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The Wages of Going On

Chapter Text

“There’s no safer place in Britain,” Kingsley had assured Harry after giving over the key to the wards on the safehouse.

Harry spat blood, felt with his tongue for broken teeth, and wondered what Kingsley would say if he could see them now.

Not that anyone else was ever likely to see them again, Harry had already decided. There was just too much against it. Rodolphus and Rabastan had reasons to hate all three of them: Snape for being a traitor, Malfoy for daring to survive and be free when just about all other Death Eaters were in prison, and Harry for defeating Voldemort.

The knowledge that he was going to die lay like an alien hand against the back of Harry’s neck. Sometimes he could feel his mind racing frantically, thoughts tumbling over each other, but it all seemed to be happening from a distance. There was a center, cold core of him that watched things and noted the glances he got in public functions that weren’t adoring, the way that George flinched when Angelina spoke to him sometimes, the way Ginny stared at the table when her mother asked her about dating other people. Harry didn’t think he’d had it when he was younger. Maybe it had been born of the war.

Good place for it was here and now, then, in this rough stone cell, hollowed out of a cave, where the Lestranges had cast him.

You’re going to die. 

Quite possible, a slightly less cold part of Harry replied to the cold one, and he turned as the door opened. Rabastan had only thrown Harry back in here after the latest torture session a minute or so ago. Harry had assumed that one of the others was up next.

He made no attempt to resist as Rodolphus dragged him to his feet and spat into his face. Let them think he was down and beaten; it was sensible advice from Auror training as well as what the cold part of him whispered. They thought he was overinflated anyway, overhyped, the “Great Chosen One” who was really fragile and weak underneath. If Harry could convince them of that, then he could possibly fool them for long enough to get near and steal a wand.

Maybe. The hatred in Rodolphus’s eyes at the moment told Harry nothing about how weak they thought he was.

“Rabastan wanted to just kill you,” Rodolphus whispered into Harry’s ear. “I was all for that, at first. Why not? You’re alive, and my Bellatrix is dead. Why not?”

Harry breathed around the tight grip on his throat, as best he could, and said nothing. Useless to remind Rodolphus that Bellatrix had walked into her own battle, and it hadn’t been with Harry. Harry didn’t want to give one of the crazy Lestranges the idea to hurt Molly.

Besides, if either Lestrange brother had been sane enough to realize things like that, Harry wouldn’t be here right now.

Filth.” Rodolphus tossed him away, and Harry rolled on the ground, only using his arms to prevent himself from slamming his head into the door. Trying to protect his body against minor wounds wasn’t the point right now. “How a lowly half-blood like you defeated our Lord, I will never know.”

Harry said nothing, again, but spat some more blood. The younger him would have pointed out that Voldemort had Muggle heritage, too.

The older him was a little less suicidal. And remembered that he had two people he was supposed to protect, not die and fail.

“But I came up with a better idea than killing you,” Rodolphus said, and seized Harry’s hair. Harry couldn’t resist a yelp as Rodolphus hauled him to his feet; it hurt the exact same way it always had when Aunt Petunia seized his hair to try and cut it. Rodolphus’s mouth split open in what Harry had to call a grin because there was no better name for it. “Do you want to hear it?”

Harry spat more blood. Really, having a cut on his upper lip and his gums was more annoying than he’d thought.

“You only defeated our Lord because of the Elder Wand, and the connection that you had to it because of the Malfoy brat,” Rodolphus whispered to him. Harry tried to move his head a little, hoping you couldn’t catch diseases from someone’s spit on your ear. “And you only had that connection because Severus let everything go to hell with Dumbledore instead of just killing him from the first. Well. You like to be bound together so much, we’ll just let you have that.”

He dropped Harry back on his feet and transferred his grip to his ear. Harry followed, bending just enough to be sure that the pain didn’t cloud his concentration. His eyes darted around as Rodolphus took him through the corridors. It was the first time they hadn’t troubled to put a blindfold on him as they led him between room and room. Harry was hoping to find some clue as to where this place was, a clue to get out.

But he saw nothing except more stone tunnels leading away, and the doors of more cells, and more torches. It could have been a buried Death Eater stronghold, or Lestrange Manor, if there was such a thing. Dark and hopeless, and the reek from the tunnels was of ancient dried blood and even more ancient salt.

Salt? 

Harry stored that information in the back of his mind as Rodolphus let go of his ear, planted his hands in the middle of Harry’s spine, and shoved him into a room he hadn’t seen before. He still wasn’t much good at Occlumency, but his Auror teachers had told him that thinking about other things could often substitute for it.

And he had plenty to think about, right now.

This room was much more brightly lit than the corridors, with not only ordinary torches but ones that burned with blue flames on the walls. Harry stared at them, blinking hard, and then understood. The blue flames came from driftwood. The scent of salt did seem to indicate that they were near the ocean.

And then he buried that thought completely as he glanced at the center of the room, and made out the blazing circle of inlaid copper in which his charges lay.

Harry swallowed, but that didn’t moisten his throat or give him breath enough to be going on with. Snape was splayed out, his limbs spread-eagled as though the Lestranges had been about to bind him to something but had given up. His black hair intermingled with Malfoy’s pale locks, and Malfoy was in the same position stretching away on the other side.

But the circle surrounded both of them, and the circle had that same bright blue glitter that accompanied the driftwood torches.

A shape moved on the far side, and Rabastan stepped out of a tunnel that led in a different direction. He said something that broke off into a long cough, but Rodolphus seemed to understand him perfectly.

“Yes, I think it would work best that way,” Rodolphus said, and grinned, a grin with broken teeth of his own when Harry turned to look at him over his shoulder. “He wanted to be the one to protect them, didn’t he? He always wanted to protect everyone. Little baby Potter.” He slapped Harry hard enough in the face to make his ears ring. “So now he’s going to hurt them, and he won’t have a choice.”

Harry spun towards Rodolphus, kicking him hard in the leg and reaching for his wand. It didn’t matter that his head still ached from the slap and blurring visions chased themselves back and forth in front of his eyes, it didn’t matter that his breath came sharp and hard, he had the strong suspicion that he had to attack now or what happened to him and Snape and Malfoy as a consequence would be death.

Rodolphus stumbled and yelped, but Harry didn’t have a chance to snatch his wand. A spell hit him in the back, one that kicked like a Stunner but didn’t leave unconsciousness in its wake, only a spreading numbness. Harry sprawled on the floor and saw Rodolphus recover his balance, moving towards him with his leg raised.

“Oh, don’t,” Rabastan rasped. “I think we should leave his mouth alone, or otherwise they can’t make such good use of it.”

Rodolphus paused, and smiled, and said, “You make sense, brother mine.” He kicked Harry in the ribs instead, and then in the stomach, hard enough to drive the breath out of him. Harry was still gasping when Rodolphus paused again, said something in Latin, and kicked Harry across the copper ring.

The blue light glimmering there grabbed at Harry and scorched him. Harry could feel the lightning going into his lungs, the crackling tension probing at his muscles, the way that his arms seized up and began to flail around. But then he was lying in the middle of the circle next to Snape and Malfoy, and it seemed more likely that he was going to suffer from consequences in a little while rather than right away. Even his breathing evened out, and his arms fell back to his sides.

Harry lifted his head and stared at Rodolphus and Rabastan. Rodolphus laughed at him, but Rabastan was the one who came near and began to explain, his words slurred and broken but understandable.

“You interfered in our plans to properly punish the traitors behind you, Potter. So we set up a ritual that would have tied them to each other, mind to mind, and forced them to go slowly mad from hearing each other’s thoughts.”

Harry hoped he kept his face smooth. He thought that was unlikely to work with Snape, and maybe Malfoy, skilled in Occlumency, but he didn’t know for sure, and he didn’t want to give the Lestrange brothers a chance to rethink their strategy.

“We would have tortured you to death,” Rabastan continued genially. “But my brother didn’t think that was punishment enough, and of course he’s right. So we rolled you through the ritual circle, and now the connection that was forming between Snape and Malfoy has been disrupted. It isn’t really big enough to accommodate a third, you know?”

Rodolphus interrupted, eager as a crow. “So the connection will try to bind them together and find a place for you at the same time, and there’s really only one way that it can do that.”

Rabastan bobbed his head. “I’m sure a bright boy like you can figure it out.”

Harry’s hands tightened, scraping into the stone beneath him despite his resolve to show nothing to these idiots. Yes, he knew. He had heard of similar rituals during Auror training, though mostly used as means of torture by Dark wizards, not anything that anyone would want to practice.

“A lovers’ connection is really the only way.” Rabastan chuckled like gravel bouncing beneath Muggle wheels. “Well, when I say lovers, I mean that they’ll try to fuck you apart because they just know that things will be better if the obstacle is removed, and the ritual will be trying to find a place for you at the same time. You won’t want it, they won’t really want it, either, but that’s the way it’ll have to be. Otherwise your brains will just turn liquid and drip out of your ears.” He leered at Harry. “Exciting, isn’t it?”

“And meanwhile,” Rodolphus said, his voice almost soft in contrast with what his brother had said, “if you did manage to survive the experience, then the bond still won’t have a place for you, but won’t be able to stop including you, either. Will it squeeze you to death, or compel them to tear you apart? It’s quite interesting.”

“We’ll be back in a few days to see which one it was,” Rabastan said, and he laughed again, and turned away.

Harry immediately attacked the edge of the circle. This time, it simply bounced him back into the center, as indifferent as a stone wall, and apparently as strong. Harry turned and attacked it from the side, where he thought it should be weaker, but the same thing happened. Small blisters had formed on his hands, and blood was pounding in his forehead, the same as would have happened if he had started beating his head against the wall of his cell.

Calm down. Think.

Harry paced in a circle, staring at Snape and Malfoy. They hadn’t started to stir yet, but Harry knew it was only a matter of time.

And the magic of the ritual, the one that the Lestranges had first set up and then broken by rolling him into the circle, was stalking in the back of his mind. He could feel it coming closer, crawling on crab claws. His body was tightening beneath the waist with longings and urges he didn’t want to think about.

The longings and urges that Malfoy and Snape would feel would be considerably more violent.

Harry took a deep breath and did the hardest thing he’d ever done, harder than watching Sirius die or thinking he’d die: he sat down and turned his back on his fellow unwilling participants in the ritual, folding his arms on top of his knees instead. He banished everything from his mind except what he knew about rituals like these, and concentrated on that.

Such rituals usually formed a bond that was temporary, and telepathic. The participants could communicate back and forth, sense each other’s thoughts. The Ministry had once used it to bind Aurors during confrontations with Dark wizards that were expected to be particularly tricky, but then some Aurors had got trapped and stayed away from the people who were supposed to unbind them for too long.

Left in place for more than a few hours, the bond tried to tie the minds too close together, and liquefied them. What it wanted was union, and that was exactly what you couldn’t achieve while you had separate personalities. The only people Harry had ever heard surviving bonds run amok like that were twins, who had similarities that the bond would accept as substitutes for a complete sharing of minds.

And although Harry hadn’t heard much more than speculation about what would happen if a third person was rolled into the ritual circle during an attempt to establish one of those bonds, he suspected the Lestranges were right. The original bond was supposed to be between two people; it couldn’t just tie a third one in. But it would seek some other means of union, mindlessly attempting to meld them.

That it would encourage Snape and Malfoy to rape him was the best guess.

Someone groaned behind him. Harry’s eyes shot open before he gave them permission to do so, and then he clenched his hands in front of him and calmed himself down by force of sheer willpower.

He wanted to survive. The idea burned in him, and not just because he had technically failed Snape and Malfoy by not guarding them well enough to prevent this from happening. He wanted to get out of here, and live. He hadn’t been taken down by Voldemort. He didn’t want Death Eaters to have the honor.

And he had just got through Auror training a year ago. Harry thought he might even make a good Auror, in time. The most grudging of his instructors had admitted it. That meant he had to live, or it really would be all for nothing.

How, genius? 

There was a low curse behind him. No words that Harry could make out; he had no idea whether Snape or Malfoy yet knew what had happened. But they were smart, far smarter than Harry in a lot of ways. They would see the ritual circle and feel the urges in their own bodies and figure it out.

So. What they had to do—what he had to do, because it was doubtful that Snape and Malfoy would be coherent enough to help him in a little while—was to get through this first round of the bond attempting to destroy him. And then when Malfoy and Snape had spent themselves, Harry had to find some means to keep the bond from screwing their brains out of their ears.

Harry thought he might know how to do that. It would involve more concentration and will and magical power than he’d ever applied before.

But what did that matter? Battling Voldemort had taken more everything than he’d known he had at the time. And now he was twenty-three, not a child anymore. And he had to use every advantage that he had, whether or not it was an advantage he would admit to in polite company outside the ritual circle.

“Potter.” The voice was slurred, but recognizable. Snape’s.

Harry took a deep breath, and stood. He could be facing his doom behind him. He would certainly be facing a lot of blame, and pain.

But that goal still burned in him, far deeper and hotter than he’d ever felt it before. Maybe this was the sort of ambition the Sorting Hat had seen in him, the reason it had wanted to put him in Slytherin. If Harry had known this was the sort of thing you could want, that his dreams of getting away from the Dursleys and showing them he was smart could count just as much as wanting to have power and money like Malfoy did, he might have let the Hat do it.

Potter.” The other voice, sharp and buzzing and commanding. Malfoy’s.

The longer I put it off, the worse it is, Harry thought, and turned around.

Chapter Text


Severus did not know where he was, and he did not understand what he was feeling.

Which meant, as he’d had reason to fear, that Potter had failed, and the Lestrange brothers had taken them.

He turned his head to the side and spat out what felt like a huge wad of thick and congealed fluid, but turned out only to be a little saliva when it emerged onto the floor. He hawked again, and finally managed to bring up the last of what was in his lungs. There was no blood in it. 

He did feel something else, though, something that cut through the confusion in his head and body like light through mist. His pulse surged and fluttered as though responding to an imaginary drumbeat, and there was a painful swelling between his legs.

Severus opened his eyes and concentrated. Not an aphrodisiac potion, or he would have recognized the taste in his mouth. Instead, the confusion came from—

He turned his head, and saw the glittering ritual circle, and let his eyes slip shut again.

“Potter,” said Draco, and Severus settled back on his heels and turned his head and counted heartbeats, long and loud and sick. He wondered what would happen when he saw them, whether he had been designated victim or rapist in the game that Rabastan and Rodolphus had set in motion. Perhaps both. There were three victims here, after all.

He saw Draco first, crouched on hands and knees, his head hanging down, and blinked. Draco made his pulse speed up, but did not increase the intensity of his desire. It was not what Severus had expected. There was a preexisting tangle of bonds between him and Draco, the Unbreakable Vow and the life-debt that Draco owed him for stepping between him and Death Eaters a few times during the war, that would have made a natural candidate for Rabastan and Rodolphus to try and corrupt.

He followed Draco’s gaze to Potter, spitting blood on the floor, his body so still that it looked as if he would spring away and break the ritual circle any second. His hair hung tangled and filthy around his face, and some of his teeth dangled out at the roots, and from the way he stood and the ragged state of his shirt, Severus could already make out blossoming bruises.

It didn’t matter. Everything in Severus stood up and screamed in response—some things standing up more literally than others. He pressed his hand between his legs, because he couldn’t help himself more than because it soothed anything, and swallowed.

Draco had lunged as though he meant to run at Potter on all fours like a tiger, and then restrained himself with a grip that Severus thought admirable. It was becoming harder to do. The fog had not closed back in, but the terrible clarity that had replaced it had its own problems. 

“Explain,” Severus said, grateful that a word, and not simple drool, came out.

Potter nodded. “Rabastan and Rodolphus were setting up a ritual that would force your minds closer and closer together, until you went mad and your brains literally turned to liquid trying to live up to it,” he said. “Then they decided it would be more fun to toss me into the ritual circle. Now it can’t be used for the purpose it was being used for. The bond still exists, but it’s trying to stretch around three people instead of two. It’ll force us closer and closer together in body, and then, after you’ve raped me, it’ll go back to trying to bind your brains, only it’ll affect us all together this time.”

Draco moaned, softly. Severus understood. After the war, what Draco had come to fear the most was death, the idea that he would lose his life and not be able to use the second chance he had unexpectedly received. Severus did not feel the same attachment to life itself, but to the gift of being able to live free and be able to practice potions as he pleased, he did.

“This is all your fault, Potter,” Draco whispered hoarsely. “If you’d kept us safe, the way the Ministry said you were supposed to…”

“Shut up and listen.”

Draco did, although Severus saw the way his eyes flickered and knew he was as surprised as Severus about the fact. Maybe his own desire was making it harder to talk. Severus saw the way Draco’s fingers dug into the stone, and the way his gaze traveled up and down Potter’s body.

Because he was doing the same thing, thinking about the way Potter might be made to bleed more, and from more places, and the way he might be made to submit. Never any thoughts that Severus had thought, or wanted to think, but they were there, forcing their way in, clamoring, shouting, stalking.

“I think that it’s best to get the first part of this done and over with.” Potter grimaced as he spoke, but all Severus could think was how attractive his lips were when they curled that particular way. “If we do, there’ll be a brief reprieve because physical unity, of a sort, will have happened.” He looked as if he wanted to spit again, but he kept pushing on, speaking so steadily that Severus was impressed in spite of himself. “And there’s something about me that Rabastan and Rodolphus forgot. Or maybe they never knew, I don’t know. I think I can use it to break us free of this circle.”

“What is that?” Severus stood up and walked a step closer. He could not help it, he argued with his own horror and disgust a moment later. A physical rope extending from Potter’s groin to his would not have been stronger.

Potter looked straight at Severus, not flinching. His eyes were a darker shade than Severus had ever seen them, and not wild—not with lust, anyway, as Draco’s were becoming. They were wild with determination. Potter wanted to survive, and that might help Severus do so. “My Parseltongue. It might be able to disrupt the ritual.”

“Why not use it now?” Draco gasped the words. He was on his feet, body inclined back from Potter, but feet slowly skidding forwards. “There’s no reason not to use it now! Unless you secretly want us to fuck you, or something.”

“Because I don’t use it often, and I would need several minutes to concentrate.” Potter tossed his hair out of his eyes and wiped his bloody mouth. “And you’re not going to give them to me, are you?”

Part of Severus’s brain said, That makes no sense, he would have had the time before we woke up—

But the rest of him accepted the challenge in those words, accepted them as though he had been waiting for them for years, and he stepped forwards and wrapped his arms around Potter’s waist. “No,” he whispered into Potter’s ear. “No, we are not.”

Potter shut his eyes and tilted his head back, and Severus kissed him, for the moment neither knowing nor caring where Draco was.

The kiss turned savage sooner than Severus had thought it would, his tongue twisting out of his control, his teeth biting whether or not he wanted them to. His hands slid down Potter’s waist to his arse and seized enough skin and flesh that Potter hissed. Severus shuddered. He knew it was not Parseltongue, but that did not matter.

And then Draco was shoving at Severus from the right, and his thoughts seemed to flicker and dance and jump in Severus’s mind, like a distant wireless he could catch a whisper of. Mine, mine, he’s mine too.

Severus fell back a step and let Draco have his turn, although it was difficult. He satisfied himself with noting that Draco kept his hands above Potter’s arse and gripped the middle of his back instead, until Potter winced. Draco must be making the bruises that the Lestranges had inflicted on Potter worse.

Severus’s common sense, his hatred, his anger, were wisping away in the wind before the insistent pressure of the ritual, or changing. Now he knew that he might miss his chance with Potter unless he took him now, and his hatred burned like lust, and his anger surged as he remembered how Potter had defied him as a boy and failed to guard him and Draco from this fate. Severus had thought he would always get away with it. Potter was a hero, as Albus had said to Severus more than once, and then a sacrifice. He certainly would have got away with his defiance if either he or Severus had died during the war.

The roaring storm rose in Severus’s head, and the last truly coherent thought he could say he experienced was, I would not have chosen this, but I am going to enjoy it.

*

Draco wanted to conquer Potter.

He would have said that he wanted to destroy him, once. He wanted Potter to pay attention to him, and then he wanted to turn away and wave a hand and devastate Potter with his lack of attention, the way that Potter had devastated him once. It would have been wonderful. It was something he had dreamed of until he woke up hard with wanting it, in a way different than any other desire.

But now he didn’t want that. Because to make the fantasy complete would mean he had to leave Potter alone and go away, and that was not happening.

He waited until Severus had had enough of kissing Potter for the moment, and then flung himself on him again. Potter grunted as he went down on the floor. There was blood on his teeth, and Draco caught his breath. Did I put that there? God, I hope I put that there.

He bit Potter’s neck, and Potter arched beneath him and gasped. The breathlessness of the sound went straight to Draco’s groin, and he rolled Potter over and tore off his trousers, then his pants. The Lestranges must already have done some of that, to judge by the ragged state of his clothing, but Draco dared to hope they hadn’t done this.

“Ever done this before, Potty?” he whispered into Potter’s ear. “Ever had someone utterly take you, and not care?”

Potter’s shoulders tensed, but Draco slammed him back to the ground before he could even think about getting up. He was fumbling for his own trousers, panting hoarsely, when Severus’s hand clamped onto his and held them in place.

Draco glared up at him. If Severus thought that he was going to stop this, going to make Draco reconsider, then he was mad. Draco could see the way Severus kissed Potter, looked at him, and he wanted this with the same intensity Draco did.

“No,” Severus whispered. “If you simply plunge into him and tear him, then there will be blood.”

“So what?” Draco had never thought Severus the kind of person to care about that. He would have seen and done worse things in his Death Eater days than shed blood.

“I do not want that,” Severus said simply, and knelt beside Potter, who still lay face-down on the floor. He gripped Potter’s chin and turned it. Draco licked his lips. He could see the appeal of that, actually, the way he had been able to see it in the blood on Potter’s teeth. 

“You are not going to just lie here,” Severus told Potter. “You are not the innocent martyr, and you are not the hero.”

Potter only blinked at him. Draco wondered why. Where were the panting whimpers about how he’d never asked for this, and they would regret it later? Even knowing that they had no choice about fucking him, Draco expected that, because Potter thought the world was fair, and this wasn’t fair.

“You are going to feel,” Severus said, and kissed him again, the way Draco had, but deeper, thrusting his tongue in until Potter choked.

Draco reached under Potter’s hips, since Severus seemed to be occupied with his mouth, and gripped Potter’s cock. It was hard, and Draco smirked. He ran his fingers up and down, and he finally got an arch and a shudder out of Potter, a sigh that seemed to originate from somewhere at the bottom of his lungs.

“It’s affecting you, too, isn’t it?” Draco whispered to Potter, although he could hardly answer with the way Severus was thrusting his head back with the force of his kiss. “It’s making you want this, when you never would?”

Potter moved his head in a nod. Draco pinched his cock, and a moan came out around Severus’s thrusting tongue. 

Good.

Severus was right. They could satisfy their urges, but that wouldn’t make up for feeling them in the first place, for Potter doing what he’d done. It might let Draco dominate Potter, but it wouldn’t let him win, or conquer, the way that he now felt he needed to.

He tore open Potter’s trousers this time, and gathered up his arse in both hands. There were some bruises on it, probably from where he’d fallen, but it was firm, and it was hard with enough muscle that Draco could claw at it. Potter grunted and glanced back once at Draco before Severus turned his head again.

“Here,” Severus said harshly, and thrust two fingers at Potter. “I dislike blood, but we have little other choice.”

Potter promptly opened his mouth and let the fingers in. This time Draco was the one who moaned, and Severus was the one who glanced at him, his eyes having dark sparks in them that Draco would have been terrified to see ordinarily. Now, this was the kind of sight that belonged in this circle.

“Yes,” Severus whispered. “Willing is always better.” He leaned in and began to murmur soft words into Potter’s ears. Draco no longer cared about making them out.

Draco moved back to Potter’s arse and spat on his own fingers. Then he pulled Potter’s cheeks apart and began to move his hand in.

Potter bucked this time, but he didn’t move his hands back. He dug them into the floor instead, into the gritty stone, and arched his back in acceptance of what Draco was taking. 

Draco laughed, and the sound bubbled and rang in the chamber as though there were a thousand people laughing with him. He didn’t care. This was beyond anything he had envisioned. This was gorgeous. Potter participating in what was being done to him, wanting it, drawing them both deeper in with his mouth and his arse.

For this, Draco could wait a little.

*

Snape was talking to him, a constant stream of words, probably more words than Harry had ever heard from him in a detention, pouring them out, while his fingers kept working in and out of Harry’s mouth as though he wanted to pierce through Harry’s tongue. Harry just kept sucking. Too much pain, and he wouldn’t be able to do what he planned to do.

Yeah, Parseltongue might work on the ritual, in some way. But Harry doubted it. He was still going on the information he had learned about rituals in Auror training, but that was all he did have to go on, so it would have to suffice.

He closed his eyes as Malfoy worked his arse open. No, this had never happened before. No one had ever done this to him before.

That was the point.

He focused as hard as he could, so hard that the words Snape was murmuring to him became inaudible and the fingers in his arse faded, on what he wanted. On the fact that they were taking his virginity from him, on the fact that that had been a prime sacrifice in ritual ever since magic began.

On the fact that it would bind him, Snape, and Malfoy together in a way, unite them, tie them together. The way the original bond had wanted.

He thought he felt a faint buzz in his head, as though the bond was taking an interest, loosening a little. He gasped, and Snape’s fingers pulled out.

“Stay there.”

Harry started and opened his eyes. Snape had moved around behind his arse with Malfoy. Harry didn’t turn to look. He didn’t think this would be made better by looking. He kept his hands beneath him, his arse arched, his legs splayed. Snape and Malfoy were talking to each other, but he didn’t listen to that, either. Or to his hard cock, which had its own ideas about what it wanted to go on.

He focused on the bond, and threw everything he could at it. All the will, all the fierce desire that he had ever had when cramped into a little cupboard, and the yelling had dimmed around him and left only the core of life that was him.

He was going to make it. He was determined to make it. He was not going to succumb merely to the lure of the fucking, the way it seemed Snape and Malfoy already had, and he was not going to think that everything would be finished by the fucking.

He was going to concentrate on the bond. He was going to will it to accept his virginity as the only price it would demand, the only thing that need tie them together, and that would be enough.

Because it would.

He concentrated so hard that the entrance of Snape’s cock into his body came as entirely a surprise, and he gasped and jolted.

The buzz of the bond in the back of his head intensified, even as Snape bent over, near his ear again, and hissed, “If you think you can escape into your silence, you should know that Draco will have you after me.”

And he’ll fuck me harder than you will? But that was the kind of thing there was no point in saying. Besides, Harry was back to concentrating on the bond, forcing himself now to feel the pain. It was painful, no matter the spit easing the entrance. Of course it would be. And there were no protective spells or cleansing charms, since no one had a wand.

Harry fought himself back into his body, though, and felt the sensation of splitting apart, the aching in his arse, the pain as Snape rode him. This was what it was like to have your virginity taken. He was paying the price.

He was going to pay it to both of them. He told the bond to pay attention to that, focused on the buzz in the back of his head and the random surges of desire that seemed to pass through his body straight to his cock and united the sensation as closely as he could with the sensation of being rocked into, and even the way that Malfoy had caught and was holding his hands as though he thought Harry would try to get away if he could.

This was all part of it. This was what the bond wanted, union, coming closer to them.

The buzz grew in intensity, and Harry took a harsh swallow of air. He thought it was going to work, that the bond would take this kind of union as enough and relax enough to let them out of the circle.

That was the point he’d got to when Malfoy rather roughly disrupted his concentration by pulling his head back, nearly snapping his neck, and kissing him.

*

It was warm and tight and wonderful, and more wonderful because the spit easing his way hadn’t been enough.

Severus could admit that to himself. The desire inside him was sharp and glass-like, cutting him when he touched it. So he might as well spread the pain around, and he fitted his hands into the bruises along Potter’s spine and pressed down.

Potter hissed in response. Severus looked up to find out why he wasn’t getting more of a reaction, like a yell, and discovered that Potter’s mouth was full of Draco’s tongue.

Severus smiled. He enjoyed, too, the angle that Draco was holding Potter’s head at, the way his tongue delved and dipped into Potter’s mouth, the way his lips moved so that Potter had no chance to turn elsewhere. He’d been rather cooperative so far, but that could change any more. Draco was the one to show Potter that his choice wasn’t really a choice, that they were the ones in command here, and he couldn’t flee.

“There is no escape,” Severus whispered. He couldn’t remember what he’d been saying before, and really, it didn’t matter, not when every thrust forwards was punctuated by warmth and the sensation of someone holding onto his cock as though they were going to hold it forever. Rocking back out was wonderful, too, the dragging sensation. “You cannot—cannot—hold back from us.”

Potter’s eyes rolled towards him, and then closed. Severus came on the overwhelming nature of that look, the way Potter had gazed at him, and yielded. Yielding was what he had wanted from Potter, he realized as he collapsed over his back, panting, his skin soaked with fluid. For Potter to admit that he was right about the detentions, that he had given more than enough years of his life to protecting and providing for Potter. For Potter to stay within boundaries because he respected Severus, or was afraid of him.

To be sure, this was rather different than wishing Potter obeyed the rules of a classroom. But it was similar enough that Severus understood both the pleasure that rushed through his bones and the source of the deep satisfaction behind the pleasure.

“My turn.”

Draco was shoving at Severus’s shoulders, and his thoughts jigged and blurred in the distance, although for some reason Severus thought he could read them less well than before. That was the opposite of what it should have been with such a powerful bond, but Severus was not about to question their good fortune. He rolled over to the side and let his legs fall back, groaning as his cock came out.

Draco pressed up to Potter’s arse, murmuring something, and pinching Potter’s cheeks before he dived in. Potter dropped his chin to the floor, his hands digging in again. Severus heard a fingernail break.

He crawled his way around to Potter’s head, and lifted it up by his chin again. Potter stared at him, dazed. Severus frowned a little. There was still something missing, something that made him wonder what Potter felt.

“You know that we are fucking you?” he whispered, and slid his hand beneath Potter’s body, aiming for his cock. He’d thought it hard originally. If it was now, then perhaps Potter was still moving with them, participating with them, because he couldn’t do anything else.

*

It was harder to focus now, with his arse so draped and wet and Malfoy pushing in where Snape had been, uttering hard, filthy words that would probably hurt Harry if he paid attention to them, if he believed in them.

But Harry could feel the bond’s buzz, and it had softened. It no longer wrapped around his head and pressed as if it could force the bones of his skull into a different shape. It had retreated, too, and was a gentler sound in the distance. Harry didn’t know if he had deceived it or promised it something it would accept, but he was willing to believe that it would wait to see what happened.

And then Snape came along with that ridiculous question about them fucking him, and reached down to his erection like Madam Pomfrey checking for a fever.

Harry couldn’t help it. He snickered once, and then the laughter came out. He ducked his head and buried it between his arms, laughing and laughing.

At least, until Snape’s fingers curled around his erection and pulled, hard enough that the pain overwhelmed the pleasure. Then Harry’s head flew back and he gasped, and his fingers curled in the middle of the stone, and he knew that he would probably have fingernails all jagged and torn when he got out of this. If he got out of this.

Maybe the bond had been protecting him in some way, or his concentration had. Because now he wasn’t just thinking about being in his body as his virginity was taken, he was in his body, the sweat sliding down the middle of his back and his knees bleeding as Malfoy’s thrusts slid his body across the floor and his teeth aching as Snape kissed him again, and his neck hurting as Snape twisted him around, throwing him to the floor.

“Yes, you are,” Snape whispered, which probably only made sense in the private Snape-world that Harry would never share, and then his hand came down and squeezed and stroked, even as Malfoy groaned at the change in angle and repositioned Harry’s legs so that he could go on thrusting.

Harry gasped and panted. Maybe he said some words, too. He could never know. They all broke apart, impaled on Snape’s tongue, the instant they emerged. And Snape wouldn’t stop kissing him and holding his jaw as though he wanted to measure the words Harry spoke that way, and he wouldn’t stop stroking him.

The strokes worked together with the lingering urges the bond had implanted in him, and the thrusts Malfoy was implanting in him now, his cock stroking Harry from the inside. He felt a bubble of heat rise up in his head, and spill out his mouth in an undignified wail as he came. Malfoy came while Harry was still shaking, the pleasure winding through him, so intense that Harry didn’t know whether he was feeling good because he’d come or because of the bond or because Malfoy was coming in him.

But he still wanted to live, he didn’t want to drown in pleasure and he didn’t want to live for the moment, and he reached out towards the bond the instant he caught his breath. There it is. I’m bound to them. I was never with anyone before, and now I’ve been with two lovers at once, two people so different from me that they would never have fucked me without you. Isn’t that enough?

There was one buzz that went on so long Harry’s teeth ached. And then it faded, and Harry felt the longing that had crowded his stomach fade at the same moment.

Harry closed his eyes and reached out with one hand, towards the edge of the ritual circle and the invisible stone wall that had been there before.

His hand passed through.

Harry gasped deeply enough to make Snape snarl—but then, Harry thought his breathing probably made Snape snarl—and rolled over, his legs falling open. He could feel things leaking out of him as Malfoy pulled out, but he didn’t care. What mattered was that he was free, and he had survived, and the bond wasn’t going to kill them.

He pulled himself together as fast as he could, wincing at the stabbing pain in his spine as he started to crawl to his feet. They had to get out of here now, and find their wands. Harry assumed his was somewhere nearby. He held out his hand, and called on it with the last little remnants of his will he hadn’t burned up pushing the bond to do what he said.

“What are you doing?” Malfoy surged up beside him with more energy than anyone should have after such a fucking, snatching Harry’s hand and staring at it suspiciously.

Harry rolled his eyes, and his wand soared through the air and smacked into his palm. “Summoning my wand,” he said. “It’s one of the few things I can do without it.” He paused and swallowed. God, his voice sounded horrible. Well, he’d been whimpering and probably screaming while they fucked him, and his spine felt as if someone had jabbed a poker up it, and he had swallowed blood. But just now, he didn’t care. “Accio Snape’s and Malfoy’s wands!”

For a moment, he worried that the Lestranges had snapped them—it made sense that they hadn’t wanted to get rid of Harry’s, because it would make for a nice kind of proof that they had him—but then the air trembled, and the ebony and hawthorn wands flew over to him. Harry sighed and tossed them back to their respective owners.

The next thing he did was cast a Cleaning Charm. Sweat stopped inching down his spine, the blood vanished from his mouth, and the things he did not want to think about were gone from his arse. Harry tested his balance and nodded. He thought he could walk out of here, and if he could walk he could call for help.

“Can either of you send a Patronus?” he asked, looking around at Snape and Malfoy. “I feel like I’m going to collapse.”

But both of them were gaping at him, and neither looked like they were going to be much help. Harry sighed. So he had to do this, too. His one consolation was that after tonight, they were unlikely to want him near them ever again, and so this would be the last thing he needed to do for them.

Expecto Patronum!” he called, focusing on an image of the Auror office he shared with Ron, and how happy he would be to see it again.

The stag leaped into being, cantered around, and stopped, staring at Harry and scraping its hoof. Harry could only imagine that he must look a sight, even to a magical silver animal. He smiled a little grimly and said, “I’m all right, Kingsley, and so are Snape and Malfoy. The Lestranges set up a magical ritual that was meant to destroy us, but we survived it. I’ll be bringing Snape and Malfoy in as soon as I can. I’ll try to Apparate back to the safehouse. Have people waiting there.”

The stag dipped its head the instant he stopped speaking and bounded out the nearest tunnel. Harry turned around to see if there was any way he could cast Reparo on his clothes. He didn’t fancy arriving in front of Aurors half-naked. 

Malfoy seized him and shook him. Harry clenched his teeth to keep from biting his tongue and filling his mouth with blood again.

What?” Harry snapped, tearing himself away as soon as he could. He wavered and almost fell, but Snape cast a spell Harry hadn’t heard before, and his legs seemed to stiffen. Harry nodded curtly to Snape and turned back to Malfoy. “I know I didn’t keep you safe. I’m sorry. But they’ll assign you different guards as soon as they can, and we’ll catch Rabastan and Rodolphus.”

“I’ve asked you twice now, and you’ve acted like you didn’t hear me.” Malfoy’s eyes were so narrow that it was easy to miss how pale his face was, and the fact that he hadn’t used his wand yet was because he couldn’t stop his hand from shaking. “How did you disrupt the bond? Make it so the ritual would just accept our—our fucking as enough?”

“I told you,” Harry said. “I used Parseltongue. The Lestranges didn’t know about that, so they didn’t plan for it.”

“Bollocks,” Malfoy snapped. Snape was silent behind Harry, but that didn’t prevent Harry from feeling that he agreed with Malfoy. “I would have heard you hissing. I heard everything you did during—that.” He flushed, but the flush just made him look hectic and sickly, not strong. “You didn’t hiss.”

“Except when penetrated.”

Harry didn’t turn to face Snape. It would cause more problems if he did. “All right, fine,” he said. He couldn’t see that it mattered now. They could hardly despise him more than they did, the Auror who hadn’t kept them safe and got them into this situation in the first place. “I told you Parseltongue because it made a good excuse, but I was a virgin. Magical rituals place this huge importance on virginity, and it’s used as a sacrifice all the time. I bargained with the bond. I kept concentrating on it and telling it I was a virgin, and that because you were the ones who took it from me, that was enough to tie us together. I kept saying that and willing it and feeling it, and the bond was meant to create a union, so it accepted you taking my virginity as one. It shouldn’t come back.”

Malfoy now looked ill. Harry wondered whether he usually didn’t want to fuck virgins, and then shook his head. It didn’t matter. Only someone horrible and stupid would tease Malfoy about that at this point, and Harry liked to think he wasn’t horrible, although he did sometimes have to acknowledge that he was stupid.

“Mr. Potter.”

Harry rubbed his eyes and turned around to face Snape. Malfoy might hate fucking virgins, but Snape would be worse about it, no matter what the reason, because he always was.

“Can we walk as we talk about this?” he asked. “I have no idea where we are, except that we’re somewhere near the ocean, and I can’t have the Aurors come here. And the Lestranges might come back, and I’m so fucking tired.” He winced as his voice broke on the last words, but maybe if he gave Snape what he wanted—weakness, a victim—he would agree that they could leave now.

*

Severus did not know what to say. He had called for Potter’s attention, and he’d got it, but the words that came along with it, and the words that came before it, and the look in his eyes—

They deprived Severus of words.

But it made sense to leave the area before the Lestranges came back, and also that there would be anti-Apparition wards up that made it impossible for them to leave without getting outside. Severus turned and led the way to the nearest of the tunnels. That was the way Potter’s Patronus had traveled, and it made sense that it was the shortest route to the outside.

Behind him, Potter limped. Severus imagined for a moment what his arse must look like, and banished the image. For many, many reasons, it was wrong for him to think of it.

His head reeled, clear of the bond. His wand was in his hand again, and his mind circled around what had happened to him and what Potter had confessed.

A virgin. Yes, that would make sense to clear the bond from their minds. Virginity was the most powerful sacrifice of all, even when unwillingly given. And Severus did not think Potter’s had been exactly that, influence of the bond or no.

I bargained with the bond.

Potter had said that in the same tone that he’d told them he was a virgin, as if there was just embarrassing truth and nothing extraordinary about it at all.

“For fuck’s sake, Potter.”

That was Draco. Severus turned around with a scowl. It would be like Potter to insist on the importance of their leaving, and then delay them.

But he saw Draco slinging an arm around Potter’s shoulders, and understood. Potter was having trouble walking. His bruises flared through the still ragged clothes he wore. His head lolled now and then, as though the fierce effort of concentrating on and bargaining with the bond had left him all the weaker when it passed.

Severus knew himself well enough to feel the distant pressure of shame behind his teeth, and also the deeper satisfaction when he thought of the reasons why Potter had trouble walking. He would never have fucked Potter if he was himself, but that it had happened…

He knew himself too well, perhaps. He understood his own reactions.

And that would not let him hide from the satisfaction that had nothing to do with the sex, and everything to do with the fact that there had finally been a situation that both of them could not escape.

By the time they got to the entrance of the building, Potter had shaken off Draco’s hold and was walking on his own, though from his set jaw and glazed eyes, Severus could guess at the effort it took him. If he was fool enough not to admit that effort and ask for help, however, there was little they could do.

Potter did turn once and look back at the building. From the outside, Severus noted, it did not resemble anything dangerous. The entrance was a low-set stone door, leading back into a hill of green turf. It would take a subtle wizard to notice the wards that danced around it, the sensation of lightning in the air that waited for its chance to spring out.

“All right,” Potter said at last. “I think I remember enough for Apparition coordinates now.” He glanced at Draco. “Can you Apparate on your own, or do you need help?”

Draco rolled his eyes. “You think your beaten-up arse can help me?”

“That’s not an answer.”

Severus frowned. That was a reply that palpably diminished his satisfaction, and it took him a moment to realize why. Potter was not broken by this experience—something Severus would not have wished—but he was not changed, either.

Severus knew he had been changed. He could feel the realizations hovering at the edges of his mind, the way the bond had done when it was formed first, waiting for him to notice them and deal with them.

But Potter looked at Draco with the same steel face and still expression he had used when they were fucking, and it seemed that he did not intend to give them anything more.

“No, I don’t need help,” Draco said, finally, so grudgingly that Severus knew he would have spit out broken teeth more gracefully.

Potter nodded and turned to Severus. “What about you, sir?”

“I am not hurt that badly.” Severus studied Potter for a long second, his eyes running up and down the boy’s body, and some of the words spilled over in spite of his control. “What about you? Can you Apparate?”

Potter raised one eyebrow. “I’ve done it with worse injuries than this.”

“Then that line about being a virgin was a lie after all?” Draco spoke with a breathless splutter, lurching towards Potter and nearly falling.

“How can it be, when it appeased the bond?” Potter’s voice was utterly indifferent.

Draco retreated, his arms folded around himself. “I just meant—you’ve never had pain in your arse like that before, then.”

“No.”

“Then you’ve never Apparated with wounds like that before.” Draco hawked for a moment as if he would spit at Potter’s feet, but either good sense or the way he caught Severus’s eye restrained him from falling to that level, and he looked away, his eyes lowering for a long second.

“Maybe not,” Potter said. “But, no offense, I’d rather not have either of you Apparate me right now.”

And he vanished while Severus was still thinking what to say to that and Draco was opening his mouth.

Draco caught Severus’s gaze again, and blushed violently. He stared at the ground, kicked with his feet at nothing in particular, and finally whispered, “I don’t know what to do.”

“I do not think that there is an accepted code of manners as to what to do in this situation,” Severus said calmly. “Right now, we should go back to the safehouse and wait for the Aurors.”

“Because you agree with Potter?” Draco looked up into his eyes, the boy seeking guidance, the way he had for the last five years.

“No,” Severus said. “Because the Ministry would be reluctant to believe that we were not involved in the Lestrange brothers’ plan otherwise, and because we still need protection. The Lestranges did not succeed in killing us, but they are not currently under guard.”

Draco immediately agreed, and held out his arm. Severus took it. Draco was the only living person he would trust to Apparate him.

He closed his eyes, and then opened them again. Even the blackness of Apparition was preferable to the visions that filled them right now.

Chapter Text

“What was the ritual circle made of?”

“Copper,” Harry said, and watched the Healer assigned to talk to him write it down. She was a Healer who often worked for Aurors, and made decisions about what questions to ask and what potions to administer based on her knowledge of Dark magic and what it did to the body. She had decided that he was competent to answer questions right now. 

Harry tried to remember her name, but it slid out of his mind.

“And you said it had blue light dancing on the circle?” The Healer looked up at him. She was a square-faced woman with brown eyes. Harry focused on them to keep himself from thinking of anything else. “And blue light on the torches?”

“Blue light from the torches because they were made of driftwood,” Harry said. “The dungeons were near the sea. I don’t know why the light from the ritual was blue.”

The Healer nodded and scribbled something else down. Then she said, “I can cast the diagnostic charms now, and then the charms that will take away the pain in your—in your bottom. I’m sorry for making you wait, but I wanted a complete description of the ritual and a chance to look at what happened to you before I healed you.”

Harry nodded and closed his eyes. Luckily, he didn’t have to take off his clothes so the Healer could cast the diagnostic charms. Luckily, because they were still near the safehouse, or outside it actually, and Aurors stood around them, talking to Snape and Malfoy, and examining the broken wards so that they could be sure of how Rodolphus and Rabastan had got into the house.

That made Harry roll his head wearily from side to side. He and Snape and Malfoy had been at least two days in the tender loving care of the Lestranges. Surely that was enough time to figure out what had gone wrong by now? And if it wasn’t, then he had to wonder whether it was that the Lestrange brothers were all that skilled, or whether it was just that the particular Aurors working this case were incompetent.

“Some blood and tearing, but not that much,” the Healer said. “Maybe the bond eased some of it.”

“Yeah, maybe,” Harry said. It was the last thing in the world he wanted to talk about.

The Healer’s wand swished, and the pain diminished perceptibly. Harry winced. The Healer clucked and swished her wand again, and the pain faded altogether.

“Thanks,” Harry said. Now he at least thought he could sit down and go to bed tonight, though it was anyone’s idea about whether he would manage to sleep without dreams.

“You’re welcome.” But the Healer didn’t move away, and Harry opened his eyes to find she had come to stand in front of him, her eyes so concerned that he grunted and waited. 

“If you want to talk to someone,” the Healer said, “I’m here.”

Harry didn’t sneer, but that was because he had more practice at controlling his expressions than he’d used to have when he first got into Auror training. He nodded. “All right. Thanks,” he added, because the Healer probably wouldn’t go away until he said it. If he talked about this with anyone, it would be with his friends, not a woman whose name he couldn’t even remember.

If he talked about this. Harry felt like he was made of ashes, right now. The will he’d directed towards the bond, the way he’d lit himself on fire for it, was all gone. He’d survived, and that was what he wanted.

He thought he needed a few days of sleep before he could safely determine what else he wanted, what he needed.

The Healer moved away, with glances over her shoulder. Harry turned around, ready to Apparate out. Surely he had answered all the questions that anyone could ever need to know about the ritual and the breaking of the wards.

But Kingsley was standing in front of him, his face so dreadfully embarrassed that Harry waved a hand at him. “I don’t care,” he said. “Right now, I want to go home and collapse, not listen to excuses about why they were able to get through the wards.”

“That’s not what I was going to ask about,” Kingsley said, and coughed delicately. 

“Then you’re going to ask about the bond,” Harry said. Of course he is. “Fine. It was the same kind of bond that they were trying to use to tie Aurors together, in that experiment that went so wrong. But the Lestranges rolled me across the ritual circle, and that disrupted the bond and made it try to accommodate three people instead of two. It didn’t care about what kind of closeness it was, though. It just wanted closeness. So I used my virginity as a sacrifice to content it. Physical closeness was enough that it didn’t demand the telepathy.”

Kingsley just looked at him, warm and silent. Harry glared back. He appreciated that Kingsley was trying to offer compassion, sure he did, but the most caring thing he could do at the moment was to move out of the way.

“The bond may not be entirely gone,” Kingsley said.

“So you need to keep me in St. Mungo’s so you can watch me for signs of returning telepathy?” Harry snorted. “Sorry, but I don’t trust Auror guards right now.”

Kingsley started. “You can’t think—”

“The wards broke,” Harry said. “Rabastan and Rodolphus didn’t hammer them with force until that happened. They didn’t happen to know the countercurse. They knew how to tear through the weak points instead. Weak points whose knowledge was restricted to Aurors. Yeah, Kingsley, I know what I think.”

Kingsley bowed his head for a second. Then he sighed and said, “Well. If the bond hasn’t returned yet, then I don’t think an immediate return is likely. Not yet,” he added, just in case Harry might have thought he’d escaped. “Why don’t you go home and go to bed?”

Harry gave him a smile that made him take a step back. “A brilliant suggestion,” he said, and Apparated.

He staggered as he appeared inside his bedroom. Few people knew it, but his bedroom was a little clear space in the midst of his wards. He could Apparate there, and Floo there, and do anything else to make sure that his arrival was swift and safe.

Now, he began to strip off his clothes, his fingers moving with a precision that surprised him, until they sped up and ripped awkwardly at the cloth. He left a trail behind him as he moved into the bathroom. That didn’t matter, though.

Nothing mattered except the shower, and the flow of hot water over him, and the way that it didn’t sting when it touched his arse.

Harry turned to face it, and then turned his back to it. He leaned against the wall with his braced arms for a second, his head bowed and his eyes shut. Then he jerked his head up and shook it.

He hadn’t burned all his will to ashes after all, in the middle of that ritual circle. He only thought he had. He had needed this much time to recover and remember what he was. 

Alive.

As long as he was alive, no one was going to destroy him. Not the bond, not the traitor there must be in the Aurors, not the Lestranges, and not Snape and Malfoy. No one was going to master him. No one was going to subdue him.

He smiled a little, aware that his face felt as if it would crack, when he considered what Snape and Malfoy had probably thought as they were fucking him. Had they thought he was broken? That they were taking something away from him that he would never recover?

Harry shrugged as he reached for his shampoo. Really, they had taken something from him that had become a social handicap, a reason for stammering and sweating when he thought about what someone would say if they learned of it. The sacrifice to get them out of a ritual circle was probably the most useful thing his virginity could have done. He walked unburdened now.

And he would keep doing that, even if the bond came back or Snape and Malfoy were ridiculous about the consequences.

He was alive. That meant he could do anything else.

*

Draco stared around his bedroom for a second. It was large and cold and spectacular. Most of the time, he didn’t have a problem climbing under one of the heavy blankets and falling asleep.

But this time, he didn’t want to. Not alone.

He turned and sharply left the bedroom, walking down the corridor to the room that the house-elves had given Severus. He knocked. He’d learned the hard way, years ago, about what happened to those who intruded on Severus without proper warning.

This time, he knew Severus had heard him, but there was still a long, weighing silence before Severus grunted and called out, “Come in.”

Draco stepped into the room—slightly smaller than his own, hung with dark red drapes that contrasted with the bright lights of the torches on the walls and the candles on the tables—and leaned against door as he locked it behind him.

Severus gave him a measuring glance. He stood, without his robes, in the middle of the room, near one of the bookshelves that held old Potions tomes. His simple shirt and trousers made him look smaller than Draco had thought he was. Of course, he couldn’t remember the last time he had seen Severus this undressed.

As opposed to undress completely.

“What?” Severus asked, when the time had passed by in muffled heartbeats and Draco had said nothing.

Draco took a deep breath. “I don’t want to be alone tonight.”

“I am not your fuck,” Severus said.

Draco flinched, more from the shock of the word on Severus’s lips than anything else. “I know that,” he said. “I want—I don’t want you to touch me. If you don’t want to,” he added quickly. When the last naked skin he had touched was Potter’s, Severus’s would be a welcome antidote. “I just want you to talk with me, and make me feel a little less alone.”

Severus took a step back and sat down on the bed. “You feel it,” he said. “That the bond is not done with, and has not let us go.”

“I know,” Draco said. “But I thought it was supposed to be telepathic closeness that it wanted, not any other kind.”

He flinched when Severus looked at him, but Severus turned his head away again a minute later, exhaling. “That is not exactly what Potter told us,” Severus muttered. “He bargained with it. It can be appeased with physical union. And he thought of his virginity as a sacrifice that would make the bond depart. I do not think it was. I think it transformed the bond, made it assume a less dangerous form. Virgin sacrifice was traditionally important in ceremonies of change. From mortality to immortality. From weakness to power. But that does not mean the bond has departed.”

“You don’t think he was lying, then, about being a virgin,” Draco muttered.

Severus gave him one of those piercing looks of scorn that had the power to sting even now, long after they had departed Hogwarts. “As he himself said, we would not have left the circle if he had lied.”

“He could have done something else,” Draco snapped, because there was a twitch at the corner of Severus’s eye that he didn’t like. “Parseltongue. He talked about that. Instead, he was the one who gave himself to us.”

“And if he had done it because he wanted to make that sacrifice,” Severus said harshly, “what would you have done, Draco? Raped him?”

Draco stared at Severus. “You think that was what we did.”

“I asked the question,” Severus said. “Why would I ask it as a hypothetical if I believed that it had already happened?”

“But you do,” Draco whispered, his stomach twisting. He hadn’t wanted to think about his actions except in the context of triumph over Potter, but if Severus had begun to change his mind about that, then Draco would have no choice. “You think—you think we raped him. That’s impossible, Severus. I know that you were never that kind of man, even when you were a practicing Death Eater, and neither am I.”

“But we have neither of us been under the influence of that kind of magic before,” Severus murmured, his voice so deep that Draco wanted to strike back, wanted to do anything that he could to drive that tone away. Severus might convince him, and then—and then—

And then Draco wasn’t sure that he could live with himself.

“I don’t want to think that,” Draco said, voice loud enough to make Severus’s little room echo. “We didn’t do that. He came and gave himself up to us willingly. And it’s not like he didn’t get off on that, Severus. You saw it. You felt it.”

Severus’s face darkened, but Draco couldn’t be sure if it was because of his words or because of the memories that Draco’s words brought back. “Coming does not mean that he derived much pleasure from it,” Severus said. “You saw the state of his arse.”

Draco reeled again. Severus was not the kind of person who said the word “arse.” Draco had been his friend for five years now, his student for longer than that, and Severus did not say those words because he had no need to refer to any of the few activities that a grown human being used his arse for.

But Severus turned and looked at him, and Draco looked down. He knew when Severus had begun to think about the kinds of activities that a grown human being used his arse for, he thought. When he was made to perform them.

“You’re changing your mind,” Draco whispered. “What do you think? That we’re guilty of a crime?” He looked up, shaking his head. “But—it was self-defense. The bond would have destroyed us otherwise. You heard Potter, Severus! He was the one who said that.”

Severus stayed frozen, looking at him.

“I’m not a rapist,” Draco said, his stomach rebelling as it hadn’t when he was in the ritual circle itself. “I know myself, and I’m not. No matter what anyone says, I’m not—I’m not—”

And then he sank down in the middle of the floor, shuddering, his hands wrapped around his head, as emotions he didn’t understand danced and buzzed down the middle of his mind.

*

Severus drew breath. It felt like the first time in several minutes he had done so. He shook his head and moved, dropping to one knee beside Draco. 

It was good to know that he was not the only one who felt like this. The sick disgust had overwhelmed him perhaps five minutes after the interview with the Aurors, and had only got worse after that.

Every situation since the war, every situation in the war, he had rescued himself from. He had survived Nagini’s bite because he had had the foresight to see that the Dark Lord liked to turn his snake on his most intimate companions, and had swallowed an essence of powdered bezoar every day for nearly a year. He had survived the storm of criticism after the war because he had secured a Pensieve of Albus’s memories before the old man died. He had made his living as a Potions master despite the reluctance of most people to buy from a known criminal by taking assumed names, the undisputed excellence of his skills, and trading on the twisted romance of his name with those customers who did find it exciting to acquiring Potions ingredients from someone tainted by the Dark Mark.

He had never owed his life to anyone—except Potter for killing off the Dark Lord, and Severus found that debt easy to live with. It was the same one that all of wizarding Britain owed, and few people seemed to feel the need to pay it. Besides, Potter would never have reached the point where he could save the world if Severus had not protected him and guided him along the path to reach it.

Now, he owed Potter something. He knew that the situation in the ritual circle would have disintegrated, would have fallen in on them like rain, if Potter had not been the one to take control of it. And Potter had been enough in control to bargain all the way through the fucking they’d given him.

Are you upset that you raped someone, upset that you owe Potter your life, or upset that you’re such a poor lover Potter could keep focused through all that? 

Severus swallowed. Perhaps all three.

“Thinking like this will solve nothing,” he told Draco, sharply enough that some of his words must have reached Draco through the tight (ridiculous) hold that he had on his ears. Draco lowered his hands and stared at Severus incredulously. Severus ignored that. “We are rapists. But your anxiety over a word solves nothing, either. What we must do is figure out the effects of the bond, and the effects of living with Potter.”

“This bond is going to demand sharing a house?” Now Draco looked more revolted with the circumstances than himself.

Severus counted it a victory. He knew what happened to Draco when panic struck him. He had had more than enough chance to see that during the war, too. Draco became fixated, and useless. “I did not say that,” Severus replied. “I said that we will have to see him again. We will have to speak to him about what happened when the Lestranges broke through the wards. We will have to testify at a trial, perhaps, if Rabastan and Rodolphus are captured. And we will have to have Potter’s help if we intend to hunt down the Lestranges and take our revenge for what they did to us.”

Draco’s mouth twisted in a petulant way. “We don’t need him.”

“Neither of us has the tracking skills of an Auror,” Severus pointed out. “I am a good spy, but I am not the dueler that Potter is, and this pursuit is unlikely to require getting close to others and using disguises to charm the truth from them.” He paused, his eyes locked on Draco, who kept grimacing as if he had bitten into a pickle unexpectedly. “And while your skills with potions and Dark Arts are impressive, would you have any notion of where to begin the hunt?”

It took a long moment, but Draco did see sense. He lowered his gaze and swallowed. “I just—I don’t like being beholden to him, Severus.”

“I know that very well,” Severus replied quietly. “But this is a way of paying back that debt, getting rid of that beholding. If we help him to track the Lestranges down, if they are captured and rotting in Azkaban—or dead—then there will be no debt between us, will there? We will have done something for him that gives him peace of mind, and we will have taken revenge on those who set up the ritual in which we raped him.”

Draco flinched, but managed to concentrate. “You think he would accept that as payment of a life-debt?”

“Considering he has never collected on the ones that you owe him from the war,” Severus said dryly, “yes.”

Draco flushed and spent a moment toying with the hem of his robe. “But how can we help, then?” he demanded. “A moment ago, you were speaking as though there was no way we could do anything at all. Potter’s the one who would have to hunt them.”

“When we capture the Lestranges,” Severus murmured. “Punishing them. I believe that a part of Potter may long for revenge, but he will be too moral to take it. Yet it would mean he never had to worry about them again if we made sure that they—went away before the Aurors could take them into custody.”

Draco stared at him. “How did you know that?” 

Severus grimaced. “I think that a side-effect of the bond, knowing things about him that we should not know. I also—know—that he did this because he wished to survive. Nothing more and nothing less.” 

He was less sure of what to make of the enormous mountain of steel that had risen in the back of his mind. Did that represent Potter’s determination to survive? It was plausible, but why he should sense that and not something else, Severus did not know. This particular bond called for more research.

Draco slowly nodded, at last. “If there’s any way that we can stop—I can stop thinking of myself that way—”

“Perhaps not,” Severus said. He would not conceal from Draco that this was as likely to fail as work. Potter might not accept their help at all, which Severus could not blame him for. “But it is a way to begin.”

*

Harry settled into bed at last, a bed with dry, clean, soft sheets, and no one else around within a hundred miles to throw him into a panic.

He drew the blankets over him and rested his head on the pillow and closed his eyes.

He knew that Malfoy was tearing himself apart at the moment with confusion. He knew that Snape was making plans that had to do with the Lestranges, but he couldn’t pick up anything more specific than that.

How he knew, he refused to question.

He had survived. That was the beginning of everything else.

He drifted off, left again with the thought.

I can do anything as long as I am alive.

Including ignoring them.

Chapter Text

“Auror Potter! What are you doing here?”

Harry turned around slowly, making sure to get maximum threat potential from the way he shuffled the papers in his hands. “Where else should I be?” he asked. “I’m an Auror. As you already said.” 

His mind was already springing forwards, weighing up what he knew about the junior Auror Jerry Perkins, who stood there gaping at him. Would Perkins be among those who held the secret of the wards, and thus a candidate for the traitor among the Aurors? Harry didn’t think he was senior enough, but he knew that some of the people who were spoke well of him, and might have decided to bring him in.

Perkins, a pale man with a face that reminded Harry of Percy Weasley’s, but a thatch of blond hair and a straggly blond beard instead of red, coughed and recovered himself. “I just meant—we heard something about what you had to go through,” he said, lowering his voice. “That torture. Horrible.”

Harry smiled pleasantly. He didn’t think either Kingsley or the Healer assigned to the Aurors would have betrayed the fact that he’d gone through a bonding ritual, and he knew that Snape and Malfoy wouldn’t brag about it, either. So for now, he would take Perkins’s ignorance as genuine and use it as a weapon.

“It wasn’t any worse than the torture I’ve been through under any enemies,” he said. “They could have used the Cruciatus to drive me mad, you know. It’s happened to so many people. But what I endured wasn’t enough to break my mind.”

Perkins looked at him uneasily. “Of course not, but it must have been bad enough.”

Concealing guilty knowledge? Or just put off by my strange manner? Harry decided to keep going. Either way, he gained something from acting like this. “It was bad enough. I survived, though. And that’s enough, too.”

Perkins nodded, and then examined his watch. “I have to get to a meeting with Auror Dandelion,” he muttered, and trotted away.

Harry watched him go. For all he knew, Perkins really did have a meeting with Dandelion, his mentor, right at that moment, but it also made a convenient excuse to get away if Perkins had realized the conversation wasn’t going the way he wanted it to go.

Harry made a vague motion with one hand, and continued walking the report he’d written on the Lestranges to Kingsley. He wanted to hand-deliver it so that no office gossip would get a look at it, but he also wanted to use his body as a living, breathing message to Kingsley and that bloody concern in his eyes. He’d showed it again when Harry had walked out of the Floo this morning and nearly bumped into his boss.

This didn’t destroy me. You don’t have to coddle me and treat me like the Glass Auror. Send me out on a case. I survived because I wanted to be a good Auror. Let me prove it.

He was thinking that so hard as he stepped into Kingsley’s office that it might actually have shone out through his eyes. Kingsley reached out to take the report, not removing his own eyes from Harry’s face.

“You know that you didn’t need to come back to work so soon after what happened,” he murmured. “Your wounds might not even be healed yet.”

Harry took the chair in front of Kingsley’s desk, the only one that sat there. It was made of hard, dark wood, so no one would be encouraged to stay so long. Harry saw Kingsley blink, and smiled thinly. This prove that my arse is well enough for you? Yes, I wasn’t that wounded. The Healer took the pain away.

Not all of it, but the mental pain was always the kind that Harry had always been responsible for healing himself, anyway. He leaned forwards and smoothly into the plea he had come to make. “What new case do you have for me?”

“New case?” Kingsley blinked again. Harry knew that some people thought Kingsley was stupid, while he maintained that “slowness” only as a mask to fool them, but this time, he appeared utterly at a loss. “I was counting on you having at least a fortnight off to recover, Harry. Maybe even a month.”

Harry slightly shook his head. “What kept me going in the midst of the ritual was the thought that I couldn’t die this young, I was just starting to live up to my training as an Auror,” he said. That was the truth—or the truth he could tell Kingsley. He had no right to the rest of it. “Let me show you.”

Kingsley frowned, and went on frowning. Harry maintained his seat on the chair without effort. If Kingsley thought Harry’s supposedly ripped-up arse would start hurting if he kept him here, he was wrong.

“Fine,” Kingsley said at last. “I have to admit, there’s no one else I can precisely trust with this.”

Harry smiled encouragingly.

“I don’t want anyone to know there’s a traitor in the Aurors.” Kingsley glared at him, but Harry only nodded, and Kingsley leaned back, tapping his fingers hard on the edge of his desk. “We just recovered from that latest fiasco with the Prophet claiming they had pictures of torture of criminals by our trainees, which of course they couldn’t produce when the time came in front of the Wizengamot, and then there are the idiots arguing we should have the power to use the Unforgivables again. I do not want any more of this nonsense. We need to have public peace and confidence. And we don’t know if there is a traitor, yet.”

“You want me to find them,” Harry murmured, his heart rising along with the tide of his blood. He would have pursued that investigation on his own if Kingsley hadn’t let him, but he preferred being given it as an individual assignment. Now his needs and his methods would join.

“Yes,” Kingsley said. “I know that you’ll be fair, that you won’t…make judgments the way you would if you were on the outside of this case.” He met Harry’s eyes. “I’m sorry, but I’ve chosen you primarily because you were tortured by the Lestranges.”

“And I’ll keep quiet as much to preserve my own secrets as anything else,” Harry said. He shook his head a little when he saw the way Kingsley gaped at him. “It’s true. I don’t resent it. I would have done this on my own if you hadn’t appointed me.”

Kingsley nodded slowly, eyes still focused on Harry’s face as if everything about this was unexpected. “But…you’ve changed.”

Yes, before I wouldn’t have named your motives aloud. Harry only twitched his face a little. He didn’t know exactly what expression he was wearing at the moment, but it must be a certain kind of impressive. “Wouldn’t you expect me to, after what happened?”

Kingsley turned pale, and bowed his head. “That’s true. I’m sorry, Harry. I wish there was a way to respond to your sacrifice.”

Harry shrugged. “You’re letting me take this case. That’s the best thing you could do. I won’t be able to put it behind me until I know for sure who’s involved, and why.” He stood up. “Let me suggest that you pretend you disapprove of the fact that I’m back. That might encourage someone to slip up, or approach me.”

Kingsley stared at him for a second. “You think that someone who betrayed you that way might come and confide in you?”

“It depends on the motives for doing this in the first place,” Harry said. “If it was because of money, maybe not. But if they have a grudge against the Ministry, they might think they could trick me into believing this was the Ministry’s fault. And there are other reasons, too.” He reached up and touched the lightning bolt scar. “I’ve been approached twice by people who thought that this gave me a sort of sympathy with the Death Eaters. Being pursued by a Dark Lord ought to be enough to turn me to the Dark.”

Kingsley still looked like he didn’t understand, but he nodded, and then straightened up and scowled at Harry. “Well, back to work, then. If you insist.”

“Yes, sir,” Harry said, giving his voice a growl without effort, and turned around and stomped out of the office. The first act of their little play was important to set up, and he would ward off sympathy while acting like he secretly wanted it. There were plenty of people who would fall into that trap. People who wanted to see the Boy-Who-Lived as only human. People who would be indignant for him. People who would be gleeful to see his fall from grace.

And among them, Harry might find his traitor.

*

Draco wasn’t sure that he could hold up his head, given the weight of the mountain that was forming in the back of it.

He had never known Potter was this stubborn. Yeah, he’d survived the Dark Lord, but a lot of that had to do with his friends and circumstances that had helped him, like stealing Draco’s wand. Besides, he’d had revenge to seek then, too, and he’d been fighting to survive. You didn’t have to be insanely determined if you wanted to live.

On the other hand, a Dark Lord had been chasing Potter down. Maybe the insane determination had entered his mind and just never left.

“You feel the steel in him.”

Draco started. He’d been sitting in the small dining room that he usually used when he had only one person staying with him, and Severus had entered without his noticing. Severus piled cold meat on his plate from the sideboard and then came and sat opposite Draco. Draco nodded and picked up the plate in front of him, scraping his fork through the melted cheese and eggs left from his breakfast.

“That noise is annoying,” Severus said, and passed on to the next subject without giving Draco a chance to either defend himself or apologize. “Yes, you feel the metal in him. I must admit that I do not understand the way this bond works. Most would give us access to the strongest thoughts and emotions that Potter had. Some would convey only emotions, some only words. A few might let memories through, or allow us to communicate directly, to respond to what we experienced through it. But this does not seem to be doing any of those. I can feel Potter’s determination, and your guilt.” He hesitated, and Draco doubted that he wanted to ask the next question, but he did. “What do you feel from me?”

Draco concentrated. Until this point, the alien sensation of the mountain in the back of his mind had occupied him so much that he hadn’t tried to reach out for a separate feeling of Severus.

But it was there when he sought it. Draco sampled it slowly, that alien new part of himself, but it didn’t feel the way the mountain from Potter did. It wasn’t until he applied the sense of taste to it that Draco understood.

“Bitterness,” he said. “You taste like horrible tea.”

Severus’s face reflected so much astonishment that Draco winced and wished he hadn’t said anything. Then he swallowed and added, “But I don’t know if that’s in general or if it’s just about the ritual, and I can’t blame you for feeling bitter about the ritual.”

