Part I: The Choices You Make
He'd much rather be sleeping peacefully, held tightly in a lover's arms . . . or if that was too improbable a wish, then maybe eating some of the wine-rich steak and kidney pie that was the specialty of the White Hart on Leadenhall Street. Even catching up on the endless paperwork that was always waiting for him at one or the other of his two official jobs would be preferable.
There were a great many things that Kingsley Shacklebolt would rather be doing than standing in the shadows of a rat-infested alley in Muggle London, waiting to receive information from a man who was unlikely ever to arrive.
It was a fool's errand. There was no way Snape was going to appear; he would have to have a death wish to approach a Ministry Auror less than 48 hours after committing an act of such unspeakable evil that even his few supporters had washed their hands of him utterly and completely.
But Kingsley's presence here was in answer to the final request Albus Dumbledore had made of him when they spoke a fortnight earlier, and - fool though he might be - Kingsley was incapable of disregarding Albus's last wish.
"It is imperative that you be there at the precise time we have arranged," the headmaster said, "and even more imperative that you go alone."
"What's going on, Albus?"
But the old man only gave him that maddening half-smile of his.
"Alone, and without sharing the knowledge of where you're going or with whom you're meeting with any of our friends. Will you promise to do this for me, Kingsley?" Albus asked. "For all our sakes?"
Kingsley paused the briefest of moments, then smiled. "Do you want me to make an Unbreakable Vow?" he said, attempting to lighten the mood.
Albus did not smile in return. "I believe your word will be sufficient."
There was a rustling of wind, stirring the empty crisps packets and discarded newspapers that littered the alleyway. A street lamp at the far end of the alley flickered once, and Kingsley touched the tip of his wand to his chest, reinforcing the Disillusionment Charm he'd cast earlier and shivering slightly as the cold trickles from the Charm ran down his body.
Why had Dumbledore asked him to come here . . . on his own?
One of the first things he'd learned as a young Auror was that you never went on an assignment without backup, and that had always been one of the fundamental rules of the Order, as well. For over two decades, he had never once ignored this basic precaution, and yet here he was, completely alone, with no better reason for his actions than that an old and obviously weakening Wizard had asked him to do it.
Too many years of suspecting Albus Dumbledore of omniscience had clearly addled his brain.
Kingsley shook his head, then dropped the Disillusionment Charm. Before he did anything else, he'd better Apparate directly to number 12, Grimmauld Place and contact Alastor. He knew the old man was sure to be furious when he told him what he'd done tonight, but -
- the street lamp flickered again, then went out completely.
Kingsley spun around, his wand still in his outstretched hand, and there was Severus Snape, looking like he'd lost a fight with an angry Kneazle
He bit back the greeting that had become automatic over the past three years, but neither did he cast an Imprisonment Spell. No, Kingsley owed Albus that much, at least; he'd let Snape talk before taking him in, although not without disarming and immobilizing him first.
He and Snape had both cast the disarming spell at the same moment, and both had simultaneously blocked the other's spell.
Again, two simultaneously cast spells, and both binding spells were instantly blocked by identical shielding charms.
He stood facing Snape, all his senses fully alert and fixed on the other man, looking for the smallest lapse in Snape's concentration, hoping to discover some vulnerability in that harsh countenance that would give Kingsley an opening . . . but there was none.
A stand-off, then.
And yet . . . not precisely, because while Kingsley knew he was a match for Snape in a duel - perhaps even the slightest bit faster on a good day - he also knew that Snape possessed knowledge of Dark Spells and Curses, the likes of which Kingsley had only read about in books.
At first Kingsley had thought the rumours about Snape were unfounded, but after being present for more than one angry confrontation between Mad-Eye and Albus on the subject of Snape's expertise in the Dark Arts, he realized those rumours didn't even come close to the truth.
Without special preparation - and without stronger shielding charms than any Wizard was ordinarily able to summon - there was little chance of protecting himself against the worst of the curses that could be directed at him.
Snape knew this - and yet he had not used any of them, limiting himself to only those spells that Kingsley was most likely to use.
He frowned, wishing - and not for the first time - that there was a way to know what was going on in Snape's head. Kingsley had learned years ago how to protect his own mind from invasive attacks, but his skill as an Occlumens had never helped him learn the far more difficult skill of Legilimency, and even if he had managed to become a Legilimens, he doubted he would be powerful enough to look into Snape's mind. Even Voldemort had been unable to -
Ah, but that was the question, wasn't it? Had there ever been any need for Snape to shield his thoughts from Voldemort?
Harry Potter's report to Alastor of the events in the Astronomy Tower two nights ago was damning, but Snape hadn't killed the boy - had barely hurt him at all, in fact. Nor was Snape making any further attempt to disarm Kingsley or cast any other spell against him. He was just . . . standing there.
This was Snape.
He was a murderer.
Kingsley had made a promise to Albus, but . . . no.
He had been asking himself the wrong question. Yes, Albus had asked him to go alone, but the real question was why had he asked him to go at all? Kingsley and Snape had never met privately on Order business; the only person Snape spoke with privately about Death Eater activities was Albus himself. And yet less than a fortnight before Albus's death, he'd asked Kingsley to promise that he'd meet in secret with Snape, the very person who would soon be responsible for Albus's murder. Why would Albus do that, unless -
Unless, somehow, Albus had known what was about to happen . . . and still trusted Snape.
Kingsley searched the other man's pale and scratched face, trying to find some indication that his analysis was correct, but apart from a single twitch in Snape's eye - something which might well have been a trick of the barely visible light - he could read nothing.
His magic was not as strong as Snape's. He was unable to employ Legilimency. The only real options he had were either to break his word to Dumbledore and Disapparate out of this alley . . . or to lower his hand.
He could not break his word.
The moment Kingsley's wand was no longer aimed directly at the other wizard, Snape waved his wand, and instantly a sharp pain slashed across Kingsley's chest, as if he'd been struck by a whip.
"A fool like all the rest!" Snape hissed angrily. "Have none of you learned a thing about where to place your trust!"
"An interesting question," said Kingsley, fighting against the urge to look down and see if the spell Snape cast had drawn blood. "How did you know I wouldn't arrive with a team of Aurors?"
Snape smiled coldly. "One of the advantages of dealing with the hopelessly naive."
Kingsley looked pointedly from one end of the empty alley to the other. "And where are your confederates? Just gone 'round the pub for a quick pint?"
For a moment Snape was silent, then he too, lowered his wand.
"I don't have time for this, Shacklebolt. I need to return to . . . my friends before they discover I'm gone, and you need to make a choice."
"There's always a choice to make, or haven't you discovered that yet?" Snape said flatly. "Your choices at the moment are simple: a Ministry-sanctioned function or a Muggle block of flats."
Kingsley frowned. "What are you talking . . . "
"There are . . . disruptions planned in the coming weeks. One will involve an undisclosed number of Ministry officials - and you will forgive me if I don't share their names at the moment - and the other . . . "
"Are we talking about deaths?"
Snape gave Kingsley a look of sheer disgust. "No, we're talking about tea parties, you pathetic excuse for a Ravenclaw. Of course we're talking about deaths! The only question is how many. In raw numbers, of course, the incident planned at the Muggle housing complex will involve many more lives, but perhaps you have a formula you use to determine the relative values of Muggles to Wizards."
"I can give you information about one or the other of these two events."
"You know about both of them! Surely you can . . . "
"No!" he snapped. "I cannot. Now choose."
A chill came over Kingsley that had nothing to do with the unseasonably cold night. Of course Snape couldn't give details about both planned attacks. The presence of Order members at either one would put Snape's life at risk, and their presence at both would be as good as signing Snape's death warrant.
And no matter what Kingsley chose, he would be consigning innocent people to death.
He took a deep breath, then exhaled heavily. "How many of Vol. . . how many people know about each of these plans?"
Snape scowled. "I told you to choose, Shacklebolt. I'm not saying another word before you do."
"And I'm not choosing until I know which plan is known by more of your . . . associates," Kingsley said.
"Why does that matter?"
"Because the greater the number of people on whom suspicion falls, the safer it is for you."
"How touching," Snape said mockingly. "I didn't know you cared so deeply."
"What I care about is keeping our spy alive," Kingsley said angrily. "Seeing as we paid such a high price to keep you."
A look of venomous hatred, the likes of which Kingsley had never seen came across Snape's face, and Kingsley tensed, ready to raise his wand, but in the next moment that look was gone, replaced by a flash of something that looked like pain before settling back into its usual harsh lines.
"Perhaps you're not such a fool after all," Snape said.
The information Kingsley received was quickly committed to memory: A block of flats in Congleton Grove at 2:00 a.m. the following Wednesday. Four Death Eaters had been assigned to ensure that there were no survivors, but they would fail in their duty - just as Kingsley, by making his choice, would soon bear the burden of knowing he had failed in his vow to ensure the safety of the Wizarding community.
He wished he knew whether he had made the right choice - or if there had ever even been a right choice to be made.
"We have to plan another meeting, and we should do it now," Kingsley said finally. "Under the circumstances, owls won't be secure enough, and using our Patronuses to communicate isn't advisable."
"Agreed, since Moody would probably hex mine on sight."
Try as he might, Kingsley couldn't stop a small smile from escaping his lips.
"We'll need to meet somewhere in Muggle London in a fortnight's time, with a back-up of three days after that, in case one or the other of us is unable to make the first meeting. There's a place called the Royal Scot Hotel, on Kings . . ."
"I'll find it," Snape said impatiently. "Book the room under the name . . . Prince."
Kingsley frowned, then nodded.
"Is there anything else before I take my leave, Shacklebolt? Perhaps you'd like some heart-felt reassurance that I'm not leading you and the other Order members into a trap?"
"What reassurance could you give, Snape?" Kingsley asked sharply, ignoring the glare that immediately crossed the other man's face. "What reassurance could either of us possibly give? I'll take whatever precautions I need to, and I'm sure you'll do the same, but at the moment, all I really have to go on are the last words of a man who's no longer available to turn to for advice."
"Shacklebolt," Snape said, his voice sounding suddenly raw. "I . . . "
Kingsley waited, but if Snape had planned to say anything more, the words were drowned out by the wail of an approaching ambulance.
"A fortnight's time, then," Snape said finally.
"A fortnight's time," Kingsley replied, but Snape had already Disapparated, leaving Kingsley's words to fall unheard in the cold, dark alley.
Part II: What You Wish For
For almost fifteen years, Severus Snape endured an existence for which he was patently unsuited. While he never agreed with certain people's all-too-familiar accusations that he was a 'misanthropic bastard,' even he recognized that his life would have been far more comfortable had his career not required him to spend quite so much time with . . . people.
Time and again, he formulated plans which would allow him to extricate himself from the endless round of classroom instruction, Head of House responsibilities, and staff meetings, while still fulfilling his duties for the Order, but each time he broached the subject, Albus merely raised an eyebrow and said, "I think, perhaps, the time is not quite right for such a step, Severus."
There was nothing forcing Severus to stay at Hogwarts, of course - no Ministry edicts, no thinly veiled threats. Just the certain knowledge that it was the headmaster's desire that he remain - and so remain he did, although always wishing that someday a viable alternative might present itself.
Be careful what you wish for.
Staff meetings - which Severus often thought had been designed as tests of a Wizard's ability to withstand torture in the form of mind-numbing dullness - were now indeed a thing of the past, but they had been replaced by far more frequent and even more unwelcome "chats" with Bellatrix and that creeping rodent Wormtail. Little more than a fortnight's time spent in their company, and Severus practically ached with the desire to spend just one more hour forced to listen as Filius and Minerva disputed their respective stances on wand adaptability theory.
Narcissa (who adamantly refused to leave Spinner's End and return to Malfoy Manor until such time as her son could safely return with her) had initially provided some small measure of relief from Bellatrix and Wormtail's increasingly odious company, but after only a few days, her welcome too had worn thin. It was true that Severus no longer had to concern himself with Head of House responsibilities, but being saddled with the endless carping and complaining of Lucius's deceptively naive wife was just as painful - and perhaps more so - as dealing with an entire houseful of adolescent Slytherins.
The one young Slytherin for whom he still retained some responsibility, well . . . suffice it to say that Severus could almost find it in himself to look back at the aggressively obstructionist manner in which Draco had behaved during his sixth year with a degree of fondness, so listless had he become during the two weeks since leaving Hogwarts. The damned boy couldn't even be arsed to shift himself off the sofa from one hour to the next without specific orders, and although he made some effort to read the books that Severus thrust into his hands (albeit in the most desultory manner possible), he outright refused to practice magic - particularly Defense against the Dark Arts. Only last month, Severus would have laughed at anybody who suggested that teaching had actually become a part of his blood, but the frustration he was feeling over Draco's stubborn refusal to learn the very things that might keep him alive in the coming battles had made him think that perhaps he had, quite against his will, become a teacher after all.
No, Severus no longer had to put up with unwanted teaching responsibilities, Head of House duties, or staff meetings - but each had been replaced with something far worse - and at a far higher cost than he had ever imagined he might have to pay.
Sliding his arms into his jacket, Severus glanced at the untouched supper plate he'd brought into his room hours ago and shook his head. Even the thought of food was sickening and had been for some days now, but the emptiness he felt inside was distracting, and Severus couldn't afford to be distracted during tonight's meeting with Shacklebolt. He picked up one of the Cornish pasties, still warm from the heating charm he'd cast earlier, and forced himself to take a bite.
This proved to be a mistake. If Severus didn't know better, he would have thought he'd been poisoned, so nauseating had the taste been. With more effort of will than it should have required, Severus refrained from spitting the pasty out on the floor, then took a sip of unsweetened tea and swirled it around until the sour taste in his mouth started to dissipate.
Perhaps when he returned, Severus thought as he slipped outside and Apparated to Kings Cross Road, he would try again to eat something.
It took three attempts with his new (and therefore still largely untried) wand before Severus could successfully cast the spell that would allow him to pass virtually unnoticed through the foyer of the Royal Scot Hotel, but eventually he managed it, getting little more than a vague smile even from the desk clerk as he took the room assignment log from her hands and scanned the signatures for the name 'Prince.'
