he announces. “Who dares oppose me now?”
My wand is in my hand and I am moving, moving closer so I can get a clear shot. My heart has stopped pounding, has stopped beating, and is instead humming inside my chest. I feel as though it will burst out.
Closer. Will I be able to do this? The prophecy indicated... But Potter is dead, and with him the final Horcrux destroyed. It should be well within my power, if only I could stir my tongue and form the words and –
A blade erupts through the Dark Lord’s chest. It twists and withdraws, only to reappear moments later. This time, when it disappears, the Dark Lord collapses, his mouth open in a slight ‘O’ of surprise, and his eyes glassy.
He is dead.
Standing over him on shaky legs, bloodstained sword in hand, clothes torn and expression hard, is Potter.
Gryffindor’s sword falls from his grasp and he follows it to the ground.
He lies on his back, chest heaving, and taking in the sky with hollow eyes.
No one approaches him. The remaining Death Eaters are dealt with and I am led away to join them.
When I turn back, Granger has her arms around Potter, and she is weeping loudly. Someone is levitating the Dark Lord’s body away, and it obscures Potter’s face.
I see his face once before I am Apparated away. It has not changed since the moment he held the sword. The lines of his face look as though they will never change again, as though now they have been carved into granite, immutable except to the passing of the seasons.
I am deposited on the rock that is Azkaban, in a cold and damp cell. Already, the atmosphere seeps through my robes and into my bones. I shiver.
The Dark Lord is dead. I am finally free.
The smell of the ocean batters me, and I lie back on my pallet.
I close my eyes and smile.
Chapter 4: Part Four
Harry crept into the flat, not bothering to light the candles so as not to risk waking Snape. He withdrew the diadem from his cloak and held it in a patch of light.
The trip to Hogwarts had been more successful than he’d imagined; although there were no books in the library that could help him in his search for a way home, he had hit on the idea of trying the Room of Requirement. He had still failed to find any information on travelling forward in time, but his search had turned up another of Voldemort’s Horcruxes. He’d have recognised Ravenclaw’s diadem anywhere; there was a bust of her wearing it on the fourth floor at work. When he’d spotted it, there was no question in his mind that this was the something other Voldemort had put his soul into; the diary, the ring, the locket, the cup, the snake and this. He took it.
Working at the National Library of Magical Reference with a piece of Voldemort’s soul stashed in his pocket had not been comfortable. Despite the quiet of the few nocturnal patrons, Harry had been unable to feel at peace. Only now, with the diadem resting on the table away from him, could Harry feel his heart rate return to normal, the itching in his palms subside, and the darkness cloaking his thoughts dissipate.
With the bedroom occupied, Harry had no access to his compartmental trunk. What was he to do with the Horcrux until Snape was up and out of his way?
There was nowhere secure enough in the rest of the flat. With nothing else for it, Harry wrapped the diadem in his Invisibility Cloak and slipped it underneath Snape’s bookshelf. His hand retreated not a moment too soon, Snape striding from the bedroom door wrapped in a navy towelling robe.
“’Morning,” Harry said brightly.
Snape said nothing, but Harry knew by now that Snape didn’t speak in the morning until he’d had a shower and a cup of tea.
Grabbing a book off the bookshelf as a ready-made excuse for him squatting in the corner of the living room, Harry dropped himself heavily onto the sofa, listening to the sound of the heater squealing and the water pounding. His eyes drifted shut and he tried to determine whether the familiar sounds were soothing or bloody annoying. He opened the book and glanced down.
Harry woke up without ever having had the intention of going to sleep. Whatever he was using for a pillow was hard and scratchy. And whatever was under his feet was warm and massaging him.
That didn’t seem right.
He cracked open his eyes and peered through the light to see that he was sharing the sofa with Snape, and had somehow managed to plonk his feet onto Snape’s lap. Rather than push them off and lecture Harry into wakefulness by impressing upon him the importance of not trespassing into other people’s personal space, Snape was absentmindedly stroking them with his left hand and managing a book with his right.
Pushing himself up, Harry found some of the pages of the book under his face sticking to him.
“Ah,” Snape said, marking his place and setting down his book. “Welcome back to the land of the living.”
He ran a critical eye over Harry and smirked. “Barely. You look like the undead. And you will be, if that is one of my books you’ve been cuddling up to.”
“Oh, Jesus, I’m sorry,” Harry said, trying to unbend the pages and smooth out the creases with fumbling fingers. “I didn’t mean to fall asleep; I was just going to read for a bit before heading to bed. Give you a chance to finish up in our room. I’ll buy you a new book. Was it very rare? I’m sorry.”
“Relax, you idiot. I’ve done worse things to books than bend their pages. I won’t evict you just yet.”
Snape seemed to be enjoying himself, which was a little frightening. Deciding to beat a hasty retreat, Harry drew his feet away from Snape and planted them on the floor.
“I’d best go get myself sorted out,” he said through a jaw-cracking yawn.
“I’ll pretend I understood that,” Snape said, burying his nose in his book. “There’s a potion in the bathroom cabinet for irritated eyes.”
Harry immediately stopped rubbing his eyes with his fist. “Uh, thanks,” he mumbled.
When he saw his reflection in the bathroom mirror, Harry could understand why Snape had commented. In addition to the creases left on his face by the hard cover of the book, having fallen asleep with his contacts in (again – he kept collapsing into bed without giving them a second thought), his eyes were now rimmed red and quite heavily swollen. He eased the contacts out and instantly regretted it, because now he would have no means of identifying which potion Snape had meant.
Harry squinted at the labels but with no luck; Snape’s writing had actually grown larger since he was this age, and it hadn’t exactly been huge when Harry read it on his essays. Giving up, he stripped off for his shower, grateful for once that Snape used a bar of soap to wash everything. At least there was nothing left up to interpretation there.
Wearing fresh clothes, fresh contacts, and with a fresh prosthetic carefully held in place over his scar with a Sticking Charm, Harry walked into the living room feeling like a better edition of himself.
“I’m off out,” he announced. “Something I need to pick up in Muggle London.”
He had two of Voldemort’s Horcruxes now, stashed safely inside his compartmental trunk, and he wanted them destroyed. Those things gave him the creeps beyond anything he’d ever seen before. Every time he opened his trunk, his skin itched as though it wanted to crawl off his body.
Harry didn’t know what Albus had done with the ring, but he hadn’t come out of it unscathed. If there was a way to kill off pieces of the soul without harming the caster, Harry was sure he would find it at Grimmauld Place. Even the books in the Secret Section for Spells Most Sinister of the National Library were a drop in the ocean compared to the Dark tomes held in the Noble and Most Ancient House of Black. And this would give him a chance to stash away the fake locket so that in the future he would see it, and recognise the picture that he had already recognised. Or something.
“Do you mind if I join you?” Snape said, laying down his quill and looking at Harry with his direct and discerning gaze.
“Uh, sure. I mean, I don’t mind. If you join me. What did you want to go for?”
Harry wondered what he was going for himself now. If Snape were to follow him into Grimmauld Place and see him researching spells to destroy the soul, Harry wasn’t sure if he would curse him or grade his notes. Nor was he sure which prospect was the more terrifying.
“Your conversation. I’m sure I have never in my life met anyone as eloquent,” Snape said, so deadpan that for an instant Harry just accepted the comment as fact.
“Oh, ha ha. Well, I’m just after some new clothes for under my work robes. It’s roasting at the minute, and I swear wizards haven’t heard of cotton; why would you want wool pants in summer?” It was actually a good use of the day. The trousers Madam Malkin had made for him weren’t actually wool, but whatever they were made of had him sweating within an hour at the library. It was a good thing his job wasn’t particularly active.
Snape indicated that Harry should precede him out of the front door. “Most of us have mastered Cooling Charms. What a shame there aren’t any books on those in that library of yours.”
Harry punched Snape in the arm. “Oh, shut it, you.”
He froze. He’d been enjoying the banter so much that he’d forgotten for a moment to whom he was speaking. And whom he was punching.
Snape looked taken aback too, but at least he wasn’t swelling up with rage, which was what Harry might have expected.
“So, was there anything in particular you were wanting while we were out, or are you just sick of the sight of the same four walls?” Harry said, relieved when Snape thawed.
“I mainly just wanted out, but I wouldn’t say no to a few of the book shops.”
“Muggle books?” Harry asked, and could have kicked himself. Now that was an incendiary question.
But Snape just shrugged, something he could pull off with an annoying air of elegance. Not that the Snape Harry knew would have ever shrugged, but even at this age he had a rare grace about him that Harry could only envy.
“Books and clothes it is. You can tell which one of us is the bimbo, eh?”
At Snape’s look, which said everything it needed to within an instant, Harry burst out laughing.
“Hey, I’ll have you know that I work in a library,” Harry said importantly, slipping his arm through the crook of Snape’s elbow to support himself in case he creased up laughing again.
They went to Gringotts first to change their money. Harry was surprised by the amount he got for his Galleons, but he supposed the exchange rate must have been different in the eighties.
His wallet was packed with notes, and Harry knew that he felt a little bit more excited than a grown man should on stepping into the world beyond Diagon’s charmed bricks.
“Right, clothes first, do you reckon? Then we can take as long as we like over the books?”
“You have never struck me as the bookish type,” Snape said as they delved into the bowels of London. “You seem too... excitable.”
Harry grinned. “I never struck me as the bookish type, either. It’s funny how much you can end up loving something if you have to deal with it twenty-four-seven. It’s either that or go mad, I guess.”
Snape seemed confused by his answer, brows drawn together in a frown. “I don’t understand how you came to work at the Library in the first case. Surely if you were not fond of books, you could have sought alternative employment?”
“Oh, I already liked books by then. I’m here on a sort of research project, and I can’t leave until I’m finished. I spent near enough every day in the library anyway. I’d sort of come to think of the place as a second home by the time Morgan offered me the job.”
“Research?” Snape said. “Have you advanced far with it?”
They turned into a department store and Harry led them to an escalator.
“Not a whit,” he said. “I’m still at exactly the point where I started.”
“Would you like my help?”
Harry looked at Snape in surprise. While it was true that they were getting on far better than he could ever have imagined they would, it was still strange for Snape to treat him as a friend.
“Nah, I have to do it myself or it doesn’t count,” Harry said.
They wandered around the menswear department, Harry plucking trousers at random and stroking them. Occasionally he would find a pair he liked and hold them up for inspection.
With three new pairs of cotton trousers folded over his arm, he went over to pay. Snape was saying something to him, but his interest was caught by a familiar voice ahead of them in the queue.
“Hold on to those, boy. I’ll not have Dudley missing out on anything on his birthday because a runt like you lost something.”
Snape had noticed that he wasn’t holding Harry’s attention.
“What is it, Thomas?” he asked quietly.
“Nothing,” Harry said, snapping his eyes away from his younger self. Sweet Jesus, it had never occurred to him that this might happen. Was he even allowed to be in the same room as himself, or was that some sort of paradox or something? Would one of them disappear?
“Do you know them?” Snape asked.
Harry shook his head. “No, no. Just caught my notice, that’s all.”
Snape looked over, lips thinning.
“Do I have birthdays, too?” the younger Harry was asking.
Harry was glad that he was holding that ridiculous pile of clothes for Dudley. He would be mortified if Snape knew it was him asking such a stupid question.
“Don’t be an idiot, boy. No one was happy when you were born; why would we celebrate it now?”
Snape winced. “That seems harsh.”
“Yeah, he doesn’t seem to like the kid much, huh? Do you want to go straight to a bookshop after this, or did you want a bite to eat?”
Snape didn’t answer. He was still watching the younger Harry and his uncle, by now at the head of the queue.
“Were my mummy and daddy not happy when I was born?”
“Why would they be, straddled with a whining brat like you? First chance they got, they let themselves be killed just to be rid of you. Now shut up.”
“But I thought mummies and daddies were meant to love –”
“I’ve warned you about asking questions. Shut up, now. You’ll be having no dinner tonight, and if I hear another word it’ll be breakfast too.”
Young Harry fell silent.
“I wonder why he has custody,” Snape said under his breath, so only Harry could hear.
Harry shrugged, entirely too uncomfortable with the exchange they’d just witnessed. “Maybe he’s just been a pain today. You know what young kids are like when you drag them round shops.”
Snape glared at Harry as though he’d just suggested that they fly broomsticks to the moon and bring back cheese.
“Don’t be more stupid than you can help. That man hates that child.”
Harry just shrugged again. He couldn’t argue; it was truer than Snape could possibly know.
Harry paid for his trousers and they made their way silently out of the shop.
Standing in the door were young Harry and his uncle, the pair of them laden with bags.
“That’s everything for today, boy,” said Vernon, checking a list. “Come on, hurry up so we can get these home before Petunia brings Dudley back.”
Young Harry nodded, sucking his lip to keep from answering. He shook his fringe out of his eyes and trudged after his uncle.
Snape stopped where he stood and stared after them, his eyes uncharacteristically wide.
“What is it?” Harry said impatiently.
Snape started back to himself. “I thought I recognised the boy, but I must have been mistaken. Just a trick of the shadows.”
Harry didn’t say anything. He wasn’t sure what to say. For a second, the lightning bolt scar had been obvious on young Harry’s forehead, and Snape had seen it. For once in his life, Harry was glad that Snape thought him pampered and spoilt, because it meant he would refuse to believe that he had just seen Harry Potter getting bullied by his own uncle. If Snape had believed it and pursued a conversation about it, Harry would have been at a complete loss. He knew they couldn’t get involved without changing the future, which would have meant he hadn’t come back, so they really couldn’t get involved, but at the same time how could he put off someone who was concerned for a child’s welfare? Especially a someone who’d had the upbringing Harry had seen in Snape’s mind.