Severus slowly leaned back in his chair and picked up the first forkful of meat, bringing it to his mouth for a few deliberate bites. Draco waited, eyes fixed on Severus’s face, and finally Severus said, “I had not considered that what we were feeling might relate only to the ritual. I should have, however. Guilt is not your essential nature.”

Draco smiled tightly back. “Do you know why you feel mine as an emotion, and I experience you as a taste, and we both feel Potter like we were carrying an object around?”

“I do not.” Severus’s words were even slower than his bites, and he spent a moment tapping his fingers on his knee, something he would never normally do. “But it might help us narrow down what kind of bond this is. We should spend some time in the library.” He straightened up. “As soon as we send an owl to Potter telling him that we could help in his search for the Lestranges.”

Draco winced. “Should we offer that?”

“You agreed with me last night.” Severus took another bite of his breakfast. This time, he didn’t seem to intend to look away from Draco.

Draco looked down into his plate, and tried to find the answer to his own sudden reluctance. Then he touched that mountain of steel in his mind again, and winced away from it. It wasn’t hot; it didn’t feel as though Potter was burning from anger. In some ways, that made it worse, because it meant that he wasn’t contemplating revenge in the way Severus had suggested. Draco felt as if he had laid his hand on a steel cube instead, or a triangle, given the rising mountain shape.

Potter was determined, and it would happen. Draco knew he would say that if he was asked, staring at them blankly, probably.

He doesn’t think about the cost. He doesn’t think about healing. He just wants to go ahead and do it, and that means it’s going to get done.

Draco took a deep breath, and said, “Maybe he just wants to be left alone. I think he can get his revenge accomplished by himself, if he wants it. Can’t you feel how stubborn he is? He won’t thank us for taking his opportunity to work away from him.”

Severus was staring at him, one knife suspended above the peach on his plate. “No, I do not see. What do you mean by opportunity to work?”

Draco licked his lips and shook his head. He didn’t understand enough, he thought. He was used to knowing his own mind, knowing the origin of his thoughts. That meant he knew everything about his reactions, too, or at least enough to be going on with.

And now he couldn’t tell whether his knowledge was coming through the bond, or from somewhere else. He didn’t know. And it was awfully, horribly frustrating.

“I just think that he wants to devote himself to his job, and arrest the Lestranges, and make up for what he sees as his failure that way,” Draco said finally. “And he wouldn’t thank us for interfering.”

“We would need to meet to discuss the bond, if nothing else,” Severus said, his voice deepening into that intense cold Draco hated. “And you do not know these things.”

“No,” Draco said, miserable. He pushed his plate away. “I already ate a full breakfast,” he said, when Severus glanced at him. “I’m not hungry.”

“I will expect your help writing the letter,” Severus said, and turned back to the peach.

Draco didn’t reply. He just turned around and trudged up to his room, the bitterness in the back of his mind growing strong enough to taint the inside of his mouth. He hadn’t been up in his room ten minutes before he sent for a house-elf to bring him a glass of sweet water, the kind that was flavored with fruit and which he hadn’t had since he was a child.

He sat down beside his window, sipping the water and staring unseeing out over the gardens. The taste gradually receded from his mouth, but not his mind.

And the mountain of steel hadn’t changed since Draco had first noticed it last night, except to grow higher and higher, and look and feel as if it would fall on Draco’s head.

I don’t like this. I don’t want this.

But it was going to happen. And Draco would have to go along with and suffer the consequences just like Severus would, whether Potter accepted their help or not.

Not even swishing the water around in his mouth and trying to absorb as much of it through his gums as possible seemed to be helping. Draco set the glass aside.

*

“Who is that letter from, mate?”

Harry didn’t glance up from his paperwork. He and Kingsley were playing out their “argument” right now as Kingsley grudgingly allowing him to return to work, but keeping him on desk duty. Ron had accepted it, although he seemed to waver back and forth between being glad that Harry would be safer and thinking that Kingsley ought to allow Harry to do whatever he wanted, after the way he had been tortured.

Tortured. That was all Ron and Hermione knew about so far, the physical wounds that Harry had taken at the hands of the Lestranges. It was—they would know about the rest. They had to know about the rest, Harry thought, because he had to purge the poison from his mind somehow, and they were the only ones he could think of trusting. But he couldn’t find the words or the courage to discuss it with them yet.

The will in him burned. He would do it, because it had to be done, and he willed it. But not right now.

“This letter?” Harry finally glanced up to find the owl waiting in front of him. He frowned and reached out slowly. Most people who sent owls to him, instead of memos, were ones he already knew. But this owl was a magnificent black creature with almost orange eyes that he hadn’t seen before.

It let him take the letter, despite the mad stare. Harry turned it over, and stared, quite still, for a second, at the Malfoy seal on the back. There was a slight stain on the paper below the seal, which might have come from ink or from a spilled potion.

Harry opened the letter with a little slide of his finger, and looked down at it with a little flick of his eyes.

Auror Potter,

It has occurred to us that the bond is still between us, and that we should meet to discuss it and try to figure out what kind of bond it is, and if there is a way of destroying it. And if you would like revenge on the Lestranges, we might also meet and see if there is a way to achieve it. With your Auror skills and the combination of spy skills and Potions master skills that we represent, there should be a way.

We are aware that the circumstances are difficult, and thus we will let you set the time and place for the meeting. It should be soon, however. The bond may be one of those which grows worse the longer we are apart.

And it bore both Malfoy and Snape’s signatures. Harry tried to think of the last time he had seen them, and couldn’t. In fact, he was sure that he had never seen them on the same piece of paper, together.

“Mate? What’s wrong? You’re shaking. Who was the letter from?”

Harry took a deep breath and lifted his eyes. Ron was looking at him in concern, his hand resting on his wand as though he assumed that he would have to attack an enemy coming out of the envelope. Harry gave him a smile that made Ron wince, and slid the letter carefully back into the envelope.

“Snape and Malfoy,” he said, his voice deepening and changing like he thought his smile must have changed, if Ron had reacted like that. But what about me hasn’t changed, since the ritual? “They wanted to castigate me for failing them because I didn’t keep the Lestranges from getting through the wards on the safehouse.”

“Those bastards!” Ron looked as though he would be happy right now to keep his wand out and go Apparate to Malfoy Manor or wherever else “those bastards” were. Harry realized that he didn’t know, and he doubted that the owl could tell him. “Isn’t it enough that you were the one who suffered all the torture? Kingsley said Snape and Malfoy were in bad shape, but not nearly as bad as you were.”

“There was something else that happened, something that you should know,” Harry said. He realized that he was shaking, or part of him was, buried deep inside. Maybe his voice was, too, and he just hadn’t heard it, because Ron paused and looked at him in concern.

“Harry?”

Harry took a deep breath and stood. “I’ll tell you about what I come back,” he said. “I think you and Hermione are the only ones who can help me deal with it, but—I have to tell both of you at the same time. I don’t know if I’ll get it out otherwise. Can you please firecall Hermione and tell her to come here? I need to answer this letter right now.”

Ron stared at him, but he had always been able to sense when Harry really needed him and come back—or do what he was asked. He nodded. “Sure, mate.”

Harry slipped down the corridor as if he was being summoned to a superior’s office, and ducked into the first empty room he found. Like some of the other empty ones, it was used as a combination of storage for files that were out of the Ministry Archives and that Aurors had been too lazy to return, and interrogation room or holding cell when all the normal ones were filled.

Harry shut and locked the door. He had to pause a moment and recast one of the spells because his hand was shaking so badly.

They dared.

He turned to face the letter, feeling the tension melt into looseness. He thought of the morning he had awakened, the first one after the fall of Voldemort, and the sunlight that had come through the windows in Gryffindor Tower. For the first time, he could think that it was the sunlight of a day that didn’t have Voldemort lurking somewhere in it, and the world had been wide and bright and endless.

He almost snarled the incantation rather than spoke it, even though the memory was happy enough to let him cast the spell in the first place. “Expecto Patronum!

The stag leaped out of his wand, and circled around the room for a moment in its search for Dementors. Then it turned and stared at him, and scraped a small hoof. Its gaze was bright and dark at the same time, distant, and Harry could feel the desire to help him, in the same back part of his mind where he felt Malfoy brooding and Snape spinning plots.

Harry shook his head, refusing the stag’s desire. He would get help from his friends, and in the meantime, he had to do something with this rage, this spitting desire that was almost choking him.

“About your revenge, and the letter you sent me, and whatever else you wanted to discuss,” he said, his voice so ugly that it hurt his throat. “Fuck off.”

The Patronus twitched its ears at him, but when Harry swung a hand out and commanded it to go to Snape and Malfoy, it leaped through the walls and disappeared.

Harry closed his eyes and took a deep breath. He was more upset than he should be by this. Malfoy and Snape might want to meet, but that was no reason that Harry ever had to see them again. And he wouldn’t allow himself to be summoned by them, as if he was a pet.

He turned and opened the door, and went to tell Ron and Hermione the truth. Tell people who could help him, not people who would want to blame him for not doing impossible things in the first place.

I am not a victim. They are not going to make me one.

Chapter Text

"What's this about, Harry?" Hermione stood up as soon as he came back into the office, her hand stretched out as if she could catch his arm and soothe his anxiety that way. "Ron said something about how Snape and Malfoy wrote to you? And they blame you for not keeping them safe?"

Harry winced a little when he saw the depth of the fire in Hermione's eyes. The lie about Snape and Malfoy had been a convenient excuse for why he had to go answer their letter right that instant, but he had to correct this now.

He cast Locking Charms on the door, and then sat down in the chair behind his desk. He had to take a few deep breaths before he could go on, and in that time, Hermione's face had already begun to shift. She knew, Harry thought. Not specifically what it was, but that it was something that had nothing to do with Snape and Malfoy being bastards.

Well, not like that.

Ron stood behind Hermione, his face quiet and solemn, although red. He kept his eyes fastened on Harry, and seemed to intend to react based on how Harry did. Harry had to admit he liked that.

"Listen," he said. "The Lestranges tortured me separately from Snape and Malfoy for a while." Hermione's mouth twitched as if she wanted to give him the exact amount of time that had passed on the outside, but she didn't try, for which Harry was grateful. "Then they took me to a room where there was a ritual circle. A copper one, in the floor. They already had Snape and Malfoy inside. They were using this telepathic ritual on them. It would have tried to make them one, but eventually, their brains would have leaked out their ears."

"Literally?" Hermione was pale.

Harry nodded. "Literally."

His tongue tried to stick to the roof of his mouth. Harry unstuck it and continued speaking. He was master here, not his body and the stupid memories it was trying to conjure up. He would do as he wished.

"The Lestranges rolled me across the circle and into the middle of the bond as it was forming. That made it change. It had to accommodate three people instead of two. There was no way to escape it, except if we gave a sacrifice to appease it."

Ron had tightened his hand on his wand. Hermione shifted in her seat. "What sacrifice?" Her voice was little more than a breath.

Harry felt a slight surge of shame and embarrassment. He focused on that, in preference to the feelings clambering up his spine and trying to overwhelm his stupid mind. Yes, he should have told his friends about this long since. Not the ritual, but the sacrifice. "My virginity."

They both stared at him, eyes so blank with shock that Harry smiled a little. No, he hadn't been remiss in hiding it, then. No one had known.

He wondered for a second how long he would have gone on hiding it and not having anyone suspect it if Snape and Malfoy hadn't--

The feelings were there, chewing on his thoughts, trying to climb out his mouth. Harry snarled them back, and they shut up. His darkness was deeper than theirs.

"They--" Ron stopped. Harry didn't think it was because he was too squeamish to say anything else. He just didn't know what word to use.

There was part of Harry that loved him for that, and always would. He sat straighter, bracing himself on the love that he had for his friends, and muttered, "Yes. They fucked me. That's the only word that fits."

Ron closed his eyes for a second, and then came around the desk and clasped his hand on Harry's shoulder. "Do you need me to hunt them down?" he asked quietly. "Or was it not that kind of fucking?"

Hermione had one hand to her mouth and looked as if she was about to cry, but she sat up straight when Harry caught her eye and said, "What happened?"

"The bond would have destroyed all of us trying to achieve a mental union." Harry found it easier to tell this part, because he'd already reported as much, in much the same words, to the Healer who had tended him after the ritual, and to Kingsley. "So I gave it a physical one instead. I was bargaining with the bond all through the ritual, telling it that I was willing to let them close and give them something I'd never given anyone. I think it worked. At least, we're not feeling our brains leaking out through our ears yet."

"Is it there?" Hermione had reached out and taken his hand, and seemed to be willing strength into him. "The bond?"

Harry grimaced, then nodded. "I get random little flashes from them, knowledge of what they're thinking about and believing. But that letter this morning..." He couldn't help it, he let his disgust and hatred well up, and Hermione and Ron both tightened their holds. "They want to meet and talk about the bond. They want to help me hunt down the Lestranges, they said."

"And they don't understand that you have no interest in that," Hermione whispered.

Harry half-smiled at her. "I would take them down if they crossed my path. But..." He strengthened the Silencing and Locking Charms on the door, then turned back. "Kingsley thinks there must be a traitor in the Aurors, and I agree. Someone with specific information attacked those weak places in the wards on the safehouse. There's nothing else that could have made them look like that, or tear like that."

Hermione looked more ill than ever. Ron just nodded, the corner of his mouth grim. He had probably suspected it before this, Harry thought, and not talked about it because he would assume that Harry was too sensitive about the whole subject of his torture.

"You want the traitor more," Hermione concluded.

Harry nodded. "Snape and Malfoy want revenge on the people who tortured--us. I can't say I blame them. But that's not my focus, and they're not going to make me into someone responsible to them."

"Of course not," Ron muttered, roughly. "You shouldn't have to do anything with Snape and Malfoy unless the bond becomes imperative."

"Not even then," Harry said, tensing, and knowing that neither of them would miss it. "Not even then."

"Harry..."

Harry laughed harshly. "No," he said. "You don't understand. I confirmed this by looking it up yesterday. I was the one who made the sacrifice to appease the bond. If there's any penalty from that later on, the bond will focus on me. It won't affect Snape and Malfoy. I don't need them, and I won't let them--near me again."

"You don't need to let them touch you." Hermione's eyes were so wide and distressed that Harry felt as though he could see through them, all the way to the bottom. They were quivering with tears, and Harry bit his lip to avoid saying something contemptuous. Hermione was only trying to help him, and he would rather have some of her help than none at all. "But you need to meet with them. Talk with them. Do they know the bond won't affect them if it turns savage?"

Harry tensed further. He wanted to explode out of this room, away from the friends who should be comforting him and instead were urging him to see those--them again.

But he knew he could never outrun most of the demons that were preying on him right now, considering he carried them in his own mind. He subsided back into his own seat with a sigh and said in a clipped voice, "They don't know. But I'm not going to meet with them unless it's imperative. I'll send a letter to them. That's all."

"If the bond draws you towards them?" Hermione's hand trembled in his.

"Fuck, Hermione, whose side are you on?" Harry hissed at her, and her face turned paler and she bowed her head.

"Yours," she whispered back. "Only and always yours, Harry, but we need to know how this might manifest. We need to know if something is likely to happen that would mean you have to spend even more time with them. I want to help you break free from them. But--you've been so hurt..." Her hand tightened in his, gave a few jerks as though she was having a seizure. "I don't want to see you get hurt further."

"Me, neither." Ron pressed down heavily on his shoulder, and Harry tensed for a different reason. Ron seemed to sense the difference, and backed off with his hands raised. "Sorry, mate."

Harry sighed and rubbed his forehead. The pain was settling now that he had told someone, as he had thought it might. So that was good, he thought. His breathing settled, too, and he no longer felt as though something else would leap to the forefront of his mind and control his tongue.

"Fine," he said. "I'll send another letter and offer to meet with them if they notice something happening with the bond. Nothing else. I don't want their help to hunt the Lestranges."

"'Course not," Ron said, and rubbed Harry's hair, which Harry had to admit brought back fewer memories at the moment than clasping his shoulders did. "You don't need them. You've got us."

Harry smiled at Ron, but shook his head. "Thanks, you lot. But, seriously. What kept me alive was thinking that I'd just started my life, my real one, the one I trained to get. I chose to be an Auror. I didn't choose to be a hero, or someone who survived the Killing Curse, or an orphan, or--" He thought he controlled the impulse to spit, but Hermione sat a little back out of the way anyway. "A sacrifice. I mean, I chose the way to appease the bond, what to give up. But I didn't choose to be in that situation in the first place."

"I know perfectly what you mean," Hermione told him, quietly, but with such ferocity in her eyes that Harry was sure she understood. "And I think you deserve all the time and peace in the world to recover." She paused. "There's some books I can give you that might help you understand."

"I still don't understand why you don't want revenge on the Lestranges," Ron struck in, while Harry was opening his mouth to react to the offer of books.

Harry shut his mouth and sighed. "Because I want to be a good Auror," he said. "And a good Auror might follow the orders from his superiors, which in this case I'm doing." He caught the quick flash from Ron's eyes, the smothered nod. He now knew Harry was acting the way he was on orders. "But he doesn't go out and seek revenge. What Malfoy and Snape want is their business. They can hunt them down, if they want. I wouldn't exactly shed any tears if I heard that Rodolphus and Rabastan were dead. But I would have to arrest them and bring them in, because that's the way justice is done by Aurors. I don't want to get involved in it."

"Did you tell them that?" Hermione asked.

Harry scowled at her.

"I'm sorry," Hermione whispered, and squeezed his hand again. "But I think they won't stay away or stop interfering in your life unless they understand exactly the way you feel. It's like telling them that you'll be the one to take the brunt of the bond if it starts acting up. They would probably be perfectly well-pleased to step back, but they have to know, or they'll fling more letters at you full of insults and accusations."

Harry grimaced. He really had no desire to speak to Snape and Malfoy, even in writing. That would be giving them too much acknowledgement, too much power over him.

But Hermione was right, the way she usually was, and Harry finally rolled his eyes and said, "All right, I'll put that in the letter, too."

"I'll help you write it, if you want," Hermione said quietly.

Harry thought about it, and then nodded. With someone at his side, he was less likely to burst out into angry recriminations than if he was doing it by himself.

By the book. That was what he had had to learn when he became an Auror. He could be great at breaking the rules and falling into the solution of a problem by accident. But when he was in Auror training, he had finally learned that he wasn't so great at doing it by himself. He needed Ron and Hermione there with him, and Ron was the only one who had decided that he also wanted to be an Auror.

So there were other ways to do things, and Harry's first instincts weren't always the best answers. Not that he would know that without his friends. He wished the bond could be transferred to them. He would trust them with access to his mind and feelings and whatever else the bond might be conveying.

"I'll go to the Ministry archives and find everything I can on bonds," Ron said, hovering behind them.

"Do that," Hermione said, but Ron looked at Harry before he left, and Harry gratefully nodded to him, too. This way, things would get settled, and Ron would have a useful task to perform, which he would like.

Hermione squeezed Harry's hands once more and said, "I hate to ask this, but I have to know. Do you feel like they raped you?"

Harry closed his eyes as he answered. "They did, but I don't want to curl up and cry about it. I don't have time. I need to complete this investigation, and I need to make my peace with what happened. I'm busy."

When he opened his eyes, Hermione was just nodding. Harry felt fire leap up in his heart. He still had the steel will and determination that were partially built out of the ashes of what had happened to him, but he had his friends, too. He might not be able to be an Auror with them, but he could accomplish great things with them.

Just wait and see.

*

"Severus? There's a letter."

Severus looked up. He had been attempting to brew, in the lab that Draco always set aside for him when he visited, but it had been no use. His hands were still shaking after the snarl that had come out of Potter's Patronus hours earlier.

It made no sense. Severus had seen Potter's Patronus before, most recently a few days ago when Potter had sent it to warn him and Draco that someone had broken into the safehouse and he would try to hold them off. But the Lestranges had overpowered Potter, swarmed up the stairs, and captured them both. Severus should have felt outrage when he saw the silver stag, or the loathing he attributed to all his memories of James, not as though someone had set the earth reeling beneath him.

Now he put his finger in the Potions tome he held and asked, "Who is it from?" He knew Draco would not have brought one of the silly party invitations that he often received or a letter from his parents up to Severus.

Draco pushed the door of the lab the rest of the way open. His face was strange, and the guilt in the back of Severus's head writhed like Nagini as he set the letter on the table next to Severus's abandoned ingredients from this morning. "From Potter."

Severus grunted and turned back to his book. "I have no desire to read it." The mountain of steel in the back of his mind had cast enough shadow over his thoughts for the day.

"But I read it," Draco said. "And Potter is bloody protecting us again, Severus. And he says that we can hunt Rodolphus and Rabastan, and he wishes us good luck, but he doesn't want to get involved."

It sounded so much unlike what Potter would say that Severus turned around and stared. Then he stood and came forwards to touch the letter. Draco stepped out of the way and turned as if admiring the neatly labeled shelves of Potions ingredients along the far wall, although Severus knew that he would not do such a thing in truth. He was trying to give Severus a chance to recover his lost composure.

Not that Severus should have lost it in the first place. Not that he should have been able to tell so much about Draco's motives without Draco telling him.

It might be due to the expanding influence of the bond.

Severus grimaced and continued reading the letter. It contained what Draco had said it did, flowing smoothly from the beginning.

Snape, Malfoy,

I'll write to you together since you sent me a joint letter, and I can sense both of you through the bond without sensing you separately.

I made the sacrifice for the bond. I was the one who negotiated it. That should mean that any further sacrifice the bond would demand would fall on me. You don't need to worry about it, even if it seems the bond is deepening or expanding. Any urges that you feel to get in contact with me before then are probably just the bond trying to force us together. I have no doubt the bond would like even more union than it's achieved. That doesn't mean we need to give it what it wants.

It would identify me as the stubborn factor that prevents us from meeting, since you did in fact offer that. So it would attack me. I'll let you know if that happens, and meet with you if it's really necessary. Until then, we don't need to see each other--which I'm sure you'll prefer, and I'd like it that way, too.

In the meantime, I hope that you'll have good luck with the hunt for the Lestranges. That doesn't mean that I'm going to help you. I would get in trouble if I did that, and I made the sacrifice partially because I was so determined that I would survive and make myself into a good Auror. A good Auror doesn't hunt down and kill criminals because they tortured him. We would all become vigilantes if that happened.

I won't stand in your way. I hope you find them, because you can take care of them. I just won't join you for it.

Harry Potter.

Severus imagined, for a moment, the way Potter might have wrestled with putting "Dear" at the beginning of the letter and "Sincerely" at the end, and then probably decided it was the more honest course simply to leave them off. He tried to feel bitter about that, but he couldn't. It was true, all of it. He touched the paper and wiped his fingers back and forth along the top, wondering if Draco was feeling even more bitterness through the bond from him.

"Severus? What do you think?"

Draco had paced back around to face him. Severus looked up, swallowed, and gave his answer. "I think he's right, that the Aurors would not look kindly on him joining us in our hunt."

Draco smiled, and the patch of emotion that represented him in the back of Severus's mind twisted and brightened. "That's what I thought." He paused, and then narrowed his eyes. "What about meeting him? You don't think he's right that the bond would make him pay if it changed, because he's the stubborn one?"

Severus said nothing. He sat down again and put his finger back in the Potions book, but didn't glance at the page. He simply found the position more comfortable as he tried to work out the tangled emotions that filled him concerning Potter.

He wanted to be free of the bond. He did not want to deal with Potter again. Of course it would be best if he could achieve his goal without further contact with the brat.

But--

Potter had already been sacrifice for them twice, if one counted his defeat of the Dark Lord. Was he always to play that role? Would Severus always owe him, without any ability to pay him back?

"I think he is right," Severus said at last. "Whether we want to grant him the privilege of always standing up for us, shielding us, is another matter."

Draco stared at him, jaw dropping open, and the patch of emotion in Severus's mind now shimmered with fleeting stripes of deep grey. "What? Privilege? What makes you think--"

"Is not anything to do with us a privilege?" Severus slapped a hand on the book and turned to face Draco. "To guide us, to protect us, to save our lives? Potter did that, and turned away as if we were worth nothing. He now proposes that we are not worthy to stand at his side to meet the bond, should it turn on him."

Draco stared at him again, then took a seat on the far side of the lab. "But I don't want to meet the brunt of the bond if it turns on us," he said, simply and clearly. "I really don't want to, Severus."

"Then you need not," Severus said. "But I think Potter is wrong. The bond might be angriest at him for resisting the pull, but if we were simply not there with him, it might also turn on us. I care too much for my own safety and future to put it solely in Potter's hands."

Draco sat still, head bowed. Severus waited. He knew it was harder for Draco. Severus would not have chosen to become what he had, a spy and a warrior, but because he had been through the experience, he could think of facing danger more calmly than Draco could. Draco was a coward at bottom, whom the promise of death at the hands of the Lestranges had been enough to scare, even before they began the torture.

Draco lifted his head and said, "I have my pride."

"But," Severus said, waiting.

"I don't want to deal with Potter," Draco said. "I don't want to deal with this bond. If he's right and it starts pulling on us more sharply, then I'll decide what to do then. Until then...I don't want to see him, Severus."

Given the guilt that symbolized him in Severus's mind, that made sense, and Severus could not truly fault him for it. He only nodded and said, "Then I will send him a request to meet with him by myself."

Draco curled his hand sharply in towards his chest. Then he nodded once, stood up, and walked out of the lab.

Severus picked up the letter and read it again. He would have to decide carefully how to respond, especially since Draco would not be joining with him this time.

But satisfaction coiled in the same place where Potter's Patronus had left him brooding. He would do what had to be done, and also what should be done, to recover his pride. He had not endured what Potter had in the ritual circle, but he had endured enough.

He would have his own freedom and pride back. It would be done.

Chapter Text

“Damn him.”

Harry thought the words flat enough that they needed no further discussion, but Ron looked up immediately. He had accompanied Harry home that night. Harry had said that he didn’t need the company, and Ron had looked him in the face and said, “Yes, you do,” so softly and patiently that Harry had given in.

“What does he want now?” Ron stood up and came over, extending his hand for the letter.

Harry hesitated, but let him have it. He was infuriated enough staring at Snape’s words. “He wants to meet with me,” he said. “We have to discuss the bond. We have to make sure that we all understand.” Ron flinched a little, and Harry clenched his fists in front of him. He didn’t want to hurt his best friend, and just because his words were hot enough to intimidate Ron didn’t mean they would intimidate Snape.

“Are you going to do it?”

Harry jerked his head up. “Why should I? He—he can pursue his own revenge, and he has nothing to do with the search I’m conducting.” He didn’t know if Snape and Malfoy had even realized there had to be a traitor in the Aurors. He didn’t know how much they had known about the safehouse wards. When they were there, he had known where they were at all times, so he could protect them, but he had spent most of his time circling the perimeter of the house, checking for threats, and preparing traps that—

That hadn’t slowed the Lestranges down at all.

Harry snarled, softly. That was another weapon Snape had used against him. He hadn’t actually used the word “guilt” in his letter, but he had hinted around it, about what Harry must be feeling because he hadn’t kept Snape and Malfoy safe from the Lestranges the way he had promised to.

“Harry?”

Ron was there. How could he have forgotten Ron was there? Or that he was holding his wand hard enough to break it? Harry released his grip slowly, a little surprised that he didn’t feel splinters prickling at his skin. He nodded once and leaned back. He couldn’t frighten Snape away, and he couldn’t pretend his own guilt didn’t exist. So he would do something else instead.

“I’ll go and meet him,” he said. “But I’ll choose the place. And it’ll be somewhere that I can easily escape.”

Ron looked helplessly at him. Harry wondered why until he said, “I wish—do you want me to go with you, Harry? In case Snape—tries something?”

Even then, Harry didn’t understand completely, and spent a moment staring blankly at Ron until reality dawned. Ron flinched and nearly put his hands over his ears as Harry laughed rackingly. Harry stopped when he sounded like a victimon the actual rack. 

“I think he might try to guilt me into cooperating with him, or talk about the bond, or threaten to blackmail me,” Harry said. “I’m two hundred percent positive that he won’t try to touch me, or rape me again. There’s no way that he ever would have without the bond.”

“But you can’t just forget what he did.” Ron turned around and paced to the end of the room, his hands shaking in turn. “How can you stand to be in the same room with him?”

“Because I have to,” Harry responded. Oddly, he was calm now that he thought about it. It was like facing the bond, he thought, or preparing to find the traitor in the Aurors. He would drive through and endure the challenges that lay before him, in order to reach the good life he had wanted to survive for, the life he had promised himself. 

He had hoped to reach it sooner than this, but, well, he had been wrong, that was all. If he had to, like he had to kill Voldemort and bargain with the bond to survive and admit to his friends that he was—had been—a virgin, then he would do it.

Can I do anything?” Ron trailed off and looked around Harry’s house as though he didn’t know what he was doing there.

Harry smiled at him and shook his head. “Thank you for coming with me. But this is the kind of thing I have to decide on my own.”

“Do you know where you’re going to meet him yet?” Ron leaned forwards until he seemed in danger of tripping over his own boots.

Harry stared off into space for a moment, buildings that he barely remembered and images that he had barely formed storming and flitting around his head. Then he smiled and glanced at Ron. “Yes. There’s a plan that I formed a while back to arrest one of the former Death Eaters. It didn’t work out.” He rose to his feet. “But it should work out fine to meet one of them.”

*

“I’m leaving to meet Potter.”

“Have fun.” Draco kept his voice to a monotone and his eyes on the Dark Arts text in front of him, although Severus stood in the doorway of his study and it would have been a simple thing to glance up at him.

Silence, but that didn’t mean Severus couldn’t steam like a dragon. Draco resisted the urge to plug his ears with his fingers, and kept reading about the Decapitating Curse instead.

“You might wish me good luck.” Yes, Severus’s words had that undertone of smoke that was so familiar to Draco from so many situations during the war.

Draco did look up at him this time, because of the words—but probably not in the way Severus wanted. That sense of bitterness in his head had increased. It felt like it was leaking down his nasal cavities and would drip out and cover his book with thick, greasy brown drops any second. “Good luck with what?”

Severus shifted his cloak, which he hadn’t put on yet. It hung over one shoulder and one arm, and he seemed to think that he would present a more casual picture that way. “Good luck with getting Potter to see sense.”

“I want the same thing he wants,” Draco said.

Severus blinked at him. “The ability to write letters that will convince me to leave you alone?”

“To be left alone,” Draco countered, feeling a furious blush working its way up over his cheeks. He turned his head back to the book, his hands curling up in front of him until he thought his nails would pierce his skin. “I don’t expect you to understand that—”

“No,” Severus interrupted. “In this case, your sense of guilt is interfering with your common sense. We must address the bond.”

Draco closed his eyes. “We spent all yesterday trying to do that.” They’d searched and searched through the Malfoy library for material on the bond, but even though Severus had said identifying a trifold bond with different emotional sensations for each member should be easy, they had found nothing.

“What would you have us do?” Severus’s voice settled on him like small raindrops.

Draco turned to face him, and fought the impulse to extend a hand. Severus would only slap it away, and rightly so. “Leave it alone for right now. Give Potter some time to recover. Give us all time to recover, so that it doesn’t feel like my tea is full of guilt.”

Severus’s nostrils flared. “We will never get over what is done to us if we sit back and wait for it to go away.” He turned before Draco could say that wasn’t what he meant at all, and added over his shoulder, “If you will not wish me good luck aloud, you might think of me in an hour’s time, when I will meet Potter.”

And he was gone.

Left alone, Draco let his head drop into his hands. He couldn’t go on reading; the words swam before his eyes. 

This…hurt.

And he knew no way to stop the pain.

*

Severus let his eyes sweep the restaurant that Potter had invited him to. It was one of the recent “daring” places that had opened up in Moderate Alley, supposed to be the poor man’s version of Knockturn. The apothecaries flirted with ingredients this side of illegal, the bookshop sold purported Dark Arts texts, and there were cafes like this one, with staged duels and counterfeit Aurors coming in to arrest the participants.

Severus wondered for a moment why Potter had chosen this particular place, called the Lenten, probably because the owner was Muggleborn.

When he saw the setup, he understood.

The Lenten was more interested in cultivating an atmosphere than in attracting a large clientele. The tables were small, round, and scattered in interesting combinations, sometimes one and sometimes two. The space between them was breathtaking and led the eye naturally to the enchanted windows, the largest that Severus had seen outside the Ministry, and made of a material that was glass-like in consistency if not real glass. They showed open forest clearings and wide plains stretching away to the sun and the ocean. The café itself was round.

There were no corners here that anyone could pin Potter in, and no tables that would catch him if he tried to race away. There were no tables where you could even sit, really, without seeing most of the people around you.

And Potter had chosen one in the center. He raised his head when Severus looked at him.

The way he moved struck Severus like a blow. He knew what he had done, of course. Woke with the memories hammering in his blood and his ears, and had the steel and the guilt in the back of his mind to bring the knowledge home.

It was another thing, seeing the way that Potter’s eyes looked as they had not after the Battle of Hogwarts. He looked at Severus as he had not at the Dark Lord.

Severus nodded once and walked towards the table. Potter did not retreat. He did turn to the side so that Severus could see his hand rested on his wand.

Where he intended to keep it, Severus assumed.

There was a faint, sour taste in his mouth. He ignored it. He could not sense the bitterness that Draco told him came through from his side of the bond, and it would stay that way. He took one of the rough wooden chairs, painted blue at this table, across from Potter and hung his cloak on the back of it, making sure to exaggerate his movements so that Potter would see he had no intention of reaching for him.

Potter watched him.

He reminded Severus now of an eagle waiting to swoop down on prey, as long as Severus did not look him in the eye. The eagle would be wary of any human who approached it, but it had its own beak and sharp claws, and it could attack.

Severus considered the mountain of steel in the back of his mind, for the first time in terms other than the length of the shadow it cast over his thoughts. Did it waver? Did it crack?

No. If anything, it was taller and colder than it had been. It, and Potter’s assurance that he could strike if Severus tried something, were the only reasons he was still here, Severus thought. Perhaps the only reasons he had come at all.

“Hermione hasn’t found anything about the bond yet,” Potter said. “Have you?”

“You assume I have been looking,” Severus said, the words springing to his tongue. 

Potter’s eyes flashed once, and he made a sharp gesture with one hand. Severus nearly drew his wand before the mountain in his mind glittered, too, and he knew it for what it was. Not an attack, but a motion of contempt.

“Of course you would have been looking,” Potter said, lowering his voice. “Have you found anything?”

Severus had forgotten how hard it would be to settle himself and attend to what was in front of him instead of his own need to prove himself to Potter. But if the war had ended, and he owed Potter nothing, then he didn’t need to do the proving. He did have some choice things to say to Potter, but they would wait until the essentials had been discussed.

“No,” he said. “Draco feels me in his mind as bitterness. I feel him as guilt. We both feel you as a mountain of steel.” He drew back as two cups of tea floated over to the table, borne on currents of magic from a young woman in a back room. Potter must have ordered it before Severus came. Severus sipped the hot liquid, and grimaced. It was too sweet. “What do you feel us as? That might give us a clue to the nature of the bond.”

“I know things,” Potter said. “I don’t feel anything. What you would likely think and your motivations at the moment appear in my head, without intervention.” He couldn’t have sounded much more disgusted if he had said that he felt Draco and Severus as rotting flobberworms. “That doesn’t provide any kind of clue that Hermione can find.”

Noting that Potter was not drinking his tea, either, justified Severus in lowering his cup back to his saucer. “That is impossible.”

“For me not to feel you as something?” Potter gave him a narrow smile that had so much challenge in it, Severus was forced to remind himself that they should not duel. “That is what happens. I don’t think this bond has much precedent in any case.”

“If Granger thought that, she wouldn’t have started researching it,” Severus snapped back.

“She can think one thing, and I can think another.” Potter seemed to sit more solidly in his chair, a stone that carved new holes in the air, although Severus didn’t know how that had happened. “I’m not tied to her.”

“You always needed someone to lead you to the obvious conclusions.” Severus leaned forwards and lowered his voice. Yes, the war was past, but there were still some things one did not mention in a loud voice in public. “Most people would have decided they were one ofhis Horcruxes early on, the moment they learned about them.”

Potter gave him a smile that could only be called pleasant compared to some of the scowls that he had received from Potter in the past. “Even if I had decided that, and asked Dumbledore, would he have told me the truth?”

Severus choked a little. He had once suggested to Albus that Potter be brought into the plan. If he went off adventuring and got himself killed, there was no guarantee that anyone else would know to destroy all of the Dark Lord’s other Horcruxes. For that matter, if he didn’t fall dead at the Dark Lord’s hands, the Horcrux in him might not be destroyed properly, either. Albus had only shaken his head and refused. Potter was too dear to him for Albus to let the boy know the truth a moment before he had to.

No matter how close that might have come to dooming the world, Severus thought. Sometimes he marveled at how willing Albus had been to sacrifice people he claimed to care for to the greater good, and other times he thought it was much the other way about.

“Yes, I didn’t think so,” Potter said. His voice had gone as soft as starlight. “Hermione didn’t lead me to this one. She thinks that she’ll still find mention of the bond somewhere among all the Dark Arts books she has access to.”

“Dark Arts books?” Severus blinked. He had never considered Granger as saintly as some of the other professors at Hogwarts, so it didn’t surprise him that she would touch books like those, but the access was a different matter. “How did she get those?”

“The Blacks have a good library,” said Potter, leaning back in his chair. Everything about him was edged, even the bones of his wrists and elbows that Severus would have simply called thin in other people. Maybe it was the bond that made Severus think about him like that, though, and the sharp peak of the steel mountain in the back of his head. “So does the Ministry. In the meantime, I think the bond is something different.” He watched Severus with narrowed eyes, apparently waiting for him to argue or agree.

Severus was inclined to do neither, but to switch the subject. This was not at all the way he had envisioned the meeting with Potter going. He had thought he had brought Potter to concede something, since he had come to the meeting at all, instead of holding back and only attending when the bond forced them to. But Potter had an armor that shed all concessions, that made them slide off like water. Severus did not like it. 

“We need to make provisions for what we will do if the bond changes,” he said.

“Meet.” Potter picked up his awful tea and sipped it again, as if he knew that was the thing he could do that would most irritate Severus. “I told you that already. I am willing to meet if the bond demands it, or the sacrifice starts falling on someone else. But that will depend in part on understanding it. Is there anything else you’ve found?”

Severus had found the direction he wished this conversation to take, in Potter’s mention of a sacrifice. “You are being an arrogant child,” he hissed.

Potter’s face lost a certain subtle animation that Severus hadn’t been aware it had—something that separated it from wood. “Arrogant, of course,” he said. “There are many ways that you could call me that. Even Hermione said it once, because I was trying to take the whole burden of the bond on myself.”

Severus nodded, and started to draw breath again, then stopped it as Potter leaned forwards. Severus did not like the sight of that unmoving face coming towards him. He had to fight to stay still as it finally stopped, looming and hovering over the middle of the table.

“But a child?” Potter shook his head. “I had perhaps one claim to that, one thing that made me immature. And it’s gone. You and Malfoy took it. Call me arrogant all you want, Snape, but get your terms right.”

And he leaned back and began sipping tea again, staring at Severus.

Severus could feel a boiling in the center of his chest. He wondered if Draco’s emotions were now leaking out and affecting him. He wondered if someone had slipped a Heart Attack Poison into the tea. But he could not believe that Potter would have a greater chance of immunity to such a draught than would a Potions master.

No. He knew what it was, what it meant. He did not want to admit it, but he knew. He leaned back, clutching his teacup, and refused to look away from Potter.

“Now,” Potter said. “You say the bond is impossible. I think it’s unprecedented. Those might come close to meaning the same thing, in this case. What we need to do is monitor it day-to-day. Keep track of the changes and what you feel from them, as you would in a journal on an experimental potion.”

“How do you know that?” Severus demanded, before he could let the boiling feeling in his chest stop him. That feeling would have told him that he had already asked too much of Potter. Severus would not let it in.

“That you keep a journal?” Potter looked him in the eye, cool as a lizard. “I don’t. If you keep track of the changes you make in an experimental potion some other way, use that way instead to track the bond. You’re more used to it, and more likely to notice the changes then.”

“That Potions masters keep journals.” 

The mountain curved as if it would fall on him, although Potter did nothing but sit there. Severus felt as though the sheer scorn in his eyes was digging a hole in the middle of his chest, but he would do nothing save sit there, either, at least until Potter moved further.

“Because I’m not as useless as you think I am,” Potter said finally. “I don’t despise Potions and everyone who practices it because of you. If you think you’re that important to me, you’re mistaken.”

Severus said nothing. If someone had phrased it that way to him, of course he would have laughed and said they were ridiculous. He had never wanted to be an annoyance and an enemy to the boy. Things would have been easier if Albus had either raised Potter in the wizarding world and trained him the way he should have someone who was going to take such an important part in the war, or kept him apart from everyone, training him from the moment he could walk. Either way, Severus would not have needed to hint and work around the enormous walls the boy was carrying.

“I can tell a little of what you’re thinking.” Potter’s face was austere in a way Severus had never thought it could be. That kind of look belonged on Draco’s face, or maybe his mother’s, the face of someone pure-blooded and high and far away. “Yes, Dumbledore should have done things differently. He didn’t, and this is where we are.” He took another sip of his tea and stood up. “This was useless, I see. You want to bring up the ancient past. I would have expected the recent kind if you were truly the master of vindictive insults the way I always thought you were.” 

He gave a little bow to Severus. “Don’t call on me to meet you again unless you have news to impart.”

He left, striding through the café and out the door as if he had the ability to walk through any obstacle in the way. Severus stared after him.

There was no way to be sure, of course, but he thought the mountain of steel had grown steeper.

*

Harry Apparated back into his bedroom and sat down on the bed, staring at the wall.

He could still feel Snape’s confusion, and the way that Malfoy was huddling into himself at whatever lair they’d chosen to go to. 

Harry would still have tried to kill them if they touched him, but it was strange. He hadn’t been pretending in those last few moments with Snape. He really did despise them. Snape was less impressive than Harry had learned to account him. He was a really bloody impressive spy, Harry had decided after the war, to have pretended loyalty to Voldemort for so long, enough for Voldemort to put him in charge of Hogwarts, and to fool Harry and everyone else who needed to be fooled during the years Harry had been a student. And Harry had thought Malfoy had a core of inner strength to survive being Voldemort’s torturer without going insane.

Now, though, both impressions had crumbled like clay in rain. Snape was stuck in that past he had helped to weave. He would never see Harry as anything but a boy, the child of the man he had despised, a rule-breaker, a Gryffindor. He couldn’t move on, which made him useless when it came to dealing with this bond.

And Malfoy was going to snivel and huddle. Maybe that was how he had survived during the war, too. Death Eaters liked sniveling more than Harry did.

Harry shook his head and lay down on the bed, hands folded behind his head. I did try, Hermione. I can’t help it if my bondmates are useless pieces of shit.

Chapter Text

“Are you giving up, then?”

Hermione’s voice was a little shrill. Harry ignored her as he dragged the books off the shelves in the Black library—books that he’d ignored before, because both he and Hermione had assumed they would hold no useful information. But that was a hard judgment to make if the bond was unprecedented, Harry thought. There were a lot of things that might be useful which he hadn’t thought of before.

“No,” he said, and laid the books out on the table that Hermione had been using. It was long enough to accommodate both of them. “I have an idea about the bond, and I’m going to see if I can find it.”

Hermione leaned over his shoulder. Harry tensed a little, but permitted it. It wasn’t Hermione’s fault that he didn’t like anyone behind him right now.

“But…those are books about magical creatures,” Hermione said, her voice blank. “How can the bond have anything to do with those?”

Harry resisted the temptation to say that the bond sure as hell hadn’t been in anything they had found so far, either, and silently flipped through the pages until he reached the illustration that he remembered, from the summer he’d spent mostly in Grimmauld Place reading anything he could get his hands on. Hermione studied it, her eyes narrowed. A circle, with three triangles inside it. Each triangle sprouted lines that connected them together, but the lines became more slender and faded out near the top of the circle.

“That has something to do with Veela,” Hermione said. “I know I’ve seen it before. I can’t remember where.”

Harry grunted and nodded. “Sometimes a Veela gets bonded to people they don’t want, don’t like, can’t live with. It’s not always instinctual the way that people think it is.” He laid the book down on the table and turned a few more pages until he found what he wanted. “In those cases, the bonding can be reversed, by enacting a certain kind of breaking ritual that pulls a third person into the orbit and confuses the bond. The bond is stretched back and forth until it snaps, basically. It can’t accommodate a third person—”

“Like the one that holds you,” Hermione said, and then sat down beside him with a thump. “But is it really the same thing? I mean, this is already a bond with three people in it, not one with just two.”

Harry smiled at her, and saw her flinch. He didn’t know why. He had been honest when he said that he thought this bond was possible to get rid of this way.

He didn’t care what kind it was. That had been his sudden revelation when he was talking with Snape in Lenten. And he didn’t think they had to know what kind it was. They just had to get rid of it.

“I think we might be able to modify the bond-breaking ritual,” he said, his hand and eyes tracing over the pages. “It would take a while to make it fit three people instead of two. And Veela bonds don’t usually have the mental components that mine does, so that would take some adjustment, too. This is an unnatural bond, though. Getting rid of it would probably be something my mind and magic could help me with. It’s a disease, a cancer.”

“You keep talking about your mind and magic,” Hermione began.

Harry stared at her. The last thing he had expected was an objection now. He had made more progress in three minutes than they had so far in five days. “What? What do you mean? Do you know something else that could get me free from the bond?”

“You have bondmates,” Hermione said, and squirmed a little under his gaze. “You need to contact them and let them know that you’re considering something like this. It could put them in danger if you don’t.”

Harry put the book down. He did that carefully, and lined up the edge of the book with the edge of the table. Then he turned around and pinned Hermione with his gaze. She flinched hard enough to knock one of the other tomes that she’d been reading off the far edge of the table.

“I met Snape in a café yesterday,” Harry began. “He brought up the past and accused me of being arrogant and childish. He sees everything as my fault.” He could feel the acid building up in his throat as he spoke, until he thought he could have spat and burned holes in Hermione’s notes. “Malfoy hasn’t bothered writing to me or anything, so I don’t know what he thinks and feels.”

“I thought…the bond…”

Harry snorted. “Yes, I can feel that he’s drowning in guilt and hiding in his house. As well as what he wants with the bond or whether he’s close to finding a solution, I have no idea.” He shook his head and closed his eyes, but that was no use; that just brought the image of Snape to mind.

Snape and Malfoy were useless? Harry was useless, to think that anything would ever change. Snape would see him as his father’s son no matter what happened. Malfoy would run and hide from his problems. Maybe he hadn’t during the war because he hadn’t had a choice. But now he did, and he would go the rest of his life ducking around the corner to avoid Harry if he had to.

“I’m not going to get any help from them,” he said, opening his eyes. “They’ve decided to blame me for everything. Snape was more interested in the fact that I thought he kept a journal when he made experimental potions than anything else. Apparently I’m not allowed to grow, or change, or acquire knowledge of Potions.” He glared Hermione into silence when she tried to say something. “He wouldn’t tell me anything about the research he’d done, that’s how bad it was.”

Hermione just shook her head. “But it affects him as much as you,” she said.

Harry had his doubts about that, since he was the one who had made the sacrifice and the only one who had recognized the bond for what it could do before it began doing it, but he snorted. “Right,” he said. “But he doesn’t care, Hermione. He can’t work with me. And maybe that’s his pride and maybe it’s his stupid bloody arrogance that decided a bully’s son is the same as the bully, I don’t know. But the fact is, he won’t work with me no matter what happens. And Malfoy’s going to hide in the Manor until he dies and rots. If the bond attacks me, they’ll probably feel it, and maybe then they’ll stop chewing the cud of their idiocies and masturbating over their—”

Harry.”

Hermione’s face was really shocked. Harry hissed and wrenched his temper back on topic. “Anyway. I’m not discussing this with them. I’ve done my share of reaching out and meeting and sacrificing for them. They want something? They can actually tell me what it is and what they’re doing, not whinge about what persecuted victims they are.” He turned back to the threefold design. “Care to help me work on this?”

Hermione nodded and picked up her quill, although she still studied him with shadowed eyes. Harry ignored that, and plunged into the preparations and modifications they would have to make to the bond-breaking ritual. As he understood it, the third person who helped stretch the bond acted like the Binder in an Unbreakable Vow, there to witness and help cast the spell, but not stand between the partners. Since that wasn’t the way he and Snape and Malfoy were tied together, they would have to choose one of them and essentially makethem into the person whose role was to observe.

That would be him, of course. Even if Snape and Malfoy were here, Harry thought, they’d probably refuse, Malfoy because it was dangerous and Snape because it revolted his precious image of himself to be useful to a Gryffindor.

His hand tightened on the quill. He wanted to snap it. He wanted to fling it aside and storm out the door, and go after Snape and Malfoy and curse and curse and curse them until it made a difference to the—

Harry paused, and slowly pulled himself back into place. Yes, sometimes he had thoughts like that. It didn’t mean that he had to act on them. 

He lost himself in the recreation of the bond-breaking and the discussion with Hermione about the ways that he could position himself, and then the argument with Hermione about whether they needed his bondmates in the room to do this. That went on until the moment when Harry’s chest tightened as if his ribs were growing smaller from the inside. He gasped, doubling up, and the quill did snap this time.

“Harry!” Hermione was kneeling beside him, her eyes frantic.

Harry jerked his head up, and gasped, and forced himself to accept what was happening. It wasn’t a heart attack. He’d never had one, but he’d heard the pain described and he thought he would have known if he was having one. He could feel a steady tug in the middle of him instead. As though his lungs and his heart and his liver were all rising and pointing one direction.

The direction that Snape and Malfoy were in right now, he had no doubt. He couldn’t get a sense of location from the thoughts and feelings that oozed down the bond, but he knew what this was.

The bond acting up. He smiled without humor, wondering if this would make it easier to identify.

And then he placed that thought aside and set it on fire. It didn’t matter. They were going to break the bond, and it didn’t matter what kind it was, if they did that. Meanwhile, Harry was going to breathe through this agonizing pain.

He jerked his head down and did it, focusing on the relief and joy he would feel when he survived this bond, when he could walk away and concentrate fully on the search for the traitor among the Aurors. His chest heaved as if he would vomit. But he didn’t, because he willedhimself not to do it. He had survived a bond that would have made him either the victim of a violent rape or drool his brains out at the ears. He was going to survive this.

Relief came so suddenly that it hurt, itself. Harry crashed to the ground, and winced, a little, one hand rising to rub at his ribs. They were all intact, or felt so, but when he cast a Diagnostic Charm he’d had good reason to learn a minute later, he saw all the tiny fractures in them. Harry rolled his eyes and set about healing those.

“You have to tell them, Harry.”

He turned to Hermione. “If—they—felt something like that, I’m sure they’ll tell me,” he snapped, and searched his mind. No, there was no revelation there about Snape and Malfoy noticing anything. “And in the meantime, the bond is objecting to me and trying to pull me to them, the way I predicted. As long as it’s only affecting me, I don’t have to mention anything.”

“Harry.” There were actual tears glistening in Hermione’s eyes now, brighter ones than there had been when Harry told her about the ritual.

No.” Harry stood up and shook his head, extending a hand for Hermione. She stood up on her own, staring at him so sadly that Harry sighed and rephrased it. “If it starts causing them pain as well as me, then I’ll tell them. Not before.” He turned back to the books. They had even more reason to try and modify the bond-breaking ritual now, and soon.

“Why?” Hermione did whisper. “Why isn’t your pain a good enough reason?”

“Because I’m not going to give them a chance to throw my pain in my face and mock me for asking for help,” Harry said, not looking up.

Hermione gave a noise that might have been a choked whimper, and then began to help him again.

*

Something had happened.

Draco thought he would have been able to tell that even if Severus hadn’t come stomping home yesterday and slammed the door to his lab hard enough to make vials fall over and break. And Draco hadn’t heard the sound of a Reparo afterwards. That was bad.

He sat, shivering, the book in front of him spread out on one of the library tables and his fingers clenched on either side of it. It was the second thing that had happened, this morning, the second thing that was strange, that scared him more.

A pulling in his chest. Draco had stood up and turned along with it, blinking, shivering. He hadn’t been sure what direction he would end up facing, but it was as if he had turned to look at the steel mountain in his mind.

The steel mountain that was shuddering, and had a blunt top where it had had a sharp peak a moment earlier.

Draco had sunk back into his chair and waited for Severus to stomp into the library and demand to know what was going on. Draco had swallowed and had to consider what that meant, in turn, when it didn’t happen.

It meant that Severus either hadn’t felt the twitch in his chest, or had decided that Potter could go hang, because he was so frustrated with him.

Draco closed his eyes. There was a quick spring of tears along the edges, tears that his father and the Death Eaters who had taunted Draco during the war would have despised. Draco dashed his head along the edges of his eyes now, cleaning off the tears, doing what he could to clear them. 

He didn’t want to die.

He had thought that even when he woke in the copper circle and shouldn’t have had enough coherent thought to understand what was happening to him. Then Potter had explained it to him, and desire took over. But the thought of dying, and what price he would have to pay for survival, had haunted the edges of his actions and tainted both the thought of helping Potter and of sitting here without doing anything.

Now, though, Draco thought the question had been settled for him. The bond wasn’t content. It might have affected Potter and Severus more strongly than it had Draco, or not at all, but what mattered was that Draco knew he could die and the effects might get stronger with passing time. He had to do something.

Draco stood up and went to the table in the corner where Severus had been working with books on bonds, trying to find the clues that would let him identify the one they now shared with Potter. Draco copied the notes with a few quick flaps of his wand, after Summoning the parchment he would need for it. He wouldn’t take the notes, in case Severus noticed them missing, although he hadn’t made an attempt to resume the search since his meeting with Potter yesterday.

And then Draco turned around and added his own notes to the bundle, although he doubted they would aid Potter much. He was a much slower reader than Severus, and didn’t have as much experience of arcane magical theory. He might have written things down as significant that even Potter could tell were rubbish.

But because they knew so little, Draco didn’t dare throw anything away. He didn’t know what was valuable, and that was the point.

He made the whole bundle up into a compact package, the kind an owl could carry, and then Shrank it for good measure. He took it up to the Owlery, where he hesitated before choosing a new bird, not the one that had delivered their previous letter to Potter. This was an ordinary tawny owl, but a good flyer, as were all the Malfoy birds.

“Take this package to Harry Potter,” Draco said quietly, and looped the strings around the owl’s leg, tightening them with a simple charm. The owl stared at him as if waiting for a letter, but Draco shook his head. Their first communication had been woefully misunderstood. This time, Draco would just send the notes and let Potter make of them what he would. “No other message. Don’t wait for a response.”

The owl fluttered back and forth on the perch for a moment, as though giving Draco time to change his mind, and then turned and hurtled silently into the afternoon. Draco watched it until the small, rising shape was out of sight.

Then he walked back to his bedroom and sat down, yawning. He hadn’t slept well last night—of course not, with Severus so agitated and the mountain of steel weighing down the back of his mind. But although the top of that mountain was still blunt and Draco knew that wasn’t a good thing, he thought he could sleep now.

Perhaps he had done his own part to make it sharp again, he thought drowsily as he curled up under the covers.

*

“Are they both still useless now?”

Harry turned over the package of notes that Malfoy had sent him and didn’t answer. He wasn’t sure what he would say.

They were in the middle of the Black library again, books about Veela bonds spread around them. Ron was sitting next to Hermione, another tome open in his lap. He hadn’t said anything since Harry had received the package of notes from Malfoy, but his eyes were expressive.

Harry knew from the bond, the knowledge trickling through whether or not he wanted to let it, that Malfoy had been the one who sent the notes. The uncoiling of tension into something that felt like sleep was too obvious. And Snape had refused to tell him anything about his research at that bloody meeting. It had to be Malfoy who had wanted Harry to know what they had discovered—or hadn’t discovered—about the bond joining them together.

Harry shut his eyes. It was more acknowledgment than he had thought he would get. It was almost impossible acknowledgment to live up to. 

“Will you tell them about the force that broke your ribs now, please?” Hermione sounded breathless, but Harry didn’t have a bond to her and couldn’t tell what emotion she was keeping back.

And I would never wish for a bond like this with them, Harry thought viciously, opening his eyes and turning to his best friends. His fingers shook with the intensity as he put the package of notes back on the table and nodded to Hermione.

“Because Malfoy sent me these notes,” he said. “I’ll send the letter to him, and explain what happened. It’s up to him whether he wants to show it to Snape or not.”

Hermione opened her mouth, then closed it again. Harry smiled grimly. At least she knew better than to urge him to share the information with Snape, after the way the git had acted.

“All right,” Ron said unexpectedly, standing up and dropping the book he held on the table. “In the meantime, we need to see whether there’s actually anything useful in these notes.” He strode across the room and snatched up the notes Malfoy had sent, beginning to rifle through them and make disgusted little noises under his breath.

Harry took a long, slow breath that didn’t make his ribs ache, because he had cast the healing charms well enough. Then he picked up a piece of parchment, and sharpened a quill, and dipped it in ink, and wrote.

Thank you for the notes, Malfoy. They should prove useful as we begin research on ways to break the bond. That’s what I’ve decided to do, because I can’t find what kind of bond this is, exactly, but I know it’s similar to Veela bonds that are stretched and broken by inserting a third person into them, and that gives me a reason to look up ways that those breaking rituals have been modified in the past. If you want to look up that kind of information yourself, you could send me more notes, and I could send you what we have so far. Harry thought that kind of peace offering ought to be enough to satisfy even Hermione.

In the meantime, I should tell you that I experienced a side-effect of the bond yesterday. It made me feel as if the bond was trying to tug me across the miles to land where you are—probably Malfoy Manor. It fractured some of my ribs. He had chosen that as the less alarming word than “cracked.” Easily healed, but it does indicate that the bond isn’t satisfied with what has happened so far. I don’t know if it affected you at all. I think I was right, and the main dissatisfaction of the bond is falling on me because I was the one who made the sacrifice.

Harry paused and wondered what else he needed to add. If the bond wanted to demand extra politeness or something, well, so far it hadn’t shown up to actually demand that.

In the end, he wrote, If you want to write back to me and discuss the bond’s side-effects or anything you noticed, then we might be able to tell more about it. And the sooner we know what kind of bond it is and what its limitations and weaknesses are, the sooner we can break it.

He stood up, waited for the ink to dry, sealed the letter in its envelope, and turned around to find an owl. Hermione blocked his way.

“You’re writing to tell him what happened?” she insisted, gazing into his face. “Everything that happened to you?”

Harry nodded. “Including the fractured ribs, and that we’re doing research on Veela bonds to try and break this one.”

Hermione gave him a single intense stare, then flung her arms around him and hugged him. Harry patted her back, glad that he had healed his ribs completely yesterday. Otherwise, it probably would have hurt.

He looked across the room and caught Ron’s gaze, sharp and understanding, observant. Ron nodded to him once, in what might be approval, and then turned back to reading Malfoy’s notes again.

I wouldn’t want the kind of bond with them that I have with Snape and Malfoy, not at this cost, Harry thought, as he stood on the roof a few minutes later, watching the owl fly away. But why couldn’t I be tied to them, if I had to be tied to someone? They’re the center and ground of my being. Snape and Malfoy are nothing, and always will be.

There was a twinge in his ribs for a second, a flare across the middle of his chest as though someone was fastening a breastplate in place and not giving him time to adjust. Harry bowed his head and folded his arms. Nothing. They will never matter to me.

The bond was still.

Chapter Text


“Did you disturb my notes, Draco?”

Severus felt the guilt in the back of his mind throb as Draco hunched his shoulders over his newspaper. Severus sighed in disgust. He was going to continue with a lecture about how he was the likeliest one to actually find out what the bond was, considering Draco’s distraction and Potter’s idiocy, and therefore Draco needed to leave his notes alone if he really wanted to be free of the bond.

But before he could begin, Draco lifted his head from the dinner table and said, “Yes. I did.” He seemed to concentrate to make sure that the words sounded as two distinct sentences, then immediately turned back to his food, shoveling it into his mouth in a way that had always made Severus wince when he watched it from the High Table at Hogwarts.

Irritated at himself with remembering school—they had connections and friendships more recent than that—Severus shook his head and sat down opposite Draco. It was his usual seat, but it had other advantages at the moment. “Why?”

“I sent copies of them, plus mine, to Potter,” Draco replied, smacking his lips a little to get the food out of the way so he could answer.

Severus sat frozen, staring at him. Draco considered him back, seemed to decide he had said enough, and returned to concentrating on the paper in front of him with implacable energy. The guilt in the back of Severus’s mind had stopped throbbing.

“Why?” Severus heard the word come out in such a hiss that a stranger might have thought he was the one in this bond who spoke Parseltongue. And the gift would have been more worthily bestowed in that case, he thought, his hands curling furiously in front of him. “Why would you do—”

“Because I felt a tremor in my chest,” Draco interrupted, staring up at him. “I don’t know what it was, but it felt like the bond was pulling me. And I decided that I care more about this bond being ended and discovered and—and whatever else than I care about being the one to do it.”

Severus bit off his exasperation. Was that the only impression Draco had drawn from Severus’s anger earlier? Perhaps it was, and Severus was sorry for it. He took a deep breath and made himself take a drink of the clear water in his glass and take a bite of the excellent spaghetti in front of him before he ventured further. At least the Malfoy house-elves knew how to treat a guest, if the Malfoys did not.

“Perhaps you do not understand, then,” he said. “Potter will actively work against us. There is no reason to send him notes that he cannot make sense of.”

“Perhaps he’ll actively work against us if we don’t treat him right,” Draco snapped, suddenly so bristling that Severus again could only stare. “If we help him in turn, and at least pretend that we respect him, who’s to say?”

Severus moistened his lips with his glass once more, before he shook his head. “This is fancy, Draco,” he said, not accusingly, because he did not want the boy to become too involved in his stirring thoughts of rebellion. He knew what the matter was now. Draco’s pride had been stung by being treated like a lesser partner in this—relationship, and that meant Severus had to soothe it again. “Potter can sense our emotions, or at least know certain things, through the bond. That means that he would know if we were to pretend respect.”

Draco snorted and folded his arms. “But what about outwardly? And—and you can’t tell me that you didn’t notice the change in the steel mountain that you feel about him a while ago.”

“You speak so eloquently,” Severus murmured, and watched in satisfaction as Draco flushed and flinched in the same moment. “Perhaps if you were to tell me what you think is the matter in more coherent terms, I would be able to tell you if I had noticed something or not.”

“It was right after the pull,” Draco said. “I noticed the top of Potter’s steel mountain was blunted. You didn’t?”

The disbelief in his voice made Severus hesitate. Should he be angry that Draco was insulting him, or proud that the boy thought so well of him as not to believe that he wouldn’t notice such a change right away?

For the moment, Severus closed his eyes and sought out the image of the mountain in his mind, giving it a critical survey. He nodded slowly. He supposed the mountain did look rather different, now that he thought of it. Dimpled, or crumpled. He had not known there was anything that could dent Potter’s stubbornness like that, but whatever it was, he approved of it.

“Perhaps we should be glad of it,” he said, opening his eyes again. “Perhaps Potter will be more prone to work with us now.”

Draco’s mouth opened, but an owl settled at the table before he could respond. Giving Severus a dark look—as if he were responsible for the small feathers the bird scattered everywhere as it arrived—Draco untied the message from the owl’s leg and began to devour it with his eyes, a fork still poised in front of his nose.

“Perhaps you can tell me what it says, since it is obviously from Potter, and I am involved in this bond as well,” Severus pointed out, when long moments had passed with no sign of that happening.

Draco twisted his lip at him and swallowed the bite on his fork, then put it down with a clang that seemed to shake far more than the table, although Severus knew, rationally, that it should not have shaken even that. “I’m tempted not to,” Draco said. “Because it would serve you right for being such a bastard about Potter. But I suspect Potter would want me to, since this also involves you.” He gave Severus such a look of loathing that Severus frowned, and held out the letter.

Severus skimmed it. It seemed to be a deal of nonsense, but did contain the information that Potter’s ribs had been cracked—ridiculous, a simple injury to heal—and that he was looking up information on magical creature bonds to try and break this one.

Severus slammed the letter down. “It is nonsensical of him to try and break the bond when he has no idea what it is!” he snarled.

“I quite agree.”

Severus twisted his head around. The guilt in the back of his head had dimmed oddly, as though Draco had turned off lights that had been shining on it, and Draco was kicked back with one leg elevated, a posture Severus had not seen for years. Draco also had his plate propped on his stomach and was eating with every evidence of enjoyment, something he almost never did. He wasn’t dribbling, Severus noted, to be fair.

But he did not want to be fair. “If you agree, why do you sound as if you are opposing me?” he asked sharply.

“It’s ridiculous of him—if he could have any notion that his bondmates wanted to help him.” Draco tilted his chair back in towards the table and put the plate on it. He had finished all his food, Severus noted, for the first time since the ritual circle. “But he doesn’t. The only one he’s had a meeting with is you, and you behaved abominably.”

“He is Potter,” Severus said, taken aback. Did Draco believe that he would have behaved better if he was the one who had gone to meet Potter? With the history between them? The notion made Severus want to laugh and heave, both at the same time.

“He’s the person whom we raped.”

Having the word turned on him made Severus flinch, but only in surprise. He charged in the next moment, to clear Draco’s mind of any notion that he might have won the advantage in this round. “Yes, he is. Which means that the ritual is a powerful one, because of the virgin sacrifice, and a dangerous one. Potter would be well-advised not to try breaking it on his own.”

“What made him think he had to?” Draco pointed his fork at Severus. “We did.”

“I am glad to hear you assign yourself some role in the play,” Severus sneered, too shaken to be as graceful with the words as he wanted to be. “Did you think that he would think kindly of you?”

“Right now, he thinks more kindly of me than of you. He even invites me to correspond with him.” Draco picked up the letter and smiled at Severus. Severus wanted to snarl, but he understood too well. Draco was most alive with opposition, with someone who didn’t want to do something, or blamed him. He had shown that with Potter all those years. He had been terrified when he was working to save his parents from the Dark Lord, but active. And now Severus had become the opposing party. That had been what Draco needed to shake him out of his apathy.

“You keep saying that I need to face up to the reality of what happened,” Draco told him, leaning close enough that Severus could feel his breath, if not smell it. “I’m doing that. Are you?”

And he spun and strode fluidly from the room, with a grace Severus usually thought reserved for himself.

Severus stared blindly at his food. Then he shoved the table back hard enough to make house-elves appear and squeak in dismay, and went into his lab, where there were more things to break.

*

Draco Apparated to the coordinates that Potter had given him in his latest letter, and looked around cautiously. It seemed to be a simple grassy field, but Draco had the strong impression it might once have been more than that, for Potter to know the place. Everything in his life had to be connected with the danger of the Dark Lord somehow, didn’t it?

But for now, the place was plain and lovely. A few birds wandered on the ground, and Draco stirred up leaves as he walked under the mostly-dead trees. He stood under the tallest one, as Potter had told him to, and waited.

“Malfoy.”

Draco started and spun around. Potter was walking towards him. He stopped a precise fifteen feet away from Draco and stood there, regarding him. The steel mountain in the back of Draco’s mind was as straight-topped and unbending as if it had never been broken.

Draco shook his head a little and started towards Potter. Potter’s wand immediately snapped out and pointed at him. “Don’t,” Potter hissed, as if he hurt.

“What, you want us to shout to each other across this field?” Draco asked in incredulity. Someone could come by and hear them, either wizard or Muggle, both of which would be disastrous for different reasons. He wondered that Potter was willing to risk it.

“That’s close enough,” said Potter, and his eyes were fixed on Draco with such a complex of emotions that Draco gave up trying to parse them. The steel mountain didn’t really help him much in that regard. Everything there was the same shade of hard and cold and metallic.