Severus walked past the lift and opened the fire door, then climbed the stairs to the second floor. He found 216 with no difficulty, pleased to find that Shacklebolt had chosen a corner suite with multiple exits, should the need to depart quickly arise.
He was less pleased to hear the sound of muffled voices speaking inside the room as he approached the door. Drawing his wand, Severus silently cast Alohomora, even though he was certain Shacklebolt wouldn't be so naive as to trust the security of the room to a spell most children knew before they reached adolescence, but the soft click of the lock as it released put paid to that notion.
Biting down on his anger, Severus stepped silently into the entryway to the room. He peered around the corner and and saw the flickering lights of a Muggle television, volume turned down low, which explained the voices he had heard, for Shacklebolt was alone in the room. He was leaning against an upholstered headboard, one long leg stretched out almost the full length of the bed, the other bent at the knee and supporting a small notebook.
What a complete arse, Severus thought, his fury returning full force. How in the name of all the gods had Shacklebolt survived so long as an Auror? No protections on the room, half asleep, paying more attention to some inane Muggle entertainment than to the fact that anybody could enter the room unnoticed. It would serve him right if . . .
"You're late, Snape." Shacklebolt's deep voice sounded amused.
Severus narrowed his eyes. As he took a step closer to the bed, he realized that Shacklebolt had not, in fact, been taken unawares as he first imagined had been the case, at least not if the wand that was pointing directly at Severus's chest was any indication.
"The door?" Severus asked.
"Spelled against intruders and set with a rather nasty array of automatic defensive hexes, keyed specifically to magical signatures."
Severus frowned. "I detected nothing of the sort."
"I dropped the protections as soon as I knew you had arrived. When I checked in, I set an alarm spell at the reception desk."
"And if I had bypassed the front desk entirely?"
"I set identical alarms on every lift and door in the hotel," Shacklebolt said, irritation plain in his voice. "Now if you've finished examining my ability to do my job, why don't you take a seat and we'll get down to business."
Shacklebolt sat up and shifted over to one end of the bed, leaving ample room at the other end, but Severus just looked at him disdainfully before purposefully moving to the opposite side of the room and taking a seat at a small walnut table. Shacklebolt shrugged and collected his papers before joining Severus.
"Before we start, do you want anything to drink? Or maybe something to eat? I didn't know how long we'd be, so I ordered a round of sandwiches."
Severus stared at the other man in disbelief. "I don't know where you got the mistaken notion that this was a social call, Shacklebolt, but . . . "
"Of for fuck's sake, Snape . . . let's see if you can go thirty seconds without a display of attitude," Shacklebolt said, reaching for a jar of Branston Pickle. "Unless you tell me otherwise, there's only one person in this room who has any right to be hostile and suspicious, and that person isn't you. If you don't want anything to eat, that's fine, but it's been a bitch of a day, and I'm hungry."
Shacklebolt removed one of the slices of whole wheat bread, then spread the pickle over thickly-cut cheddar as Severus sat silently, crossing his arms over his chest and wishing he could silence the sudden rumbling of his empty stomach.
"You know," Shacklebolt said, looking up at Severus, "it wouldn't kill you to give in every now and again. It's just a damned sandwich."
Severus glanced at the 'damned sandwich,' then looked away. "I'm not hungry."
Shacklebolt snorted. "Your stomach says otherwise. Look, I'm cutting this in half and leaving the plate between us. If you want some, take it. You can even pick the half I haven't poisoned, you suspicious prick."
"Perhaps . . in the interests of demonstrating trust," Snape said slowly, reaching finally for the furthest half.
The two men made quick work of the sandwiches - two cheddar and one roast beef - and spoke while they ate. Neither had anything particularly pressing to share, although Severus suspected Shacklebolt was probably withholding some information, which was precisely as it should be. Severus knew his capabilities when it came to keeping information from the Dark Lord, but he wasn't so arrogant as to believe there was no possibility he'd ever be caught unprepared.
He, in turn, had little enough to tell Shacklebolt. If Voldemort was planning a new offensive, it wasn't anything he had been willing to share. This might have concerned Severus more if he thought any of the Death Eaters were privy to Voldemort's plans, but that didn't seem to be the case.
"He hasn't even talked to Bellatrix Lestrange?" Shacklebolt asked. "Are you certain?"
"Of course I'm certain," Severus snapped. "I'd know if she were meeting with him. There's a scent that lingers on her when she..."
"Tell me you're not about to discuss Voldemort's sex life."
"I didn't know you had such delicate sensibilities," he sneered.
"I don't. I just wanted to make sure I had an anti-nausea potion on hand before you began - just in case."
Despite himself, Severus laughed. "You can rest secure in the knowledge that there have been no nights of unbridled passion between the two of them. He prefers his partners to be more...passive than Bella has ever proven capable of being. In any case, she hasn't been called to see him in a fortnight, nor has Pettigrew."
"I'll bet they haven't liked that."
"You have quite a gift of understatement. Perhaps 'raving hysterical shrew' evokes a better sense of how things stand at present."
"Exactly that bad...and Bellatrix is even worse."
Shacklebolt grinned, then picked up his notebook and skimmed through the first few pages.
"So...did you want to have any input as to how we should handle the Harry situation this summer? He's going to be at his aunt's house for another week or so, but...."
"To whom, precisely, do you refer when you say 'we,' Shacklebolt?"
"The Order, of course."
"Don't think to number me in that company," Severus said sharply. "Not anymore."
"Don't be an idiot, Se...Snape. Of course, you're still a member."
"You're absolutely mad if you think I believe I'll ever be welcome in your crowd again or that anybody will ever have the slightest interest in my thoughts about Potter," he spat. "Without...no, I was a member. Now? I'm just a disloyal Death Eater, who will likely soon be paying the ultimate price for betraying his Master."
"Voldemort's not your master."
"No? You think not?" Severus asked, his voice suddenly thin and shrill. "I'll remember you said that, next time I'm on the ground, kissing the hem of his robes!"
For a moment, Shacklebolt - his expression unreadable - was silent, then a look of disgust came over his face. "Listen, Snape - oh fuck it...I'm not calling you that anymore. We've known each other for more than a decade, or has that somehow slipped your mind...Severus?"
Severus was too busy trying to control his own harsh breathing to do more than glare at the Auror.
"Do you know where I spent today, while you were at home not being called to the side of Voldemort? I was attending my third funeral in as many weeks."
Severus clenched his teeth. He refused to shoulder the entire blame for Ludo Bagman's death - after all, he had given Shacklebolt the opportunity to protect one of his Ministry colleagues; it wasn't his fault if he chose otherwise.
"Bagman's funeral was yesterday, and yes, I had to attend that one as well, in my official capacity, even though Scrimgeour knew bloody well that Bagman had been taking bribes from Voldemort's supporters for years. Bagman was popular with the voters, and that's all that matters."
"Then...today's funeral?" Snape asked slowly.
"Family, Severus. I barely knew the girl, but she was family."
Severus frowned. Had there been an unplanned attack? Or worse, a planned killing that he knew nothing about?
"Did you seriously think that Bagman would be the only person killed in that attack? He never made public appearances without bringing at least one of his assistants along."
"And this girl was one of Bagman's assistants?"
Shacklebolt nodded. "My second cousin's oldest daughter, Angelina. Sports mad. She'd only just left school a year ago."
Angelina Johnson. She'd captained the Gryffindor Quidditch team her last year at Hogwarts. Surpisingly good at Potions: so much so that he'd considered asking Minerva to suggest the girl take the advanced course, but in the end, he never said anything. If he had - if she had taken a different direction in her studies - would it have made any difference?
"I'm...sorry for your family's loss."
"Like I said, I barely knew the girl," Shacklebolt said flatly, then more quietly he added, "We're all making sacrifices."
Severus inclined his head slightly in agreement.
"Actually, there is something we need to discuss before I leave, Sh...Kingsley. There are certain items I was not able to bring with me when I left Hogwarts, and I'm clearly in no position to retrieve them now."
Shacklebolt looked intently at Severus for a long moment before responding. "And what are these...items?"
"Some potions ingredients from my private stock that are almost impossible to come by in this political climate, which I'll need if I'm to...."
"I'm not bringing you anything that's going to be used to make one of Voldemort's poisons, Snape!"
Ah, yes...it seemed that they were back where they started rather more quickly than even Severus had thought would be the case. No matter. He would simply --
"I'm sorry, Severus. That was uncalled for. What were you going to say?"
"I was going to say that if you want to be certain the Werewolf won't rend his dead lover's cousin limb from limb on those occasions when he's able to slip away from Greyback's pack, I would be prepared to brew the Wolfsbane, but quite obviously I will be unable to requisition the ingredients from my current...employer."
"That's an extremely generous offer, Se...."
"In addition," Severus continued, ignoring Shacklebolt's unnecessary thanks. "I'll need you to bring seven glass vials containing certain memories to me. Five of them are in my private rooms, hidden by a series of charms, the key to which I'll provide should you agree. The sixth and seventh are in...the office of the acting headmistress."
How in the world could it be, Severus wondered bleakly as he turned toward the window and stared unseeing through the glass, that he was able endure the effects of the Cruciatus with barely a murmur, yet the most fleeting thought of Albus sitting behind his desk, smiling at him - as he would never do again - was almost impossible to bear?
Shacklebolt's voice was quiet and understanding - and Severus was just itching to pull out his wand and hex him where he stood.
"I'll make every effort to get what you've asked for, but the two memories in...Minerva's office. What are they memories of?"
Severus laughed, but the sound was harsh and utterly joyless.
"I wish I knew, Kingsley. I sincerely wish I knew."
Part III: The Truths You Hold
Lying in a convincing manner had never been much of a challenge for Kingsley, which explained, in part, why he generally took such great pains to tell the truth whenever it was possible to do so.
Not the whole truth, perhaps, but truth of a sort.
It was, for example, absolutely true that there were no members of the Order amongst the Aurors who'd been officially assigned to the Snape investigation, a fact Kingsley reminded Mad-Eye Moody of in passing while the two men sat sharing a drink one evening. "I wouldn't worry though," Kingsley said with a shrug. "I'm sure I'll be told if they come up with any useful evidence . . . eventually."
It was also true that the Minister of Magic was rapidly losing patience with the lack of progress being made on the case, something which made Gawain Robards, the new Head of the Auror office, exceedingly nervous. "He can't expect miracles, Gawain," Kingsley said, as he sat in Robards' office the following morning. "It's a good team you assigned to the case. A little inexperienced, true, but it's not like Scrimgeour's completely unreasonable, right?"
The seeds had been planted, and by the end of that working day, both had bloomed. Ten minutes after Kingsley returned home (the Muggle Prime Minister having left the office early to attend the theatre with his wife), an owl delivered a message, asking if Kingsley wouldn't mind popping into the Ministry sometime within the next half hour.
When he walked into Robards' office, Moody was already there, leaning back in his chair and looking as self-satisfied as if he'd single-handedly come up with a cure for the Cruciatus curse.
"You know Alastor Moody, don't you, Kingsley?" Robards asked distractedly, then shook his head. "What am I talking about? He was one of your instructors when you were training, wasn't he?
Kingsley nodded, and waited until Robards waved him over to the chair opposite his desk.
"It's been a while...sir," Kingsley said, trying not to laugh when Mad-Eye scratched the bridge of his nose with his middle finger. "What have you been getting up to recently?"
"Oh, this and that," Moody answered, putting on the quavering voice of a man three times his age. "Some consultancy work here and there, but that problem I used to have with my plumbing is -"
Robards cleared his throat. "Can you two wait until later to catch up on each other's...plumbing? Kingsley, I think - and Alastor agrees - that it might be a good idea to have someone with a little more investigative experience go over to Hogwarts and see if there's anything the team missed...in a somewhat unofficial capacity, you understand."
"Yeah," Moody snorted. "Since the official investigators don't seem to be able to find their collective arses with a Locator spell."
"How about it, Kingsley?"
"Right," Kingsley said, as reluctantly as he could manage. "I'll just squeeze in another job somewhere in my abundant supply of free time, shall I?"
Robards sighed. "Look, what if I arrange for you to get some extra holiday time?"
"How much time are we talking about?"
"Let's say two extra days if you start on this tonight."
"Tomorrow night - and I want three days off, even if I'm not able to come up with anything useful."
"Are you certain you were a Ravenclaw, Shacklebolt?" Robards asked, his eyes narrowing suspicously.
"You know, sometimes I'm not entirely sure."
When Kingsley arrived at Hogwarts the following evening, Minerva was waiting to greet him by the main entrance. Of all the members of the Order, the headmistress was the one Kingsley felt most uncomfortable deceiving, but for the time being, at least, even Minerva was a potential security risk, particularly now that she was one of the Potter boy's primary contacts.
"I appreciate you letting me take another look around the school, especially since you already had my colleagues underfoot for more than a fortnight," he said. "I'll try to cause as little disruption as possible."
"You know you're always welcome here, Kinglsey, although I'm sure we both wish it were under better circumstances. I would like some idea of when access to the dungeons will be restored, however. Mr Filch has been quite vocal in expressing his displeasure about your Aurors keeping him from doing his job."
Kingsley nodded. No doubt the expression of Argus Filch's 'displeasure' took the form of muttered warnings about manacles and thumb screws.
"You can let him know we're planning on dropping the shielding spells down there by the start of next week, although I'm afraid we're going to keep Snape's rooms sealed for some time. Rumour has it there may still be some things in his private quarters that certain parties want to get their hands on . . . I'm sure you understand."
"Truthfully," Minerva said with a sigh, "there's very little about this whole situation that I do understand. Now, are you certain I can't interest you in sharing some supper with us in the staff room?"
"I'm going to have to refuse, Minerva. The sooner I get started, the better. Maybe next time?"
"Oh, and Minerva? I need access to Alb...to your office."