“He will be alright,” Snape said, so quietly Harry knew he was trying to convince himself.
Harry laid a hand on Snape’s shoulder. “Of course he will. Something like that won’t go unnoticed by the Muggle authorities for long, I’m sure.”
Harry was lying, and was glad that Snape didn’t turn to look at him. Neither one of them mentioned it again as they drifted into a bookshop, but their earlier excitement at the trip had gone. When Snape suggested they go home after only two shops, Harry nodded, relieved.
He was suddenly exhausted, his purchases weighing him down as though they contained half the world, and there was nothing he wanted more than to go home.
It was a pity he had no idea how to get back there.
The manacles shrink to fit my wrists, chaining me to the chair. The metal links are heavy and cool, and I cannot shift without causing them to clank together like a mournful ghoul desperate for attention. I do not lift my head, letting the Minister’s voice roll over me as he reads a long list of charges.
I try not to hear Albus’s name amongst my many crimes.
“How does the defendant plead?”
I am not permitted to answer for myself. Given the farces that comprised the trials at the end of the last war (when, indeed, they bothered with trials at all), it has been insisted upon now that each person accused is given a solicitor.
“My client pleads not guilty.”
That is not the answer I would have given. My solicitor has not listened to a damn word I’ve said. She nodded as I confessed guilt: guilty of being a Death Eater; guilty of terrorism; guilty of murdering Albus Dumbledore. She nodded and made notes and then she asked me if I miss Albus. I do, of course I do: I miss him like a part of myself. As though missing the old fool is enough to mitigate killing him, she consulted with God knows who and – on my behalf – is pleading not guilty.
“To all of the charges?” The Minister’s tone is disbelieving.
I do not blame him. I cannot fathom what my solicitor is thinking.
“Given the extenuating factors caused by the war, the Ministry cannot justifiably hold him accountable for laws broken in the name of defeating He Who Must Not Be Named.”
“For the court of law, all names must be given.”
They are fighting the superstition now. Albus would be pleased.
“Very well. In the name of defeating... Vol- Voldemort. There is evidence to suggest that without my client’s contributions, we would still be fighting now –”
I am no longer listening. I idly examine the manacles on my wrists. They are edged in rust and blood. There is an old horror story about a criminal who so mangled his wrists on these metal cuffs that he bled to death before he could be taken from the courtroom. It is undoubtedly nonsense.
Still, I wonder what will be the best means of killing myself when my cell becomes too much. I do not know how long I can tolerate the cold damp grey of Azkaban with nothing to stimulate me beyond the sea view I have been kindly granted.
The door to the courtroom bursts open, drawing my attention from its morbid preoccupation.
Standing there, dressed in what appears to be a pair of stripped pyjamas, is the Boy Who Lived.
“I’m sorry I’m late. My Healers were reluctant to let me leave,” he says. He bites his lip, and his cheeks flush faintly; reluctant is likely quite the understatement of their sentiments on his leaving.
“Mister Potter,” the Minister says kindly, “there is no need for you to risk your recovery to attend criminal proceedings.”
“I am here as a witness for the defence,” Potter says. He speaks as though he has no notion of the impact of his words.
Several reporters have dropped their quills in shock.
The Minister beckons Potter forward, and the boy allows the door to fall closed behind him. The slam as it bounces in its frame makes him jump.
“Mister Potter, it is not my intention to cast aspersions against your character, but given the nature of your stay in Saint Mungo’s, I am not sure that your word will hold in a court of law.”
Amazingly, this brings a smile to Potter’s face, proving the Minister’s suspicions about his mental health.
I did not know the war has driven Potter mad.
Potter reaches more deeply than seems likely into the pocket of his pyjama shirt. He withdraws a folded parchment. Wordlessly, he passes it to the Minister.
The Minister unfolds the note and reads it, his scowl so pronounced that his monocle threatens to slice his brow.
“You have been declared sane?” he questions and my breath catches in my throat.
Potter nods, still wearing that ridiculous beam.
“This is dated from earlier today.” The Minister sounds distrustful, and not a man in this court could blame him.
Potter simply nods again.
“It has been my understanding that you have been incapacitated since the end of the war due to extreme distress.”
“Yeah, I have. But I’m better now and I wanted to stop you from doing something stupid.”
The Minister looks shocked to be addressed this way, and makes no indication that he will respond.
“He was a spy. Severus Snape, I mean. Whatever you think he’s done, it was to help defeat Voldemort. The death of Albus Dumbledore was arranged by Albus himself; he told me to expect it. You can view my memories, if you like. Or I’ll take Veritaserum. Albus was already dying and he wanted his death to achieve as much as it could, so he chose to have Se – Snape kill him, which meant the position of our spy within the Death Eaters’ ranks was safe.
“And Sna– Professor Snape, that is, saved my life. More than once.”
Potter, who delivered this speech with an unprecedented maturity, suddenly looks very young.
I do not know how to interpret this defence. His motivation for securing my freedom is clearly repayment of a debt rather than pure altruism, but if it is effective then I will be grateful nevertheless.
“You are willing to swear that Severus Snape acted only against Voldemort in the Second War? And you would be able to do so having taken Veritaserum?”
“Sure,” Harry says. “Do you have any knocking about?”
A heavily moustached member of the Wizengamot leans forward. I am half-convinced that the motion was caused by the weight of his facial hair becoming too much for his broomstick of a neck to support.
“The chair recognises Minister Cottus.”
“This is most irregular, for a witness to present himself this way. Your part in this trial should have been entered by the defence long in advance.”
His moustache bristles with indignation, and Potter’s eyes follow it suspiciously.
“It could hardly be entered in advance if I was locked up in a mental ward, could it? I couldn’t have come to the trial any day before now. Do you have any truth potion for me to take or not?”
He sounds so entitled that for a moment, he is James Potter making demands and expecting them to be carried out at his merest whim.
But he is shivering in those pathetic pyjamas and he is white as a ghost and his bare feet shift against the cold stone floor and his green eyes are wide and pleading and he is not – he is not – James Potter.
The Minister holds out his hand, and someone behind him passes forward a clear phial. The Minister gives the bottle to the court hand, who almost trips over his feet to collect it.
“You know how to use this?” he asks the hand, who nods enthusiastically. “Very well. Two drops, I should think, given his weight.”
“Have you taken this before, Mister Potter?”
“I have not,” Potter says, smiling encouragingly at the hand.
“Have you any idea what to expect?”
Potter half nods. “I’ve seen it used, but that was a while ago now. I should be fine.”
“Very well. Robin, administer the dose if you would.”
Those seated in the public gallery shift forward, reporters with their quills poised, and even those sat on the benches crane their necks for a better view. I would be on the edge of my seat myself, if not for the chains.
“Can you give us your full name?”
“Harry James Potter.”
“And why are you here, Harry James Potter?”
“To see Severus Snape go free.”
“And what reason do you have to wish his freedom?”
“I know it to be the case that he has acted only to the benefit of the Light since the Second War began. He has spied on Voldemort, at great risk to himself, since I was fourteen and Voldemort was reborn.”
“And how did you come to know this?”
“I was told by Albus Dumbledore the risks that Severus Snape has taken; I was shown Albus’s memories of discussions with Severus Snape concerning his death; I have met with Snape to secure information I needed to fight Voldemort and his Death Eaters; Snape prolonged my life so that I would be able to kill Voldemort.”
“Do you believe it possible that Severus Snape’s true loyalties lay with Lord Voldemort?”
“No. He healed me so I was able to defeat Voldemort, and did not betray the extent of my injury to any of my enemies. And anyway, I know him well enough to know that he hated Voldemort and was willing to give his life to see Voldemort destroyed.”
A witch leans forward, her papery skin almost audibly rustling as she speaks.
“You say that Severus Snape has prolonged your life, yet earlier you stated that he has saved it. Which is the case?”
“I... I don’t know. Both. He’s saved my life loads of times, but... Before I killed Voldemort, I was dying from a horrible curse, the same one as Albus. Professor Snape wasn’t fast enough to save Albus – though he tried – but he was able to keep me alive. I’d be dead by now if not for him.”
“The curse was unique, and Snape had to invent a way to counter it. The injury no longer hurts as much as it once did – hardly at all, most days – and I can’t feel myself weakening. It is possible that I’ll live a long life, but it is also possible that the counter will fail and I’ll find myself dying again.”
The witch eyes Potter shrewdly. “Are you in any way hoping to secure Severus Snape’s freedom so that he will be around to prolong your life further should the curse return?”
Potter looks surprised, and faintly offended, to be asked.
“No, of course not. Snape has done all he can. He doesn’t owe me anything. I don’t want him to go to Azkaban because he doesn’t deserve it.”
I can see nods in the public gallery. My heart falters.
“Have you anything further to add to your statement?” the Minister says.
Potter frowns, clearly deep in thought. “I think... I think I’ve said all I need to say. Snape was our spy,” he ticks it off on one hand, “he killed Albus under Albus’s own orders; the war would have been lost without him, and I’d be dead several times over.
“It would be very hard to forgive a Ministry that imprisoned a hero. As long as you know that, all I can ask for now is your decision.”
His voice wavers, and his eyes do not quite meet the Minister’s. I cannot feel any confidence that his defence of me will have won me my freedom, but I feel a surge of warmth towards him nonetheless for trying. Veritaserum or not, the boy is quite clearly still mad.
He catches my eye. I incline my head slightly in acknowledgement and he immediately looks away, the corners of his lips drawn down.
Hands are being lifted. More are in the air than not, but I did not hear the question. Are they voting to acquit or to condemn?
“Severus Snape, you have been cleared.”
The manacles around my wrists spring open and the chains silently recoil.
I have been released.
Harry was surprised to see Severus striding towards him down the aisles of the Library’s second floor.
Harry raised his eyebrows.
“I require a text that Hogwarts Library does not carry. Perhaps you could instruct me on its whereabouts?”
“Sure. Though I’m off duty, I hope you know.”
“A plain clothes librarian,” Severus said, smirking. “I can see that. I would think that you see enough of this place when you are being paid to lurk about its shelves.”
“Me? Nah. Can’t get enough of these dusty old books. No sneeze is better than a sneeze in a library, where about fifty people turn to glare at you for disturbing the peace.”
“You are not popular among your patrons, then?”
“Goodness, no! I couldn’t be less popular if I tried. Or perhaps I could. I’m not really a librarian by nature, you know.”
“Oh, I know. Which brings me back to my enquiry. Do you always avoid being of any use in the search for books?”
“Only with people I really dislike. Sorry about that, Severus.”
Harry grinned to soften his words, an expression that Severus returned only tentatively, and for less than a second before his face fell back into its customary frown.
“If I endeavoured to be more amiable, would you perhaps guide me to Eyer’s Critique of Ethics and Magic?”
“More amiable. What would that involve, do you think?”
But Harry had already placed a hand at Severus’s elbow, and was gently guiding him towards the stairs. Eyer’s Critique was on the third floor.
“Oh, I suppose I could be persuaded to laugh at your appalling jokes, once in a while. And to withhold laughing at your appalling hair –”
“Once in a while,” Harry finished, shaking said hair out of his eyes. He had ceased being surprised to catch a glimpse of blond every time his fringe fell forward. “Well, that’s more than amiable enough for me. Did you want –?”
The stairs fell out from beneath them.
Splintered wood was flung upwards and Harry dropped down like a sack of stones.
He saw light only in flashes, and reached blindly for Severus. His arms wrapped around a familiar lean body, and he twisted midair so that Severus was over him.
There wasn’t time to reach for his wand, to cast a spell, to stop the fall.
He landed with a thump and a crack, his back arched over a beam of wood. His arms loosened their hold of Severus.
A deep rumble alerted him to a second structural collapse. He tried to warn Severus, but his lungs hadn’t the air to form the words. He felt a warm hand squeeze his.
Then the oppressive darkness pressed in on him. The thick air of sawdust choked him. The crashing of thunder shook him. The weight grew heavier than he could bear.
And the world ended.
Chapter 5: Part Five
I survey Spinner’s End. I will not be here long. I have no more need of this hovel now, and as soon as I can empty it of my belongings, I will abandon it.
There is no use in selling this house. No man would choose to live here, much less pay for the privilege. This house is as scarred as I am.
I have not decided where I will go after this. I sit on my bruised couch and consider a holiday. No one would deny that I am due.
I have never been inactive.
The couch groans beneath me, uncomfortable bearing my weight. I stand and cross to the bookcase. There is an atlas here somewhere. Amongst this mass of paper and ink with broken spines, there is an atlas barely opened, never used. My eyes search uselessly for a moment, the dust and dullness of this house lying like a heavy veil in the air.
Then my wand is in my hand and I Summon the atlas.
The bookcase creaks. Several volumes bound in navy cloth leap off the shelves. From the gap left behind, a great book flies at me. I catch it in both arms, stumbling beneath its weight.
I sit on the floor. The couch has done nothing to deserve the weight of me and atlas both.
I flip the cover over and thumb the pages. I can feel their newness, their crisp, uncreased leaves.
My eyes fixed on nothing in the distance, I turn the pages. My finger stops, pointing accusingly at my destination.