“Okay,” Draco said, reckoning he could understand some things without needing them explained, and stood still. Potter didn’t lower his wand, but did shift his weight from one leg to the other, which Draco reckoned meant progress.

“So,” Potter said. “In your last letter you said it’s not a good idea to experiment with ways to break the bond. Why not?”

“Because it’s the same thing as trying to treat a serious disease with Pepper-Up,” Draco said. He had spent a few hours thinking of that comparison, and was disappointed when Potter did nothing but raise an eyebrow. “I mean it, Potter. We have no idea what kind of bond this is. Yes, maybe it’s not that strong and you can make it disappear with a ritual that you dream up five minutes before you fall asleep. But anything that breaks your ribs is serious.”

“Cracks them,” Potter corrected.

“Right,” said Draco, unimpressed in spite of his resolve to try and appear nicer. It seemed to him that Potter used that same steel determination he had used to survive the ritual on everything, and Draco wasn’t actually sure if that was the best course. “Anyway, Potter, my point is that we don’t know what we’re messing around with. The best course would be to study it together, and not make any sudden moves.”

A dry little noise filled the air, actually making Draco look around for a minute to see who else was moving through the fallen leaves. Then he turned back, and saw with some incredulity that Potter was laughing.

“You’re talking about it like it’s an animal,” Potter said, waving a hand at Draco when he looked inquiringly at him. Inquiringly, and hard, Draco reckoned. Well, he wasn’t about to simply let Potter plunge through this without an explanation. “It’s not. It’s a goddamn bloody bond, one I don’t want, and I’m going to end it.”

“Now who’s talking about it like it’s a living thing?” Draco folded his arms. “Whether you want it or not, Potter, Severus and I are in this with you, and that means we get a vote on how to dispose of it—”

He took a step backwards. There was no doing anything else before the lambent fury in Potter’s eyes.

“Oh, you get a vote, do you?” Potter asked, and he was breathing hard enough that Draco was stunned that the leaves by his feet didn’t get up and fly.

“Potter,” Draco whispered, shaking his head a little. “What—what—”

“You don’t get a bloody vote,” Potter said. His voice had plunged into a low snarl that Draco knew he would be hearing in the back of his sleep for a long, long time. “Snape has said that he won’t help me. Even if I wanted to listen to you, that rather tortures the whole idea of working together to death, don’t you think?”

“I can talk Severus around,” Draco promised, while wondering if that was actually true. Severus had spent most of the past several days, during which Potter and Draco had exchanged letters, in his lab. “He’s offended at me, too, right now, but that will pass. And then we can figure out the solution together.”

“I’ve been talking to you because you helped me and because Hermione thinks I should.” Potter’s eyes flashed, and so did the steel mountain in the back of Draco’s head, brightly enough to make him dizzy. “Not because of anything else. I don’t like you. I don’t want you around.”

“I know,” Draco said. “But you can tolerate our presence for long enough to break the bond, surely? What were you planning to do if you didn’t have us?”

“Use effigies of you,” Potter said coolly. “I’m told that they’re most effective with hair and toenail clippings attached, by one who ought to know.”

Granger, Draco was instinctively sure, but he stared at Potter in appalled silence anyway, until Potter snapped, “What?” and Draco had to ignore the temptation to Apparate away.

“That’s dangerous Dark magic,” Draco whispered. “If something goes wrong during the modified ritual and it harms the effigies, we could be harmed because of their connection to us.”

Potter didn’t answer. He just stood there, eyes wide and dark, and Draco took a deep breath and plunged ahead.

“Would it really be so bad, trying to work with Severus?” He heard the wheedling tone in his voice, and winced. He hated sounding that way, especially when he had been so confident and at ease with himself these last few days, but it did often seem to be his fate around Potter. “I mean—we have to be able to trust each other sometime.”

“I trusted you once,” Potter said. “I trusted you both to get through the ritual, and not make it so bad. And since then, I’ve put up with more and more than a person ever should from their—”

He stopped. Draco had been prepared to wince from the words that he knew must come next, but Potter just stood there and stared at him, as though Draco was the one who had refused to do what he had to do, and not the other way around. Draco shook his head, not understanding, and finally said, “Rapists?”

Potter spat at him, a big wad that made Draco flinch back. By the time he looked up again, Potter had already Apparated.

Well, that was useless, Draco thought, at first, as he Apparated back home himself, and glanced at the closed door of Severus’s lab as he walked past it. He would wait a while to tell him about the meeting, because Severus would gloat that neither of them had been successful, and Draco didn’t really want to listen to him talking about that right now.

But his mind remained on the puzzle, playing with it, connecting it with the thought he had had before, about Potter’s steely determination not being the best way to face everything, and by the time he sat down in the library with books in front of him again, he thought he understood.

Potter wanted to bull through everything—the ritual, the sacrifice, the rape, finding a way to break the bond. But that meant he was unable to stop or slow down, or he would have to do some thinking, maybe even make an effort to adjust himself and feel.

Draco nodded. Potter hadn’t been allowing himself to think of the rape in any terms except his own disgust and hatred of Draco and Severus, because he thought that would make him weak. Or weaken.

Draco hesitated a long time before he did what he had thought of next. But in the end, the worst that would happen was Potter sending back a Howler, and he already hated Draco. There was the faint, faint chance that this might make a difference.

I’m sorry, Draco wrote out, and waited a long few minutes to see if more inspiration would occur to him. In the end, it didn’t, so he just added, I wish things could have been different, because we did suffer, but you suffered more, and went up to the Owlery. 

The steel mountain glittered in the back of his head as Draco watched the bird fly out of sight.

*

I’ m sorry. I wish things could have been different, because we did suffer, but you suffered more.

The words made Harry feel as though the air in his throat had frozen. He tore the note to tiny strips, and then cast Reparo on it so that the pieces of paper would fly together and he could watch as the note settled back on the table. He hugged himself with both arms and paced back and forth in the Black library. Ron and Hermione had gone home hours ago, taking books with them. 

They would soothe him if they were here. Or they would say—

Harry let out a choked laugh and collapsed into the chair that he’d sat in for so many hours over the last few days while he and Hermione worked on modifying the bond-breaking ritual. It was impossible that she would understand the way that Malfoy’s words made Harry feel. She would talk hopefully about an apology and reconciliation and how that meant Harry’s rapists weren’t so terrible, after all.

There. He’d thought the word.

It seemed to crash into him like a hawk with talons of steel, but Harry frankly didn’t care. He would face up to the word, and master it, and put it behind him, because it was ridiculous that he could be unmanned by a mere two syllables.

Unmanned, the way he had been when they put their hands all over him and he’d had to feel them inside him—

Harry gagged. He managed to Summon a basin to the library before he threw up, thank Merlin, because he knew he would never make it to one of Grimmauld Place’s bathrooms before he did.

And that was ridiculous, too. Harry wasn’t weak. He ought to be able to control his throat and tongue, to keep the vomit down, and his legs, to make them walk straight beneath him instead of wobble, if that was what he wanted. He was—he was being defeated by a merereflex. It was daft.

He would not be. He would not. He would not.

He felt the determination settle deep into him, and he slammed the determination at the problem, the way he had thrown his will into the bargain with the bond. He was still here. He was still sane. He wouldn’t be the child that Snape wanted him to be, or the victim that Malfoy wanted him to be, or the raped virgin that his friends saw, someone too tiny-hearted even to have had sex before this.

Harry flung himself to his feet. He was going to prove what he was, what he chose to be, what he had bargained with the bond to be.

He was going to be an Auror.

And that meant he had a job that was more important right now than modifying any bloody bonding ritual, or spending time with his bondmates, or whatever Hermione would have thought he should do if she saw him right now. He had a traitor in the Aurors to find.

Harry turned, and ignored the wrench in the middle of his chest. It wasn’t that big, it wasn’t painful, and it was soon over. It was probably the bond reacting to his decision. That didn’t matter. He wouldn’t allow it to matter.

There was no choice but to go on. Otherwise, he might as well curl up and let his brains leak out his ears under the pressure of his terror, the way that the Lestranges had wanted to happen.

He took one step—

And a silent explosion shook him, so hard that his first thought was that someone had Apparated through the wards and into his house the way that Rabastan and Rodolphus had attacked the safehouse. He looked around, wildly.

The explosion came from inside him, as Harry discovered a moment later when a distinct shredding sensation tore down the middle of his chest. He looked down, and clothes and skin had been ripped open, as though someone had taken a knife and simply parted both of them at once. 

The pain came a moment after that.

Harry fell to the floor and curled up around it, his wand clutched in his hand. He forced the words of spells that would replenish his blood and keep him from bleeding to death between his clenched teeth. He could not yet manage the spell that would close the wound permanently, or the one that would keep him from staining the carpet, but he kept his mind furiously on the words that he could remember, and the will to force them out.

He had fought the bond before and won. He would win this time.

He descended into a maelstrom of pain, and then the same ripping started in the middle of his back and he descended into blackness.

Chapter Text

Draco was dozing when he felt as though someone had reached down and pulled on his entire ribcage, trying to lift it out of his body. He gasped and sat up. If that was anything of what Potter had felt when he was in the thrall of the bond, Draco couldn’t understand how he’d borne it.

This wasn’t exactly painful, but the sensation repeated, and Draco grimaced and stumbled away from the couch that he’d chosen in front of the fire. Something was wrong with Potter, or the bond more generally. It could have been Severus, but Draco reached out, and found the bitterness in his head like three cups of tea, still unchanged.

And when he looked at the mountain of steel, it was smaller and duller than he’d ever seen.

Draco grimaced and shook his head. “Severus!” he called. Below, he heard the pop that signified a Malfoy house-elf had heard his call and was taking the message to the person it was intended for.

He still had to wait several minutes, in which the giant hand snatched at him twice more, before Severus walked up the stairs. “Yes, what is it, Draco?” he asked, only the deepening darkness in the back of Draco’s mind showing that he resented the interruption. “Do you have reason to scold me for my behavior as regards the bond again?”

“Yes, actually,” Draco said. He’d cast a Summoning Charm while he waited, and now several potions settled into his hand, including draughts that would reduce pain and replenish blood. He ignored the narrowing of Severus’s eyes as he shrank them and put them in his pockets. If Severus found this annoying, then he was welcome to start brewing and providing potions for Potter at any time. “I think Potter is in trouble.”

“I have noticed nothing,” Severus said, and then went green and pressed a hand to his heart.

When he had his breath back from the latest bout of discomfort tearing through him, Draco raised his eyebrows. “Of course not,” he said. “Forgive me for presuming.”

Severus scowled at him, but reluctantly said, “Very well. How do you propose that we find Potter? He is probably behind wards, and we could not Apparate directly there.”

Draco watched him for just a second, wanting to ask if he was joking, but the sensation surged through him again, and he decided the moment was too urgent to waste playing silly game. He held out his hand for Severus’s. “We find him using the bond, of course. It certainly seems to want to tug us to him, doesn’t it?”

Severus drew back with a revolted expression on his face. Draco privately thought it more suited to the dissection of Flobberworms than discussion of their bond. “If we do that, then it will strengthen and bind us closer still.”

“And that would be so much worse than having it kill us,” Draco said, rolling his eyes. Severus opened his mouth, probably to protest that, but this time Draco didn’t wait for permission, and simply grabbed his hand. “I think if we think as hard as we can of Potter, and concentrate on the steel mountain in our minds, then we’ll go there.”

“What a plan to trust our safety to,” Severus sneered, but when Draco looked at him sternly, he closed his eyes. Draco fell into his own mind in response and reached out, towards the mountain peak he had spent so much time contemplating and cursing in the last fortnight.

There was a shudder that didn’t rival the ones that had consumed Draco’s ribcage in strength or intensity, but was quite strange enough on its own. Then their feet lifted from the ground, and for a second Draco thought they were traveling towards a whole range made of the steel peaks. He wondered if it was too late to draw back and admit to Severus that this had been a stupid idea. He had no desire to go there.

But the spin stopped, and the vision of peaks faded. Draco opened his eyes and saw that they stood in a library, with a low fire on the hearth and so many books open on the tables that he was surprised said tables could support them all.

And on the floor lay Potter, drenched in so much blood that Draco’s throat closed up.

Severus broke away from him and raced over to kneel beside Potter. Draco shook the horrible visions of being accused of Potter’s murder out of his head and followed, dropping to his knees behind Severus and unshrinking the potions he’d brought. Severus was already holding out his hand commandingly for them.

“What happened to him?” Draco whispered. He supposed that the bond could have tried to remove Potter’s ribs, too, but he saw no gleam of bone, only that blood.

Severus started to answer, but his words were overcome by a sound like cloth ripping. Heavy cloth. Draco stared as a wound opened down the middle of Potter’s back, as if an impossibly strong hand had simply reached out and torn one piece of skin from the other.

Draco closed his eyes. Little bursts of light were starting to flash in front of his eyes. He had seen some awful things during the war, but they were the results of spells that he could anticipate and deal with. This was—he had never seen anything like this.

“Draco.” Severus’s voice was harsh enough to echo through all the places in his mind, the normal ones and the ones touched by the bond, and bring him back to himself. “We have no time for you to faint. Give me the Blood-Replenishing Potion and Pain Draughts.”

“I already did,” Draco muttered, but he knew what Severus meant. He sorted through the potions and found the strongest ones of both kinds that he possessed. He handed them over, and Severus tilted Potter back and waved his wand. The vials emptied, the levels of color in them shrinking steadily. Draco knew that he had spelled them into Potter’s stomach or bloodstream, as appropriate.

Draco swallowed and forced himself to look at the wounds. It wouldn’t do much good to replace Potter’s blood if he just kept losing it again. He knew by the drawn expression on Severus’s face that he was thinking the same thing.

“Why is the bond punishing him when he was the one who made the sacrifice to it in the first place?” Draco whispered.

“We all made the sacrifice,” Severus corrected him, but not with the sharp tone he’d been using in the last few days. Draco was almost relieved to make out the slow way his eyes blinked, the cold look in them as they rested on Potter. Severus being academically intrigued meant they might save Potter’s life, and their own through him; Severus pursued all his academic passions with fanatical intent. “But we were the instruments of taking it, while Potter offered it. And I think—you might have noticed that the bond is trying to force us together.”

Draco held back the incredulous laughter he wanted to give, and simply nodded. He didn’t understand where Severus was going, but for the moment, no more wounds had ripped open on Potter, and he was breathing a little easier, although he showed no signs of returning to consciousness.

“Because he could be passive,” Severus continued, picking his words carefully, “he did not—participate in the moment the way we did. It took enormous strength and courage to hold on the way he did.” Draco gaped at hearing Severus praise Potter, but Severus did not look at him. “But he was not as active as—we were.”

“In raping him,” Draco said. He didn’t know exactly why he said the words. Severus hadn’t fled from the knowledge of his own guilt the way Draco had. But he said them anyway.

Severus glared at him fiercely, but nodded. “He also has that determination to get past the bond and go on with his life, symbolized by the steel mountain in our minds. It is greater than ours. I believe the bond is demanding more of a sign of commitment from him, more participation of some kind.”

“So how do we help him do that?” Draco stared down at Potter and shook his head. “He’s not even conscious right now. I don’t see how the bond can expect him to do anything.”

Severus grimaced and drew his wand. “If I use Legilimency on him, perhaps I can reach him and convince him to—become closer to the bond in some way. To stop resenting it?” Draco could not remember the last time he had heard Severus frame something like this as a question. “I am not sure, but it may be the best chance.”

Draco leaned over and put his hand on Severus’s wrist, ignoring the way Severus looked at him. “If you rape his mind the way we raped his body,” he said, “then the chance that he’ll ever trust us again goes down.”

“Will you stop using that word?

And Draco couldn’t remember the last time he had heard Severus’s voice rise like that, either. He chose to take it for a positive sign, that he had at last pulled Severus out of his self-imposed isolation and made him consider the consequences of their actions. Potter wasn’t the only one who could get injured ignoring the bond. “Let’s try something else. We may be able to wake him without resorting to Legilimency or spells.”

“How?” Severus lowered his wand, but still studied Potter’s body through narrow eyes, as though he had caused every single problem by not dying when he was supposed to.

“Through the bond.” Draco had to admit to a bit of perverse enjoyment as he gestured with his hand, the way he had when he wanted both of them to be transported to Potter’s side at the same time. “Join with me, Severus.”

There was heat in the glare Severus fixed on him as he clasped Draco’s hand, but it was the heat of wrath, not desire. Draco supposed, as he bowed his head and fixed his attention once again on the mountain in his mind, that he would have to live with that.

*

Harry stared around. He was drifting in the middle of a mass of rose and orange and gold that resembled a sunset sky, if a particularly fine one. He shook his head. He had no idea what he was doing, or where he was.

He remembered bleeding onto the library floor from sudden wounds. Then he had been here.

Then he grimaced. Of course; he should have thought of it before. The bond. It had probably brought him here, and meant to use this as some kind of mental prison until he yielded and did what it wanted. Probably lay down like a whore for Malfoy and Snape again, he decided. He folded his arms and turned his back on the sunset sky, as much as he could, when it seemed to stretch everywhere around him.

Then he floated in the opposite direction, and blinked. Here was something new: a triangular mountain that seemed to be made of pure steel, rising to such a point that Harry was surprised anything could live on it. Or maybe nothing did. When he pushed with his will, he drifted towards it, and he had to remind himself that this place was just part of his imagination, his mind, a convenient place for the bond to store him while it tried to manipulate him.

Only when he got closer did he feel the sense of familiarity the mountain was giving off. If he put his hand out, he would feel a thrumming magic through it, he thought, and that magic would be his own. This was the way that his part of the bond appeared in Snape’s and Malfoy’s minds, he was sure of it.

Harry smiled. He was pleased to think that his determination was like this. Perhaps they would give up on their silly attempts to make him submit soon and leave him in peace.

Potter!

And then again, perhaps not, Harry thought crossly, turning in the direction of the call. It had filled his mind, but it also seemed to echo around the sky. Well, that would make sense, if the sky was his mind. Harry shook his head in silent refusal and leaned back against the mountain. It was cold and comforting. If he slouched, it would teach his spine how to straighten.

Potter, stop being stupid. While the first call hadn’t seemed to have emotion or gender or inflection, this one had Malfoy’s whine to it. If you don’t come out of this coma that the bond’s put you in, you’ll die. You’ve already lost lots of blood, and we can’t be sure that more wounds won’t rip open.

Harry sneered a little. “You lot don’t care about anything I’m suffering,” he said aloud. Perhaps he could communicate with them silently, the way they were speaking to him, but he didn’t want to. It felt too intimate, and he had already been more intimate with them than he ever wanted to be again. “You’re concerned because the bond might kill you, too, and you don’t want to die.”

Is that any different from what you feel? Malfoy’s voice a second time, although more mature than Harry had heard it so far. You wanted to bargain with the bond so much because you wanted to live and be a good Auror. You told me that yourself. But if you die in this coma, haven’t you abandoned everything you fought for? 

Harry snarled and drew his spine back along the mountain, reminding himself. The absolute cold, the utter chill, was what he needed, seeping into his skin through the simple touch. “I would rather die than submit to you!”

We are not asking for submission, said a voice that sounded like Snape’s, although Harry had no idea why. He had never heard the man so exquisitely neutral. He supposed it was natural to think that it was him, though, when only two people would be here speaking to him, and he had already heard Malfoy. We are asking for agreement. Your survival instinct. Acceptance.

Harry flung back his head and spoke as loudly as he could, so that they could hear him, even behind the clouds as they apparently were. “I will never accept anything that you could offer me.”

Even the chance of survival? Malfoy again, and Harry thought the bastard was working as hard as he could to sound neutral, too. With us, you stand a chance of researching the bond and finding out what it is and dissolving it. Without us, you don’t. 

Harry wanted to pace, but he thought that would weaken his stance and his chances. He took a breath deep enough to qualify as a shout by itself, and spoke between gritted teeth. “I was going to use effigies in the ritual, I told you. And I don’t fucking care about the danger to you. You didn’t care about what I felt when you raped me.”

There. Now he could admit what had happened to him to the people who had done it to him. Hermione would be proud, he decided, still staring straight up into the sky, where he had decided that the voices came from with the lack of any evidence to the contrary. 

I’m sorry for that, said Malfoy’s voice, solemnly. I know it doesn’t make much difference, but I am. And for you to conduct that ritual, effigies or not, you’ll have to come out of the coma. You can’t until you accept this.

Harry snorted bitterly. “How do you suggest I do that? I’ve already made as much progress towards it as I’m capable of.”

No, said Snape’s voice, dust-soft and dry. I don’t think you have.

“Yes, of course you would think that.” Harry spread his hands. “I’m waiting for suggestions.”

The voices were silent. Harry smiled and turned back towards the steel mountain. He should have known it. In a crisis, they were useless. He was the one who had to take the active part, while they trailed uselessly along after him like seaweed clinging to a fish’s tail.

He studied the steel mountain for a moment. The shine of it did seem to be dimming, dulling. Harry frowned. If it represented his determination, why was that happening? He didn’t feel any less stubborn about surviving and going on the way he had been. The opposite, if anything.

Then he nodded, understanding. If he lay in a coma, the way that Snape and Malfoy claimed and which made sense, then the shine of the mountain would be fading because his life was. If he wanted to survive, Malfoy was right about that much. He would have to find a way to end the wounds and the unconsciousness.

He laid his hands on the steel and closed his eyes. Maybe it made no difference, since this mindscape was as unreal as the mountain itself, but it let him isolate himself more in the darkness and bind himself more to the mountain. So he would continue doing it for right now.

The soft thrum of the magic through the mountain grew more persistent, and Harry listened to it. This was the same power, the same will, that had let him survive a bond intent on binding him to two other people and making his brain drip out his ears. No one else in history had ever done that, as far as he knew. Surviving the kind of telepathic bond between two people that the Aurors had tried to use was hard enough, never mind the ruined one created when the Lestranges had rolled him across the ritual circle.

If he had lived through that, then he deserved to live through the consequences of the bond, without succumbing to them.

Harry smiled a little. He did think that he knew a way to live, and Snape and Malfoy would have to accept it if they didn’t want to face the consequences—whatever those might be—of the bond after he died. But neither would like it.

He had to admit, he thought as he reached out for their minds, that added to his amusement.

*

Severus studied Potter’s body through half-lidded eyes, content to know that he was not revealing his emotions to Draco, but content with nothing else.

Why did the bond inflict such damage on Potter? Severus still thought his theory was the right one, and the bond wanted to punish Potter for holding back from them and being a passive partner. But the wounds were counterproductive. Potter could not interact with them from a sickbed, or if he was dead. Perhaps the bond simply preferred his death to the level of holding himself back from them that he was doing right now.

There were times when Severus could have admitted that he had the same preferences. But not now.

Potter was irritating. But Severus could admire the effort he had put forth to spare them from the full effects of the bond. That was nothing less than heroic, if driven by guilt and sheer love of survival rather than any esteem for them as people.

The problem was, Severus did not want any heroes. Not now, and not ever again.

You have one.

Severus thought he was imagining the voice at first. There had been no contact with Potter since he had cut off Draco’s attempt to reach down the bond. Draco was still brooding about that, his eyes distant, but he jerked his head up now and turned it in several directions like a startled deer. Severus caught his gaze, and he winced and nodded. Severus had taught him how important dignity was in any situation.

Not that I want to be your hero either, Potter’s voice continued, light and bright as the radiance flashing off the steel mountain in Severus’s mind. But it seems that I’m in that position. You can share some of the burden, though, and repay some of the debt.

“How?” Draco croaked back, aloud. Severus was about to scold him for not speaking mentally when Potter’s next response made it perfectly obvious that he could hear them.

Submit to me.

Severus felt the full force of his negation flow away from him and down the bond. Potter didn’t fight it or try to convince him. He simply turned away from Severus, a sensation like the mountain itself turning its back, and faced Draco.

Draco licked his lips. His face was like parchment, but his voice was both soft and steady. “You want us to let you rape us?”

Such disgust from Potter that Severus choked on it. He could see why the bitterness that represented him in Draco’s mind made Draco complain about the taste of his food, if it was anything like what he felt now.

No, Potter snapped. I’m not talking about rape. I’m talking about the way that I gave myself to you, gave my body to you and my virginity, to use as you liked. I need to climb out of this coma, but I need mental strength. I want you to give it to me and let me use it, instead of me pulling it away from you. That’s doing something active that the bond should approve of.

Severus spat, and didn’t care that it landed on the floor of Potter’s precious library. This was the same theory that Severus had come up with, about active and passive partners in the bond, but turned, horribly, the wrong way round and inside out. Severus did not want to think about what this would do to him, and sent his refusal flowing back again.

But then he realized that, although he could hear Potter’s words, the pronoun “you” could be both singular and plural, and Potter had only been talking to Draco. That was obvious from the way that the beam of light pouring from the mountain pointed.

Draco, who closed his eyes and nodded, bowing his head, reaching out with one hand as though he could stir Potter’s to life by clasping it.

No, said Potter, with gentleness that made Severus clench his hands in his lap. Just let me take it. Even raising your hand might be a little too active for the bond.

Draco nodded again, and relaxed back against the floor. A second later, his back arched, and his breath caught. Severus wondered what in the world could be pleasant about what must be like bleeding himself—

And then he caught the edge, the barest edge, of what it meant for Potter to sweep through Draco like sunlight and claim power willingly given, and the glow off the mountain of steel grew impossibly bright, and Severus ground his nails into his palms and his palms into his legs.

Potter opened his eyes, blinked at the ceiling like someone caught dreaming, and turned his head. The wounds in his back and chest were already knitting, skin writhing back together in a process that Severus tried to make himself study, so that he would understand it better later, and could not make himself.

“Thank you,” Potter told Draco, reaching out to claim his hand. Draco blinked his eyes open and stared at Potter. “I don’t know if that will be the end of the bond punishing me, but I think it’ll make it a lot easier to both appease the bond and do what we need to do to get rid of it.”

Neither of them appeared to notice when Severus got up and stormed out of the room.

Chapter Text

“You can go home,” Harry said, when he looked up and saw Malfoy striding down the stairs. Snape had already gone somewhere else. Harry didn’t care where. He would have the wards of Grimmauld Place find him and kick him out as soon as he had finished eating. Luckily, Kreacher had sensed his mood and served him almost raw steak that Harry could tear at with his teeth.

“You’re sure you’re all right?” Malfoy stood in the doorway of the kitchen eying him. It reminded Harry a bit of the way that some members of the Order of the Phoenix used to watch him, and he smiled sourly, swallowing. Some things passed down the years, like thinking Harry Potter was mental.

“I’m as all right as I’m going to get,” he said. “Leave some of the Blood-Replenishing Potions and I’ll be fine in three hours.”

Malfoy seemed to close his mouth hard on a question, but Harry didn’t care what it was, and kept eating. Malfoy finally nodded and turned around as though Snape would be looming up behind him because he willed it so. “Where did Severus go?”

Harry concentrated a second on the back of his mind that glowed and hissed and churned like the world’s weirdest teakettle with Snape’s emotions. “He’s trying to do some research on the bond, I think,” he said. “So that would mean back into the library upstairs, or the one down that corridor.” He flung his hand out and pointed, a little disgusted that his certainty came from the bond rather than his knowledge of the plan of Number Twelve.

Malfoy nodded without comment and turned to walk away. Harry frowned at his back, then sighed and added, “Thank you for cooperating with me to save my life.”

“It was all our lives,” Malfoy said over his shoulder. “Helping you wasn’t a selfless act. I would think Severus would see that by now.”

Harry raised his eyebrows, but didn’t respond, not sure that Malfoy would want him to. He watched him leave instead, and took another bite of steak. Perhaps Malfoy was getting exasperated with Snape as much as Harry. Well, Harry would leave him to talk Snape around. He would be better at it, anyway.

In the meantime, Harry had more clues to the nature of the bond. It wasn’t every bond that could take someone into their own mind like that and provide mental communication between different minds. He would owl Hermione with the clues and give her free rein to investigate them.

In the meantime, he had an investigation of his own to conduct. Malfoy had succeeded in reminding him of one of the major reasons why he had wanted to survive: to be a good Auror. And right now, that meant finding the traitor. That would be his means of revenge, all legal and right, if undercover.

Harry’s hand tightened on his fork, and he had a long moment of wrestling with himself before he could calm back down.

He didn’t care about all the shit that Snape and Malfoy might inflict on him in the future. He wanted the bond gone, but he saw now that he had been wrong to make that his overriding goal. It was still letting the bond control his life if he struggled against nothing but it, and thought of nothing but how much he hated it.

In the meantime, he could punish the people who had inflicted this bond on him, even if not directly, by finding the Auror who had betrayed the safehouse to the Lestranges. And that might lead him to the Lestranges.

Harry laughed a little in his throat as he tore into the rest of his steak. Wouldn’t it be amusing if his tactics, the ones he had learned from training and not the natural cunning that Slytherins valued so much, were to lead him to the vengeance Snape and Malfoy wanted?

*

Severus heard Draco enter the library behind him, but he did not look up from the book that he held in front of him. It was a fascinating Dark Arts book, one Severus had heard of. However, he had assumed that every copy had been destroyed long ago. Trust the Blacks to have preserved one for themselves, he thought.

“Severus.”

He hunched over further and didn’t turn around. That was the tactic that had kept Draco out for days and days, while Severus remained in his potions lab and Draco drifted between library and dining room and bedroom. It ought to have the same success here, without Severus needing to do much.

But Draco sat down and reached across the table and took his book away. It was so neatly done that Severus simply looked at him speechlessly, and by that time, the book was back on the shelf.

“We have to talk,” said Draco evenly, and folded his hands. Severus knew that was to keep them from shaking, but that didn’t make him feel better. He leaned forwards and pressed down on the scowl. Draco winced. “Are you going to listen to what I think is the theory behind the bond, or are you going to sulk like a child?”

“Someone who survived what I did could never be called a child,” Severus growled back, and Draco sneered at him, a move so unexpected that Severus could only blink.

“Of course not,” Draco said. “Except when he acts like a child. You said that you thought Harry had to submit to us again. Well, you were right. The bond likes active and passive partners. But it likes to alternate. Harry was the one who had to be the active partner this time. Why were you so opposed to lending him your strength when it proved your theory right?”

Severus struggled with the words, but only because he did not believe Draco did not know them already, and did not intend to spare him the ordeal of speaking. Draco watched him without motion and without sound, though, and so Severus had to do the work.

As always. 

But the memory of Draco arching as Potter stole his strength played across his mind again, and Severus knew that had been a moment when he had left the labor up to someone else. It did not sweeten his temper.

“I cannot submit to anyone. I did when it was required as a matter of survival, and as a result of my own stupid choices.” He did not touch the Dark Mark on his arm. That, at least, was something Draco could be expected to understand, since he bore his own. “But since the end of the war, I do not do it. And this was not something I chose. It was something that was forced on me by the Lestranges.”

Draco met his gaze with harsh eyes. “Do you think Harry chose it any more than you did?”

Severus closed his eyes. He did not like discussing what the brat had done. It created too many notions of a debt he could never repay. “I cannot submit. It is against my nature.”

“I think it’s against Harry’s, too,” Draco said. The shock of really noticing that he was calling Potter by his first name made Severus open his eyes. Draco leaned forwards and spoke, practically into his face. “Or so that mountain of steel in the back of our minds says, unless you think that’s a sign of a yielding nature, somehow.”

Severus snarled at him, but shook his head reluctantly. He knew it was not. “But he still chose it,” he said. 

“He chose to make submission into a weapon,” said Draco, and there was an odd emotion in the back of his voice that Severus promised himself he would analyze later, when he had the chance. “It shows what he can do what he has a mind to it, and it shows where we would have been if he hadn’t had the presence of mind to do it.” His eyes sparked at Severus again. “Why can’t you do the same thing?”

“Have presence of mind?”

“Turn submission into a weapon.”

Severus shook his head. “I find my weapons in other things.” He did not sound as impressive as he wanted to, not from the glare Draco leveled at him. “For example, I find it in my intellect, and the research that I can conduct on my own to find the nature of the bond.”

“How can you do that if you don’t know anything about the place that Harry found himself in, within his mind?” Draco asked.

“You discussed it after I left,” Severus said. He did not know why this revelation made his lips feel numb. He eased back in his chair, rubbing them, and not looking away from Draco. It was the best way he knew of to bring Draco back under his thrall again, and make him see what nonsense he had been spouting. 

“Yes,” Draco said. He still looked fearless, or at least fearless compared to the way he had looked in the last few weeks. He didn’t back away from Severus, who was sure that his eyes could crack the table. “And I won’t tell you unless you agree that we need to work together to make this bond—end, or transform, or weaken, or do whatever we can do.”

“I hardly think Potter would agree to work with me.” That was not an admission that Severus wanted to make, either, but if he could use it as a weapon against Draco, he would. Nothing was too small to be used to pry Draco’s reaching hands loose and drive him away.

“No, he wouldn’t,” Draco agreed, wrongfooting him again, for long enough that Severus didn’t speak before Draco got his next word in. “I meant that you and I ought to work together, and spare Harry what work we can.”

“Is it your guilt that drives you to this?” Severus demanded. “You ought to know that Potter will hardly give you what you require, the absolving of your guilt. He has made it clear what he thinks of us.”

Draco snorted. “Yes, he’s made it clear. But I can hope that I’ll ease some of his burden, and I don’t think he wants to spend much more time on the bond, at least not with us. I recognized the look on his face. He has a new goal, one he can drive straight at, and the bond doesn’t represent that.”

“How can you possibly think that you can read a mountain?” Severus asked. “It is blank, cold steel, and nothing more.”

“I said I could read his face.” Draco gave him an endless look, deepening until Severus looked away. He hated that admission of weakness, but once again Draco continued speaking, giving him no ability to reply to it. “I know him well enough to realize what he’s thinking, some of the time. Not all the time, not the subtle nuances, but there’s no subtlety to the way that he prepares to go after enemies.”

“When did you ever spend enough time around him to know that?” Severus hissed to the books on the shelves.

“We all have,” said Draco, tired now, from the sound. The guilt in the back of Severus’s mind had almost dimmed out of existence, but so far nothing seemed to be replacing it. “It was a matter of survival to learn to read his face, for the same—but opposite—reason that we learned to read the Dark Lord’s.”

“I do not have this gift that you cite,” said Severus, still staring at the books.

“I don’t claim it as a gift,” said Draco. “An ability that anyone who went through the war, even someone who did as a child, should have. You could do it too, if you weren’t so determined to see a useless projection of your suffering in a mirror made of stale vomit instead.”

Severus whirled around, outraged. The look in Draco’s eyes made him wordless.

“Grow up, Severus,” Draco said, walking out of the library. “And come with. We’re leaving.”

*

“Please tell us if you need anything.”

Harry held back the retort he wanted to make, and inclined his head instead. Malfoy was mistaken if he thought Harry would go to him whimpering because the bond hurt him a little, but Harry had to acknowledge that he couldn’t have come out of that coma earlier without Malfoy’s help. “I will. Tell you.”

Malfoy seemed to accept the change in the pronoun without comment; at least, no knowledge that he disagreed appeared in the back of Harry’s head. Malfoy stepped out the front door of Grimmauld Place, a few books that Harry had told him he could borrow under his arms. If he took over the task of researching the bond while Harry sought the traitor among the Aurors, then he would need the books more than Harry did, anyway.

“Potter.”

Harry let his head turn to consider Snape, but only because the man stood right beside him and showed no signs of following Malfoy out the door until Harry did. Harry bared his teeth, mildly. Snape still looked wary. Good. He should. Harry’s baring of teeth was only mild compared to what he would have liked to do.

“You’ve made it clear that we have nothing to talk about, Snape,” Harry replied. “Get out.”

“I would like,” Snape began, and then let his voice trail off, probably because he saw no sign of belief in Harry’s face. There wasn’t. Like fuck Harry was going to believe that Snape was willing to do anything to work with him. For a moment, they stood there in silence, and then Harry stepped out of the way with exaggerated care and bowed Snape through the door.

Snape snarled a little, the fingers of his left hand folding in towards his palm. “It doesn’t trouble you that we need to find a solution to this bond and you won’t talk to me?” he asked.

“It troubles me that I asked you to submit to me to bring me out of a coma, and you wouldn’t,” Harry replied. He struggled with the urge to say more, to say it in a sharper tone, and then shook his head. The only time his so-called bondmates needed to matter to him was when he needed their help. Right now, he didn’t need it, and that made it a matter of importance not to create artificial emotional tangles between him and Snape. “That shows me that you don’t give two shits about what I want, about any of it. If you won’t help me when I’m in danger of death and you likewise, why would you help me at any other time?”

Snape watched him with alien eyes. Harry thought there might have been a little softening in them, but if so, Snape still wouldn’t speak the words, and Harry didn’t intend to yield one inch of ground.

“I am somewhat an expert in seeking revenge,” Snape said at last. “If you find yourself in need of that expertise, talk to me.” And he brushed past Harry and out the door, although like Harry, he was careful that they didn’t touch.

Harry held back a snort with difficulty as he watched Snape leave. Right, of course. Snape wanted to take revenge on the Lestranges, and that meant he would help Harry with something—that mattered more to Snape than Harry.

But who cared? Malfoy was the one who had reminded him of what was really important, what he had chosen to live for.

And it would be satisfying to prove that he could catch the people who had betrayed them with good Auror work, the kind he had been trained for, not the Dark methods that Snape probably used. Potions based on blood. Calling out Dark magical creatures and compelling them to track the Lestranges down. Curses that would warp the mind and make the Lestranges return to the safehouse or the place they had tortured Harry to gloat.

Harry shook his head. He knew about all those methods because they had been taught about them in Auror training, to recognize them and know what to avoid. They were more alien to him, now, than the thought of wanting to apologize.

He sat down and reached for the ink and parchment Kreacher had left on the table earlier. He would make a list of everyone in the Auror Department who could possibly have known about the wards, and work on eliminating some people from there.

He would do it alone, to get back to the moment when he could work with Ron again, and be a normal Auror. He would put this behind him, only dealing with the bond when it flared up, like a disease. That was the best way to handle it.

*

Draco locked himself in the library when they got home. He knew that Severus would probably try to talk to him, and he didn’t want that. Partially because Severus was being childish, of course, and if he didn’t want to talk to Potter and meet him at an equal level, then he could fuck off. Draco would talk to him in the morning if he was any more rational then. 

Given that it’s Potter, he might not be.

Draco took a harsh breath and closed his eyes. He accepted that, but he still needed time and distance from Severus to deal with it.

And to deal with what else had happened.

Severus hadn’t said a word about the moment when Potter had pulled on Draco’s strength, and Potter hadn’t, either. Potter probably didn’t know what it was like for Draco from the inside, only what it was like from inside his, Potter’s, own body. That made Draco forgive him for what he had done so far.

It didn’t make the feeling that had seared him when Potter drew on the bond to replenish his strength from Draco’s easier to live with, though.

That had been purest pleasure.

If sunlight could fry a human, then Draco might have believed that was what he felt. As it was, he had no idea if sunlight could fry a human or not, so he didn’t know if he should compare it to that.

But that had been what it was like. Standing in the middle of intense light, of trembling warmth that he knew could burn hotter any moment and consume him, and wondering what it would take from him next, wondering if it would consume him while he stood there gape-mouthed in the wonder of what he felt.

Draco believed in what he had told Severus. They would have to work on the bond with Potter to have the slightest ability to conquer it. That was why he had taken the Dark Arts books from the Black library.

But he also wanted to sit there and hold, to himself, the pleasure, and the desire that he had to experience it again.

And the knowledge that Potter’s submission to them in the moment of the rape, however necessary and even used by Potter against the bond itself, had not been at all a pleasant experience. It was Draco who had benefited the most from the bond. Severus was pretending his sanity was not a great enough prize to be going on with, and Potter…

Draco closed his eyes.

Potter would probably tell him that he was letting it affect him too much, Draco decided. Potter didn’t seem to care about anything except the best way to survive this and tracking down the traitor in the Aurors. The pain mattered to him, but he didn’t think about it. He could put it aside. And it was his pain. That meant Draco should be able to do much the same thing. Wasn’t it kind of presumptuous to pity Potter based on his pain, when he had survived and seemed to discard every sign of the agony?

Draco swallowed. He felt that way anyway. Potter need never know it, would probably be irritated if Draco tried to talk to him about it, but Draco couldn’t help the way he felt.

He looked at the books he had taken from the Black library and folded his arms. Potter had spoken of modifying a bond-breaking ritual by putting effigies, or people, in place of the traditional Veela and unwanted mate. As far as Draco understood it from the limited hints Potter had dropped, it would work because it would stretch the bond out of place and confuse it. The bond didn’t like people shuffling roles or taking each other’s places, Potter had said.

But that was exactly what they’d had to do to pull Potter out of his coma. Which meant they could switch places.

Draco didn’t mean to offer himself up as a body for Potter to rape, but he wanted to see if he could take Potter’s place as the sacrifice sometimes, for some days, or at least the next time the bond wanted someone to punish. If they spread it out among them, then they were more likely to survive. Potter simply couldn’t bear the punishment every time.

He sighed and reached for a book. This would be easier with Severus, but Draco wasn’t going to have his help any time soon, so he’d better get started. 

*

Severus stared down at the notes on the page in front of him, then shut his eyes and rested his forehead in his hands. 

Based on what Potter had said about the way the bond had pulled him into his mind, and the way that it had also let them communicate with each other when Potter, at least, was unconscious and couldn’t hear them with his ears, Severus had thought he might be able to hunt the bond down. And he had.

And now there was less hope than ever.

He slammed the book hard enough to make the vials on his shelves rattle.

Chapter Text

Harry twitched his head irritably. He could feel Snape's and Malfoy's emotions more than ever now, as if they were flows of water moving inside his ears. The bond seemed to have decided that their--well, one of them--pulling him out of his coma was an excuse to strengthen the sensations he got from them.

"Auror Potter? Are you quite all right?"

Harry immediately focused back on the man in front of him. He didn't think Erasmus Johnson was likely to have been the Auror who betrayed him; he was a supervisor who manifestly preferred working behind a desk to working in the field. But he had many vital contacts with other Aurors who were Harry's suspects. "Yes," he said. "You should know that I got a head injury during the raid. Concussion, you know. That leaves me still feeling as though I have phantom pains in my skull sometimes."

Johnson made a sympathetic face and shifted in his chair as he reached out for a piece of parchment on the edge of the desk. He was related to Angelina, some sort of great-uncle or something, but Harry could see the flicker in his eyes. He loved gossip. He would spread that tale about the head injury around, and that meant Harry could count on a fairly regular diet of pitying glances and excuses made for him.

Good. In this hunt, Harry would need something that could cover strange behavior.

"Oh, dear," Johnson breathed as he fastened his eyes on the piece of parchment, which was apparently a memo. He swallowed and looked up at Harry, then back at the memo. Johnson wasn't that good an actor, and Harry's attention sharpened. "I--I'm afraid that I have a meeting with the Minister I didn't know about, Auror Potter," Johnson said, standing up and wincing a little as the edge of the desk caught his thigh. "But I'll be happy to talk to you about your efforts to strengthen wards some more later."

Harry gave him a polite smile. That was his excuse for talking to Johnson: that he wanted to know how to strengthen the wards around safehouses in case something like this ever happened again. "Thank you, Auror Johnson. I'll see you tomorrow, perhaps?"

He waited until Johnson had nodded and limped out of the room, rubbing a little at his thigh. Then Harry Disillusioned himself and went after him.

Disillusionment was hard in the Auror Department, as it was in most parts of the Ministry, with so many people walking through and not inclined to dodge someone they couldn't see. What made it uniquely hard here was the tendency of sharp, trained Auror eyes to focus on the little ripples of movement and color against the walls and decide that someone was indeed Disillusioning themselves, and they need to Stun first and ask questions later.

But Harry, along with most of the trainees in his class, had mastered the big, loose-limbed stride that would speed him along after his target without making the spell over him shimmer all that much, or in eye-catching motions that looked like a human body moving. He managed to get to the Minister's door just as Johnson stepped inside and shut the door behind him. Anti-eavesdropping wards engaged with a small crackle.

Harry dropped to one knee beside the wards and lifted his wand until it hovered just an inch or so from them. This was the other good part about spending so much time in the Black library. He knew some of those charms for dispelling wards that had been banned as part of Dark Arts, but then been entirely forgotten by most Aurors because they weren't the big and harmful kinds of Dark Arts that they ran into on the job.

Should you be eavesdropping on the Minister? his Hermione-conscience asked him.

It's necessary, Harry's own conscience answered to shut it up, and he whispered the charm.

The charm opened a tiny channel in the wards, allowing passage for Harry's wand, and then his body, and his ears. It was too small for the wards to notice, the same way they wouldn't react if a fly and not a human being was to land on the door. Harry cast the other charm, and the wards opened the other way, permitting sound to come to him.

He could hear the conversation clearly now. The Minister trusted in the strength of his wards, and he and Johnson weren't making any attempt to keep their voices down.

"You don't think that anyone will take us to task for this, then?" That was Johnson's voice, and he sounded low and relieved. From the creaking noise Harry heard next, he was leaning back in his chair.

"They have no reason to do so." Minister Leaping's voice was low and precise. Harry thought he was a good Minister in the sense that he kept a finger on the pulse of politics, but then again, someone that intimately involved with politics had to have his dark sides, too. "There is no sign that Auror Potter is courting the press with respect to his injuries."

Harry bit his lip to keep from laughing hysterically. Of course he wasn't. He had no idea how much the Minister knew about those "injuries," but shit, even if Harry had been willing to report on them, why would he have been willing to tell someone he had been raped?

"Good," Johnson said. "I have to admit, I was--well, worried that someone would accuse us of not taking the right precautions with Auror Potter's safety."

Harry shifted just a little closer to the door, checking the tingling state of the wards around him and down the corridor with one eye. The wards still hummed with no sign of noticing him, and no one was coming.

"Auror Potter was undertaking the duty of any other Auror," Leaping said. "A risky duty that he knew might end up with him locked in combat. The Lestranges are dab hands at torture, as well. He fully knew the risks, was fully informed of them."

Harry thought of the shower of thoughts in the back of his head, and refrained from snorting. He certainly hadn't been informed of the risk of ending up bonded to the two idiots he was guarding.

But no one else had known about that, either. That was the problem, Harry thought. Unless he could find the traitor in the Aurors who had actually betrayed the wards to Rabastan and Rodolphus, he had no one to blame. No one had known that what was going to happen with the ritual circle could happen.

"As you say, sir," said Johnson, a little unsteadily. "But what about these rumors that he can't return to work for a month, yet?"

"Kingsley says that's as much for his protection as for that of other people." Harry could almost hear the way Leaping waved his hand. "Because he is too close to the case at the moment, and inclined to poke around the Ministry."

"He can't!"

Harry narrowed his eyes and snuggled closer to the door. That's an interesting note of panic in your voice there, Johnson.

"I know that," said Leaping. "There is too much corruption here that he would feel himself bound to take note of. I know that we have a great asset in Auror Potter, but we need him out in the field, catching criminals and Death Eaters the way that he's shown he knows how to do best, not snooping around for who knows what."

Harry felt his muscles relax a little. All right. It seems that the Minister is just worried about ordinary corruption and bribery--business as usual in the Ministry. That doesn't excuse him from some guilty knowledge, but maybe not the same kind that Johnson has.

"Right, sir." Yes, Johnson didn't sound much reassured by that.

"If Potter was going to make himself into a martyr over this, he would have by now," Leaping continued, his voice quiet and slower even than usual. "If he isn't doing it right now, he won't. That means that I would appreciate you not contacting me about this again."

For a wild moment, Harry felt tempted to tell everyone about the bond. If that was what it would take to unsettle the Minister, the Ministry, Johnson, everyone else who was worried for some reason that he would investigate internally...

And then he shook his head and slid away from the door, murmuring the charms that would close the wards behind him with no sign that they had ever been broken. No. That was the kind of temptation that the bond itself offered, the whisper in the back of his head that things would be easier if he gave in to Snape and Malfoy and worked with them to find research.

He had the ability to resist. He had the ability to do only what he wanted, and he would take it. He would be a good Auror, and he would track down the man or woman who had betrayed him, and turn them in. Then he would go back to being a regular Auror, Ron's partner. It was the sum total of his ambitions.

Let there be corruption in the Ministry. There probably always would be. Harry was more interested in investigating Johnson's panic at the mention of his name than in investigating Leaping's dismissal of his torture.

And since Johnson hadn't come out of the Minister's office and would probably be in the meeting a good while longer, this was the perfect time to go back and learn what he could from the papers on Johnson's desk.

*

"Out with it."

Severus started slightly and looked up from his end of the table. Draco had ignored him through most of the two courses the house-elves had thought it appropriate to serve so far, and Severus had presumed the ignoring would go on until the end of dinner. That was fine with him. He would brood some more about what he had discovered, and then retreat into the library or the lab again and brood some more. Probably the lab, since Draco seemed to have established himself in the library.

"What do you mean?" Severus asked, when he saw the way Draco leaned forwards and supported his jaw on his fist, as though the clenched weight of it was too much to bear on his own.

"I know that you found something earlier," Draco said, and shook his head. "The flood of bitterness in my head...it was like being drowned in tea that hadn't been prepared properly. What was it?"

"I found nothing." Severus was an accomplished liar, and he thought he could bring this one off, too, despite the short notice. "I was reflecting on what could be done to snap the bond easily, and realized it was nothing." He shoved his plate back from him and stood up from the table with what he thought a convincing show of frustration. "Unless you find something, I am afraid that we will be subject to Potter's--"

"Bollocks."

Severus jerked around. "Excuse me?" he asked, his voice deepening. Even now, with their relationship as teacher and student long behind them, Draco did not say such words to him casually.

"I said, bollocks." Draco's face was mottled with a flush, and he rose to his feet and leaned forwards, his fists braced on the table. Perhaps he didn't say it casually, Severus decided, with his heart going so fast that it seemed to be its own separate entity. "I know that it was more than that. I've felt your bitterness about this before, right before you told me you were feeling it. This was different. Deeper. Why?"

The thread of Severus's patience snapped. Perhaps, after all, Draco should share and understand his hopelessness.

"Accio Paths Through the Mind," he snapped, and his hand shot out as the book winged its way from the lab into his fingers. He spent a moment flipping his way through the pages, then nodded and turned it around, tapping the passage he had found earlier.

Draco bent over the table to read it. Severus had to turn away. He didn't want to watch the neutral expression on Draco's face right now, the intent effort to understand that he was all too familiar with. He wanted to hear the moment when Draco exploded with rage.

Among other things, it might enable Severus to once again understand the flitting pool of emotions at the back of his mind, which had been guilt and still had not settled into any configuration of color or feeling that he recognized.

"Wait, I don't understand," Draco said slowly at last, in a voice still thicker and calmer than Severus wanted to hear. "What is bad about this?"

Severus turned around, his hands locked behind his back and his face locked into its mask. He would explode if he tried to express emotion except through his voice, he thought. Draco had taken the exact wrong view on the information involved, as Severus might have known he would. "You do not understand?" he hissed. "You do not understand why I would not welcome a bond that could do this?"

"No." Draco laid his fingers on the page as if the information would run away and looked up. "Because this says that a bond that traps someone in a mental place like the one Harry described means that we can use it. For more than just raping someone or knowing what they're feeling." Draco's face shone. "We can use it to travel through ourselves, to gain self-knowledge, to analyze our actions objectively! That's what the book says." He thumped the tome like a proud parent, as if Severus had not read it. "How long have I wanted something like that? You know what I've felt about too many of my actions since the war. Sometimes I get so paralyzed with indecision that I don't do a bloody thing. If there was a way of knowing that something was right because I could look at it from the outside--"

"I would welcome a bond like that ordinarily," Severus interrupted, his throat aching. It had gone wrong. He did not understand how it could have, when Draco ought to have agreed with him and been on his side, but it had. "But how can you say that you will want it? Now?"

Draco stared at him blankly. "Obviously the bond isn't that way yet, but the book says that it will be. And you were clever to think of looking up the effects instead of concentrating on the origin. Obviously, none of the books that we have here would tell us about it, since the origin of it is so unusual, but it might as well be identical to the bonds that this book describes because of what it can do--"

"You imbecile," Severus whispered, leaning so close that Draco blinked and shut up. "To get any of the good effects of the bond, to travel the roads through our minds and analyze our actions, to link together telepathically, to even form a place in our minds to which we can bring others and torment them as we wish, we will have to work with Potter."

Draco's face momentarily hardened. Then, so quickly that Severus could not have stopped him even if he had known what was coming, he backhanded Severus.

Severus staggered, hissing with pain, and raised one hand to his cheek. It felt as though Draco had scored it with acid, rather than the simple backs of his fingers. Severus could tell the skin would be turning a stinging red color from the slap, and could feel his blood still jumping in shock.

"Here." Draco conjured a mirror and tossed it at him. Severus hardly fumbled it out of the air before it would have broken and crashed.

He could see his own face, cheeks red, eyes wide and surprised.

"Who's the imbecile here?" Draco asked, his voice as flat as the mirror. "The one who works to gain the nearly unlimited power of a bond like this and swallows an old distaste for a school rival? Or the one who rejects it, and the bond altogether, and sulks as though there's some way out of it because he hates that school rival?"

"Potter is the son of my school rival," Severus corrected him, the acid now feeling as if it had sunk down his throat. Potter had turned even Draco against him? Was there no limit to the power that idiot had and should not possess? "I have held a justified grudge against him for more years than you can imagine."

"And James Potter has been dead almost as long as I've been alive!" Draco yelled. His face was finally turning blotchy and pink, but not for any reason that Severus wanted to see. He picked up Paths of the Mind and glared at Severus in near-hatred. "If you don't want to give up that fucking bloody grudge of yours, fine, but it's a bloody stupid grudge, if you'll let it stand in your way of living with the bond and making it a path to power. And I never thought you preferred revenge to power, before this."

Draco stalked off with the book. Severus stared into the mirror, and saw no answers there. At least, no answers that didn't come down to Potter's luck in making people loyal to him when they should have been loyal to Severus.

Make that all the Potters. Severus could still see the moment when Lily had turned away from him and walked into James Potter's arms...

He cast the mirror into the corner, where it shattered.

*

Harry paced slowly around his library. He had his hands clasped together behind his back, and his face locked in a permanent scowl. He supposed Hermione wouldn't like to see that, but it was better than the near-frantic pacing he'd been doing earlier.

Every now and again, he cast a glare at the memo he'd found on Johnson's desk, now lying in copied form on his own library table.

At last, he gave up on the notion of calming down, and came over to sit at the table and regard the memo.

It was nothing much, but neither was it the reminder of the meeting for the Minister that Harry had assumed it would be, because of what Johnson had said immediately after reading it. It was, instead, his name, Johnson's full name, and the words beneath that, Shut him down for good.

If Johnson knew nothing, Harry reasoned to himself as he'd reasoned at least five times since he found the memo and copied it, then the memo meant nothing. So he had to know something.

But on the other hand, Harry was very sure that there wasn't some huge network of Aurors who knew that he was hunting the traitor responsible for tipping off the Lestranges. That meant there would also be a huge network of Aurors out there who knew about the traitor in the first place, and that might imply they knew other things--

Harry felt as if he was growing fangs. The desire to rip into people who knew about the rape and Obliviate them was that strong.

But then he shook his head. He didn't want people to know, but the Healer and Kingsley and his friends did, and if he could survive them knowing, he would survive if the knowledge spread to a larger group. He had to keep his mind on his goal, not be distracted by smaller things. How could he use this memo to trace back the link from Johnson to the traitor, or at least someone else who knew the traitor's identity?

Harry came up with a few wild plans that included comparing the handwriting on the memo to the handwriting on every other memo in the Department, using Legilimency on Johnson, and asking Malfoy for help. Ugh, he was desperate if he was sinking to that level.

In the end, he elected to use a tactic that he and Ron had used in the past when they had a criminal who was so cautious that it was hard to find clues to their lair and no particular reason to move fast: light a fire under them. Harry leaned back and studied the memo carefully, and then began to imitate the letters.

It was hard, because he wasn't able to use one of the charms that would simply disguise his own writing to look like the hand on the memo; the sample of letters was too small. And he didn't want to give himself away by an obvious fake, either. But at last, he managed to compose a message that he thought would do it. Once again, it bore his name and Johnson's name, and then the message, Find me.

Harry nodded. He would release it to Johnson, arrange to be nearby when Johnson found it, and then see what he would do. Even a panicked memo back in return would be valuable. Harry knew a few tricks that would let him track a memo through the Department, though he had only used them when desperate.

Then again, he reminded himself, he had considered Malfoy's help.

"Harry?"

Harry turned around. Hermione's face was in the fire, and she looked so upset that Harry gestured for her to come through. He had no idea what was wrong, but he might learn more by talking to her face-to-face rather than trying to manage a Floo call.

Hermione slammed a book down on the table beside the copied memo and Harry's new one, making them both flutter to the floor. Harry unobtrusively picked them both up and slid them out of the way. No one needed to know what he was doing, not right now. He wanted to hunt on his own, and that was what he was going to do.

"What is it?" he asked, staring down at the book Hermione had banged on the table. Paths of the Mind. The title meant nothing to him.

Hermione, her eyes filled with tears, opened it to a marked page and gestured. Harry bent down to read.

A specific indicator of this bond is the presence of sunset colors in a bond member's mind when he delves into it. He will find himself in a landscape that contains a representation of himself and a sunset sky all around him. The representation is usually symbolic, and has consisted of...

Harry skimmed past that. He knew well, from years of dealing with Hermione, that it wasn't what she had wanted him to read.

This bond is among the most powerful of the path-bonds. It permits, among other things, the bond member to judge his actions from an objective distance and see them as though committed by someone else he has no interest in. It permits self-knowledge by allowing him to travel through his own memories as if he was a skilled Legilimens reading another's mind. In the more determined and those with stronger bonds, it has even permitted telepathic communication between bond members and physical travel, by the bond members creating roads in their minds to a desired destination and all walking mentally along them. This destination, unlike Apparition coordinates, does not need to be known before the walk begins.

Harry recoiled a little. He had thought, instantly, of one place he would like to be able to find: the Lestranges' current lair. But then sense and thought had come back to him, and he turned to face Hermione.

"You're afraid that they'll want to continue the bond and use it for its power," he said flatly.

Hermione, clutching a hank of hair, nodded once.

"I won't permit it," Harry said.

"But they'll insist," Hermione said, her eyes still overly bright. "And they'll hurt you more. And I don't want that."

Harry caught her hands, and then decided that wasn't enough and hugged her. "I won't permit it," he whispered, again, into her ear. "It doesn't matter how much they might want it. I'm going to break this bond. I'm going to defend myself against this. I promise you."

Hermione shivered in his arms. "I'm just worried," she whispered.

Harry laughed, softly, coldly. He had never heard himself laugh like that before, but then again, he had never felt like this before, either. "And you don't know what I mean when I say that I'm determined to prevent them from hurting me again."

It will not happen. They will never have anything willing from me.

Chapter Text

Draco told himself, as he watched the owl fly away, that he wasn't a bloody schoolgirl. He had no reason to stand here twittering to himself and being nervous over a perfectly acceptable letter. He had no reason even to be nervous of Harry's reaction. Harry had shown himself content to avoid Draco so far, except in moments of extreme need.

But am I going to be content to let him avoid me anymore?

Draco reckoned his letter--which included the copied passage from the book Severus had shown him, and an explanation of its significance, and an invitation to meet and discuss the bond further--showed he wouldn't. He only hoped that Potter took that in the spirit it was meant.

He bit his lip anxiously and turned away from the window. He had sent the owl, and there was no getting it back. Harry, Potter, whatever name Draco should call him, would have the information now, and he could choose to respond any way he wanted. Draco would have to sit back and await results.

*

The potion boiled over, drops of transparent liquid cascading down the side of the cauldron to end up on the floor.

Severus bowed his head and stood there in silence for a time. Then he cleaned up the cauldron and the failed potion alike with one flick of his wand, and took his seat on the chair near the lab's window, staring out. At the moment, the view from the enchanted window showed what was probably close to the real one, a white peacock dancing around a white peahen in the Manor's gardens and spreading his tail.

If I had the power of the bond, I could analyze my hatred for Potter from a distance and figure out how much is deserved and how much isn't.

Severus closed his eyes. When he raised one hand, he could feel the stinging from the slap Draco had given him still on his cheek, and when he reached back along the bond in his mind, he could encounter the weight of the steel mountain, the heavy shimmering patch of emotions that were Draco's hope--bright pink--and his anxiety--bright yellow.

Even those colors reminded him of what the book had said about the sunset place in Potter's mind, and how it proved what bond they had.

Severus opened his eyes slowly. He had never attempted to be objective about Potter. During the war, his duty required only that he hold his feelings in enough check to be going on with, and since the war, he had avoided him. Was it not enough that he had helped his worst enemy's son to survive?

Lily's son.

Lily's virgin son, whom he had raped, who had manipulated the bond and the situation in which he became a virgin sacrifice with a precision and strength and clarity that Severus could only admire from a distance. If Draco had done it, if any of his former Slytherin students had managed it, he would have sent a letter expressing unqualified admiration and readiness to help.

But Potter...

Severus bowed his head. He did not care what Potter and Draco might be feeling through the bond right now. Draco might feel an increase in bitterness, but based on his words to Severus yesterday, he did not know exactly what that increase signified. And Potter would know, but he was not here to torment Severus, and he would likely not care.

Severus had thought his rage was deserved, that his hatred was deserved, that he was being the most rational one about the bond, in his own stubborn way. They would never be able to work together. Why try? It was ridiculous, nonsensical, a waste of time.

But now he had allowed it to infect his brewing.

He should not have done that. Nothing had ever done that, not the height of the war, not the stress of the year he had spent as Hogwarts Headmaster. Potions had always been his escape and his art, never touched by the outside world.

Now that it had been, he had to admit that he might have made a mistake. If he could not have the clarity of mind needed to pursue his art, then fleeing from the bond would provide no refuge.

Severus opened his eyes and gazed out the window again. The peacock was pecking mildly at the grass, with no sign of the peahen. He did not know what had happened, whether they had mated or she had left because she was not interested.

He had to know some things, he decided at last. Retaining uncertainty until the end of his life was not acceptable, because the uncertainty would--once again--infect his potions. He stood up.

He felt the rippling clarity in the back of his mind resolve itself, at the same moment as the mountain behind it shot up to a new height. The sensation was so dizzying that Severus gasped and caught himself with his hands on the edge of the table. He wondered what had happened. That sensation was the strongest he had experienced through the bond, save only the moment when it had felt as if his ribs were attempting to leave through his chest wall.

But no answer came, and Severus frowned. He was left to rely on Draco or Potter themselves for news, and that was not acceptable.

And if he had found something that was not acceptable, then it was up to him to rectify it. One could not always depend on Draco to do the sensible thing, as his desire to submit to Potter proved, and one could never depend on Potter, who seemed as if he would have preferred to die rather than depend on them.

Severus left the lab with a rapid stride, and made his way towards the library.

*

Harry stared at the piece of parchment in his hand, light-headed with rage. Then he crumpled it up into a ball, tossed it into the air, and drew his wand.

Flames curled around the ball of paper in mid-flight. In seconds, it was gone, and even the ashes that were left caught fire. Harry sprayed his wand back and forth, spraying heat with it, absorbing what was left of it, the smallest and most insignificant parts, into the force of his own power.

He finally lowered his wand when he was convinced that no part of the letter remained to pollute the Black library. His hand was shaking.

He wanted to cry. He wanted to vomit. He wanted to do several things, most of which he would not permit himself to do, clamping his will around his lungs and his stomach and any other disobedient body parts.

In some ways, that bloody ritual circle was good for me, Harry decided, as he paced slowly back and forth and calmed down again. It taught me that there's nothing I can't do. Even work myself up to asking them for help when I have to. Even making them submit to me in turn.

But that would not be necessary this time, and he was privately appalled that Malfoy wanted more from him. He had thought Malfoy understood that he needed time. If he was willing to submit to Harry, then he should have been willing to leave him alone, whether he had found the same passage that Hermione had or not.

Then Harry remembered something, and smiled. Ineffective as he might have been when he tried to be a Death Eater, Malfoy was still a Slytherin. Power drew them like maggots to rotting meat. Of course he would "recommend" that Harry work with him to make the power of the bond a reality. He wouldn't want to do anything else once he read about what it might give him.

All they think of is what they can take, Harry thought, and kicked the leg of the table. It didn't move, but it hurt his toes, and he relished the burn of pain up his leg. Never what they can give. Or what they can fucking leave alone.

He folded his arms and closed his eyes. He had to decide whether he was going to respond to Malfoy right away or wait. And whether he was going to tell him that he'd already known the information Malfoy found, thanks to Hermione's research skills. And whether--

Then Harry opened his eyes. Why did he owe Malfoy anything, least of all a quick reply? Malfoy was the one who was reversing himself, moving away from the understanding Harry had thought was possible to a naked appeal for power.

He owed him nothing. He owed Snape nothing. They had raped him. Or they had been caught in a terrible situation with him and survived, if you wanted to take the view that made Harry not have a debt of revenge towards them, too. Either way, that didn't mean any of them had to have anything to do with each other afterwards.

Harry nodded. He wouldn't respond. Perhaps Malfoy would finally understand, that way, how little care Harry had for this bond and what he could get out of it. Perhaps he would even cooperate better when Harry wanted to destroy the bond, because that would mean he'd have given up on the notion of power.

The power could tempt me, if it wasn't for the consequences, Harry acknowledged to himself. The power to find the Lestranges and speak to people from a distance...

But only if they were people he trusted. That was never going to be the case, and in the meantime, it would distract him from his real goal.

He went back to planning ways to get near Johnson's office without being seen and release the memo, glad that he had destroyed the letter. That way, it couldn't even lie near him, taunting him with Malfoy's incredible thoughtlessness.

*

"Why did you send him that information?"

Draco leaned back in his chair and regarded Severus. "Why do you care one way or the other?" he asked. "You've made it obvious that you want nothing to do with Potter."

Severus lowered his eyes to his hands on the library table. Draco blinked. Well, that was better than he'd expected, or at least less full of shouting than he'd expected. Now to see whether Severus had really changed his mind, or if this was some odd ploy to soften Draco up or try to get him to be the one to approach Potter. Draco had no doubt Severus would want the power of the bond if there was some way to get it that didn't involve him dealing directly with Potter.

Draco wouldn't play liaison, though. The book had been clear: all the participants in the bond had to work together to acquire that much magic. It wouldn't work for two of them to be a unit and one to be on the outside.

"I spoiled a potion today," Severus said.

Draco waited, and waited for more. Then he said, "So what? Why would that be enough to make you change your mind?"

Severus left his head. "It was a Pepper-Up Potion," he said. "Not an experimental one."

Draco blinked. "And you've never spoiled an ordinary potion?" He knew a number of casualties, in the way of cauldrons and vials, were expected with experimental potions. He had thought that Severus would sometimes have an off day in the way that anyone else would, though, and ruin an ordinary one, too.

"Not since I became a Potions master."

Draco eyed him skeptically. Well, it was the sort of thing that might convince Severus. Draco just didn't think they could rely on it to convince anyone but him. Potter, for example, might scoff a bit.

"I do not want this bond." Severus's gaze was steady on Draco's face. "Even the power would only tempt me if there was an easier way of gaining it. But I do not like the person I have become in resisting it. Someone who spoils potions is not what I wish to be. I should have enough self-control not to do that, and I do not."

"There might be easier ways to become that kind of person who has self-control," Draco said, and waited.

Severus sneered at him, which at least proved he was still Severus and not some cheap copy created by a golem-maker. "Do you imagine that I have no conception of the difficulties? I know that I will suffer in terms of lost patience, and lost sleep, and attempts to convince Potter to listen to me when he has no reason to--"

"And you're not considering what Potter will suffer." Draco tapped his fingers on the table in front of Severus, sharply enough that Severus started. "That's the problem. You're so focused on what it would cost you, and the kinds of inconveniences that you would suffer, that you don't even think about what kinds of problems this would cause Harry."