"Certainly, but if you're hoping to find anything in there, I'm afraid you're going to be disappointed. Everything of a personal nature had disappeared the morning after the...well, there's nothing of interest there anymore."
"What about the portrait of the Headmaster?"
"It's still not awake," she said. "I just wish I knew what could have led Severus to...." Kingsley lowered his gaze while Minerva brought a much-used handkerchief to her suddenly damp eyes. "No, I don't suppose wishing will change anything, will it?"
Kingsley wished he could say something to reassure her, but even if he weren't still bound by the promise he'd made to Albus, his own lingering doubts made it impossible to do more than take her hands in his own and squeeze them gently.
He made his way to the dungeon stairs alone, his footsteps echoing in the empty halls, and went directly to the Slytherin wing. The Ministry shielding spells had been developed to keep ghosts and poltergeists out as well as people, but Kingsley didn't want to spend more time down there than absolutely necessary.
Once in Severus's rooms, he closed the door, then pulled out a small beaker containing the viscous golden gel that he'd been given and dabbed a small amount on the spine of the fourth book on the bottom shelf of the far bookcase. A moment later, a small cabinet appeared. Kingsley knelt down on the floor, then pulled out a small box and set it before him. As soon as he said "Lemon Drops," the lid opened, revealing five glass vials, which he placed carefully in his pockets. When the vials were secure, he resealed the hidden cabinet and closed up the room, before heading off to Severus's office to collect the required Potions ingredients.
So far, everything had gone far more smoothly than he'd feared might be the case, but Kingsley had no idea where he was going to start looking for the two glass vials that Severus told him could be located in Albus's old office. The team had already reported that they hadn't found anything there related to the investigation, and Minerva had confirmed that nothing of a personal nature remained.
When he entered the office, the first thing that struck Kingsley was that 'nothing of a personal nature' had been a hell of an understatement. Understandably, Minerva had yet to put her stamp on the room, but it looked like there was absolutely nothing in there except Albus's old desk, four chairs, and the slumbering portraits of former headmasters and headmistresses lining the walls.
Kingsley stood in front of the most recent of the gently snoring portraits, and shook his head.
"Dammit, Albus...what am I supposed to do now?"
For a moment, the eyelids of the figure in the portrait fluttered, and Kingsley hoped that maybe it was finally going to wake up, but it just muttered "she sells sea shells," before falling more soundly asleep.
"She sells sea shells? You always were a strange old man, Albus."
Kingsley looked around the room, hoping that one of the other portraits was awake and willing to talk to someone who wasn't the current headmistress, but he had no such luck. Oddly disappointed despite knowing that there hadn't ever really been any possibility that any of them would talk with him, Kingsley went to gather his notes from the desk - and there sitting beside the papers were three glass vials.
"That insane bastard!" Kingsley thought to himself. sweeping the vials into his hand. "He hid Severus's memories using 'she sells sea shells' as protection? Absolutely mad!" He marked the three new vials to distinguish them from the ones he'd found in Severus's rooms, then left the school, grateful for not encountering anybody as he made his way to the Apparation point beyond the gates.
There had never been any question about whether or not Kingsley was going to view Severus's memories before their next meeting. He knew he was going to - and what was more, he was sure Severus knew he was going to, even though the two men had never spoken of the possibility - but that didn't mean Kingsley felt complacent about setting the pensieve he'd 'borrowed' from the Ministry on his dining room table and pouring the silvery contents of the crystal vial holding the first of the memories into its swirling depths.
Two hours later, Kingsley finished viewing the last of the memories that Severus had been keeping in his rooms. There had been nothing related to Voldemort's activities - or at least, not directly. Instead, what Kingsley saw was a record of humiliations and abuses which might have made him consider joining the Death Eaters, if such things had happened to him during his childhood. Kingsley had still been attending Hogwarts when the first of the incidents - a magical ambush which resulted in a very young and very skinny Severus soiling himself in the middle of the Great Hall - took place. How was it that he couldn't remember this? Could Albus have obvliviated the entire school? It didn't seem possible, but even if he could, would he have attempted such a thing just to alleviate one boy's embarrassment?
The first of the memories from Albus's office also showed Severus in tears, but this time with a far smaller audience. Albus sat across from the young man in his office, listening silently as Severus betrayed the plans of the only friends he'd ever known in a desperate effort to convince his former headmaster that he was sincere about wanting to leave Voldemort's service.
It was with the next memory that Kingsley found the answer he'd been searching for.
One moment, he was falling through whirling darkness, and the next, he found himelf beside a stand of trees. Nearby, Severus was standing tensely, arms crossed over his chest and glaring angrily.
"You take too much for granted, Albus!"
"I take nothing for granted, Severus." the old man said, for once without that familiar half-smile on his face. "I do, however, expect you to live up to your responsibilities."
"And if I refuse?" Snape hissed. "Dammit, Albus...you can't ask me to do this."
"It is not I who ask you to do anything. You made an Unbreakable Vow, Severus, however questionable that decision may appear in light of our new knowledge that...."
"I had no choice!" Severus interrupted. "Bellatrix was already suspicious, and...."
"She may very well have been so, Severus, but you yourself told me that she had neither proof, nor her Master's full trust."
"You were not there!"
"No, I was not. You were, and you had to make a decision. I accept that - although why you didn't ensure you knew the terms of Narcissa Malfoy's vow before agreeing to it is a bit of a mystery to me."
"What was that, Severus?" Albus asked, raising an eyebrow. "I'm afraid I didn't quite hear you."
"I said," Severus said, his eyes blazing in the twilight and his voice becoming more and more shrill until he was practically shrieking, "that I was tired. I wasn't thinking. I was an idiot. Is that what you want me to say? I made another bloody stupid mistake in a lifetime of bloody stupid mistakes, and this time there's no way to take it back, and I will not compound it by being responsible for your death!"
Kingsley watched as Severus sank to the ground and covered his face with his hands. Albus shook his head, then knelt beside Severus.
"You know I'm going to die no matter what actions you take," he said gently.
"I won't be the one to do it," Severus said, his words muffled by his hands. "And I'll find some way to stop that foolish boy from following the orders of the Dark Lord."
"Nothing would please me more than if you could help keep young Mr. Malfoy from becoming a murderer, but...Severus, I am going to die - sooner rather than later, as we both know - and when that time comes, I need you to be prepared to do whatever is necessary to keep yourself alive. I do not ask this lightly; you already have more deaths on your conscience than I would ever have wished for you. However, it must be done."
"Albus, the information I've been able to get for the Order recently is not worth...."
"I swear, Severus...if I have to put you under the Imperius to get you to agree to live, I will. Live, damn you, and if you won't do it for yourself, then live for me, you stubborn brat!"
Severus made an odd choking sound that was halfway between a laugh and a sob. "A masterful demonstration of your powers of persuasion, Headmaster. Threatening to use an Unforgiveable to get me to agree to do your bidding? Wouldn't Minerva love to hear that?
Albus snorted. "Don't think she hasn't been itching to use an Unforgiveable on you for years - although I suspect the Cruciatus is more in her line." He smiled briefly, then looked intently at the younger man once again. "Severus, if the worst should come to pass, I want you to seek out Kingsley Shacklebolt. I have not yet shared any information with him, but...."
Kingsley withdrew from the pensieve and replaced the memory in the small vial, then poured himself a shot of whiskey and drank it down in a single swallow. Only Severus could agree to an unbreakable vow without knowing what the hell he was agreeing to do; for all that Slytherin House had a reputation for cultivating the traits of scheming and intrigue in its students, this Slytherin, at least, had as amazing a facility for acting on impulse as if he had been sorted into Gryffindor.
In any case, he'd found what he had been looking for: support for his instinct that Severus's loyalties were still to the Order - or at least, still loyal to the wishes of Albus, which amounted to much the same thing, in the end. If that conversation had been nothing but a ruse to trick a too-trusting old man, there would have been no reason to make sure the memory could not be detected by Voldemort.
There was really no reason to look at the final - unexpected - memory, but Kingsley was nothing if not thorough, and so once more he entered the swirling darkness...
...and ended up in what could not have been one of Severus's memories.
The room in which he stood was dark, illuminated only by the soft twinkling of stars in the night sky outside a single window. Severus lay sleeping on a couch, lines of exhaustion and pain etched onto his face. He looked, in fact, much as he had appeared a dozen times or more when he arrived at Number 12, Grimmauld Place, following a meeting with Voldemort.
The owner of the memory became clear when Kingsley turned around to see Albus watching Severus from the doorway, beyond which was the headmaster's office. Taking care that his footsteps should not make any noise and disturb Severus's already fitful sleep any further, Albus pulled a chair up to the side of the couch and sat down.
Five minutes passed before Albus moved, and then it was only to push back a strand of lank hair from Severus's face. Ten more minutes passed, and Kingsley finally realized that this was the point of the memory: it was nothing more - and nothing less - than Albus watching over a much-loved son while he slept through the night.
No longer willing to intrude on this private moment, Kingsley pulled himself from the memory.
Despite having already found what he'd gone to Hogwarts to retrieve, Kingsley spent most of the following day at the school, making a visible display of continuing his apparently fruitless search. Robards' assistant, Elaine Morgan, arrived late that afternoon to check on his progress, and when she and Kingsley were both asked to join the resident staff for dinner, Kingsley couldn't come up with a convincing reason to refuse the invitation.
Dinner became post-dinner drinks and conversation, and by the time Kingsley was able to plead fatigue and leave for the night, it was already quite a bit past the time he had agreed to meet Severus at the hotel. As he stopped off at home to collect the pensieve and the eight crystal vials, he could only hope that Severus was still waiting for him.
When he arrived at the hotel, he was surprised - and a little worried - to discover the defensive protections they had agreed to set were not in place. All that Kingsley could detect was a simple locking spell and a silencing charm that would keep anyone outside the room from hearing their conversation, but which wouldn't keep them from hearing external sounds. A bit warily, he walked into the room, but Severus was alone.
He was also asleep.
After all the bitching that man had done about the so-called "lax standards" of the Aurors' Department! Surely it would be only fair to transfigure Severus into a hedgehog while he slept. However, as Kingsley was pulling his wand from his jacket pocket, he took another look at Severus, and damned if he didn't look as tired as he had in Albus's memory. It never failed, Kingsley thought: sympathy always seemed to trump his desire for retaliation.
"Snape?" he said. "Severus? Come on....it's time to get up."
"Hmm?" Severus murmured, as he rubbed a hand over his face. "What are you talking about? I wasn't sleeping."
Kingsley laughed. "Yeah, and I'm a Brazilian marmoset." He looked over at the table and saw a pot of coffee. "Is that still hot?"
"The coffee? Yes, I put a heating charm on the pot earlier, which wouldn't have been necessary if you'd arrived when you said you were going to. Perhaps you have nothing better to do with your time than...."
Kingsley smiled to himself as he poured two cups of coffee. It was reassuring to know some things never changed, and Severus complaining about something was definitely one of those things.
"Here," he said, handing Severus one of the cups. "No sugar, no milk, right?"
"Yes. What kept you?" Severus asked, holding the steaming cup between both hands. "Did you run into difficulties retrieving the items?"
"Actually, no. I ran into difficulties extricating myself from one of Minerva's dinner parties."
"I see," Severus said flatly, before turning his attention back to his coffee. Kingsley let him drink in silence; it was obvious there was more Severus missed about his old life than just ready access to potions ingredients.
"So," Kingsley said when they had both finished their drinks. "Any news?"
"Yes." Severus crossed his arms over his chest, a clear indication that whatever Severus was about to say was something he didn't really want to discuss. "The Dark Lord has decided to focus his attentions on the Muggle world for the foreseeable future. I've put together a list of potential targets, but for the time being, I have no way of knowing what his priorities are." For a moment, he said nothing, then he leaned forward. "The Aurors can not be seen to have any foreknowledge of these things - not if you have any interest in...the flow of information continuing unabated."
Which meant that the first time an Auror showed his or her face at whatever Voldemort had planned, the suspicion would fall entirely on Severus's shoulders.
"Of course. The Muggle government isn't entirely without its own resources, you know." He pointedly ignored Severus's muttered expression of doubt. "I'll see to it that your list finds its way to the Prime Minister. Anything else?"
"No. If you just give me the ingredients I requested, and...the memories, I cam be on my way."
Kingsley nodded, then handed over a small canvas bag. "Severus?"
"What?" Severus said without turning around. "If this is about the Wolfsbane, you can tell Lupin that..."
"It's not about the Wolfsbane." Kingsley waited until the other man had turned back to face him before continuing. "I don't know if you'll be interested, but I 'liberated' a Ministry pensieve yesterday. I won't be able to leave it with you, obviously, but if you want to take back any of your memories, you can do that now."
The expression on Severus's face was impossible to read.
"The memories of...the memories from my rooms," he said slowly, "...they are of events I preferred Potter not see during his ill-fated Occlumency lessons. I've reviewed them within the past year and...no, I have no particular need to take them back. Re-integrating them with my true memories would only make them more vivid and more easily accessed through Legilimency than they are in their shadow forms, neither of which I care to see happen. However, the two in...the two other memories, yes...those I'd like to see."
"Okay," Kingsley said, deciding not to mention, for the moment, that there had actually been three vials in the headmaster's old office. He set the pensieve on the table on the table and pulled the stopper from the first of the crystal vials. "First memory coming up."
Kingsley barely had time to pour himself a second cup of coffee before Severus had returned to the present, a familiar scowl on his face.
"You're not keeping that one either?" Kingsley asked, as Severus pulled the long silvery strands from the pensieve with his wand and placed them back in the empty vial.
"No need," Severus said tersely. "I've reviewed that night so many times, it's practically a true memory by this point."
"Glutton for punishment?" he said lightly, making no attempt to pretend he didn't know precisely what Severus had just seen.
"I've found it...useful to remind myself, on occasion, exactly what side I was on - particularly after Potter started attending Hogwarts."