I turn my gaze back to the atlas and read.
I laugh. An atlas of the world in my hands; distant and exotic lands spread before me in blues and greens and yellows.
I am going to the Welsh coast.
There is another flare of light. I turn my eyes to follow it: a flash of flames as fleeting as it is sudden. Twenty witches and wizards surround her, wands raised. She is fierce, her eyes wild and sharp. Rings of smoke billow from her nostrils. They count down. Twenty jets of red rush forward and strike her.
She drops, a mound of dark green against the dying yellow grass.
“She’ll wake soon,” someone shouts. I think it’s Hettie. “We need to get her shifted. Northeast is our best bet. There’s another Muggle town not far south of here we need to avoid. Ready, everyone?”
When the beast has been dropped in some hidden valley, far from any Muggle inhabitants, Hettie catches up with me.
“Well, Snape, what do you reckon?” she asks, her voice no less booming for being directed at one person rather than nineteen.
“I am inclined to stay for the duration,” I say.
“Excellent.” She makes a move as though to slap my back in enthusiasm, but thinks better of it.
“Welcome on board, then.”
I hold out my hand, and she takes it. As we shake, I can feel the roughness of her hands. Her palms are hard, and the backs of her hands are more calluses than not.
“Thank you,” I say. I mean it. I had never thought to be welcomed again.
“Interesting career move, though, isn’t it?” she comments absently.
The other handlers are Apparating back to the settlement.
“Interesting how?” I say.
I hadn’t thought Hettie the sort to bring up my past.
“From a Hogwarts headmaster to a dragon trainer? Bit of a change in pace, I’d say.”
I hold back a smile. “If you’d met some of my students you might know, as I do, that there is little change at all.”
Hettie laughs and Apparates away.
No longer withholding my smile, I follow.
When Harry woke, he felt as though he had been put in a vice. His entire body ached as though squeezed past endurance. He could smell the familiar potions of the Infirmary.
His eyes crept open, blades of light slicing through his head. He groaned.
His vision cleared enough that he could see the room he was in. The walls were an unfamiliar white, and the curtain half drawn around his bed was not Hogwarts’s standard issue. Harry struggled upright, regretting the motion as his muscles trembled and his head spun. He fell back to the bed with a pained grunt.
Black edged his vision and he saw no more.
“–ister Jones has no living relatives according to our records. I’m sorry Mister Snape, but –”
“It’s Professor Snape.”
“Of course, Professor. I’m afraid you’re unable to visit at present.”
The word Snape sent a throb of pain through his head. Or maybe his head was just throbbing anyway. Either way it sounded familiar.
“Mister Jones, you’re awake!”
Harry’s eyes were closed, so it took him a moment to realise that she was speaking to him.
But why would she be calling him –
Three years slammed into him with the force of a cannon ball. His eyes burst open. “Severus!”
“I’m here, Thomas.” A tall shadow moved into his field of vision.
“What happened?” Harry said. The words felt as though they were being forced out through a fist.
A cool hand pushed his fringe away from his forehead and Harry realised his eyes had fallen shut again.
“The Library was attacked,” Severus said. His hand ceased stroking through Harry’s hair; Harry sighed. “It was a resurgence of Death Eaters. The Dark Mark... No one was killed. There is no indication why something like this would happen so long after the Dark Lord’s fall.”
“Two wizards bearing the Dark Mark were arrested at the site.”
There was something frigid in the woman’s voice that shivered down Harry’s spine.
“Your injuries should keep you incapacitated for a further week. It is possible you will go home before then if you have someone suitable to care for you.”
“Your other Healers and I are undecided on whether the Professor is an appropriate choice. He has barely been cleared of suspicion for bringing about your injuries – and the injuries of dozens of others.”
Harry forced his eyes open so he could glare weakly. “Severus would be the perfect choice, but that’s not what I was asking.” He turned his head so that his gaze fell on Severus. “Are you okay?”
“I am quite alright, Thomas,” Severus said. Harry’s hand found Severus’s and he was surprised to find that Severus did not let go. “You cushioned my fall, you idiot.”
“Well, I knew you had to be keeping me around for something.” Harry’s throat felt bruised.
Capable hands lifted him, and he found himself leaning against a strong arm. A glass was pressed to his lips and he drank greedily. The water slid down like a balm, soothing the ache briefly. His eyes fell shut. He felt the glass pulled away and was settled back onto the mattress. The word thanks didn’t make it to his lips before he was asleep again.
A mess tent has been set up. We will be at this location long enough to warrant it; there is a nest nearby, and the mother is responsible for several forest fires. It could be several days before we catch her and work out the problem. Or rather, before the others catch her and work out the problem. I’m simply here in case the solution involves a potion.
I toy with my soup, lifting a spoonful and watching it splash back into the bowl. No matter the height I drop it from, the drips do not spill over the edge. The bowl is charmed, I suppose.
I am not enjoying the food here.
A witch and a wizard, deep in conversation, sit opposite me. I recognise neither of them. The turnover in this job is remarkably high. I allow their words to wash over me.
“We’re leaving soon. Team Holly, be ready and out front in five.”
Hettie’s voice booms across the tent. I am startled back into awareness. I will be accompanying Team Holly to the nest for reconnaissance.
“– gone off his rocker.”
“They let him out of Mungo’s too early, if you ask me. He’s definitely too nuts to be working as an Auror. Damn near got himself killed last week.”
The witch is nodding. “I know. Nasty curse, that one. And I heard no one visited him while he was re-growing his spine. Quite the anti-social little twat; frightened away all his friends. I reckon killing You Know Who’s sent him round the –”
“Severus!” Hettie steps up beside me and takes my elbow. “We’re meeting Team Holly just at the entrance in a couple of minutes.”
I nod. I Banish my tray and follow Hettie outside.
The sky is so overcast that it’s easy to forget that it’s meant to be blue. Dull grey armours the sun and casts the fields in shadow. A group of fifteen is gathered, performing last minute checks on their kits, joshing each other and laughing.
I stop a little outside the group. I touch my potion case with two fingers, but do not bother to check inside. I know I have all the draughts I need.
“Everyone present and correct?” Hettie says; there is no need to amplify her voice with magic. “Right. On your brooms, then.”
I mount my broom, shifting my potions case to my back. This part of the job is unexpectedly pleasant. I have never thought myself fond of flying, but now I relish the feeling of weightlessness. The wind beats against my face, a few strands of hair fight free to whip around me; I learnt some time ago to tie my hair back for these journeys. When winter comes I’ll need a balaclava, though no doubt I could afford to lose some of my nose to frostbite.
All too soon we descend. The valley below us is half-blocked by the slumbering dragon. She is coiled around her nest so tightly that I cannot make out its contents.
As we come in to land, I see that her eyes are open. She follows us avidly. I am so stunned, my broom falls from my hands and I tumble the remaining two feet to the ground.
From the shouts and curses around me, it is plain I was not the only one caught off my guard.
A group of three approaches hesitantly, wands out. The dragon does not react. They fire a diagnostic spell at her eyes. She does not blink. Another spell, another, and she doesn’t flinch.
Hettie is frowning. I catch her eye and nod to the dragon.
“Reckon we’ll have to put her down. She’s dying anyway. Losing her mind. At least she’s had a good few years behind her.”
“She’s an old dragon?”
Hettie nods. “Sure. See the silvery tint to her scales? How brittle her claws are, all chipped?”
I lick my lips, preparing to ask another question. I am not an expert on dragons. Yet. “Of course. But why, then, is she guarding a nest?”
“Mind’s gone, like I said. Nest’ll be empty. She’s not the first we’ve had thinking she was someone’s mother. Bless her.”
“Hey, Hettie! Who’re gonna put her to sleep?” A tall wizard with a short beard is holding his wand loosely, and eyeing the dragon with discomfort. “I did one a couple of months back, mind, so reckon it shouldn’t be me.”
“You’re fine, Owen. King, Finley, Jackson, would you put her out of her misery?”
There is much grumbling amongst those identified, but they all step forward.
I hear a slight crack, and my attention returns to the dragon. She is staring intensely at something contained in her claw. I step to the side and see it.
Something is hatching.
King, Finley and Jackson have their wands raised against her now. I have seen this spell cast before; the creature’s muscles spasm for a full minute after her heart stops. Her mind shuts down before her body.
I am not aware of making a decision to speak.
“She has an egg in her claw. You need to remove it or it’ll be crushed.”
There is stillness following my words, followed by a sudden rush of activity.
“It’s hatching!” calls a voice.
“Hey, nice catch, Snape,” Finley says. He shoots me a grin as he helps subdue the dragon enough to extract the egg. She is so exhausted, not much is needed.
Hettie watches with her hands on her hips.
“Egg out? Good. Jones, get it incubated. King, Finley, Jackson: as you were.”
I am in no hurry to depart, even as the others mount their brooms. There are important ingredients to be harvested before the dragon’s corpse is disposed of, and I see no sense in wasting the opportunity.
Hettie has stayed to oversee. She has stressed to me more than once that she has every faith in me, but there is a legal requirement for her to supervise any member of staff around restricted goods. She leans irreverently against the carcass as I work.
“Guess she was nesting after all. Good call.”
I shrug, not turning away as I strip away the dragon’s healthier scales.
“Sheer dumb luck. I caught sight of the egg moments before the spell was cast.”
Hettie smiles warmly. “It’ll be hatched soon. Are you anxious to see whether it’s a boy or a girl?”
I snort. “It’s a little monster either way, why should I care?”
Little times passes before I bundle my haul – less than half my average – and turn to face her.
“But let’s go see anyway, shall we?”
Her laughter is swept away by the wind, but I hear enough to know that she is not in the least convinced of my indifference.
When Harry next woke, he knew exactly where he was, and why Severus was there with him. He smiled sleepily, his hands coming up to de-goo his eyes clumsily.
Severus’s gaze followed his hand’s movement closely.
“It’s odd,” Severus said. Whatever it was couldn’t be odder than his voice. “Being ill certainly brings out the green in your eyes.”
Harry stopped rubbing his eyes. He stopped moving, stopped breathing entirely, and his heart stood still in his chest. Of course: they must have taken his contacts out. His eyes had probably been inflamed as anything after a day or so and he’d been here three or four.
Severus was staring at him, lips thinned in a line. He wasn’t happy.
Dear sweet Jesus.
“I ...” There was nothing Harry could think to say to mitigate this.
His heart leapt once, settling in his throat. He touched his fingers to his forehead, slowly exhaling a sigh of relief when he felt the prosthetic covering his scar still in place. When he’d learnt how to cast a Semi-Permanent Sticking Charm at the Burrow, he’d never thought he’d use it for anything more important than hanging pictures on the wall.
If nothing else, at least his scar was still hidden. And with any luck, there wouldn’t be enough of his roots showing for Severus to suspect he wasn’t blond. That he was disguised had been revealed, but not what it was he’d disguised. There was no way Severus could connect him to Harry Potter in the future.
Severus was stood now, arms folded defensively over his chest.
Harry licked his lips nervously, eyes flitting to Severus and away again.
“I... I’m sorry,” he said, finally. His voice was unfamiliar to him. “I really – I can’t say.”
In a storm of black, Severus was gone.
Well, that could have gone worse.
But it certainly could have gone better.
Oh, dear sweet Jesus.
Harry knew that Severus was watching his every move. He’d stayed in bed the required week and not a minute longer. He’d done something to the muscles in his back that apparently meant he wasn’t allowed to so much as sit up unaided, or so Severus seemed to think.
“Will you be following me into work on Wednesday to make sure I don’t overexert myself lifting books?” Harry said.
Severus didn’t respond to the tease. As attentive as he’d been since Harry’s return from St Mungo’s, he’d barely spoken a word. It was driving Harry mad. There was something about a silent Severus that set him on edge.
Harry sighed, limping past the Transfigured cot and out to the hall. He made it to the bathroom this time before stopping to catch his breath.
He half-expected to find Severus behind him still, his scrutiny heavy as Harry struggled to hold his own weight; he was like a foal taking its first faltering steps.
Severus had not followed.
The water for the shower heated instantly. Harry stripped and stepped under the weak flow. Even that made his back ache.
Here, where there was no one watching him, where no eyes might peer into his own and glimpse his mind, he might just admit that he missed Severus. A little. A lot. A truly surprising amount. He missed Severus the way he had missed Ron during those first weeks of the Triwizard Tournament.
The wrongness of Severus’s silence covered him like a greasy film, something he could not shake, that clung to him even as he tried to return to normalcy. In a way, it was worse than when Ron had not believed him, because here there was no Hermione to bring him toast and sympathy, and no dragon to shock Severus out of his distrust, and no reason for Severus to forgive him because he was right.
The ache of loneliness that he had known during his first year and a half in this time – that had been soothed by Severus’s presence – had flared up once more in the past week.
Harry supported himself with his forearms against the wall, his head falling forward to lean against the cool tiles. This situation was useless. He could not allow Severus to leave for Hogwarts while this lay over them. There were less than two weeks left. However it had happened, Harry could not deny that Severus’s regard had come to be important to him.
He would win it back.
Harry rushed through the rest of his shower, determined to address Severus now while his resolve was firm.
Water trickled from his hair down his back, and he wrapped a towel around his hips rather than dressing. He marched from the bathroom to the living room, only to find it deserted. His walk to the bedroom was less certain.
Harry opened the door and sighed.
Severus was gone.
I am soothed by the sounds of shouts and loud roars outside my tent. My potion is nearly ready, and these days I find it harder to brew in silence.