"Can you not decide whether you will call him by his first or last name?" Severus sneered at him again, gathering the folds of his robes up, as though he expected Draco to snatch at them next. "It is distracting."

"Not half as distracting or distressing as you attempting to make the bond work when you haven't considered what the cost to Harry could be," Draco said.

"Why are you so worried about him?"

Rather than me, the bitterness in the back of his mind and the emphasis on that last word said. Draco rolled his eyes. "If we alienate him, then we make it harder than ever to survive the bond or reclaim it and make it work for us, or even break it. I don't expect you to understand that, since you seem determined to discount Potter from the equation entirely even when you're more open to working with him. It won't accomplish anything if you go in only thinking of what it will cost you."

Severus considered that, eyes flickering back and forth as though he was trying to see, without actually peering into Draco's thoughts, how much of this came from concern for Potter and how much for concern that the bond actually work. Draco gave him a nasty smile. Even if Severus had used Legilimency, he was unlikely to find that out, because Draco himself didn't know how to untangle his motivations.

"Let us say that I believe you," said Severus. Draco said nothing, but Severus frowned as though the way that the bond showed itself in his mind had changed. "Why should we make more than the minimum necessary effort to work with Potter? He has shown that he wants no kindness from us."

Draco bit his tongue to avoid saying something like, A sensible question, praise Merlin. "He accepted my help when it was that or die," he said. "I think we need to make a rational argument showing that it would be better for everyone in the long run, including him, if we can make the bond do what it was supposed to do. Ultimately, if he works with us in the short run, he won't need us around as much in the long run."

Severus grimaced. "That is unlikely, when the bond requires the three of us together to perform any powerful magic."

Draco shook his head. "We can learn how to manipulate it so that it doesn't. But that does mean working together more closely in the short term."

Severus eyed him sideways. "You discovered that? You do not merely hope that?"

"You didn't read the whole book." Draco reached across the table and poked Severus hard in the chest, making him sway and grunt, because he really was done with this. "And what do I have to hope for? Either associating with someone who cares more about his potions than me, or associating with someone who would rather die than let me help him."

Severus didn't flinch, but Draco thought that was because of long practice rather than because he wasn't hurt. Well, fuck him, anyway. Draco was doing what he had to do to survive. That didn't include sparing Severus's feelings.

It might include sparing Harry's.

But since Harry hadn't written back to him yet, Draco had no way of knowing that.

"Fine," Severus said. "But will Potter even believe me if I write some kind of conciliatory letter to him? I think him more likely to tear it up."

"I already took care of that," Draco said. "He hasn't returned an answer to my letter yet, but then again, I just sent it out. Let's wait and see what he does. If he doesn't respond, then we can decide who should communicate with him next, and what they should say. If he does, then we can take it from there."

"I would still prefer if you took over the task of speaking to him." Severus was grimacing. "I find being in his presence and being reminded of what I owe him--distasteful."

"And you don't even owe him any bloody life-debts." Draco smiled without humor when Severus's startled glance flicked towards him. "Listen. We both have to be willing to work with him if he says that he'll accept our help. It's no good just me saying that I'll be waiting. He knows that already, because I was the one who submitted to him when you didn't. You have to do it too, or he'll be sure that this is a ploy and reject it."

"He would never believe me if I said I was," said Severus.

Draco stood up. "The bond tells him more about our feelings and motivations and actions than it tells us about his. If you explain to him--at the appropriate time--about your desire to survive and be clear-minded enough to brew, he might not like it, but he might accept it."

"That would entail exposing myself to him," Severus said, and went on talking as Draco walked towards the library door without pausing. "Unforgivably."

"And you don't think we already saw an unforgivable amount of him?" Draco asked softly, and passed out of the room.

*

Harry took a silent breath. He wasn't going to get a better chance than this, and it was silly to wait around as if he was.

He opened his hand and breathed on the fake memo for luck, then let it go with the same spell that he would use to send one to anyone in the Ministry.

He was hiding down the corridor from Johnson's office, and the memo flittered through the half-open door and inside. Harry knew that Johnson was in there, doing paperwork, and currently alone. It might not matter much if he wasn't, but Harry wasn't about to take the chance.

There was silence after the slight crackle of opening paper. Harry waited, Disillusioned, his wand hanging comfortably in his hand. If Johnson tried to firecall someone instead, he would creep closer and listen. If he sent an owl, Harry would intercept it. But most people responded to a memo with either another memo or going to find the person who had sent it, which meant that Harry would lay good odds on this working out the way he wanted it to.

Then Johnson burst out of his office, his face pale, and ran past Harry, down the corridor in the direction of offices that generally contained lesser Ministry flunkies.

Interesting. Raising one eyebrow, Harry went after him, with the same loose-limbed stride that he'd used before to prevent anyone from noticing that someone under a Disillusionment Charm was passing them.

Johnson seemed to be counting doors when Harry caught up with him, his lips and his hands desperately shuffling. Harry frowned, still drifting. Did Johnson have a contact, a middleman, rather than a direct link to the person who had sent the memo? Well, fuck. That would mean more tracking, more time, more investment in a plan to try and catch whoever this was.

And Harry had been so counting on being able to spring his trap and get his vengeance sooner rather than later.

But Johnson at last came to a stop before a small door, took a deep breath, and knocked. Harry waited. Johnson waited. Finally he raised his fist and hammered hard enough to jounce the door and the wall and Harry, leaning against it. He hastily stood up in case sensitive wards registered some weight that shouldn't have been there.

The door opened. Johnson bent nearer, to someone whom Harry couldn't see, and whispered, "I need to see Morales as soon as possible."

Harry felt his heartbeat pick up. Yes, this was a middleman, but having a name made a difference. Morales. Heather Morales, one of the top Aurors in the Department, a strong candidate for either the Wizengamot or the Head Auror when Kingsley got tired of doing the job.

He didn't know of any grudge she had against him, but then, she might be only a link in the chain herself. Perhaps she would lead him to someone else, someone higher, whom he had pissed off.

Whatever the person in the office said, Johnson didn't like it. He shook his head. "I have to. She contacted me herself. Potter's getting too close!" The unseen face must have hushed him, because he nodded and lowered his voice in the next instant. "Please, I know. I just have to speak to her and determine what we should do next."

The unseen person murmured something this time, and Harry inched close enough to make out the words "...wants you to think that."

Johnson snorted and batted at his hair, as though pulling on it would ease his worries. "I don't think Potter is smart enough to have worked out who's plotting against him, much less anything else."

Harry rolled his eyes until they almost went back in his head. If they thought that he wasn't intelligent, why did they fear him?

He came closer again, inching around Johnson's back. He was almost at the angle where he could see who Johnson was talking to. That would be nice, give him another link in the chain, which probably led back beyond Morales, but might have other links and leads Harry wasn't aware of at the moment.

A ward blazed to life around him, while a blaring bell rang, and Harry nearly jumped. Then he fought down the instinct, and swirled to the side instead, as a silver cage of light tried to close around him. Shit.

The movement got him out of the cage, but not out of range of Johnson's wand. He'd cast in a wild panic, Harry thought, but better than Harry might have anticipated under the circumstances. Harry careered into the side of the Stunner, not enough to knock him out right away, but enough to fling him down and incapacitate him.

He heard footsteps and Johnson's voice murmuring, "Finite" to get rid of his Disillusionment, but he couldn't do anything other than blink and twitch his fingers a bit.

"Fuck," Johnson's voice said with feeling, a moment later.

"Yes, I know," said the person from the office. Harry couldn't roll his head to look at him, but he knew it was a man from the voice. "Well, that's torn it. He'll have to go to Morales now." He paused, then added, "Stun him again. He's not all the way out."

As Johnson raised his wand a second time, Harry called on all his strength and rolled his head a little.

The source of the man's voice revealed itself. Theodore Nott, from Slytherin, from Hogwarts.

Fucking Slytherins, Harry thought, his last thought before the Stunner slammed into him and he was gone.

Chapter Text

Harry opened his eyes, only to find out that made no difference. He still lay in the darkness, even when he fluttered his eyelids and turned his head from side to side.

There was a grating sound beside him which at least reassured him that his captors weren't using the Sensory Deprivation Charm, and Harry counted three inside his head and then tried to lash out in that direction. He caught what he believed was the edge of a kneecap before the man hissed and retreated.

The next second, he was convulsing under a Cruciatus that must have been nonverbal.

You've put up with worse pain, Harry thought, and closed his eyes. The bond trying to tear your ribs out of you, that was worse. You've done horribly, but you can bear this. You're not going to give them the satisfaction of screaming out. Or Snape and Malfoy the satisfaction of calling for help. All you can do is--

The curse ended suddenly, and another voice said, "What have I told you, John, about doing things like that? We'll get no value for him if he's damaged goods, and you were going to hold him under long enough to make him go insane."

Someone snarled and muttered back, but low enough that Harry couldn't make out the words. He remained determinedly peering into the darkness, and blinked sharply as a sudden light came into being on the end of a wand. The person holding the wand bent over and looked him in the face, dispassionately.

Harry didn't recognize her. She had a face like stone and hair like ice, at least in the color. She considered him with cool grey eyes that reminded Harry too much of Malfoy's. He would have bitten her on the nose if he'd had the strength.

"He seems to be all right," the woman said, and stood up, turning around to shake her head at the unseen man who had cast the Unforgivable. "Not thatyou can get much credit for that, John."

"Who are you?" Harry asked. He was impressed with himself that he had enough control over his tongue not to immediately start slurring the words.

"He speaks." The woman gave him a smile with quiet amusement in it, all the more infuriating because she didn't seem to apprehend any danger from Harry. "You might as well call me Ice. Everyone who doesn't already know my real name does." She reached out and seemed to feel down Harry's legs, which were alight with cramps, now, as well as the lingering remains of the Cruciatus. Harry concentrated on those details and decided he was bound to the floor with chains, which were themselves attached to large brackets in the floor. "You'll do," she said. "No broken bones, although the way they hauled you in here, there should have been." She cast a cool look over her shoulder, presumably at the people who had hauled him in here, or the unfortunate John. Someone else whinged without words.

"Why did you bring me here?" Harry asked.

"Oh, come, Auror Potter," Ice said, and turned back to him. "You should already know the answer to that."

"I got too close to the secret of who betrayed me to the Lestranges," Harry said, and watched her smile. It was a smile of the kind McGonagall used to give him for getting an answer right in class. It really, really made him wish that he could punch her in the solar plexus, even as it also filled him with a savage cold. 

"Yes, exactly," she said. "Although honestly, the way that they didn't keep their side of the bargain..." Ice clucked her tongue and stood up. "I suppose that we have no choice but to wait. The ritual won't be ready for at least three hours."

"What ritual?" Harry hated the way his voice skittered up, but he mastered it in the next second, biting his tongue. A small trickle of blood ran down the inside of his mouth as Ice answered.

"The ritual the Lestranges were supposed to complete on you, and didn't," she said, and moved away. "Never trust a crazy Death Eater. That's a lesson for my future self."

"What are you talking about?" Harry called after her, but she didn't turn around to speak to him, and given the sound of his voice and what he would have done in the same circumstances, Harry couldn't say that he blamed her.

He closed his eyes and fell into himself, concentrating on those bodily sensations that he had ignored before when he was mostly worried about the people right near him. He could feel the stiffness of his muscles, the cold, which told him that he had lain on this stone floor for a long time. He could feel the ache in the back of his head, which he had probably got when he fell onto the Ministry's floor from the Stunner. He could taste a fuzziness in his mouth that at least reassured him they hadn't poured any potions down his throat; this was the normal dry feeling that he got when he went without drinking water all night.

His eyes popped open when more lights began to move in front of them. Ice was walking around at the end of the large room, her wand lit, talking to a hulking man Harry thought might be John and other people he couldn't see. He listened, but didn't make out many words beyond "square" and "right this time."

What am I going to do? 

Hermione and Ron hadn't known where he was gone, Harry accepted, with a heartbeat like a drum in his chest and ears. They wouldn't know to start looking for Johnson, and they probably wouldn't know about Nott, either. If he had a chance to get a Patronus off...

But he didn't have his wand, and he hadn't had the chance before they had taken it away.

Snape and Malfoy? They might be able to communicate with me from a distance, if that information about the bond is right. 

Harry laughed aloud, and sensed how the shuffling movement at the far end of the room paused. Well, it was possible that he could play being mental and see where that got him.

Yeah, right. Even if I wanted to use that power, even if I was comfortable relying on them, we would all have to be together and concentrating for the bond to work right. Instead I have one person who wants the power but can't do it himself, and one person who doesn't want any more to do with me than I want to do with him.

Harry swallowed, sucked in breath through his nostrils, and nodded.

Besides, they raped me. I can do this without their help. I appeased the bond without their help--all except the last time.

His mind working grimly, Harry settled down to think about what he needed to do to escape.

*

Severus touched his wand to his throat and cast the Sonorus Charm. He had already looked for Draco in the library, the gardens, and his bedroom, and he refused to look for him all over a house as large as the Manor.

"Draco!" he shouted, so loudly that he heard the clang of something--probably one of those intolerable Malfoy busts--falling over in the distance, and the squeaking of dismayed house-elves as they clustered around it.

A door somewhere on the first floor opened, and Draco came to the balcony of the stairs to lean over and glare at him. "You know, Severus, when I invited you to stay here, I didn't actually mean for you to destroy my house," he began.

Severus ignored that. Nothing much was relevant right now except the weight in his head, which felt as if the steel mountain that represented Potter had fallen over. "You know that Potter is in danger?"

Draco went white and touched his head. "Is that what that was?" he muttered. "I thought I had a headache from dealing with you."

Severus ignored that statement, because he was more interested in stopping the pain and figuring out what was wrong with Potter so that it would stop, and only jerked his head towards the door. "Perhaps we should go to him. Hesitating when there was this level of pain will only lead to more severe trouble later on." He held out his arm, and after a moment, Draco came down the stairs, frowning, and took it.

"He still hasn't written back to me," Draco mumbled. "He might look on what we're doing as an intrusion."

"And if he has fallen and hit his head on the table, then I will apologize," Severus said, with a sneer in his voice that he didn't bother to conceal. "But for the moment, we are going to him, because this headache makes it impossible for me to brew." He shut his eyes and groped out for the bond. It shimmered in the back of his mind like a slug's trail.

"It's always about you and what you can do with your potions, isn't it?" Draco asked, with a sneer of his own.

"If you think that Potter is being less selfish about his work as an Auror, then I would like you to provide me with proof," Severus said.

Draco opened his mouth, but then the bond took over, and their feet left the ground. A second later, Severus sensed that they had come into a darker place, and there was the shocked silence that meant there had been human noise a short time before.

He cast a Fog Charm around them and pulled Draco with him, ducking down, in the moments before the first curses flew.

Of course Potter would have got himself taken prisoner between now and the last time we spoke, Severus thought, shaking his head as he dragged Draco towards the right until they hit a wall. The Fog Charm was resistant to the Finite, which meant they had a few seconds, until someone remembered the exact countercharm to get rid of it. When does he do anything else than get himself into unfortunate scrapes? 

Draco was pulling against his hold. Severus let him go, because he had to concentrate on defending himself and getting out of here before he would concentrate on keeping Draco safe, and cast a simple Locator Charm. It pointed straight along the diagonal, and Severus began to crouch-run in that direction, using some of the simpler Dark Arts he knew to keep himself safe from the flying spells.

The fog was gone abruptly, and a woman with pale hair stepped into Severus's path. She had a fine, odd bone structure that made Severus feel as if he had seen her somewhere before, and a leveled wand.

"I'm afraid that I can't let you rescue Potter," she said. "Not until we understand what went wrong last time."

Severus replied with a Stunner that she blocked, easily, holding up her arm and catching it on a little reflective wrist-band. Then she cast the Cutting Curse in response, neatly aimed at Severus's neck. Severus deflected it, but raised his eyebrows. This was a more skilled opponent than he had expected to duel with.

"I told you that I can't let you take him," said the woman calmly, and cut her wand towards the stone beneath his feet. 

Severus leaped out of the way of the whirlpool that he knew would consume him if he stayed still, and cut so hard at her that she had to take time out to check herself for wounds; the curse Severus had used was sharp enough to cause injuries that the target didn't feel at first. In the meantime, Severus raced left, then right, and someone else's hex missed him and clashed against the wall in a bright red mutter.

A net tried to tangle his feet, but Severus leaped over that, and then saw a flash of different pale hair from ahead. Draco was crouched down--beside Potter, Severus thought, as the bond sang inside him with a single, plucked note.

Draco turned to stare at him, eyes so wide that Severus grimaced. Draco was counting on Severus to come up with a way to get out of this. But Severus did not know how. He tried to convey that by a sharp gesture to Draco, but Draco only kept staring, one hand locked on Potter's elbow.

The chains around Potter were too thick for any spell that Severus could cast when he was still wildly dodging curses from the woman in front of him. If he had the time and the focus--

Draco leaned down and said something to Potter. Severus had no chance of hearing what it was, but he listened anyway, and almost tripped up when another tangling net came at him. He shook his head and turned his back. Draco and Potter would have to figure out how to use the bond to their advantage between them. He had a fight to conduct.

*

"Do you think the bond could break through your chains?" Draco heard his voice, small and young, and flinched. He hadn't meant to sound that way, really. He only wanted to hear some solution, some way to get Potter out of here.

Potter looked up at him with those flat green eyes and shrugged a little. "I've never used it that way, and there was nothing about it in that book passage you sent me," he said, and lapsed into silence, watching the fight.

He's an Auror, he probably wants to join them, Draco thought, and then could have slapped himself for not thinking of this particular solution before. Among other things, it was the only solution that might show Potter Draco was committed to helping him. He held up his wand. "Accio Potter's wand!"

It didn't come flying, but there was a rattling from the left. Draco spun around. A steel cabinet fastened to the wall was practically leaping at the hinges, as something tried to get out from inside it.

Draco started in that direction.

And one of the Aurors, or whoever they were, swirled up in front of him, mouth stern and eyes focused on him as if they took him seriously as an opponent. Draco frowned. He was used to people underestimating him because he was a Malfoy and had a reputation as a coward, and that was one of the few real advantages he had.

"I'm sorry, but I can't let you do that," said the Auror.

Draco had a brilliant inspiration. He nodded and let his hand fall to his side, holding his wand as he sighed, sadly. 

"I was afraid of that," he said. "Afraid that we couldn't just walk in here and get Potter free like that, but that was the plan we wanted to use, and we trusted too much to Potter's luck to win the day."

He peered back at the wizard and saw his mouth gaping. And in that moment, Draco bound him with Incarcerous and raced past him to the steel cabinet.

He didn't have a lot of time or interest in using finesse, so he was ready and willing to use the Blasting Curse that broke apart the metal into a flying heap of splinters and shards. He reached into the mess of metal and tossed Potter's wand out. Still trying to obey the Summoning Charm, it tugged against his hold, then calmed.

Draco dodged back to Potter. So far, no one else seemed to have noticed what he was doing. They were all focused on Severus, who had set up another Fog Charm and was okay--Draco told himself sternly that he was, because of his two bondmates, he could only spare the time and energy to worry about one.

And right now, that was Potter.

"Here," Draco said, jabbing the wand into Potter's hand. He paused, noting the joy that lit Potter's face. He really did look better that way, different from the beaten-down, staring man Draco had raped.

He hadn't had the time to flinch from his own memories yet before Potter slid his wand beneath the nearest chain and released a brilliant burst of spell-light. Draco didn't know the curse, but he watched in interest as the steel parted before it, severed neatly down the middle of a link. If he had known that charm, he could have used it on the cabinet and not had to stick his hand down in the middle of a mass of shards.

Later, he would ask Potter about it and hopefully get him to teach it to both him and Severus.

Potter bolted to his feet and snapped his head around the room, taking in more than Draco thought either of them, or in fact anyone without Auror training, could, at the moment. Now people were starting to turn around, seeing their most dangerous opponent free. Draco saw several people still crouching on the stone and apparently cutting something into it, working frantically, but the vast majority of the Aurors had lined up in front of them and were marching towards Potter.

"Malfoy?" Potter's voice was the calmest Draco had ever heard it. Draco tensed a little, anyway.

"Yeah?" Draco asked, cautiously, when Potter only went on watching the other Aurors with a faint smile.

"Stay behind me," Potter said. "I'm not always able to distinguish, when I get in the middle of battle like this."

Draco opened his mouth to object, to remind Potter that Severus was somewhere in that multitude of people in front of them, and then closed it again. Potter probably wouldn't care all that much about Severus at the moment.

Several of the Aurors aimed their wands at once. Some of them near the back began to speak long spells, probably because they thought Potter wouldn't focus on them at first and they would have a chance to complete their incantations while their fellows at the front protected them. 

Potter, his face transcendent, laughed, and made a gesture with his wand that Draco had never seen before.

An enormous stone-and-silver pendulum formed near the top of the ceiling, tilted to the side, at the top of its arc, and cut down towards the Aurors. There was a shearing blade at its end. Some of the Aurors ducked in time, some didn't. Most went flying from their feet. Draco heard screams, saw blood flying, too, and saw the pendulum reach the other side of the room and drop back down for a second sweep. This time, the blood was thicker.

Potter nodded at Draco over his shoulder and slashed his wand sideways. The pendulum vanished, and Potter strode forwards. "It's safe to follow me now," he added over his shoulder, when Draco's feet remained rooted to the floor.

Draco swallowed thickly, and followed. His mind was working furiously over the spell, wondering if it was Dark Arts, dismissing that in a second--a spell to conjure a pendulum wasn't the sort of thing the Ministry would have regulated under Dark Arts--and then deciding that he was very curious where Potter had learned that. He didn't think it could be regular Auror training, or one of the other Aurors would have known the countercurse.

That meant, no matter how much he might want to pretend otherwise, Harry Potter was not just a normal Auror, a regular Auror, the way he was trying so hard to present himself.

And what exactly are you going to do with that knowledge? 

Draco didn't know. But he put it away for later right now, and followed Potter down into the part of the room that still held the Aurors chipping away at the stone. They hadn't stopped even though some of them were now splattered with blood. That suggested ritual dedication to Draco, and that suggested the excellence of any plan that contained an attempt to stop them.

*

If I had known the Ministry gave their Aurors this level of training, I might have respected them more.

Severus's thoughts flickered and darted, whirling around his head like exhausted birds, nearly forced to the ground. The cold wind that drove them was the Auror in front of him, who kept calmly batting away his spells and counterattacking with ones of her own. She was wounded, a shallow trail of blood down her arm, but then, so was Severus, and more deeply. It was only the quick Impervious Charm he had cast above his eyes that had kept the cut on his forehead from blinding him, the way it bled.

The woman had to be an Auror. She moved like one, and although she didn't wear the robes, rather common brown ones that would be anonymous in most contexts, she stood as if she was used to wearing scarlet ones. Severus knew that because he had seen the posture and the grace in Potter, lately.

That thought stirred anger up, and that thought gave him the first clear plan he'd had since the start of the duel. Letting his anger fuel him, Severus feigned a stumble and went down on one knee.

The Auror did not dare close, they were too evenly matched, but she shot a binding charm at him. She had to. Even if she thought he was faking, knewhe was faking, there was too much chance that she could turn the trick back on him and take him because he hadn't calculated the costs of his stumble yet.

And Severus rolled to the side, not obscuring his wand arm, and cast back, with the charm of his own devising that had once been turned on him. She was jerked into the air, hanging upside-down by one ankle with her robes dangling around her head. Severus Stunned her while he still had the aim.

Then he turned about, wondering if he had Draco or Potter or both to thank for no sudden rush of Aurors upon his rear.

The carnage behind him, Aurors clutching severed arms and bleeding chests, made him raise his eyebrows. It looked as if Potter had learned to castSectumsempra in many directions at once, and on many victims at once.

Another spell I invented, that he stole from me.

That particular anger forced him to his feet, and made him stalk forwards. There was still a cluster of Aurors in the back of the room, and he supposed that was where he would find both Draco and Potter. 

He was quietly looking forward to that. He would enjoy the chance to verbally flay Potter for getting himself captured in the first place, and Draco for not coming and joining in the duel, unless he had done something useful in the meantime.

The chances of that are not high.

Chapter Text

It was no wonder that Ice had been talking about squares, Harry thought. That was what the Aurors in front of him were cutting into the stone. Not a circle, like so many rituals were conducted in, including the corrupted one that had bound him to Snape and Malfoy. A perfect square, marred only by little bits of stone dust and flakes of rock that the Aurors cutting it scraped away without pausing.

Harry couldn’t think of many rituals that used a square in the first place, let alone ones so urgent that the Aurors would continue ignoring him and Malfoy instead of fighting. Well. He would give them something else to think about.

Veritas,” he murmured, and swept his wand in a cross-shape in front of him, ignoring the way Malfoy stared at him. There was no way Harry would believe that Malfoy wasn’t familiar with that spell, so he didn’t have any cause to start talking righteously about the way Harry knew Dark Arts.

The spell slammed into the kneeling, working Aurors as a kind of haze, like droplets of dew. One of them leaned back on her heels and giggled, but the rest kept working. Harry nodded. The Veritas Curse didn’t always disrupt concentration, and the people it did that for weren’t necessarily the best targets for questioning. He asked aloud, “What kind of ritual are you designing?”

They began to answer in a babbling chorus, their answers overrunning each other and making it hard to determine who was saying what. Harry cast a Fine-Tuning Charm on his ears, and began to listen to just one voice in the middle of the mess, from the Auror there who looked oldest and was thus probably senior, and more trusted by Ice.

“…said that we needed a ritual to understand. Everyone knows about your scar but no one understands it. We needed to think about that. Needed to know if there was a possibility of You-Know-Who coming back. What happened when you faced him? Why did you manage to survive the Killing Curse twice and no one else ever did? Why hasn’t it happened again? What is going on?” She bowed her head over the design in the stone and went on cutting, mumbling questions to herself. “Could the Ministry have understood from the beginning if you were properly placed in a wizarding family instead of in the Muggle world? What about if we had studied you right after the war? This isn’t the best, but it will have to do.”

Harry hissed and let the Fine-Tuning Charm go. A knowledge ritual. What they would have done if they had got him in the center of the square wasn’t all that different from what his curse had just done to them.

“You know the Veritas Curse, Potter.” Malfoy’s voice was so low that Harry had trouble hearing him over the babble of the cursed Aurors, even though Malfoy was hovering right by his shoulder. “I’m impressed.”

Harry shrugged dismissively. “Lots of people know it.” It would have been used more often, but while it did make the people it was cast on speak the truth, it did it by ruining any inhibitions they had. People would speak without direction, saying whatever was on their minds. Veritaserum was much easier to use, and the people under it would respond to direct questions. Not to mention that fine little point about Veritaserum only being legal to use if someone willingly drank it.

Then again, nothing about this situation was legal, and Harry had no prejudice against using Dark tactics on his enemies when they were other Aurors and hadn’t followed the rules, either.

“They wanted to investigate your scar?”

“They wanted to do more than that.” Harry kept his back turned to Malfoy, although he did dart his eyes around to make sure that no Aurors were closing in on their backs. What he saw made him relax. Even Snape’s duel with Ice seemed to be over. The men and women in front of him went on feverishly working, but it would mean less than nothing if someone else didn’t force Harry into the square and cast the necessary spells. “I think I would have been in the Department of Mysteries if they just wanted questions answered. In a knowledge ritual, you can gain objective knowledge about whatever the topic you’re researching is. I would answer things I didn’t know myself. Or a voice would answer through me.”

“I’ve heard of knowledge rituals, of course,” Malfoy said. “I never knew they functioned like that.”

“They need a lot of help and they need a lot of magic,” Harry said. “Most people who could perform them like to work alone and think they can find their answers in an easier way.” He turned around. “Where’s—”

“Here, Potter.”

Snape’s voice was as cold as Ice had made Harry feel. Of course it was. Harry shrugged at him and turned back, gesturing to the square on the floor. “Do you recognize what particular ritual that belongs to? I only recognize the class of ritual.”

“You don’t mind asking me for help?” From the corner of his eye, Harry saw Snape pressing his hand to his chest. “The Great Harry Potter deigns to admit that he doesn’t know everything himself?”

“Sometimes even a rapist can be helpful,” Harry drawled, and shot him a sweet smile.

From the way he swallowed, Snape was forcing down his rage. Harry didn’t care. He had been the one to get captured, but Snape had been the one to turn this whole confrontation into one where he was a right git. He could pay the price in anger for once, and Harry would be the one who stood around and seemed polite and civil and committed to getting everything done the right way. And he was. He had accepted Malfoy’s help. He had even accepted Malfoy’s information and submission when he had to. Snape was the one who kept standing outside and sneering at him. Let Malfoy see that, too.

*

Severus did not want to admit that Potter might have a point, because that would mean admitting that Potter had enough of a sense of wit to get at him. He knelt down next to the square carved in the stone, instead, and squinted at it, willing it silently to make sense.

It remained unfamiliar and puzzling for moments longer than it should have, although that was partially because it was not complete and some of the kneeling carvers cut off his line of sight. Then it suddenly resolved, so that Severus could see the way that the ragged lines at the top would bend and touch each other.

“It is not a square,” he said, not looking at Potter’s face when he said it, because although he would love to see its expression, he did not want Potter to know that. “It is a pentagon.”

“And what’s the significance of that shape?”

It was Draco who spoke, which meant Potter did not lose in that particular contest. Severus privately snarled and reset the score in his mind. “It means that they intended to confine you and ask you questions, as in a knowledge ritual. But they intended to reshape you afterwards, as this square is being reshaped through the way they cut it.” He turned to Potter then, because this was more important than their little contest, loathe though Severus was to admit that. “They would have dug into your mind, after the answers, and then remade what was left of your thoughts after that, into the person they wanted you to be.”

“So that I couldn’t tell anything about what they had done?” Potter’s eyes were wide, but calm. One would think that he faced threats like this all the time, Severus thought. “It seems to me that a Memory Charm would be simpler.”

“Memory Charms can be detected, and sometimes undone, to reveal what is beneath them,” Severus said. “Besides, they cannot be used to influence behavior afterwards, beyond the simple forgetting. And even Ministry Aurors should know that you are impervious to the Imperius Curse.”

He hoped that his sneering about the Aurors would anger Potter, but perhaps the ability of that taunt to anger him had been done away with, considering who his captors were. Potter turned and looked thoughtfully at the woman Severus had dueled with, then back at the babbling Aurors still cutting the pentagon in the stone. “Yes,” he said. “I can see that. I think I annoyed someone with the way I was searching around the Ministry, and it would be good for them to make sure I wouldn’t do that anymore, along with the knowledge that they hoped to gain from me.” He rolled his shoulder in what could either have been an easy shrug or an attempt to lessen some pain there. “Well. Thanks for your help. I’ll gather then up and take them back to the Ministry, and let the Ministry decide what to do with them.”

Severus stared at him, but Potter didn’t seem to find anything incredible in what he had just said. He looked back blandly, and then turned to Stun the Aurors working on the pentagon.

“Are you listening to yourself?” Draco demanded, stalking up to Potter. Severus rose slowly to his feet and brushed the stone dust off his knees. Perhaps he should let Draco pull his weight in handling Potter. “How can you take them back to the Ministry when people from the Ministry were the ones who betrayed and hunted you?”

“Because not everyone in the Ministry is my enemy.” Potter was talking loudly and slowly, as though Draco was a foreigner. “There will be some people who can support me and help me figure out who among these Aurors really hates me and how far the corruption has spread. I didn’t have many leads before this, but now I have a lot of people who can be questioned.” He turned away, then added over his shoulder, “And that’s what a proper Auror would do. That’s procedure. I’m a proper Auror, so I should do that.”

“Oh, bollocks,” Draco said, his voice so disgusted that Severus blinked. “You just used the Veritas Curse on them, a curse that I’m sure no Auror is supposed to actually know. And you used that pendulum spell that no one could counter, either. You haven’t even really moved over to those people you injured to make sure that they’re still alive. Stop telling me that you’re exactly like all the other Aurors and that’s all you’ll ever be. I know a lie when I hear one.”

Potter stopped walking. He stood there with his arms folded, and then turned around. Severus was glad that he had left this particular contest up to Draco, then.

“You don’t get to define what I am,” Potter whispered. “You keep trying to define me as someone who should be happy to be in this bond with you, and as a helpless rape victim, and I’m neither. Will you condemn me for the tactics that I had to use to save my life, and yours, since you were fool enough to come after me?”

“I’m not trying to define you,” Draco said, glaring harder than Severus would have thought he could. Where had the coward Draco who would have run from someone looking at him like Potter did gone? “I’m trying to stop you from limiting yourself. You think that you’ll just go in and act like a normal Auror and no one will question that? What happens when you have to bring in the bodies? And when the ones making the ritual square—pentagon—talk about how you used the Veritas Curse on them? Will you just go quietly along with whatever penance they make you serve? What if they kick you out of the Aurors?”

Potter’s eyes were wild, so dark that they competed in color with his hair. “You don’t get to define me,” he repeated, as if the words themselves were an incantation.

“All of us could be in danger in if you don’t at least let us help you,” Severus said, deciding that the time had indeed come for him to intervene. “We will have to deal with the consequences of the spells that we saw performed. We might have to give testimony, if they bring you to trial.” 

Potter shook his head. “They wouldn’t do that. They understand that I was captured, and they’ll understand I had to do whatever was necessary to get away. There were a lot of enemies. My options were limited.”

“The pendulum spell?” Draco asked, and only now did Severus connect the image of those broken and bleeding bodies that he had thought taken down by a wide Sectumsempra with Draco’s words. “You think they’ll accept that that was what you had to do? And the Veritas Curse? Instead of sending a Patronus for help the minute you had your wand back, and sheltering behind your supposedly impenetrable Shield Charms?”

Potter cursed loudly. Severus watched him with a held breath and a wildly beating heart. Then he exhaled, annoyed with himself. Yes, magic was gathering around Potter, crackling like invisible lightning, but to show himself overly impressed with that kind of thing would just encourage Potter to keep doing it.

No, what he had to do was wait for the incredibly small brain Potter had to catch up with reality. Preferably before he used the magic he was gathering to strike at them.

*

What they’re saying can’t be right.

But Harry could imagine how he would feel about someone, even captured by Aurors, who had slaughtered a lot of them in getting away. It was true that the pendulum spell had probably killed some of his captors, and he hadn’t cared or gone to look. Some of them might have survived with immediate Healing care, but were dead of blood loss by now. And he had laughed when he cast it.

Those facts would tell against him. So would the claim he had made to Johnson about having trouble with his head, and the fact that he had recently been in company with several former Death Eaters. They might not dismiss him from being an Auror, but they would at least make sure that he couldn’t have anything more to do with ordinary cases for a long time.

It didn’t mean that he needed his fucking bondmates’ help, but it did mean that he couldn’t walk right back into the Ministry and be treated like the reasonable person he had hoped they would see him as.

And the hell of it was, Malfoy was right about one thing. Harry hadn’t been thinking about being a regular Auror when he cast that pendulum spell. He had been thinking about how angry he was and how much he wanted to hurt the people opposing him. So he had, and only now did he think…

He turned back towards the long line of people the pendulum had marked. He could see that most were still breathing, but some of them were unconscious, and the ones missing arms? There was no way that they could have survived the loss of blood without someone who wasn’t them to patch up the wounds. Particularly when he’d cut off their wand arm.

Harry shut his eyes. He could feel more numbing guilt creeping up on him. He didn’t want to think about this, but he was the one who had cast that spell, and that meant he had to. He swallowed and wondered what he was going to tell Kingsley. He didn’t know any of these Aurors, but that didn’t make all of them evil. Perhaps some had followed Ice’s lead because they had trusted her, and she was the epitome of the professional Auror.

“Stop it.”

Harry opened his eyes and stepped back just in time to avoid Snape’s touch. Snape didn’t drop his hand right away, but stood there staring intently at him, one palm raised as if he would slap Harry. Then he nodded and put his arm back at his side.

“If you start mourning your past actions, we will not do what you know we should,” he said brusquely. “We need your help to come up with a story, and a place to put the bodies, and question the survivors.”

“But I still have to go back to the Ministry,” Harry whispered. “I have to. I have to answer for what I did.”

Snape raised his eyebrows. “You think that our situation will be improved by having you in Azkaban? Or a holding cell? Or someplace else where the people who work for the Ministry—which might include those who betrayed us—can approach you most easily?”

“I said that I would find out who the traitor was that located the weak places in the wards and gave that information to the Lestranges.” Harry turned away from Snape and stared at the bodies again. He didn’t understand what had been going through his own head. He had managed to refrain from harming two people who had raped him when they were in the middle of the rape, and these Aurors had been much less threatening. What had he been thinking?

“And, of course, that means that you agreed to be kidnapped by your own colleagues and imprisoned for what they did to you,” Malfoy muttered.

“I did commit a crime,” Harry said softly. He supposed he could see why it would look different to them. They hadn’t been trained as Aurors, and they hadn’t been the ones to cast the spells. “I have to go and turn myself in.”

Snape and Malfoy traded a glance. Harry smiled, because he felt competent to deal with what was behind those glances. “If you try to restrain me,” he added, setting his feet and getting ready to fight as necessary, “then you won’t like the results.”

“I would try, but our power put together cannot equal yours, and if we fight, the bond may injure all or any of us,” Snape said, turning his gaze back on Harry. “I have no desire to feel pain like the sort that confined you to the prison in your mind, and this time it might be direct instead of secondhand.”

Thwarted, Harry frowned at him. He could have struggled against Snape—in fact, he would have enjoyed it—but the man’s arguments made too much sense.

“I can’t just not pay for this,” he said.

“And would they pay for it?” Malfoy shook his head. “At the very least, they were going to imprison you again when you fought against them. I recognized some of those long spells the ones in the back were chanting, too. They weren’t just going to imprison you, they were going to torture you.” He gestured to the pentagon in the floor, and the silent Aurors lying around it. “They were going to do worse than that, if Severus is right about what ritual this was.”

Harry looked again at the woman Snape had dueled. Ice. He should have known her, known anyone who was that competent and moved so well, but he didn’t. And he still didn’t know why investigating his scar had been so urgent, or whether she was actually behind the betrayal of the secret in the wards to the Lestranges, or just working with someone who had.

“So,” Malfoy whispered. Harry started. He actually hadn’t noticed that Malfoy had moved up to within arm’s reach of him. “We have your permission to take these people back to Malfoy Manor and interrogate them?”

Harry sneered at him and at Snape, who had come up to Malfoy’s shoulder and stood there without moving, without folding his arms, without sneering back—in fact, so calm that Harry found him a bit unnerving, and turned around to look at Malfoy instead. “If you think that you can get the truth out of a bunch of trained Aurors, then welcome.”

“We don’t have the Ministry’s laws about Veritaserum encoded in our souls by training,” Malfoy said. “Or we can just use the Veritas Curse, like you did.”

Harry sighed. He didn’t feel resentful, when Malfoy said things like that, just drained—and a bit guilty that he had been the one to overpower so many of his colleagues in front of Malfoy and Snape, which probably made them think worse of Auror training than they did. “Fine. Whatever. Do what you need to. In the meantime, I need to go home and think about what I’m going to say happened.” And what to do about Johnson and Nott, who hadn’t been here but might still know where Ice had taken him.

Before he could move off, he felt something on his arm. Harry leaped away from it and stared at Malfoy accusingly. All right, so it had been a light touch, but it was still a touch. How could Malfoy have thought Harry would want to be in contact with him? Harry scrubbed at his arm, wondering if he could pretend that a fluttering piece of soot had touched him or something.

“I’m—sorry.” Malfoy flushed, as if he hadn’t expected to ever be speaking the words and didn’t have a script ready to go with them. “Listen. I assumed that you’d come with us to Malfoy Manor, and participate in the interrogations.”

Harry stared at him, and only went on staring harder when Malfoy stood with his legs relaxed and braced, as if he didn’t see the insanity of what he’d just suggested. “What?” Harry had to ask. “You think that I would want to go there with you?”

“The rape didn’t happen in Malfoy Manor,” Malfoy said. “I thought there was a small chance.”

“And this will enable you to maintain control of the investigation.” Snape said that as smoothly as though Harry could make no real objection, stepping up beside Malfoy and watching Harry with impassive eyes. “I thought that was all-important to you. To investigate well befits a real Auror.”

Harry shut his eyes. Too many impulses, he thought, pulling him too many different directions. Hatred, and regret, and fury, and weariness. He hated what the Ministry had done to him, he hated what the Lestranges had done to him, but he thought he might hate what Snape and Malfoy were doing to him more.

“We will not force you to come,” Snape said. “But it is where we will take the prisoners.”

Harry opened his eyes. He could wait for them to report answers about Ice and the pentagon ritual and the rest of it, he supposed. But he wouldn’t trust their answers, would he? It would just lead to him interrogating the prisoners on his own anyway.

And he no longer trusted that he wouldn’t go too far when facing people who had kidnapped him. He was beginning to think that his capture and torture by the Lestranges had broken something fundamental within his head.

“Fine,” he said. He opened his eyes. “I’ll come with you. But I’ll send a Patronus to Ron and Hermione first.”

Neither of them said anything against that, or had a gleam of triumph in their eyes. They just nodded and turned to gather up the prisoners.

Unsettled, Harry faced the wall and conjured his Patronus to send. He wondered if this was a good idea, but he couldn’t think of anything better.

Snape and Malfoy just better not try to hold me there.

Because if I can’t respond sanely when it comes to kidnappers…

That would include them, too.

Chapter Text

Draco thought the way Potter flinched and tensed up when they stepped through the Manor’s gates was unusual, but then, Potter flinched and tensed up around everything to do with Draco and Severus. It wasn’t until they reached the doors and he saw how Potter had to labor to put his feet on the gravel that Draco remembered.

He was here, during the war. And he wasn’t tortured, but Granger was.

Draco winced. He was sorry for suggesting that Potter come here, now. Maybe he could have gone home and firecalled them when they were ready to interrogate the prisoners, and suggested questions and heard the information they gained by Floo.

But it seemed there was nothing about the bond or them or the suggestions they made that wasn’t flinchable, Draco decided. And Potter had come this far, was stepping through the door of the Manor with carefully squared shoulders that made Draco ache with pity and pride.

He stepped through the door after Potter, careful not to touch him, and then turned to help Severus guide in the line of bound and sleeping Aurors. They had already placed the dead in the deserted safehouse that they had been living in when Rabastan and Rodolphus found them. It was unlikely that anyone connected with the Ministry would look there, or be able to explain what they found if they did.

And there were several dead people, five or six, from Potter’s pendulum spell alone. Draco found his gaze going back to Potter as he stalked around the entrance hall, through the door that led to the immense dining room where Nagini had once eaten people.

I won’t tell him if he doesn’t want to listen. But he is more than an Auror. Either the ritual and the rape or something else changed him. 

Maybe I can offer some support for that.

*

Harry found it hard to remember whether this was really the room where Bellatrix Lestrange had tortured Hermione or not. He thought it was, and that made shivers so strong crawl up his spine that he could feel the prickle of their claws.

But it would be a waste of time to ask, and Harry thought they had wasted enough time. He turned around and watched Snape and Malfoy stack Aurors against the wall like cordwood. Snape slipped out of the room and came back with a potion that he carried from mouth to mouth, massaging their throats sometimes to make them swallow.

The Draught of Living Death, Harry thought, recognizing the oily black sheen of the potion as he saw it pass from flask to lips. He approved. That potion would keep the Aurors sleeping and harmless until they were ready for them. And in the meantime, it kept them from aggravating their wounds.

Malfoy had been the one to heal most of the wounds. Harry thought that was strange. He would never have thought of Malfoy as a Healer.

Maybe he learned after the war. And I wasn’t going to heal them, was I?

Harry turned away, rubbing his hand absently over his mouth. He had the taste of vomit on his tongue, although he hadn’t vomited. Maybe he would have felt better if he had. Wasn’t that what most Aurors would do, if it turned out that they were responsible for the slaughter of several of their colleagues?

Well, no. Ice wouldn’t do it, he thought, and neither would whoever in the Aurors had betrayed him to the Lestranges. They had given him and Snape and Malfoy up without a qualm, knowing that what happened to them would be worse than simple death.

And he was still no closer to the reason why.

“We should begin with her, I believe.”

Harry turned around to see who they were talking about, though he thought he probably knew. Snape was standing over Ice, staring down at her as though he could see the secrets of her dueling skill by looking at her muscles. He caught Harry’s eye and jerked his head at Ice. “You know her?”

Harry shook his head. “She was obviously the leader, though. She told me that they had to conduct the ritual because the Lestranges hadn’t done what they were supposed to do. She called herself Ice.”

“You—” Snape began, and then half-shut his eyes and turned away. “You should have told us at once that she’d made a reference to what happened with the Lestranges,” he whispered. “That is something we needed to know.”

“What would you have used it for?” Harry asked incredulously. “For taunting her while you dueled? You didn’t need to know before now.”

Snape glared at him. Harry sneered back. He could feel the hatred brewing between them like one of Snape’s precious potions, and he almost hoped that it would explode. He could use something that would ease the tension in his arms and shoulders and spine, which he thought was at least partially from the unreal, unnatural solution of getting along with Snape.

But Snape turned away and gestured with the flask of Living Death towards a chair. Malfoy promptly floated Ice’s body in that direction, and Snape said, “I am going to fetch the Veritaserum,” and left the room with a long stride. Harry stared after him, but that wasn’t enough to make Snape come back and continue the duel, either the verbal one or a magical one.

What the hell was going on in Snape’s head?

*

If you irritate Potter, then you’ll never get any information that you need again. He’ll start to keep it from you out of spite. And now that he’s finally cooperating, the bond might decide to punish you, too.

To Severus’s intense irritation, the voice of his late-wakening conscience resembled Draco’s. He busied himself with performing every test he could think of on his vials of Veritaserum to make sure the potion was perfect, testing for age, sourness, contamination by a dozen different brews and ingredients, and felt all the while the painful pounding of his heart.

His own rage was starting to wear on him. It had been so easy to tell Draco, to feel, that being able to brew potions was all-important to him. But the moment he was in Potter’s presence, he reverted to acting childishly again.

He had once been able to hold his feelings back, with a few notable exceptions, such as his explosion at Black’s escape from Hogwarts. He had been able to content himself with rational objections to Dumbledore’s mad plans. He had worked with people he despised, including that fool Trelawney, who knew less about real life than Potter.

Had all those skills deserted him? Was he growing less rusty, less keen and intelligent, as he grew older?

Severus shut his eyes and blocked out the sight of his gaping, staring reflection in the highly-polished side of the cauldron he faced. He felt stupid enough without seeing an image that seemed to confirm it.

No. He had been settled, able to brew, able to fence verbally through letters with another Potions master in Austria who wanted to claim credit for a discovery of his, only days before they went into the safehouse and hiding. Even when he and Potter and Draco were all in close proximity behind the wards, he had been curt but civil with Potter. He would never care for him, but he could endure being near him and not explode.

What had really changed? He was not the one who had bargained with the bond, nor had the Lestranges done anything with their torture before they placed him and Draco in the ritual circle that he had not suffered before.

Severus shifted. He was beginning to believe that the change wore the name of guilt—not something he wished to suffer from, not something he often suffered from, but he thought that was what it was, now.

The only thing that had made this time so much different from the others when he had done something, been through an ordeal, gasped in pain and groaned under the domination of a tyrant, was that he had raped Potter. He could imagine what Lily would say if she knew that about her son. About him.

She knew how low I could sink. But there were some depths she could not have imagined I would descend to.

Severus drove his fist into the wall, and then picked up the vials of Veritaserum he would need, and one other potion, and started a stern pace back towards the dining room. He clenched his jaw at the same time and made his face strong and calm. He did not want Potter to guess what was going on somehow and use it torment him.

I was under a spell and compelled by a ritual that would have destroyed us otherwise. Potter was the one who was sane enough to create a small space in the middle of the spell, which spared us. Does that not matter? 

Not enough, it seemed, to the deep and stinging sense inside him that was coming out as all this irrational rage.

Severus closed his eyes. Well, then, he would handle it like any other debt, like the life-debt he had owed James or the one that had driven him hotfoot to Dumbledore after he knew what his revelation of the prophecy to the Dark Lord meant. He had paid those debts. He would do the same with Potter. He did not have to be gracious about it, but he owed Potter. He hated owing.

But he would hate the debt, and not the person involved. That would only drive Potter further away.

*

Harry crowded close as Snape tipped the vial down Ice’s throat. Then he cast the spell that would release her from the Stunner.

Ice blinked and opened her eyes. For a second before the Veritaserum took effect, Harry saw her gaze dart around the enormous room, and he knew she was grasping the scope of the situation and what had happened to disable her people—well, understanding they had lost, at least. It would be dangerous to underestimate her. Harry gripped his wand.

Then Ice’s head dropped back and her gaze turned vacant. Snape stepped towards her and spoke in a controlled tone that Harry hadn’t heard from him in years. “What is your full name?”

“Beatrix Maria Stockwell,” said Ice, and half-shut her eyes, and seemed as if she was struggling to regain control. Harry doubted it would help. This was Veritaserum that Snape had brewed, or at least he thought so, and Harry trusted Snape’s brewing skills as he trusted few other things about the man.

“How long have you been an Auror?” It was Malfoy who contributed that one, leaning against the wall behind Harry. Harry shifted so that Malfoy wasn’t as much at his back.

“Twenty-five years.” Stockwell seemed as if she would like to catch the words in her hands and stop them, but after an ineffective fluttering motion, her hands fell back to her sides. She was trying to catch her breath and pounce on that one moment of resistance, Harry thought. She failed at that, too.

“Why did you kidnap me?” Harry demanded. It was the question he most wanted to know the answer to, although Snape darted a reprimanding look at him. Standard procedure with Veritaserum demanded three questions that the interrogators knew the answer to.

Harry returned Snape’s look with a hard stare. It wasn’t as though they knew for sure that the answers to their other questions were true, either.

Stockwell seemed to have given up the struggle against the Veritaserum. Her breath was heaving just a little, in and out, as she looked at Harry and said, with a dead voice and dead eyes, “We need to know about your scar. There have been disturbing signs lately that You-Know-Who may not be as dead as we thought him.”

Harry froze, while a nightmare worse than being bonded to Snape and Malfoy threatened to paralyze him. Then he shook his head. “What evidence do you have?”

“Signs of the darkening of the Dark Mark on the skin of those who bear it,” said Stockwell, and sat there expectantly waiting for the next question.

Harry saw Malfoy and Snape pull up their sleeves almost simultaneously. Breathing hard, he kept his back turned to them and faced Stockwell. He hadn’t looked at their Marks lately and wouldn’t know if they had changed or not. “Who did you see the Dark Mark darkening on?”

“I did not see it,” Stockwell corrected him.

Bloody literal Veritaserum. “I mean,” Harry said grimly, “who was it that had the Dark Mark that was supposedly darkening?”

“His name is Aloysius Nott.”

I thought so, Harry thought, and his skin was slick and his heart nearly shaking him with the force of its beat. I knew that Nott had something to do with this.

“Aloysius Nott is in prison,” Malfoy said, apparently speaking aloud. “The Aurors would have access to him, but I don’t know how they would have noticed…do they make regular visits to Azkaban to look at the Death Eater prisoners?”

Harry thought Malfoy was asking him, but it was Stockwell who replied, compelled by the Veritaserum to respond to any question voiced around her that she knew the answer to. “When any Death Eater asks to speak to us, we go.”

“And Nott would be concerned about the Mark changing,” Harry muttered, as his mind completed that sentence. “Or maybe he would just want to rub it in the Aurors’ faces.” He didn’t know enough about the elder Nott for certain either way.

Malfoy nodded. He had pulled his sleeve back down, but his hand was busy on the Mark, Harry noticed. “Ours haven’t changed,” he said. “But Nott remained faithful to the Dark Lord’s cause until the end. I don’t know how much that affects things.”

“I know all about the Unbreakable Vows and the way that Snape spied for our cause,” Harry sniped at him. “But I was unaware of anything you did that would have made you less than perfectly loyal to Voldemort.”

Malfoy pivoted towards him. “I didn’t identify you when you came here,” he snapped. “I think that’s enough.”

“You were afraid,” Harry said. “It wasn’t exactly an act of rebellion.”

“Fuck you, yes it was!” Malfoy looked as if he would jump on Harry and tear his throat out. Harry rested his hand on his wand and breathed easily. He was sure that he was a better fighter than Malfoy, if it actually came down to fighting, which it probably wouldn’t. “Don’t youunderstand? For me to stand up against my fear like that and face down Greyback and Bellatrix was the bravest thing I ever did!”

Harry shook his head. His vision was growing dark along the edges, he thought, but that happened all the time in battle, and it wasn’t something to be concerned about. “I don’t think it was all that brave. You did it because you were scared and you’d decided that you didn’t want to live in a world where the Dark Lord won the war.”

“I don’t want to live in a world where the Dark Lord wins at all, you can bet on that,” Malfoy said, From the sound of the strain in his voice, he was still trying to control the urge to rip Harry apart. “If he returns, the way that the Mark on Nott’s arm might indicate, then we should do something to stop that.”

Harry smiled and turned back to Stockwell. His heart was singing in his ears, along with his blood. He knew that his next questions would probably draw blood, and he didn’t care. “What ritual did you think the Lestranges would perform on me instead of what they did to me?”

Stockwell, head bobbing backwards on her neck, answered almost dreamily. “They were supposed to see how their Dark Marks reacted to your scar. They didn’t do that. They seemed to think that revenge was what they were hired for.”

Hired.” Harry grabbed the word, grabbed it and held it close. “Who hired them?”

“He wore a mask when he spoke with me.” Stockwell’s eyes snapped back to Harry’s voice, but if she knew what was going on, it still wasn’t enough motive for her to gain any control over her words. “He said that his name was Alfred, but I don’t know anyone named that, and I don’t know who it was.”

Harry hissed. Every time he thought he was going to burst through the stone wall, it turned out there was more stone behind it. “Why would he hire the Lestranges? Why would the Aurors agree to it?”

“There are—factions.” These words dragged a little more. Harry couldn’t be sure if the Veritaserum was wearing off or if these were the secrets that Stockwell would spend herself, if she could, on protecting. “They want certain things. They thought they should approach you—part of the Aurors—and enlist you to work with them on—finding out the truth. Others said that you had done enough for the wizarding world and shouldn’t be troubled. To—circumvent them, we had to do what we did.”

Harry shut his eyes. If the group of wizards, probably led by Kingsley, who thought he should be left alone just hadn’t been that vocal, then he wouldn’t have been raped and bonded, and he would have known for months that Voldemort was coming back.

If he comes back, he’s the real danger. Not the Aurors who want me dead, and not the Lestranges, and not—

The words were hard even to think. Harry didn’t dare think how hard they would have been if he was speaking them. Not Snape and Malfoy.

The thought of working with them didn’t make Harry feel any better, but he turned halfway towards them as he spoke to Stockwell. “Why the Lestranges specifically? Why not Snape and Malfoy, former Death Eaters who weren’t crazy?”

Snape said something, but Harry didn’t hear what it was, and didn’t care. His attention was on Stockwell now, and his pulse was loud, and he could feel the magic sparking and coiling in his wand. He was going to destroy whatever he cast a spell at. It didn’t have to be a person, but he had the strong feeling that it probably would be.

“Because the Lestranges were capable of being bribed.” Stockwell waved her hand dreamily. “They would have done what needed to be done, with the knowledge ritual. Snape and Malfoy wouldn’t have no matter how much we paid them.”

Harry stared over his shoulder at Snape and Malfoy. They stood there staring back. If they said something that contradicted that, Harry couldn’t hear them. Not with the blood in his ears and everything.

He whirled back, his hands on the wand, his mind working so fast that it hurt. “But they didn’t do the knowledge ritual. They didn’t do anything that you wanted.”

Stockwell sat there.

Harry growled and asked, “What did you do when you realized that the knowledge ritual had failed and the Lestranges did something else instead?”

“Swore a lot.”

“And after that?” Harry managed to ask, when it was clear that there would be no more responses until he asked another question.

“Gathered together other Aurors I could trust, Aurors who would know that you needed to be subdued and restrained,” Stockwell said. “People that I could trust to help me in a knowledge ritual. Aurors who weren’t part of the faction that thought you had already done all that the wizarding world would ever need you to do.”

“What were you going to reshape me into?” Harry demanded. He realized as he spoke that he had accepted Snape’s theory, about how the ritual would then reshape him into something after the knowledge part of it was done.

But all of that seemed small and absurd next to the kind of knowledge that Stockwell herself could give him. 

“That depended on what we found.” Stockwell turned to him, and once again some knowledge seemed to flicker across her eyes. Again, there, she didn’t manage to rise from the grip of the Veritaserum. “If we found that you had some knowledge of You-Know-Who’s return, then we would make you into someone who couldn’t be a danger. But if you didn’t, then we would mold you into the weapon we needed.”

Harry closed his eyes. It always came back to bloody Voldemort, didn’t it? Voldemort had shaped his life ever since he was eighteen months old, in a way. He’d killed Harry’s parents, and left him with the bloody Dursleys, and ensured that Harry had to fight in the war, and made Snape hate him, and Marked the Lestranges in a way that meant Harry would be caught up in the bonding ritual.

Drifting as he was in the middle of the madness that surrounded him right now, he couldn’t even say which of those was the worst. 

He opened his eyes again and fired another question. “Who are the people who worked with you?”

Stockwell began to recite a long list of names. Harry didn’t bother trying to write them down. He knew that he could look at this Pensieve memory later, and probably would, in the context of determining who his enemies were, and he would notice the ones he knew then.

Now, he had to listen again to the drumbeat in his ears.

Voldemort coming back. That would be worse than anything. At least he could admit that, even consumed as he was by passions that Snape and Malfoy and other people in his life would probably think were selfish.

He paced back and forth, barely aware that Stockwell had stopped speaking the names and that Snape and Malfoy were now questioning her, their voices a low and confidential murmur. He walked with his head bowed, his hands clasped behind his back. It was a posture that had helped him sometimes when he was pacing in his office, working out the mysterious details of a case.

This time, the details weren’t so mysterious. They had Stockwell’s confession, and although Alfred’s identity was still in question, at least Harry knew now why he would have been betrayed. Kingsley and others relatively high up in the Aurors had to be among the people who didn’t want Harry bothered, or Stockwell and anyone else who really believed in Voldemort’s return would have simply approached Harry directly.

Harry exhaled like an angry fire and swung around again. This was stupid. What did Stockwell and her cohort expect him to do, now that this had happened? They might not know what the Lestranges had done, exactly, but they knew it hadn’t been what they wanted. And if they were in contact with the Lestranges still, then they might know about the bond.

A sudden silence made him look up. From the vial Snape was taking away from Stockwell’s lips, he had fed her the Draught of Living Death like all the rest. Snape and Malfoy were both staring at him.

Harry looked back, unable to say a word. Did they expect him to leave now that the interrogation had finished and they knew the purpose of capturing him?

“Choose some room in the house where you feel comfortable,” Malfoy said softly. “I would suggest going back to Grimmauld Place, but I don’t know if the wards there are powerful enough to keep out all eavesdroppers, the way the ones here are.” He hesitated. “And I don’t know if you want us in your territory.”

“Choose some room—and then what?” Harry challenged.

“I think we need to talk,” Snape said.

He said it too softly to get angry at, and with no sneer on his face when Harry glanced at him.

Harry braced his feet and then swallowed down the animosity as much as he could. Yes. Snape was right about that much.

He might not agree with Snape and Malfoy, they might have raped him, but Voldemort was a worse thing.

Chapter Text

Draco grimaced as Potter stepped into the largest sitting room and turned around, his back wedged into a corner opposite to the door. This room was drafty from all the windows that plagued the walls, and an impossibility to heat, unless Draco wanted to burn Yule logs in the vast fireplaces every day. 

But it was a room where the only furniture was a circle of chairs near each fireplace, and the floor was therefore empty and open. And the windows could be either a threat or a means of escape. Draco couldn’t pretend, even to himself, that he didn’t know why Potter had chosen it.

“All right,” Potter said, his voice low and smooth. Only when he listened to it did Draco realize that it was clipped as well. “You wanted to talk. So talk.”

“It is a talk in which all of us will need to participate,” Severus said. Draco turned around and saw him lingering near the door. His right hand covered the Dark Mark, although he had also drawn down the sleeve so that it covered the scar again. “Given that all three of us have some sort of connection to the Dark Lord.”

Potter flashed Severus a look like a slap. “And you can’t call him by his proper name, even now?”

Severus puffed up for a second like he was going to loose all his rage in a blast of fire at Potter. Potter tensed at the same time, and his eyes shone.

He wants to fight someone, Draco realized abruptly. He’s probably been on edge since we started questioning Stockwell. He wants to kill someone.

It no longer surprised Draco that some Aurors had died from Potter’s pendulum spell. The miracle was that those had been largely accidents, people who could have been healed if Potter had been less focused on questioning the Aurors drawing the pentagon. 

“Quiet,” Draco said, before Severus could speak or Potter could attack. At least that had the benefit of drawing Potter’s eyes to him, and disrupting the strength and magic he had been drawing into himself. He would be less ready to attack now simply because he would be less prepared. “Listen. Severus is right that we need to prepare to combat him if he’s coming back, no matter what he’s called. Can you join with us to do that?”

Potter curled his lip. “As long as it doesn’t involve developing the telepathy of the bond or you getting closer to me, then yes.”

Draco sighed and massaged his forehead. He wondered if he should be talking about this with Potter so ready to snap, but he didn’t know that anything could satisfy Potter’s desire to snap, unless Draco let him rip apart the Manor or attack one of them. And he wasn’t willing to go that far—yet. “What if it did? What if the power of the bond would give us a chance to defeat him, call him what you will? Would you go that far?”

Potter drew so much into himself that Draco felt as if they were seeing a transparent shell through which words could flow into the world. He found himself reaching out before he thought about it, but Severus caught his arm and shook his head tightly. Draco nodded back. He had been about to do something stupid, and it was good that Severus was there.

Potter simply stood there. It looked as if he wasn’t even breathing.

“Potter?” Draco whispered. He hesitated, then took another chance. “Harry?”

*

If I have to do something with them to prevent Voldemort from coming back…

Yes. Of course. He would do it. Because that was what he did. Save the world.

Yet another sacrifice. Yet another thing he had to give up. Virginity and a normal life hadn’t been a big enough sacrifice for the month. Another had to come along, didn’t it?

There was a long moment when Harry felt as if he was falling through space, never mind that the space had no stars and was all inside his head. He didn’t know what would happen when he hit the bottom. He didn’t know if there was a bottom.

Then someone called his name, and Harry jerked his head up and turned it, and Malfoy was watching him with concern that—that was real. It was only connected to the concern about his own life, and Snape’s life, and probably to the fear that Harry would lash out and blow his house up, but. It was there.

Harry took a breath. He had had to do something like this once before. He had been kidnapped during Auror training, by the Carrows when they were still at large. He had escaped before they could torture him, that time, but to do that, he had to build a bridge back to his sanity and escape his panic.

And of course he could do that. He was Harry Fucking Potter, wasn’t he? He had destroyed the Death Eaters’ master. A couple of Death Eaters were nothing to him. And it didn’t matter whether they were the Carrows or the Lestranges or Snape and Malfoy.

He built the first step of the bridge by looking into Malfoy’s face, pretending the concern was real enough, and nodding. “Yes,” he said. “I’ll do that.” He turned to face Snape. “What do we need to do?”

“To build the telepathic connection, or to build the greater power of traveling through time and space?” Snape’s face was still. He had been about to snap at Harry before, so Harry didn’t think that Snape had miraculously purged his anger, but now he could pretend to be calm.

And I can pretend to be sane. Our pretenses complement each other. Lovely. “To build the telepathic connection,” Harry said. He was proud of how calm and flat his voice sounded. “That was the first step, the book said. The one that has to come before any of the others, because we can’t connect to the roads, or whatever you call them, if we can’t connect to each other first.”

“Correct.” Snape let go of Malfoy’s arm and shifted sideways, rather than nearer. Harry still turned his head to watch him, but at least he could continue to watch Malfoy out of the corner of his eye. “I am rather good at Legilimency. Do you trust me to use it?”

Harry laughed. “What kind of question is that? Of course not.”

Snape reached into his robes, slowly and obviously, as though that would make the gesture any better. Harry still found himself thinking of the Veritaserum and the Draught of Living Death that Snape had used on their prisoners, and found himself tensing up, his heart racing. Snape, though, only pulled out a vial full of what looked like liquid smoke, a grey color different from either of those two potions. 

“Then will you trust me to take a binding potion, and then use it?” Snape asked. He sounded as if he was discussing the weather. No, he would probably be more passionate about the weather, Harry decided, staring into his eyes.

“A binding potion,” Harry whispered. He had heard of them during Auror training, but they hadn’t discussed them much. Unless made exactly right, binding potions didn’t work. Most people preferred to use magical vows if they had to extract an unbreakable promise from another wizard.

Well, he had thought that Snape’s skill at brewing was the only thing about him that he trusted, didn’t he?

Harry met his eyes. “What promise would you make before you swore it?”

“To leave your memories alone,” Snape said. “To seek out only the parts of your mind where the bond resides, so that I may connect to it.”

Harry twitched his head in Malfoy’s direction. “And what about our third partner over there?”

“Draco trusts me,” Snape said, still with the utmost simplicity. “I can reach into his mind after the bond between the two of us is established. There is nothing in the books saying that the bond must be established between all three at the same time, only that we must be together to do it.”

Harry licked his lips, eyes fastened on the vial in Snape’s hand. He didn’t want to do this. He didn’t want to accept their help, to stay here. He hadn’t even wanted to fight Voldemort with them or interrogate the prisoners with them. He wanted to—

And that was the catch, wasn’t it? He wanted to slaughter someone, or something, or many someones. He wanted to destroy this house, to bring down the blocks around Snape and Malfoy’s ears. He wanted to walk out of here and walk straight to where the Lestranges were and destroy them, and then he wanted to turn around and find all the Aurors that were part of the faction Stockwell led, and he wanted to kill them.

But he couldn’t simply do that. He didn’t want to let go of being a good Auror the way he already had. And the other things, the things like bringing in the Lestranges that might actually benefit him, needed help from someone.

He looked Snape in the eye. “I want to control the wording of your promise.”

Snape nodded as if that was no surprise. He hadn’t looked away from Harry’s face or blinked, either, and Harry chose to take that as a sign that he was trying to convince Harry to trust him, rather than him trying to use Legilimency on Harry before he made his promise.

Maybe he was wrong. Maybe he should be paranoid. But the paranoia would feed the rage right now, and Harry knew he would go deeper and deeper, and there would be no escape, and…

He would rather not do that.

He wanted to escape someday.

“I want you to say that you won’t look at any of my memories that don’t relate to the bond,” Harry said. “Not even anything about my scar or the final part of the Battle of Hogwarts. We’re supposed to be thinking about the bond and how to make sense of it right now, how to make us strong enough to defeat our enemies. The bond, not Voldemort.”

He thought Snape would argue, since Voldemort was one of their enemies, after all. But all Snape said was, “Agreed,” and then he paused, waiting.

Harry said, “And you’ll swear that you’ll only seek out the parts of my mind where the bond resides. Nothing else.”

“Agreed.”

Snape held up the vial. Harry waited for him to say something else, but it became clear that Snape was waiting for Harry, so Harry brusquely gestured him ahead. Snape spoke, voice strong and calm, as if he was teaching Defense to someone he despised less than he despised Harry. “I swear that I will not look at any of Harry Potter’s memories that do not relate to the bond. Nothing about his scar, nothing about his Auror training or battles that he has been through or anything else. Nothing that relates to the Dark Lord.