The venom in his voice when he said the boy's name took Kingsley aback for a moment. Apparently the rumours that Severus's dislike of Harry Potter was not merely an act had a little more basis in reality than he had credited.
"I'll need to be getting back soon," Severus said, in far more level tones than he'd just exhibited. "There's still more to see?"
"Yes," Kingsley said, pouring the contents of the next vial into the pensieve. "Another recent one."
He sat back down and watched as Severus leaned forward and entered one of his own memories yet again. The duration of his stay was far, far longer than the previous one had been, but finally he came out, looking paler than usual.
Silently, Severus replaced the memory in its crystal container, then still without saying a word, he turned as if to depart. However, instead of leaving the room, he turned away once again and leaned heavily on the table, his long fingers spread flat against the walnut surface.
There was no reply. Kingsley got up from his chair, and slowly placed his hand on Severus's shoulder, a little surprised when the other man didn't immediately shrug it off. He couldn't see Severus's face through the fall of lank dark hair, but there was no mistaking the tension he could feel vibrating beneath the skin.
"I think you'd better sit down before you fall down," he said, gently pulling Severus back from the table and steering him over to the bed. He sat down beside him, but didn't ask any questions, just looked down at a worn patch of carpet while he waited.
Finally he heard Severus take a deep breath, then release it in a shuddering exhalation.
"I...didn't know." Severus said, his voice barely audible in the quiet room.
"What didn't you know?" Kingsley asked quietly.
"Whether I had done the right thing. I thought...that night, in the tower, it seemed that Albus was asking me to...but I just couldn't read him. As weak as he was at the end, he was still too powerful an Occlumens for me to look into his mind when he wished otherwise."
"You didn't remember...."
"I remembered none of it. Not telling Albus I had finally learned what task Draco had been assigned, not begging to be released from my promise, and...not...."
Kingsley watched as Severus squeezed the bridge of his nose, then pressed the fingertips of his right hand against his forehead and looked down at the ground.
"You did exactly what Albus needed you to do," Kingsley said, his voice still gentle. "He would have been so proud of you."
Severus looked up at him, his eyes hollow. "I thought...if only I knew for certain I had done the right thing, everything would be all right, but...."
Once more, Severus lowered his head. Feeling a sudden need to give something - some kind of comfort to this man who'd known damned little of it in his life - Kingsley wrapped his arm around Severus's shoulders and drew him to his side.
"It'll be all right, Severus."
Severus made no move to leave Kingsley's embrace, but he shook his head.
"No, it will never be all right," he said.
Kingsley could only hope that Severus was wrong.
Part IV: Where You Return
They had prepared contingency plans to cover every eventuality, and still it was not enough.
At the start of each of their meetings, Severus would give Kingsley three different dates, each one a day on which the Dark Lord was unlikely to schedule a private conference or otherwise require his presence. Kingsley, in turn, would suggest specific times of the day during which the two of them could meet. Scheduling multiple meeting times was necessary as neither Severus nor Kingsley could ever be certain when duties - official or otherwise - would interfere with them keeping their initial appointments.
Kingsley had a greater number of formal responsibilities than Severus, of course, and some of those responsibilities - particularly those related to the secretarial role he had taken on with the Muggle Prime Minister - required a certain 'flexibility' in his schedule. On the other hand, as a trusted Auror and a loyal member of the Order of the Phoenix, Kingsley was unlikely to find himself under surveillance, which meant he had quite a lot of freedom where his movements were concerned.
Severus, in contrast, had far fewer demands on his time, but he wasn't trusted completely by anyone - with the possible exception of Kingsley - and on any given day, there was the possibility that one of his own colleagues would be ordered to track his movements. Severus had faith in his ability to detect the presence of a spy, even a rat-sized one, but there was no guarantee that he would be able to slip out from under an observer's gaze, at least not without drawing more unwelcome interest towards himself and his private activities than he would have wished.
Over the course of the last four months, there had been three occasions on which Severus was unable to meet Kingsley on the first date they'd set up - and once when the second date was similarly...inconvenient. Kingsley, for his part, had missed only one appointment (when the American President paid an unplanned visit to Number 10 Downing Street), but that one absence had made Severus uncomfortable enough that he demanded that additional plans be put into place, including the creation of warded 'drop boxes' for enspelled and coded messages to be placed in both the Muggle world and in the wizarding quarter of Calais.
The plans they had instituted seemed secure enough that when Kingsley never showed up for their first meeting in November, Severus wasn't terribly concerned. He was less complacent when Kingsley didn't arrive as arranged on the first alternate date. He remained at their meeting place until early in the morning, then paid a surreptitious visit to France to see if Kingsley had left any messages for him there, only to return to Spinner's End and find Wormtail practically rubbing his paws together in glee at having received a message about the part he was going to play in the Dark Lord's new offensive - plans which Severus found particularly troubling as he'd heard nothing about them from Lord Voldemort himself.
When Kingsley didn't show up for the last of the dates they had agreed upon, Severus was concerned enough that he bypassed his usual first response (i.e., ''assume the other party is solely to blame for the current difficulties' ) and went directly to panic. He left urgent messages for Kingsley in all the agreed upon spots, both in England and France, but after 24 hours, he had received no reply, and his mood was not helped by Bellatrix and Wormtail's whispered conversation in which they discussed how angry the Dark Lord was about the aborted raids and how he was planning on making up for it by extracting what information he could from the three captured Ministry Aurors, by whatever means were necessary. Severus was unable to learn the names of the Aurors who'd been taken, but the possibility that one of them was Kingsley was looking more and more likely all the time.
And so Severus did what many people do when things seem most dire.
He went to the pub.
When Severus walked through the faded blue door of the pub three roads down from Spinner's End, the first thing he saw was a familiar face standing behind the bar. Samuel Royd, the landlord of the Barge and Barrel, looked much the same as he always had. A little less hair and a few more pounds around the middle were the only signs that Samuel had aged at all since Tobias Snape first took his thirteen year old son into a pub and introduced him to his first pint of bitter. Severus had little opportunity to spend time in the Muggle world these days, but every now and again, he stopped by the Barge and Barrel for a pint, as much to keep his neighbours from becoming overly suspicious of his apparently reclusive tendencies as for any other reason.
"Wherst tha bin, lad?" Samuel asked by way of greeting, as he wiped the counter with a damp rag.
"Away on business," Severus said, perhaps too tersely, but acknowledging the man's greeting with a nod. "Could I use your telephone, Samuel? The call box outside isn't working properly, and I have a call that needs making."
"Aye," Samuel said, nodding his head. "Sit thy sen down, and I'll fetch it for thee."
Samuel turned to the back counter and picked up the telephone - a heavy black table model with a rotary dial - and placed it in front of Severus, before moving down to the other end of the bar to give him some privacy for his call.
Reaching into his jacket pocket, Severus pulled out a scrap of paper upon which was written Kingsley's number at the offices of the Muggle Prime Minister. The first time Severus dialed, he heard the start of a recorded message and hung up the phone immediately, but the second time he rang, he was greeted by a living human being.
It was not Kingsley, however, unless Kingsley had been transfigured into a woman.
"I'm sorry, sir." the woman said. "I've been left with instructions to tell anybody who rings for Mr. Shacklebolt that he has been called away on urgent and unavoidable business."
Severus frowned and slowly drummed the second and third fingers of his right hand on the top of the bar. "I see. And when will Mr. Shacklebolt be returning to his job?"
"I'm afraid I couldn't say, sir. Perhaps I might be of some assistance?"
"If you could be of assistance," Severus hissed quietly, "I wouldn't be asking to speak with Mr. Shacklebolt, now would I?"
"Pardon? I didn't quite catch that, sir."
Wonderful, thought Severus. Give the Muggle woman reason to remember this call. Not for the first time, he wished he could Obliviate someone over the telephone.
"Forgive me," Severus said. "I'll see if I can locate Mr. Shacklebolt elsewhere."
"All right then, sir. Good afternoon."
Severus hung up the telephone and bid farewell to Samuel, before walking back outside into the damp November afternoon. Where in hell was Kingsley? There had to be a way to find him. Perhaps if he could get entry, unnoticed, into the Black House - it was sure to be unoccupied, this being term time and Lupin running once again with Greyback's pack - he might be able to find the location of Kingsley's home. He couldn't believe he'd been so stupid as to not demand that Kingsley share this information with him months ago, even if he wasn't prepared to reciprocate.
He turned the corner, then ducked between a gap in the fence around an empty lot, taking by instinct the shortcut he used to take home when he was a boy. He pulled out his wand and blasted an empty bird's nest out of a low-hanging branch on a nearby oak tree. Dammit! Where was he? He took aim at another nest and was just about to blast that one as well when he saw a barn owl hovering in the twilit sky, as if trying to decide whether it would be safe to fly in his direction.
He lowered his wand, and the bird immediately perched on Severus's left shoulder. She stayed there just long enough for Severus to remove the note that was attached to the owl's leg before flying away into the darkening sky.
"First. Again. Two."
Severus shook his head, and scowled at the scrap of parchment, but nothing had changed in the thirty seconds since he unrolled it. "First. Again. Two" was all the note said, and Kingsley hadn't even bothered to use the code they'd agreed on. If the note was from Kingsley, of course. It looked like his handwriting, but that could be easily replicated by anybody with just a little more training in charms than Rubeus Hagrid. Severus would have to run a test on the note if he were going to have a chance of being certain where it actually came from.
Three hours later, Severus was no closer to learning the source of that note than he had been when he first saw it, and he had no more time to run tests, as Narcissa had insisted he come downstairs and speak to Draco. Why she thought the boy cared what he said any more than what his mother said was beyond Severus.
"I told you before and I will tell you again," said Severus. "If you leave this house, they will find you."
"Who'll find me?" Draco asked scornfully. "The Order of the Phoenix? Why should I care if they do find me? It couldn't be any worse than...."
"Draco!" Narcissa interjected angrily. "Not now."
"This is ridiculous," Draco fumed. "If my father were out of prison...."
"But your father is not out of Azkaban," said Severus through gritted teeth. "I thought you might have noticed this detail sometime over the past year."
Draco glared at his him, then flopped back down on the sofa and crossed his arms over his chest.
"There's nothing to do here," he said sullenly.
Severus bit back the words that sprang immediately to his lips. It wasn't that Draco didn't deserve to be chastened which kept him silent, but rather that these arguments he and Draco had been having with increasing regularity now that the boy had shaken his apathy were entirely unproductive. Typically, all they resulted in was a headache for Severus and then being forced to endure hours of listening to Narcissa complain about his cruel treatment of her son.
"I still don't understand why you won't take me to...."
"You will not be taken into the presence of the Dark Lord, and that is final!" Severus said loudly. Stupid boy. Was he unaware his life still hung in the balance because of his failure to complete Lord Voldemort's task? The longer Draco was allowed to remain unnoticed at Spinner's End, the more likely it was that he'd survive the coming showdown.
"I wouldn't have to see him. I could just...I don't know, observe the interrogation of the Aurors or something."
"Oh, Draco," Narcissa said. "I think you would find that most unpleasant."
Unpleasant. Yes, unpleasant is a good word for it, thought Severus bitterly, if one's definition of 'unpleasant' involves being questioned whilst being subjected to the Cruciatus for hours on end. He shuddered involuntarily at the thought that Kingsley might be...no, that note must have come from him.
"At least it would be interesting," Draco said.
"Interesting?" Snape snapped. "Interesting to watch Wizards and Witches writhing in pain?"
Draco frowned. "Why do you care, Professor Snape? They're just Aurors."
Severus swallowed the scream that had taken up residence in his throat. He had tipped his hand as to his true feelings enough this evening, and he would not....
"I wouldn't mind seeing the Aurors who arrested Father being questioned that way," Draco said with a scowl. "Those bastards deserve to die."
"Oh, fuck off, you ignorant little twat," Severus muttered under his breath.
"Severus!" Narcissa's horrified cry told Severus that he hadn't been quite as quiet as he'd meant to be. He had to get out of this bloody house before he started crying at Narcissa's knee about how some of his best friends were Aur....
"I'm leaving," Severus said, slipping his winter cloak over his shoulders. "Draco, if you want something to do, there are dishes that need washing in the kitchen. Wormtail may look like a House-elf, but he is not your personal servant, and in any case, he is not expected back for another three days. Narcissa? I trust you can maintain control over your son for the evening?"
The expression on Narcissa's face was one of absolute disgust, but she simply nodded and said nothing.
After twenty minutes, walking around in the cold, damp November night proved to be singularly unappealing, no matter how many warming charms Severus cast, so instead he found himself back at the Barge and Barrel, where he sat down at the far end of the bar and ordered a pint.
He had only meant to drink one, but the first one had left him calm enough to figure out the message on the note, so he decided a second might give him even more clarity. The third and fourth were, well...there must have been a good reason, even if he couldn't quite remember what it was.
"First. Again. Two."
Completely obvious, Severus was forced to admit to himself. Go back again to where they had first met, at two in the morning. Oh, he'd go back all right, and if that stupid bastard Kingsley was there, he was going to kill him for making him worry like this.
Of course he'd been worried, Severus thought, staring moodily into his glass. It was perfectly natural to feel that way about the person you....the person to whom you're passing information. It had nothing to do with Kingsley personally.
Severus was still telling himself this at 2:15 a.m., as he stood alone in a dark, dirty alley, shivering with the cold, and yes, it was just the cold, dammit! The fact that Kingsley hadn't arrived yet meant absolutely -
He whirled around, and...how could he have missed the sound of Apparition?
"I'm glad to see you got the message. I wasn't sure about that owl," Kingsley said with a smile. "It reminded me of the little owl that belongs to the Weasley boy, if you know what I mean. Flighty."
Smiling? Making jokes about Ronald Weasley's bloody stupid owl? After not contacting him for a week?
Forgetting entirely that he had a wand which could inflict far more damage, Severus lunged forward, grabbed Kingsley by the arms, and slammed him back into the brick wall.
"You bloody stupid bastard," Severus hissed. "How dare you. How dare you!"