Blue flames coil and uncoil restlessly over the liquid’s surface. A flash of green jolts through like lightening. I’ll know it’s finished when the flames change to green and stay that way.
In the meantime, I keep stirring.
The dragon must have been subdued. I have never known a beast to be that quiet when teething.
The potion is ready to decant. This one must be warm when applied, so I select a carved wooden vial.
Finley is waiting for me when I duck under the tent flap and into the open.
“Snape, you’re a hero,” he says, taking the vial from my hand. “I thought we’d never get him over so we could apply this. Wouldn’t fancy rubbing it on his gums when he was awake.”
I snort. “I wouldn’t fancy rubbing it on his gums anyway. The mouth of a dragon – two weeks old or not – is not somewhere I want to put my hand.”
“Oh, he’s harmless,” Finley says, but he’s grinning. It is plain that he knows that the creature’s harmlessness is contingent on his remaining unconscious. “You got a name for him yet?”
“I don’t see why I should name him,” I say. “I’m here for potions research. The dragons are incidental.”
“You saved him, you name him. You’ve been here long enough to know the rules.”
I hesitate. “I thought maybe... Norbert. I knew a dragon that was supposed to be a Norbert once, but she grew out of the name.”
“That wouldn’t be Hagrid’s Norberta, would it? I should’ve known you’d have met her.”
“You worked with Hagrid when he was Care of Magical Creatures teacher, didn’t you?”
I nod. I bite my tongue lest I say something incriminating and bitter. My past doesn’t matter here; the present is too diverting.
“Oh, you’ll be pleased to hear he’s coming up tomorrow to visit. From France.”
I smile. It does not reach my eyes. I avoid people I knew from Hogwarts. I have been exonerated, but I am far from innocent. I can’t bear the looks in their eyes, of blame and pity and forgiveness.
“I look forward to it,” I say. “Now, isn’t there a dragon with a sore mouth out there, impatient for your tender touch?”
“I look forward to it,” Finley parrots, his face half-grin, half-grimace.
I watch him leave with a feeling that his encounter will go remarkably smoother than mine.
Severus had made himself scarce all week; not a difficult thing, considering Harry was back on nights (though only five-hour shifts; Morgan could be surprisingly paternal, given the minimal gap between their ages). The most Harry ever saw of his flatmate was a silhouette against the curtains, making its way to and from the Transfigured cot while Harry himself passed in the other direction.
The silver lining in this mess was that Severus no longer had a chance to question Harry’s actions. He’d finally made a trip to Grimmauld place, taking less than two hours. He replaced the Horcrux with an identical locket so that his future self would recognise it when he went back in time and read that book. Or something. Harry was pretty sure he’d avoided a paradox, at any rate.
As he strolled through the streets of London, he thought it a shame that he’d only managed to track two of the Horcruxes. He couldn’t touch the ring, he knew that. Much as the thought of destroying it, and with it saving Albus’s hand, was sorely tempting. The snake and the diary were out of bounds for similar reasons. That only left one, and it would have been nice to make a clean sweep of it.
But Harry had no idea where Voldemort might have hidden the last of his Horcruxes.
Turning into Diagon Alley, he saw the white walls of Gringotts greet him like a ship’s sails on the horizon. He snorted. If he’d had something he desperately wanted to protect back when he was younger, Gringotts would have been his second choice after Hogwarts. He couldn’t picture Voldemort having his own vault somehow.
Harry stopped dead in his tracks, almost getting himself knocked down by a brisk warlock.
Voldemort wouldn’t have his own vault, but one of his trusted followers might.
And though he would never get close enough to see it, and he’d surely never touch it, Harry suddenly knew exactly where the final piece of Voldemort’s soul was hidden.
“Hagrid,” I say, inclining my head slightly. I had thought to hide in the mess hall, a tree within the forest, but he has tracked me down.
“Professor,” he says, a grin splitting his face.
I do not tell him to dispense with the formalities; Hagrid is nothing if not a creature of habit.
She nods at me, but does not speak. From her pallor, and the way her lips are pinched together, I can deduce that she does not speak often these days.
An awkward silence settles heavily over us, one I have no inclination to see lifted. Hopefully the frigidity of my attitude will soon send them running to the dragons just for heat. I have no desire to endure a catch-up.
Hagrid’s attention is caught by a familiar face. From their chatter, I gather that this boy learnt Care of Magical Creatures under Hagrid, which certainly explains his desire to work with magic’s most deadly selection.
Granger does not turn to look at me. I expect her to keep her silence, and she exceeds my expectations once more by opening her mouth.
“I was surprised to hear that you work here. Are you enjoying it?”
“I am.” I do not ask any questions of my own; I have no wish to know what she gets up to.
“Harry was even more surprised than me. Or at least so Hagrid says. He tried to look for you after your trial. Harry, that is.”
I glance at Granger, but her eyes are still fixed ahead.
“He evidently did not look very hard. I am scarcely in hiding here.”
“I don’t think he wanted you to know he was looking.”
“I see.” I really don’t. “And the reason you are happy to betray the confidence of your friend to me?”
“Haven’t you heard? We are no longer friends.”
I nearly drop my tea in shock. I stare at her, aware that my mouth is hanging ever so slightly open. I cannot string a question together. Luckily, I don’t have to.
“Harry has been rather careless with his life; you cannot have failed to notice. He’s avoiding me – avoiding his friends – because he knows we’ll ask him to stop. Again. And now he’s decided to – Well, he’s planning something I find myself quite opposed to. Something quite selfish, which is rare for him. He deserves to be selfish but I wish... I just wish he would see sense. I don’t think my anger has changed his mind one whit, and he’s so hard to stay cross with. I will probably try to see him again soon.”
I cannot say I share her sentiment.
“You are still angry with him?”
“I don’t see how I can not be, knowing what he wants to do. But he does need me. I couldn’t leave him in hospital alone again. It broke my heart. Mrs Weasley will be furious if I cave, of course. I’ll have to tell her first.”
I snort. “You’ll be telling her second. For some unknowable reason, you are telling me first.”
Granger is smiling faintly, though her gaze is still averted. “I thought that someone had better let you know. That’s why I volunteered to meet Hagrid in Dover.”
“I thought you were surprised to hear I worked here. Now you claim to have known all along?”
Her smile becomes more solid. “I was surprised when I heard. Of course, I heard some time ago. As did Harry.”
Hagrid is beckoning her over. There is some beast he wants to introduce her to, no doubt. As I watch her leave, I realise that, for all that she said she had come to relay information, I know nothing more than I knew this morning.
Harry forewent sleep. Severus was leaving in a couple of hours, and Harry was damned if he was going to let him go like this. He sat on the sofa, elbows on knees and head in his hands, waiting.
Finally, the sound of footfalls in the hall brought his head up.
“Severus,” he said, his voice worn and weary. “Please, just sit.”
After a moment’s hesitation, Severus obeyed.
Harry was so surprised that he just stared, stunned.
“Did you want something, or are you simply going to gape like a moron?”
Harry fell back to himself with a thump. “Right, well. I wanted to resolve things between us.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about, Jones.”
Harry flinched. “You never call me Jones. Not even at the start.”
Severus sneered at him. “Completely contrary to common courtesy, when we met you did not offer me your last name. Of course the point is moot, given that I know that neither Thomas nor Jones is your name.”
A flush stole across Harry’s face. “I didn’t want to lie to you, Severus –”
“And yet you lied anyway. You have lived in my home for a year; a year in which you failed to be honest with me once.”
“That’s not fair!” Harry cried. “I lied about one thing. You can’t know who I am. There is too much at stake. But I lied about nothing else.”
Severus stood, turning half away as though he could not bear to look at Harry. “This research, Jones. It is not the purely academic study you led me to believe, is it?”
Harry stared down at his hands. “It’s not.”
“For all I know,” Severus said, his face twisted, “you conduct your research here, and not at the library.”
It took Harry a moment to realise what Severus was implying.
“You think I’m spying on you? No, Severus! That’s not it at all. I promise you –”
“What is one of your promises worth, when lies drip so easily from your lips?” His eyes darted to Harry’s lips.
“I am not lying!” Harry screamed, suddenly on his feet. “I’ve hated lying to you, but surely you of all people should understand. How many lies did you tell before Voldemort fell, Severus?”
Severus reared back as though slapped. “You have no right –”
“Nor do you have any right to judge me for lying to you. Lives are at risk, do you understand me? I have no idea what the consequences would be if I told you the truth.”
“No right?” Severus asked. His voice quietened, deadly soft. “No right to demand honesty? When all this time you have led me to believe – to believe –”
“To believe what?”
Severus turned back to look at him. His face was flushed, and Harry had only a moment to think that it did not suit him before a hand was around his neck and lips pressed against his.
He gasped, and a tongue slid agilely into his mouth. He had never in his life been kissed like this. His hands hung uselessly at his sides even as Severus’s began to wander, to clutch at him and drag him close. Harry choked, his eyes falling shut when Severus slid a hand over the small of his back.
He didn’t mean to, God knew he didn’t mean to, but –
He kissed back.
A hand came up to cup his face, and Harry placed his own hand over it, fingers entwining. His other hand gripped an arm, holding himself up and keeping Severus near him.
Not that Severus showed any signs of stopping.
Harry was panting, but he did not pull away. His head swam from lack of air, but he was desperate to keep this connection. Once the moment was broken, Harry knew – Harry knew –
He redoubled his efforts, pushing forth with his tongue and surging into Severus’s mouth. He faltered forward, pressing himself so closely to Severus that there was no telling whose heartbeat was whose. The kiss was clumsy, and Severus had to have noticed, but Harry wouldn’t let him pull back. Just now, just here, Harry thought.
And then it was over. Harry could feel tears on his face. A gentle thumb wiped them away, his own hand trapped into moving with it. He turned away.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered. His voice trembled, as though these were his first words.
“Don’t be,” Severus murmured, lips moving against Harry’s hair. It tickled.
“I wish... I wish I could. I can’t, Severus. I can’t.”
He stepped back, trying to disentangle his hand from Severus’s.
“You can’t what?”
And Severus’s voice was cold again.
His hand freed, Harry stumbled backwards. He whimpered as he jarred his back against the couch.
“I never thought you would... It never occurred to me that you might...”
“That I would believe your act so thoroughly? That, as my only defender, you would own me?”
“I don’t. Severus, please...”
He slid to the floor. He was shaking.
“You are one of only two people with leave to call me Severus, and you did not believe I would be affected?”
Severus knelt, his face inches from Harry’s.
Harry couldn’t look up.
“I didn’t think what it would mean for you. I never think. I just... do.”
“Then do this.”
And Severus leant forward, trying to capture Harry’s lips again.
Harry scrambled away, turning his eyes miserably to Severus at last.
“I can’t. It wouldn’t be right. You don’t know who I am.”
“I don’t care. You said the rest of it wasn’t a lie. I know that is true; you would not have... if you did not care for me at all. That is enough.”
“It shouldn’t be. You deserve better.”
Severus growled. His fist slammed into the couch above Harry’s head. Harry flinched.
“Hang what I deserve! You, you, are what I want, and you are within my reach. Why can I not have you?”
“I’m leaving,” Harry said, the words little more than air. “I don’t know when, but I’ll have to leave you. I couldn’t do that. It’s all or nothing. It can’t be all.”
Severus’s face was carved from stone.
“So it is to be nothing.”
Harry let his head drop back against the couch. He closed his eyes against the sting of what couldn’t possibly be tears. Not again. He felt as though he could fly apart any moment, as though nothing was anchoring him and he could dissipate into the air.
“It is to be nothing,” he repeated softly.
He heard fabric shuffling, but didn’t open his eyes. He did not want to see Severus walk away.
He was startled a moment later by pressure against his side. Severus was warm, and Harry moved to him automatically. Long arms wrapped around him.
“Fool,” Severus said to him, arms tightening. “It could never be nothing.”
Chapter 6: Part Six
There are some ingredients that I am unable to procure simply by living in the heart of the wilderness, amongst forests and dragons. Given that these ingredients are for an experiment unrelated to work, I have had to venture out myself, and am pleased to note that my face garners little reaction. My trial has smoothed more ruffled feathers than I had guessed.
There is a queue in the apothecary. I join it, my basket nicely heavy on the crook of my elbow. I shuffle forward as one patron after another is attended to. I forgot that today is Saturday, but I am in no rush after all.
There is a scuffle of sound behind me. I glare over my shoulder, assuming that someone has tried to push ahead in line. Instead, I see someone in a desperate hurry to leave.
“I’m sorry, sir, let me help,” a man is saying, gathering up dropped shopping for someone who must be half his age.
“No, no, it’s fine, please.” The boy is speaking low, as though to avoid attention. Given we are all waiting to be served and have nothing better to do, we stare regardless. It is curious enough to hold our attention, that someone elder should be so deferent.
But then the older wizard moves and I understand. Harry Potter is kneeling, collecting his shopping by hand and shooting worried glances around himself.
He is pale, his hair greasy enough to rival mine at its worst. He has gained muscle but lost weight and it does not suit him.
His eyes dart up and catch mine. He freezes.
This stalemate bears down on me, daring me to be the first to act. I can feel it, a tangible, brittle weight between us. The effort of maintaining it is exhausting.
I raise an eyebrow.
He flushes. He has the rest of his scattered belongings in his arms in an instant. He is on his feet and his eyes are shining. He backs through the door, thanking the man who helped him (and who presumably knocked his bags to the ground to begin with), and vanishes.