“I swear that I will seek out only the parts of Harry Potter’s mind that relate to the bond. Nothing else.”

He immediately wrenched the cork loose from the mouth of the vial and swallowed the liquid inside. Harry nodded. He didn’t know how to brew a binding potion, but from what he remembered of his training, there was no choice but to swallow it quickly after one made the promise. Otherwise, it could take something else that the drinker said as the promise.

Snape’s face changed color, and he swayed on his feet. Malfoy came forwards to support him, looking at Harry as if this was somehow his fault.

Harry smiled back at him. He knew the smile was sardonic, and he didn’t care at all. Snape and Malfoy were already a unit, friends or student and mentor or whatever they were. That would probably never change no matter how much control over the bond they achieved. Malfoy was just proving more with every step he made that he thought Harry was culpable and he and Snape were perfect little saints.

Malfoy flushed and turned to steady Snape as he stood back upright and took his wand out. There was a mechanical jerkiness about his movements, as if he was struggling against puppet strings, that Harry found reassuring. That was one possible effect that a binding potion could have on someone.

“Ready,” Harry said, and braced his back against the wall.

“You should perhaps sit down,” Snape murmured. “When I practiced Legilimency on you in the past, you were sometimes thrown from your feet.”

“Your concern is touching,” Harry drawled, “but in the meantime, I think I’d like to stand up. Besides, you won’t be as rough on me this time, correct? You’re looking for information on how to strengthen the bond, not trying to tear my mind apart.”

“He never did that,” Malfoy said, as if shocked.

Harry snorted. “Don’t interfere in hatreds you don’t understand, Malfoy.” He faced Snape again and repeated, “Ready.”

*

Severus entered Potter’s mind slowly, gently. He had once had to manage this far more often, when he was scooping up information from students’ minds without them ever knowing that they had been read, but he was out of practice. Brewing and answering letters had left him with a shortage of minds to look into, bar the odd apothecary who tried to cheat him.

The memories that streamed past him had a smoky kind of mist over them, one that looked as if it would tighten if Severus tried to reach out towards it. Severus relaxed a bit. Yes, the binding potion was working. It would keep him from breaking his promise even if he wanted to break it.

Severus turned his attention straight ahead, to the memories that stretched like a crimson galaxy across Potter’s mind, the memories of the bond and the ritual. Around them, the bond lay and sparked sullenly, and Severus could see floating pockets that might be the representations of him and Draco that the bond had taken on in Potter’s mind.

Severus reached out and dipped into the memories, sweeping Legilimency through them like a fishnet so that he could understand how Potter related to the bond.

He came out shaking with pain, with rage that went so deep there was no bottom, and with a darker version of the determination that formed the steel mountain in the back of his mind. That was what Potter felt about the bond and the memories of the ritual. That was what he had felt when he negotiated with the bond and established the form they now suffered under. That was what consumed him, instead of the need to take and the insistence on completion that had been Severus’s experience under the bond.

Severus would have liked to shut his eyes and rest a moment, but he had a task to accomplish here, and for various reasons he did not want to spend any more time in Potter’s mind than he had to.

He swiftly sought out the places in Potter’s mind that the bond touched. The memories, and the representations of Draco and himself. There was also a physical connection, a dark spike disappearing down the center towards Potter’s spine, similar to the kind of physical brain damage Severus had sometimes seen in the minds of people like Bellatrix Lestrange.

And that was it. Potter had contained the bond, instead of allowing it to spread out the way that Severus knew a telepathic bond usually would. Ramparts of hatred walled it.

Severus studied the mindscape for long seconds before he was certain he understood it. Breaking through the ramparts in the traditional way and spreading the bond throughout Potter’s mind would not be possible, both because his hatred of what had happened was too strong and because Severus had promised not to touch those other parts of his thoughts. So Severus had a different road to use instead.

He grimaced as he reached into the center of himself, because this was never easy, and it would be less easy with someone who had as much reason to resist and resent him as Potter did. But because he was inside Potter’s mind and using a magic, Legilimency, that he had practiced so much and understood so well, Severus thought he could do it.

He breached his own barriers, and placed his memories carefully into the center of Potter’s mind, the place he had permission to occupy. Then he retreated until he could feel his body all around him again, and it was only the magic that was holding the link.

Potter was the one who would have to decide if he could accept the implied invitation and spread the bond through Severus’s mind, instead. It would still be difficult and might mean that Potter had less control of the bond on his end, but Severus thought having a third partner involved, in this case, would make it up for it.

Besides, Potter would probably welcome a less intimate kind of telepathic communication.

Severus rested, and waited, and only allowed himself to consider, in tiny glimpses, the horrible emotions that he had raised from his initial foray into Potter’s memories. If Potter felt like that, it was a wonder he had not lashed out and killed one of them before now. Or himself. Severus would not rule out that method of escape from the bond, either.

They would have to see what they could do to help Potter with his horror and his rage—not for the sake of the mental bond, but the physical one.

*

Draco raised an eyebrow, and fell back a step from Severus. There was an expression on his face that was different from the usual indifference and placidity that he showed when he was in the middle of a delicate bout of Legilimency. His pupils were dilated, and his breath came in little huffing gasps past his lips that he would probably hate to think about Draco contemplating.

But Draco flinched more at the look on Potter’s face. He just stood there and endured, his arms folded, his head bowed as much as it could be while he maintained his gaze on Severus’s face, the locking of their eyes. Suffering had carved grim lines in Potter’s face that were already familiar, Draco thought. It might be the first time Potter had been through something this bad, but it was obvious that it wasn’t the first time he had been through something horrible.

I wish it had worked out any other way. I wish we didn’t do that. 

But Draco couldn’t even wish that when he thought about it, not all the way through, not with sincerity, because that would mean they’d be dead, and he shuddered away from the thought. He had done so much so far to survive, and he hated the thought of surrendering and slipping away. And so would Potter. It was the reason he had survived so long, why he had negotiated with the bond in the first place instead of surrendering to it.

But we have to do something about his emotions. We have to give him some safe way to express them. Otherwise, it is going to come down to murder and destruction in the end.

Severus suddenly staggered and gasped. Draco reached out for him, not sure what had happened, not sure if he could help with the mental aspect of this—he was good at Occlumency, much worse at Legilimency—but at least wanting to make sure that Severus didn’t bang his head into the floor.

“Are you all right?” he asked into Severus’s ear as Severus stood there with his head down and his body trembling.

Severus raised his hand and laid it on Draco’s. Draco flinched a little. His hand was hot, and there was a subtle ringing in the back of his own mind that seemed to get into the pool of emotions that represented Severus for him and stir them up, make the bitterness dance and ripple, and not settle down again.

“I can feel it,” Potter said aloud. He opened his eyes and turned his head, and there was a pride in the movement that gave Draco the incoherent beginnings of a plan. The pride of a hawk, the pride of a lion, he thought, a little more coherently. Potter functioned best on the offensive, not the defensive, when he could hunt and not wait like a patient victim.

Another reason this bond is so hard on him.

“I have the bond now,” Potter said, his gaze fixed on Draco as if he and not Severus was the one who had initiated the telepathic aspect. “And I know how to extend it to you, Malfoy.” He moved forwards a step, and although Draco braced himself, he didn’t run. He thought several things would be ruined now if he did.

Potter reached out and his fingers slid up Draco’s arm to his shoulder, feather-light for a moment but then pressing hard. Draco shuddered a little and closed his eyes as the bond entered him like a living thing, a squirming snake that slid under his skin and—

I know that you can hear me when I speak like this, Malfoy.

Draco shuddered all over. He knew, because he could feel Severus’s presence behind Potter’s, what had happened. Severus had let Potter take control of the bond, the only way to make him participate in it.

Potter laughed, a noise like ice splitting. Say that he convinced me. No one makes me do anything.

We are still vulnerable, Severus said, his words more distant and precise in the telepathic world than aloud. We still might fall victim to Aurors of Stockwell’s division, should some of them find out what happened and come after us. Remember that. 

Potter was laughing and shuddering both at once. Draco knew that the mountain was still there, the steel mountain, but along with it came a sensation like water running down the metal, springing from a source near the top. I remember. And I know what we can do in the meantime. You’re right, Malfoy. I have to get rid of some of these emotions. I don’t want them to overflow and destroy anyone except our enemies. 

Draco swallowed, trying to draw back from the overwhelming experience of speaking mentally, which made him hardly able to notice his body anymore, but also aware that he was probably contributing to the experience by speaking the way he did. I thought you considered us enemies.

Potter cocked his head at him. And this time, the whole steel mountain was paying attention to Draco, too. He winced.

Snape swore on the binding potion and put the bond in my hands, Potter said. And you already submitted to me once. I know how to destroy you now if you try to take that back. A pause that wasn’t long enough in any sense for Draco to adjust, and Potter pushed ahead. We need to purge this poison out of my head, and then we need to move on the Ministry.

The Ministry? Not the Lestranges? Severus asked, his voice like a coiling rope.

Not them, Potter said. We don’t have the resources to find them or take them yet. In the meantime…

And he swung all of them to look towards one of the Manor gardens that had been largely left unplanted and untended after the Dark Lord had killed some Muggles there, a garden not visible from the windows in the room where they stood, but which Potter knew the exact location of from Draco’s memories.

Yes, Potter said. That will do nicely.

Chapter Text

“I would prefer that you didn’t rip all my flowers and grass out of the grounds.”

Harry ignored the mutter from Malfoy. He had decided that strengthening the telepathic part of the bond was important right now, and that meant speaking mentally every time they wanted to communicate something. He was busy, anyway.

He stalked slowly back and forth, eyes on the neat square of brown in front of him. It had once held flowers, he thought, but it had been bare for years now. If he reached down into the earth with a spell, though, there were still buried seeds there, lost and forgotten, and if he cast a spell that twisted and coaxed them a bit…

“Did you hear me, Potter?”

Harry felt a little thrill race through him as he kept his back turned and ignored Malfoy some more. It was the same sort of thrill he had felt when he’d realized what Snape had done with the bond: touched it, triggered it, but backed off and put Harry in charge.

This was strength, racing from mind to mind, touching thoughts and channeling them. When he wanted to, he could shut down the conduits, and neither Snape nor Malfoy would be able to open them again until he told them they could. When he wanted to speak to them, they jumped, unable to turn away from him.

This was power.

Don’t rip up my garden!

That came with a feeling like someone placing a hand on his shoulder. Harry shuddered all over under it. Was Malfoy breaking their implicit agreement? Was he trying to take control of the bond from Harry?

But the sensation retreated, and Harry realized what it had been. Malfoy had wanted to get his attention, so he had reached through the bond in a way that was like tapping someone on the shoulder. But Harry was free, and still stronger in the bond than Malfoy would ever manage to be. Harry controlled his snort and bent down to cast his spell directly on the earth.

Don’t worry, Malfoy. I’m only going to add a few things to the garden that would never have grown here otherwise, and take my vengeance from them. Before Malfoy could voice some sort of concern about that, Harry breathed out, “Flos malus.

There was a bark in the back of his mind as Snape recognized the spell, but he was too far away, and Harry too near, for him to do anything about it. The seed Harry had found came exploding out of the earth as a red flower with thorns encircling it like a whipping fence. It whirled the thorns around it and cast them directly at Harry, a net that would do more than scratch him to death if he was caught within it. The flower would pierce his skin and drink his blood through the long, hollow thorns.

But Harry was ready for it, and he danced backwards, and he felt his bondmates’ outrage and concern as sweet wine in the back of his mind as he called, “Reducto!”

The Blasting Curse hit the flower and crumpled and crumbled it down to its root. The thorns went flying from it and struck the ground like spears a good distance away. Neither Malfoy nor Snape was standing in the path of the flying things, so it wasn’t like they could be hurt, but Harry felt them flinch anyway.

They were sheltered, Harry thought. Even Snape was, even with all his bloody and horrible past. They didn’t know what Harry had faced in Auror training and then the year he had spent as an Auror before the bonding ritual.

We know plenty about blood and pain—

He couldn’t even tell which one of them that was, their voices blending into an irritating chorus in the back of his head. The only thing that mattered was the stretch of his muscles, the way the flower was ripping back towards him, and another seed he had enchanted was starting to sprout, although this one had tangling vines that spread along the ground and tried to snare his feet. He danced madly around them, over them, and Vanished the dripping remains of the first flower before swinging around to confront the second.

The vines had crept behind him, and tried to sneak up his arms and grab his wand.

Harry grinned. He had to appreciate the subtlety and speed of the plant, really. But it had made the same mistake that so many of his enemies had—a point he proved by muttering a vicious spell that made the plant start to wither and turn brown the moment it came into contact with his skin.

He was better.

Malfoy squawked and retreated as a third flower started to sprout, near him. Harry planted himself in front of his bondmate, who needed his protection and was a lot more helpless than Harry.

That made him conscious of the indignation flowing from Malfoy, the way he would be conscious of hot food in his mouth. Harry shrugged merrily and spread his legs wide, the better to brace and balance, his eyes steady on the flowers. They were wriggling towards him, but the nearest one was too little for him to tell what it would be yet, or whether it was dangerous, so his eyes went back to the one with the vines.

The vines had tied themselves together into a knot, and it looked as if the plant might try the tactic of the first flower, although it would throw a net made of tendrils rather than thorns over his head. Harry bent down a little to encourage it, ignoring the shrieks in the back of his mind about how he was mad from Malfoy and Snape. At least Malfoy had retreated a little, which meant Harry wouldn’t bump into him when he had to move fast.

The plant moved with speed that Harry hadn’t known it would be able to muster, curving an almost elegant net towards the back of his neck and knees.

But Harry leaped while it was still throwing, and came down safely to the side. He cast a curse he had learned that produced a brilliant yellow light, and where it hit, the plant burst into soft, soundless flame. It writhed and tried to sink into the soil, but the flames would harm nothing but it. They simply went under the ground with it, consuming it from the leaves down to the roots.

Harry began to laugh, and couldn’t stop. He could feel the spasms racking him from the inside out, the way that his cries had during the bonding ritual.

No, the way they had not. He had kept his pain inside, grunting and screaming only when pain forced him to. He’d had that little crisis about how it wasn’t fair and he didn’t want to do anything like this, and got it out of the way before Snape and Malfoy woke up.

Harry was still frowning about the odd disconnect in his memories when the third plant erupted from beneath him.

It wasn’t small, after all. It had just hidden its size under the loose soil, and what rose was a giant cup of a flower, opening to the extent that it could engulf him. Its petals gaped and there was a gleam of something wet in the middle of its throat that Harry would wager was more dangerous than nectar or pollen.

He twisted and leaped, foot skidding off a slick petal as he did so. He ended up a short distance away, less far than he would have gone if he’d been prepared. The plant’s pink petals closed, realized they were munching nothing, and turned towards him.

Flamma.”

There was Snape’s voice, so low that Harry couldn’t tell the emotion in it. Consulting the bond told him nothing. Snape couldn’t lift walls that would keep Harry’s mental voice from reaching him, but it seemed he could do the next best thing, and make sure that no information about himself would reach Harry.

Harry whipped around and yelled at Snape. The plant had burst into the flames, and he had raised only three. There was no need to worry about more of them. “How dare you! I was handling it!”

You were in danger, Snape hissed in the back of Harry’s mind. Now Harry could work out what his emotions were, all right. Snape was spitting like a struck cat, forcing his concern and his irritation into Harry’s mind until he had no choice but to pay attention to it. You have no right to toy with your life like that. Not when it would mean that the both of us would be dragged to death by it.

Harry laughed again, but this one was short and sharp and didn’t rack him with convulsions. What did you think I meant to do when I said that I would come out here and work the negative emotions off? I’m an Auror. Facing danger is part of my job.

Creating your own danger is not, Snape said, but Harry was more intrigued by something he had caught a flash of from Malfoy, like a mouse darting around the corner before his eyes could focus fully on it. He turned to stare at Malfoy, who was standing now with his gaze fixed on the dirt.

I told you not to tear up my garden, Malfoy thought to him.

You can put the soil back, Harry snapped at him. I want to know what you were thinking a minute ago. Do you agree with Snape that I shouldn’t be creating my own danger? Snape was ridiculous, but it would help to know what side Malfoy was on, if not just his own.

Malfoy nodded. You could conjure dummies and send spells at them. That’s what I thought you would do. Not raise things that could attack back. And not use the last of the seeds that were here to do it.

Harry shook his head in fury. No. It was more than that. You had a thought a minute ago, when I said that I was an Auror. What was it? 

Faced with him, and the words pumping into his mind like blood, Malfoy remembered what had darted through his head before he could hide it. Harry ran after it and ripped it from his head, ignoring the way Malfoy screamed. That was what it meant, for him to be in control of the bond. Besides, a second later Malfoy was fine. It was only the mental pain that troubled him, the same kind of pain that Harry used to suffer all the time when Snape used Legilimency on him.

I did not tell you you could do that, Snape said.

You’re not in charge here, old man, Harry said.

What he had found was a memory. Malfoy—only he thought of himself as Draco—standing in the middle of that chamber where Harry had slaughtered the other Aurors with a pendulum spell and shaking his head at Harry’s back. He had thought that, however Harry wanted to define himself, just being an Auror didn’t come into it. Aurors didn’t know curses like that. Aurors weren’t Dark like that.

Harry caught another undercurrent, also part of the memory because Malfoy had thought it at the same time, but linked to a previous one. An ordinary Auror couldn’t survive a bonding ritual the way Harry had.

“Most Aurors wouldn’t be virgins,” Harry said aloud. His pulse was thundering in his ears in a way it hadn’t been when he was scrambling around the garden away from the flowers. He tasted the cold, dry sensation of shock in his mouth. He stared at Malfoy and shook his head. What would he come up with next? That Harry wasn’t human? That Harry had done some superb thing in bargaining the bond to tie them like this? 

If the alternative is leaking our brains out our ears, you did.

Harry snapped up to look at Malfoy. Malfoy was watching him with one hand cupped over his ear, as though he wanted to prevent his brain from dripping out of it even now. Harry snorted. “It wasn’t superb. I did it because I wanted to survive so much.”

“Why is that a bad thing?” It was Snape who spoke, the sound of gritted teeth so much in his voice that Harry wanted to laugh aloud. Again. Was Snape trying to convince Harry he was neutral, or not upset about Harry pulling Malfoy’s thoughts out of his head? He wasn’t going to do that as long as they had a telepathic bond. “And we survived as well.”

“I only made sure that you survived because I couldn’t think of a way to separate us where the bond was concerned,” Harry snapped. Were they this stupid? Did they think that Harry had some sort of compassion for them and had suspected they would be tied together like this?

I think you had guilt because the Lestranges forced their way past the wards. You didn’t think that you’d done your part to protect us. 

Harry whirled and faced Malfoy. “Stay out of my head, you fuck,” he whispered.

You were the one who was saying just now that we can’t expect privacy from a telepathic bond, Snape said, his voice sliding along smooth as oil. And you were the one who wanted us to practice the telepathy before, so that we would be able to strengthen the bond. What has changed? 

Harry licked his lips. He couldn’t say it, even telepathically, but he could think it. He didn’t want them to say that he had conquered the bond out of guilt.

But that is what you thought at the time. Snape spoke so slowly that Harry would have known he was confused without the knowledge falling into place in the back of his mind. You thought that you could spare us some pain by negotiating with the ritual and making your virginity its price. I saw that when I touched your memories of the moment.

Harry’s thoughts raced around his head, probably corralled by the bond, probably able to be read, no matter how much Harry flinched and hunched from the idea. He didn’t want Snape to read them. He didn’t want to remember the ritual. He didn’t want to deal with the consequences. He didn’t want them to say—

That you’re extraordinary? 

It was Malfoy and not Snape who had found his way to that thought. Harry turned his head and stared at Malfoy. He came up and stopped about a meter away from Harry, his eyes fixed on Harry’s face.

Why is it that thought that hurts you so much? Malfoy whispered. The bond stirred and rattled like a sheet of tin in the back of Harry’s head, and more information poured into his mind. Malfoy would spare him this if he could, but Harry had already picked up the thought, and anyway, he wanted to understand.

Because if I was that extraordinary, Harry replied, as if he was in a conversation with Hermione and nothing but honesty would do, I would have found some other way out of the situation than bonding myself to my rapists. 

Malfoy flinched, but didn’t retreat. You did the only thing you could, the only thing that would let us all survive. He paused. I’m proud of you.

Harry laughed. Malfoy took a step closer instead of retreating, although Harry could feel his fear, jerking and dancing and whispering in the back of his head. 

You have no idea what you’re talking about. It’s impossible that you should be proud of me.

Malfoy shook his head, holding Harry’s gaze. Harry wondered if that was so Snape could creep up behind him and stab him in the back, but it didn’t matter. He was unable to look away from Malfoy’s face even if that was what was about to happen.

I know what I feel. It took me some time to come to terms with it, I admit. Malfoy paused. And longer to see what I should have acknowledged before now, that you use this madness to drive and keep away everyone you can.

Harry swallowed. His throat felt torn by the laughter and the shrieking, and his head was spinning with the rage again.

You have a reason to resent us. Malfoy stared at him. But you’re driving away your friends as well, and I don’t think you told any of the other Aurors what you were really searching for. You can’t trust a single one of them? 

Harry thought of Stockwell and the other Aurors piled under the Draught of Living Death in the middle of Malfoy’s dining room right now, flinging the images like knives at him. At them, because Snape was standing behind him and listening, too.

But they’re Aurors that you don’t know, Malfoy said. I know from the way you think about Stockwell that you didn’t know her before this, and you were just as surprised by what she said under Veritaserum as any of the rest of us were. Isn’t there anyone you could trust? Any of the Aurors you already knew that you think might give you someone to work with, instead of against? 

The wistful ring in his voice made Harry fold his arms hard enough that his shoulders hurt. You’d like that, wouldn’t you? Someone to make me weak and easier for you to live with? 

Stop this, Snape hissed, his voice more like Nagini’s than anything Harry had heard in years. It is not unnatural for you to trust and work with others. Perhaps it would be unnatural for us. There were shades and nuances behind those words that Harry didn’t understand, and which he didn’t intend to investigate. Snape was as human to him as Harry would ever need. But for you? What has changed? 

Harry stared at him, silently challenging him to ask that question again.

“The rape.” This time, Snape spoke aloud, studying Harry. “The rape destroyed your trust of all involved in it. The ones you trusted at the time, that is. Including the Aurors who were supposed to keep your secrets and prevent something like what the Lestranges did from happening.”

Harry was breathing fast. There were thoughts in his head, bounding from side to side and ricocheting off invisible walls, but he had no idea whose they were. The rape didn’t affect me that much. It couldn’t have. 

Yes, it did, Malfoy said. Of course it did.

Harry clutched at his head. The thoughts were running circles, and different ones flashed back and forth and moving so fast that Harry couldn’t distinguish the gleam of them. Of course the rape had affected him; he had flung the reminder of that in Snape and Malfoy’s faces often enough. Of course it hadn’t affected him too much; he wasn’t weak that way, he was his ordinary self still. Of course he wasn’t ordinary; he was the bloody Chosen One, and he was a good Auror who could concentrate on his job to the exclusion of everything else, including something like this, his determination strengthened by the ordeal. Of course a normal Auror didn’t concentrate on his job to the exclusion of all else, and wouldn’t have expected to face something like the Lestranges’ demented bonding ritual.

He wanted more than anything to be an ordinary Auror.

I was affected by this. I’m shaken by it.

I wasn’t affected by it. I’m normal.

Those things can’t both be true.

This time, the sensation in his head was more like an egg splitting open. His brain had been dropped from a great height, maybe, and splattered open when it met the ground. Harry found himself sagging down, his arms wrapped around his head, whimpering so pitifully that the thought darted across his mind that Malfoy and Snape would despise him for it.

Never, said Malfoy, and there was empathy there, maybe no sympathy, because Malfoy was still distant from Harry and not part of him, but memories of his own cowardice and fear and pain during the war, and the times that he’d had to lock himself in a room deep in the Manor and sob because he would go mad if he didn’t.

I’m already mad. 

You are not, said Snape. I would know if you were, because I am an expert in madness.

That struck Harry as funny, and he wanted to laugh, but it came out as a choked sob instead. He sensed Malfoy approaching, and pushed him as hard as he could with his thoughts when his body was shaking with fear and pain. Don’t touch me. I can’t stand it if you touch me. 

Malfoy crouched down on the grass near him, as Harry could hear from the slight shifting of grass and dirt, but didn’t touch him. I’m just going to sit here, Malfoy whispered. I won’t even watch if you don’t want me to.

Harry wrapped his arms around himself and huddled further over in response. He didn’t care if Malfoy watched or not. Or Snape. They would hear what was going on, and that was humiliation enough for him—

And then the sorrow and the rage ripped him apart.

Harry did what he could to keep his face buried, in the dirt when he couldn’t keep his arms still enough to hide himself completely. He didn’t watch them watching him. He didn’t even know if they were. The stillness in the back of his mind, the two points that weren’t torn apart, wavered back and forth at first, and then steadied. They were two rocks that didn’t move even as the earthquakes traveled through his emotions.

Rage. How could this have happened to him? Why had this happened to him? Why did it have to happen to him when he was finally happy and leading a life that was his own for once?

Fear. What if Voldemort came back, and everything that he had won turned to dust and ashes? What if he had to keep saving the world again and again?

Frustration. He didn’t want this bond, he didn’t want to live with it, and he didn’t care if that made him sound like a petulant little child, it was just the truth.

Sorrow. He wished things could have been different, that he could have found some other way to escape the bond and live with Snape and Malfoy, that he could have found some other way to protect them and himself, even that he could have lost his virginity a different way. That was a small thing compared to everything else, but it was there.

And trying to ignore the little things had only let those little things dominate him.

He sobbed sometimes, and ripped up the dirt with his fingers at others, and uttered muffled screams towards the end, when the tears had become furious dryness and he just wanted to release it. And when everything finally passed, he lay there and shook. 

It was the first time Harry could remember since the war that he had just let everything go. He hadn’t bottled things up, not really. But he had usually got rid of them by arresting someone or dueling constantly with Ron. This time, he had left Ron and Hermione behind, through no fault of his own.

Snape and Malfoy were here.

But not all that troublesome right now, Harry thought, lifting his head and wiping soil off his face. Snape sat on the ground, his legs crossed, his eyes closed, for all the world as if he was practicing meditation. Maybe he was. Malfoy watched him, his hands resting on his knees and his eyes rimmed with tiredness.

Harry spoke aloud. “Sorry I ripped up your garden.”

Malfoy half-smiled. We can put it back.

Harry nodded and turned to Snape. Snape opened his eyes, and his presence in the back of Harry’s mind became a little more focused, but it was still hard to tell what he was feeling. Harry thought he was in abeyance, actually, holding himself back and seeing what would happen.

“That revenge you mentioned once before,” Harry whispered. “I think I might be a little more interested in taking it now.”

Chapter Text

“It seems to me that we can make good use of those Aurors you killed.”

Draco could feel the startled surge in the back of his mind, the emotion that immediately dried up and sealed itself away in the sides of the steel mountain. At least not every emotion was doing that, Draco thought. Only the ones that Potter thought could make him weak, or cause Severus and Draco to taunt him. He could express rage and curiosity, and he turned towards Draco now and raised his eyebrows.

“What do you mean?”

Draco put his hands on the table and regarded Potter directly. The bond hummed between them, and Draco felt as though he could put his hand out and touch the cord in the air that connected them, where it bent and how it flowed. “Can’t you read the answer out of my head? I didn’t think the bond was that limited.”

“I’m choosing not to do that right now.” Potter’s voice was so low that it was hard to register, and only the leap of light off the steel mountain in the back of his thoughts told Draco what was going on.

Draco paused, then shrugged. So Potter wanted to talk aloud right now. Why not? 

Severus, across the table from him, gave him a look. Draco ignored it. It wasn’t as though Severus had come up with a way to communicate that Potter wouldn’t overhear. Private conversations would just have to wait until Potter was asleep or something.

Or they would have to include Potter. If he thought about that long enough, Draco was almost certain he would get used to it.

“I mean,” Draco said, deciding that returning to the original question would be more productive right now than picking through motive with those green eyes staring at him, “that we have a pile of bodies at our disposal, and no one will know who killed them. Unless that pendulum curse is a signature spell or something.”

Potter made a soft noise. “Ron knows it, too.”

“Is it something you developed on your own?” Severus’s voice was distant, and he looked over Potter’s head at the far wall. Draco rolled his eyes. He didn’t care if Severus “overheard” him doing it. He would overhear things far more destructive to his peace, in the end.

“No,” Potter said. “But he would recognize it, if you’re thinking about putting bodies around the Ministry with limbs chopped off.” He cocked his head at Draco. “Why are you thinking of doing that?”

Really, he’s surprisingly intelligent when he doesn’t suppress his intelligence and pretend that his determination is the only part of him worth paying attention to, Draco thought, and he didn’t care who heard that thought, either. “Because we need to stampede your other enemies out of hiding,” he said.

“I thought Stockwell gave us a long list of names.”

“A long list, but most of them are not particularly powerful people in the Ministry,” said Severus. He seemed to have decided that the table was at least as interesting as the far wall. “The ones who are, we have little excuse for approaching. So we see what their reaction is to the bodies, who bolts and runs, who makes accusations, who suddenly acquires new protection on their offices.”

Potter’s frown grew hard enough to compete with the durability of the steel mountain. “How are we going to see that for certain? I can’t go back to the Ministry right now. I’ve come up with the lie that I’m on holiday because I was wounded when the Lestranges tortured me. It was supposed to give me some time and cover while I searched for the traitor in the Aurors, but now…”

“This is where your friends come in,” Severus said. “Your partner Weasley is still working as an Auror, is he not? He can pass information on to us.”

“Absolutely not.”

It was Draco’s turn to stare at something, but he chose the ceiling. “Why not?” he asked in a toneless voice.

“Because they’re my friends.” Potter slammed his hand down on the table as though making it bounce was worth something, and glared at them. “I don’t want to drag them further into this than I already have.”

“You’ve already told them the truth,” Draco said. He didn’t know, honestly, if he had received that information through the bond or if it was simply the sensible thing to suspect, but he knew that it was right. “You told them about the rape and ritual and everything else. Granger was the one who suggested that you use the bond the way we’re doing right now. I don’t see how letting them know still more places them in danger. It might keep them out of it. What if Weasley trusts the wrong people, otherwise?”

Potter’s hands flexed. “I trust you to protect yourselves, the way you did when you came after me when Stockwell and her people had me. Ron and Hermione—don’t have those kinds of skills.”

Severus was staring. Draco bit back a smile. He knew why. Severus wasn’t used to being complimented. In a second, he would press his hand to his heart and fire off some sarcastic comment, to ruin the moment.

On purpose. Because that was how he dealt with such things. It was the way he had dealt with Draco buying him a new cauldron for his birthday, and reassuring him that he deserved the life he was making for himself in wizarding society since the war and the revelation of his true loyalties, and almost everything else.

Stop it, Draco threw at Severus, and turned to Potter. “I think that information would help protect them, would help give them those skills. And if Weasley knows the pendulum curse, that’s a good start. Get him to teach those kinds of spells to Granger.”

Potter flushed. “We—we never told Hermione that we were studying those kinds of spells.”

“Why not?” Severus had found his voice, and perhaps because he was ashamed of Draco’s scolding—although the brown bitterness in the back of Draco’s mind had turned dun, so it was sort of hard to tell—he kept it cool and neutral. “Did you think that she would object on the grounds of morality?”

Potter turned to face him. “We knew she would.”

Draco shook his head. And Potter wanted to think of himself as an ordinary Auror, ordinary Gryffindor, no different from anyone else who had the traits he saw as essential to his being, when he was willing to make exceptions and bend rules and keep secrets even from his closest friends. Who did he think he was?

Someone who doesn’t appreciate the way you’re thinking now, Potter said, flowing into and out of Draco’s mind in the space of a breath.

Draco turned one hand upwards and shrugged a little. He would have withdrawn before the purging of Potter’s emotions in the garden—purged more by the crying Potter had done, he would say, then the spells he had cast to destroy the Transfigured flowers. But this Potter was not as dangerous as that one had been.

You think so? Another surge of breath-like, wind-like communication.

Draco raised his head and let his eyes meet Potter’s. He half-nodded. Yes. But you remain dangerous now. Just not as mad. And I like this kind of dangerous better. 

Potter stared at him with his mouth half-open, then turned back to Severus. He seemed to find it easier to deal with a man he thought hated him than a man who gave him compliments, Draco decided. Well, that was one thing Potter and Severus had in common at least, their hatred of being praised. “I don’t think going to Hermione and telling her that we were keeping the spell secret from her on purpose would be a good move now. Or telling her about the Aurors I killed.”

“Then come up with some other way to protect her,” Severus murmured. “Use some of the spells in the books here to defend her, or bind her to secrecy if you must.”

Potter snarled; the mountain shot up higher. “No one is going to bind Hermione, or either one of my friends.”

“It was only one strategy suggested,” Draco said. He thought he would get tired of playing peacemaker soon, but at least for now, it was necessary. “No need to get so defensive, Potter.”

“You think,” Potter said, staring at him with eyes like stars, “that I want either one of my friends subjected to the same sorts of indignities that come to me down this fucking bond? I hardly think so.”

Draco stared back at him, a little at a loss for words. “So you don’t really take to the bond, no matter how useful it is,” he finally discovered, somewhere near the back of his mind.

“It’s a fucking nightmare,” Potter said. “But it’s a nightmare that we can’t wake up from until we find the time to concentrate on it and modify one of the Veela bonding rituals I was talking about, the one that might allow us to sever it altogether. And that will only be after we take down our enemies.”

“I thought it might—I thought it might be more useful to you now because it would allow you to take revenge on the Lestranges,” Draco said, still at a loss. It shouldn’t be possible to misunderstand someone you were telepathically bonded to this much.

Then again, it was Potter.

“Of course it could be useful to take revenge,” Potter said, staring at him as if Draco was the one who had ended up doing something odd. “But what happens after the revenge? What are we going to do when that particular concept isn’t occupying the whole of our time and attention? What good does the bond do then?”

“It could give you power that would protect you against further attacks,” Draco said. He thought the revenge against the Lestranges might be over quickly, but the repercussions for Potter’s Auror career from him attacking other Aurors would go on for a long time. “Allies who could be summoned to your side in a moment’s notice, the way we already have been.”

Potter shook his head. “It’s not worth the horror and the expense to me of having people in my head.”

“The horror of having people in your head,” Draco muttered, and looked sideways at Severus.

Severus slowly folded his hands. Draco winced a little. He had seen Severus do that before, and it never turned out better than Severus trying to scorn a compliment did.

Severus caught his eye and briefly sneered at him. Then he faced Potter, and Draco sighed and leaned back. He’d been wishing that someone else would take over his role of talking to Potter. Well, there was only one other person that could.

Not his role of peacemaker, of course. Severus was incapable of that. But perhaps Draco should retreat, for right now, and come back and pick up the pieces later. He was getting nowhere new with Potter.

*

Severus restrained himself from snapping, reminding himself again and again about the guilt he had discovered in the back of his mind, the guilt over the rape. It did not matter that the constraints of the ritual and the bargain Potter had made with the bond would allow him and Draco to do little else. It mattered no more than the fact that Severus had not known, at the time he reported the prophecy to the Dark Lord, that it would end up killing Lily.

Guilt was guilt, and done was done.

“I know that you don’t want us here,” Severus said. “But I propose a temporary alliance, lasting no longer than the time that it takes us to find and destroy the Lestranges. After that, we can take the time to look up the rituals that would destroy the bond.”

Potter stared at him. “I already proposed that.”

He looked half-wild, green eyes staring and steel mountain behind them. “I know that,” Severus said. “But you are still focusing more on the horrors of the bond, when we need to focus on the advantages if we are going to use it.”

Potter curled his lip around words that he probably didn’t want to pronounce, and then did no more than nod and sit down heavily in his chair. “Should we work on strengthening the telepathic portion of the bond?” he asked, staring into the distance. “Or the part that would allow us to combine magical power?”

“The part that combines power, of course,” Draco said, sounding as though he was the only one who had been asked, and the only one whose opinion mattered. “It’s not as though we have any other choice.”

“When we fight them, you mean?” Severus asked, and Draco started, remembering he was in the room. “I would have thought the part that allows us to walk paths in our minds that take us to physical places is the more useful, given that the Lestranges are hiding, and we do not know where.”

Potter tensed as if at a blow each time one of them spoke of different aspects of the bond, but did not retreat. Severus supposed that was preferable to the way he had snapped and snarled at them before.

Grace we cannot expect from him.

No, no kind of grace except the sort that matters in dueling, Potter agreed in the back of his thoughts, and Severus was the one to wince this time. Remembering how easily Potter could overhear his thoughts, and therefore the insults that Severus would normally deal out with impunity, was terrifying.

Let it be humbling, too, Potter said, and flowed on before Severus could respond. “What sorts of techniques do the books recommend for strengthening the ability to walk on mental roads? I’ve combined magic with people before and I’m speaking mentally to you lot, but I’ve never even heard of that kind of thing before.”

“My parents’ library will have the right tomes,” Draco said smoothly, and stood up to lead the way. Severus half-relaxed. Draco was still the buffer between him and Potter, the one who could ask questions that Potter had no idea about and Severus was too impatient to answer.

I would appreciate some more help from you than that. 

Scolded in his head by two men half his age, Severus thought as he followed Draco, or very nearly. If he had known during the war that he would live to come to this, he would have…

He would have rejoiced that he was going to live. He would have rolled his eyes in disgust shortly afterwards, perhaps, but that would not have been his first reaction.

He did not catch Potter’s eye, because he would sneer if he did. He simply followed Draco, and watched the way that Draco and Potter fell into step beside each other as if it was the natural thing to do. It would have to become equally natural to all of them, if they were to make the bond work.

That was the part that Severus looked forward to the least.

*

Harry looked around the Malfoy library with approval. Since the war and surviving Auror training, he had grown more appreciative than he used to be of large collections of books. This one was bigger than the Black library’s, or nearly, and looked like it had more varied subjects than the Dark Arts that the majority of the Black books were about.

Accio books on bonds,” Malfoy said, making a smart little move of his wand, and big blocky shapes began to leap off the shelves and head towards them. Harry tensed, but only until he saw the nearest books forming neat piles on the table beside them. As long as they didn’t slam into his head and shoulders, then he was fine.

Malfoy did turn and stare at him, and Harry caught his eyes and shrugged his shoulders. “What?” he asked, plucking a large book off the top of the pile. It was bound in crumbling dark leather, and had a white title on the spine, which was one reason it had attracted Harry. Most of the books in a similar condition in the Black library had their titles all but worn away. Bonds and Their Consequences. “I didn’t know that they wouldn’t hit me at first. It’s pretty normal to flinch from flying books.”

“But not normal to think that your bondmate would let them hit you,” Malfoy said. “Not when both of us would have to suffer the pain from the strikes.”

Harry thought he hid his smile, but apparently not quickly enough. Snape slid forwards from the other side. “Do tell us the source of your amusement,” he said. 

Harry flung the thought at him. You and Malfoy still talk about yourselves as part of a unit. When you say “us,” that’s what you mean. So much for the efforts to build the bond into something that encompasses all of us.

He found himself hoping Snape would snap back, because he could use a good fight, but instead, Snape simply exchanged glances with Malfoy and then turned back to Harry and bowed a little. “I did not realize that we were doing that,” he said. “We shall endeavor to make sure that we do not do it in the future.”

Harry stared at him. “But you will.”

“That is why I said that we shall endeavor not to do it,” Snape said, annoyance creeping into his voice. “Not that we never will again. We shall fail. But we will try.”

Harry turned away, unaccountably annoyed himself, not by Snape’s reaction, but by the missed chance to argue with him. “All right,” he said, abruptly. “What kind of book in this mess talks about the roads through the mind and how to build them?” He put down the book he had picked up and took up the next one. This one had a cover that was hanging on by a thread. Harry wondered idly if no Malfoy ancestors had ever had to cast a Preservation Charm.

Of course we have, Malfoy snapped, coming up to take the book from him.

Harry nodded to him. “Well done,” he said aloud. “That time, the first person plural referred to you and your family, instead of you and Snape together. A change indeed.”

Malfoy glared at him, then bit his lip and suddenly dropped the glare, although he went on staring. Harry tilted his head mockingly. “What?”

“Your teasing and sniping at us is only going to make us all the more determined to survive,” Malfoy said softly, and put the book down, although not before casting a Preservation Charm on it that mended the cover and sent the dust flying off in a large puff. Harry nodded congratulations again. Malfoy ground his teeth, from the sound of it, but tried to speak normally. “Anyway. I think this is the kind of book that will help us.”

He sorted through several and came up with a slim book that almost looked like Tom Riddle’s diary. Harry stifled the recoil he wanted to make and looked it over carefully. “Why that particular one?” he asked at last, after he had tried and failed to make out any difference between it and the rest. “I give up.”

“Because,” Malfoy said, and turned it around. This time, Harry could make out the title stamped on the cover. Rare Effects of Bonds.

Harry nodded grudgingly. The ability to walk from place to place in one’s mind was certainly rare. He’d never heard of any bond that could make it real, and he wasn’t sure that he believed this one could.

Malfoy cast him one more look, and then sat down at the table with it. “Severus, you might see about brewing Clarifying and Strengthening Potions,” he said absently. “Potter, read with me.”

“How can I do that, when there’s only one book between us?” Harry asked, but he dragged his chair up to the table and sat down beside Malfoy. He was most impressed with the way that Snape nodded distantly and left the room, presumably for his lab, as though Malfoy was his commander.

Or maybe that’s another effect of the two of them being one unit and me being the other.

“I’ll hold it so that we can both see it,” said Malfoy, and positioned the book that way as he talked. “I have more training in magical theory, but you’re the one who experienced the most pain from the bond and probably some other sensations that you haven’t talked about yet. So you’re the one who might realize that a description applies to the bond when we don’t.”

Harry caught his eye. Malfoy grimaced. “Sorry,” he said. “But Severus and I have been living together since the bonding ritual, and that means that I’m more used to thinking of him as standing with me, and you as standing apart.”

Try as he might, Harry couldn’t really find a way to disdain that apology. He nodded grudgingly instead. “Thanks,” he said. “For saying that.” He paused, then added, “Why did Snape stay with you instead of going back to his house?” He thought Snape had a home of his own, even though he seemed comfortable and had a lab here.

Malfoy gave him a sharp look. “Because who would want to be alone, after an experience like that fucked-up ritual?”

“I would,” said Harry.

Malfoy opened his mouth, then closed it carefully. Harry felt the tremor in his mind, which a minute later became words, projected down the bond. I know. But I think that was part of what made your emotions so explosive, because you didn’t have someone you could talk them over with and take them out on.

Harry would have said something about Ron and Hermione, but although they had been with him at first, Harry hadn’t let them stay the night with him since the first one, when Ron had been there. He had pushed them away, told them he was fine, that he just wanted to research ways of ending the bond, to go home.

And now he had succumbed to the bond, and he was afraid of appearing weak in front of them.

They’ll understand. I never liked Weasley and Granger much, but I never doubted that they understood you. They’ll do the same thing this time. I’m certain of it. 

Harry counted the seconds as he took air into his lungs and let it out again, concentrating on accepting the reassurance, instead of throwing it away from him because one of his rapists had said it. Then he nodded.

And then they turned to the book, and it became really almost peaceful for a while, the way they read together, their words echoed from mind to mind, and Snape’s brewing was a steady hum in the back of their heads.

Until they came across the sentence that ruined it all.

Chapter Text

Severus stepped back from the cauldron and found himself holding his breath. He exhaled, annoyed with himself. He would not do this. He had wanted the bond to solidify so he would be able to brew again, not because he thought there was a greater danger of being unable to brew even after it did.

But no matter how long he studied it, the Clarifying Draught remained motionless inside the cauldron. It had the transparent color, the perfect glass-like sheen without a tremble of green or blue on its surface, that it was supposed to have, too. Severus relaxed, and picked up a vial and ladle to begin to move it out of the cauldron.

A wordless shout of rage through the bond made him drop the vial. Severus watched it break apart into glittering shards on the floor and pondered, for a moment, the consequences of the bond, and whether being able to brew was really worth the trouble. 

Then he shook his head and stooped to cast a Reparo on the vial. At least bits of glass could be fixed far more easily than a ruined potion.

When the potion was where it should be, inside the repaired and corked vial, Severus turned and walked out of the lab and towards the library. He did not hurry. He had sensed no corresponding shout from Draco, no ringing of worry along the bond. The Manor had not been invaded by rogue Aurors. Potter had not tried to kill Draco. Any lesser crisis meant he didn’t have to worry.

Severus did pause, with one hand on the knob of the library door, and contemplate what it meant, that he could already tell Draco and Potter apart by the way they shouted inside his mind, although he hadn’t had much exposure to their mental voices so far.

Then he brushed it off impatiently and opened the door. He had more than enough to worry about without contemplating such idiocy as that. 

And it seemed that he was needed to clear up some confusion, as well.

*

“I don’t understand why this upsets you so much.”

Even with a bloody fucking telepathic bond, you don’t? Harry asked, and pivoted towards Malfoy, letting his sneer come out fully. He’d been holding it back while he furiously paced around the library, for fear of looking too much like a Slytherin, but apparently he would only look like a smart Slytherin. You can’t even pick up on that much about what I am, about what I need? 

He was aware that Snape had entered and was leaning against the far wall of the library, watching him critically. Harry ignored that. Snape could do what he liked, as long as he didn’t try to interfere in the bond or drive Harry into a position of compromise. Harry was the only one who would be deciding what he did.

Oh, Malfoy said.

Harry rolled his eyes. We find out something awful, and that’s all he can say.

“I would rather like to know what was worth shouting about in a manner that I heard from across the house,” Snape said, in that terribly, horribly polite manner he had, like someone who just happened to be clearing his throat at the scene of an accident he’d had nothing to do with. “If someone could tell me.”

Harry whirled around and picked up the book that he and Malfoy had been studying, letting it dangle from his hand as he held it out to Snape. He knew it was still open at the page that he had spotted the horrible sentence on. He’d hit the book hard enough when he was jumping up from the table to make certain of that. “Here. Tell me what you propose we do about this. Because don’t know.”

Snape picked up the book and bent his head conscientiously over the print, as though he couldn’t use the bond to pick up on the facts from Harry’s mind. Harry ground his teeth and went back to pacing.

I was trying not to use the bond to intrude where I wasn’t wanted, Snape said, his words as gentle as acid. The way that you told me you shouldn’t. I thought that intruding where I wasn’t wanted would make you shut down the bond, and I didn’t want that. 

Harry hissed like a teakettle and turned away again. He knew he was being ridiculous, but his head hurt, and his skin pounded like a drum with the blood beneath it, and he ached so much, and he wanted to lie down and have a nap.

That might be a wise idea, Malfoy suggested. That way, you could be recovered when you woke up, and you’d have had a chance to think about things…

Harry looked at him. Malfoy turned his palms up and sat down at the table.

“I do not see this infamous paragraph,” Snape remarked, and held up the book as he turned to Harry. “What is it?”

“Not a paragraph,” Harry said, and stalked across to pound his finger into the middle of the page. He was aware that that brought him unacceptably close to Snape, but he tried to ignore the way his skin prickled and his heart thudded worse than ever. “A sentence. That last one. There.”

“So different people most control different parts of the bond,” Snape said. “So someone else will have to initiate our ability to walk different mental paths to different physical places, the way that you initiated the telepathic aspect…” Then his voice broke off. “Ah.”

“Expressive,” said Harry, hoping that his voice would show one-tenth of his anger, and began stalking back and forth again. At least neither Snape nor Malfoy tried to say something stupid to comfort him. They just watched him instead, at least until Malfoy turned back to the book and began to rifle through the pages.

“Don’t bother,” Harry said. “I already cast that Seeking Charm, remember? It sought out all the uses of ‘initiate’ in the book. There’s nothing else in there that says the person who already has control of the bond can initiate different parts of it.” He whirled around and punched the wall.

“There are other words that Draco can look up, like ‘control,’” said Snape, but he wasn’t looking at the book. He was looking at Harry instead, and Harry tensed up at the interest in his eyes, the way he cocked his head as though Harry was some sort of intriguing potion.

No. You are in the bond with me. I can understand most potions right away, and whether I want to brew them or not. You’re much more a challenge to figure out. 

“So sorry to do that to you,” Harry tried to snap, but it came out more as a defeated little whimper than anything else. He clenched his hands and stared at the floor until he had his heart settled in one place and his thoughts would stop racing.

“All it would mean,” said Malfoy, although he was still leafing through the book and didn’t look at Harry as he spoke, “is that we would be in charge of different aspects of the bond. You would have control of the telepathy. I would have control of the roads. And maybe Severus would be in charge of the different aspects of combining our powers.”

“Unacceptable,” Harry said at once. “The only reason that I surrendered to this bond in the first place is that you promised me I would be in control of it.”

Rather, Snape said, in the back of his mind, I knew that the only way you would accept the telepathy was to leave you in control of it. It does not mean that I thought you were the best person. In fact, I think your instability threatens all of us. 

“I know I have less rage than before,” Harry said.

Snape looked at the imprint in the wall from his fist, and said nothing.

Harry shook his head wearily. The anger was draining away as fast as it had come, and he would have blamed his “bondmates” for that, but he didn’t think it was their fault. He thought it was simply that he was exhausted, and didn’t have any more capacity for emotion. Instead, he felt bitter, bleak, cold, like the surface of a field in winter. “I’m not going to do something to destroy this. My life, or yours. What guarantee do I have about you, though? You could easily do something that would destroy one of us, probably me, if you were in charge of some aspect of the bond.” He turned away and considered walking out the library door. Maybe there would be fewer problems if he simply went home and started seeking the Lestranges on his own.

In the morning. When he’d had some time to recover from the length of a day that was, in some respects, worse than what had happened to him during the day of the bonding ritual.

“I do not hate you,” Snape said.

Harry nodded. “Right. And you love Gryffindors, and you can stand the sight of me, and Malfoy there is going to start a society to integrate Muggleborns into the wizarding world any time now.”

“Here me out.” It was really the calm of Snape’s voice, which was echoed by the voice speaking in Harry’s head, saying the same words, that made him turn around and give Snape the chance. Snape had chosen to move up beside Malfoy now, but not exactly beside him, instead about halfway between Malfoy and Harry. “It helps that the other parts of the bond are not like telepathy. We must hear each other’s thoughts and emotions, unless you choose to set up the barriers. But while I might be the one who has to initiate the combination of our magic, and Draco the one in charge of the paths, you can resist that more effectively than we can resist the telepathy. The mental part of the bond happens instantly, with little defense. You could refuse to give us your magic or walk down those roads.”

Harry stared at him. That sounded like the sort of thing he needed to make the bond tolerable for him, but Snape hadn’t even read much of that book. “How do you know that?”

“Because stepping onto the roads would be a physical action,” Malfoy said, turning around in his chair. His hand rested on the book, and he was watching Harry evenly, although without a trace of the frustration Harry had thought he would, for sure, be feeling. “And magic is part of your core. You can share your mind with someone else without your permission, the way that happens in Legilimency. But your magic is part of your core, and no force exists that can drain it without your permission.”

Harry snorted. “Funny definition of permission you have, if you use it with Legilimency.”

He felt the harsh tremble in the back of his mind, and he glanced at Snape, prepared to find him sprinting forwards with a wand in his hand. But once again, Snape’s body and his mind didn’t complement each other. He stayed in the same place, and his voice was still calm when he spoke, at least on the surface, although his hands had clenched.

“You care too much about the names of things. I do not hate you, but I hate the bond. I’m not happy about being bound to you. You were right about that much.”

Harry inclined his head in something that Snape could choose to call a nod if he wanted, not taking his eyes from Snape’s face.

“But it is here, and we have to live with it.” Snape spread his hands. “You can trust us, or not. We are explaining the truth about how we think the other parts of the bond would work. You would know if we were lying. We’ve made ourselves more vulnerable to you with your mental control, and lack of control, than you will to us if we control other parts of the bond. You would also know if we didn’t really believe that.”

“I hate anyone else having control over me,” Harry said. Then he clamped his teeth down, because further words would come out that he didn’t really want out, if he went on speaking like that.

Snape peered at him, speaking quietly. “Is that an old idea, or did that start with the ritual?”

“It started with the anger of someone who got pushed around a lot by Dumbledore.”

Snape nodded as if seriously considering that, which was more than Harry had expected from him. “Very well. But can you trust us, if we explain how we think certain parts of the bond would work, and you listen inside your mind and realize that we are not lying?”

Harry laughed. “It would help if you didn’t constantly refer to yourself and Malfoy as a pair, the way I asked you not to do.”

Snape checked for a moment, dipping his head, and then said, “Fair enough. We still have to live with the bond. Can you live with the trust issues that will crackle back and forth between us—all three of us, all of us that are in the bond and living with this particular issue? Or is that something that cannot be so easily resolved?”

“I don’t think anything’s going to be easy, however you choose to define it.” Harry refused to wrap his arms around himself and shiver, even though he wanted to. He stared at Snape, and Snape stared back.

Then Harry switched his gaze to Malfoy, who he thought was being unusually quiet about all of this. Malfoy gave him a faint smile and turned his palms upwards, extending his fingers as if catching and cupping an invisible bird in the center of his hand.

“I think that I can get along with this,” Malfoy said, and Harry didn’t miss the slight emphasis on the pronoun. “The biggest problem is going to be whether you can, Potter, honestly. Severus isn’t the most diplomatic person on the planet, but I think he’s stated the problem we face well enough. Yes, the bond is hard to live with, and yes, it’s harder on you than the rest of us.” Harry nodded; that was a kind of dividing up that he could live with. “But it’s there, and it has to be struggled with. You’ve already learned yourself the kind of futility that resistance is.”

Harry grimaced. The last thing he wanted was some kind of scene where he broke down sobbing the way he had in the gardens of the Manor.

And now that he considered it, the bond was actually easier to deal with if he considered it as a stupid but inevitable necessity, the way that the Ministry had some rules as part of Auror training that were no longer very current—for example, the way that Aurors still trained to fight spells that hadn’t been used in a generation, just in case they ever came back—and Harry had had to put up with them and pass those requirements to become an Auror.

Being an Auror still mattered to him. But he didn’t know if he could go back now that he had cast that pendulum spell and killed some of his colleagues.

That was a decision he had made all on his own, he thought. Not like the decision to appease the bond and sacrifice his virginity, which had been made under constraints that still caused him to shudder away from the thought of them, but similar in some ways.

He was still the one who had made the choice. The choice to survive, the choice to accept telepathic control of the bond, the choice to live instead of dying.

Harry turned back to Malfoy. “Fine,” he said. “But I want you to be the one in control of how we combine our magic, and Snape to be the one who’s in control of the roads in the mind.”

Malfoy stared at him, and his wonder slipped into place in the back of Harry’s mind like a strand of soapy water sliding down a mirror. “Me? Why?”

“Because,” Harry said, relentless, and ignoring the way that Snape had stiffened up, “I trust you more, and I still think that combining magic is going to be the more difficult and intrusive thing.”

Then he turned to Snape, and took his courage in both hands. “What’s the first step that we need to take to get access to those roads?”

*

Severus silently examined the bond. He appreciated how difficult this was for Potter—since he had dipped into that pool of rage in Potter’s mind, since he had seen the unbridled display of it in the gardens, he understood much better—but he was not sure that this turn to him was sincere.

It was, he decided, from the shimmering, transparent surface of the bond in his mind, or at least as honest as Potter was capable of being right now. 

You could have asked me that. Weren’t you the one who was harping on about trust and the way that we need to trust what we see in each other’s minds? 

Severus blinked to acknowledge the hit, and in the meantime went on looking at the bond. He thought he could see the place where one would begin to start the roads. They were physical, they must lead somewhere, and that meant the place where the bond vanished in a dark rush down into Potter’s brain was the logical beginning point.

He fell back and opened his eyes to study Potter, who was watching him with barely-concealed hostility. Severus nodded casually to him and turned to Draco. “Do you want to join us?”

Draco gave him a withering look. Severus thought that he would have shoved Severus and Potter towards the door of the library, except that wasn’t dignified enough for a Malfoy. “I’ll be fine,” he said. “I should start researching my part, anyway. It looks like you have a good point to launch your studies from. I don’t have one.”

Potter looked startled. Then he nodded. “That’s a good idea, Malfoy. Come on, Snape.” He turned and marched resolutely away.

I know you won’t kill him, Draco said, and sat down at the library table again.

Severus gave Draco a long look that did more for him than any subtle vibration or prod sent down the bond could do, before he followed Potter. Draco was going to pay for this, although it made sense and had been done in such a way that Severus couldn’t see what the appropriate revenge would be yet.

*

Harry became aware, as they walked, how quiet Snape was. He barely seemed to breathe as they walked across the grass of the grounds in front of the Manor towards the iron gates. Snape seemed to think that they needed to be beyond the wards to get good access to the mental roads, and Harry couldn’t think of a good reason to disagree with him.

Which does not mean that you will not try.

Harry glanced back at Snape and offered him a bloody-minded smile. “Well, yeah.” Maybe in some ways, now that the first impulse that would have led him to kill Snape was past, they could understand each other without Malfoy between them, acting as a barrier. “You know that I have to disagree with you on principle.”

“Why?”

So sure that was a rhetorical question, Harry didn’t even try to answer it until he felt a quick little jab at his mind. Then he turned around and stared at Snape in shock. “What do you mean why? You always hated me when were at school. I always hated you. You raped me. Why wouldn’t we disagree?”

“I told you my view on the bond,” Snape said as they crossed through the gates. He turned and faced Harry with his arms folded, the wind barely seeming to stir his cloak. “That it is something that must be lived with, and the sooner we learn to live with it, the closer we will come to the moment when we can end it.”

Harry half-nodded. “But that doesn’t mean that we can’t struggle with it and hate the consequences it enforces on us in the meantime.”

Snape blinked and seemed to examine him more attentively, though Harry had assumed that nothing could be more penetrating than his gaze already was. “If we struggle against it, we cannot make it do as we wish.”

“I didn’t mean it in the sense of damning it and wishing it out of existence the way I did before.” Harry shook his head when Snape just went on looking at him. “I meant that we shouldn’t just be happy about it. We should always remember that we didn’t choose for it to come into existence, and resent it.”

Snape stood there. Harry rolled his eyes. “You know, the way that you regarded me when I was in school? When you weren’t just hating me, I mean. You had to protect me because I was the best way to win the war, but you resented my existence.”

Snape didn’t move for a moment. Then he said, “It was more complicated than either resentment or hatred.”

“I suppose we’ll never know, will we?” Harry turned around and began to look for a good place to stand. He assumed that a physical thing like the road would probably open up in front of them, and he didn’t want to be near a tree or a cloud of dust that could envelop him. “Since you’ll never tell me, and I don’t care enough to ask.”

“You could look at my memories.”

Harry stared without looking around. That produced no results, so he turned around and stared in Snape’s actual direction. “Excuse me?”

“I have realized that I made many mistakes in the way that I spoke to you after the ritual,” said Snape, his eyes aimed over Harry’s head, far away, into the distance. Harry started to scoff, but Snape continued speaking, and he kind of had to shut up and listen. “My guilt made me act in irrational ways because I did not want to acknowledge it. That may not matter to you, but it does to me, a great deal.” His eyes came back to Harry. “That means that I want to purge the guilt. Enough has been done so that I can brew in peace again, but I cannotthink in peace. If I show you my memories, the way you showed me yours of the bond, then it will balance the scales.”

Harry couldn’t even shake his head, because the offer was so strange. Instead, he just asked, “And you think showing me your memories of the bond is likely to endear me to you?”

“I am doing this for myself, and not you,” Snape said. “Choose a time that you would like to know about. I was thinking that the memories of Hogwarts when you thought I hated you would be a natural place to look, but it does not matter. I open my mind to you.”

Harry came a step nearer. Then he said, “I’m still not a good Legilimens.”

“For this, you need not be.” Snape seemed to have descended into a kind of stony peace, where he did nothing but stare at Harry and wait for him to react in some way. “For this, I will drop my barriers, and you need only cast the spell and push.”

It still sounded too good to be true, at least to Harry, but he had to admit, he was curious. And if he could punish Snape in some way, it might make him feel better. Why shouldn’t he do it with Snape’s willing cooperation?

He lifted his wand and held it out towards Snape’s eyes, whispering, “Legilimens.”

Snape didn’t look away, and Harry vanished easily into the rush of memories.

Chapter Text

Severus held himself still as Potter moved through his mind, although he could not help wincing now and then. Potter, as a mostly untrained Legilimens, had none of the delicacy of touch on which Severus prided himself.

Although you didn’t show much delicacy with him, did you? 

Severus did not nod; he held himself rigid. Anything that might disrupt this process and have it begin again was unendurable.

That sort of insight, that niggling combination of guilt and self-doubt, was what he had offered his own memories to propitiate. He didn’t like being haunted by little reminders of his own complicity in Potter’s suffering. If he gave Potter something he had not wanted to surrender—his mental privacy—then he would pay the price, and it would be a price profound enough to soothe the guilt, and that meant the guilt would leave him alone and he could be normal again.

Years of service to Albus were not enough to pay for your guilt in causing Lily’s death.

Severus’s intention did not change, however. Yes, he had suffered from causing that, but Lily had mattered far more to him than Potter did. He suspected that much of his own horror at himself when it came to this particular action, raping Potter in the bonding ritual, was because Potter was Lily’s son.

So far, not much emotion on Potter’s part had come through the bond. Severus could not help wondering what he was seeing.

*

Harry looked around. He had gone into Snape’s mind seeking memories of Hogwarts, ones that would explain the hatred that he knew Snape had felt for him. Sure, he might say that he didn’t hate Harry now, but he had in the past, and Harry was going to find the proof of that and drag it into the light.

Just to make sure that Snape saw it, too, and stopped trying to excuse himself.

He had landed in an unexpected place, though. Harry had expected a Potions class, or maybe one of the detentions which Snape oversaw with such seething malignancy. Instead, he was standing in the middle of Dumbledore’s office.

“Severus. I wanted to talk to you about your treatment of young Harry.”

Harry turned around, swallowing a lump in his throat, as much as he could. It went down all choked and spiky. He hadn’t realized how much he had missed Dumbledore. The real one, the one with the voice of the old man who had loved Harry and sacrificed him, not the voice of his portrait.

Of course, Harry should have known better than to think things would be back to normal even if he did see Dumbledore like this, because that was too much to ask from the world. Instead, Dumbledore sat behind his desk with his blackened wrist and hand on display. Harry shuddered and turned his eyes away from it, back to Snape.

Snape sat in the chair across from Dumbledore, his face so pointed and ugly that Harry took a step back before he realized it. This was the way that Snape had looked in the ritual, the few glimpses Harry’d had of his face.

That meant…

Did that mean the ritual had made Snape back into the person he’d been when he was getting ready to kill Dumbledore? Or save Dumbledore’s life? 

Harry shuddered a little. Or maybe he just always looked that way when he was under intense stress. It wasn’t as though Harry had had an easy life, either.

“You know that I don’t care about that, Albus.” Snape’s voice was so low and charged Harry wanted to snort. Of course Snape didn’t care about someone who he claimed tormented him every day, the boy who was the son of the man he’d hated and the woman he’d loved. Snape stared at Dumbledore’s hand. “That’s what we should be concentrating on. Restoring you to health.”

“Severus, my boy.” Dumbledore’s voice had acquired a tone that Harry had never heard before. 

“No.” Snape rose to his feet, and whirled around to face the door. Then he tied his hands together behind his back as though that would make up for the sudden movement, but Harry could see them. They were trembling. “Don’t say it.”

“I am not going to recover.” Harry had always thought that Dumbledore had a kind side to him, but he couldn’t see it at the moment. Dumbledore spoke without mercy.

Snape bowed his head. Harry stared at his back. Did he already know that Dumbledore was going to ask Snape to kill him? It was impossible to tell.

“Then my concern should be how I am going to conduct myself in the Dark Lord’s ranks,” said Snape, and Harry reckoned he did know. “Or protect myself in protecting young Mr. Malfoy, the way his mother forced me to swear.”

“But Harry comes into this, as well.” Dumbledore shifted a moment, looking as uncomfortable as Harry had ever seen him, and then stood up and came around the desk, touching Snape’s shoulder with his healthy hand. There was no sign that Snape noticed. “You know that I told you he would have to be the one to face Voldemort, in the end.”

This time, Snape flinched, but it was at the name. Or the name was the excuse, anyway, Harry thought, watching closely. “That bloody prophecy,” Snape said. “I suppose you think that should play some part in making sure it comes true?”

“It’s more than the prophecy.” Dumbledore’s voice dragged so much that Harry closed his eyes. He knew what was coming, now.

Silence. Snape didn’t move or speak, and finally Harry opened his eyes again. He had come to see this memory, so he might as well watch it.

“You think that he needs to die so he dies.” Snape’s voice had sunk until his breath hardly made it out. Harry saw him reach forwards and plant his closed fists against the door. A second later, his forehead followed it. Dumbledore’s hand never left Snape’s shoulder, and the look of pity never left Dumbledore’s face.

“I know that you hoped he could survive,” Dumbledore whispered. “But there’s so much that needs to be done, Severus. I need your help. I need to explain to you. I need you to become used to the idea that Harry Potter is a sacrifice.”

“I wish his name was Harry Evans!”

Harry winced again. He was starting to wish he had chosen any other memory to land in. He didn’t like what he heard in Snape’s voice, the anger and the pain that was uglier than the way he’d screamed at Harry when he threw him out of his office in fifth year when he found Harry spying on his Pensieve.

And there was something else in his voice, too. Yearning, probably, Harry thought. Maybe he would have been okay with Harry being the son of Lily and someone else as long as that person wasn’t a Potter.

“I know,” Dumbledore said, and pressed down with his hand once before removing it at last. “But it is not.”

Snape seemed to get control of himself as he stood there. He stiffened all over and moved his head as if something was wrong with his neck, and then turned around and nodded at Dumbledore.

“And wishing will not change things,” he said, then moved back and sat down in the chair in front of Dumbledore’s desk as if he had never moved in the first place. “Very well. Tell me what you want me to do to pretend to heal you and protect Draco Malfoy and ensure that Harry Potter takes his rightful place in the prophecy.”

Harry moved a little, so that he could see both Snape and Dumbledore as Dumbledore sat down again, but the face he found it the hardest to take his eyes from was Snape’s, despite the fact that he didn’t get the chance to see his old Headmaster alive every day.

So this was where Snape got the ability to insist that the bond was something they had to live with, like a disease. Or like the fact that Harry’s mum was dead and Harry was going to die too. He acknowledged it, and then he went on.

Harry felt the corner of his mouth twitch sharply and his face heat up. He didn’t want to admit, he wouldn’t admit it to anyone except himself, he would shut that part of his mind so that Snape and Malfoy couldn’t find it…

But he envied Snape. That kind of facing up to the bond was what Harry had thought he was doing after the ritual. He had thought that he could make it go away because he was so determined to beat it. But that wasn’t the same as accepting it and working through it anyway, the way Snape had proposed and the way they were doing now.

Now Harry understood, fully, why Snape had offered Harry the chance to look at some of his memories. He didn’t do it out of the goodness of his heart. He didn’t even do it, exactly, to even the debt because he had seen some of Harry’s. It was all part of that acceptance and adjustment process, living through what would otherwise kill them.

That’s what I want. To have that kind of strength. To be that kind of person.

Perhaps, if he looked at other memories, he would gain that kind of strength. Harry turned to the door that had appeared on the far side of Dumbledore’s office and opened it, fully expecting to confront at least one more memory on the other side.

He stepped straight into Snape’s office, in his fifth year, and flinched despite himself as Snape hurled the jar at his memory-self’s head.

Snape was raging, actual spittle flying from his jaws as he seized the memory-Harry’s arm and tossed him into the corridor. Harry stared at him, and then down at his little boy self, cowering and smaller than Harry ever remembered being. For that matter, he didn’t remember cowering, either.