"How dare I what?" Kingsley asked, his eyes widening
"Irresponsible oaf! It's been a week, and I haven't heard a word from you!"
Kingsley pushed back at Severus, but even with Severus's three stone disadvantage, he couldn't be shifted
"Irresponsible?" Kingsley said. "I've been bloody busy this week, as you should know. You gave me the damned information in the first place."
"What information?" Lying bastard, Severus thought, pulling Kingsley away from the wall and then pushing him back hard onto the bricks. "I never gave you any information about...."
"The Guy Fawkes Day celebrations, you pillock! That list of bonfires? Don't tell me you didn't even know what the hell it was you were telling me?"
Bonfires? What did that have to do with whatever the Dark Lord had planned for some Muggles?
Severus leaned forward, his face almost touching Kingsley's...and all of a sudden, the memory of standing outside on a night much like this one flashed into his mind. His six year old self had one hand grasped firmly by his father's Uncle Thomas, but the other was busy throwing bits of sticks into a raging bonfire.
He shoved Kingsley once more for good measure, and leaned heavily against his shoulder.
"You never showed up."
Oh bloody hell. Could he sound any more pathetic?
"We had eleven Muggle gatherings to take care of," Kingsley said quietly. "And we had to make sure 'our source' wasn't implicated. It took some time."
"What did you think?" Kingsley asked, reaching up and holding onto the front flaps of Severus's cloak.
"I heard three Aurors were taken captive. I thought...." Severus took a deep breath, then exhaled. "I thought you might have been one of them."
Slowly, Kingsley shook his head, then tugged at Severus's cloak and pulled him closer to him.
"I wasn't," he said softly.
"We were finally able to get them out this afternoon. The first thing I did afterwards was owl you."
For a moment, Severus was silent, his fingers still clutching Kingsley's arms, then said, "How could you be certain the owl wasn't tracked?"
Kingsley waited until Severus met his gaze to answer.
"I didn't actually care, at that moment. All that mattered was that I contact you."
"Oh," Severus said, inordinately relieved to discover that Kingsley was just as big an arse as he was. "And...you are uninjured?"
"I'm fine, Severus. I'm right here, and I'm fine."
"That's...good," Severus said, leaning forward until his forehead touched Kingsley's forehead. He waited a moment to see if Kingsley was going to pull away, but instead, he was pulled closer by Kingsley until their chests were touching.
He could feel Kingsley's breath warming his cold lips, could almost taste the hint of cinnamon from the tea he'd seen Kingsley drink...and then he could taste it as Kingsley tilted his head and touched his mouth to Severus's mouth.
Kingsley's lips were soft, and when Severus tentatively licked Kingsley's bottom lip with the tip of his tongue, he could feel Kingsley's mouth curve into a smile.
He slipped his tongue further in, and Kingsley's mouth was warm and sweet and welcoming, just as Severus had...hoped it would be, and it gave Severus a moment's pause, wondering when he'd started to hope anything having to do with Kingsley's mouth, but Severus pushed that thought out of his mind. He'd worry about it later. For now, he didn't want to think about anything; he just wanted to feel.
Severus loosened his grip on Kingsley's shoulders and slid his hands down Kingsley's arms. He stopped when he reached the ends of Kingsley's sleeves, encircled Kingsley's strong-boned wrists with his fingers, then pulled Kingsley's arms up over his head. Severus transferred his hold of Kingsley's right wrist so that both of Kingsley's hands were pinned against the brick wall by one of his own, then Severus slowly lowered his other hand until it came to rest on the top of Kingsley's head.
Severus ghosted his long, sensitive fingers over Kingsley's scalp, surprised by each tiny bump and dip in what seemed perfectly smooth from a distance. He slid his hand down along the side of Kingsley's head, and he could feel Kingsley lean into his palm while Severus traced along the edge of Kingsley's ear with his thumb, clicking his thumbnail softly against the small silver hoop that hung from the lobe. Severus leaned in and took the earring in his mouth, turning the hoop slowly with his tongue.
"Mmm," Kingsley sighed. "That's a talented tongue you've got there."
For a moment, Severus considered replying, but to do so, he'd have to stop doing what he was doing to Kingsley's ear. Instead, he let go of his grip on Kingsley's wrists, and slipped both of his arms around Kingsley's back.
He could feel the rough brick scrape against the skin on the back of his hands, and all at once the reality of the situation made itself known to him: a wanted man and an Auror, snogging in a London alley like two schoolboys in the Astronomy Tower. The whole scenario was absurd. He pulled his head away from Kingsley's ear, and started to push back from the wall, but he didn't get far, as one of Kingsley's legs snaked around the back of his and held him tight.
"Oh, no you don't," Kingsley said quietly.
"Let me go," Severus said as harshly as he could manage. "Don't you realize how utterly ridiculous this is. We're in a bloody alleyway. Don't you realize that if we're discovered, we could...."
"What I realize," interrupted Kingsley gently, "is that you need to stop talking."
"Don't be absurd! If you...."
"Stop talking, Severus."
Then Kingsley pressed his mouth to Severus's mouth and wrapped his arms around his back and pulled Severus towards him, so closely that Severus could feel the heat of Kingsley's arousal through his own robes, and all of a sudden, not talking seemed the sanest course of action.
Instead, Severus slipped one arm between his own body and Kingsley's, stroking Kingsley's erection through the soft fabric of his trousers. He moved his hand to the side, trying to find the right angle to undo the buttons of Kingsley's trousers, but he could feel Kingsley's hands squeezing his arse, and when Kingsley tightened his embrace, there was no more maneuvering room for Severus's hand.
He pulled the hand out from between them and reached up to cup Kingsley's barely-stubbled jaw in his palm, then leaned in and kissed Kingsley hard on the mouth once, then again and again as the two men pressed their bodies together, all heat and friction and throbbing pressure. Then Severus bit down hard on Kingsley's jaw as the pressure built, and just as it became almost too intense, Severus could feel Kingsley's knees shake, and with a low moan in his throat, he clutched Kingsley's shoulders and came, trembling from the force of his release.
Well, thought Severus when he could get enough brain cells functioning to form one coherent idea, that was....
"Fantastic," murmured Kingsley, as he nuzzled at the side of Severus's mouth. "Next time, though...how about we get us a bed? We're both a little old for playing The Out of Towner and the Rent Boy."
Severus tried to remember why he had been so angry with Kingsley when he arrived in the alley thirty minutes ago, but he couldn't quite manage it. All he could think was that it had been 'fantastic' and that for the first time in far too many years - possibly the first time in his life - Severus wasn't the only one who wanted there to be a 'next time.'
Part V: The Moments You Share - an interlude
The last thing he wanted to do was get up from the warm bed two hours before the January sun rose and Apparate to Luxembourg, but Kingsley had to make his cover story seem at least somewhat plausible. With a single exception, there were currently no wizards or witches in England capable of providing him with the item he had promised to bring to this morning's meeting, and it was always possible that one of his fellow Order members would notice a purely domestic Apparition signature.
He slipped out carefully from under the covers and padded quietly across the room to retrieve his robe from where he had thrown it over a chair the night before. He shook the robe four times and watched as most of the wrinkles fell out; if he didn't look at the robe with a particularly critical eye, there was no reason to suppose he couldn't wear it one more day.
Kingsley turned back to the bed and shook his head, a small smile pulling at the corners of his lips. Hard to imagine that Severus Snape could ever look so gentle, even in sleep, but the proof of it was right there, no more than five feet from him. Kingsley was tempted to return to bed, even if it could only be for a few moments, but even discounting the fact that he had work to do, the knowledge that he'd be depriving Severus of sleep won out over his desires.
He slid his arms into the sleeves of his robes, and turned away to pick up the stasis container which held the still-steaming goblets of Wolfsbane.
"Slipping out without saying farewell?" a voice gravelly with sleep said behind him. "I knew it would come to this eventually."
Kingsley turned around. Severus was still lying in the bed, but he was propped up on one elbow. The expression on his face was all but unreadable in the dim light of the weak Lumos spell Kingsley had cast earlier, but Severus's tone of voice was gently mocking - almost playful, in fact, or that's how Kingsley would have interpreted it if he had been almost any other man.
"Morning," Kingsley said. He walked back to the bed and sat down beside Severus, then leaned down and touched his lips to Severus's pale forehead. "Why don't you go back to sleep for a while. Check out isn't until noon."
Severus shook his head. "No, I need to get back to...I need to get back before I draw any suspicion about how often I'm missing."
"Being absent four nights over the course of two months from wherever it is you're living isn't what I'd call 'often.'"
"Well, you know best. I'll still need to meet with you briefly this evening, just in case there's any new information. The Order hasn't met for almost four weeks, and Harry's going to be at today's meeting."
Severus scowled. "So the Prodigal returns after all but disappearing from the face of the earth and throwing the Order into Chaos, and everyone comes running, with all forgiven?"
"It's not like that, Severus," Kingsley said. "He has information, or that's what Minerva says, and we need to know what it is. You, of all people, should understand how important information is, no matter what the source."
For a moment, Severus didn't say a word, then he nodded. "Yes, I do understand precisely how important a good source of information can be." He slipped out from under the covers and pushed past Kingsley on his way to the bathroom. "Maybe even important enough to fuck a murderer to get it, I should imagine."
"You're going to be late for your meeting," Severus said, slamming the bathroom door behind him.
Kingsley shook his head, then stood next to the locked door. "I'll send you an owl with Apparition coordinates for this evening's debrief, all right?"
There was no answer.
"I heard you."
All in all, Kingsley thought as he left the room, the day could have got off to a better start.
The Order meeting was just as scintillating as Kingsley had thought it was going to be. Harry was there, with Ron Weasley and the Granger girl sitting on either side of him, but it looked like Moody had got to them before anybody else arrived at Grimmauld Place and had cautioned them about revealing too much, because all three youngsters sat sullenly during the meeting, speaking barely a half dozen words between them.
Two hours later, the meeting ended, with nobody having said anything Kingsley didn't already know or couldn't have guessed. The only interesting bit of information came when Kingsley was looking for Remus a few minutes after the meeting wound down.
"There's only one Horcrux left to find, Remus," Harry was saying, as Kingsley walked in the library door. "And then...."
The conversation stopped dead in its tracks as soon as Harry saw that he and Remus weren't alone, but it had been enough. Kingsley didn't have the faintest idea what a Horcrux might be, but he was damned well going to find out.
"Do you think you might let me speak with Remus alone for a moment?" Kingsley asked, noting how relieved Harry looked to be given an excuse to leave the room.
As soon as Harry left, closing the library door behind him, Kingsley placed the stasis container on top of the sideboard. "I picked this up from my contact in Luxembourg earlier today. He says that you should drink one of the goblets today, one tomorrow, one Sunday, and the final one on Monday morning. That is the morning of the full moon, isn't it?"
Remus nodded, and reached into the container to withdraw one of the smoking goblets. He lifted it up to his nose and sniffed deeply, then glanced up at Kingsley, frowning slightly. Just when Kingsley was going to ask if anything was wrong, Remus drained the goblet dry, barely stopping to take a breath.
For a moment, Remus said nothing, then he gave Kingsley a small smile.
"Tell Severus thank you."
Wonderful. Twenty-plus years of Auror experience, and 'What?' was the best he could come up with. Mad-Eye would have had his bollocks if he'd been here to see Kingsley's response.
Remus sighed. "Lycanthropy doesn't come with many obvious benefits, but it has given me highly-developed senses of taste and smell. For almost a year, I drank Wolfsbane prepared by Severus. There's no way I'd mistake his potion for anybody else's."
"There is no Potions brewer in Luxembourg named Nicholas Cornelius, Kingsley. And in the interest of complete disclosure, I think I should let you know that I can also smell Severus on you."
Kingsley closed his eyes and rubbed the bridge of his nose. The moment for trying to quietly Obliviate Remus had already come and gone; now the Quaffle was completely in Remus's court.
"Who else knows?" Kingsley asked finally, the fingers of his right hand ghosting over the handle of his wand.
"Only Minerva, and before you ask, neither of us are going to say anything."
"Any particular reason why not?" Kingsley asked, more confused than he'd been a moment ago.
"Because we've been piecing together a few bits of the puzzle for ourselves over the past months. Because we don't think you're an idiot. And because we trust you," Remus said. "Both of you."
For a moment Kingsley didn't say anything, then he settled for the only thing he could say under the circumstances.
Remus nodded his head once, then put the seal back on the container. "I'm taking back my thanks to Severus, by the way. The last thing he'd want for his birthday was to discover two extra people knew the triple role he was playing."
That was certainly true, Kingsley thought. Severus had enough trouble accepting that one person knew...oh hell.
"Yes," Remus said. "Didn't you know?"
The trouble with being assigned by Scrimgeour to work with the Prime Minister was that, on occasion, Kingsley had to actually appear to be performing the tasks that went along with the job title. By the time he arrived at Number 10, Downing Street, the office was in an uproar because of the Russian President's upcoming visit. Of course, in the case of Muggle civil servants, 'uproar' was a relative term. Had the Ministry of Magic been preparing for a similar visit, by now at least half of his colleagues would have found themselves sprouting feathers, and the other half would have been refusing to acknowledge their own culpability.
The Muggles may not have had the ability to jinx each other when tempers were frayed, but they had ways of their own to make the lives of their colleagues miserable, most notably by scheduling endless meetings. The first chance Kingsley had just to step out of the office and arrange for an owl to take a message to Severus was at 4:30 p.m., and even if Severus hadn't been in such a foul mood when they parted that morning, there was always the possibility with initiating contact so late in the day that Severus wouldn't have enough time to make the arrangements he needed to slip away from his associates.
It was 7:15 p.m. before Kingsley was able to leave Downing Street, barely time to finalize his own arrangements before hearing the tell-tale sound of someone Apparating in the front hall. Kingsley was able to take some comfort from the fact that Severus still trusted him enough to Apparate to an unfamiliar location, but it was an indication of how angry he still was from the morning that when he appeared it was with his wand drawn and ready.