That really was curious. I turn away, surprised to see the queue has barely diminished. Several customers are watching me, fascination written across their faces as plainly as if scrawled in ink. I look pointedly at the shop assistant, who immediately busies himself weighing a bowl of rat’s bowels. Eventually, the interest focused on me drifts elsewhere.
With my purchases paid for, I gladly quit the apothecary; I am not comfortable under the burden of their stares.
Potter, for all that he has worn his heart on his sleeve since the day he was born, makes absolutely no sense to me.
Harry could not seriously be considering this. There was no way it would work. It simply wasn’t possible.
But possible or not, he was walking down the Atrium in the Ministry of Magic, a borrowed wand in his pocket and his Library Identification fixed to his lapel.
His heart pounded in his chest while he waited for them to scan his borrowed wand. The noise of it would surely give him away. He used ‘borrowed’ very loosely to describe how he’d come by it; whomever it had belonged to had no need for it now, Harry was sure of that at least.
“Name?” a dispassionate voice asked.
“Thomas Jones. I’m with the National Library of Magical Reference.”
The witch made a note of something, then thrust the wand back to him. Harry stared, mouth slightly agape. His heart had ceased pounding, ceased beating altogether. Surely he hadn’t –
“Next!” the witch called, pointedly glaring at Harry until he hurried past.
He had. He was in.
He walked slowly to the lift, half expecting a security team to rush out at him before he could make it past the golden grilles, but no one came. The lift jerked into motion. The other wizard sharing it with him didn’t say a word the whole time they sank lower and lower. Harry closed his eyes, forcing away memories of the last time he’d taken this lift.
The doors opened for the Department of Magical Law Enforcement, and Harry stumbled out. The office was hectic, wizards and witches rushing to calm owls that flew in frantic circles over their heads, a series of Floos along one wall manned by friendly-looking witches. As Harry watched, a head appeared in the fire. The man was screaming.
“You’ve reached the Emergency Auror Floo Service. Please step back, keep the connection open, and we’ll send help immediately.”
A red-robed figure marched grimly forward, hand streaming green powder. She tossed it into the flames and followed.
Making his way along the wall, keeping as far out of the way as he could, Harry finally arrived at a door bearing the plaque, ‘Criminal Records’.
He knocked uncertainly.
The door opened immediately, so suddenly that Harry almost fell forward into the room. There was a young wizard on the other side, looking so utterly bored that Harry understood why he had been so quick to answer his knock.
“Uh, hi. I’m here to do a bit of research.”
The wizard looked unimpressed.
“I’m with the National Library of Magical Reference.” He nodded his chin to the badge he was wearing. “This isn’t strictly business, but I came across a criminal who used a rather arcane Dark spell, and given its historic precedence, I was hoping to investigate the effects further. Normally a spell of this kind will produce a marked effect on its caster, and I would like very much to see what his records say, and whether there are further crimes indicating that the spell might have –”
Harry cut himself off, biting his cheek to hold in a grin when the wizard simply stepped back, making his way over to a desk bearing a worn magazine.
“Help yourself,” he said.
His speech had been based on one part Severus and two parts Hermione. All around mind-numbing enough so that no one could possibly remain interested.
Harry stared at the cabinets snaking around the room. He did not know if the reports were filed chronologically or alphabetically or by crime. But as far as he’d got, he could hardly let that be the barrier that stopped him.
He rolled up his sleeves and dug in. Eventually he would come across the report sentencing Bellatrix Lestrange to Azkaban, and when he did he could only hope the report would say what had become of her Gringotts vault key.
It was several hours later. Harry could hear the faint rumble of snoring from the wizard who was supposed to be supervising him. Dust marked Harry’s elbows, blanketed his hair, tickled his throat. He held in his hands Lestrange’s file.
The file did not say where her Gringotts key could be found, but Harry’s search had not been fruitless by a long shot.
The key was stuck to the file.
It was held to the parchment with a spell so strong Harry would swear he could hear it humming softly. There was no chance of Harry breaking the enchantments and taking the key, but it was possible he didn’t need to. He tested the parchment, the key, and the buzzing wards, noting his discoveries hastily on Muggle paper. If he could find out what this spell was, he might be able to find a way to circumvent it without breaking it; he was sure that breaking it would immediately alert the Ministry to the key’s theft.
Harry glanced over his shoulder. He could no longer hear snores. He carefully slotted the file back into place, glancing around to make a mental picture of where it was. He then walked a little to the left, noisily withdrawing a random file and letting out a sound of satisfaction. He made a show of writing out a roll of notes, barely absorbing a single word on the parchment before him.
When he had finished, he shoved the file back into place. Anyone watching would presume that this was what he’d come looking for, not the other file he’d looked at for five minutes.
He walked to the door, a roll of parchment trailing from his arms.
“I’ll be back tomorrow,” he said, injecting false cheer into his voice.
“Sure,” the wizard said dully, not looking up from his magazine.
Harry’s heart pounded harder on his second trip. He wasn’t sure whether this was because he was certain that he must have given himself away, or because of the illegal poison stashed in his robe pocket, or because of the Horcruxes he could feel pulsing at his back.
If he pulled this off today, he wanted the Horcruxes immediately destroyed. It had been foolish to keep two in the flat he shared with Severus; he would not take a third back there. Whatever happened, he would see the locket and the diadem destroyed by the day’s end.
The wizard on the way in looked at Harry curiously.
“Your wand’s never been registered.”
“Uh, should it have been?” Harry said, his lungs struggling to pull in air.
“Hogwarts usually registers wands for first years. S’not too unusual for people as didn’t go to Hogwarts to have an unregistered wand.”
“Oh, right. Well, I never went. Ah, home-schooled.”
The wizard nodded, handing Harry his wand back. “You’ll want the forms, so you can do it yourself. Not everyone bothers, but it’s dead useful.”
“Excellent, thank you!” Harry said, hoping he sounded as though he were actually considering filling the forms in. He accepted the roll of parchment, shoving it in his rucksack.
He found Lestrange’s file quickly enough. He kept his pace slow, and his gaze wandering, as though not quite sure where he’d found the file he was after.
He knew what spell kept the key to the parchment, and there was no way to circumvent it (Harry had been imagining an Indiana Jones style scenario where he deftly traded the key for something identical in size and weight). However, there was a way the spell’s reactions could be slowed. The least amount of time Harry would gain was two hours. The optimum was six.
Harry hoped two would be enough.
He was shielded from sight by a tower of filing cabinets. He muttered Muffliato to avoid being overheard. The spell that he was about to cast would be much more suspicious than a sound-proofing one.
It took ten minutes to complete the spell. Harry lifted the key, feeling the resistance as the spell protecting it clung to it still. He stowed the key away in his robes, sliding it into a pouch and then a pocket. His hands fumbled as he returned the file to its shelf.
He stalked from the record room, mumbling vaguely about having forgotten something.
He glanced at his watch. One hour, fifty-eight minutes.
He sped up.
Harry had never before wished so strongly that he could Apparate. The tube ride to the Leaky Cauldron was almost painfully slow. An ache settled in Harry’s stomach as the train raced through its serpentine lair.
With the bank in sight, Harry glanced at his watch again. One hour, twenty-four minutes.
Harry looked straight ahead as he walked inside, gaze avoiding the warnings engraved at the entrance. He could hear Hagrid telling him that you’d have to be mad to try to rob it.
Maybe he was mad.
He presented the goblin with the key. Harry leaned against the counter as he waited, trying not to betray his fear.
But the goblin did not question Harry’s right to use this key; he merely beckoned for a hairy-eared goblin from the nearest door.
“Vault sixty-six, Gristbite.”
The hairy-eared goblin nodded, leading Harry through a door and towards a cart. The journey took much longer than any other occasion when Harry had visited Gringotts, and he had to restrain himself from checking his watch again.
They sank deeper and deeper into the bowels of London, finally arriving at a vault hidden in part by a slumbering dragon.
Harry eyed the dragon nervously.
“We have means of subduing her,” Gristbite said. He stretched out a hand, resting his palm against the vault’s door. A keyhole appeared. Gristbite held the key in long fingers, settling it in the lock and turning.
The door vanished.
Harry stepped inside the vault, eyes sweeping the cavernous room. He saw the cup. Glancing back at the goblin, who was watching him with narrowed eyes, Harry lifted his wand and tried to Summon it.
The goblin laughed, a dry, hacking sound that set Harry’s teeth on edge.
Shoving his wand into his pocket, Harry climbed a mound of gold, losing his footing more than once as coins shifted, until he could reach the cup. With it in hand, he turned his back on Gristbite and murmured, “Gemino.”
With the replica safely replaced, and the Horcrux stowed in his bag, Harry descended and stood next to the goblin.
“Your business is complete?”
“Yes,” Harry said.
They clambered back into the cart, whizzing away from vault sixty-six; Harry felt as though his stomach had been left behind.
It had been too easy. The goblins were shrewd; surely it could not be so simple to trick them, to access a vault not his own?
Gringotts keys were notoriously hard to lose, or steal, Harry knew. The power afforded to him by means of this tiny scrap of metal seemed unreal. The Ministry should probably look into protecting them better.
The cart stopped abruptly, and Harry all but fell out. Gristbite watched him, wearing a nasty smirk.
“Few wizards find the carts to be comfortable,” he said.
Harry did not ask why they used the carts; he knew how little the goblins cared for wizards’ comfort.
On shaky legs, Harry made his way out of the building. As he reached the door, a swarm of red-robed wizards pushed past him.
Harry dropped the key from his hand.
He heard an Auror demand to a goblin that they exercise more caution than usual over security following “an incident in the Ministry archives”.
The goblin bristled, his reply intentionally provocative.
Harry heard nothing beyond that.
He forced himself to walk away from Gringotts rather than run.
He waited until he had made it into Muggle London before finally giving in to his instincts. He sprinted to the nearest tube station, riding the train one stop before getting off and changing. He did this three times before he felt sure that he wouldn’t be easily followed.
The cold dread of three Horcruxes shadowed Harry.
He needed to get out of London. Harry had worked out a way to destroy the Horcruxes, but for it he would need privacy. More, he would need to be somewhere people weren’t. God knew what damage it would do if this went awry.
He rushed into Victoria station and bought a ticket for the first train out.
The train was waiting at the platform. The doors slid shut moments after Harry had found a seat.
He stared out of the window as they pulled away, half-expecting wizards to Apparate into the station. But he knew they had no way of tracing him; he hadn’t used a single spell since Gringotts, and he was never going to use the wand they’d linked to him again anyway.
Harry stood, rattling down the train until he got to the toilet. With the door locked behind him, he snapped the wand he’d stolen from Grimmauld Place with a resounding crack. He was sure that those outside the cubicle must be wondering what the hell he was doing in here, but it hardly mattered.
The wand’s core was all but bare by the time Harry had finished. He gathered the splinters and flushed them.
Harry stayed on the train until there were more trees than houses.
He spared a glance for the station’s name on his way out. Redhill.
Harry was sure that he was out of London. He tailed the crowds from the station and just followed the first road he came across. He’d been walking for fifteen minutes when he saw an area populated by enough trees to provide cover. He wiped his sweaty palms on his jeans before hopping the fence.
He walked in a straight line. Loath as he was to leave a trail, he didn’t want to lose himself, so he carved a small triangle into a tree every thirty feet or so. Finally he felt safe enough to stop.
Harry sat himself cross-legged on the forest floor, his bag in front of him. From it, he extracted a black stone. His Transfiguration skills had improved somewhat since he’d left Hogwarts, but his spell still lasted longer if the material was the same.
With the image firmly fixed in his mind, Harry waved his wand. The stone lifted, expanding, its rough edges becoming smooth and angular. The heavy box dropped to the ground with a thud, sending clouds of dirt up.
Harry dropped the three Horcruxes into the box then thought better of it. He reached for the locket again, holding it to his mouth and quietly hissing in Parseltongue, “Open up.”
The locket sprang open.
He threw it back into the stone box.
From his robes, Harry drew a small vial of undiluted basilisk venom. As a potions ingredient, it was nearly impossible to procure, but luckily Harry knew just the place to find some.
Going back to Hogwarts was awkward. He’d had to fly, a Disillusioned robe nowhere near warm enough to make up for the moisture of the clouds bathing him.
Harry hadn’t flown much since coming here; he didn’t have time.
But he’d flown from London to Hogwarts, following a train-track invisible to Muggle eyes, evading birds, planes, and storms.
He’d never flown so hard in his life.
Once on the grounds, Harry had hidden the broom, and slid under his Cloak.
Slinking through the corridors, dodging students, Harry hadn’t dared to breathe.
Somewhere in this castle was Severus – Severus who had kissed him – Severus whom he had kissed back – Severus whom he wanted to kiss again.
When he’d left, Harry had pelted into the sky as though devils were nipping at his heels. He was back in London by dusk.
His mother was calling him.
He pulled the stopper from the vial.
“Harry, no! Please!”
He’d heard his mother begging before. He stared at the locket, heart pounding. What was her picture doing in there?
He reached for it again, drawing it out of the box with one hand, the vial still held aloft in his other. He settled the locket on his leg.
“Mum?” he whispered. His voice melded with the hush of leaves in the wind.
“Harry! Oh, my Harry, you’re making a mistake.”
Harry frowned. He put the vial down next to him.