Slow anger stirred to life in him. So Snape did get angry just like everyone else, he didn’t just bloody accept things all the time, and his words about not hating Harry when Harry was a student was a lie like everything else, too.

But then…

Harry paused, and stepped out of the memory. He was floating in the middle of Snape’s mind now, in the middle of a black corridor that looked familiar. He might have seen it before when they were working on the bond.

He didn’t think that Snape had been pretending in the last memory—the first one, that was, the one in Dumbledore’s office. He didn’t have any reason to lie in front of Dumbledore. And Dumbledore would probably have known the truth, anyway. Snape had certainly had no reason to think that somebody would view that memory sometime, and put in lies in the way he stood and moved and talked because of that. He’d protected his memories with Occlumency shields, not lies at the time.

So his pain was real. And his anger was real. Harry stood there, and tried to think of how both things, both emotions, could be real at the same time.

Oh, he meant—he knew both could be. Hadn’t he loved and hated Dumbledore at the same time, all sorts of times, since his death? He knew that Dumbledore had done what he had to save the wizarding world, but it still hurt to be reminded of just how little worth Dumbledore had placed on Harry’s own life to do that.

Yet at the same time, he hadn’t told Harry the truth about the prophecy for some time because he loved him too much to do so. And Harry could see him holding back on telling Harry the truth about the Horcux for the same sort of reason, because it was too difficult.

Even though he didn’t have the same level of difficulty telling the truth to Snape, knowing it would hurt him.

Harry sighed. Well, Dumbledore was a long way from perfect. That was no revelation.

But it didn’t help him with his Snape problem. Could those two emotions towards the same person really coexist in one mind? Sure, Harry had his conflicting emotions towards Dumbledore, but they weren’t that extreme. And the war was over now. Snape didn’t need to preserve Harry’s life because he was the key to killing Voldemort.

Maybe that hadn’t been enough for Snape’s guilt, though. And it was true that he needed Harry to live now because the bond might drag all three of them into the grave if Harry died.

Harry hung there in blackness, and considered it. He could have gone in search of more memories. Snape had given Harry free access to his mind for exactly that reason.

But in the meantime, Harry thought he had some of his answers. He and Snape had both been wrong. Snape had felt hatred towards him, no matter what other name he might have given it or what he might have misremembered.

And Snape was capable of caring whether Harry lived or died. That wasn’t enough to build a foundation on, Harry thought. Not a strong one. But one that would last until the point where they figured out how to dissolve the bond.

As he rose to the surface of Snape’s mind, Harry hoped that was exactly what would come out of this. A temporary alliance, so that he could begin to trust Snape enough to surrender control about the building of roads. 

He grimaced, and hoped that it would never have to be anything more than that.

*

Severus opened his eyes carefully. The insides of his head felt flayed. Well, Potter had never been a particularly careful Legilimens, and Severus had known that and invited the boy into his mind anyway. That meant any pain he got out of this was Severus’s to experience and flinch away from.

“Here.”

Severus looked up, squinting blearily. It seemed that he was lying on the ground, on a pallet that Potter had presumably conjured for him. Potter was holding out a goblet, filled with a pure white potion that Severus could have identified by smell from a dozen paces away. He tried to surge up and bat it out of Potter’s grasp.

But his head screamed at him with flashes of darkness and bursts of light, and he merely ended up back on the ground once more. Severus moaned quietly, one hand clasped to his brow. Meanwhile, the smell of the potion was moving near him again.

“Yes, I know what this is,” Potter said. “And I prepared it in the right way. I had one of the Malfoy house-elves bring me the potion and the clean goblet and the lavender water it needs to be cut with. So there.”

The pain was growing bad enough now that Severus nearly did not care if Potter was babbling nonsense and only thought he had prepared the highly poisonous potion the right way. At least the death it brought would be quick. He reached out, blindly groping, and Potter let him have the goblet. 

Severus held the goblet to his mouth, and gulped. A burning coolness in his mouth gave way to the taste of crushed lavender flowers, and Severus grunted in surprise. Yes, it had been prepared the right way.

Of course, the mere fact that he was still sitting here and drinking it instead of writhing on the ground in agony was proof of that.

Severus kept his eyes closed as he sipped, and felt Potter crouching beside him. He felt him through the bond as well, of course, but this was a different kind of awareness, the simple feeling of a body beside another, and Potter’s arms folded over his knees, and his breathing soft and still as he waited for some acknowledgment.

“Where did you get the Potions knowledge to prepare this?” Severus finally asked, still not looking at Potter.

“From Auror training.”

Not as informative as Severus could wish, but at least it answered some questions and made the answers to others that Severus could have asked obvious. He sipped some more, and swished the potion around in his mouth, and waited. Still he felt none of the tingling or numbness that would have signaled ill effects. He sighed at last and opened his eyes, the last pain of the headache draining out like water through a channel.

Potter was looking off into the distance, across the Manor grounds, but he turned and met Severus’s eyes, apparently because he knew Severus was ready for it.

There was less hatred there. Perhaps. Severus was not sure. He finished the last of the potion and put the goblet on the ground. “Did you see what you expected?”

“Yes,” Potter said. “I saw the memory of me being thrown out of your office in fifth year again. I saw that you hated me.”

Severus turned his head away. If this particular peace offering wasn’t enough, then he didn’t know what else he could offer. He had let Potter have control of the telepathic portion of the bond, he had offered free access to his memories…

And that was the strangest part. Potter had chosen to watch only something he already knew about? Apparently reinforcing his negative knowledge of Severus was superior to finding out anything new about him, something that might have let them work together.

“I also saw the time that you told Dumbledore you wished my last name was Evans,” Potter added.

Severus felt himself freeze with his eyes open. He left them that way, looking across the Manor grounds, towards the point where he had so often Apparated in when he was on his way to Death Eater meetings here.

So it was not that Potter had chosen certain memories to look at, the way that Severus had chosen to look at Potter’s memories of the rape. It was simply that he had landed randomly in a memory, and decided then that he knew all about Severus from that.

“Those memories contrasted with each other,” Potter added musingly.

Severus did not point out the obvious, that they would. He braced his hands beneath himself instead, ready to get back to his feet. His head had stopped pounding, and they still hadn’t started working on building those mental roads. Put it off as even he wanted to, they would have to do it sooner or later. “Do you wish—”

Snape.

Surprised, Severus glanced back into Potter’s eyes, and told himself it was his imagination that that glance made the contact through the bond more intense. Potter shifted and stood, staring at him the entire time. Severus stiffened his muscles so that he would not step away. The only person he could remember looking at him that way in the last few years was the Dark Lord.

I see now some of what’s going on in your head, Potter said. It doesn’t make it any easier to forgive you. Just because you protected me while I was still in Hogwarts doesn’t mean…

He didn’t speak the rest of the words, but Severus could follow them, and would have been able to even if there was no bond. Doesn’t mean that I think what you did was right or justified.

There was a long pause, as though Potter had been speaking aloud, and needed to get his breath. Then he said, But I see that you’re as tangled and mixed-up as I was, or maybe still am. So that makes it easier to understand you, a bit, and that you have something in common with me. I think that’s what we ought to focus on when we’re building the roads.

Severus was glad for something solid in the realm of thoughts to fasten on to. Then you think roads build of mental chaos and confusion will lead somewhere? 

Roads built of emotions might. They might even let you purge some of your guilt the way I purged my rage. Potter’s voice was rock-calm. I think we should begin with those.

Severus could have reminded him that he was the one who had to be in charge here, but he didn’t. After all, Potter was in control of the telepathic side of the bond, but Severus was the one who had reached into his mind to initiate it. Who began it did not necessarily mean that the same person would end it.

Very well. Severus closed his eyes and visualized a road. The same picture always came to mind: one of the Roman roads that he had seen in both Muggle and wizarding history textbooks, running straight and strong and true. True, this one was done in huge white flagstones, as if new, and most of the pictures didn’t look like that. But that was what he saw.

Potter swooped over it like a hawk shitting on a roof, and added new touches. Ramparts of black light running along the sides of the road, to shield it from attacks from the outside. A secure point, almost a fortress, at the near end, so they could retreat if they were attacked. 

And an image that Severus did not understand, of waters swirling together away from the road. Severus frowned, and raised the road in response. He did not want to fear being drowned in those emotions when they were walking from one place to another.

Potter shoved the image of swirling waters back at him, and when Severus responded with nothing but wordless questioning, said impatiently, Don’t you see? If we know how deep these feelings run, and where they are, then we won’t trip into them unexpectedly. We can walk where they aren’t.

Severus could see the sense of that, although he still wasn’t happy including them in the same image as the road. But he had to admit, he did not see how else to solidify rage and fear and guilt. They would not make the stones he had envisioned. Nothing that strong could be built out of them.

This is the best way, said Potter, and although his tone made Severus grind his teeth, he shook his head. He had put up with far worse in his time, including from Albus. Potter had nothing on Albus when it came to annoying Severus, he reminded himself. Albus was cheerful about it, while Potter at least seemed to suspect that surliness was the natural mode for a confrontation like theirs.

You can think that all you like. 

Yes, I can, said Severus, and built up the image of the road again, with its sturdy stones in the middle, and its ramparts alongside it, and its fortress at one end, and its water running away from it…

And its destination? 

Severus couldn’t tell who asked the question, him or Potter, but that only annoyed him for a moment. He was more interested in the question of where the road should go, and although he had the impulse to seek the Lestranges right away, so as to be rid of this bond, he knew it would be better to go somewhere more peaceful first.

And if we know the place, then we can make sure that it’s where we meant to go.

Potter, that was, and he made even more sense than before. Severus grimaced and nodded. Yes. The Burrow, then? 

Potter paused, then nodded, and began to feed magic into the image.

Severus’s first inkling that something had gone wrong came from the shudder of the road in his mind, and the feel of flagstones beneath his feet, and the sudden whirling of colors that invaded his vision, obscuring the sight of the Malfoy gardens and their imaginary road, both.

Chapter Text

Draco laid his book aside, and bowed his head, rubbing gently at his temples. Something was wrong, he thought. Something that was more than just general tiredness or impatience with the way that the words on the page seemed to swim as he tried to focus on them.

He wondered for a second if Severus or Potter had somehow been hurt, but then dismissed the idea. He would have felt that through the bond, he was sure. Potter’s pain had summoned him so far. Severus’s pain couldn’t be far behind.

And if nothing else, there were the emotions in the back of his head. Severus’s had darkened to the point that Draco felt like he was gasping in acidic wine a while ago, but they had lightened again, and Draco occasionally thought that it felt as if the steel mountain was standing in the middle of a pool of water. That was far better than looming all by itself and projecting haughtily into the air.

Maybe I am just tired. It seemed incredible to remember that the day had started ages ago with him and Severus preparing to go to Potter’s side because it felt as if he might be in danger.

Then the bond screamed in his head like one of those alarm spells that the Dark Lord had cast to alert him when someone without a Dark Mark tried to cross into certain parts of the Manor, and Draco jerked his head up, spinning around to the windows.

Of course he was on the far side of the house from the gates, where Potter and Severus had gone, and couldn’t see a bloody thing. Draco flicked his wand down hard, though, and cast one of the spells that let the master of Malfoy Manor interact with the windows and the wards. The panes of glass promptly spun on the wall, rotating to the side and letting the window that looked out over the gates appear without changing its view.

Potter and Severus were standing in the middle of what looked like a flickering, shifting illusion. Draco squinted at them for several seconds until he was certain he understood it. A small house, at the end of a raised stone causeway, with waters swirling around the stones? 

He didn’t know what they were trying to do, but whatever it was, it seemed to be going wrong. Draco rushed out of the library and towards the far side of the house, casting a few spells that would ensure he could leap over the banisters or balconies on the way and land safely on a mound of soft carpeting. His bondmates needed him right now.

*

It was the strangest thing Harry had ever experienced, even worse than trying to bargain with the bond and keep his brain from pouring out his ears in the middle of losing his virginity.

He could feel stone under his feet, and on either side of him, rough wood. If he put out his hands, he could feel the sides of the house looming there, brushing his fingertips. And there was the noise of rushing waters.

But those impressions danced around his head, hallucinatory, there and not there. Because at the same time there was grass under his feet, and open air on either side of him—he could feel the slight breeze on his skin—and silence except for Snape’s rasping breath. 

The bond rang in his head as though it had been shaken by an enemy, but no matter how hard Harry tried to calm down and get a grip on it, it would just swing again, and shock him. And the impressions doubled around it, going faster but not changing with any regularity, certainly faster than the bond vibrated. It was impossible to decide what was really happening or if all of his impressions were illusions. He didn’t know what he could do except bow his head and endure.

“Potter!”

That was Malfoy. Harry turned to see him. He was the one constant in the change, standing there like a rock with the waters swirling around him. Harry reached out one hand, not because he wanted to but because that was the instinctive thing to do, and Malfoy hurried forwards and grasped it.

In seconds, the changes stopped. Harry realized that he was standing on slick stone after all, and water was sliding away from the sides of it the way he and Snape had envisioned. There was a fortress-like hut of earth and stone behind them, not encompassing them. Harry swallowed. He wondered if the hut had formed like that because they were already standing on the stone road, or if it had only formed in a way that wouldn’t cut them off from their bondmate.

“What happened?” Malfoy surveyed them warily for a second, then continued mentally. Harry bristled a little. Malfoy seemed to assume they were too fragile right now to concentrate on spoken words. I was feeling tired and distracted, and I felt Severus grow bitter, but there was this alarm from the bond that I’ve never felt.

Snape answered before Harry could come up with something to say. It seems that the bond needs all three of us together to form the roads. He straightened up, shaking his head and leaning away from Harry as if there were only so much air around him and he didn’t want to share any of it with Harry’s lungs. The book said something about that, but I did not realize that it meant the physical presence.

I wish I had known that, Harry snapped. That was not fun to go through.

Malfoy gave him a flat look, and the bond tingled in the back of Harry’s mind, in a way that suggested Malfoy thought he was understating things. But aloud, Malfoy only said, “All right. So we have the beginning of a road. But where does it lead?”

Harry stared down at the stone beneath his feet. It was strange to look at, and know that some of his own ideas and magic, and even emotions, were bound up in the thing. The road grew misty with distance, rising into the air, and while he thought it might go to the Burrow, he couldn’t see if it actually aimed in that direction.

Then he shook himself sharply. He created things all the time with charms, conjurations, and Transfigurations, and it would be silly to get too caught up in the “newness” of the experience when it was only really like learning a new spell. Besides, there was some of Snape in this road, too, and maybe Malfoy, since it had only stabilized when he was here. To start thinking of it as his own creation was even sillier than being excited about it.

All your own, yes, that would be silly, Malfoy said. But it’s partially your own.

Harry scowled at him, and said, “We chose a place that we knew. The Burrow.”

Malfoy tilted his head to the side, and his thoughts worked too fast for Harry to follow. Well, he didn’t really want to follow them anyway. He knew what Malfoy thought of the Weasleys already. Nothing new or strange there.

“I think we should follow it,” Malfoy said abruptly.

“Truly, Draco?” Snape was standing on his own, but Harry had to admit, it seemed like an effort. He fixed a weary eye on Malfoy and shook his head. “When we know where it leads, and we have gone through what we have gone through today? I long to rest. The creation of the road was enough effort.”

Harry started to nod, then snatched his head back to stillness. What had he been doing, about to agree with Snape? That was ridiculous, far more ridiculous than doing one more thing on a day that seemed to require endless effort from all of them.

“I’m ready to do it if Malfoy is,” he said.

Malfoy blinked at him, then said into his mind, You know that you shouldn’t make fun of Severus.

Who’s making fun of him? I just don’t want to be like him. Harry ignored the hiss in the back of his mind. That could be Snape being annoyed. It could be Malfoy being annoyed. Harry didn’t care, and wouldn’t permit himself to. We should go ahead and explore the bloody road so that we can know where it leads, if nothing else.

There was a brief struggle inside Malfoy’s head; Harry felt it as though someone was hitting him with pillows. Then Malfoy said, “Do you agree, Severus?”

Snape didn’t say anything, but nodded. Harry held back his sigh, and took the lead as they walked down the road. He was the only trained Auror among the three of them, and he would have the best ability to survive any challenges the road threw at them, if it did.

That matters a lot to you, doesn’t it? Being an Auror?

Harry half-tensed, but Snape seemed to have decided that Harry didn’t exist except as a body to walk beside, so he knew it was Malfoy. Yes, he said. Of course it does. If Malfoy had spent this much time in his head, or in contact with his emotions, before the telepathic part of the bond came to life, and didn’t know that about him, Harry couldn’t help him.

I know that it was what brought you back to life and kept you sane when you were negotiating with the bond, Malfoy said. I just wondered why. When you were in school, you seemed to define yourself by being a Gryffindor and the friend of Weasleys. Now you don’t.

Harry wanted to laugh, but that would be giving Malfoy too credit, when none of the things he had said were actually funny. He fastened his eyes on the road instead, and murmured, It would be stupid to call myself a Gryffindor when we aren’t in school anymore, Malfoy. Though to be honest, I’m not sure that you noticed.

Malfoy stiffened, but Harry continued to plod along the road, not looking at him. Malfoy finally sighed and said, But why not a friend? Why an Auror? Why did you choose that label? 

Harry sensed a thought behind those words that he didn’t like. He dived after it, and it flashed and thrashed in his grasp a few seconds later. Don’t you mean, why didn’t I choose to call myself a hero? Do you really think that I ever wanted that label? 

For a while, I did.

Harry shut his eyes and rubbed the middle of his forehead. There was no reaction from Malfoy to him touching his scar, at least. That was good. Harry had gone through one period where every touch to the scar had resulted in a scalded-cat reaction from Ron and Hermione, who were sure that Voldemort was coming back. 

He might be coming back. But it won’t have anything to do with your scar.

Harry winced. He had agreed to the bond in the first place because Voldemort might be coming back. It was incredible how he could have missed that, how he could have just got stuck on thinking the bond and his supposed “intimacy” with Malfoy and Snape were important things. They weren’t.

We were speaking of why it’s so important to you to be an Auror, Malfoy prompted, with an edge to his mental voice.

Harry wondered why Malfoy wanted to know this, but he supposed Malfoy might have some curiosity about his bondmates, and he already knew everything incriminating about Snape. And there wasn’t anything to do except talk as they walked along the road. They had reached the part where it had gone thin and misty and vanished into the air, but to Harry’s disappointment, it didn’t do that now. It just appeared to move along the ground, as level as ever, while the point of it disappearing had moved ahead of them. It was like the horizon, he supposed. However far you walked, there was still one that you would never catch up with.

Harry? 

Harry flinched in spite of himself from that name, and shook his head furiously at Malfoy. When he could speak again, he managed to hiss, “Don’t call me that. I can’t accept—I can’t accept that from you. Please.”

Malfoy sighed, and went on speaking in his head. We were talking about why it was so important to you to be seen as an Auror. 

Harry wiped his hand across his scar. It wasn’t burning or even tingling, though, and he couldn’t use that as an excuse to back out of the conversation. Because it was something I trained for, not something I was born for or destined for or—or whatever other odd thing I’m supposed to have been with regards to Voldemort. He ignored Malfoy’s flinch. I never had any choice about most of the things I was, except maybe for being a Gryffindor. People just thought things about me, and I couldn’t control it. Especially when I was a kid and every move I made got reported in the papers and people judged me for it. But I chose to be an Auror, and they accepted me and trained me on my own merits. 

Malfoy’s mind hovered above his for a second, and then his words descended. I heard rumors that they accepted you into the Auror training program because you were the Boy-Who-Lived.

Harry rolled his eyes, and checked on the bond with Snape. Snape wasn’t lagging too far behind, which pleased Harry. The last thing he wanted was to go back for the git. Maybe that was the reason they accepted me, but believe me, they don’t pass you on through the program unless they’re satisfied with your performance. There’s too much chance that you could kill people if you were untrained. And some of my instructors wanted to prove that they were unbiased, and that means they were harder on me than on most of the other students. I learned very well.

Malfoy was silent as they walked the road, which now was bending through countryside that Harry didn’t recognize. They weren’t passing through a Muggle city or Muggle villages, though, and until they did and someone saw them, Harry wasn’t much concerned with it. He kept his eyes focused straight ahead. He was beginning to wonder what the big advantage of the roads was over Apparition, at least when reaching a place you already knew. Going after people hiding somewhere unknown like the Lestranges, that he could see, but this slow trudge—

That doesn’t mean that an Auror is the only thing you are. Without taking account of what you are otherwise. 

Harry looked at the sky until he realized that Malfoy was still gazing earnestly at him and Harry’s eye-rolling hadn’t put him off after all. Harry sighed and looked down. Thanks, but I think that an Auror is what I want to be. My friendships with Ron and Hermione and the Weasleys are the only things that I really want to keep of the past. 

After what happened in the garden and when we were trying to establish the bond, I think you know better than that. 

Harry was saved from having to snarl by the road suddenly rolling up and down in front of them, as though it followed the course of an invisible hill. Harry drew his wand. He thought the path in front of them had been perfectly straight a second ago.

Malfoy reached out and lightly rested his hand on Harry’s wrist. Harry allowed it for a second before he pulled his arm away, scowling. There was what he had to put up with to be polite or reassure his bondmates, and then there was what went beyond it.

Malfoy only looked sideways at him out of the corner of his eye, then seemed to resolve to ignore it, and faced the rolling part of the path. “We’re here,” he said aloud, stepping forwards.

Harry opened his mouth to complain that Malfoy couldn’t tell him that, that Malfoy had never been to the Burrow and wouldn’t know, while Harry had, and—

“Harry! What are you doing here?”

It was Hermione, starting forwards with a look in her eyes that Harry knew well. She hugged him, gave Malfoy another of those looks, and then turned and nodded at Snape. Snape stood behind them like a baleful shadow with his arms folded. Harry reckoned that Hermione knew better than to try even shaking hands.

“You came out of nowhere, mate.” Ron was behind Hermione, reaching out to shake Harry’s hand and eyeing the two Slytherins dubiously. “We saw a bit of fog, and I came out because I thought it might be one of George’s pranks, but we never expected you to show up!” He smiled at Harry.

Harry took a long breath. He had thought he was ready to see his friends, or at least Mr. and Mrs. Weasley, but now the only thing he could think of was that he had killed a bunch of Aurors, and he didn’t know how to tell Ron that.

Malfoy felt or heard what he was thinking, and nudged a sharp elbow into his ribs as he stepped forwards with a charming smile. “Only testing the road-walking portion of our bond,” he said. “We wanted a path that would bring us to a place we knew, to make sure we wouldn’t walk into danger, and it led us here.” 

“That was clever,” said Ron.

Harry silently agreed, although he was praising Malfoy for a different thing. Keeping the truth concealed under a blanket of lies was the best thing to do for right now. At least until he had decided how much Ron and Hermione could know about the dead Aurors and Stockwell kidnapping Harry and Voldemort coming back, how much would put them in danger and how much would keep them out.

You should not be the only one making that decision. Snape’s voice was unexpected enough, after they had walked all that way in silence, to make Harry start. Tell your friends the truth, and let them decide whether they want to support you or not, but tell them. 

Harry didn’t see why it was worthwhile to respond to that. Hermione was asking questions about the theoretical portion of the bond that Malfoy was fielding, and Harry reckoned they could do with that until she asked him a direct question, or Ron did.

Molly had seen them and was carrying chairs out of the house. She welcomed even Malfoy with nothing more than a little staring, followed by a bland smile and a nod. Then she went back into the Burrow for more chairs.

Harry sat down in one of them and put his hands over his eyes. He was feeling more than a little overwhelmed. Tired, overcome, upset about the thought of Voldemort coming back, rattled by the information in the book and the wild purging of emotions in the garden. It had been a long, long time since he’d had a day like this.

You should rest. 

Harry didn’t bother looking up at Snape, who had taken a chair a few seats down from him. He would only glare, and he didn’t feel like doing that right now. I know I should. But you were the one who thought we should build the road now. 

To that, Snape made no reply. Harry did finally glance over at him, and found him staring at the spot where a misty strand of magic still drifted in the air.

You’re the one who supposedly controls the roads portion of the bond, Harry said. Aren’t you going to close it up? 

Snape curled his lip at him, and curled his hand into a fist at the same time. There was a flipping motion in Harry’s head, like watching a pack of cards shuffled by an expert all at the same time, and the trace of mist in the air vanished.

Harry swallowed and turned away. He was sorry, now, that he had challenged Snape to do that. It was one thing to know that Snape had to be in control of something about the bond, and another thing to see him do it.

But Ron was looking at him, and Ron was the most likely person to notice if he was out of sorts in a situation like this, sometimes even worse than Hermione. Harry sat up and did his best to smile.

*

Idiot child.

Severus kept the thought to himself as much as possible, not wanting to deal with Potter even in mental conversation right now, and it seemed he’d succeeded. Or maybe the imbecilic attentions of his friends had overwhelmed him and he had to give all his focus to that. Either way, no one seemed to notice Severus leaning against the back of his chair and closing his eyes. As long as no one came by to offer him tea, there would be no need to snap.

His bones ached, and he wanted to clench his hands down until something broke. Even his own bones. He wasn’t particular right now.

He had known that Draco and Potter were chattering away as they walked the road, but he hadn’t heard much of it. He had heard, instead, the draining of the water away from the road, the sound of their feet on its stones, the wind in his ears, the noises of magic as it ran through the bond and moved them through the country far faster than they would have been able to cross it were they actually going on foot.

He hadn’t realized that being the one in control of this part of the bond would be so magically exhausting.

Severus wasn’t accustomed to working with many other wizards in close collaboration. He had learned Potions from masters who demonstrated a technique once and expected him to grasp it. Teaching his students was a matter of trying to aid the weak (and the helpless, and the imbecilic) to imitate him. He suspected that his plotting with Albus to ensure that he would have a role among the Death Eaters after Albus died was the closest he had come, and that had more of an emotional toll about it.

This was sheer, draining loss of strength. He wondered if there was a similar price associated with being in control of the telepathic part of the bond, and if that accounted for Potter’s exhaustion.

He sat there in silence for some moments, pondering to himself whether he wanted to give it up and have Draco assume control of the roads, while he tried to be in charge of combining their magic. The experience of making Potter in charge of the telepathic part of the bond meant there was no “natural” fitness among them for any one role, something that Severus would have laughed to scorn if someone had dared mention it. They could do anything they wanted, have anyone assume any role, and perhaps they should.

But Severus decided that he did not want to, and not only because Potter would complain if they changed their minds and methods now. 

He wanted to keep control of this portion of the bond to show that he could do it. Yes, it had tired him. But he would not let it tire him this badly again. He would plan for the next road they opened, which might be the one that allowed them to seek the Lestranges, and he would make sure that he was rested and at the top of his powers.

He would show both Potter and Draco that if there was to be a drag on the bond, a weak link, a weak partner, it would not be him. He would prefer strength all the way around, but if he could not have that, he would at least contribute what he could.

Potter shot him a glance, then. Severus wondered if his thoughts had been too audible, and Potter would chide him down the bond. He looked back flatly. Committing fully to cooperation with Potter, the way Draco had been urging him to do anyway, was nothing to be ashamed of.

But Potter only turned back to his conversation with his friend, and Severus shut his eyes in far more contentment than when he had last closed them.

This bond was much of a piece with the rest of his life. It was nothing he could not endure.

Chapter Text

“There’s something more going on, isn’t there?”

Harry started. He had come into the Burrow to wash his hands after he had spilled most of a glass of water on himself, and he hadn’t thought that anyone else was inside. But Hermione had come in behind him, and now she stood with her hands braced on the kitchen table, as if she would guard the door that he needed to use to get back into the garden.

What’s the matter, Potter? Malfoy’s voice was implacably calm and cold in the back of his head. The bond is vibrating as though someone plucked it.

Just talking with Hermione, Harry shot back, and then thickened the barriers between himself and the others as much as he could. No matter how this discussion went, he didn’t want either of them telling him that he should be doing something else.

“I don’t know what you mean,” Harry said, and tried a little sneer out for effect. “If you think that Snape and Malfoy and I are the best of friends, then your observational powers are failing you, and you ought to try harder.”

Hermione didn’t budge, and she didn’t look as though she intended to let him drive her away, either. She only stood looking at him, and Harry found himself lowering his eyes, his face flushing.

“I know that you aren’t best friends,” Hermione said at last. “Anyone could see that from the way you act. But something happened that made you change your mind about trying to use the bond. What was it?”

Harry sighed and glanced at the door out into the garden. If he had been able to get out and into public, he wouldn’t have told her this. Hermione wouldn’t have been able to challenge him in front of the Weasleys or Snape and Malfoy.

But it was bloody hard to keep a secret from her when she chose to dig into it, either.

“Can you call Ron in here?” he asked. “I don’t want to repeat this more than once.”

Hermione looked at him for so long that Harry thought she would insist that he confess to her alone. He gave her a flat stare. He might not have as strong a will as he wanted, to keep his friends safe, but he was only going to say this once. If Hermione wanted him to stay here and say it, then she could be the ones who told Ron later.

Finally, Hermione nodded. “I will.” She reached out and squeezed his arm. “I know it doesn’t feel like it, Harry,” she murmured, leaning towards his ear, “but we really are going to be there for you no matter what.”

You’re telling them? Snape asked from the back of his head as the door opened and Hermione came back out.

Harry started in annoyance, but when he tested the barriers between their minds and his, they were still strong. He couldn’t tell what Snape was feeling. Snape must have reasoned it out from seeing Hermione disappear into the house after him and then come out alone.

Yes, was all he sent back, and then tightened the barriers as hard as he could, so Snape and Malfoy wouldn’t catch any more emotions from him.

Ron walked into the house first, when they came back, much faster than Harry had thought Hermione would persuade him to come. He seemed to be concerned, maybe in the same way that Hermione was. He stared at Harry while Hermione cast a Locking Charm on the back door. 

“I got kidnapped when I decided to investigate something at the Ministry,” Harry said. He had no idea whether it was a real clue or not, and he wasn’t about to put them in danger from it if it wasn’t. “Snape and Malfoy rescued me, but I—I used a spell that killed several of the Aurors who had kidnapped me, Ron.”

“Are you sure they were Aurors?” Ron asked, quietly.

“Absolutely,” Harry said. “I didn’t know the leader, Stockwell, but they moved like Aurors. They were trained like them. They were working on a ritual that was supposed to tell them the truth about my scar.”

“They thought there was something wrong with your scar?” That was Hermione, on the alert for prejudice, as always.

Harry closed his eyes. “They thought there was a possibility of Voldemort coming back.”

He was glad that he had his eyes closed when he heard the convulsive movement Hermione made. He kept them closed for long enough that he thought Hermione had probably had time to recover, and then opened them again.

Hermione was leaning forwards with her fingers tight around the back of the chair in front of her. “That’s not a good reason for kidnapping you,” she whispered. “For conducting a ritual on you that could have been fatal.”

Harry smiled. He knew that Voldemort coming back was one of Hermione’s worst nightmares, but she was conquering those fears, for him. “I know,” he said. “It’s not like I thought so, either. But I discovered that I wanted—I wanted to survive Voldemort even more than I did the first time. I like being alive. I don’t want to change that. And it would be...convenient if we had a few extra weapons and a way to find the Lestranges. Searching among the Aurors could still be possible, but might also be shot at this point. So I agreed to strengthen the bond with Malfoy and Snape, as long as I got to be in charge of the telepathic part. It turns out they need to be in charge of the other parts, which sucks, but I can live with it as long as the bond becomes a weapon.”

“Then, when you don’t need it anymore, you’ll destroy it,” Ron said, nodding, his face lightening. “I like that plan. You can always get rid of something when it stops being useful to you.”

“I’m not sure that bonds are in that category,” Hermione began.

“I don’t know yet, either, not for sure,” Harry cut her off smoothly. He didn’t want Hermione to start arguing with him, and get them into a discussion about bonds that wasn’t going to go well no matter what. “But what matters most is that I’ve come up with a way to probably frustrate my enemies and get the bond to stop bothering me, because I’ll have the amount of contact that it needs, or whatever the fuck else it needs. I hate it, but I would rather have my life at the end of it than die along the way because someone else thinks my scar is helping Voldemort to return, or because the bond kills me.”

“It was trying to kill you, wasn’t it.” Ron folded his arms. He hadn’t even bothered making that a question.

Harry shrugged. “Yes, but really, it doesn’t matter that much. What does is that we got here, and we might be able to use those roads to walk into the heart of our enemies’ strongholds. They can go anywhere. Slow and not worth the time when you’re going to a place that you know, like here, but we had to test it and see if the road actually worked.”

“There’s another thing,” Ron said. “You came right through the wards. The road appeared like—like this snout poking through the grass, and none of us knew what it was. You’re lucky that I remembered that part about the roads and the bond, because Mum and Dad were ready to hit you with a bunch of spells.”

“Thanks, then,” Harry said dryly. “Well. That’s another way that it could be useful, too. I’m sure the Lestranges, and whoever else we might wind up tracking in the Aurors, will have a ton of spells all over their houses.”

“Oh, Harry, be careful,” Hermione whispered. “Both when you start searching, and when you start trying to get rid of the bond. I don’t think it’ll be as easy as you think it is.”

Harry had to laugh at that. “When is it ever as easy as I want it to be? I’m sure that it’ll be pretty bloody difficult, actually.”

“I just think that this might hurt you more than you know.” Hermione didn’t look away from him, and Harry had to appreciate that, too. His friends wouldn’t abandon him no matter what he said, what he did. That was comforting to know. “You don’t know how to break the bond right now. Won’t it be harder once it’s firmly established?”

Harry shrugged. “I don’t know. Right now, we don’t have any more idea how to break it. It could be a good weapon. You don’t throw away something while it could still be useful.” 

Hermione nodded, but reluctantly. “Is there anything we can do to help?”

“Research the rituals that we’ll be able to use to break the bond once this is done,” Harry said. He had thought about still ordering them to stay out of it—they should be safer now that they had this knowledge, but he still didn’t want them really involved—but he knew neither one of them would ever agree. “I won’t have the time now that I’m on this kind of hunt, and I really would like to get rid of the bond the moment I don’t need it anymore.”

Hermione nodded. “We can do that. I think I remember something from one of the Veela books that might help…”

Harry let her ramble on, listening and making agreeing noises when she pressed him, but mostly letting the words wash past him. As he had told her, he couldn’t care that much about the breaking of the bond right now except as an end goal. He would labor towards it, more than he would spend time thinking about it.

But when he could…

Then he knew that, once again, he would thank whatever fortune or fates had put such good and dedicated friends at his side.

*

Do you think that we might begin to study how to combine our magic soon? 

Draco managed not to roll his eyes, since he was in the middle of a conversation with the Weasley parents right now, and it was stiff and awkward enough without him making it more so. But he waited for a pause in the conversation, provided by his taking a sip from his glass of water, and shot back, You think that’s a good thing to suggest to Potter today? Along with everything else that’s happened?

A sort of frowning pause. Draco knew that he couldn’t tell as much about Severus’s emotions as he would have been able to if Potter had left the bond more open, but this was a familiar enough sensation from the bond without mental communication that they had “enjoyed” before the telepathic part was established.

The sooner this is done, the sooner we can be separated. 

Draco sighed. Mrs. Weasley noticed and peered at him. “Are you hungry?” she ventured after a moment, as if wondering whether Draco would reject any offer of her food as dirty and insect-covered.

Draco managed a smile. Here was an excuse that would win him a bit of uninterrupted time to talk to Severus, since Mr. Weasley had dropped out of the conversation for the moment and was tugging at his robe collar instead. “I could use something.”

“You should have said so earlier!” Mrs. Weasley rose to her feet, visibly relieved to have an excuse to go inside herself. “Of course I can cook something! We have biscuits left from the other day, and some of my bread, and…” She bustled off towards the house, muttering. It looked as if she had a bit of trouble getting through the door, but it unlocked a moment later, and she disappeared inside.

Mr. Weasley was still sitting back and looking as if he wished that desperate discomfort could make him disappear, so Draco pursued the conversation with Severus. You ought to know that research done hastily is worse than none at all. I would like to wait to separate us both from the bond until we have time to study it, which won’t be until much later.

Severus moved restlessly on his chair, but calmed down when Mr. Weasley looked at him. I do not want more of this. I do not want many other days bonded. I want to be free. 

And now you sound like one of the Gryffindors you were always teaching us to despise in school, Draco murmured back. Would you have accepted wanting to be free of class as an excuse for a melted cauldron? 

This is considerably more important than Potions class!

Draco sent, as best as he could when Potter had blocked most of the bond, an image of himself reeling back, clutching his heart in shock. You think that something might be? Are you all right? Bring me the smelling salts!

Severus went coldly silent in response, and remained that way through Mrs. Weasley bringing out the food, which Draco had to eat and make admiring noises about. Luckily, it wasn’t that difficult. It was good food, and with it to talk about, and conversation about Cooking Charms that was preferable to freezing silence, the time flew until Potter came outside with his friends again.

Draco checked Potter’s face and wondered. He looked a little more settled and calm, but on the other hand, he had looked like that before when he was about to do some mad thing. On impulse, Draco reached for the image of the steel mountain in the back of his mind.

It felt so different that he had trouble locating it at first. When he did, he did have to gape. It was running with water, cloaked with trees that softened the effect of its sharply angled sides. The sky above it, always grey or blank before in vision, was now soft and blue.

Did that mean that Potter had changed his mind about the bond?

But Draco rejected that idea as soon as it appeared to him. Of course not. Potter had every right not to change his mind about the bond, and at the moment, no reason to change it.

But it meant that he was no longer engulfed in that killing determination that had nearly made him die before, Draco decided after a moment. His mind could be more subtle now, could bend into more shapes. He could engage with the bond or defy it, instead of only defying it all the time because that was what he was locked into.

Have you done speculating about my motives? 

Draco pulled back with a jerk. He had grown used enough to the non-responsiveness of the bond while Potter had it closed that he had forgotten Potter would be able to feel his poking around better than Severus could. Sorry, he sent before he could stop himself.

A dark chuckle followed him, making the sides of the mountain shake as if Draco was standing on them in the middle of an earthquake. You spend a lot of time apologizing. What makes you think that’ll make it better? 

Draco rolled his eyes. I spend a lot of time apologizing because I think it’s the right thing to do, and to make myself feel better. I don’t think it’ll make what happened to you better because nothing can do that. 

Potter was silent. Draco pulled out of the conversation and opened his eyes. Severus was still, and Draco didn’t try to reach out and discover what he was thinking, because it would be hard work with little reward.

“Don’t you think that you ought to stay here for the night, Harry? You’ve been through enough today.”

That was Granger, and Draco nodded firmly when he heard her. They had been forced into enough proximity to make the bond work today. Potter probably would be better off if he had some distance from them and could think about other things.

You think it’ll be easier for you to manipulate me if we’re apart for a little while? I promise, Malfoy, it won’t be easier. I want to kill you. I want to crush you. The only reason I’m putting up with you is that there are some people I want to kill and crush more, and I can do that with your help.

Draco ignored that. He saw little profit in communicating with Potter about the rape at the moment. Apologies didn’t do anything, nor did future plans, so he would keep to the present. Stay here, then. Let us know what you want to do about the prisoners that are in Malfoy Manor, or about when you’re ready to try and combine our magic.

Potter sneered hard enough that Draco looked at his face in involuntary reflex. A sneer like that had to leave some impression on his face—didn’t it? But no, Potter looked as normal as he ever had when they were sitting here and chatting.

You don’t have any right to hate me, Malfoy.

If you think this is hate even though we have access to each other’s minds and emotions, then I give up, Draco snapped back, and stood up. Severus and I will Apparate to the Manor. Contact us when you’re ready to work on combining our magic.

I won’t be ready. Speaking with Ron and Hermione has made it clear that they’re the kinds of friends you’ll never be able to compare with.

For fuck’s sake, Potter. Draco was at the limit of his patience. I don’t want to be your friend. You’ve made it clear that it would be unwelcome in any case. I don’t even want to be your bondmate. I just want to do something that will actually contribute to our survival. If you want to murder us, fine, but you can’t do that until the bond is over, anyway, without condemning yourself to death. And you wouldn’t have any means of finding the Lestranges without us. I’ll tell you the same thing I told Severus: none of us like this, but we have to live with it until we can get rid of it. 

You’ll never make up for what you did.

Draco wondered why in Merlin’s name he was the only sensible one around here. Was he the only one who remembered the wounds that the bond had inflicted on Potter, and could have inflicted on the rest of them, the last time that Potter had decided the bond was worth resisting? Was he the only one who realized that the bond was a horrible thing, but something they had to face and fight, like a disease? 

Snape used those comparisons, too. They didn’t convince me.


Maybe one of Potter’s friends would have been calm and patient under Potter snapping like that, but Draco would leave them to it. Then don’t be convinced, and stay here until all of us die because your ribs were snapping.

He got exactly three steps away before Potter blared into his head, I didn’t say that I wasn’t going to work with you! Just that you weren’t going to convince me.

Draco swung around. He was so sick and tired of this, he thought he could have let Potter torture him in return, if that was what he wanted, just to get this over with. Then I don’t care, all right? We won’t talk about this again. I won’t try to convince you. I won’t apologize. I won’t compare you to anything, or the bond to anything. Just stop trying to accuse me of vague crimes when we both know exactly what I am guilty of!

Potter stared at him, and said nothing. Draco collected Severus’s eyes with a glance, and led him out of the Burrow’s garden, with a curt good-bye to the Weasleys. He reckoned that Potter could make their apologies for them better than they could do it themselves.

Draco stomped to the edge of the wards, irritated with himself, with Severus’s silence, with Potter’s aggression, with everyone’s inability to get rid of this bond. Even knowing that they would be able to do it in the future didn’t soothe him, right now.

And if the book on bonds was right and he was the one who would have to control the combination of their magic, then he was going to spend a lot of time with a worse headache and running in worse circles than he did now. 

His heart and his head and his mind ached. He would ask the house-elves to make him one of their more indulgent meals, he decided, and then find one of the novels he had loved when he was a child, and take them up to his room and read and eat. That ought to soothe him the way that brewing soothed Severus.

You see now how impossible it is to work with Potter? Severus’s voice was triumphant, and darker and bitterer than Draco could deal with at the moment. It was like being in swirling muck up to his ankles when all he wanted was to be clean.

He faced Severus. Severus stiffened up, probably because they were still in sight of the Burrow if anyone was looking, but Draco didn’t care. He was tired and, more than that, weary. He was just so—

They ought to be past by this now. They ought to be working on the present so that they could face the future. And Severus wouldn’t stop being smug and touchy, and Potter wouldn’t stop blowing up, and they wouldn’t stop their useless complaining, since they both fully intended to continue working on this.

He picked up all that knowledge and flung it at Severus, in a complicated, tangled explosion of emotions that made Severus stagger. His hand was up, clasping his cheek, and he stared at Draco as though Draco really had punched him instead of letting him know exactly what he felt.

Stop it, Draco told him sharply. You’re going to work with me as much as Potter is, or I’ll know why not, and in the meantime, all it is is more useless complaining. You’re both of you stubborn gits to work with, Potter for more reason, but you’ve also both made it obvious that nothing I can do will change things for the better. So I’m going to rest, and make sure that I can actually keep my part of the bargain.

“Draco…” Severus breathed.

Draco stood there watching him for a second. But he followed that with no apology, no other word, spoken or telepathic.

So Draco turned, and Apparated, and left Severus there, to follow as best as he could. Or, for all Draco cared, he could summon one of the roads and walk home.

Chapter Text

Severus held a green leaf above the cauldron, and waited in patience for the surface of his potion to stop trembling. Then he flicked his finger against the leaf, and watched it fall, twirling and spinning around the stem, into the liquid.

There was a moment when the leaf simply and safely floated, and Severus thought his hard-bought peace had not affected the potion after all. Then, suddenly, the surface of the potion surged up and around it and swallowed, with a gulping motion that reminded Severus irresistibly of a throat. The leaf was gone. Even when Severus tilted the cauldron and made the potion slide to the side, even when he cast a Transparency Charm, he could see no trace of it.

Severus nodded. He had made the Devourer’s Poison the right way, then. Poured down someone’s throat, or even simply stirred into their drink, it would create a blockage in their throat that ensured all food vanished into the maw of the potion itself, and none passed into the stomach of the victim. Perfectly healthy people starved to death without knowing what was wrong; Healers could detect no trace. Only another Potions master could even suspect the truth, much less brew an antidote.

Severus laid his hand gently on the rim of the cauldron, and watched it dispassionately. It quivered a little, itself, before firming.

He had thought earlier that being in this bond was like being poisoned by the Devourer, and that had inspired him to brew the potion without instructions, to see if he still remembered how.

He did. He was the most skilled Potions master he had ever met, the only one who had absorbed the art into his body and mind, who could brew without a book, who knew enough to change potions with a flick of his wrist and enough in the immediate aftermath to realize whether he should duck, add more ingredients, or bear witness to a job well-done.

All that, and still he had not escaped from the ritual, had not managed to resist the call of the bond, and would perhaps die in this silly pursuit of revenge on the Lestranges.

He turned away from the cauldron and set about brewing the antidote. (One could not dump the Devourer; it would set about eating the hole it was dumped down). His hands moved without thought, but never without skill. His mind flitted easily between one matter and another, bringing questions to his attention that he needed to consider before the next fortnight was out, and others where the next day, the next week, the next month, was imperative.

One of those questions concerned Draco, who had not come out of his rooms since the night before.

Severus knew that he should not be surprised. Draco was at the point where he felt pushed by the bond, and it was natural that a Slytherin should retreat in such a crisis and try to fortify himself in other ways. Draco’s ways included a book and a fine meal. And no harm could have come to him, because he was a Malfoy in the middle of Malfoy Manor.

On the other hand, that only reminded him that he and Draco had gone to the Auror safehouse in the first place because Draco did not think the Manor’s wards proof against the Lestranges’ tactics.

Severus shut his eyes and massaged his forehead for a moment. Draco was becoming impossible to deal with.

I am, am I? Draco had ignored the existence of the bond for hours, to the point where Severus had felt able to forget it was there himself, but now his voice came roaring back with a vengeance, and made Severus stagger. It was like standing on the bank of a river that had suddenly burst into flood. What do you think you were for days and days at a time?

Severus felt cautiously around the edges of the bond. Yes, it was open. He supposed that Potter wasn't concentrating on them at the moment and didn't care about keeping it closed. Well, he would have to make the best of it. I fail to understand what you are talking about. I agreed to work with Potter, didn't I?

Draco sneered, and the sneer was as strong and as vocal as if Severus had been standing in his room beside him. Only after complaining and dragging it out as much as you could. And then it was the kind of agreement that was going to evaporate the moment things got a little hot between us. The way they did yesterday.

Forgive me for not applauding the fact that my life is tied to the life of a young man who is more reckless than anyone else I've ever met, Severus snapped.

He was only reckless when he was ignoring the bond. Since then, he's cooperated--most of the time. Yeah, he was being stupid yesterday. But I would prefer to think that he was just tired and overwhelmed.

Severus shook his head. He didn't want to discuss this any further over the bond. It would only strengthen it, and perhaps make it harder to dissolve the bloody thing when they actually tried next time. Will you meet me in the library? I will be there.

He worked hard on not feeling emotions or hearing words from Draco as he made his way to the library, to the point that he didn't know whether Draco was coming or not. Or so he thought, because when he heard Draco's footsteps outside the door, they made him aware that he had been listening for an echo outside his head of the footsteps inside it all along. Severus gritted his teeth and sipped, hard, from the glass of wine he'd had a house-elf bring him.

Draco stepped in, raised an eyebrow at him, and shut the door again. "You don't treat good wine that way," he said.

So perhaps Severus was rather gulping it. He set the glass down with some force on the table beside him and folded his arms. "You are smarter than me, or so your attitude proclaims you are," he said. "You tell me what we should do."

Draco snorted. "So much of that depends on Potter that it doesn't make sense to have the discussion when he's not here to support his part of it."

"I am not asking what he would do," Severus snapped. "I asked what we should do for a reason."

Draco eyed him once, then nodded and sat down in a chair near the door. "As it turns out, some of the reading I've done is on bonds and combining magic," he said, and waved his wand. Severus watched as the books slewed towards him, and refused to jump when they landed with loud bangs on the table. "I found some interesting information."

Severus waited, but Draco opened the largest book and turned it around, pushing it to the edge of the table. It seemed that Severus was not to be read to. He sneered in Draco's direction and walked over to take a look at the tome, aware that Draco was smiling unpleasantly out of the corner of his eye.

Combination of magic can strengthen the magical cores of all the participants in the ritual. It means that they have a reservoir of power available to them that is conjoined, and any may draw on the magic at any time, without separation between them.

Severus drew back, revolted. That was what he had been afraid it meant, and he didn't see that Draco had a reason to sit there grinning.

"You have the oddest characterizations of me," Draco said, aloud, but so obviously responding to the thought that Severus shot him a strong look of dislike. Draco ignored it and went on. "Yes, that's what can happen. But you didn't read the paragraph below it, which is the really important one."

They held another staring contest that Severus lost. Finally, Severus grimaced and leaned down to look again.

But the reservoir can be maintained only by the willing gift of all participants. When one wishes to pull back, the unity is shattered. It is easier to disrupt the combination of powers than a telepathic or soul joining.

Severus tapped his fingers on the book. "Does it say anything about a bond forged by the unity of walking a road together?"

Draco shook his head.

Severus stared down at the book. "So if we enter into this with less than full and willing participation, or Potter does, then we may never achieve this part of the bond." He shuddered a little. "Or we may achieve it and then lose the power that we have built up in the moment of confronting the Lestranges."

"And that is the reason I thought you should see this book." Draco nodded, his mouth now a jagged slash across his face. "Because this is the thing that you want most, this power to use against the Lestranges. You won't have it if you don't work with Potter. Or if you manage to achieve a kind of bond with him and then we break it right in the middle of battle. I thought you would care more about our revenge than picking at him."

"I am not the one who caused the problems yesterday." Severus was proud of the voice he used to speak that, flat and calm and so level that someone could have skated on it.

Draco stared at him, and Severus found himself lowering his eyes before he thought about it. "I was not," he whispered.

"You did." Draco stood up and moved around the table to shut the book. Severus wondered why at first, considering that Draco didn't need to come that close, and then understood. Draco was coming that close so that Severus couldn't ignore him, the heat coming from his body or the way that Draco's arm brushed against his or the direct stare. "Some of it comes from Potter, yes. But I have a different way to appeal to his desire for revenge. You, I'm going to tell right out. Stop it."

"Potter will not like it if you are trying to manipulate him," said Severus, his head spinning a little. He could sense Draco's emotions now, a weariness that shimmered and danced like a sulfur spring. Draco felt the way that Severus often had when confronting a classroom full of students for the first time.

"That's true," said Draco. "But it's the same about apologies. He doesn't like apologies, but there's no way that I can stop trying to make things up to him because of that. He doesn't like being manipulated, he doesn't like being left alone, he doesn't like being talked to, he doesn't like being ignored. And I'm going to put him in possession of all the same facts that I told you, only spin them differently. You care about the revenge the most. I can't be sure that's the case with him."

"What Gryffindor wouldn't care about revenge?"

Draco started to answer, but paused. His head tilted, and his eyebrows went up. Severus concentrated, sure that it must have something to do with the bond, but could feel only a faint ripple that seemed as if it was passing through a mild pond.

"Well," Draco murmured. "It seems that I'm going to have the chance to explain myself to Potter earlier than I anticipated." He stood up and moved towards the door of the library.

"He's contacting you?" Severus reached out to the bond and met only smoothness, as if he was touching a blank wall.

"Yes." Draco paused and looked back at him with a glance that might have been pitying. Severus couldn't tell. "Stay out of this, Severus. You've had your chance to show him your memories and connect with him, and for the most part, you failed miserably. This is mine. I mean to do better."

Before Severus could open his mouth in outrage, Draco vanished through the door, and the closing of that door seemed to coincide with the closing of the bond. Severus watched as even the dancing of Draco's emotions in his head faded. He could still feel a few things, but not much. It seemed that Potter wanted this conversation between him and Draco to be private as much as Draco did.

I do not always fuck up the things I touch. Severus tried to tell Draco that down the bond, to show him the successful poison he had brewed earlier.

Nothing happened. If Draco could hear Severus at all, he was very good at pretending that he couldn't.

Severus cursed under his breath and made his way slowly back to his lab. He did not know what to say. Draco, so convinced in general of Severus's intelligence and competence, seemed to think that the task of going along with the bond and subduing their differences enough to gain revenge on those who had established the bond in the first place was beyond him.

Is he not right? He has had no evidence to the contrary so far.

Severus paused with one hand on the door of the lab, frowning. Was this another manipulation? Draco had told him that probably knowing what effect his disapproval would have on Severus.

Then Severus grunted and stepped back inside the lab. It is no less effective for all that. He wondered if that would be the same way that Draco would speak to Potter.

*

Harry waited only until he was sure that Malfoy was alone, because all sense and taint of Snape had faded from the bond. Then he struck.

He could sense Malfoy flailing, trying to stand up, as the power of Harry's disdain crashed into him like a flood and bore him off his feet. Harry ignored that sensation. Yes, perhaps he should be treating Malfoy more gently. But he saw no reason to. Malfoy had been moving around early this morning, disturbing Harry, giving him no chance to rest and think about other things. And his words had lingered in Harry's mind like slow poison since yesterday. He had had all the rest he deserved.

Malfoly struggled and bore up under the flood, though, and the answer that came was quicker than Harry wanted and sharper than he wanted, digging into his mind enough that he wanted to retreat. That would show weakness, though. He couldn't do that. So he braced himself, and accepted the emotions that Malfoy shoved at him in return.

Which was everything. Instead of lowering his Occlumency shields so that Harry could read his mind, the way Snape had, Malfoy flung himself wide open, lowering all sorts of walls, just so that Harry could see what he was feeling.

He felt what Malfoy had about the rape: compelled, enraged, upset, unwillingly aroused. All of it was there, in a knot that Harry couldn't separate and had to reject, because fuck if he was going to feel aroused at his own rape.

But Malfoy just stood there and felt at him, and there was no building the barrier up again easily, because Harry had been the one to hit Malfoy with his own anger and fear and pain, and Malfoy was responding. They floated back and forth together in some sort of borderland between reality and the bond, jostling until Harry wanted to scream.

Enough, Malfoy! he finally shouted, when he had suffered through the frustration that Malfoy had felt yesterday, as keen as knives, and all sorts of thoughts about Snape's idiocy, and Malfoy's moping over the aftereffects of the bond, and what Malfoy had been feeling when he apologized, and...

The flood of emotions stopped. Harry opened his eyes and leaned over with his hands on his knees, glad that he had made sure he was alone in Ron's room before he tried to contact Malfoy this way. God knew what his friends would have made of him writhing in place and gasping with open eyes like that.

You didn't have to do that, he said, when he felt he could touch the bond without turning into a mass of raw nerves.

But it's what you did, Malfoy snapped back, not sounding sorry at all. Harry didn't want his empty apologies, but he was starting to think they were better than having a cat bristle in the back of his head all the time. You hit me with that pain and you didn't think it was for a good reason. You just wanted to punish me.

Harry swallowed stickily. He didn't want that to be true, but he thought it probably was.

Of course it was. I can make you feel what I felt then, if you want.

No! Harry said quickly. He didn't want to get lost in a reflecting maze of the bond's emotions, continually bouncing off them. I don't want--you have no right--

He fell silent, because Malfoy was laughing cruelly in the back of his head. Yes, you're the one who can get away with that punishment because you felt you should, but also the one who can't deal with being hit back.

I'm not the one who raped someone.

Malfoy's laughter went dark. Then why not hit Severus with the same sort of demand for him to pay attention to you? You only did that because you were annoyed with me for what I said yesterday. It has nothing to do with the rape.

Harry flung a wordless shout of rage, and Malfoy answered again with that ball of emotions that Harry couldn't separate and flinched back from.

I didn't rape you because I wanted to, Malfoy said, his words written in letters of fire across Harry's brain. I raped you because the bond and the ritual compelled me to, because that was the way the sacrifice was set up. It's not as simple as saying that it was all my fault and there is something I could have done to prevent it. I suppose I could have given up and died, with my brain running like water out my ears. But then you would have died too, wouldn't you? Because the bond wanted three people in it, three minds, and without one of the minds, you would have died. You chose rape as the price of your survival. It's a horrible price. It shouldn't have been done. But it's there, it happened, and we were compelled to do it. There is no getting away from that. I'm trying to deal with that. You're just crouching under the bed and hoping everything goes away.

Harry tried to reply, but he was so wordless by this point that it felt as if his body was shaking with fire, or as if it was on fire, and he blew away into the nothingness of the bond again. He was the one who controlled the telepathy, but random thoughts and images sleeted past him, and he didn't know that he could recover himself. He darted from place to place, coming up with ways to answer Malfoy's accusations and unable to use them, trembling, reforming, and then blithering apart again.

Malfoy did nothing but watch him. Harry, when he had the control of himself again to do anything but scream in fury, decided that it was like Malfoy had stayed in one place, and Harry had traveled to many. Harry was panting, ashamed and hurting and furious, and Malfoy just radiated coolness at him.

If you're smug about what you did... Harry breathed at him.

Never that, Malfoy said at once, but with a lack of the bitterness in his voice that had been there the last time he spoke. It's caused me too much guilt and grief to be that way. But I do want you to work with me. I found information in a book today that said that our participation in the joining of magic has to be willing or we stand the chance of the bond breaking at any time. So we'll snap if we're in the middle of facing the Lestranges, say, and you decide that that's the perfect moment to explode at Severus or me.

Harry bowed his head and massaged his temples with his fingers, pressing as hard as he could in the spots that hurt most. Nothing seemed to help. There was just more pain waiting behind that which he soothed away to pop up and laugh at him.

I can't bond with you, he told Malfoy. Not in the way you mean me to. I don't care how much it hurts or how much it would make my life better to face the Lestranges and take them down. He knew from the throb at the back of Malfoy's mind that Malfoy thought that. There's no way that I can surrender that much.

Silence from Malfoy, hard-edged silence that smoothed down to porcelain as Harry concentrated on it. Then he said, Very well. Then we will go up against the Lestranges with the ability to walk roads and the telepathic part of the bond.

Harry frowned. Wouldn't that make the bond unstable? Or not complete? If there are three parts of it and someone is supposed to be in charge of all of them--

Of course it would make it bloody unstable, Malfoy snarled, and Harry recoiled. The sensation of someone breathing directly on his face was strong. But the great and strong Harry Potter has decided that he knows better, and that he can't put up with someone else being in charge, as you put it. So we'll do it your way. Because just like you don't have the power to control the roads or combine our magic all by yourself, we don't have the power to compel you to do something else.

He retreated in the next instant, and said, All right? So tell us when you're ready to seek out the Lestranges.

Then the sense of his presence retreated further. Harry reached out, incredulously. He was supposed to be the only one who could close the bond like this, and if it turned out that Snape and Malfoy had lied to him, and they really could close off their emotions and speech and thoughts from them, than he would...

But he discovered the distance disappearing again when he tried to touch Malfoy's mind. He could still close it. It just appeared that Malfoy and Snape had the ability to step further back than he'd thought they did.

Yes, you're in control, Malfoy said. And going up against the Lestranges is going to be more dangerous than it needs to be with the bond so unstable, but we're making the bargain to save you from harm. He sounded weary, without much of an opinion on the subject. So there you go. You don't need to surrender any more control than you already have.

Harry tried to understand what he could say. Finally, he came out with, You make it sound as if you were the real victims here.

Malfoy exhaled, hard and long and cold. No. Not as much as you are. Only victims, too. And frankly, I'm uninterested in trying to come up with who was more at fault. I'm interested in surviving. Aren't you, too? He paused, then added, Or you're only interested in the kind of survival that comes without you having to do something like trust us.

I can't trust you!

And we can't trust you, either, Malfoy snapped back. Not even when we offer you memories and apologies and everything we can think of. If nothing can make up for this, then you might as well sever the bond right now and leave Severus and me to hunt the Lestranges on our own. We would have a better chance of surviving without you, anyway.

He turned and stalked back into his own mind, leaving Harry staring at the blank wall. He shook his head abruptly, and stood up to go down to the Burrow's kitchen and be with Ron and Hermione. That was what he needed right now.

He wasn't going to let Malfoy and Snape trick him into trusting them. Never again.

But at the same time, he did want revenge on the Lestranges.

I'll go to the Manor after breakfast and look at that fucking book. It must not say what Malfoy says it says. It can't.

Chapter Text

"Malfoy! I want to see that book--"

Harry halted. The gates of Malfoy Manor had opened in front of him, but he hadn't thought much of that, or the silent house-elf who opened the door. He had run through the corridors to the library with his mind only focused on what Malfoy had said and how it couldn't be true, how he would make it not be true.

Now that he was in the library, however, he could see only the book in front of him, a relatively large one, with a piece of parchment pinned to the cover with what looked like a Sticking Charm. Harry cautiously drew his wand as he approached.

Potter, the note said, when Harry got close enough to read it,

Here is the book that contains the information about combining our magic. Turn to page 494. Underneath it is another book that contains the only information I could find in the library specifically about bond-breaking rituals that are based on Veela ones. It may be better to choose a different course when we do break the bond. The Veela one is limited.

Harry slowly cast a few spells on the books and the note, looking for curses, while listening as hard as he could. Nothing. Malfoy Manor might have been one of those houses in Muggle fairy tales that had been asleep for a hundred years, waiting for a prince to come and wake up a sleeping princess.

Harry thought that was strange. Had Malfoy and Snape decided that they couldn't deal with their guilt if they saw him?

Then Harry sneered and sat down at the table with the books. Idiot. Of course, they don't have any guilt to feel. They'd just whinge if they saw you about how they did what they had to do to survive, and they don't deserve any punishment for that.

His snarl still bubbling on his lips, Harry began to read.

*

"I don't see how this particular ritual will work," Severus murmured, and laid the book aside.

Sitting across from him, at a table in one of the minor dining rooms, Draco grunted tiredly and laid the book he was investigating down. "No," he muttered, rubbing his eyes. "I thought Potter grabbed the idea of modifying a Veela bonding ritual at random, and we could do better than that. Especially since my ancestors didn't think books on that topic even worth collecting. But maybe that was a better idea than I knew. There's nothing here that's what we want." Draco shoved away the book he'd been considering with some violence, and turned to the next one in the pile.

Severus hesitated, then reached out through the telepathic portion of the bond. Are you well, Draco? You seem too tired to continue.

Draco brought his head up, and Severus received the most hostile glare from him that he'd encountered since the end of the war. "I'm fine. And we shouldn't speak silently, anyway. That's strengthening the bond in a way you despise."

Severus bowed stiffly from his seat. "As you wish." He turned back to the book he was studying. From the corner of his eye, he saw Draco pick up another tome and begin to flick through it.

Severus growled under his breath. This was more frustrating than he had counted on, especially because Potter seemed to have stumbled across an idea right away. With two Slytherin minds working in concert, they ought to have been able to better that record.

But they had discovered nothing useful in the books so far, even the ones that were about unwanted bonds and ways to break them off. All the rituals described either involved only two people, the most common barrier, or they reasoned that the people who wanted to break bonds had unlimited time and cooperation at their disposal. Because who, asked one book Severus had read in as pointed a tone as if the writer could see them now, would refuse to cooperate with their bondmates if it meant getting rid of unwanted intrusions into their mind and heart? Just a little cooperation would see them free.

Severus sneered and batted at the pages in front of him. The writer of this book had never met a Potter. Imagining that meeting, and the writer's corresponding bafflement, soothed Severus's temper a little, but not much.

"Severus?"

Severus glanced up at Draco. He was looking at Severus across the top of his own book, his body so still that Severus understood the implied question. He grimaced and looked back at the tome he had been investigating with so little success so far. "I am fine," he said. "Only impatient with the slow pace of the research."

Draco studied him in silence for a little while longer, then nodded and returned to his reading.

Severus half-closed his eyes. He could remember the time when Draco would never have asked if he was all right, unless it was in the sort of hysterical tone that resulted from Severus getting injured or tortured by the Dark Lord. Draco had known that Severus could handle himself around the other Death Eaters.

Did he miss those days? Not the torture or the injury itself, of course, but being the protector, being the one who was in control, the stronger one, going unquestioned? If so, that might account for some of the way he felt right now, but not all of it. He had never played that particular protector role for Potter.

But arguably, he had failed to protect Potter by getting in the middle of that ritual anyway.

Severus glared at his book with a renewed ferocity. If that was still true, then he should at least be the one to figure out a situation that would let them have a safe breaking of the bond, without a need for reckless Veela rituals.

Ten more minutes of reading, though, did nothing to convince him that he would find it this way. Draco knew the contents of the Malfoy library far better than he did, and Draco said these were the only books on rituals. But the books repeated over and over again how necessary trust and cooperation were for the breaking of the bond, and Severus knew that they would get neither from Potter.

So don't go the ritual route, then. Do something else. Find some other way.

Severus bit his own lip savagely. He didn't want to do that, to start thinking that he should be more brilliant than he had been so far, and that would net a miraculous situation. What other solution could he offer? A ritual was the only one that would work for them, since a ritual had been the means of establishing the bond in the first place, and...

No. Wait.

Severus's head came up like a hunting dog. He was aware of Draco staring across the table at him, and of the pool of emotion in his head, the one that reflected Draco's feelings, boiling. He paid no attention to them for the time being. He was caught up in his own speculations, his own ideas about things that he had entirely ignored the first time he was considering them.

The ritual hadn't established the bond. The ritual circle had been broken when the Lestranges rolled Potter across the copper ring. It had been Potter's bargain with his virginity that had established the bond, the way it was. It would still have tried to unite them if Potter hadn't offered that sacrifice, but it would have failed, and resulted in death. No wonder a normal ritual was not going to work for them. It was not a normal ritual that had united them.

"Severus?" Draco leaned across the table further and snapped his fingers under Severus's nose, which just made Severus snarl and bat his hand away in turn. "Are you all right? This time, I am going to ask aloud."

Severus grasped Draco's hand and lowered it to the tabletop. "The bond that unites us is like others, but the ritual that produced it was unique, because of the changes to it that Potter's presence and his sacrifice instituted," he breathed into Draco's concerned face. "It is no wonder that we cannot find a ritual that will dissolve it. We will have to create our own. Or perhaps we can counter with something that is not a ritual at all."

"That's what we've been saying all along, though," Draco said warily, rubbing his hand. "We would have to modify a bond-breaking ritual from the Veela originals, or whatever other originals we find, because most of them don't include three people--"

"But we will not find one that will properly respond to us," Severus interrupted, "unless you have found one that I have not, which says that someone can fundamentally distrust his partners in the bond and yet work with them."

Draco's silence indicated that he had not, and so did the utter stillness of the pool of his emotions in Severus's head. Severus nodded regally and stood. "Then I suggest we try a different route. We cannot find a ritual that will work the way we need it to, but we can brew a potion that will do exactly as I ask of it."

"You think he would trust you enough to swallow a potion?" Draco blinked at him like a kitten with its eyes just open.

"Yes," Severus said. "More than he would for a ritual, where trust is one of the preconditions. Just as it would be if we were to combine magic. You know that he will not trust us enough for that either," he added, when Draco opened his mouth. "Why else did you retreat to this room and close the library off for him, with that book?"

"Well, so that he could look at the book in private without talking to us," Draco admitted, rubbing his ear, as if he imagined it hurting from the force of Potter's shouts. "But I still don't think that he'd drink a potion that had been developed without his presence."

Severus snorted. "Would he want to talk to us about it?"

Draco hesitated. "Well. No."