"Where are we?" Severus snapped.
"We," Kingsley said, wiping his hands on a tea towel, "are in my flat. Come inside. I thought we could eat something while we talk."
Kingsley didn't have to turn around to know that Severus was following him and that he had put his wand away, but whatever Severus was thinking was difficult to assess because he wasn't saying a word. Kingsley imagined that part of Severus's silence was due to his surprise over finding himself in Kingsley's home when neither of the two men had so much as said a word to each other about their respective residences even once in the seven months they'd been working together. Kingsley wasn't expecting Severus to reciprocate - and in one corner of his mind, he was certain it was a bad idea to 'reward' Severus this way for that morning's display of bad-tempered, unfounded suspicion - but if you couldn't let your sometime lover know where you lived on his birthday, when could you let him know?
"Have a seat," he said when they stepped into the dining area. "I know you don't drink often, but I remember you saying you liked brandy, and I have some Armagnac that my grandfather's cousin sent last year, if you'd like some."
"Yes, all right...a glass would be good," Severus said slowly. He had leaned back in his chair, but the arms crossed over his chest and the blank expression on his face told Kingsley that Severus was anything but comfortable.
Kingsley filled two snifters with the Armagnac and brought them to the table.
"Dinner will be ready in a half hour or so," he said, handing Severus his glass. "And yes, I know the brandy should come after dinner, but tonight being a special occasion and all..."
Severus snorted and relaxed just the slightest bit as he took his first sip. "Do I look like a Malfoy, to be worrying about those kinds of niceties? Not that any of the family are in any position to notice such things right now."
Kingsley took a sip of his drink. "Is it all right?"
Severus nodded. "A little more oak in it than the brandies I've tried before, but...yes, I like it." He took another sip, then looked up at Kingsley. "What's the occasion?"
"Rumour has it that it's your birthday today."
Severus narrowed his eyes and leaned forward. "And where, precisely, would that rumour have originated? Why do I get the feeling that howling at the moon is going to feature strongly in the answer?"
Kingsley took a moment to weigh the pros and cons of attempting obfuscation where Severus was concerned, but in the end decided to just tell the truth.
"What, precisely, does Lupin know?"
No, he definitely should have lied, but it was too late now. "Ah, well...apparently Remus has an extremely good sense of smell."
Kingsley hadn't believed it was possible for anyone who was already as white as Severus to become even paler, but he had been wrong. On impulse, he lifted his hand and placed it against Severus's cheek, and just let it sit there for a few seconds. Very appealing, aesthetically speaking.
"What the hell are you doing?"
"Admiring the view," Kingsley said with a smile. "The contrast between my skin and yours, especially when you're horrified about something, is fascinating."
"I can not believe that you find this situation amusing," Severus said angrily. "And Lupin, of all people! He's...."
"He's protecting us," said Kingsley softly, sliding his hand behind Severus's head and stroking the soft hairs at the nape of his neck. "Even from the other members of the Order."
Looking for all the world as if he were being forced to move against his will, Severus leaned back into the warmth of Kingsley's touch.
"He's going to give us up," Severus gritted out between clenched teeth.
"No he's not, Severus." Kingsley placed his other hand on Severus's forehead and started to press at Severus's temples with his thumb and middle finger.
"How do you...know?" Severus asked, the simple sentence broken by an exhalation of breath, one which - if Severus had been another man - might have almost been mistaken for a whimper.
"How did I know about you?"
Severus snorted. "If we're using me as an example, then we're well and truly fucked, aren't we?"
Kingsley smiled, but just let his hand drop lower on Severus's face, covering Severus's eyes with his palm. "Shhh. Let it go. Just for tonight."
Severus let his head drop just enough so that it was resting against Kingsley's belly. "Mmm. This is...comfortable."
"Don't get too comfortable," he said, stroking Severus's hair. "Dinner will be ready soon."
Kingsley could feel Severus shaking his head. "Later. I want to sleep."
"Are you sure you don't have somewhere you're supposed to be tonight? Won't you be missed?"
"I'm not supposed to be anywhere," Severus murmured into Kingsley's white shirt. "Nobody misses me."
"You'd be missed here." Kingsley leaned down and gave Severus a soft kiss. "Let's get you to bed then, all right?" He slipped one arm under Severus's arm and led him to the bedroom. It was a mark of how tired Severus was that he barely opened his eyes, even when Kingsley sat him down on the bed, or when Kingsley removed his boots and socks.
"Mmm," Severus murmured sleepily, as he curled up on his side, his head on Kingsley's pillow. "I don't want to leave."
"Severus?" Kingsley said quietly, lying down beside him on the bed and wrapping his arm around Severus's waist. "I want you to stay tonight, right? Just...are you certain there aren't people who are going to be wondering where you got off to?"
"As you reminded me, it's my bloody birthday...and those people," Severus said, turning back for one last drowsy kiss before surrendering to sleep, "can go fuck themselves."
Part VI: What You Hold Dear
Dressed only in his old grey nightshirt, Severus lay stiffly against the pillows he'd piled up at the head of his bed. He waved his wand, and the single narrow window along the far wall rose a few inches, allowing the uncommonly warm breezes of the late April night into his dark and airless bedroom.
He breathed deeply, trying unsuccessfully to relax. For days now, Severus, who had never been adept in Divination, had been unable to shake the feeling that something was about to go very wrong. This left him tense and even more irritable than he normally was, and yet there appeared to be very little basis for his sense of foreboding. It was true that Wormtail had been complaining loudly and with annoying frequency for the past fortnight that Bellatrix's private summonses were making him feel as if he had been "left out of the loop" - something which might have concerned Severus more had Narcissa not mentioned that her she-devil of a sister seemed finally to have attracted the Dark Lord's more...intimate interest. Privately, Severus thought that Pettigrew should get down on his knees in gratitude for being left out of that particular loop.
Wormtail's whinging aside, nothing in particular had happened recently to set off Severus's mental alarms. The Dark Lord had not called his followers together for more than a month, and he was showing no sign of doing so anytime soon. The Auror Department, for their part, were actually showing some evidence of independent thought and had been quietly locating certain Death Eaters (albeit relatively insignificant ones) without requiring input from outside sources. No Order members had suffered injuries (either physical or magical) in over six weeks. And with Bellatrix spending all her time in Little Hangleton, Severus's remaining unwanted houseguests showed little interest in his comings and goings, which made Spinner's End a far less stressful environment in which to live than it had been in months.
Apart from the odd, probably groundless, feeling of imminent 'wrongness' (and really, nobody had ever described Severus as someone whose defining characteristic was looking on the bright side of life), the only thing adding any stress to Severus's existence turned out to be Kingsley's schedule, which had actually grown less flexible than it had been up until this point, despite the way Auror and Order assignments had eased off in the past weeks. Needless to say, Severus hadn't been so foolish as to suggest Kingsley curtail the hours he was spending with the Muggle Prime Minister, nor had he been so weak as to intimate that he might like to see Kingsley more than once a fortnight. It was perfectly understandable that things would go on exactly as they had before, regardless of the changed circumstances.
However, in the privacy of his room, silencing spell in place, Severus could admit to himself that he wouldn't have objected to spending a bit more time with Kingsley. Furthermore, he was certain he knew why this was the case. It hadn't to do with anything so sentimental as friendship. Talking was all well and good as far as it went (Kingsley seemed able to hold up his end of a conversation intelligently enough), and yes, perhaps companionship wasn't quite as over-rated as Severus had convinced himself it was, but those things couldn't be as important to Severus as they felt. He'd been able to survive quite reasonably without them for most of his life, and it was ridiculous to imagine they'd somehow taken on some kind of significance now. No, it must simply be a matter of frustrated physical release that was making Severus miss Kingsley as much as he was.
Severus exhaled loudly, his frustration broadcast clearly in the sound, then slid down from his pillows until he was almost lying flat on his back. His nightshirt had bunched up over his hips, and Severus shifted in the bed. He spread his legs slightly and bent his knees, then pushed his underpants down over his hips with his left hand and slowly slid his right hand over his sharp hip bones. He let his fingertips ghost over the coarse dark hairs at his groin and closed his eyes. If he was careful to keep his fingers from touching his skin, Severus could almost imagine that he was touching Kingsley instead of himself.
He lowered his hand until he could feel his already-hard length against his palm, then wrapped his hand around the base of his erection and took one deep, shuddering breath. Eyes still closed, he started to slide his foreskin back and forth across the head of his prick, until....
...the narrow window opened all the way, and a lone rider on a broom flew into Severus's room.
In an instant, Severus rolled to his side, his hand automatically taking hold of his wand instead of his now-aching prick.
"Sorry to disturb you while you were...what were you doing?"
The voice - deep and serious and amused, all at once - could belong to nobody but Kingsley.
"What in the name of fuck are you doing here?" Snape hissed, any pleasure he might have felt from Kingsley's presence completely eradicated in the wake of his anger and embarrassment. The latter, he knew he'd never admit to, but the former...Severus jumped out of the bed, his nightshirt falling back into place as he pointed his wand directly at Kingsley. "I never told you where my home was! It's unplottable to all but a select few. How did you...."
"Unplottable doesn't mean unfindable. Albus gave me the location and a way to break through your wards, in case there was ever an emergency. I'm sorry I couldn't tell you, Severus, but he made me promise."
Severus frowned, and lowered his wand infinitesimally. "When did...the headmaster tell you?"
"Last year," Kingsley said quietly, as he looked around the bedroom. He leaned down and grabbed a robe from the back of a chair, then tossed it to Severus. "Here...put this on."
Severus caught the robe in his left hand, but made no move to dress. "Not until I get some answers from you. How could you have kept this from...."
"Later, Severus. Personally, I'd rather be watching you continue doing what you were doing when I came in, but you need to get the hell out of here and you need to do it now. Harry's found out where you live, and he's on his way."
Severus threw the robe over his head, then summoned boots and a small leather pouch.
"How the hell did Potter find this place? Unless Albus..."
Kingsley shook his head.
"He'd never invade your privacy that way," Kingsley said, as Severus snorted in disbelief. All Albus had ever granted him was the illusion of privacy, and it appeared that dying hadn't changed this at all. "When Remus fire-called just now, he said he thought Hermione Granger must have been doing looking through the Muggle records - something most witches and wizards would never think to do."
"What does Lupin have to do with this?" Severus asked, sitting down on the edge of the bed and lacing up his boots. "And since when have you and Lupin been so...close."
Severus had tried to sound as casual as possible when he asked his questions, but it seemed as if he hadn't been quite as successful as he might have wished. Kingsley took a deep breath, and even with only a single candle for illumination, Severus could almost see the effort Kingsley was making not to roll his eyes. "He's close to Harry, Severus, but he knows Harry hasn't exactly been rational where you're concerned, so he's...."
"Trying to ensure the Wolfsbane brewer remains among the living?" he couldn't help but say.
Kinglsey shook his head, then stroked his hand down the length of Severus's disheveled hair. "If it makes you feel better to think that, go right ahead."
Severus shook off Kingsley's hand, and stood up. "Well, what are you waiting for?" Severus asked abruptly. "I won't hurt your precious boy hero when he arrives, if that's what you're worried about."
"No, I know you won't," Kingsley said. "No matter how much you might want to. But I have information for you, so if you'll...."
"I have arrangements to make before I can leave."
Kingsley frowned. "I thought you already had everything you valued taken to your vault at Gringotts."
"For the most part, I have," Severus said curtly, before shrinking the leather pouch and placing it deep in one of the pockets of his robe. "But much as Narcissa and Draco have been driving me out of my mind, I am not leaving them here to be found by Potter and his minions."
"What about Pettigrew?"
Severus snorted. "I'd leave him to Potter's tender mercies without a second thought, but as it happens, I haven't seen him in two days. Go on. Wait for me in the abandoned lot just down the road. I'll be there shortly."
"And the Malfoys?"
"I'm sure they'll understand that it would be in their best interests to find different accomodations for the night, and that any interaction with their inadvertent benefactor wouldn't be wise."
Kingsley gave Severus one last lingering look. He looked like he was about to say something, but he just took a deep breath, got back on his broom, and flew out the window. Severus watched until he could no longer see him in the moonless night.
When Severus opened the door to his old bedroom, he caught sight of Draco asleep in Severus's childhood bed, his too-long hair falling messily over his pale face, and Severus could almost imagine for a moment that he was back at Hogwarts, checking on his young Slytherin charges in the middle of the night, until a moment later when he heard the soft tread of footsteps behind him in the hallway.
"Is something the matter, Severus?" Narcissa asked quietly, as she came to stand beside him in the doorway. Lucius's wife had never been one of Severus's favorite people, even when they were attending school together, but he couldn't fault her protective instincts where her son was concerned.
"You and Draco need to get your things together, Narcissa," he said quickly. "I've just learned that a team of Ministry Aurors are on their way."
Her eyes widened, but she just nodded and immediately went to wake her son. Good. She might still have followed his instructions even if she had known it was a teenage boy and two of his friends on the way instead of a trained team of Dark Wizard catchers, but Draco most certainly would not have, and he needed the two of them to leave without having to waste time engaging in fruitless debates.
Five minutes later, a bleary-eyed Draco Malfoy stood beside his mother at the garden door.
"Aren't you coming with us, Professor Snape?"
Severus shook his head.
"There are things I must finalize before I can join you," he said, grateful that he had a plausible excuse to put off traveling to Little Hangleton for at least a short while. The Dark Lord would likely be displeased to find the two Malfoys on his doorstep, but Severus was as certain as one could be where Voldemort was concerned that they were no longer in any danger of suffering physical punishment at his hand.
"Are you positive we can't just return to the Manor, Severus?"
"I'm afraid not, Narcissa. The Ministry has had all of Lucius's holdings under surveillance for the past year, and it wouldn't be safe for you to return - not with your son, at any rate."
"Besides," Severus said archly, "I'm sure you've been missing your dear sister."
"Ah yes," she said, raising one eyebrow. "There is that."