The picture of his mother looked up at him, her smile painful to look at. For a second, he thought her eyes flashed scarlet.
“You mustn’t destroy me. You mustn’t destroy any of these things.”
Harry’s eyes hardened.
“I have to, Mum. You don’t know what they are.”
Like a Veela, she ceased being beautiful. “You’ll kill me.”
“You’re already dead, Mum,” Harry said, his throat tightening.
He brushed his thumb over her picture.
Agony. The metal of the locket seared through his jeans. He fell back, pain like he’d never known lancing through him from where the locket touched his thigh. He stared in horror as the portrait transformed, his mother’s hair receding, her skin whitening and hugging her skull ever more tightly, her nose disintegrating.
Voldemort stared out at him, his red eyes glinting malevolently. He was laughing.
Harry grabbed the chain and pulled. The Horcrux would not come away from his leg. He pulled harder, biting back a scream. It was like trying to pull off a finger.
He tore a strip off his shirt and wadded it into a ball, forcing it between his teeth. One hand groped for his rucksack, fumbling through it until he found his knife.
He clumsily pushed his jeans to his knees. Harry gritted his teeth in his cloth gag, sucked in a fortifying breath, and then another, and then touched the blade to his leg.
His eyes watered until he was nearly blind. He could feel the knife handle grow slippery with blood. The portrait was howling.
The locket fell. Harry swept his hand across his eyes, wiping away the tears. He flung the locket into the box with the other two Horcruxes and emptied the vial over them.
He shuffled away as they hissed and screamed. Paint ran from the locket like blood. He tore his eyes away and ripped a second strip from his shirt. He wrapped it hastily around his leg to stem the bleeding. His eyes darted to the stone box as he zipped up his jeans. Its contents were utterly destroyed, the stone itself beginning to crumble.
He dug a deep hole and kicked the box and its contents inside. They were worthless, harmless now. Little more than dust.
Harry knelt by the hole, sweeping dirt into it with both hands.
When he was finished, a small mound stood: an unmarked grave for three pieces of Voldemort’s soul.
Harry was covered in filth and sweat and blood. Through the hole singed in his jeans, the bloody strip of fabric could be seen, surrounded by blackening flesh. His tattered shirt exposed his stomach to the elements, a September chill embracing him.
He could not get the train back.
Harry closed his eyes.
Deliberation, destination, determination.
He turned, opening his eyes and taking in his room. He fell to the bed, shock seizing him.
Severus stood in the doorway watching, a newspaper tucked under his arm.
“Welcome home,” he said.
Chapter 7: Part Seven
It has been years since I have felt like this.
My head is heavy and my arms are too long for my body. I know that when I reach for my glass, I will reach too far and knock it. The thing’s damn near empty anyway, so there’s nothing to be spilt. I grab for it, downing the last of my pint triumphantly.
“Reckon that makes it my round,” I say. “Same again, is it?”
My colleagues from the Welsh reserve all make sounds of agreement, some more decipherable than others.
I surge to my feet. My hand pats my pocket, reassuring me that the pouch where I keep my money is still on me. I concentrate on putting one foot in front of the other and staying upright. When I finally reach the bar, I collapse over it, landing heavily on my elbows.
“Alright, Snape,” the barmaid says, grinning.
“My turn to buy the drinks. Don’t make me say what they’re all having.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it. I’ll get you refilled with the usual round, yeah?”
I nod and lay two Galleons on the bar. I haven’t paid for a round yet, but there’re eight of us drinking so two seems about right.
The first couple of times I came to the West Witch no one would let me pay, presumably to keep me coming. I’m surprised to find that I don’t need the incentive. I’ve too long had to be too careful; I’ve since found that getting pissed on a Friday night suits me.
I stumble back with a pocketful of Sickles and Knuts. I’ve not yet reached my chair when I see our glasses become full once more.
“The drinks’re in!” I announce, to much cheering.
“Here, Snape,” Finley says, putting his glass down too heavily so that ale spills over his fingers, “I don’t suppose you’d know owt about it? I mean, I’d guess you’re as out of the loop as I am, but you never know. You knew ‘im once.”
I frown, trying to determine whether an actual question has been asked of me.
“It’s Harry Potter,” Hettie puts in. “You don’t take the Prophet anymore, do you?”
“Of course it’s Potter,” I say, spitting out the syllables like I did a lifetime ago in a dungeon classroom. “What’s the idiot gone and done now? He’s not back in hospital, is he?”
Hettie shakes her head. “Not yet, but he’ll be headed there if he’s lucky. The crazy sod’s upped and said the Forbidden Forest ‘round Hogwarts is teaming with Acromantulas, and that he’s off in after them.”
It takes me a moment to comprehend the words. Even sober, I do not think I would understand this on the first telling.
“He is taking his Auror team into the Forbidden Forest to fight a family of creatures that no one knows how to fight?” I ask. My drink is in my hand, but I am hesitant to raise it to my mouth; I have no desire to spray beer on my companions.
Hettie is shaking her head again, but she doesn’t answer me.
Collins takes up her mantle. “Worse. He’s going in alone.”
My head falls to the table. “Of course he’s going in alone,” I mumble to the wood. He always goes in alone these days. He has seen one too many of the people he cares about drop dead in front of him, I’d wager.
I raise my head slightly, with much more difficulty than usual, and ask, “And the Department of Magical Law Enforcement has given him leave for this?”
“Threatened to quit. Not that I’m convinced it would be a bad thing. The lad’s clearly unhinged.” Hettie has found her voice again.
“They should let him quit.”
I do not want Potter going into the Forbidden Forest. He has embraced Death too many times. One day, she will not let him go.
“They would, if they had any decency, but Potter’s done them a right lot of good. He’s rounded up as many of the escaped Death Eaters alone as the others have put together; likely because he doesn’t seem to care one jot if he makes it out alive. Plus, there’s a certain cachet to having him work for the Ministry. He’s an endorsement, even if he’s madder than a boxful of Chocolate Frogs.”
Hettie no longer has full control of her volume. Her last sentence is shouted, and a few witches sat gossiping at the next table look over, clearly scandalised. Hettie pulls a face at them, and I can’t contain a snort at their disgusted gasps.
Collins leans forward, his thick elbows resting on the table. “It’s a crying shame they let him out of Mungo’s Closed Ward when they did.”
I remember pyjamas and bare feet shifting over cold stone and the unexpected power of Potter’s defence.
“– been barking ever since he killed You Know Who,” Jacks is saying.
I am suddenly sick of this conversation.
“The day that Potter killed the Dark Lord, he watched his best friend die. That alone would be enough to drive stronger men to insanity, and we all know that Potter faced more – worse – than that. Potter is not mad, but he of everyone I know has every right to be.”
I storm to the bar and order a double of whiskey. It is gone before the barmaid can bring my change.
“Alright?” she asks. She honestly sounds concerned.
“No. No, I’m not. And neither’s he.”
She doesn’t ask who he is. I don’t know if she overheard the conversation of if she thinks she’s respecting my privacy.
A minute later, a second whiskey lands in front of me.
“On me,” she says.
I sip this one.
I need time to cool before I return to the table. I have not been drunk for so long – the risks for a spy are innumerable – and I am sorry to say I no longer know how to handle my drink and my temper together.
“Oi, Snape. Your pint’s going flat,” Collins calls.
I push up from the bar and slowly weave my way back to my chair. I eye my drink.
“I assume by ‘flat’ you meant that it was becoming two dimensional,” I say. There is nothing left but foam coating the bottom of the glass.
“Waste not, want not,” says Finley, looking entirely too smug.
I send a hex at the hand he has around his own drink, and then Summon the cider to myself. I take a swig, grimacing.
“This is foul, Finley,” I say, but I have another mouthful regardless.
“You’ll not be wanting any more of it, in that case,” Finley says, his wand out.
His aim is off. Before he has a second chance, I gulp down the rest, thinking of anything but the taste in my mouth.
I allow Finley to Summon the glass back and he stares at it in horror. “Empty!” he moans, like a man injured.
“All’s fair in love and war,” I say, though I don’t mean it. It’s an old lie, that one. The kind that trips easily from the tongue.
“Snape, you having another?” Hettie is standing, her hands rifling through her handbag for her purse.
I don’t need another. I will splinch myself getting home tonight, or fall out of the wrong grate, and I will wake up half-dressed on top of my bedcovers, and my head will pound and pound and pound, and my throat will rasp, and my stomach will churn, and I won’t be able to face breakfast or daylight or myself in the mirror, and –
“Yes. Whiskey again, if you would.”
Harry wanted to sink back against the soft down of the bed and never get up.
“Bugger off, Snape,” he said through gritted teeth.
“Snape?” Severus said. “So it’s to be last names now that you’ve done what you came here to do? In that case, maybe you’d be so good as to give me yours.”
“What the fuck are you on about, Severus?” Harry badly wanted to see to his thigh, but he was reluctant to drop his trousers until Severus had left.
The Prophet slapped him in the face. He grabbed it, glaring at Severus before dropping his gaze to the headline.
Aurors Say That Thief Had Key
Harry’s heart was pounding. He forced himself to speak in an even voice.
Severus strode over, stopping in front of Harry so that he could loom over him.
“Idiot. Read on.”
Harry read on, eyes struggling to make out the words. He caught enough, though.
Goblin officials state, “He had the key. It’s none of your business.”... Jones... currently employed at the National Library of Magical Reference... most recent to have access...
Harry looked up. He couldn’t meet Severus’s eyes.
“I need to get out of here.”
There was no time for sensibilities now. Harry fell back against the bed and began to worm his way out of his jeans.
“What on Earth do you think –?”
“Belt up, Severus,” Harry said, flinging off his ruined shirt as well.
“Accio wand.” Wand in hand, Harry Summoned his trunk. He riffled through, pulling out vials of potions, all the while aware that he was sat in his boxers with Severus watching.
He ignored the weight of that gaze, turning his eyes to his blackened leg. He untied the makeshift bandage and drew it away, wincing as dried blood kept it clinging to the wound.
He heard Severus’s intake of breath.
“What did you do?” he whispered.
Harry ignored him.
He poked at his leg, teeth clenched. He could do nothing against the Horcrux damage; he didn’t even know what had happened to him. But he could do something to stop the bleeding and to shut up that damn hole he’d carved into his own fucking leg.
He found the bottle he wanted and pulled the stopper.
A cold hand clasped his wrist.
He glanced up through his fringe.
“Disinfectant first. Hold on.”
Severus marched from the room, returning a moment later with a blue potion. He knelt next to the bed, his face level with Harry’s injury.
“This will hurt.”
Harry nodded, his fingers curling into the sheets. A hand found his and squeezed.
Harry’s breath was ripped from him in sharp gasps. His fingers knotted with Severus’s and he held on. If he let go, he would slide away, he knew it. He would ride waves of pain until he was somewhere else, alone.
“Don’t let go.” Someone said it between pants.
“I won’t,” Severus said, his nails digging into the back of Harry’s hand.
Harry felt someone stroking his hair away from his face. He closed his eyes and leant into the touch.
He sagged, his body dropping sideways as agony loosened its grip of him. He saw a flash of black as he tried to open his eyes, and then there was a warm body next to him, holding him up.
“Thank you,” he whispered.
Severus didn’t say anything. His hand found its way back to Harry’s hair and he was petting him.
When Harry opened his eyes, it was in time to see Severus pour the Healing Potion into the gaping cut on his legs.
“It will likely scar,” Severus said, his voice hushed.
Harry smiled. “I don’t mind scars,” he said, equally quiet.
A gentle finger smoothed over the black skin of his thigh.
“I have something to re-grow skin tissue. It will take some time to work –”
“I don’t have time,” Harry said. “And I doubt it’d do me any good. Curse-caused means anti-curse-fixed.”
Severus held his chin and turned him, his eyes searching Harry’s face.
“Do you know the anti-curse?”
The hand at his chin tightened. Severus looked away.
Harry rushed to reassure Severus. “I know someone who might be able to stop it, if only...”
“I don’t know how to get back.”
Severus drew away so swiftly that Harry nearly fell.
He was stood again. Harry didn’t bother to look up.
“You robbed Gringotts, you stole from the Ministry of Magic, and you don’t know how to get back?”
He was shouting, shattering the softness and stillness that a moment ago had enveloped them.
“It’s not that easy.”
Severus was pacing, not looking at Harry. “You’re a fool. You must have known you’d be discovered. How can you have done something this monumentally stupid? How can you possibly not know the way back to wherever the hell you fucking came from?”
Harry erupted to his feet. “Shut up! Alright, just shut up. Someone cast a spell on me to get me here. You have no idea how much I want to go home now, but I have researched year after fucking year and I still don’t know how I even got here.”
He licked his lips, and said, “It’d be easier thinking of a counter to the Killing Curse.”
There was no counter. He knew there wasn’t. But Severus knew so much that Harry didn’t. Maybe he could help.
Severus snorted. “There’s no counter to the Killing Curse.”
Harry sighed. God knew what he was going to do now. Fugitives were hardly members of the local library. How was he going to find a way back? Forward. Whatever.
“The best you can hope for is to cast yours first.”
“I – wait, what?”
Harry’s heart was pounding. He wasn’t considering this.
“I said the best you can hope for is to cast yours first.” Severus was looking at him strangely, but Harry didn’t care.
“Cast yours... That’s it. That’s got to be it. And you can self-cast, I know that. As long as you have the proper motivation, you can cast at anything, so I just –”
“Tom, are you contemplating suicide?” Severus’s voice was higher than usual.