Severus nodded back. "Exactly. So we develop it, and then we can drink it. At the very least, it should sever one-third of the bond, the one that holds us together. Potter is in control of the telepathic portion of the rest. Without him, I cannot summon the roads." It irritated, a little, to be asked to give up control of his new power, the only thing he could control in the bond, so soon after he had found it, but it would irritate him more to stay in this bond with Potter that would never change and never grow more stable. "But he can close his mind off, and that way, he cannot hear us. Nor shall we hear each other."

Draco looked in the direction of the library, his eyes lingering there for a moment. Severus waited. He was confident that Draco would agree. He knew Severus's strengths as a Potions master, and unlike the endless research that had so far only offered them closed paths, this was something they could immediately begin testing. If their first attempt did not work, they would at least know why. That was more than they could say about the rituals they had looked up so far, which either might work if they could achieve a lot of impossible things first, or would be dangerous until they were tried. The modifications that Severus had sketched out for the few rituals that seemed possible did not leave him sanguine.

"Yes, all right," said Draco finally. "But we should at least inform Potter of what we're doing. He might want to know."

"He will only snap at you for disturbing his peace," Severus warned.

Draco spread his hands. "Better me than you."

"I did not mean to make you into my sacrifice."

For a second, Draco smiled. From the way his pool of emotions stirred in the back of Severus's head, that was what he had most wanted, some kind of acknowledgment of the contributions he had made to the effort to stabilize the bond. "You aren't. I want this bond gone, if not as intensely as you do. And you would make him more upset if you approached him, and then he would make you upset enough not to brew the potion correctly."

Severus nodded and sat back, tracing, only idly, the process by which Draco reached out along the bond. He could feel Potter's response, the fangs and claws in it, and shook his head. The important thing had been strengthening the bond to fight the return of the Dark Lord, then strengthening it to make sure they had revenge, then weakening or snapping it.

He hoped this was the last incarnation of their most important decision. Of course, with the bond gone, he doubted that Potter would be able to change his mind anymore anyway.

*

What the fuck is this, Malfoy?

Harry flung the words down the bond like a javelin. He had lost track of how long he was sitting in the library, staring at that stupid book open to the stupid page that said that stupid thing about what would happen if they tried to combine their magic with less than complete trust between them. Malfoy's interruption was equally stupid, but welcome. It woke Harry up and made him have to pay attention to what was going on around him again.

What it sounds like. Malfoy's voice was stolid, as though he had turned himself into a stone post that just deflected Harry's javelin. The book has informed us that it's useless trying to strengthen the bond the way we are, so we'll have to break it. I left that book there so you could read for yourself and see why it so convinced Severus and me.

Harry answered with another blast of wordless rage. Malfoy rode it this time, and pushed contempt back at him. The cool kind of contempt, the kind that Harry had never succeeded in ignoring, because it implied that the person feeling it was just better than him, and that had never been true. It especially wasn't true now, when both of the people feeling it were rapists.

What can I even say in response to that, when you've made it clear that you don't want apologies or sympathy from me?

Harry snarled in response, and pushed more emotion down the bond. He knew that that was only strengthening the telepathic part, in a way, but what did that matter when the rest of the bond was never going to become strong enough to bind them together forever? He knew that he could never trust Malfoy to take hold of his magic and pool it with Snape's. In some ways, Malfoy was worse than Snape. Snape had snapped and been sulky and broody about the rape. Malfoy kept trying to pretend that everything was all right.

Do I have to show what I already showed you, what I felt about it, to convince you that I'm not all right? I do feel guilt. The thing is, my guilt doesn't make any difference to you. You've even said, several times, that it was an insult. The difference between me and you is that I can decide that I have to do something else than brood. You collapse back into it even when you say that you won't.

Harry responded with a wave of rejection this time, which should have been cold enough to freeze Malfoy in his tracks. But Malfoy leaped deftly over the freezing fog, and came down still pushing words at him.

I thought you'd settled your emotions in the garden, and accepted that we have to work together. Then I discovered that you haven't, and that a conversation with your friends seems to have made you worse, so that you just don't want to work with us at all. Fine. Then that means we need a way to break the bond. And the sooner you stop thrashing around and screaming at the heavens and deciding that we're lying, the sooner we can actually break the bond.

Harry was so insulted that he didn't know how to respond for a few minutes. Then he said, You can't--you can't describe me that way.

When have you held to a consistent decision in the last week, except that you hate us? Every time that it seemed as if we could work together, that was only another thin layer on top of a deeper hatred. You hate me for telling you the truth. You hate me for what you call lying, which turns out to be the truth. You hate me for leaving you alone to read the book. You hate me for contacting you and trying to figure out a way to break this bond.

Harry, lost in his emotions, could only whisper, I hate you.

I know, said Malfoy. But that's not going to help us. Severus thinks that a potion and not a ritual might break the bond. Should we do that? I mean, we can drink the potion without you, and that would end the portion of the bond that connects Severus and me. But unless you drink it, too, then the other parts of the bond will probably still exist.

Harry laughed hysterically. He could feel the pages of the book and the table he gripped slipping under his palms, they were so sweaty. He lifted one hand and beat it on top of the book, shaking his head. How can you ask me that? You think I would drink anything that Snape comes up with?

Yeah, that's what I thought, said Malfoy. Or what Severus thought. But I thought I would give you the choice. You haven't had enough people offer you choices in the last little while.

Harry tried to respond to that, but once again, he could only send emotion, and Malfoy had retreated. He added one more remark over his shoulder, like someone walking out of a room and shutting the door behind him. The house-elves have orders to escort you out of the Manor when you want to leave. You won't have to see us. Just shut the door behind you.

That instruction made Harry pick up the book he'd been reading. He wanted to set it on fire and throw it somewhere. He wanted to set the whole of Malfoy's library on fire and then chase the flames up the stairs, until they reached whatever room Malfoy and Snape were hiding in and burned them to death.

But the bond would pull him into death if he did that. They were still connected.

Harry lowered the book, and then lowered his head into his hands. He stayed like that, breathing.

It was weird. Speaking with Ron and Hermione, the way he'd got to do, was supposed to make him feel better. But all he could think about it after he had done it was that these were the people he wanted supporting him, the two people he would have wanted to be bonded to if there was any choice, if he had to be bonded to anyone, and not the two arses who were sitting in the garden and pretending to talk politely to Molly and Arthur.

Harry squeezed his eyes until it felt as if the tears would fall out or burn out on their own, and then lifted his head again. He could stare at the far side of the library, and there was no one else in the room to intrude on him. The bond in his head was distant and muted, and he knew ways to make it even more so. He was in control of the bond, after all.

But...

He couldn't shut it out forever. If his concentration weakened, he started feeling the chatter from Snape and Malfoy's side of the bond again. He thought he would probably feel it if one of them was hurt. And if their potion went wrong, then he would probably feel that, too, and it might even damage him, the way that they had felt it when the bond was trying to pull his ribs out of his chest.

He didn't want this. He didn't like this.

But maybe he didn't have to.

Harry poked warily around the edges of the bond. Nothing responded. Snape seemed to have decided to ignore him, and Harry knew well enough how thoroughly Snape could ignore what he didn't like. Malfoy had decided that his precious apologies weren't good enough for Harry, and that he didn't want to spend time speaking to Harry unless those apologies got accepted, it seemed. So he wouldn't come back, either.

Maybe, if things stayed like this, Harry could live with it long enough to end the bond. Because that was what he wanted more than anything else. Maybe he had to face Voldemort returning and the consequences of killing Aurors and the Lestranges, but he didn't want to face it bound like this.

To do that, though, he had to work with the hatred. Use it as a weapon, a lever to drive himself to do what he needed to do and then walk away, instead of holding his distance.

He could endure the presence of Snape and Malfoy for a while longer, long enough to be rid of them, surely? He could do what he needed to do if it meant that he would be able to part from them forever later?

Harry swallowed and reached out along the bond to Malfoy, who responded with complete neutrality, like blank ice.

Tell me where Snape's lab is, Harry said, and tried his best to reflect back the same neutrality. I want to help with the potion.

Chapter Text

“I have no objections about him coming here, if you feel he must.”

Draco grimaced and turned away from Severus, pacing slowly towards the far side of the lab. The room was spotless as it had rarely been since the formation of the bond. That was because they had both joined in scrubbing it down, casting Cleaning Charms, and removing the specks of what Severus insisted were unsuccessful experiments and which to Draco looked like soot from the cauldrons. Severus said that he didn’t want anything going wrong because they had neglected to investigate whether they were brewing in a clean cauldron or not. Severus’s cauldrons were always clean.

“I don’t feel one way or the other,” Draco told the wall that had a fresh new glow to it. He could feel Potter coming closer and closer, up the stairs that separated them. He suspected Severus felt much the same, from the tension of his shoulders. “I think we have to let him try. If he refuses to listen and actually participate in the potion instead of just shout at us, then we’ll kick him out. But let him try first.”

“That sounds like feeling to me.”

Draco rolled his eyes as the lab door opened. The last thing they needed, with Potter on their threshold, was an argument about terminology.

Draco turned around. Potter stood there with his hand clasping the edge of the door, his shoulders bristling. Draco could almost feel the invisible hackles he had rising around him, and held back his own awareness of that.

I can feel what you’re thinking anyway, Malfoy.

Draco inclined his head. At least there was nothing overtly hostile in what Potter was saying, and that was a good start. “Fine. Then you know that we’re going to brew a potion to try and dissolve the bond.”

“It will help if you will begin to cut up ingredients.” Severus kept his back turned as his hands blurred among the ingredients already cut or not needing cutting: marigold petals, bits of gold, grains of salt. He might have been addressing either of them or only Draco. Draco thought he was definitely taking advantage of the ambiguity in the word “you.” “The marigold petals must be diced, the smallest piece no smaller than the thumbnail on your least finger, the largest piece no larger than your thumbnail. It would also help if you checked the gold for purity, Draco. The last time that I made a potion like this, the gold was not completely pure, but I have found myself unable to purchase more.”

Because he wanted to finish the potion right away, Draco knew, but Potter was bristling behind him, indignant, of course, and leaning forwards to challenge Severus. “Why are we using less than pure gold, if you think there’s a chance that it might negatively affect the potion? Why not use something else?”

Severus turned around. All the lines in his face had locked down, a frightening look to Draco. He knew it meant that Severus was struggling furiously to control himself. “Because this is what we have available,” Severus said. “Because I could not afford anything else. Because this is what we have.” He paused, and then added, “Unless you want to wait on developing the potion while I go to the shops for gold.”

For a second, Potter and Severus held each other’s gazes, and the air between sparked and shorted. Draco winced again. If this effort was going to collapse at the beginning, well, he supposed that would save them from putting in some effort, but he would rather that it didn’t happen at all, thanks.

“You have no idea what I would do,” Potter whispered, “to be free of this bond.”

Severus said nothing for a long moment. Draco tried to reach out to him through the bond, and found the normally open portal screwed shut. Severus was probably struggling to control his temper. 

Finally, he said, “I know, because I would do much the same thing. We must, for the moment, ignore the temptation to lash out at each other. Will you go to the shops and purchase more gold, then?”

Potter hesitated for the first time since he had entered the room. Draco turned away and hastily bowed his head over the pile of marigold petals he had already begun to dice, lest he give something away with his expression.

The bond gives you away, idiot, Severus murmured in the back of his head. But I understand your attempt to avoid drawing Potter’s wrath.

Finally, Potter said, “I wouldn’t know what to look for. I’ve never had to evaluate how pure gold is.”

Severus only nodded once, and said, “There is a spell that I can teach you to do it here, in the privacy of the lab. But shopkeepers, understandably, often consider it an insult when it is cast in front of them. You will have to do it here, then.” And he turned back to his own task, dismissing Potter, even as he Summoned a book and had it fall open at a page that probably contained the spell.

Potter took the book and stood so still for a second that Draco held his breath, thinking they had another problem on their hands. Then Potter moved his head in a complex gesture and turned away.

Draco released his breath in a rush, then had to scramble for his wand. That forceful exhale had made some of his marigold petals fly off the table and drift dizzily around the room. 

And thus are you punished, without my intervention, Severus said, not looking at him.

Draco felt justified in ignoring him. They were all in the same room, and no one had exploded yet, either with an object or with emotions. That was worth celebrating.

*

Harry stared at the gold in front of him, and tried to ignore the feeling of someone breathing down his neck.

So there was Snape on one side of him, and Malfoy on the other, and these particles of gold dust in front of him that he was supposed to sort and make something from. So what?

He raised his wand and murmured the incantation from the book. “Expiscor aurum.”

For a second, he thought it hadn’t worked, because there wasn’t any change in the gold in front of him. Then grains of it began to roll along the table, separating from others. Harry blinked and watched. It was the first spell he had cast in a long time that didn’t have some sort of harmful effect. It was fascinating.

Then Harry shut his eyes and shook his head. No, that wasn’t true. He used charms for warming and cleaning and Summoning all the time, and none of them had harmful effects. He was getting paranoid.

He wasn’t completely a killer. Perhaps he wasn’t as good as he used to consider himself, and he should think about some spells more carefully before he cast them, but that didn’t make him a murderer.

When he had convinced himself of that, and he was breathing again, he turned and cast the charm on the next pile of gold dust. He left the separated piles alone. For all he knew, touching them would contaminate them again. Or Snape would decide to behave as if it had, and Harry really couldn’t take that right now.

He kept his eye on Snape as he worked, but Snape never looked around at him. He continued preparing a pewter cauldron, which seemed to be the one they needed for the potion. Harry didn’t know why, and wasn’t about to ask. Frankly, it was a trial to his nerves and principles just to be in the same room for right now.

He plucked the bond at one point, to see what kind of reaction he could get. Snape still never looked up. Malfoy did, but it was a quick, searching glance that went back to his marigold petals so quickly that Harry would have missed it if he hadn’t already been more than half turned in that direction.

Harry had never thought he could feel peace in Malfoy or Snape’s presence, but it turned out that being in the same room with them and not shouting or cursing each other was a good enough substitute. At least he knew that they both wanted the same thing he did: separation from the bond. After that, they could discuss other things like revenge on the Lestranges, or ways to find out where they were hiding, since they couldn’t use the roads anymore.

It was a sort of beginning. It was a beginning that made the air in Harry’s lungs ache less, and his hands stop the tight grip on his wand over time. The continued murmuring of the charm that separated and cleaned the gold dust, or whatever it was supposed to do, helped, too. Doing the same simple thing over and over was what he needed right now.

Not that he intended to allow either Snape or Malfoy to know that. They would claim some kind of credit for it, and laugh at him, or sneer at him, or tell him that he should be grateful, and Harry couldn’t take that.

He became aware that he had stopped casting the charm and was standing in place with his teeth grinding into each other and his wand trembling above the pile of gold dust. Snape was still working, apparently stepping back to admire the shining outer surface of the cauldron, but Malfoy had gone tense beside him, and stopped cutting.

Harry concentrated on his memories, and slowly pulled back from his dangerous rage. Snape and Malfoy hadn’t actually told him that he should be grateful for their “help” with this yet. They had done enough real harm to him that he didn’t need to get upset about something imaginary. He concentrated on other things, too, like the feeling of his wand in his hand and the beat of his heart, and gradually managed to work himself back to the point where he could say the charm again.

The instant he did, Malfoy went back to cutting his marigold petals, and a tension Harry hadn’t felt was there—coming down the bond with Snape, he thought, rather than being seen in his body—dissipated. They were dependent on him for their moods, then, and the way they took the bond.

That relaxed Harry more than he had expected. If he was in control of this much, then that lessened his fury. He even found himself with a faint smile on his lips, mostly because he knew that neither Snape nor Malfoy would ever understand what he was smiling about.

So the afternoon passed.

*

Severus was at last satisfied that all trace of foreign matter was gone from the cauldron, including not only stains or specks from the former potions he had brewed in it, but the magical influence of those potions. Sometimes, and it was hard to say when it would happen, a particularly powerful potion would leave behind non-material traces of itself. A Draught of Living Death was known to be responsible for sometimes poisoning non-related potions with a bit of asphodel or wormwood, as strange as such a thing was.

And, finally, Severus could turn his mind to the exact composition of the bond-severing potion.

He had known that he would need marigolds because they were a common ingredient in potions of this type, and gold because it was the chemical representation of the sun, of the fire, of a purifying and transfiguring force. But he didn’t yet know what else he would need. He turned and began to prowl along the shelves, now and then reaching out to touch a glass jar with his fingers, or stroking a vial, or pondering the contents. He would know what he should use when he saw what he had to work with.

“Snape?”

That was Potter, from behind him, and his voice threatened to grind the fragile peace that Severus had won, and the clear state of mind he needed to pick his way through the shelves, to dust. Severus gritted his teeth and pitted himself against his own irritation. He won the battle, if barely.

“Yes, Potter?” he asked, in the neutral tone that he had once used when asked by Albus to get along with Potter.

“What are you looking for? I thought you had all the ingredients that you needed right now.”

Potter’s question was one that Severus had been asked before, mostly by people like Lucius who should have known better and didn’t understand what he was doing. But Potter did not know better. He would know nothing about Potions. That made it easier for Severus to answer the way he would have in front of Lucius, but with less irritation. “This is an experimental potion. I do not know all the ingredients yet. I know some, and those are the ones that I have been having you assemble. In the meantime, I must roam the shelves and allow my mind and imagination to pick over the ingredients. The ones that seem right will be the ones that are right. My training as a Potions master does not always operate consciously.”

“You mean that we might end up drinking anything because you feel that it’s right to put it in the potion?” Potter demanded, and his voice sounded so young that Severus fought another surge of irritation. On the other hand, young people did not know anything about Potions, either. “That isn’t right!”

“I would not feed you poison,” Severus said, looking at the shelves until his eyes blurred from the force of his straining. “It would mean my own death, or prosecution for murder even if I survived. I wish to be free, to remain free. Free of the bond, and then free of the shadow that the Lestranges have cast over my life.”

“The shadow they cast over your life?”

Severus studied the shelves in front of him. Here was the powdered silver, and here the diluted quicksilver. He had ordered them close together because he wanted to, because that aspect of the arrangement pleased him. He responded to Potter’s demand to explain with quietude, almost drifting in the sea of peace that he forced himself into by contemplating his own arrangements, and how he managed to have them in his lab, and how he would someday win the power to arrange his life again. “They have cast me into a maelstrom of guilt and doubt. They have left me with the threat that they might be out there again, and might manage to break through the wards on the Manor as they did the ones on the safehouse. They have made me into a rapist, which is something I avoided becoming even during the war. They have forced me to cross lines that I did not wish to cross. I wish to be free of them.”

“That isn’t as great as the shadow that they cast over my life.” Potter’s voice was edged with resentment, the blades that could cut into the fragile peace Severus had won for himself if he let them.

He did not let them. Had he not danced with sharper blades every day, his own grief and guilt for Lily’s death, his spy act during the war and his own conflict over murdering Albus, and lately the guilt from his actions during the ritual?

One boy was not going to be enough to defeat him.

“I know that,” Severus said. “Yours is the greater.” He leaned nearer, and found that his hand was reaching for the vial of powdered silver. Well, silver and gold would make a stronger potion together than either alone. “It is, nevertheless, a shadow.”

He could feel Potter through the bond now, the way he had not been able to since Potter walked into the room. The barriers that held them apart were probably thinning with Potter’s rage. Severus could feel it as a struggle, a breathing, prisoned thing like a butterfly thrashing against its cocoon.

Potter was in control of the bond. Severus could not prevent it if Potter was to slam him with molten rage in a few minutes, the way he had slammed Draco so short a time ago.

But Severus found that he could watch with indifference. He could not prevent it, no, the way that he could not travel back in time and prevent the rape. But he had been living with the illusion that he could change the past for too long. It was the major reason he had gone to Albus and given himself up as a spy after Lily’s murder, for example. Some urge to make up for the past, to atone in a way that would change it.

But no matter how long he waited, Lily would not be alive. Potter would not be unscathed again. It was unchangeable.

Because it was unchangeable, and because the guilt would always be there, Severus had to learn to live with it. He had fought hard enough against the inevitable himself, so he was not without some insight into Potter’s struggle. But that would not change the outcome.

I hate you, Potter breathed at last, as intimate as if he had whispered it into Severus’s ear.

Enough not to work with me? Severus asked back, aware that Draco stood there watching them, and wincing a little, probably from the force of their emotions, but also aware that Draco had no part in this little confrontation.

For a moment, Severus thought the answer might be yes. Potter was fighting again, this time against the bonds of what felt like his own emotions, as far as Severus could determine. He could almost taste, on the back of his tongue, Potter’s iron yearning to fling the gold dust away and tell them to go to hell, and walk out of the lab.

But he also felt the moment when the realization crashed into Potter—the realization that doing so would not sever the bond—and caged him, the bars slamming down across the road of his life as they had already slammed across Severus’s and Draco’s.

Enough to work with you as long as I have to, and then leave as soon as I can, Potter snapped back. The moment I don’t need you anymore.

That is acceptable, Severus said, because it was what he wanted to say, and turned to pick up the nearest vial. The silver came to hand, and after that, the petals of a silver flower that he had plucked at midnight on the night of a full moon, a flower that most of his books said no longer grew in Britain. Severus had set out to prove that they still did, since he had known no magical or environmental reason why they should have stopped growing in Britain, and had proven himself right.

You’re impossible, Potter hissed, and withdrew. Severus let him go. There was no reason to continue the confrontation. That they had survived thus far without an outburst was some kind of miracle to him.

He would continue with his collecting, and Draco continued with his chopping, from the sound. He did not know if Potter continued with the incantation that would separate one kind of gold dust from the other. He did not let himself look, or feel.

*

I thought someone was going to get scarred.

Draco had to put his knife down and work his hands for a moment, although only a moment. He didn’t want to lose his rhythm and draw down Potter’s wrath. He could feel the angry energy dancing in the air, so harsh that he felt as though someone had cast Tergeo directly on his bare skin. He wanted to preserve the pace, not disrupt it.

But Merlin, he hadn’t known that someone could be so angry and not snap under the pressure to contain it.

And that was Potter, not Severus.

Draco swallowed, because he could do that quietly, and picked up the knife again. By that time, Severus had turned away from the shelves and walked back to the cauldron with his collection of vials. He would scatter the contents into the cauldrons, Draco knew, and it would be flawless. Severus did that, found ways around what should have been obvious problems and blended together ingredients that Draco would never have considered combining because of their volatility or poisonous effects, and had everything turn out flawlessly.

He understood, a little better, what the ritual had done to Potter now. Perhaps he would never understand everything because he hadn’t experienced that anger from the inside, but still. He had experienced it.

And Potter was stronger mentally than Draco would ever have assumed, to survive it.

*

Snape is making sense.

Harry had come up with that single sentence, one that he fastened to the back of his neck and kept crouched there like a guard in case he turned back into an idiot. He kept repeating it, finding elements of it in his breath, and his heartbeat, and the flick of his wand.

He didn’t want Snape to make sense, but Snape was making sense.

He wanted to punish Snape for having the gall to do it, but Snape was making sense.

He wanted to be free and stalk out of the room and run as far as he could, but Snape was making sense. Harry would only take the bond with him if he went, and Snape and Malfoy would probably go through the dangerous pass, at this point, of swallowing the potion on their own, so they could end at least one-third of the bond, without caring about what effects it had on him.

Do you care about the effects it has on them? 

No, Harry had to admit. Well, returning indifference with indifference might be a step up from mutual hatred.

He went on separating the gold dust, and didn’t watch Snape. It would only irritate him, and he was finally learning, he thought, to ignore things about this bond that would irritate him.

And maybe…

Maybe this could work.

He would never trust them as people, but he could trust Snape’s competence with potions, and commitment to getting out of the bond. And it seemed he could trust the same thing with Malfoy, even though he hadn’t made much noise about it.

I’ll have to trust them. 

At least I can hate that in peace.

Chapter Text

“Where did you go, mate?”

Harry raised one hand to keep Ron and Hermione’s questions at bay while he finished climbing into the Burrow. Then he collapsed at the kitchen table and rubbed his arms. It seemed odd to him that Molly and Arthur weren’t showing up already, and he raised his head and looked around. “Where are your mum and dad, Ron?” he asked.

Ron snorted. “Some cousin of mine owled my mum about a ‘family problem’ and my mum decided she had to go and solve it right away.” He sat down on the other side of the table, while Hermione hovered behind his chair. Despite that, Harry knew that his eyes were anxiously scanning Harry’s face. “What’s the matter, mate?”

Harry sat there with his hands clenched in his hair and wondered what he was supposed to say. He felt so tired not because he had done anything other than separate the piles of gold dust and now and then fetch a vial for Snape when Snape asked for it, but with the effort of keeping his rage in.

He hadn’t known it would be so exhausting. He hadn’t known that his emotions were so strong that restraining them would be like clinging to the lid of a boiling barrel and keeping it on only by sheer force.

“Is it something we can help with?”

Harry looked up. Hermione had come a step forwards and was watching him with kind eyes. One hand had reached out and then been retracted, as though she realized that touching him right now might not be the best idea.

Harry swallowed deeply and sat up. Hermione had asked the right question, even if her wording had been a coincidence. “Not really,” he said honestly. “I’m doing what I can to make things better, but it’s hard.”

“With Snape and Malfoy?” Ron looked around, evidently expecting them to materialize out of the walls.

Harry nodded and rubbed his forehead. He wished he knew how to soothe a headache like this without using a Headache Potion. That would get rid of the pain, but not the cause of the pain.

And it was the cause of the pain he had to deal with. He had thought everything was done with after his explosion in the Manor gardens, but maybe not.

“Come on, Ron,” Hermione said gently, and Harry looked up to see her helping Ron to his feet as if Ron and not Harry was the invalid. Harry sat there, expecting to feel some flush of anger, the way he had for days whenever Snape or Malfoy did something considerate for each other instead of him, but there was only a sort of dim compassion instead.

Hermione paused and looked back at him. “Harry has to this work through this by himself,” she said.

And that was the real problem, the crux of the problem. Harry swallowed and nodded, and watched his friends go. Ron gave him one last brave smile, and a pat on the shoulder that cheered Harry up more than it should have.

Then they went out the front door, and Harry was alone.

He lowered his head into his hands. He couldn’t remember the last time he had felt fury intense enough that it physically hurt to restrain it. And he had seen a lot of people tortured and hurt in his work as an Auror. It wasn’t just dealing with the aftermath of Death Eaters, either. He had also seen Death Eaters other than the Lestranges up close since the war, and if they weren’t as insane as Voldemort, they were sometimes worse in what they did to other people. 

But he had never reacted like this. What made it different? Was it just because it had happened to him?

Harry swallowed again. He knew the answer to that, the answer he thought he had even acknowledged to Snape and Malfoy once or twice, but it was waiting for him at the end of a long, dark tunnel.

No, the worst thing that happened was that I was in control during the ritual, and I haven’t been in control since.

He’d been the one who’d made the bargain. He’d been the one who had something to bargain with, his virginity. Even if his first lie had been true and it had been Parseltongue that had allowed him to survive the ritual, then he would have had something that no one else in the ritual circle had.

He’d been the only one to keep his head, a little, during the ritual, because he had to concentrate so hard on the bond and appease it when it wanted to change into something that would destroy them. He had maintained his control during the interviews with Kingsley and the Healer, and with his friends. He’d told them about what had happened. He’d faced up to the faint guilt he felt for letting the Lestranges break through the wards on the safehouse. He’d come up with a plan to hunt the traitor in the Aurors, and he had deduced that there was a traitor in the Aurors, and he had been right.

So when had it gone wrong?

Harry grimaced. There was no one there to see him, he might as well do it. And he had walls raised in his mind against the bond, and against Snape and Malfoy feeling his emotions. At least that part of the bond was his.

It started going wrong when I realized that they were in control of some things, too. The other parts of the bond, and they insulted me and they apologized to me when I didn’t want them to and they kept showing up. If they’d moved somewhere out of Britain right away, then it would have been better.

But Harry remembered the bond, and massaged his forehead. No, it wouldn’t have been better. There was no way it could be, when he had to be bonded to the people who had raped him.

It had been all right when he was the one in control of the ritual, the one in control of everything, and he’d been able to predict Snape and Malfoy’s next movements. But he hadn’t predicted that Malfoy would feel guilty enough to apologize to him. He hadn’t predicted they would come to his side when the bond was trying to kill him, and that Malfoy would submit enough to help him. He hadn’t thought that they would help him escape the Aurors who had kidnapped him, either, or that Snape would show him his memories, or that Snape would come up with the idea of a potion that might end the bond. Even though some of that should have been predictable, like the potion idea. Snape was a Potions master, of course he would decide that this was the best thing to do.

And he liked to be in control, too. It wasn’t just Harry. Snape had thought he could be in charge of brewing the potion without fighting anyone for it, and he could direct the others in what to do.

And what of Malfoy? 

Maybe he didn’t need it as badly as they did. Malfoy hadn’t pressed his claim to control the combination of their magic. Instead, he had told Harry that they couldn’t do it because they needed to trust each other completely if they did, and he had been the one to say that they should probably end the bond instead.

And that had bothered Harry, even infuriated him, and made him fly over to Malfoy Manor in a rage, because—

Because why?

That answer was there when Harry reached for it, too, as dark and sharp as a chunk of obsidian. Because he was saying that, and I didn’t want him to come up with the solution. I wanted to be the one to tell them to stay away from me and what to do. It was important. Because I controlled myself during the ritual, and them, too, and I couldn’t predict what happened afterwards. 

Harry swallowed. He should have been able to control his emotions after the ritual, about the ritual. He had thought he would be able to. If Snape and Malfoy were fucking him as part of a ritual he had set up, then he was in control, wasn’t he? He was the one who had done this, and he ought to have felt smug, instead of this bubbling fury.

But no, the anger had been there, and the anguish, and not from the physical pain. Being raped had hurt more than he had foreseen.

And afterwards, he couldn’t tell anyone about it, not Ron and Hermione. They had offered to stay with him, but it had been more important to Harry not to be seen as weak than anything else. He had dismissed them with smiles, telling them that he would be fine, and they had believed it and gone away. And Snape and Malfoy weren’t people who he could be friends with. Their emotions in the back of his mind had just driven him more mental.

What will happen when the bond is gone? Will I be saner? 

Harry swallowed again. It felt as though the huge sticky lump of his thoughts was sitting in his throat now, and no matter how many times he pressed on his throat as he felt for it, it would never go completely away.

But it has to go away. It has to stop being a problem, because the bond will stop being a problem soon.

Harry stood up and paced around the kitchen. A sound behind him made him spin around, afraid that someone might be coming inside or at least trying to open the Floo connection, but it was only a teacup his hand had brushed and knocked to the floor. Harry shook his head and cast the Reparo on it, concentrating hard. It was at least something to think about beyond what he was going through right now.

The thoughts about the bond haunted him, inflicting enough pain on him that he had to sit down again. He wanted the bond gone. Of course he did. That wasn’t in doubt. Even though he had the power to cage Snape and Malfoy’s emotions away from him, he could still sense them with a touch, and that was intolerable.

But when the bond was gone, what control would he have over his emotions? What distraction from the pain the rape had caused him?

What control over Snape and Malfoy themselves? 

Harry’s hands clenched. If they decided to come after him, then he wouldn’t sense them coming, with the bond gone. He couldn’t inflict pain on them the way he could with it open. He couldn’t know if Malfoy’s apologies were sincere or whether Snape was brewing another kind of potion that—

There. That’s it. That’s the kind of thing I didn’t want to happen, that I ought to be able to control. I didn’t used to suffer from paranoia all the time. Why am I now?

Harry huffed and lifted his head. He had a faint speck of blood on the back of his left hand. He brushed it, and then stared at his thumb. The skin by the side of the nail was bleeding freely. He didn’t even remember biting at it.

This is getting out of hand.

He couldn’t control what Snape and Malfoy did. That had been true from the moment they stepped out of the ritual circle, maybe even before that, if he thought about it in detail. 

And maybe he shouldn’t want to try. What need would he have of them, after they had become free from the bond? What favors would he have to ask? They might all pursue revenge on the Lestranges, and it would be separately. Harry, with his investigative training, might find them first.

Then he remembered the Aurors under the Draught of Living Death still lying in Malfoy Manor’s cellars, and grimaced.

All right, so he would have to ask one further favor of Malfoy, anyway: to leave them there until he decided what to do with them. He hadn’t been back to the Ministry yet. He had asked Ron to tell him what the public reaction to their disappearance was, if anything; it wasn’t like the Ministry could admit they had a bunch of people running around who had been ready to sacrifice the Chosen One. But there was nothing from the Ministry’s direction as yet.

He had to hang on.

Harry resisted the impulse to bow his head and cover it with his arms. This was just something he had to face.

He couldn’t control Malfoy and Snape.

He would need one more favor from them after the potion was done.

On the other hand, they would probably grant it. Malfoy probably didn’t want to have a bunch of Aurors in his home for weeks. Snape would want them gone so that he could concentrate on brewing, or something other than Harry. Probably revenge. They would probably go after the Lestranges.

Harry swallowed one more time, and this time he thought the sticky lump of feelings loosened and slid down his throat about as well as he could expect it to.

All right. All right. So he couldn’t control everything, but not being able to control the actions of a few people he had worked warily beside today was better than not being able to control himself.

I wanted to survive. That was why I made that bargain in the first place, and let them rape me. Because I wanted to survive, and that was the only way to do it in the situation the Lestranges had set up. 

When did I start deciding that this survival wasn’t enough? If I feel defeated, then I validate the Lestranges. That was what they wanted.

If he collapsed and gave up, or if he fought back too hard against Snape and Malfoy and turned them into his real enemies, then he was validating the Lestranges. And the last thing he wanted to do was that.

Where was the will that had allowed him to survive the ritual circle and the rape, that had made him the one who was in control there, no matter what other people thought? The Lestranges had rolled him across that copper circle instead of killing him because they had thought it would break him. It would hurt more. That was all they cared about, the pain he suffered, nothing else.

Harry raised his head. He could feel his lips crooking into a snarl, his muscles tensed. He wanted, badly, to bound to his feet. He wanted to run around the house. He wanted to go straight back to the Manor and demand Snape and Malfoy’s help in finishing the potion, drinking it, and then removing the Auror prisoners from the Manor.

But he wasn’t going to get any of that done right now. If he went back in this sort of mood, Snape and Malfoy would feel it through the bond and probably decide it was dangerous. They would decide that they had to calm him down, maybe for the sake of the bond, maybe for the sake of revenge.

Maybe for the sake of their own survival. They hadn’t shown much power to discriminate among his finer emotions so far.

No. What he needed to do at the moment was spend some time with his friends—time that would calm him down, instead of infuriate him because Snape and Malfoy should be that understanding, because now that he thought about it, it was insane to expect Snape and Malfoy to be more understanding—and then eat as big a meal as he could hold, and then sleep. That would help him relax as nothing else could.

He was lighter as he stepped towards the back door into the garden. And all he had really done was work out what he could control and what he couldn’t.

Maybe I do still need some time and help in working out what I can do. But I can’t control Snape and Malfoy, and that’s all that matters. I know that, now. The same way I couldn’t control the Lestranges putting me in that circle.

But I managed to work out a way to survive while I was being raped, and negotiate with a bond that could have killed me. And I’ve survived its efforts to kill me since, too. 

I’m stronger than I allowed myself to know. Stronger than Snape and Malfoy thought I was.

And stronger than the Lestranges thought, as they’re going to find out to their sorrow.

*

Draco sighed and stepped back from the cauldron. He and Severus had brewed until it was early in the morning; Severus trusted Draco to help him as he did not trust Potter. Draco’s fingers were cramped from gripping the stirring rod, his mouth ached as though he had taken a long, deep bite into something salty and crunchy, and he licked his lips and touched them with a wince. One had split and was bleeding.

“Thank you, Draco.”

Draco raised an eyebrow at Severus. Severus didn’t turn around or look up. He was concentrating on the cauldron in front of him still, measuring something out with one hand—Draco was no longer sure which ingredients had gone into all the bubbling vials at the moment—and salting the surface of the liquid with his other hand. Draco had thought Severus would be annoyed that Draco couldn’t go all night like he so obviously could.

Severus glanced at him, and Draco caught a flash of clear blackness, the least bitter bitterness he had felt from Severus since the bond began, before he sniffed a little and turned back to the cauldron in front of him.

“You may go to bed. You would make a mistake like this, and that would be worse than useless.” 

Draco hid his smile as he dipped his head and walked out of the lab. Severus couldn’t be too nice, of course not. That would damage the reputation for nastiness that seemed so dear to him. But he could dress it up as sense, and it still made sense.

Draco did go to bed—straight to bed. He dressed in the softest, finest pyjamas he owned, and he lay down under the softest sheets, and he shut his eyes. As exhausted as he had felt when he left Severus, he’d thought he would go right to sleep.

But instead, he lay there, and his muscles grew more and more tense and aching, while his jaw added to the pain in his mouth. Draco reached up and felt it with a grimace. He knew he hadn’t bitten into anything real in Severus’s lab, but sometimes fumes of a sufficient intensity made him feel like that. And it was a long time since he had worked around a potion as complicated and experimental as the one that Severus was making. Severus would have more built-up tolerance.

It became obvious that he wouldn’t accomplish anything lying here. Draco sat up and sighed. He wondered for a second if Severus would welcome him back into the lab, but dismissed the thought almost as soon as he had it. Draco might feel too alert, but Severus would point out that that was no substitute for true care around a potion, and he would be correct. Draco slid on his walking cloak instead.

He would go for a walk around the grounds, inside the wards, the way he used to do when he was younger, and see if the sight of the grounds, dark and quiet as they were right now, could soothe him to sleep.

It didn’t take him long to get outside; he knew all the most efficient ways to get outside from whichever room he was in in the Manor. It amused him to remember the reason that his father had drilled that knowledge into his head. Lucius had been utterly convinced that they might have to escape the approach of a mob at some point.

It was politics that defeated us, not mobs, Draco thought, and stopped to stare up at the moon. It was brighter than he’d expected; he wouldn’t have to cast a charm on his wand after all to see.

He started to wander around the edge of the fence, his mind on the past. His mother had taught him many things, but never explicitly. She had been the one to check him with a raised eyebrow or a faint frown when he did something rude or inappropriate for public. It was his father who had told him tales of their enemies, warned him about Mudbloods, insisted to Draco that there was a difference between pure-bloods and everyone else, and taught him most of the magic that Draco knew about before Hogwarts.

He wondered how different he would have been if he had grown up in the Muggle world, like Potter. Would he still have felt that instinctive difference between him and most of the rest of the world, bar Slytherin House, when he went to Hogwarts? Probably not, if it was just something his father had taught him.

But yes, if it was innate.

As if this is something I’m going to settle tonight, Draco thought irritably to himself, and halted near the fence. There was a faint, cool breeze blowing, and he turned his face. It felt good on his heated cheeks, as did even the touch of the moonlight itself. Draco held out his hand and watched the way the moon pooled in his palm.

He didn’t have much time to react. There was a grinding sensation that he felt deep in his bones, and which first made him whirl around and stare up at the Manor, sure that something had gone wrong with the potion and that Severus was caught in the middle of an explosion. Then his mind went to Potter. Had something happened to the Burrow? Had some other enemies who wanted the truth about his scar and whether it was connected to the Dark Lord attacked him there?

But then he remembered that he had felt that grinding sensation before, and in circumstances which had nothing to do with the bond. It was the sound of the wards parting, falling before an assault of sheer strength rather than because someone who had the authority to do so had permitted them to fall.

Draco drew his wand.

Someone seized his wrist, and snatched him close to a thick body. A voice laughed in his ear. “None of that now, Malfoy. You had your chance. You didn’t take it.”

Then Apparition seized Draco just as abruptly, but he knew who it was. He had recognized the voice from hours and hours of listening to it whisper to him, during the war and then much more recently, in a house of stone and pain.

It was the voice of Rabatan Lestrange.

Chapter Text

Harry woke up out of a sleep so sound that at first he couldn’t understand why his head was on fire. He rolled over sleepily and clawed at his hair. Then he clawed again, more strongly. Really, it was on fire. There was no reason for that sort of thing, as stupid as it was. He wondered if Ron had used one of George’s pranks on him to try and get him to feel better.

He sat up then, wand in hand, ready to curse Ron for thinking something that stupid, and gasped when he realized that the pain in his head hadn’t had subsided, and there was no sound or sense of Ron in the room, although this was the part of the evening when he often wanted to go to bed. He must have stayed downstairs with Hermione to give Harry some privacy.

Which meant…

Harry bared his teeth in a silent snarl as the pain in the side of his head went up a notch. Yes, this was the stupid sensation that came from the bond. It seemed that Snape or Malfoy had probably managed to poison themselves while working on the potion. Idiots. This was the last thing that any of them needed, which meant it was the first thing they would do.

Harry rolled easily out of bed and snatched at his robes, tugging them over his head. He wondered for a moment why he hadn’t heard anything along the bond to tell him exactly what the crisis was, only felt this strange and formless pain that someone could have explainedto him, and then realized that his barriers were still up and blocking the bond. The barriers that he was the only one able to lower.

Harry rolled his eyes, and lowered them.

Snape’s voice at once exploded into his head, such a cacophony of words that Harry could only make out a few of them at a time. Where is Draco? Do you know? Where is he? What will happen now? 

Harry reeled back a little, one hand raised defensively. Then he realized that was stupid, since Snape wasn’t in the same room with him and couldn’t see him, and he would already have realized Harry’s true emotions from his reaction. I don’t know what you mean. I just woke up, and my head hurt. What do you think has happened? Where’s Malfoy?

He went outside for a walk, the stupid little shit, and then I felt the wards surge. Snape was at least calming down enough to tell Harry what had happened, which Harry thought was as much as he could hope for right now. I thought he was going to bed! But I felt him near the wards, and I was about to go out and bring him back inside. We were worried about the wards in the first place, which is why we went to the safehouse, because the Lestranges could have broken through them. I fear that…

He didn’t have to say what he feared. The possibility was all around Harry, breathing like a beast, and he knew that Snape was going to explode further in fear and wrath if he had to endure it by himself much longer.

Why do I have to do this? Why do I have to reassure him? I thought that was Malfoy’s job.

But the answer to that one was simple enough to satisfy even his rage. Malfoy wasn’t here right now, and if the Lestranges really did have him and hurt him in some way, then the rest of them would suffer as well. 

Harry said quietly, I’m on my way to the Manor. Are you outside near the wards, or inside? 

Outside, of course. The contempt that seared along the words might have been lightning, from the way it made Harry reel.

But he could use contempt, too, and for a better purpose than Snape was using it at the moment. Then get back inside, you idiot. What do you think they’d like to do best? Seize both of you, right? You were the targets in the first place, the ones getting the threats! I was just taken along because I happened to be there. Get back inside where they’ll have a harder time getting you! Retreat into your lab!

There was a long pause, as if Snape was baffled by Harry’s concern. He shouldn’t have been, Harry thought furiously, jamming his feet into his boots. If Snape got taken, then Harry would have to suffer even more. He could probably Apparate straight there, or use whatever method Snape and Malfoy had twice taken to come to his side, but he didn’t want to face the Lestranges without another wand to help him.

Then Snape said, his voice oddly stretched and bouncing in the wrong places, with the accent on the wrong words, You would care about me being taken.

Harry didn’t bother answering as he flew down the stairs. He would send a Patronus back to Ron and Hermione as soon as he was at Malfoy Manor. No use in waking them up right now, because they would delay him with explanations, and he might as well let them have a little more sleep until he had to wake them.

Answer me, Potter.

Snape couldn’t half sound demanding when he should have been glad that he had someone who was compelled to help him at all, Harry thought crossly, as he slipped out the back door of the Burrow and out into the garden. The anti-Apparition wards ended sooner behind the house than they did in the front, due to the Weasleys having closer neighbors back here than in front. Harry walked, listening to the soft humming from them, awaiting the first moment when the sound would dissipate and he could Apparate.

Potter, answer me!

Harry clenched his teeth, glad that he hadn’t been attempting to Apparate right then. Snape would have startled him, and then they would probably have ended up with Harry Splinched somewhere, and that would have ended with Malfoy getting murdered by the Lestranges, and Snape dying from the pain of it all. If Malfoy and Snape didn’t just die from the pain of Harry being Splinched.

Thinking about it this way was helping him calm down, oddly enough. He could deal with a Snape who was frustrating and demanding and petty. That was the way Harry had always thought of him. It only got hard when he had all that rage from the rape to set against what seemed Snape’s unusual contempt for him, as though Harry’s body had somehow sullied his dick.

Listen, Snape, he murmured, and moved further towards the edge of the wards with each stride. He was only going to give Snape as much time as he was absolutely required to. There was no point in giving him any more. I care that you don’t get yourself taken because then there’s two of you to rescue. And every rescue mission that you’ve staged for me has required at least of you. Now, maybe that’s because you and Malfoy just don’t have the training that I do, so it takes two of you to make up for one of me.

Snape was silent this time, thank Merlin. Harry reached the edge of the wards and whirled around, his arms tucked in close to his body, and leaped. 

He landed not far from the front gates, and began to roam the edge of the Manor’s wards, aiming at the part where they seemed weakest. He could sense traces of Malfoy’s magical signature here, now that he was searching for it. And it was as easy as a heartbeat to find the hole in the wards, where the same strength that had broken the wards on the safehouse had broken these.

Only then, only when he confirmed that this was the result of someone snatching Malfoy for real instead of Malfoy deciding to play a prank on him and Snape or simply leave, did he pause and do what he should have done earlier: reach out through the bond in Malfoy’s direction, calling his name softly.

There was nothing but blackness for so long that Harry nearly gave up. He didn’t think Malfoy was playing a prank, no, but Rabastan and Rodolphus might be aware of the capabilities of the bond and have him drugged unconscious. Harry wondered for a second if he and Snape could go to Malfoy if he was that way, then discarded the notion. Snape and Malfoy had managed to Apparate straight to his side when he was unconscious from the pain of the bond.

Then he felt the faint, far pulse of red behind black, as if Malfoy was lying there with pain in his head and his eyes closed. But he was aware. He had—shields up around the bond. Occlumency shields, Harry decided in an instant. He was trying to conceal the existence of the bond from the Lestranges as long as possible.

His breath shorter in his lungs than it had been when he’d first woken, Harry paused to send his Patronus back, hurried into the house. The sooner he and Snape reached Malfoy’s side, the better.

And the image of Malfoy doing everything he could to protect Harry lingered with him, amplified more by the sense of tension filtering in around the edges of the bond, even when he spoke with Snape, even when they began to make plans.

*

The one thing Draco knew for certain was that the Lestranges mustn’t suspect—mustn’t begin to suspect—that they could hurt Severus and Potter by hurting him.

He lay on the floor of what he suspected was a stone room, from the aching under his back and the absolutely useless, stupid ache in his head. He knew that Rabastan had hit him on the head not long after breaking through the wards on the Manor. He knew that he had been unconscious long enough that they might have rifled through his memories and found the bond.

On the other hand, he knew from Severus’s lectures how hard it was to use Legilimency on an unconscious person. It made sense that they would rather do it after he woke up, even if they were very skilled—and they hadn’t seemed that way, the first time they captured Draco and Severus.

The first time.

Draco held back a whimper as much as he could. He didn’t like to think of what he had suffered, that first time, and how likely he was to suffer it again, if Severus and Potter didn’t sense what had happened and come to him. Or even if they did come to him. Rabastan and Rodolphus had overpowered all of them together, once, when they were inside the safehouse. What would happen if they did it again?

That’s nonsense. They took us by surprise, the first time, and Potter was still trying to fight like a good little Auror and not use Dark spells.

But the idea that it could still happen again tightened Draco’s back and shoulders, and made him whimper more with fear than pain when a foot crashed into his side and made him roll over on the other one, the wound in the back of his head throbbing mercilessly.

“Up, you shite,” said Rodolphus, or at least Draco thought it was him. It was all he could do to concentrate on the voice, when the world was swimming with colored shadows of pain. “Traitor to our Lord. Why did you live and the rest of us die?”

He dragged on Draco’s hair, and managed to pull him most of the way to his knees. Draco clenched his teeth and kept some of the contents of his stomach down. He thought that the Lestranges would only get more violent if he threw up on their boots. Nevertheless, he felt a small trickle of bile and vomit around his teeth, and heard Rabastan laugh.

“I don’t want to kill him too quickly, Rodolphus.” The hand tightened in his hair, and Draco thought Rodolphus was the one holding him and Rabastan was the one circling around him, speaking. “We tried that last time, and what did it get us? Just some escaped prisoners, and more people interested in hunting us.”

“You know why we brought him here.” Rodolphus dropped Draco. Draco managed to fall down on his knees and cushion the fall a little, although he had to turn his head to the side so that his temple seemed to crack down more heavily on the stone than it really had. “I don’t want to listen to any stupid arguments against it.”

“If it’s the best course, then of course we’re going to pursue it,” said Rabastan. Draco wondered through the haze of beating heart and beating pain, oddly focused with everything he had to distract him, if he was in charge here, and just soothing his brother. “But I think we could have some fun here.”

“Do you really think they’ll come?”

Draco started panting, and couldn’t figure out why until he realized that he knew who they meant. Severus. Potter. They’re talking about them. They probably took me partially to lure them here. They want all three of us if they can get us.

“They’ll have to, if the bond is anything like what we understand it to be.” Rodolphus bent over him, and then a wand-light flickered on a centimeter from Draco’s eyelid, making him jerk back his head. He didn’t have time to pretend that he was dazed or that his reflexes were less perfect than they were, either. Rodolphus laughed at him. “You. Malfoy. You’re going to tell us everything about this malformed bond that you got caught up in when we put you into the ritual circle.”

Draco shivered. The wand with the light on the edge of it moved closer, and Draco tried to move his head back, so that he could see up into his enemy’s face. He thought he might be able to manipulate Rabastan and Rodolphus—they had never been the smartest of the Death Eaters—but not if he couldn’t see their eyes. 

“No, stay where you are.”

There was a husky undertone to his voice that froze Draco in place, his skin crawling. Had they brought him here to rape him as well as torture him, and use him as bait? The thought made him want to throw up, and not just because it meant that he would suffer what Potter had. He had felt, from the inside when Potter flung all that pain at him, what it was like to be raped. And Rabastan and Rodolphus would have no reason to hold back.

“You’re going to tell us about the bond.” From the sounds of it, Rabastan had crouched down on the floor next to Draco, somewhere off to the side, near Draco’s feet. Draco felt one eye roll in that direction independently of his will. He was going to have to try and control himself better. “You’ll do it, or Rodolphus is going to burn your eye out.”

Rodolphus chuckled, and the wand bobbed. The light at the end of it did shed more heat than an ordinary light charm would, now that Draco thought about it. 

Draco swallowed once, and switched tactics. He had no choice but to go along with this, or be useless when Severus and Potter turned up. It was possible that Rabastan and Rodolphus would torture him anyway, but he would do his best to spin the tale out.

And at the same time, to make them a little wary of what might happen when Severus and Potter came.

“The bond is mental,” he whispered. “Like the one that would have happened between Severus and me if you hadn’t rolled Potter across the circle.”

For a moment, he thought the wand was going to come in and burn out his eye anyway as it bobbed, but Rabastan laughed again. “Severus, is it? And I hear that you and Severus enjoyed a little fun with Harry.”

Draco shivered. He wondered for a moment how they could have heard that, but Rodolphus clarified, in a voice whose exaggerated helpful tone made it clear that he was telling Draco something he thought must distress him. “Someone had to tell us about the wards, and let us in through the wards, and tell us certain things about you. And when we came back and saw the traces you’d left, and cast a few spells that let us feel the lingering emotions in the air….” Rodolphus moved his wand enough that Draco could see a bit of his face, and leaned in to whisper, “Someone was naughty.”

Draco shuddered this time, instead of shivered. Let them think it came from fear if they wanted to. It was more disgust, the sudden and nauseated suspicion that they had got themselves off on what had happened.

“Enough, Rodolphus,” Rabastan commanded. “Put the wand back. There are a few things I want to ask our naughty little boy.”

The wand came jabbing back, so fast that for a second Draco thought they would burn out his eye on accident. He tried to rear away, but Rodolphus chanted something, and an iron collar locked around Draco’s neck, binding him to the stone. Rodolphus spoke then in a casual voice. “I want you to tell us what happened next. How did you survive the bond?”

Draco lowered his eyes. Forgive me, Harry. He didn’t know if that would make it down the bond or not. He assumed that Severus and Potter could find their way to him, even if he wasn’t calling out through the bond. They had done it with Potter, after all. 

“Potter was a virgin,” he said dully. “He sacrificed his virginity to the bond, and that appeased it. It took the connection that was happening between us as a substitute for the torture it would have caused us if it had managed to happen in the first way it tried…”

There was silence for so long that Draco wondered if they didn’t believe him and intended to torture him some more. Well, it would do them no good. He had told them the truth as he believed it, and all that he knew, if not quite as articulately as he would have wanted to do it under the circumstances.

Then Rabastan and Rodolphus began to laugh.

Draco cringed, and it wasn’t even him they were laughing about. Well, not quite, anyway. He hoped that Harry would never know about their amusement. 

And now that they were off-balance and emotional, maybe Draco could sway them a little. He pitched his voice for a nervous tone that would combine false bravado with terrified hope. “And we can do things with the bond, too. We can find anything that’s lost if we ask where it is. We can share our magic. You’d better let me go before Severus and Potter find us!”

There was a silence deep enough to make Draco nervous for a few minutes, and then Rabastan kicked him in the side again. Draco groaned and rolled. He didn’t think anything was broken, but he would still be a liability for anyone who was trying to escape and help him at the same time.

“You can’t do things like that,” said Rodolphus, his voice a low snarl. “The kind of bond that comes from that kind of fucking doesn’t give you abilities like that.”

I’m doing it. This is going to work.

Draco laughed. There was more pain behind the sound than he wanted, but then again, that would probably convince them he was being sincere. “Well, what do you want? It’s an unprecedented bond. You intended to kill us when you put Potter in the circle, not bond us. I’ve told you that it’s an unusual bond. Why do you think I’m lying?”

Rodolphus sat back and moved away from him, and then he and Rabastan began to speak to each other in urgent, low voices. Draco could reckon they wouldn’t let him overhear anything more if they could help it, and in the meantime, he had other business. He lay where they had left him, but darted his eyes over as much as he could, absorbing the general layout of the room in the weak shine of Rabastan’s light charm.

The walls and floor were stone, as he had thought, but there was no sign of a ritual circle this time. Nor could Draco smell the sea. He thought that obviated the possibility that they had simply brought him back to the place where he and Severus and Potter had all been bonded. That was probably under Auror guard now, anyway.

Although the Lestrange brothers had spoken as if they had an ally among the Aurors…

Draco twitched his head impatiently. He was going to risk reaching down the bond in a moment, but not until he had something solid to tell his would-be rescuers. And that meant he had to focus.

The bond in his mind still thrummed, and Draco tracked his eyes around as feverishly. There were torches in the sconces on the walls, or at least he thought so, from the way the light charm, rising not far, managed to gleam off battered metal a distance up. But none of them were lit, and that wouldn’t help. He also thought the room was circular, and sloped down slightly, just from the shadows of the light charm and the way the floor felt beneath him. But none of that would make the slightest bit of difference when Potter and Severus swooped in.

If they do. Draco had to admit that one of his worse fears was that Potter and Severus couldn’t work together without him there to help them. Then they would all be fucked. 

He had nearly given up on trying to be helpful to his bondmates this way when he heard a clink and rustle off to the side, followed by a low growl. Rabastan and Rodolphus were deep in the middle of their argument a good distance from him, and so Draco took the chance. He swiveled his head, slowly, towards the sound.

This time, the light charm was bright enough—maybe Rabastan had got tired of arguing in the dark—that he could see something substantial. There was a chain on the far side of the room, a mighty one that looked like it was made of more than just steel. There was a subtle sheen to the metal that made Draco dizzy if he looked at it too long. So he tried to make out what was on the end of the chain instead.

The light spread far enough that he could make out the edge of a paw as dizzying in its own way as the shine of the chain. Draco stared in silence at the heavy claws, the black fur, the way that the heavy head moved back and forth above it.

He wasn’t sure. He didn’t want to reach out if he wasn’t sure. He’d thought he had felt Potter trying to contact him, but it had been dim and distant. Rabastan and Rodolphus might have wards up that could prevent it.

But then the light charm flared up a little more, and Draco made out the flash of green eyes as the beast lowered its head to its paws.

He didn’t know how, it didn’t make sense, not when Rabastan and Rodolphus were supposed to be on the run and there were no spells that Draco knew could confine one like this, but he only had to be sure of what it was. And he was sure.

He sucked in a noiseless breath and reached out to Potter. It felt like trying to speak through cotton walls, maybe because of the pain in his head, but Potter responded to him with a gratifying amount of speed.

They have a Nundu. Draco said the words, simple, unadorned, because the warning was the most important thing he could get through.

Malfoy! Is it the Lestranges? Where are you?

Draco tried to reply, but Rodolphus kicked him so suddenly in the side that he doubled up around the pain, and the contact was lost. Rodolphus lifted his head by the hair again, and shook his own head chidingly at Draco.

“Little Malfoy shouldn’t have done that,” he whispered. He looked over his shoulder at Rabastan. “You’re right. We can’t just kill him.”

Rabastan’s smile was sharp and evil, Draco knew that much, although he had to listen to it and not look at it, given how he was held. “Release it, then. The outer tunnels. They’ll meet it.”

Chapter Text

“He cannot have meant what he said.”

Harry kept his eyes focused straight ahead as they made their way to the far edge of the wards that surrounded Malfoy Manor. Snape had been jumpy since he got here, little ripples traveling through the bond as well as through his body. Harry could understand that. If the Lestranges had got through the wards once to take Malfoy, there was no reason to think they couldn’t come back.

But Harry didn’t really think they would. They had got what they wanted when they took Malfoy, and that was bait to lure Harry and Snape into their trap. Whether they knew about the bond or just assumed that Harry and Snape were going to inevitably show up, they didn’t have to take anyone else.

“No one can hold a Nundu captive like that.”

That irritated Harry enough to look over his shoulder. “Really? Not even Death Eaters who have the benefit of more Dark Arts training than any ordinary wizard would get?”

Snape paused as if he had to think about that. Harry didn’t. Malfoy had risked a lot to shout that warning about the Nundu at him. Harry was going to repay his possible sacrifice, and do everything he could to get them there safely.

Snape’s hand closed on his wrist. Harry stood still, patiently, and ignored the sharp twitch of his own shoulders. Yes, he didn’t want to be touched by Snape. He could acknowledge that now. But acknowledgment didn’t mean exploding in rage; he wanted to save all his rage for the Lestranges and their kind.

“Are you sure that you did not misunderstand what he said?” Snape murmured. “Or that they might not have a creature they have enchanted to look like a Nundu, enough that they could fool Draco?”

“Maybe they did,” said Harry. He couldn’t discount that possibility, and he knew from the smug shimmer in the back of his mind that Snape was glad he couldn’t. “But if it’s enough like a Nundu to fool Malfoy right now, that’s enough to concern me.” He took his hand back. “Because spells that could do that, even when Malfoy’s upset, would be pretty rare, wouldn’t they?”

Snape paused to think about that. Harry snorted inelegantly and snatched up some of the grass from the edge of the Manor’s grounds, tearing hard enough to make sure that his hand was full of both dirt and roots.

“What are you doing?”

“Dark Arts.” Harry slipped the clot of earth into his pocket. “The kind that can only help once we’ve got to the place where they’re holding Malfoy captive.” He turned and tilted his head at Snape. “Are you coming or not?”

*

“Don’t hurt him too badly, Rabastan. They’re not here yet.”

Draco tried to breathe. It came out as a sound more like a sob. He promptly stiffened, flinched, and tried to bury his face in the floor of the room.

It was too late. Rodolphus prowled towards him and lifted his head again. “Is the little Malfoy beginning to break?” he whispered into Draco’s ear. “How delightful.”

Draco said nothing. There was nothing to say. Breaking wouldn’t help. Screaming wouldn’t help. He knew now that Rabastan and Rodolphus had brought him here to kill him, and nothing was going to help.

Rodolphus dropped his head with a disgusted sound. “I did think that he had more fight in him than this,” he turned around to report to his brother. “More fight than to collapse like a bitch at the first threat.” He kicked sideways again, and Draco rolled limply, all he could do. He still took a bruising blow to the side, and coughed, but at least that meant he didn’t have a broken rib. He was still hoping—in the distant part of himself that hoped, despite everything, that Severus and Potter would show up to rescue him—that he could escape without too much trouble.

A low growl came from the side, and Draco limply turned his head. The chained Nundu was watching him with such hunger that he found some fear left after all, and managed to scramble away from it, dragging his knuckles across the floor.

“We could always do what we discussed the other day,” said Rabastan, and he sounded a bit hopeful.

“I told you, too quick,” said Rodolphus, and knelt down next to Draco. Draco desperately worked some spit into his throat. He wasn’t insane enough to spit into either of their faces, but he did think that they might hurt him less if he answered right away when they asked him a question. 

Rodolphus looked down at him with a smile that had nothing but scorn and hatred in it. Draco cringed automatically. This was like being back during the war, when any Death Eater who liked could take him away and kick him, and no one would raise any objections. Well, who could? His parents were busy saving their own skins, and his when they could protest once in a while. Saving him from death was important. Saving him from a beating didn’t matter.

“Yes, he’s breaking,” Rodolphus said, and bent down to whisper. “Do you know what’s going to happen to your bondmates when they arrive? Do you have the least idea of what’s in store for them?”

Draco couldn’t help himself. His eyes flickered sideways to the Nundu, and Rodolphus chuckled and patted his cheek like a proud parent. “That’s right,” he said. “We went to considerable expense to find and capture and hold one of those beasts, but nothing could be too good for the enemies we most want dead.”

Draco closed his eyes in exhaustion. He had been about to ask why they were so intent on seeing him and Severus and Potter dead, but the longer he thought about that, the stupider the question appeared. Of course they would want the man who had killed the Dark Lord and two Death Eaters who had escaped condemnation and had better lives than they did dead. In the Lestranges’ eyes, Severus and Draco probably had the lives that Rabastan and Rodolphus wanted, and Potter was responsible for destroying what they could have had, their imagined dream lives.

“You’re going to have a front row seat,” Rodolphus said, and then began to cast some complicated spells on Draco. Draco felt his wrists bind together behind his back, but when he tried to move his hands, to test the give in whatever rope or chain they had used, they simply stuck together. Pure magical binding, he decided then, and nothing to do with ropes or chains.

Rodolphus bent over him and touched the corner of his mouth. “Poor confused Malfoy,” he whispered. “Yes, Malfoy, you can’t move your hands. You can watch, but you can’t speak.” He waved his wand, and a similar binding settled over Draco’s mouth. For an instant, Draco thrashed, thinking he couldn’t breathe, but then a desperate sucking-in of air through his nostrils reassured him. Rodolphus clucked at him again and shook his head. “We don’t want to kill you yet. But suffocation might be the path in the end.”

“Or giving you to the Nundu when it’s done with the others,” said Rabastan, and came up and smiled over his brother’s shoulder at Draco.

“If the pain of his bondmates dying doesn’t simply kill him,” said Rodolphus thoughtfully. “It might. Right, Malfoy?”

Draco didn’t bother moving. He suspected that Rodolphus was right, but then, the most intense pain they had suffered so far was from each other. He had no idea what a Nundu tearing apart Potter and Severus might do to him.

“I think we’ll find out,” Rodolphus said. “And if it doesn’t work, we’ll still have one toy to play with.” He stood there chuckling, while Rabastan walked over to the chained Nundu. It snarled at him, and Draco heard the sound of huge claws hitting the floor, but Rodolphus didn’t seem particularly concerned. That only confirmed Draco’s opinion that they’d had to find some piece of incredibly complicated magic to keep the Nundu confined and not dangerous to them.

That magic wouldn’t be available for Severus and Potter.

Draco closed his eyes and reached out cautiously along the bond—only to slam into a barrier in his mind at the same moment as Rodolphus’s hand slammed into his jaw. Draco cried out, was stopped by the binding, and winced. It seemed that his jaw wasn’t broken if he could still move it, but it hurt, a slicing pain that seemed to travel along towards the back of his throat.

“Be quiet, or I’ll do worse than that,” said Rodolphus casually, and then went back to hauling Draco along.

Behind them, there was a raised chant, and then the sound of something rising to its feet. Something else beat a hasty retreat. Rabastan would be running from the Nundu, Draco thought, getting under shelter. They didn’t trust the magic that was supposed to guard them from it completely, then.

Unfortunately, he saw nothing in that fact to help Severus and Potter. 

Eyes shut as hard as he could, he tried to plan.

*

Severus kept behind Potter as, following the bond, they appeared in what looked to be the outer anteroom of yet another half-buried manor. Severus wondered idly how many were left from the Death Eater days, how many people had donated properties to the Dark Lord and then died. It was perhaps more remarkable that the Dark Lord should have shared the location of those houses with the Lestranges than that he should have received them. Of course, perhaps there had been a list and Rabastan and Rodolphus had discovered the Apparition coordinates after the war. It would certainly explain how they had managed to stay ahead of the Aurors.

Will you think about something more relevant?

Severus curled his lip at Potter’s back. His idle thoughts were not going to doom them here. The Nundu was going to doom them, if Draco really was right and the Lestranges had managed the magic to tame one. Severus kept thinking he could not be right, because he had never heard of someone taming a Nundu before, and barely heard of someone keeping one confined.

But Potter seemed to believe.

Perhaps because he trusts Draco more than he trusts me.

Potter pivoted and looked at him so intensely for a moment that it was all Severus could do not to turn aside. But his words rather than his gaze were the true tools that Potter wielded as weapons to shame Severus. You’re worried about that right now? If I had said that I trusted you, you would have despised me for it. You certainly despised me for being worried enough about your safety to send you back into the Manor.

You coupled that “concern” with enough insults that—

Potter spun back around and dropped to his knees, casting a spell that dropped Severus at the same time. With his ear pressed to the floor, Severus could not avoid hearing the noises that had made Potter wary. Or rather, not noises, but vibrations, the weight of an enormous beast padding along towards them.

A Nundu would move silently.

Severus swore under his breath and shook his head at Potter. You know that a hundred wizards would have to work together to subdue a Nundu.

Yet somehow the Lestranges, who were never the most competent of the Death Eaters, managed it. Potter’s face was bright, his eyes obscenely bright as he cocked his head, in the direction of the vibrations. Besides, it doesn’t matter if we don’t want to subdue it. I want to kill it, instead.

Who is to say that is any more possible? 

Potter said nothing, so Severus turned his head to look at him. The smile he saw on Potter’s face was dangerous enough to make him recoil.

Potter saw that and winked at him. “Come on, Snape,” he breathed aloud, as he removed the clod of dirt he had taken from Malfoy Manor’s grounds out of his pocket. “Where’s your sense of adventure?”

Severus snapped at him, mentally, not about to speak aloud when there was a Nundu near, but there was a sound like an indrawn breath, and he remembered the toxic, pestilent breath that the beasts had. Frantically, Severus began raising shields around himself, although he had never had to face a Nundu before and had no idea whether the shields were going to be strong enough.

Potter laughed, as soundlessly as the footsteps, and cast the clod of dirt down in front of him. Then he pulled out something else. Severus squinted. It was a thin blond hair—it looked like one of Draco’s. With a queasy stomach, Severus remembered that Potter had vanished briefly into Draco’s wing before they left. He had thought it was to retrieve some potion that would be vital to their mission, or maybe to look for Draco’s wand, although the Lestranges would surely have taken it with them. 

Potter ought to have known that, of course. He did know that, from the scorn that throbbed like an open wound in the back of Severus’s head.

And you ought to have known that I would know that, and all the rest of this pointless charade, said Potter impatiently. Can we stop talking in this convoluted manner now and go back to doing something about it? 

What are you going to do? Severus whispered. He knew it must be Dark—no spell that used parts of the human body such as hair or blood was exactly Light—but in combination with the clod of dirt, he didn’t recognize it.