Draco sniggered into his sleeve, earning him a gentle nudge from his mother, and then the two were gone.
For some reason, Severus hadn't been entirely certain that Kingsley would be waiting for him in the lot when he finished with Narcissa and Draco, but when Severus walked through the loose planking around the back of the empty property, there he was, leaning against one of the old trees.
"Everything go all right?" Kingsley asked, the moment Severus came into his view.
Severus nodded. "Yes, if your definition of 'all right' is sending two more potential hostages to the Dark Lord's lair."
"There wasn't really any other alternative, Severus. It wasn't as if you could stash them in the Reading Holiday Inn."
The thought of Draco and Narcissa Malfoy ensconced in a Muggle hotel made Severus laugh despite himself, which in turn made Kingsley smile.
"I like your laugh," Kingsley said, leaning in to kiss Severus on the tip of his nose.
Severus felt himself flush, and even though he knew Kingsley wouldn't be able to see the expression on his face, he scowled.
"I thought you said we still had business to conduct. Shall we start by you telling me whether your pet Werewolf shared his thoughts on why Potter might have decided to go after the wicked Severus Snape tonight of all nights?"
Kingsley shrugged. "Remus wasn't sure. He thinks Harry might just be frustrated that he hasn't been able to find the last Horcrux, so he's...."
Severus frowned. "The last what?"
"Horcrux. I'm sure I asked you about it back in...."
"You most certainly did not," Severus said, trying to sift through his memories for a prior mention of that word. It sounded damned familiar, but...no, there was nothing there. "What is it?"
"According to what Remus has been able to get out of Harry, it's some sort of soul protector. There's an obscure dark ritual that allows a particularly strong witch or wizard to split their soul, and Harry told Remus that this is how Voldemort's been able to come back from the brink of death so many times."
Severus shivered; he told himself it was because the night was growing colder.
"There's nothing else to tell, really. Harry is sure there's only one left, but Remus says the boy and his friends can't find it. There was some talk that the locket was part of the items Mundungus 'liberated' from the Black house, but it turned out that...."
Kingsley nodded. "Something that belonged to Regulus when...."
That stupid boy! All these years, he'd been holding onto Voldemort's...god! Regulus must have Obliviated him right after...that little prick!
"Who's a prick?" Kingsley asked in alarm. "What's going on, Severus?"
"I have to go back to the house," Severus said.
"You can't! Harry will be there any...."
"Kingsley, just shut up for a minute! Try to stay here, if you can, and wait for me, but if I don't come back, tell Potter to look in the brass lock box in the bedroom upstairs." Severus grabbed Kingsley's arm. "Promise me!"
Kingsley gripped Severus's arm in return, and nodded. "I promise."
Pulling Kingsley toward him, Severus kissed the other man hard on the mouth, and before giving him a chance to respond, Severus Apparated to the kitchen door at Spinner's End and raced up the narrow back stairs.
Barely a moment after he entered his childhood bedroom, Severus could hear the front door being opened and the muffled voices of Potter and his two shadows.
"That was brilliant, Harry!" he heard Arthur Weasley's youngest son saying. "I couldn't even see the openings in the protective spells around this house."
"That's because there weren't any, Ron," said Granger. "I think Harry just blasted through the protective spells as if they weren't even there."
As Potter would probably do with him if he caught him here tonight.
Severus had no false modesty where his own magic was concerned. He knew he was a powerful wizard, yet even a year ago, he'd been hard-pressed to protect himself from the curses that sixteen year old boy was throwing at him. And today? Severus could practically feel the raw power radiating from the damned boy.
All the better for the Wizarding World, Severus thought...and all the worse for him.
Unwilling to risk casting so much as a silencing spell while Potter was in his house, Severus crept over to the book shelf and took down the small brass box. He opened the lid, and there, sitting atop the few items Severus had saved from when he was a lad, was the locket. It was a simple enough piece of jewelry on the face of it - certainly not valuable by any conventional standards - but Regulus, looking ill and tired, had brought it to Severus late one night and begged him to keep it safe. Three days later, Regulus was dead, and in a rare burst of nostalgia for the friendship he had shared with the other boy, Severus put the locket away in his 'treasure chest' before all but forgetting about it for the next two decades.
"Hermione?" he heard Potter say. "Why don't you stay down here and see if you can find anything in the bastard's library. Ron and I will go upstairs and have a nose around."
There was no time to delay further. Severus reached into the box and lifted out the locket....and the instantaneous agonizing pain he felt in his left arm almost brought him to his knees. He could taste the blood in his mouth from where he'd bit down on his tongue to keep from screaming.
As carefully as he could, Severus let the locket slide to the worn rug beneath his feet, then he took out a hankerchief from the pocket of his robe, and lifted the locket again, this time holding it by the chain.
The pain he felt this time was far less severe than when he had first touched the locket, but painful it remained - and along with the pain, was an impossible-to-ignore sense that Severus needed to go to the Dark Lord's side immediately.
Hiking his robes up, Severus crawled out the bedroom window as he'd done time and again when he was a boy. He sat on the edge of the roof, scowling at the drainpipe which he knew wasn't sturdy enough to support his adult weight before taking a deep breath and jumping into the back garden.
By the time he returned to Kingsley, his ankle was sprained, his hands and knees were covered with dirt, and he could not hand the locket over, no matter how much he wanted to. It was all he could do to keep from Apparating directly to Voldemort.
"You heard me. You have to petrify me," Severus said. Christ, he sounded like a scared child to his own ears; he could only imagine what he sounded like to Kingsley. "Petrify me, and then make sure that this fucking locket gets to Potter."
"Yes, he was at the fucking house, but...."
"Never mind," Kingsley said, his hand on Severus's shoulder and the expression on his face saying that he just might know all the reasons why Severus hadn't been able to give the locket to that boy. "And Severus? When you can...my home is your home."
Severus looked down and tried to blink away the sudden sting he felt in his eyes.
Totally paralyzed, Severus barely noticed when Kingsley removed his wand from his pocket, but the moment Kingsley took the locket from his hand, it felt as if the flesh had been ripped from his arm.
"Severus," he heard Kingsley say. "I've put your wand under the tree. Sorry about that, but I thought it might be a smart idea to give myself a little room to get the hell out of here when I ended the spell. Just...be safe."
He thought he felt Kingsley kiss his temple, but he couldn't be sure,
A moment passed, then Kingsley's voice - much fainter than it had just been - called out "Finite Incantatem!"
Severus whirled around, but Kingsley had already disappeared, and after retrieving his wand, Severus surrendered to Voldemort's call.
Part VII: The Future You Seek
After he was pulled unceremoniously from his bed that morning, Kingsley took advantage of the few moments of privacy he was given before being hauled off for more questioning to make certain he was still "all there," as it were.
All body parts were present and accounted for, although the shooting pains he felt each time he coughed or drew a deep breath indicated at least one fractured rib, if not more. He could see - and feel - various contusions and abrasions, but nothing that couldn't be fixed quickly enough if he were ever allowed to see a healer or even if he could get access to his own wand once again. And he was still experiencing blurry vision - probably the result of the blows he'd received to the head from flying debris the other night - but his eyesight seemed a bit better this morning than it had been the previous evening.
More worrying to Kingsley was the fact that while he'd only been able to get the briefest glimpse of Severus after the two had been brought in 72 hours earlier, even those few seconds had been long enough to see that Severus was faring less well than Kingsley. His hair, never terribly clean even at the best of times, was filthy and hung in clumps about his ashen face. His eyes were slightly glazed - although whether that was a result of simple exhaustion or an after-effect of the Curses he'd been hit with during the fighting, Kingsley had no way of knowing. And Severus's hands, clenched in his lap, were trembling.
Kingsley would have given a great deal at that moment to be allowed some time alone with Severus to make sure he was all right, but of course that wasn't going to be permitted The only consolation Kingsley had, as he was led into the tiny airless room for the third day in a row and pushed down hard onto a battered metal chair, was that things would probably be far worse if the "good guys" hadn't won the war.
After all, the Ministry was unlikely to execute either one of them.
At least not until after they'd had a trial.
When they brought him a cup of coffee, Kingsley didn't know whether it was a good sign or a bad sign. Ministry coffee was notoriously foul, unless...no, it was just as wretched as it had always been, but at least it was hot. Kingsley wrapped his hands around the mug and closed his eyes, letting the heat of the coffee start to leach the chill out of his bones.
"I wouldn't bother getting too comfortable."
Kingsley looked around and saw his boss standing in the doorway, kitted out in formal Auror robes - the kind that nobody ever wore unless the press were hanging about.
"Gawain, how are you? Any news?"
"Just for the time being, I think you might want to reconsider that sort of informality, Auror Shacklebolt."
No, thought Kingsley, the coffee had definitely not been a good sign. "Apologies, sir. Can I ask when I might be released?"
"Well, that depends now," Robards said.
Robards sighed in an all-too-familiar way. "You might as well come along. Moody's seeing to your mate down the corridor. Perhaps you'll find it educational."
Kingsley put the cup down and rose from the table. If Robards was willing to allow him to observe Severus's interrogation, it had to mean that they were planning to use Veritaserum when they questioned Kingsley later in the day. There was no other way they'd let somebody, especially an Auror, get an idea of the line of questioning to which they were going to be subjected.
Robards cast a quick locking spell on the door, then waved his wand and the wall to the next room became transparent.
"...I'll ask you again," Moody was saying in the other room. "What were you doing at the Riddle House?"
The bloody state of Severus's lips told Kingsley all he needed to know about how hard Severus had been fighting against answering Moody's questions.
"I...I touched a particular item that was keyed to the Mark on my arm, and the Dark Lo...Voldemort called me."
"What was the item."
"A...piece of jewelry."
"A piece of jewelry?" Moody said disbelievingly. "Did you give it to Voldemort?"
"No, I'd already given it away to King...to Shacklebolt."
Moody looked toward the wall briefly, then turned back to Severus.
"Why didn't Voldemort kill you?"
"I don't know. He might not have known what I'd had in my hand."
"What was Shacklebolt doing at the Riddle House when we arrived?"
Kingsley wondered why Moody had changed tack. Why wasn't he asking what had been so damned important about the locket? Then he remembered that he hadn't said anything about it either. Kingsley frowned, then turned towards Robards, but by the time he'd turned all the way around, he couldn't remember what he'd meant to tell him.
"Answer me," Moody repeated. "What was Shacklebolt doing at the Riddle House when we arrived."
"Why had he sent an owl to arrange a meeting with Lucius Malfoy?
"I don't know!"
"Then take a fucking guess, Snape."
Severus grimaced, but the words refused to stay put where he clearly wanted them to remain. "I suppose he might have been ...worried about me."
Moody barked out a harsh laugh. "A Ministry Auror going alone into Voldemort's headquarters just because he was worried about a worthless piece of offal like you? I find that damned hard to believe."
"Yes, well...there's no accounting for tastes, is there?" Severus muttered.
Kingsley winced as Moody kicked the back of Severus's chair and sent him flying chest-first into the sharp edge of the table, then he pulled on Severus's hair until his head jerked backwards and forced another three drops of Veritaserum down his throat.
"What information did Shacklebolt share with Malfoy?"
Moody was still questioning Severus, but his magical eye was looking directly at Kingsley through the spelled wall.
"I told you I don't know. I wasn't present at their meetings." Severus's hands were bound to the arms of the chair, but he curled in on himself as much as he was able and started to cough, then cleared his throat and tried to spit on the floor. He only succeeded in dribbling the spittle down his chin and onto his own already-dirty robes.
"What do you think he told Malfoy?"
Severus coughed again, then said, "Old passwords. The locations of Auror safe houses that hadn't been used for months. The names of dead operatives, maybe."
"And what else?"
"That...that he could get more current information if they'd let me go."
Kingsley could feel Robards' eyes boring into the back of his head. He'd already told his own questioners this, but apparently it sounded different when Severus said it. Moody spun Severus around and grinned nastily.
"What was the nature of your...relationship with Auror Shacklebolt?"
Severus bit on his bottom lip until blood seeped out of his mouth and down his chin, but he shook his head.
"Did you think he was your...boyfriend? Did you bend over and let him fuck you, Snape?"
"It wasn't like that," Severus whispered, clenching his eyes shut.
"Oh, I think it was just like that," said Moody. "I think he found you, disgusting Death Eating vermin that you are, and when you told him he could stick his cock up your arse if he wouldn't turn you in, he figured, why not? You'd killed the head of the Order and maybe Shacklebolt thought Voldemort's side was going to be the winning side. He wouldn't have been the only one to think that. The smart Galleons were all betting that way."
Was this really what Moody thought? Is that what Robards thought? That he'd sell out his own department for...Christ!
"Is that what happened, Snape? Are you trying to protect him?" Moody looked up and stared at the wall behind which Kingsley and Robards stood. "You are, aren't you, you stupid bastard? Do you really think he didn't give you up when they...."
"There's nothing to give up," Severus said hoarsely, his eyes still closed tight. "Kings...Shacklebolt was doing what the headmaster had asked him to do. I was doing what Albus...."
"Don't say his name in my presence, murderer."
Moody's voice was thick with loathing as he grabbed Severus by the collar, and if ever Severus had looked like he was about to fall completely apart, this was the time. Automatically, Kingsley took a step forward, forgetting entirely that a wall stood between them, but Robards' hand gripped his shoulder and pulled him backwards and out into the hall.
"Is this what we're doing now?" Kingsley asked in a harsh whisper. "Is this how we treat the people we're questioning?"
Robards looked at Kingsley with a clinical expression on his face. "Where have you been for the past twenty years of your career, Shacklebolt? When all we're looking for is a confirmation, we...."
"But that's not all you're looking for in this case, or have you already decided you can skip the will of the Wizengamot entirely and convict Se...Snape purely on what you think was going on?" Kingsley shook his head and coughed shallowly, trying to keep his ribs as still as possible. "Didn't we learn anything from the Sirius Black case?"