Harry was wavering on his feet. A way home. There was a way home. “No, no. Fuck. Oh fuck, thank you, Severus. Thank you thank you thank you!”
He half fell the two feet into Severus and planted a kiss unthinking on his lips. When he pulled back, the smile had fallen from his face.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to –”
Severus’s hands clutched Harry’s shoulders. He crushed their lips together. Harry’s knees failed him. He dropped against Severus’s chest, feet fumbling to find purchase.
Severus’s arms shifted around his back to hold him up. Their chests pressed together.
Harry opened his mouth desperately.
His hands couldn’t settle. They were fisted against Severus’s chest, and then smoothing over his shoulders, and then toying with his hair, holding his head in place, sliding round to cup his face gently.
Harry gasped into Severus’s mouth, his lips still moving.
The hands on his back sank lower, sliding inside his boxers and pushing.
Harry felt his groin thrust against Severus’s thigh and a groan was torn from him. He pressed a soft kiss to Severus’s jaw.
“I have to go.”
Severus threw his head back. “I know.”
Harry devoted himself, lips, teeth, and tongue, to the exposed throat. “Soon. I have to go soon.”
Hands tightened against his arse. “I know.”
Harry pulled Severus’s face down to his and whispered against his lips. “I’m sorry.”
Severus stepped back. His gaze was like a hand, a physical pressure over Harry’s body. He smirked at the obvious tent in Harry’s boxers.
Harry turned away, his heart aching. He pulled a white shirt out of his trunk, tugging it on and hastily fastening the buttons. He left the ones at the cuffs undone, racing to get a pair of black trousers on. He decided not to bother with socks, just slipping his trainers on bare feet.
He heard Severus approach behind him.
“I dropped the key in Gringotts. They have nothing to connect it to you.”
Severus touched his shoulder.
He didn’t turn. He bundled his robes over his arm, hoping that Severus wouldn’t see the Gryffindor crest. He closed his eyes and sucked in a deep breath.
“Thank you,” Harry said, his voice hoarse. “For everything. You... you’re too good for me to say. Don’t doubt that.”
“Don’t.” Harry didn’t want to hear it. “I’ll... I’ll see you again, okay? I’ll make sure I see you again.”
He lifted his wand from the bed. He needed nothing else from his trunk. He didn’t turn for one last look. He didn’t dare. He left the room, closing the door softly behind him.
I take the Daily Prophet and the Evening Prophet now. I can date this to the night I was told of Potter’s most recent fool’s errand. Following the leak, he has refused to give interviews or comment.
It has been a week.
I am toying with the idea that, like so many other things, this story on Potter is naught but lies. I would have concluded thus instantly – at the very least as soon as I had woken with a pounding hangover – if not for Granger.
“He has made a decision he won’t be dissuaded from.”
If no one can dissuade the boy from walking into a forest of Dark Creatures in search of Acromantulas, then he truly is mad.
But perhaps he has been dissuaded. Or restrained. Were I in charge of the boy’s care, he would find himself strapped to his bed and unable to leave until he saw sense. He would likely end up tied down for years, the blithering idiot. But at least he would be alive.
No news is good news.
He hasn’t been to the Forest, or even back to Hogwarts. I have scoured the papers to make sure.
My nerves are getting to me as I work. While I’m brewing, I see the owl come and go, and usually can spare a minute to at least check the headline. Fieldwork, however, is a sort of torture. I have watched over Potter for more years than I care to admit. Perhaps it is a mistake for me to stop now.
But I have washed my hands of him, of everything. After everything I have done, I have earned this.
I touch down on solid land. The dragon in front of me is clearly ill. He shoots flames in wheezing breaths, and the grass brushing his scales is scorched.
“Snape,” shouts Collins over another rasping, flame-throwing breath. “Reckon we need Pepper Down. Six litres.”
I draw the correct potion from my case and hand it over to be administered.
“You’ll need this as well,” I say, giving the vet a three-litre bottle of Dragon’s Ease. “Likely he’ll have a headache. I recommend curing that first.”
I hear Finley snort behind me.
I watch impassively, my thoughts still with Potter. It is possible that the Daily Prophet has arrived, that it is sitting on my desk. And that it bears news that Potter has changed his mind, that he has recovered his senses – or that he has crashed onwards and paid dearly for it.
I am not a patient man, not in this. I cannot live with waiting.
I must speak to my owl tomorrow.
I lean against a rock, watching. They’ve given her the draught I prepared, but I am in no hurry to fly away. Not least because I can’t remember the name of the mountain I’m stood on, and have no desire to lose myself in the Welsh countryside.
Something is coming. At first I think it must be someone from the reserve, but the fleck in the sky is much too small.
It is an owl.
My owl. The owl I told to drop off my paper at base if there was no news of Potter, but to bring it to me if he was so much as mentioned in passing.
My heart leaps to my throat.
Please let him be mentioned in passing.
I untie the paper from the owl, catching a glimpse of the headline as I do so.
He is not mentioned in passing.
BOY WHO LIVED – NO MORE!
As I watch the letters transform.
HARRY POTTER DIES TODAY AGED NINETEEN
There is a picture. I unroll the paper slowly, my fingers unsteady.
The Hospital Wing at Hogwarts. Empty beds stand, regimented, in two rows. A curtain is drawn around a bed in the distance, sunlight streaming from the window giving the white fabric an unearthly glow.
Poppy walks into the frame. Her head is bowed and her pace sedate rather than her customary bustle. She lifts a hand to her face, and her shoulders tense.
She disappears behind the curtain.
The picture begins again.
My chest hurts. I can’t breathe.
My colleagues are running over to me. I cannot look at them, cannot answer their questions, but then someone catches sight of the newspaper gripped in my hands.
“It can’t be true. He’s not – he couldn’t be.”
I ball up the paper and throw it as hard as I can. My hands are shaking.
The boy’s already died once. Surely that’s enough?
“Snape? Jesus, Snape, you okay?”
It must be Collins asking; he’s Muggle-born. No one else would say Jesus.
I shake my head.
“Fuck. Let’s get him back. Johnston, Finley, you stay with the dragon. She’s going to need watching if she wakes up early with that potion in her.”
I feel a hand urging me to walk away. It is a bad idea to Apparate immediately in the vicinity of a dragon, and I am in no state to straddle a broom.
“Hold on to me now, Snape.”
I shake my head again.
“Come on, we’ll get you home. A good stiff drink –”
“I am going to Hogwarts.” My voice is frigid and hard. It could cut rock.
“Wh – what?”
I smile wolfishly.
“Someone there permitted the fool to go into the Forbidden Forest. I am going to find out who.”
And before I can be stopped, I Apparate to the outskirts of Hogsmeade.
The castle stands before me, mocking me with familiarity.
I blend in with the villagers now. Everyone is wearing black.
Minerva is surprised to see me. Her red-rimmed eyes widen with shock.
“Severus, what –?”
“Potter,” I say. I do not say anything further. There is no need to.
She nods understandingly.
“He – his... body is in the Hospital Wing.”
I do not answer this.
“The funeral will take place here on Tuesday. You are invited, of course. Details... details haven’t been agreed on yet.”
The portraits of other headmasters watch me. They have all witnessed my debates with Albus over the boy, after all.
Albus is not here.
I turn my gaze back to Minerva.
The silence stretches out between us, brittle and fraught with emotion.
I turn on my heel and march away. I can hear her calling to me, promising to be in touch. The grinding of the stone staircase taking me down almost obscures her words.
My feet carry me onwards. I do not remember making the decision to come here, but I find myself stood in the Hospital Wing.
One bed has curtains drawn around it. I can see half a dozen silhouettes through the thin veil of fabric.
Poppy rushes over to me.
“Severus,” she says in a low hush. “Why are you here?”
“How did it happen?” I ask, realising as I form the words that I have no idea. My voice is harsh.
Poppy’s eyes dart to the curtained bed and back. “Severus, perhaps we should...” She indicates her office.
“What happened to him?” I am speaking too loudly. A head pops out from round the curtains. The youngest Weasley is staring at me, her mouth a round ‘O’.
Poppy has no choice but to answer me. She is a poor imitation of her usual brisk self.
“Acromantula venom. The poison killed him before anyone found him. He’d been in there a day and a half when Firenze brought him out.”
I close my eyes.
Venom. Acromantula venom. Something so easy to counter; he could have even brought a vial of antivenin with him. I should have insisted...
“How long was the little imbecile poisoned for? Surely he could have made it out of the forest in time to be saved. Acromantula venom is not overly debilitating, and it is slow acting.”
“I – I – Evidence suggests he was bitten about six hours after he went in. It was his leg; likely he couldn’t walk out again easily.”
I have healed his leg once before, and from something much harder to counter. The fool. The absolute fool. He needn’t have died on this pathetic excuse of a case, this suicide mission, this –
But perhaps that was the point. Perhaps Harry Potter walked into the Forbidden Forest yesterday with no intention of coming out alive.
Harry flew to Hogwarts. It was quicker this time; he knew what he was doing, knew when to dive into the clouds, when to soar above them, and when it was safe to fly below.
He flew mindlessly. All the thoughts that had been crowding him vanished the moment he pushed off from the earth on a stolen broomstick.
Whenever the thoughts crept back, he would loop, somersault, dive. He didn’t want to think. It was unbearable.
It was dark when he reached Hogwarts. Most of the students would be in bed. Harry dropped the broom and threw the Cloak over himself. He walked up the lawn, the grass soft and spongy beneath his feet. The castle doors were shut but not locked. There were no voices inside.
He went in.
He knew where he was going. The curse had flung him back from a boys’ bathroom, and the effects of returning would be softened if he reversed the curse from the same place. At least that way he would only be flying through one dimension.
He stood staring into a cracked mirror, the bottom edges of his robes gathering water.
He looked nothing like himself.
He dyed his hair back with magic. The black only made him look paler, more ghostly. The contacts were next, hazel eyes turning once more to green. His reflection blurred. The prosthetic peeled away with the counter to the Sticking Charm. Harry could just make out the famous scar. Tracing it with a finger, he readied himself.
He raised his wand. He wanted to go home. He needed to go home.
If this didn’t work....
There’s no place like home.
“Avada Kedavra .”
Green light burnt his eyes.
Harry felt like he was being torn to pieces, like he was being turned inside out and back again, and then he felt something much larger than he was slam into him.
His lungs lost air with the impact. He was flung like a ragdoll from where he was standing. He was dead. He was dying. He was –
Everything went black.
Chapter 8: Part Eight
Warm arms held him. A potion was poured down his throat. He forced his eyes open but he couldn’t see a thing.
He didn’t need to. He knew that embrace.
Madam Pomfrey wouldn’t leave Harry alone.
He could understand it; he’d fallen into the present with a bang, and the bang reverberated through him. It bloody hurt. However, the worst of it was healed now, and there was nothing else she could do for him. He needed to see Albus as soon as possible.
It was unfortunate she’d insisted on a full physical before letting him be discharged. There was no hiding the damned Horcrux burn once it had been seen. Black, hard skin stretched over his thigh.
When she discovered it, she started ranting for ten minutes.
She didn’t stop even as Harry began to dress himself, though it seemed to give her pause when she realised he was putting on his uniform.
She threw her hands up in exasperation.
“You cannot leave the ward until you are fully healed, Mister Potter,” she said insistently.
Harry laughed. It was that or cry. After all, Harry understood now, better than anyone, what had happened to Albus’s hand.
“I’m not going to be fully healed, Madam Pomfrey,” he said. “I know more about this type of injury than you and there is absolutely nothing in your – or anyone else’s – power that’s going to have any effect when dealing with this.”
The mediwitch bristled at his words, clearly insulted.
Harry ran a hand through his hair. He was tired of this discussion. His leg ached, and he knew there was one person in the castle who might understand.
“I am quite capable of coping with it, I assure you. Now, was there anything else, or am I actually permitted to leave?”
Madam Pomfrey’s face was a picture.
“You should not have recovered so quickly.”
Harry held back another laugh. He hadn’t recovered quickly at all, but then he could hardly tell her that it had actually been three years since the original curses thrown at him by Malfoy.
“One night of bed rest is not sufficient for what happened to you.”
This time he didn’t hold back his laughter. “There's hardly much of a precedent for what's happened to me. I'm sure one night of bed rest is just fine. It's about the same as I got the first time a Killing Curse bounced off my head.”
He probably hadn’t had even that. Harry couldn’t imagine Aunt Petunia taking him in quietly.
“But there are visible effects this time that we should at least attempt to counter, if you would just –”
“Madam Pomfrey, unless someone has figured out a way to bottle youth and I've not been told about it, I reckon I'm stuck this way.”
Harry stroked a hand over his chin, which bore stubble from two days of not shaving.
Madam Pomfrey stared at Harry in surprise and he smiled sadly at her.
“Now, if there are no further problems you'd like to address, I think it would be prudent for me to go visit the Headmaster and explain a few things to him,” he said, using a tone of voice that brooked no argument.
When she didn’t reply, he began to march away. A hand on his shoulder stopped him.
“Harry, will you at least allow regular check-ups so that I can see how your injury progresses?”
There was no use in agreeing to it, but Harry felt guilty already. He reached up a hand and settled it on hers. “Just try to keep me away,” he said softly, offering a small smile.
Harry stepped through the curtains and his heart nearly stopped.
Severus was staring at him, his expression one of scarcely hidden disgust.