"I don't know what you think we were supposed to have learned from that," Robards said, pulling Kingsley out of the way of a snack trolley making its way down the middle of the corridor. "A convicted killer who escaped the arm of the law and...."
"He didn't kill Peter Pettigrew!"
"So you say," Robards said flatly. "We still have no hard evidence, and in any case, have you forgotten that a dozen Muggles died that day?"
"Pettigrew killed them to...."
"I don't want to hear any more about that case," Robards said, shaking his head. "And if you were smart, you'd think twice about reminding me that you'd been put in charge of Black's capture. I'm beginning to...."
"What is it Elkins," said Robards to the young Auror who'd just tapped on his shoulder.
"Auror Moody says your presence is requested in the interrogation room."
"He said what?"
Elkins shrugged, then took a deep breath. "He said 'tell the bloody Welsh rabbit that everything's just gone tits up, and if he doesn't want to look like a bigger incompetent than he is, he'd better get his arse in here on the double.'"
Robards grimaced. "You can go, Elkins. Shacklebolt, come with me."
Kingsley followed his boss back down the corridor until they reached the door of the interrogation room. Moody was standing outside, holding a roll of parchment in his hand and scowling angrily.
"What's going on, Moody?"
"What isn't?" Moody said, kicking at the base of the pale yellow wall with his wooden leg. "It's a damned circus going on out there, now that Potter's shown up."
"What's he doing here?" Robards asked. "I thought he'd gone off for a little well-deserved rest and recuperation."
Moody snorted. "You've been reading the newspapers again, haven't you, boyo? He only went as far as Ottery St. Catchpole, but he's been dragged back to 'aid in the investigations.'"
"By McGonagall, Lupin, and the Granger girl."
"What did they...."
"What didn't they? Thirty feet of eyewitness reports between them, written by hand and not with a Quick Quill, plus Potter and Lupin have been submitting Pensieve evidence about Shacklebolt here and his fuck toy."
Kingsley felt an angry flush creeping up his neck, but he said nothing, not even when Robards turned to look at him with a quizzical expression.
"Evidence about what, Moody?"
"About how we'd all be on our knees right now to Voldemort if it hadn't been for that greasy bastard passing information to our side through Shacklebolt. Oh, and something about part of Voldemort's soul in a locket, whatever that's all about."
"Oh, for fuck's sake," Robards said. "This is going to be a public relations nightmare."
"Scrimgeour's already sent that nasty Jarvey he keeps as a familiar down here to curse everybody out." Moody turned and glanced back at the locked door. "If I were you, I'd make the Snape problem go away before the press get inside the building."
Robards waited until Moody had slid his wand back into its sheath and disappeared into the corridor leading to the east wing, then muttered Alohomora and started to walk through the open door. Kingsley hadn't been told to stay behind, so he followed Robards through into the room.
Before saying anything to Severus, Robards read through the notes on the scroll Moody had given him. "So," Robards said finally, still not looking up. "Harry Potter says you provided the final piece of the puzzle so that he could defeat Voldemort, and that you were passing information all during the last year of the war."
"If Potter said it," Severus said, "it must be true."
Severus's voice was thick and slurred - characteristic of somebody who had been given an overdose of Veritaserum - but there wasn't a sound in the world that Kingsley had wished more avidly to hear.
"Why didn't you say something?" asked Robards.
Severus made a sound as if he were trying to laugh, but it turned into another bout of coughing. "You're joking, aren't you?" he asked. "I never expected anyone would provide confirmation."
Kingsley closed his eyes and took a deep breath. All this time, and Severus still had so little faith in him. In them. Didn't that idiot know how much he...
"It would have been our word against everyone else's," said Severus. "What would the point have been?"
Perhaps Kingsley, at least, no longer fell into the category of people whom Severus Snape distrusted.
The number of people who continued to distrust Severus Snape, however, were legion.
"You can't keep him under surveillance," Kingsley said. "You've heard my testimony, and you've seen what Harry Potter put in the...."
"I'm sorry, but it's for his safety as well as everyone else's."
"Oh, that's just shite, if you'll excuse the expression. Okay, look...what about if I took responsibility for him?"
Kingsley didn't know how he was going to explain this one to Severus, but surely he'd chafe more at being watched by a complete stranger.
"I could send in a report every now and again, just as a formality."
Was he insane? Severus wouldn't stand for Kingsley reporting on him. Maybe he could just make something up every month, like he used to do in Divination.
Robards raised an eyebrow, then shook his head. "No, I don't think that would be acceptable. There are still too many things to be settled where your own recent actions are concerned."
Kingsley frowned. That sounded a bit ominous.
"Your extra-curricular work for the Order is somewhat understandable, given the political realities we were faced with," Robards said, sitting back in his chair. "At least there's precedent, and everybody knows how persuasive Albus Dumbledore could be when there was something he wanted. However, not reporting the whereabouts of Snape or informing your superiors in the Order or me that you knew where he was is not acceptable.
"You saw Moody in there with him," Kingsley said tightly. "Can you honestly tell me that anyone would have listened to a word Snape said before submitting him to torture and throwing him into Azkaban?"
"That's not the point, Shacklebolt."
Kingsley slammed his palms down on the desk. "That's exactly the point! He was on our side the whole time, and...."
Robards stood up and held his hand up. "That's quite enough, Shacklebolt. Ministry policy was quite clear where all Death Eaters were concerned, and it wasn't your place to make private exceptions to the rules. It's become obvious that you no longer share the goals of the Auror Service. I think it's best for all parties concerned if we just agree on a parting of the ways."
He felt a brief stab of regret that the work he'd done for two decades was coming to an end, but Kingsley wasn't really at all surprised that Robards was sacking him. Kingsley had known from the moment he first agreed to work with the Order of the Phoenix that the time might come when the gap between his two conflicting loyalties grew too great.
What he hadn't anticipated was that a third loyalty would come along that would be even more important to him.
When Kingsley left Robards office, he found Severus sitting in the corridor, under the watchful eye of Auror Elkins. He was stuck to a hard bench with a binding spell, his eyelids were drooping from excessive amount of Veritaserum in his system, he had three days worth of stubble on his face, and there was dried spittle on the back of his shoulder that could only have got there from an antagonistic passer by.
He looked beautiful.
Kingsley asked Elkins to end the spell, which he did, and then Kingsley lifted Severus up from the bench. What he wanted to do was hold Severus in his arms, push his dirty hair back from his face and kiss him reassuringly, but he knew Severus well enough to know that the only public display of affection he'd be willing to accept at the moment was Kingsley's help in keeping him steady on his own two feet - and he was accepting that only because without some assistance, Severus would probably have already fallen flat on his face right there in the corridor.
They hadn't moved more than a few steps away from the bench than Kingsley saw a large group of people coming around the corner. From the number of Visitor passes floating over their heads and the variety of cameras, quills, and notebooks in their hands, Kingsley guessed correctly that the press had finally succeeded in being allowed into the building. As subtly as he could, Kingsley stood in front of Severus to keep him out of sight, but there was no need: as they came closer, he could see that at the center of the group was Harry Potter, flanked by Granger, Weasley, and Remus.
As Kingsley pulled Severus against the wall to let the group pass, Harry, looking almost as tired as if he'd been the subject of MLE questioning for the past three days, turned to face them. He nodded briefly at Kingsley, but only glared at Severus, who responded by glaring back. Kingsley shook his head as he guided Severus around the edge of the crowd and down the corridor. The Potter boy had done the right thing in the end, but nothing was going to make him and Severus like each other.
Kingsley and Severus were waiting for the Witch in charge of the Ancillary Security Desk to return from the claims room with both their wands when Remus broke away from the group surrounding Harry and trotted down the hall to join them.
"Not that it really means anything," Remus said when he reached them, "but before you disappeared, I just wanted to thank both of you. Our world owes you a great debt, and it's one I'm afraid will never be repaid."
"You're welcome, Remus," said Kingsley quietly. "And thank you for everything you did for both of us. If those depositions hadn't arrived when they had, I'm fairly certain we'd both be in Azkaban right now."
Remus glanced over his shoulder to the crowd of people at the other end of the hall and sighed at the sight of Rufus Scrimgeour and Percy Weasley now standing beside Harry. "So, Kingsley," Remus said carefully, "I heard a rumour that you were thinking about...a career change."
"That grapevine moves quickly, doesn't it?" Kingsley said with a wry smile. "Yeah, the Auror Division and I are parting ways."
"What will you be doing instead?"
"I think I need to take some time to think about that. Maybe go and visit my family in the Caribbean for a time while I decide."
Out of the corner of his eye, Kingsley could see Severus's head jerk up at the mention of Kingsley's family, then drop down again. Damn it. He was really going to have to learn to be more careful when he talked about his future plans. It wasn't enough that Kingsley knew he wanted Severus to be a part of that future; Severus had to know it as well.
"Of course, it all depends on what Severus wants to do, but it would probably be best if neither of us were in England at the moment."
He glanced to his right, and Severus was looking back at him, surprise plain to see on his face. Kingsley had been right, then; Severus had assumed Kingsley's plans didn't include him.
As surreptitiously as he could, given that they were in a public place, Kingsley slid his arm around Severus's narrow waist and squeezed lightly.
"Well," said Remus, clearly trying his hardest not to stare in fascination at the two men. "I'll...um...I suppose I'll be getting back to Harry. Wherever you go, I hope you keep in touch. Both of you."
Kingsley nodded. "I will, Remus. And thank you again."
For a moment, Severus said nothing, then he looked up, his normal scowl returned to his face.
"Lupin, if the once and future hero of the Wizarding World can get access to my papers - and if he can't get official sanction, I've no doubt of his ability to break into my office without permission - there's a scroll filed under 'R' for 'Ravening Beast' that has the latest formulation of Wolfsbane. Granger will, I presume, be competent enough to brew it for you."
"You're a good man, Severus, you know that?" Kingsley said in a stage whisper, but Severus just scowled harder in reply.
However, not even the scowl could keep Remus from wrapping his arms around Severus right there in the corridor where anyone could see. "I can't tell you how much I appreciate this, Severus. What an incredibly generous...."
With a look of something akin to horror on his pale and exhausted face, Severus extricated himself from Remus's embrace. "Yes, yes...you're welcome. Don't go on about it, for God's sake."
Kingsley smiled at Severus. "I think it's time for us to go."
EPILOGUE: In From the Cold
There were many lotions and unguents - made by Muggles and Wizards alike - formulated to protect fair skin from the heat of the Caribbean sun, but for some reason, Severus Snape, a man who had spent most of his life in a cold damp dungeon, hadn't considered the need for any such protection when he first arrived on the bright sunny island. Luckily, Kingsley's grandmother knew some fine masking spells to hide most of the pink tint that Severus's normally sallow skin had taken on, and her husband's healing spells eased the burn.
Privately, Severus suspected Kingsley and his grandparents were all a bit too amused at the thought of Severus Snape with a tan, but being the object of amusement - at least where this particular family was concerned - no longer had the power to hurt him.
Severus was dozing in his favourite porch chair when Kingsley, still wearing the white shorts and shirt covered with colorful parrots that he'd dressed in for his trip to the nearby Muggle town that morning, sat down beside Severus on the glider and leaned lightly against Severus's sunburnt shoulder.
"Hey to you," Severus said sleepily, opening his eyes slightly and nudging the side of his head against Kingsley's. "When did you get back?"
"Just a few minutes ago, actually. Have you eaten breakfast?"
Severus raised an eyebrow. "How could I not have done with your grandfather as my watchdog? Every time I turn around, the man is pressing food on me."
Kingsley smiled, then reached over and patted the small belly Severus had grown over the past six months. "Remind me to thank Grandpapa. I like the results."
Severus shook his head, then laid his hands over Kingsley's hands and closed his eyes once more against the glare of the sun.
"We'll see how much you like it after another half year of indigence passes," he said. "I intend to sit back and do absolutely nothing but eat and sleep until I put Horace Slughorn to shame."
"Feel free to get as fat as you want, Severus Snape," said Kingsley's grandmother as she stepped out onto the porch to join them, "but don't think you're going to sleep your life away here. There's been a series of thefts in the Wizarding quarter of the city recently that show a signature use of potions, and we could use some of your expert advice. We'll put you on the payroll, of course.... unless you're actually independently wealthy, and you're planning to keep my lazy grandson in the manner to which he'd like to become accustomed."
"Excuse me, Celeste," Severus said, frowning a bit in the bright morning sunshine. "Am I to understand you're offering me a job with East America's Magical Law Enforcement offices? Have you...spoken to your counterpart in England?"
She put her hands on her hips and pursed her lips. "The day I let that wet-behind-the-ears puppy, Gawain Robards, tell me whom my department can and cannot hire is the day I hand in my Seal of Office."
"I...have no laboratory."
"You think we couldn't provide you with a lab, boy? It might not be what you're used to but...."
"No, no...I'm certain it will be fine. "
"Does this mean you're going to take the job."
"Of course. Thank you, Celeste."
"Oh, don't thank me yet, Severus. I hear I'm a terror to work for," she said, smiling down at him.
Kingsley laughed, and Celeste turned toward her grandson. "And don't think your grandfather and I are going to let you just continue to laze around the place, getting underfoot. There's plenty of investigative work for you to do, now that you've had your rest. Put some of that fancy Auror training to use."
"That's what I like to hear. The sound of people agreeing with me." Celeste picked up the cat who'd been sunning itself beside Severus's chair all morning. "All right, you both need to come along now. Papa's made a wonderful lunch, and it wouldn't be nice to keep him waiting, now would it?"
Celeste and the cat went inside, Severus looked at the kitchen door, then lay his hand on his still-full stomach and groaned softly.
Kingsley stood and pulled Severus up from the chair. "Come along, Sluggy," he said, leaning in and tasting Severus's mouth. "We wouldn't want your lunch to get cold now."
Before going inside, the two men stood together for a long moment on the porch, wrapped in each other's arms. The Caribbean sun was beating down upon them, but for Severus Snape, all the warmth he needed in the world could be found in Kingsley's embrace.