Harry forced himself to walk past. He mumbled, “Professor,” his voice tight. His head jerked in a nod.
Harry didn’t stay to see if Severus returned it. He was shaking.
How had he forgotten that he would still have to face Severus when he came back?
He couldn’t do this.
Harry was still staring at his leg. It ached so much less now. He could hardly believe it.
“You have yet to tell me everything that is on your mind.”
Harry looked up.
“There’s nothing more to say. I told you what happened to me, where I went. What I did.”
Harry’s voice shook on this last. He was determined to remain stoic, but it was difficult to do so, knowing that his carelessness had condemned him to death.
“Harry, you do not seem to be at ease,” Albus said. He fixed Harry with a stare but did not attempt to penetrate his mind.
“You’ve fixed my leg. Well, the best you can, anyway. Madam Pomfrey sorted the rest.”
Albus shook his head. He reached over the desk, his fingers lightly touching Harry’s hand.
“You have been alone a long time, I think, if you do not know that I am asking after more than your physical well-being.”
Harry hunched his shoulders up, becoming as small as he could.
“I’ve not been alone,” he whispered.
Albus’s grip tightened.
Harry shook. He met Albus’s gaze and the sight of those familiar eyes strengthened him.
“There was someone I – someone I left behind.”
Albus lifted his hand, covering his mouth.
“You fell in love?”
“I don’t know – I – I think...” Harry shrugged helplessly. “I didn’t expect this. I just wanted him to be okay, to be happy. He’d had such a rough time of it and –”
“Him... I don’t suppose.” His voice was soft. He stroked his beard thoughtfully. “And... yes, a librarian, I believe...” Albus came around his desk and knelt by Harry’s side.
“Severus once spoke of a young man who moved in with him. He told me that this young man had lied to him, but that he had believed Severus to be loyal to me. In fact, from his defence of Severus, it seems this young man was quite loyal to me himself. I am ashamed to say that I did not recognise his name. Perhaps you would?”
Harry nearly swallowed his tongue. “He told you about me?”
“He was quite taken with you, from the start. I am aware that Severus led Mister Jones – you, Harry?”
Harry nodded uncertainly.
“Yes, well, Severus led you to believe that you were doing him a favour by moving in. However, I had invited Severus to spend his holidays in the castle just weeks before, and he was very keen to do so. He enjoys the brewing space here.”
Harry frowned. “I don’t understand. Why would he have lied to me –?”
“Ah, that’s just the right question, my boy. I suspect he lied because he felt sure you wouldn’t have moved in with him had it just been him offering you a favour. And he was truly determined to do you a favour after the good turn you had done him. Furthermore, you fascinated him. There were not many people at the time who spoke well of both Severus and me. Most people rather fell into one camp or the other. You fascinated me. I was always sad to have never met Severus’s only champion.”
Harry’s mouth felt dry. He licked his lips nervously, trying to take in all that Albus was telling him.
“Did he say... anything else?”
“Severus says very little. He was, however, quite impossible for some time following the mysterious disappearance of Tom Jones.”
“I never meant to –”
“I know, Harry,” Albus said kindly. “I merely meant for you to understand that Severus truly cared for you.”
Harry looked away. “Yeah. Thanks. I guess... I guess that’s something.”
Albus waited for Harry to look back up at him before answering. “Harry, my boy, that’s everything.”
I have not left the castle for almost a week. I did not request leave from work, but I received a letter from Hettie regardless, granting me a month. Longer, if I needed it. She’s filed it under bereavement.
The boy’s funeral is tomorrow.
I do not feel bereaved.
I am furious.
I have vented my fury.
For the first three days I was here, I did nothing but vent my fury.
They have managed me surprisingly well.
Even Longbottom, who just waited for me to finish and walked away. He barely shook at the sight of me.
My ire has not faded, but my energy has. I am outraged that this boy, this mentally unstable child, was permitted access to a dangerous area. His death is pointless. After all he’s lived through – a hat-trick of unstoppable Killing Curses – he has died for nothing.
Nobody has addressed the questions in my tirades. Nobody has told me why Potter was not stopped.
When Hogwarts was rebuilt, my old quarters were abandoned. I am grateful for it. I haunt my rooms now, too lethargic to leave the same stone walls behind and venture out where there will be light and other people. I stay in the sitting-room, living in a nest on the sofa. The house-elves bring me food. I lurch from my seat to use the restroom. I do not bother to shower.
I have still not learnt how to handle my drink.
A pit of empty bottles curls around my chair. A breeze rolls one back and forth, glass scraping repetitively against stone. I drink straight from the bottle. There is no need to stand on ceremony here. I do not question my desire for oblivion; it is enough that I find it at the bottom of the sixth – the seventh? – drink.
I drop the bottle. It bounces against the floor but does not break. Just like Potter, dashed against stone over and over and bloody over, but he always made it through in one piece –
I lift the bottle and launch it into the empty grate. My shoulder wrenches with the force behind the throw.
Just like Potter.
My face is wet.
The boy’s funeral is tomorrow.
I’ll be there.
Harry didn’t react as his Cloak slipped off him. It barely registered that he could move again. His mind was filled with white noise, so loud he could make out nothing else.
Albus had warned him – of course he had – but Harry had hoped that it would never come to – and he had never dreamed he would be forced to watch, an invisible statue bearing witness to the worst crime.
Severus was panting, staring white-faced and blank-eyed at the broken window.
Harry wasn’t invisible anymore.
Dark eyes woke up, moving frantically as Severus tried to take in the surroundings of which he was once more aware. He spun, his black cloak clinging to him. His gaze froze on Harry.
Harry wanted to go to him. His heart ached for it. He wanted to call his name and wrap his arms around him and grieve with him.
But he didn’t.
He licked his lips, preparing himself. He nodded abruptly to Severus, needing to give some sign that he knew, a sign that what followed wasn’t real.
“Snape, you bastard! I knew it! I knew Dumbledore shouldn’t trust you!”
Malfoy was flat on his heels, half dragged behind, his wrist clenched brutally in Severus’s fist. The two vanished into shadows.
Harry followed, turning off another way at the sound of raised voices.
He threw himself into battle, all thoughts vanishing in the rush of spells.
Wand after wand clattered, body after body fell, and Harry did not stop to see whether those he stepped over were friend or foe.
No candles had been lit in this corridor, but white masks could be made out clearly by the light of curses, casting off halos of different colours.
Someone called his name. There was no chance to respond, engaged in a wildly paced duel with a dark-haired witch.
“Where’s Dumbledore?” It was Shacklebolt. The Order must be here.
A woman cackled. “Dumbledore is dead! He should be more careful who he trusts.”
“What? How? Confringo!”
Harry ducked a curse and darted from the corridor. He pelted down the stairs, winding his way lower and lower.
The great doors to the school hung open, one blasted off its hinges. Through them, Harry could make out two long shadows distorted over the lawn.
The shadows hesitated.
“Harry! Harry, what are you doing?”
Disgusted with himself, Harry’s lips twisted in a sneer. If his cover is lost, it is for nothing.
“COWARD!” he screamed, spittle flying from his mouth.
For a moment, the shadows seemed to draw nearer. And then they vanished into the darkness of the Forbidden Forest.
A hand clutched his shoulder and spun him.
Bill Weasley was frowning at him. A deep gash spanned his face.
“Come on, Harry. Hospital wing. It’s over.”
“It’s not over,” Harry said darkly, casting a final look at the empty lawn before turning his back on it.
“It’s not over.”
The hall is empty.
Rows and rows of chairs have been laid out where there are usually four house tables: we can expect a good turnout. They face the closed casket up on the teachers’ podium. I wend my way through. Wooden legs scrape against stone. I do not look where I am going.
The sun catches motes of dust and they flicker like golden stars over Potter’s coffin.
It is a bright day.
No candles have been lit. The shift of clouds dissects beams of light, giving the shadows here the illusion of life.
My shoes scuff against the stairs, my steps muffled by the black carpet that has been Conjured.
I rest my hand against sun-warmed, white marble. Nothing could be further from the boy than this.
It is still.
There are no photos, no flowers resting on the coffin’s top. Perhaps they will be laid later. Perhaps his friends know that Potter did not like fussy ornamentation.
I want to look away. I want to look away and drop my arm and leave. I can’t. My face burns, my skin is tight, and my fingers softly trace the edge of the coffin lid. I never planned for this.
I never planned to be a guest at Harry Potter’s funeral.
My breath shudders in and out of me. I cannot bring myself to pull away and break this connection.
Footsteps approach, almost silent.
Whoever it is does not interrupt me. I can feel the heat of them at my back, but they wait for me to finish.
I steel myself, close my eyes, and turn.
My eyes burst open.
He stands too close, a silhouette in light and shadow.
“Severus, I –”
I cut him off with a jerk of my head. I do not want to hear what he has to say.
I want to sag; I feel as though my strings have been cut, leaving me limp and lifeless. Yet it is on steady legs that I walk away.
His breath hitches.
My footsteps echo noisily when I reach uncarpeted stone. I move quickly, doubling back past the podium so I can walk around the forest of chairs. Rage thrums through my veins, scalding me more than the steady beat of the sun. Adrenalin keeps me tall though I want nothing more than to slump.
He is crying.
My eyes flicker over to him. He is on his knees in a heap, his head bowed and tears tracking down his face almost silently. His lashes cling wetly to his cheeks. The coffin of the Boy Who Lived looms over him – of just the Boy Who Lived looms over him – a white spectre casting him in shadow. He is still.
I do not have the strength for this.
I stride back to the podium. He raises his face up to me.
His eyes are the wrong colour, I think madly, and I take his face in my hands.
I kiss him.
He kisses back desperately, his hands scrabbling restlessly, always holding too tight, clenching too firmly. He is clumsy. His tongue darts about my mouth like a startled bird, too skittish to land. I trap it with my own tongue and stroke gently, but he is not to be soothed.
“Please,” he whispers against my lips. “Please.”
It sounds like a prayer.
I stroke my hand through messy blond hair.
“Thomas.” My voice is low, husky.
He shuffles forward, swinging his legs over the podium and hopping down.
As we walk out of the hall, we do not look at one another.
I feel his hand shyly nudging mine, and take it. His fingers clutch me, nails digging into skin.
He walks slowly beside me, his footsteps almost silent.
He is so quiet. Smaller than life.
Granger is at the door, her lips turned down at the corners.
She catches his eye and nods.
He inclines his head.
Then she glances over at me.
I am arrested by her gaze; he almost falls at my sudden stop.
He doesn’t look at me. His hand is trembling in my grasp.
I touch a finger to his chin and turn his face.
His eyes are closed, his mouth open in a silent gasp, as though he is caught in a moment of agony. He is white.
He is on the cusp of shattering. An empty bottle thrown in a cold grate.
“Look at me.”
He opens his eyes impossibly wide and they are still wrong.
I look past hazel and see green.
“It could never be nothing,” I whisper.
And he laughs, the sound choked, bringing up our joined hands to wipe at the wet tracks on his face, touching my knuckles with his lips.
We walk out of the Entrance Hall. I can hear both of our footsteps now, ringing loud and clear and just out of time with each other. A crowd has formed at the door, a heaving mass of mournful black and sober white milling about on the steps; they part to let us pass.
They do not see us.
His hand is like a vice on mine and I’m beginning to go numb. He tugs at me every now and then, as though to check that what he’s holding belongs to something solid.
I see him dart glances at me, his still-wet eyes tracing my face nervously. A smile teases his lips.
The sun glares, and my heavy robes cling to me unpleasantly: he is shaking.
The school gates are in sight, glinting like the entrance to Heaven.
I speed up, my long legs eating the distance. He stumbles along behind me, struggling to match my furious pace. He loses his footing, tripping repeatedly, and then drops.
“Severus,” he says, and he is begging me.
I sneer at him.
I twist my hand free of his and straighten my back. He is still, allowing me to loom over him; he stares up at me with those impossible eyes and there is no sign of a smile about his mouth now. I want to hit him.
A frisson of energy runs through my arm and for a moment I think I will hit him.
He doesn’t flinch.
I swivel, my cloak sweeping behind me. In this heat I wish I’d chosen something less formal and more comfortable: it is the wrong weather for a funeral.
The gates are open, presumably to allow for the barrage of heartbroken fans for the wake. I wrap my cloak tightly around myself and picture the reserve in Wales. A hand closes around my elbow.
I want to berate him for touching me as I am about to Apparate. I want to berate him for a thousand wrongs, real and perceived.
Instead, I shove him into a stone gatepost. One of the winged boars guarding Hogwarts leers down at us. I lay my forearm across his neck and force him onto his toes.
His hands are on my shoulders. He doesn’t push me away. His thumbs sketch nervous circles, as though trying to soothe one of Hagrid’s creatures.
He struggles to breathe steadily.
My breath ghosts between us, warm and wet and still smelling faintly of alcohol. I’m panting.
I feel him swallow against my arm.
My eyes close and I wonder briefly if it’s too late to avoid getting burnt, if there’s any way out of this unscathed, or if I have long since passed the point of no return.
I collapse into him, my body covering his, lips covering his, tongue covering his.
There are teeth in this kiss, and fingernails drag along the skin at my nape, and my hand pulls his hair violently back and he groans into my mouth.
I draw away. He gazes up at me, his chest heaving.
His eyes are still the wrong colour but it doesn’t matter, I know.
I press my lips to his ear, my tongue sneaking out and wetting cold skin, and I whisper.