Intense surprise through the link for a moment, surprise as intense as hatred, and then Potter picked up the clod of dirt and began to weave the hair into it. Small bits of soil dropped off the divot and onto the floor of the anteroom, but he didn’t seem bothered by that, watching Severus instead. I thought you would know. You have more experience of pure-blood manors than I do, after all.

Severus opened his mouth to say indignantly that Malfoy Manor was the only one he had spent much time in, and then realized how stupid it was to let Potter bait him like this. He shook his head and shut up instead, watching as Potter guided the hair through the roots of the grass, caught some of the falling dirt in his hand, and smashed it back into his own skin, coating the lines of his palm with soil.

Potter closed his eyes and tilted his head back. Then he began to chant, but he whispered the words. Severus reckoned that he did not dare to keep it completely nonverbal, in case the power of the spell was such that he must cast it aloud. Or perhaps he was not very familiar with the spell.

Wonderful.

Potter said, without a faltering in his chant, You should remember that we have a Nundu coming up on us. Keep an eye on the shields.

With a start, Severus realized that he had indeed forgotten the Nundu in the pleasure of arguing with Potter. He turned around on shaky legs, and not entirely from fear of the beast. What must his feelings towards Potter be, if they were strong enough to distract him when he should be in terror for his life?

He did not want to think about it, so he considered the Nundu instead.

He could see lazy swirls of red and yellow breaking against their shields—the pestilence carried on the Nundu’s breath, made visible by contact with their defensive magic. Severus gripped his wand more firmly. His breath had gone shallow, and he tried instinctively to deepen it, to stretch it out. 

Done, Potter said behind him, and Severus caught a glimpse from the corner of his eye of Potter spreading his hands, smashing the dirt-covered one into the stone and smearing the dirt around, and slowly sifting the mingled dust and hair from the other around in a circle.

What are you—

The Nundu charged.

Severus caught the merest glimpse of the immense head, the beating paws, the flaring eye, and then the Nundu hit their shields and bounced back. Bounced back. The air was dry in Severus’s mouth, curling like ice around his limbs.

That had to be Potter’s shields, he numbly acknowledged. He knew none of sufficient strength.

Potter said something casual, and Severus was so shaken that he wasn’t paying attention, and it could have been a curse or an incantation. He was off, Severus acknowledged, if only to himself, his attention so scattered and shattered that it was remarkable he had the presence of mind to raise his wand as the Nundu charged again.

This time, it was aiming between them, at what Severus more than suspected was a weak spot in their shields. He expected Potter to change his stance to strengthen them, but he only stood there, his wand dangling down at his side and a bored expression on his face as he surveyed the Nundu.

Bored. Severus reached out to the bond, and no, that was really what Potter felt, incomprehensibly. Severus laughed, half-hysterically, and began to weave another shield into place, although he knew it wouldn’t be enough.

“Will you be quiet?” Potter murmured, and then he raised his wand and cast a long spell in rippling Latin that Severus could only half follow.

He reached along the bond between them again, this time searching for confirmation as to what the spell was, and encountered an image of the Nundu reeling back. 

The shield already did that, Severus said, snappish in what felt like the moments before death as the Nundu sped towards them. Are you going to tell me what in the world this spell is going to do that the shield didn’t?

Potter only smiled at him, and in the same moment, a flash of soundless light erupted from behind the shields. Severus flung a hand over his eyes, but the shields must have protected them from the blinding effect, or maybe that was another spell that Potter had cast at the same time to do that.

The Nundu had no such protection. And Severus knew from reading about them how sensitive a Nundu’s eyes were, as delicate as the eyes of any cat.

The Nundu reeled, flung its head back and shrieked. Severus nearly covered his ears, but he knew that shriek could have pierced the fragile barrier of his hands. So he concentrated on watching as the cat writhed on the floor, paws striking in all directions, and planned what they should do next.

We don’t need to do anything, said Potter down the bond before Severus could come up with the brilliant plan that he hadn’t managed so far. It’s up to Draco to do something now.

Severus didn’t send a question, just a bare flicker of outrage as to how Potter expected Draco to rescue himself when he hadn’t so far. He would have asked the question if he’d had time, Severus was certain. He wasn’t such a fool as to leave this hanging.

But instead, he felt a rumble far beneath the stones of the floor, one that shot up his legs and through his limbs in a tingling rush, and he abruptly remembered where he had seen Potter’s first spell, the one with the clot of dirt and hair, before.

*

“They’re not doing well, are they?”

Draco only bobbed his head wearily, not even sure whether he was telling Rabastan what he wanted to hear, yes or no. His breath was coming slowly out of his lungs now. He was watching Severus and Potter from high up in a gallery that led back into the wall, one that overlooked the tunnel where they had met the Nundu. Rabastan was with him. Rodolphus had gone down into the tunnels somewhere, maybe to make sure that Draco’s bondmates didn’t escape, maybe to make sure that the Nundu didn’t turn another way and destroy something precious that the Lestranges wanted protected. 

“No, they aren’t.” Rabastan sounded as though he could make his own entertainment. He pointed down between the railings of the balcony they were on, chuckling. “They think they’re great wizards because they’ve held out the Nundu once! It learns from its mistakes. And they can’t subdue it, and they can’t hold it off forever.”

His eyes locked onto the two distant little figures, Draco wished, fiercely, that he had learned what spells the Lestranges used to keep the Nundu under their control. That would have been worth risking their anger to send down the bond to Severus and Potter.

As it was, he agreed with Rabastan. Severus and Potter had done well so far, but holding off a Nundu for a while was not the same as winning.

Then there came a flash of light severe enough that Rabastan cried out, and even Draco flinched, although the binding on his mouth prevented him from making any noise. He also had to give up any hope that Severus and Potter would hear Rabastan and find Draco’s hiding place from that. The sound was easily lost in the overwhelming shriek of the Nundu.

While Draco had his eyes closed, and was straining to recover his senses, he heard something else. Something that poured through the floor beneath him like water rushing through a tunnel. At least, he thought that was the analogy. He cocked his head, blinking furiously, wondering if Rodolphus had started some waterworks moving underground, a secret defense in case things went wrong.

Not that things are going wrong for them just because Rabastan got blinded for a second—

Then the power crawled the rest of the way up through the floor, and slammed into him.

Draco gasped, and went tilting and scrambling along the floor like the Nundu. The magic was pure and merciless, as unstoppable as the ash from a volcano, soaring through him, making things change. His muscles strained trying to hold it in. He could feel his bonds burst, the ones on his hands and mouth, and he knew it must be something his bondmates had done.

Then he realized the barriers that had held him back from speaking to him were down in his head, and Potter was shouting to him—if you could use a word like shouting for a series of measured, imperative words.

I brought dirt and hair for you. From Malfoy Manor. I cast them with the Land’s Transformation Curse. For the next five minutes, this ground is yours, an extension of Malfoy Manor. Use them wisely.

And Draco recognized the spell, and wanted to laugh. 

Once, Malfoy and other families with manor houses had been all-powerful on their land. It was one reason that the abandoned manor houses like this one tended to be so desolate. Their masters were dead or gone, and the family line had no power left here. But the echo of what they had once had, the extent to which ancient wizards had been one with the earth, lingered enough to make most other visitors uncomfortable.

This house was now an extension of Draco. He only had to move it the way he would his own body, and it did as his own body would do.

He flicked his left hand, and felt walls descend in the tunnels, blocking Rodolphus as he tried to race to his brother’s aid. He twitched his right shoulder, and Rabastan sank into the floor, his head stopping mere centimeters above the stone.

And then there was the Nundu.

Draco looked down and lifted a negligent hand, enjoying the sight of enormous stone bars springing and weaving around each other as if guided by invisible fingers, caging the Nundu within them. The beast could still rage and wave its paws around and even breathe out if it wanted, but the bars would contain it. That much would last even when the magic had lapsed and Draco had returned to his normal self, without the control of the house.

The important thing was that he had managed to free himself, with the help of his bondmates.

Smiling slightly, he crossed the balcony and knelt down next to the imprisoned Rabastan, so close that Rabastan’s eyes crossed trying to see him.

“I do hope that you enjoy the feeling of losing,” Draco said softly, and then turned to greet his bondmates. 

Chapter Text

“Are you all right?”

Draco turned his head languidly and smiled at Potter as he came up beside Draco, one hand outstretched as though he was going to stroke his shoulder. Then Potter halted, looked at Rabastan still caught in the floor and down at the Nundu’s cage, and took a step back.

In truth, the spell that Potter had cast, the one that allowed Draco to control the walls and floor of the manor house, had worn off a minute ago, so Draco didn’t have the power to do something like that to Potter anymore. And Potter ought to have known that from the bond. Draco frowned at him and pushed himself up on his palms, ready to demand what exactly Potter was doing, if he couldn’t sense Draco was no longer dangerous.

I can sense that, said Potter in the back of his head, in such a disgruntled voice that Draco did have to smile. But I can’t sense if you want me to touch you or not.

Draco blinked a little, and nearly replied aloud. But he remembered their audience, Rabastan’s head still hovering above the floor a mere meter away, and did it silently. You can touch me. I want you to.

There was one more pause, which felt incredulous—and irritating—to Draco, and then Potter’s hand came to rest on his shoulder. Draco turned and sighed, resting his cheek on the back of Potter’s hand for a moment. He could have stood on his own by this point, once the shaking inspired by the spell retreated from his limbs, but he wanted the touch of his bondmate.

He could feel Potter blanch at that. You know this bond is only temporary. Only until Snape’s potion is ready.

The potion that all of us helped make, Draco corrected, and looked up at Potter, making sure he held those troubled green eyes. And I know. But for now, I want to know that someone who helped me rescue myself is also going to help me to my feet.

“You can’t hold a Nundu captive,” Rabastan struck in then, apparently resenting the fact that they were trading glances in front of him. “It’ll break free eventually and kill you as it should have.”

Potter flowed around in a circle to face Rabastan. In that grace, Draco saw Rabastan’s doom far more surely than he did in Severus’s face. Severus had slowly come out onto the balcony, but stood there, observing.

“I know a spell that will kill it if I have the time to cast it,” was all that Potter said, though, his voice soft and calm. “Ordinarily, I wouldn’t, not if the Nundu was charging me to attack, but now? Yes, I do.”

Rabastan eyed him as though not knowing whether to believe him. For that matter, Draco didn’t know whether to believe him, despite the confidence he could feel radiating from Potter in what was almost a cold aura. Sure, Potter thought that he could take down a Nundu, but he might be wrong about that.

Potter turned away from Rabastan, apparently dismissing him utterly, and focused on Draco. “Are you ready to go home, then?” he asked.

“Yes, of course,” Draco said. “But that leaves a Nundu and a pair of Lestranges that we need to decide what to do with.”

“I’m going to kill the Nundu, I told you.” Potter made a sharp little motion with one hand, his eyes cold and bored. “There’s no way we could move it safely elsewhere, and very few people who could take it alive. I’ll kill it.”

“That does not tell us what to do about the Lestranges.” Severus, who spoke with a faint frown on his face that he usually used only when confronting a potion that was not behaving as he thought it should. This time, Draco thought, the renegade potion’s place was occupied by Potter.

“I know that,” Potter said, even though Draco hadn’t actually seen any sign that he did. “But I don’t trust the Aurors with them anymore.” He stepped forwards and rested his wand against Rabastan’s throat. “Who let you in through the wards of Malfoy Manor?”

Rabastan laughed breathlessly. Draco wanted to shake his head. He couldn’t do that, buried up to his neck in stone and with someone’s wand all set to curse him, but then again, he thought, Rabastan had probably been half-mad even before Azkaban.

“The name would mean nothing to you,” said Rabastan. “It meant nothing to you before.” He grinned at Potter, and then spat on the floor at his feet. Draco thought it was probably the only gesture of defiance left to him. “But someone in the Manor as a prisoner, as you must have assumed.”

“That is impossible,” said Severus, breaking in to soothe his pride, Draco was sure. Well, sure and he could feel it through the bond, throbbing like a broken tooth. “They are under a Draught of Living Death brewed.”

Rabastan laughed louder. “And no magic can contain a Nundu, and no magic could have trapped us like this.”

Severus frowned, apparently concentrating. Then he stepped around Rabastan and knelt behind him. Draco opened his mouth to ask why. 

Shut up, Draco, Severus said to him, even as Rabastan craned his neck back as far as he could to look Severus stubbornly in the eye. Draco supposed that he wanted to see death coming, if that was what this was.

Legilimens,” Severus said, the moment their eyes met.

Draco nodded in approval. Rabastan might have Occlumency shields, but they were more likely to be tattered when Rabastan was caught off-guard and in an awkward position like this, thinking about something else.

It seemed they were. Rabastan stiffened, or so Draco saw in his shoulder blades where they projected above the floor, and then gave a deep gasp ripped up from his lungs. Severus never moved, only knelt there so quiet and intense that Draco wouldn’t have been surprised to see a small spike extend from his eyes and join them to Rabastan’s.

Potter shifted beside him. Draco glanced over and saw that he had taken up a guard position near the railings of the balcony, looking over it and into the corridor beneath them as though he wanted to watch the Nundu’s cage.

I made it as sturdy as I knew how, Draco said, and then winced. This time, his pride was the painful thing. He wondered why it was so much worse to be suspected of doing something wrong by Potter. Potter obviously trusted Draco enough to rescue himself, or he would never have cast the Land’s Transformation Curse.

I know that, said Potter, and then twitched his shoulder at Severus and Rabastan. I don’t like watching him Legilimize someone.

Draco opened his mouth to speak, then shut it again. Not only did he not want to say too much in front of Rabastan, just in case he managed to listen and then repeat the wrong words to the wrong person later, but it told him a lot about Potter right now, to hear that.

Potter turned to him with a mask for a face. We still don’t know each other very well. Snape still doubted that I would be able to cast the spells necessary to hold the Nundu back.

But we trusted each other. You trusted me to know what to do with your spell. Draco leaned on the railings near Potter and folded his arms. That’s not just any old trust. You know that.

Potter stared at him, and then turned his head to the side. Draco remained calm next to him. He knew he was right, and from the uncomfortable twitches that invaded Potter’s arms as he stood there, he knew it, too. It only remained for Draco to make Potter see that the trust could extend to other things than the heat of the moment.

At last Severus straightened and stepped back from Rabastan. Rabastan let his chin fall onto the stone, breathing harshly. Draco thought he was on the edge of unconsciousness, but he still shook his head when Severus opened his mouth to speak aloud. He didn’t want anything revealed that way if they could possibly help it. He sent a little warning pulse to Severus when he thought Severus was going to push it.

Finally, Severus nodded, in the way he would to Draco and never to Potter, and said to both of them, His name is Lancelot Nelson.

Draco frowned a little. He was familiar with a pure-blood family called Nelson, but he thought it was a common name in the Muggle world, too, so the Auror who had betrayed them could as easily be Muggleborn.

Then he heard Potter’s hiss. It wasn’t a loud sound, but it came up from his lungs like a kettle’s noise nonetheless, and was in the deadly glare that he threw at Rabastan. His fingers had curled hard around his wand.

You know this prodigy? Severus didn’t put nearly enough passion into his mental voice as Draco thought the revelation deserved, but Potter didn’t notice.

Yes. He was—he pretended to be one of those pure-bloods who told me that they were glad I’d defeated Voldemort. Potter moved a step closer to Rabastan, as if he couldn’t help himself. He told me that he understood I was plagued with fans who wanted autographs and photographs and time with me, and that he would never bother me with that. In fact, he said he would cover for me if I ever needed to escape a crowd situation quickly.

Draco winced a little. Potter hadn’t exactly considered Nelson a friend, said the purity of the pain in the back of his mind, but he had considered him someone he could depend on. To know that his concern, his “interest” in Potter, had come from some other place entirely, probably made him question a lot of his past interactions with people.

Perhaps you should question them, said Severus, his voice like acid being etched along plates. Perhaps you should understand that not everyone is obliged to worship you, and that—

Potter turned to face Severus and threw a silent, tumbling ball of emotion at him. Draco was only caught in the edges of it, and he was still scorched, the way he would be from a fireball thrown in a narrow room even if he wasn’t the target. He reeled a little, and put out a hand to catch the balcony railing.

Potter’s shoulder was what caught him instead, and Potter held him up, peering into Draco’s face as if he could see every blow Rabastan and Rodolphus had given him. “I shouldn’t have done that with you nearby,” Potter murmured. “You’re not well.”

“What did you show him?” Draco whispered, murmuring the words almost against Potter’s lips. They were that close, and it seemed right to speak aloud when they were.

Potter cocked his head to the side, grasping Draco’s thoughts, and moved to the side, so that Draco was leaning on the wall instead. More than I should have, was all Potter said, as he bent down and began casting some healing charms on Draco’s broken ribs. Draco, nearly having forgotten the pain in the cacophony of the rest of his body, closed his eyes and bowed his head, gasping in relief as the agony receded. Something I think he needs to understand, but he doesn’t trust me anyway, and he’ll trust me less after this, for ambushing him.

Draco opened his mouth to say that he didn’t think it would matter one way or another, what with Severus’s dislike of Potter, and then saw the fixed, rigid expression on Severus’s face. He seemed to be standing in one place, still sorting through whatever emotions and memories Potter had suddenly introduced him to.

See? Potter mumbled, as he tapped his wand against one of Draco’s bruises and it vanished. Not the smartest thing for me to do.

On the contrary, Draco said, after he had studied Severus for a moment. I think it’ll do him a world of good.

*

Severus had not really meant the retort he’d given Potter; it had been habitual, the remnants of his old, instinctive reactions to hearing pain in the boy’s voice. Potter had no time for childish pain, not when he had larger concerns. When he was still a boy at Hogwarts, Severus had wanted Potter to focus on the Dark Lord, not how much he hated Occlumency lessons with Severus or the latest trick Draco had played on him. But he had hated them, at times, as much as the Dark Lord. Severus did not understand it.

But Severus had not meant it. He had only launched an idle taunt.

He did not deserve to be engulfed by the pain and the memories that Potter had thrown at him in turn, as sharp as though they had been dipped in salt, and wounding Severus through the stomach and the brain and the bond in turn.

Potter gave him memories of a crowd at his first real speech, the day after he had defeated Voldemort. The name was one that Severus had fought to keep out of his mind for years, but now it ached up and down inside his mind, all because this was Potter’s memory and the way that Potter would think of the Dark Lord.

The crowd had included grieving parents and relatives of those who had died at the Battle of Hogwarts. They had been motionless at first, watching Potter as he stumbled through memorized words about loss.

As Harry did. In the middle of that overwhelming experience, sensations and colors recreated as though he was there, Severus had to think of Harry the way he did of himself, the way he did of the Dark Lord.

Harry reached the end of his speech, and there was a long, blank indrawing of breath, when no one moved. Then one of the women in the back of the crowd stood taller and said, “And what about you?”

Harry looked at her, his uncertainty making the air around Severus glisten and ache. “What do you mean?”

“What else have you lost? What else are you going to do? What are you going to do now? Will you join the Aurors?”

Someone else joined in, speaking as quickly as though they thought Harry would slip away if they didn’t throw nets of words around him. “Will you participate in the capture of the Death Eaters? Will you attend the funerals? Will you—”

“—Say that you were fighting for Dumbledore? That’s what someone said, that you were Dumbledore’s man—”

“—Make another speech? The Ministry could use your help, and there are some people who still don’t believe that You-Know-Who is gone forever—”

“Could you sign this paper? It was the last thing th-that my sister held before she died, and I know she died thinking of you. She was just a s-silly fifth-year Ravenclaw, she had no business fighting…”

The requests swirled around him, pressed in on him, and Harry’s face changed slowly. At the same time, because it was a memory that Severus was inside, even more intimately than he would be inside a Pensieve memory, Severus grasped what kind of change was occurring in his mind.

This was far from the first time that a crowd had asked things of Harry Potter. However, he had thought things would change after he killed Voldemort. He had thought they had to, because the wizarding world would either decide that he should have done it more quickly or they would decide that he had fulfilled his purpose and they had nothing to ask him anymore.

But now he saw that wouldn’t happen, and they just pressed in closely and yelped for more and more pieces of him.

It would take some more incidents like that before Harry would understand fully that it wasn’t ever going to go away, that the expectations would always be there, and that people would always think that he should be doing something other than what he was doing. If he became an Auror, there would be people who would think that he should have been a Quidditch player. Play Quidditch, and he was taking time away from the serious business of saving the world. Stay in public, and he should retire to a reclusive existence; not be available to his fans, and he was risking irritating them because they had questions and needs that only he could address.

There were so few people he could trust to not want that. So few people who thought of him as a normal person, sometimes irritating, sometimes annoying, sometimes helpful, sometimes wonderful. His friends were on the list, and, he had thought, some of his instructors and other Aurors who had seen that Harry had the ability to go through the Auror program but didn’t want more of him than that.

It was one reason he had decided that he was going to be the best Auror he could be. Sure, he was still aiming for the top, but at least it was the top of a group of extremely skilled wizards, and it was only doing one thing, not the thousands and thousands that the public thought he should be able to accomplish.

And he enjoyed the training, and he enjoyed the feeling of saving people.

But he hated it that people didn’t see him, didn’t get that he was an ordinary person. And now he had to cross Nelson off that list. He had thought Harry deserved to suffer, and whether it was for being the Boy-Who-Lived or for some other reason, it still meant that Harry couldn’t trust him.

Severus sorted through the memories, and reached the memory at the end, the memory when Severus had been crouched behind Harry as they came to rescue Draco.

Severus had flinched and not raised the shields that he should have, because he had thought they were going to die. He had not trusted Harry to reliably report what Draco had said, that they were facing a Nundu; he had thought they were facing an unknown danger. He had been going into the manor house essentially blind, and panicked because he had no chance of a plan and no foreknowledge.

He had not trusted the shields Harry had raised. He had not trusted that Harry had a plan with the clot of dirt from Malfoy Manor’s grounds, instead of pointlessly showing off because he could. He had not trusted that Harry could grasp what Draco wanted to tell him and pass along the knowledge instead of distorting it somehow.

Not even with a bond to his mind that would reliably tell him if Harry was lying had Severus trusted him.

There was no reason not to trust him. But Severus had not. He had not seen Harry, or Potter, as an adult; he had reacted, and spoken just now, as though Potter was no more than that mindless, rule-breaking boy.

To yield to such a perception, when he knew better than anyone except Draco how untrue it was, was unworthy of him. And to be irritated that he had not been more useful during the battle was not a reason to make him lash out at a bondmate.

Severus released his breath in a rush, and the last of the ball of fire, or emotions, that Potter had flung at him dissipated in the same moment. Severus shook his head and looked up at Potter, who looked back steadily at him.

“You distrusted me,” Potter said. “Although the bond should have told you I was telling the truth. You panicked when you had no need to, because you could feel that had a plan. Or you ought to have been able to feel it.” He paused. “Did you block that out? Not acknowledge it? I would like to know, in case it happens again.”

Severus grimaced. He had never enjoyed apologies, but he had to admit that apologizing like this would at least be less humiliating than doing so in front of one of the crowds whose presence Potter had made him feel so effectively.

“I trusted the prowess of the Lestranges more than I trusted yours,” he said. “And I did not think that you could counter a Nundu, or that you knew what you were doing with the dirt you had brought along.”

Potter stared at him steadily. “Then why not be prepared with more spells yourself? If you didn’t trust me to fight, that should have been a reason to struggle all the harder.”

Severus grimaced and shrugged. No more did he enjoy this. But enjoyment had little to do with necessity. “Because we had arrived too soon. Because I did not have the chance to make plans. Because—” He paused on what was more distasteful than all the rest, and then forced it out. “Because I was still caught by surprise that you wanted me away from the wards and inside the Manor. Because I did not trust that you had any concern for me, even if my being captured meant that you would be tortured in turn. Because I thought you hated me as much and as blindly as I hated you, and dealing with the discovery that you did not threw me too off-balance to be able to recover quickly.”

Potter only stood there, and even without the barriers in place on the bond to keep their minds from intruding too much on each other’s, Severus didn’t think he would have had any idea what Potter was planning. Then Potter shrugged a little and said, “So you thought I would let you be captured or die in battle. With a Nundu. If there was a Nundu at all. You had no idea who to trust, how far to trust, what to do.”

“That is true,” said Severus.

Draco stood motionless, except for the slow turning of his head as he looked back and forth between them. Then he said, “Could one of you Summon my wand? I think it’s important that we cast a Memory Charm on Rabastan, so there’s no chance that he can remember any of this.”

I agree, said Potter, so suddenly that Severus started from the sudden reactivation of the bond. And maybe then we can stop ignoring the truth? I was ignoring the truth that part of your actions were compelled, and that I was furious because I couldn’t always compel or control you. And you were ignoring the fact that I was telling the truth about what I heard from Draco and what I felt about you. Do you acknowledge it now?

Severus nodded slowly, although it felt as if something huge and fragile hung from his head and might be broken by the motion. I do.

Do I get any say in this? Draco asked, his voice as radiant as light on water. Was I ignoring anything that you can scold me for now?

Of course you were, said Potter. You were ignoring the perfectly sensible precaution of staying inside at night instead of venturing outside near the wards.

Draco began a long-winded defense of himself, but Severus tuned it out. He watched Potter instead, and the way that he calmly answered Draco, and the way that he took over casting the Memory Charm on Rabastan from Draco, when Draco actually tried to cast it without a wand.

Severus had not been a coward, then, had not lost his fighting ability. He had simply passed too deeply into distrust and paranoia, which had left him as rootless as Potter had been before in a similar situation.

Potter turned his head and caught Severus’s eye. He nodded slightly, his face calm and wise.

And perhaps the fact that I can apply such words to him is a sign of how far I have come.

Chapter Text

How is Draco recovering? 

Harry didn’t turn to face Snape, and he didn’t send a sharp snap down the bond or a reminder that Snape could have asked Malfoy that himself, before he succumbed to the Pain-Killing Draught and went to sleep. He smoothed a hand down Malfoy’s forehead instead, narrowly observing him. He did seem as if he was in the midst of a mostly natural sleep, and Harry didn’t know that he wasn’t. Just because his eyes darted back and forth faster than they would have in a normal dream—

Well?

Harry turned and glanced over his shoulder. “Remember that ball of emotion I tossed, Snape? Do you really want to repeat that?”

Snape hesitated, and Harry used the moment to check once more on Malfoy’s ribs. They had been broken, but although Harry was no Healer and couldn’t fix them completely, he thought he had reduced the breaks to fractures. The damage done to Malfoy’s psyche would take longer to heal, of course, but at least Harry had reduced the aching in his jaw and his black eyes before he went to sleep.

“Perhaps we need to make sure that Mr. Nelson is secure,” said Snape from behind him.

Harry turned around and nodded, slowly. That would give them something to do that would be active, and get them out of Malfoy’s bedroom for the time being. Harry had done all he could for Malfoy before Snape gave him the potions. What he needed now was sleep.

And what Snape and Harry needed was discussion.

How optimistically you frame it, Snape said, as he turned around and led the way to the top of the staircase. Harry was perfectly happy to let him lead. He had only come so far into the Manor following Malfoy’s directions. You presume that we will discuss things and not argue.

I think we’re a little past that now, Harry said, and continued to follow Snape, noticing the tiniest hesitation in the step that led him to the top of the stairs.

True, Snape said at last, and the concession made Harry smile at his back.

This does not mean we are best friends, Snape added, as if he was afraid they had an audience and someone might think he was showing the tiniest bit of respect or consideration for Harry. It does not mean that I do not want to brew the potion and sever the bond as soon as possible.

I know, Harry said, and switched to speaking aloud. Technically, they had no audience for that, either, although Harry suspected they might find Nelson awake if he hadn’t fled. He had managed to wake up from the Draught of Living Death and alert the Lestranges somehow, but he didn’t seem to have been able to get out past the Manor’s wards. “I think ending the bond would be the best thing for all of us. It doesn’t have anything to offer us.”

Snape snorted, and they reached the bottom of the stairs and proceeded in silence, both physical and mental, for a few moments before he spoke again. “No. The power Draco once thought it could offer us was a delusion.”

“Yes,” Harry said, temperately. He really could speak temperately, he told himself. And Snape hadn’t exploded yet, so he was doing well enough.

“You trust my brewing skills now.” Snape paused with one hand on a door that Harry thought looked familiar. It took him longer to place than it should have. The door to the dungeons—well, the cellars, now, but Harry would always have good reason to think of them by the harsher term.

“Yes,” Harry repeated, and when Snape opened his mouth again, shook his head and tapped the door with a closed fist. “Nelson first, then discussion.”

Snape shut his mouth and sighed, muttered, “You persist in calling it by an optimistic name,” and opened the cellar door. He paused to perform an enchantment Harry didn’t recognize at first, because Snape used wand movements he had never seen before. But when the silvery net of light sprang into being at the head of the stairs, Harry nodded approval.

“Good Hangman’s Net,” he praised, and slipped by Snape to make sure that he was in front of him as they descended the stairs.

“I am a competent wizard, Potter,” Snape said, and reached out to rap his wand against Harry’s shoulder. “One of the ways that I am so is that I can guard myself. Would you mind moving?”

“Yes,” Harry said, and had to grin a little at the way the bond stirred in the back of his mind when he said that. “And yes, I know you’re a competent wizard. But you aren’t a trained Auror, and Nelson is. I think that someone who also is should face him.”

That makes sense, said Snape in the back of his head.

Harry had the impression that turning to confront Snape would make either the peace offering or Snape’s face snap like dry wood, so he continued treading slowly down the stairs. His wand glowed in front of him, using a spell that would light the way for him and Snape but remain dark to the eyes of anyone who wanted to hurt them.

I find myself curious where you learned to recognize a Hangman’s Net. Not to mention all the other Dark spells that you surely did not learn in Auror training.

Harry sighed a little, but it was true that they didn’t want to speak aloud if Nelson had escaped the potion somehow and was running around Malfoy Manor’s dungeons, and he ought to be able to concentrate on a fight and the bond at once. A lot of self-study, he said, pausing at the bottom of the stairs and looking around. No one seemed to have disturbed the ranks of motionless bodies, but then again, Harry had forgotten exactly how many Aurors had been here before. And some spells that did get mentioned in Auror training, and that we were encouraged, discreetly, to become familiar with.

Snape remained quiet behind him, moving with his motions. Harry suspected the bond helped with that, or maybe Snape wanted to show off how competent he was.

Snape’s mood darkened, clouds rolling in from the mental horizon, and Harry said, Fine. You’re doing well for someone with no training.

I have training in the mind arts and on battlefields that you have no idea existed, Snape began.

And it really might have gone downhill from there, except that Nelson had a wand, and he was lurking in a corner, and Harry saw him a second before he tried to hit them both with a Leg-Cutting Curse.

*

Potter in battle was a sight to behold.

Severus had already admitted that much, and he honestly didn’t see why he needed another lesson in the fact, or another chance to admit it. He had seen what Potter had done against the Nundu, and against the Aurors who had captured him when Severus and Draco arrived at his side to intervene. And he had seen him refrain from hurting the Lestranges when they had Stunned them both and brought them back to the Manor. Potter had thought Draco should have the biggest say in what to do with them, but Draco wanted to put off the decision until he felt better.

Potter had the self-control necessary to listen to Draco and not insist that they kill the Lestranges right away. Severus did not know if he would have, if Draco had not touched his mind through the bond and begged him to leave it. He wanted to be there at the execution, but he honestly didn’t feel up to it at the moment. He wanted to hate them, and he’d feared them too much.

But now Potter was leaping across the cellars, dodging Nelson’s spells while countering with charms of his own that Severus recognized. Potter was building a wall of magic, herding Nelson into a corner where he could be more easily captured.

Severus, this time, understood better what his own soul was about, and did not mean to be left out of this battle.

Fatisco scipionem,” Severus said, clearly, partially because this was the kind of spell that would have more strength when cast aloud, but also because he wished Potter to hear him, and admire.

The spell soared straight and true from his own wand, passing around and under the charms that Potter was setting to contain Nelson; it burrowed into the wand in Nelson’s hand and cracked it straight down the middle, from one end to the other, with a noise so sudden and sharp that Nelson screamed. When he dropped the wand, Severus saw that the force of the magic had broken his wrist as well.

Perhaps that had been a display of rather more power than he’d meant. He hadn’t used the Wand-Cracking Charm in a long time, and hadn’t been sure that it would work nonverbally, but it would have.

Of course it would have. I was a fool to doubt myself.

Potter, because he was a man of more sense than Severus had been accustomed to consider him, Stunned Nelson before he turned around to face Severus. Because he was also a man of slightly more sadism than Severus had been accustomed to consider him, he did it in a way that made sure Nelson fell on his broken wrist when he collapsed.

Then Potter looked at Severus.

There was a keen, wolfish kind of admiration in his face—and coming down the bond, although the emotion was so different from the ones Severus tended to associate with Potter that he had not realized what it was until he saw Potter’s face. He edged a little closer to Snape, as though wanting to make sure that he wouldn’t run away.

“Can you teach me that?” Potter demanded. “I never even heard of that spell.”

“It is another one I invented,” Severus said, and did not let himself bask in the admiration. It was for his casting skills and no more—not his years of bitterness and sacrifice. “I am surprised you did not run across it, when you had my book.”

“I didn’t.” Potter seemed to ignore the allusion to the book entirely, only avidly studying Severus. “What’s the incantation?”

“The one you heard me use,” Severus said, and ignored Potter’s bristle to nod to Nelson. “Perhaps you should bring him upstairs? He was dangerous enough to acquire a wand. I think we will want to keep him under guard, along with the Lestranges, until Draco wakes, and then we can decide what to do with them as a—team.” He grimaced, but he’d arrived at the end of the sentence before he thought about how he would describe them, and then that word was the one at the tip of his tongue.

“Yes,” said Potter, and turned to gather up Nelson. He lifted him in the air with Levicorpus, and dragged him towards the stairs without bothering to avoid banging his head into things. 

Severus suspected he knew, then, what Potter would advise them doing with both the Lestranges and Nelson. Whether Severus would support it, or think it advisable for them to do, was another thing.

But then, he had decided on that when he had believed Potter was a by-the-rules Auror who would report them for the mere suggestion of using Dark magic on a helpless wizard.

Potter as someone who knew Dark spells and would probably advocate killing their enemies—Potter who wanted to know spells that would break another wizard’s wand and necessitate him training all over again with a different one, if he survived—was a different case altogether.

Thoughtfully, Severus followed Potter and the bouncing Nelson up the stairs.

*

Draco blinked, stretched, and then remembered the Lestranges and the Nundu and the rest of it. He sat up, swearing loudly.

“They’re still alive. We’ve kept them for you to have a part in the decision, just like you requested.”

Draco turned towards the door, blinking rapidly. Potter had come in with a floating tray that bore what looked like several crystal dishes of breakfast, and behind him was Severus, frowning in a way that Draco knew was meant to make their joint presence look like a coincidence.

How did you know I was hungry? he asked, and then flushed a little as Potter turned a slow glance on him. Right.

The bond was going to go away soon, but it had been in force for long enough that Draco really should have remembered it.

I’m not interested in your little self-blaming lifestyle, Potter said, and set the tray down on the table beside Draco’s bed. And neither is Snape. We caught Nelson. He was free in the cellars, and he’d managed to Summon his wand, or find one, but he couldn’t get through the wards. Snape was the one who cracked his wand.

Draco glanced at Severus. He was examining his fingernails in an elaborate manner, as if he’d heard nothing of what Potter said, although Draco recognized that look and knew it meant he was aware of every word.

Things seem more peaceful between you, Draco said, reaching for the tray, trying to send the message to Severus alone as much as possible.

Severus raised his head and gave Draco a single steady glance that made him flush, then turned away and reached out for the carafe of water bobbing behind Potter. “I find that speaking mentally makes me tired,” Severus announced. “I would enjoy it if we were to converse aloud as much as possible.”

“All right,” said Potter, without turning a hair or showing any sign of being put out. Draco wasn’t sure if that was true, or he just knew how to manipulate the mental part of the bond better than they did—he was in charge of it, after all—and could conceal it. Potter took a seat on the straight-backed wooden chair that stood in a corner of the room, in front of Draco’s desk. “So. We need to decide what to do about the Lestranges and Nelson and those Aurors in the cellars.”

“Not the Nundu?” Draco frowned as he dug into his kippers. He was glad that his own house-elves had had the preparing of them. They were the only ones who could prepare them the way Draco liked them. “I thought you said that you’d kept it for me to have a part in deciding what to do with it, too.”

Potter snorted. “I told you, I’m going to kill it. But I thought you might like to watch.”

Draco stared at him. “You don’t want to…” Then he trailed off, as he tried to think of the other options for handling a dangerous magical creature, and whether they would be any better.

Potter’s eyes glittered. “Exactly. The only people who would have the magic to take charge of it would all be Dark wizards themselves, and I don’t think we can actually advertise for it. Not to mention that the Lestranges probably wouldn’t want to tell us what those spells were.”

“Severus could read it out of their heads.” Draco spoke through a full mouth, but he didn’t think that was why Severus cast him a look of irritation.

“I would prefer to restrict my contact with any Lestrange mind as much as possible.” Severus was frowning at Draco as if he ought to have known that already.

Draco shrugged with one shoulder, refusing to be sorry. “Fine. We execute the Nundu. What are we going to do about the Lestranges?”

“I don’t feel comfortable letting them free,” said Potter, leaning forwards as if he thought he’d have a hostile audience to convince. “Or turning them over to the Aurors, now that we have evidence of how deep corruption runs in that Department. They have contacts there. They’d probably just get away again.”

“Then that leaves only one option that I can see,” Draco said, and licked his fork to get the last bits of kipper off. He merrily ignored the disgusted way that Severus looked at him. Severus could be disgusted all he liked. He wasn’t the one who had been kidnapped and barely rescued in time. Draco deserved all the luxury that he could command. “We execute them.”

“That’s what I was thinking.”

Severus spoke the words, and that wasn’t a surprise, given both the darkness Draco could feel from him in the back of his mind and what he knew of Severus’s eminently practical behavior among the Death Eaters. But he was surprised when he realized that Potter had spoken the same words at the same time.

Potter smiled slightly, perhaps because both Severus and Draco were gaping at him and he enjoyed that. “Did you think I would want to leave them alive because I’m a Gryffindor and believe in fair play?” He twirled his wand through his fingers. “I was the one who said we couldn’t bring them in to the Aurors.”

“I thought you would suggest another Ministry Department,” Draco said, swallowing. He wondered if he could actually watch Potter or Severus slaughter the Lestranges. He did want them dead, but somehow knowing it would be at Potter’s wand, that he might use the same curse he had used to kill the Aurors…

I would not use the same curse. It’s too unreliable. I couldn’t even tell at first how many it had killed and how many it just mutilated.

Draco jerked his head down in a nod, and then flicked his eyes at Severus. They had agreed to speak aloud, and he still wasn’t sure whether someone could speak privately to just one person in the bond, the way he thought Potter had intended to do to him.

Potter turned around with a calm and exquisitely bored face. “I wouldn’t use that particular Pendulum Curse,” he said. “It’s too unreliable, and I’m not interested in torturing the Lestranges. I want them dead.”

For some reason, Severus was watching Potter with a wariness that Draco would have thought he’d show mostly to enemies at the moment. “The depth of rage that I can feel through the bond made me assume torture was on the agenda.”

“No,” said Potter. “What I want is to make them dead. To ensure that none of their ghosts return to the world, and that they don’t have any relatives who could find out why they died and track us down, and that their artifacts don’t fall into the hands of someone who could cause mischief.”

Draco felt a trickle like cold water down his back, but he didn’t understand what had made Severus’s eyes widen. “You are talking of a Banishing Curse,” he said, his voice thick.

“Yes,” said Potter. “I want to banish all trace of them from the world—the physical world, and the wizarding world. I want to destroy them.” He looked at Draco.

Draco shook his head. “I’ve heard of a Banishing Curse before, but only to make a ghost retreat from a place and stop haunting it, or to make someone forget about their most potent memories. I don’t know what you mean when you talk about it.”

“The kind of Banishing Curse that gets rid of memories should not be called that,” said Severus, but his sneer was half-hearted, which told Draco how affected he was even more than the bond did. “The name is inaccurate.”

“Whatever, Snape,” Potter said, and looked at Draco. “A Banishing Curse removes every trace of a person from the physical world. Their wands, their magic, their bodies, their bloodline, their souls, all of it. Technically, there could still be wizards related to them alive, but they won’t have that part of their bloodline anymore, or any abilities that they might have inherited from that part of the family. And people will still have their memories of them, but they won’t care enough about those memories to act on them. They won’t want to take revenge even if they find out what we did to the Lestranges.”

Draco felt a bit sick, and said the first thing that came into his head. “But doesn’t that mean that we won’t care about the pain they inflicted on us anymore, either? We might let those Aurors we captured go the minute we complete that spell.”

Potter paused, then shook his head. “No. We’ll be done with the memory of them, not other people. We’ll stop caring as much about the pain they inflicted on us.” He leaned forwards. “It’s the perfect revenge. They wanted to change our lives when they attacked us. We’re taking the ability to do that away from them. A permanent revenge.” His eyes glittered with a savage light. “And I’m going to make sure to tell them that, when we use the spell against them.”

“You’re for this?” Draco turned to Severus. It sounded as though Severus was familiar with the spell, and would know the consequences.

“The curse was designed by wizards who wanted revenge,” Severus said slowly. “That is why it works the way that Potter speaks of, instead of erasing memories from the victims’ minds, because the wizards who designed it wanted to keep the memory of their triumph. But it is extremely Dark, and powerful, and hard to cast. Normally, one needs a ritual and a special potion.” He looked at Potter. “We already have a special potion brewing. I would not want to sacrifice more time and expensive ingredients for the sake of the Lestranges.”

Potter gave Severus a smile that seemed to have everything to do with teeth and not much with common sense. “Normally, yes, you’d need that. But the ritual that’s most common for putting the spell together requires three people working in concert.”

“People who trust each other,” Severus said. His voice was a bit hoarse.

“Or people who have a magical substitute for trust,” Potter said. “Believe me, some of the research that I was doing on modified breaking rituals to try and find a way to snap our bond, back when I thought that was the way to do it? It mentioned this. I thought there might be a way that we could Banish our bond at first. No such luck. But for this, it’s perfect.”

Draco swallowed again. There was something dangerously appealing about the glint in Potter’s eyes when he spoke that way. Draco wondered if the man in front of him had been inside Potter all along, or if he had been brought into being by the bond and the botched ritual.

Both, I suspect, said Potter directly to him, and glanced at Draco. “What do you say? Do you want to do this?”

Draco reached down and ran a hand along his own side, where the broken ribs had been. He still remembered the way the Lestranges had treated him, like rubbish.

To be free of that fear forever, and to be free of the fear that someone would come seeking vengeance for the Lestrange brothers, would mean a great deal to him.

“I want to do it,” he said, and watched the graceful, collected way that Potter turned to face Severus.

The contest of their wills seemed to take a long time, although Draco knew intellectually that it was mere breaths. Then Severus grunted and waved a hand.

“Yes, I am persuaded,” he said. “I would rather remove all trace of them from the world than leave something existing.”

Potter grinned, and stood up. “Then let’s go destroy those bastards.”

Chapter Text

“There will be someone who will make you pay for this.”

Harry tightened his lips to keep from laughing as he entered into the separate room, a sitting room cleared of all its furniture, where they had stored the Lestranges until Draco woke up. Both of the brothers were bound with chains to the floor—chains that, thanks to house-elf magic, disappeared into the floor, so there was no way for the Lestranges to get free of them. Rabastan was slightly closer to the door than Rodolphus. He was the one who sneered at Harry. Rodolphus was the one who had spoken.

“Now you sound like one of your own victims,” Harry said softly as he moved out of the way of Snape. He was the one who had wanted to carry the ritual bowl of salt. It wasn’t like Harry minded, or that the bowl was very heavy, but Snape had to scatter the salt into every corner of the room, and make sure that no carpet showed beneath the grains. He went to work now, and left Harry, who as controller of the mental part of the bond could have no part in the ritual preparation, to talk to the Lestranges. “How many times did one of them promise you vengeance? Did you always know that it would be as useless as this is going to be?”

Rabastan watched him with narrowed eyes. Rodolphus spoke, quickly, as though he wanted to keep from thinking about what Harry had said. “Do you hope that you can purify us of Dark Arts? There is no salt in the world that can purify us.”

“Oh, I know,” said Harry with absolute calmness, and stepped aside so Draco could come in next. He carried a torch, and he had to wave it to make sure that smoke curled into the same corners where Snape had put the salt. There was no making the smoke stay there, of course, but the important part was to have the walls impregnated by the scent. “I hope you don’t think Dark magic disgusts me. Only the uses that you put it to.” He glanced over his shoulder.

On cue, the house-elves came in carrying Nelson. He was still unconscious, his head dangling limply on his neck. Harry smiled to see the ripple of reaction that ran through Rodolphus before he could control it.

Rabastan was the one who spoke this time. “I did not know that you could appreciate the finer points of human sacrifice. Perhaps we should have tried to recruit you and not duel with you, Potter.”

“Only a certain kind of sacrifice,” Harry said, and bent over until his face was right about Rabastan’s. “Listen. If you spit on me it isn’t going to make a bit of difference.”

That made Rabastan’s throat stop working—not the threat, Harry was certain, but Harry’s utterly calm and indifferent tone. That made the threat real.

“I don’t think you understand what you’re about,” Rodolphus whispered, narrowing his eyes. He was probably watching as the house-elves attached Nelson to the wall with more unbreakable chains, against the far panel of the wall behind Harry. He had to be in the center between two of the corners that were stained with smoke and salt. When it came time, Harry would be in the middle of the opposite wall, facing him. “There is only one kind of ritual that functions like this, and you cannot mean to make us stronger.”

“There’s only one kind of ritual that functions like this if you use a human sacrifice, and one person to perform the ritual,” Harry agreed. “There’s only one kind that functions like this if you use the human as a magical sacrifice, and three people to perform it.” He waited, watching.

Enlightenment made Rabastan uglier than ever. He did spit, but Harry had expected it and moved out of the way. The spittle fell back on Rabastan’s arm, which he was trying, futilely, to thrash under the chain.

“You cannot do this,” said Rodolphus.

“That’s another saying that I suspect you’re more familiar with from your victims’ pleas than you’re used to making it,” Harry murmured, and smiled at him.

Rodolphus half-shook his head, his eyes entirely too bright and focused completely on Harry. “You would need three people who trusted each other and their magic to conduct the ritual you are talking about. You would have to move in absolute concert. That is what I mean. It is beyond your reach, physically and magically.”

Harry winked at him. “It would be, except that we have this mental and magical bond that can substitute for perfect trust. That was your gift. I suppose I should thank you. Though in a short while you’ll lose every vestige of your triumph over us. So maybe I’ll save the thanks.”

He turned his back, ignoring the way that Rodolphus tried to speak to him, and strolled over to Draco. He had finished waving the torch in the fourth corner of the room, the one on the opposite side of the door from which he had entered, and he turned around with a flushed and breathless look. His eyes went from the Lestranges to Harry.

“What have they been saying to you?” he whispered.

Harry cocked his head. “Nothing that matters. Why? Did try to speak to you, too?” He didn’t think Draco had been down to see the Lestranges at all since his capture—and Harry hadn’t thought he would dare—but maybe he had come to this room earlier in the name of overcoming his fear.

“No,” Draco said. “You feel vicious, though.”

Harry shared the memory of the conversation in a few short bursts, and watched in interest as Draco’s eyes narrowed and his mouth firmed. He turned and studied the Lestranges for a second.

“It’s not worth it,” Harry said mildly, reacting more to the flicker of intention and will he had picked up in Draco’s mind than anything else. He didn’t think Draco had a formed and definite plan, just something that involved going over and yelling at the Lestranges. “I let them know what we’re going to do. That’s why Rodolphus was trying to bargain with me and Rabastan was trying to spit at me. Let them suffer the knowledge of what’s coming.” He leaned in and put a hand on Draco’s shoulder, the first time he had touched him since after the torture, except to heal his ribs. “To know there’s nothing they can do to stop it.”

There was something I could have done to prevent what I suffered, Draco murmured back. You said it. Not wander at night near the wards.

Harry shrugged and waved that aside, in the same movement, and honestly wasn’t sure which gestures he performed mentally and which were physical. It doesn’t matter. You were captured, but you might not have been. I was taken by Aurors investigating alone in the Department, when I shouldn’t have been. We all have things to be sorry for. But let’s not forget who should be sorriest. He led Draco’s gaze back to the Lestranges.

He liked the way that Draco’s mouth went firm, and Draco nodded to him. “I need to pass the torch over Nelson’s head, and I’m done,” he said, pulling away from Harry and trotting off to do that.

“Good,” Harry said, feeling a strong thrum of anticipation pass through him. He turned to check on Snape’s progress.

Snape had straightened from scattering salt in the last corner, sealing the room as a ritual space. He was looking at the Lestranges, too. His face was hard to read, but when he noticed Harry watching him and met his gaze in turn, Harry could sense what he felt through the bond. Satisfaction, amoral and complete. He had been shocked when Harry suggested this spell, but Harry thought that he might have come up with it himself, in the end.

I would not have suggested it in the same way or for the same reasons that you did, Snape told him, his lip curling as though Harry had insulted him by thinking he might have come up with the same plan.

Maybe it was insulting for Snape to be compared to Harry in any way. Harry only shrugged. We have to be in tune through the bond for the ritual to work. Let’s concentrate on that right now.

After a second, Snape nodded, curtly, and examined the corner he stood in once more. When he seemed sure that the carpet was covered entirely with salt, he walked towards Harry and Draco. Draco had finished covering the semi-conscious Nelson’s hair with smoke, and was standing back, admiring his work.

Do we know the ritual is complete, though? he asked suddenly, turning around. Maybe he had felt the slight contest between Harry and Snape.

Harry walked over to the wall opposite Nelson, and stood there, relaxed, ignoring the way that Rabastan and Rodolphus continued to fight their chains. When he let his arms droop to his sides, in the posture that Nelson had been tied to the wall, he felt it: a great release of tension that sped through him and almost dripped off his hands, accompanied by what felt like a rope drawing together behind his head and the nape of his neck.

Harry looked up and smiled. Draco flinched from his smile, he noted. Well, that couldn’t be helped. “That was the closing of the ritual circle,” he whispered. “Or square, in this case. We’ve sealed the power in. All that remains is to use it.” He looked at Draco, then at Snape, silently making sure that they remembered their roles in this part of the ritual.

Snape had already picked up a wooden box that had been resting inconspicuously at the base of the hearth, ready for his use. When he opened it, there was a sticky black substance inside that he had said came from the crushed and powdered lungs of toads. Harry had no idea. Snape had had the required ritual implements among the ingredients for his potions, and that was all that Harry needed to know.

Draco moved over to the door, opposite the fireplace and so opposite Snape, reaching for the box he had left in the corridor. Like the one Snape held, it was small and of inlaid wood with a band of color around the front. Snape’s box shone yellow; Draco’s box had the deep blue glow of cobalt. When he opened it and dipped a finger inside, it came out yellow with the pollen of deadly nightshade. He nodded to Harry.

Harry glanced around once more, although the tight cord of thrumming power behind his head told him the ritual circle was still closed. Snape, Draco, Harry, Nelson. Nelson’s participation in the ritual was hardly willing, but, well, they only needed him as a power source, not an active celebrant.

Harry nodded once, and then faced the Lestranges. Rodolphus was scanning the walls as though looking for a way out; if he had felt the magic closing in on them, he didn’t choose to acknowledge it. Rabastan was watching Harry, his face a study in hatred. “What’s your ritual implement?” he whispered.

Harry gave him a smile, and Rabastan flinched from it. Good. “The hatred and the desire for vengeance are the only things I need,” he said, and then faced Nelson and held up one empty, cupped hand and his wand. At the same time, Snape took some of the powdered toads’ lungs onto his left palm, and Draco cupped the pollen warily.

“This is our desire,” Harry said, steadily, clearly, and felt Draco’s and Snape’s minds opening up to him, the same ideas and longings speeding down the stretched-tight bonds between them. But not as tight as the magic of the ritual square, and that was the idea. “To have the Lestrange brothers, and all traces of them, banished from the world. Remove their magic from the world. Remove their souls from the world. Remove their bodies from the world. Remove the contribution of their blood that flows in others’ veins. Remove the passion from the memories others have of them.”

The magic was a tangible thing in the room now, heavy like sugar behind Harry’s teeth, dust behind his eyelids, dust in his nose. He watched the Lestranges, both of whom had their mouths open. They had meant to scream and interrupt him when he was speaking the ritual words, he thought, but such was the power of the ritual that it had kept them still.

Rodolphus spoke now, while Rabastan screamed, a long, thin, keening wail as sharp as some of the hatred that Harry felt—but not all of it. “You cannot do this. You don’t have the power or the desire.” He glanced around, his eyes avoiding Snape but landing on Draco. “Malfoy doesn’t have the moral courage for it. Neither do you.”

“Because I was a Gryffindor?” Harry smiled, and Rodolphus looked away from his smile the way Rabastan had.

“Because you were never one for the hard choices,” Rodolphus whispered. “Because you didn’t kill us when you had the chance.”

“Because this is what we decided to do instead of killing you,” Harry told him gently, and then faced Nelson again. His head was lifted now, but his eyes were blank. Harry thought it was more likely the ritual magic manipulating his limbs, rather than anything else.

“This is our desire,” Harry said, and felt the ritual close in on again, as present on the back of his neck as the press of teeth. “To have freedom and peace in our mind from the memories of these madman. To have more than we knew we desired. To possess the memories without the desire for vengeance, because the most complete vengeance we could seek has already been accomplished.”

He glanced at Snape. Whether Snape felt the silent command that Harry sent through the bond, he didn’t know. He only knew that Snape decided to heed it, and cast a pinch of the powdered toads’ lungs into the air. Toads were creatures associated with poison, and they were needed to destroy some of the bonds that still held the Lestrange brothers to existence, and would as long as the ritual was incomplete.

The powder rose into the air, burning, and then snuffed and rippled out in flame as they reached the ceiling of the room. Harry turned, to find that Draco had already cast the deadly nightshade pollen. It turned into flames of its own, so delicate and clear a yellow that Harry blinked. He hadn’t known they would look like that. From the way that Draco gaped at them, he hadn’t known, either.

“We desire for the magic of this man to be the sacrifice,” Snape said, and Harry jerked back to attention. The bond in Snape’s mind had turned to a sharpened arrowhead, and was pointing straight at Nelson. Once again, Nelson looked like he was aware of his surroundings, but Harry doubted that. “It should be enough to detach the bonds of magic and others that hold the Lestranges to the world.”

There was a long silence. Harry didn’t think that rituals had minds as such, which meant it couldn’t actually be considering, the way it felt like, but the feeling stayed with him no matter how many times he tried to shake it off. Maybe it was more like a feeling of scales being balanced, as if the ritual weighed Nelson’s sacrifice against the magnitude of the revenge they were asking.

Then the ritual magic moved. Suddenly Harry was watching chains of delicate, pale grey light, almost pewter in color, encircle Nelson’s neck and wrists, and the chains flowed down to the middle of the floor, to the real bonds that tied the Lestranges. Rodolphus was struggling again. But with the certainty of happiness settling into him, Harry knew it would be useless.

The chains throbbed and began to glow, with such a gentle light that it was almost impossible to distinguish from the color they already had. But Harry knew magic was pouring out of Nelson, running into the walls of the room sealed by the ritual, running into the smoke and the salt, the purification of fire and the purification of the earth. That was the revenge they had planned for Nelson, because he wasn’t worth the effort of the Banishing Curse the way that the Lestranges were, and yet there was no way that they would simply let him go. The magic sweated down, fat drops of it forming and dripping and gleaming. In each was a tiny image, shimmering reflections of the faces of the doomed Lestrange brothers.

“The ritual has accepted our considerations and our sacrifice,” said Harry, bowing his head. They were near the end of the ritual, although the gesture left was the greatest challenge. “Let us acknowledge its greatness and favor.”

Draco and Snape dipped their heads at the same time, and the magic buzzed and hummed back and forth between them. Harry thought it was similar to the magic of the bond, but turned inside-out, so that all its fangs were aimed towards the Lestranges.

Rabastan was saying something else, something that sounded like an attempt at bargaining. Harry ignored him. The ritual was too far advanced to listen to him even if they had wanted to.

“Let us banish their magic,” said Harry, and looked across at his two bondmates, counting down in his head.

All of their right hands rose at the same time, and all of their wands gestured in the same moment. Harry relaxed a little. That had been the part that would be impossible for them without the bond. Let one person hesitate or lag a little bit behind, and they would all be lost. The ritual wouldn’t give them what they wanted, or might actually harm them.

But the little flourish of the wand was enough. The magic sweating off Nelson rose, a whirlwind of salt and smoke impregnated by power. It arched across the room and settled as a wash on the Lestrange brothers, clinging to their skin. It didn’t matter how they wriggled and thrashed and tried to throw it off; it crept under their clothes, down beneath their trouser legs, into their hair and through it, and onto the soles of their feet and beneath their fingernails. They screamed harder now than they had since Harry first bound them down.

Harry caught Snape’s eye and smiled, responding to the half-formed question in his mind. Yes, they can feel it taking their magic, draining it up. According to the descriptions of the Banishing Curse I’ve read, it feels like part of yourself turning to soup.

Draco, he noticed, was looking a little green. Harry shrugged. It didn’t matter. They were deep into the ritual now, and they only needed to perform a few more gestures in concert to rid the Lestranges of the rest of their being.

“Let us banish their bloodline,” said Harry, and again all of them stretched forth their right hands at the same time and cast the spell that cut a small line in their palms and added blood to the mess on the floor of the room.

The ritual made this into small, dark red knives of its own, which it sent flying at the Lestranges from every direction. It sank into their bodies, seeking out and severing the connections they had with other pure-blood families. Harry noticed Draco gasp and stand a little taller, and Snape jolt as if someone had pushed him. The Malfoy and the Prince families must have more recent connections with the Lestranges than the Potters did, Harry thought. He might have felt someone blowing on his ear from behind, but that was just as easily his imagination.

“Let us banish their souls,” Harry said, and exchanged a smile with both his bondmates this time. Not even Draco liked the thought of the Lestranges returning as ghosts to haunt them, or managing to work some necromantic magic from beyond the grave, as there were very rare tales of ghosts doing.

This time, they all had to mime flinging a hood back from their faces, the way that Dementors would before giving a victim the Kiss. Again they performed without it a hitch, in unison, and the air in front of them shimmered and writhed like an insect stabbed through the middle.

Rabastan gave the most pitiful wail that Harry had ever heard, and curled up on himself. Rodolphus seemed to fight it a moment longer, turning his head to the side and sealing his lips as if he could keep his soul from being sucked out that way. But the choice was no longer up to them, and their bodies settled and then spasmed.

Harry felt his lips curl up in a vicious smile. He was glad to see that, glad to see them die that way. Or fade that way. Technically, their bodies were still alive, the way the bodies of Dementors’ victims could be.

But in the meantime, they had to go on. A curt flip of the chin from Snape reminded him of that.

“Let us banish their bodies,” Harry said, and the three of them moved as one in reaching down and gathering up imaginary ash from the carpet, blowing it across their palms towards the Lestranges’ husks.

The ash landed and settled the way that the grime that took away their magic had, and in seconds, the bodies themselves were ashes, crisping and blowing away, scrubbed clean by what looked like a high-speed wind. Harry gave a sober nod of approval. There was no trace that the bodies had ever lain there, not even small dents in the carpet, and that meant they were ready for the last step of the ritual.

“Let us banish the passion from our memories.”

The gesture this time was a motion of the wand towards the temples, as though they were all pulling out strands of memory to deposit into a Pensieve. Harry twirled his wand to wind the imaginary strand around it, and saw Snape doing the same thing, and Draco, his eyes bright and his breathing rapid. He would have the memories of his capture as well as those of the original rape to deal with.

Then Harry felt…

It was the strangest sensation. He had imagined he would feel a weight lifting, or some of the rage that still remained in the back of his mind leaving him. But instead, there was a sensation as though someone had opened giant cupped hands and let him out of them back into the world. Harry took a deep breath, and for the first time in a long time, it felt like clean air when he drew it into his lungs. He looked around in wonder, and saw the same kind of smile on Draco’s lips.

There was no smile on Snape’s lips, but the bond was murmuring wordless, image-laden reports of the same thing from his direction.

Harry stepped back and bowed in Snape’s direction, in Nelson’s, in Draco’s. “The ritual is done.”

The snapping of the magic that had sealed them in was hard enough to make Harry stagger. That had been the description in the books that he had looked up, mostly to pacify Snape, since he knew the Banishing Curse perfectly well. But he hadn’t known it would be like that.

He hadn’t known any of this would be like anything else, Harry thought. But now, he cast his mind back to the ritual circle, the copper circle they had been spiritually mauled in.

And now, although those memories were there, most powerfully in the bond that still sometimes throbbed in his head like an aching tooth, they had no power, any longer, to hurt him.

Chapter Text

"I think I need some more rest in bed," Draco said, lowering his head and wrapping his arms around it and around the back of his neck, rocking a little.

Harry shook himself free of his pleased stupor and turned in Draco's direction. "Of course," he said. The ritual was intense magic. It made sense that Draco would need rest after that. "Come on, lean on me. I'll escort you up the stairs." He took a few hasty steps to Draco's side when he swayed as if he would fall down right there.

Draco sighed and leaned on his shoulder. "I don't know why I'm so weak," he said. "You and Severus aren't."

"We weren't captured and tortured as recently as you," Harry murmured. He could only imagine what Snape would say if Harry said they hadn't been captured and tortured, which were the first words that had sprung into Harry's head. He didn't want to get into an argument about who had suffered the most severe pain right now, and it seemed as though he was at least going to get that much peace from Draco. Draco nodded, and his cheek drooped even further down Harry's shoulder.

I will clean up the ritual signs and join you upstairs in a moment. 

Harry twitched violently, but didn't turn his head in Snape's direction. He concentrated on taking Draco safely out of the sitting room, and making sure that they mounted the stairs at more or less the same pace. Draco's head was bobbing, and now and then he sighed. Harry patted his back, soothing him as much as he could. 

"I think Severus thinks I'm weak," Draco whispered, when they had to pause to negotiate a difficult turn in the spiral staircase.

"I don't think that I could say what he thinks," Harry said. It was the most neutral remark he could make right now. "Come on, watch out for this corner, you'll trip." He managed to hoist Draco over a small roll in the carpet on the edge of the step.

Draco frowned down at the carpet. "How annoying. I shall have the house-elves take care of that right away." Then he rolled back his head, and fixed his eyes on Harry. Don't think I haven't noticed the care you've been taking of me.

All right, Harry replied, a little baffled, and urged him around another corner. Draco could still move his legs, but Harry would have taken out his wand and floated him to bed if he couldn't feel through the bond how humiliating that would be to Draco. I won't argue with you about it. I just don't see why it matters.

Draco sighed and straightened himself out on the top step. Because you can feel sorry for me but want to respect my pride at the same time, and respect what the bond places between us while wanting to destroy it. I don't understand why you can't do the same for Severus.

Harry shrugged and shivered, at the same time, so violently that it was a wonder he didn't trip them back down the stairs. He shook his head and resumed dragging Draco down the corridor to his room. Snape doesn't want any consideration from me.

I think you're wrong there, said Draco, and shook his head when Harry studied him, wondering whether he had hit his head. Not the same kind of consideration that you give me. I think he would explode if you tried. But we're still in the bond for however long it takes the potion to brew and me to recover the strength so that I can drink it. It's not such a bad idea to at least think about it, is it? 

Harry didn't say anything. He could have said that Snape hadn't done as much to deserve his concern as Draco had. He could have said that Snape would still explode if Harry tried to be kind to him in any way. He could have said that the potion would finish soon and Draco would recover soon, so it didn't matter what Harry did one way or another.

But he ended up not saying any of it. He got Draco back to his room and settled him in his bed, with his head propped up on pillows so that he could breathe more easily. He fetched a house-elf to give him some soup, and ordered some broth with beef blood in it, the recipe that Hermione and Mrs. Weasley kept giving him when he had worked himself to magical exhaustion.

Draco eyed him. "Anyone would think that you'd been in my position multiple times," he said aloud.

Harry said nothing aloud, again. He just cast a spell that made the blankets softer and warmer, said, Try to rest, and then left the room. He paused a minute outside the door, but Draco was already snoring.

Harry smiled and turned around. He didn't think rest of his own would be such a bad idea. He could use time to recover from the emotional impact of the ritual, even if he didn't think his magical and physical involvement in it were as great as Draco's.

But the world didn't hear, or maybe didn't heed, his prayers, because there was Snape standing behind him. Harry squared his shoulders and waited. He wouldn't attack, but he wouldn't hesitate to defend himself, either.

You still think that I would attack you, even after all we have shared.

That wasn't a question, but Harry only knew it because of the bond. And the emotions that chased themselves up and down along Snape's part of it--the lightness of incredulity, the iron-grey thickness of anger--weren't very promising. He met Snape's eyes and spoke mentally, only so that he wouldn't wake Draco up. I don't think you'll attack me so much as I'm ready to defend. And if I wasn't that way, you would make fun of me for not having enough paranoia, so I might as well do what will cause me to lose the least.

Snape's jaw worked, so hard that Harry thought he would probably grind his teeth down to stumps if he didn't watch out. Then he grunted and turned sharply away. Come with me. I think we need to have that discussion we put off when we subdued Nelson.

Harry sighed and followed. Maybe rest would have been a good idea, but he wasn't going to get any of it.

If you had truly needed it, I would not have insisted that you put it off. This is what we need instead.

Harry bit back the retort he wanted to make. It would lead into endless paths of circular disagreement that he had no more interest in going back to than Snape did. He wanted to sit down with something to drink, though, and that meant ordering a house-elf to bring him the drink once they had finally reached whatever room Snape thought was the best for their "discussion."

Because Harry doubted he would be allowed to leave until the bloody thing was done.

*

Once Potter had a mug of thick, warm brown Nut-ale, Severus caught the house-elf's eye and nodded it away. The creatures were almost as used to obeying him as they were Draco, and would object to his orders only when they conflicted with a Malfoy's, so this one bowed itself to the edge of disappearing and then Apparated out.

"Fine. What do you think still needs to be talked about, since we did that ritual together so successfully?"

Severus turned to consider Potter. He held his mug lightly in his right hand, leaving the path clear to his wand if he needed it. He didn't seethe with the same rage that he had in the past when Severus had attempted to talk with him, but that didn't mean much. The wariness in his eyes was in some ways harder to get through.

Talk, Snape. You were the one who wanted to.

Severus nodded, but took a sip of his own glass of flavored water before he responded. They would deal as equals, which meant neither of them could command the other. "Very well. I wanted to know if you had thought about when we can end the bond."

That got him a sharp look for all his efforts, and Potter said, "Whenever the potion is finished brewing, I thought."

Severus sighed. "Yes, but the potion must be consumed in calm circumstances, when none of the participants is wounded, and when they are in accord with each other. We would have to wait in any case, for Draco to recover from the last vestiges of his torture and all of us to recover from the strain of the ritual. However, there is still the matter of latent disagreements between you and me."

Potter blinked once, then nodded and said, "All right. I'll personally consider us even if you teach me the spell you used to break Nelson's wand."

Severus eyed him. Potter appeared to be serious, and not to see what was wrong with his proposition.

What is wrong with it?

"This is not a matter of debts, even of life-debts," Severus said aloud, balancing his glass on his knee. "This is a matter of emotions that need to be talked out. We cannot declare a debt paid and expect to settle into accord as a result of that."

Potter's eyes and nostrils and bond all flared, but he was able to respond calmly. "All right. What do you suggest we talk about first?"

You're letting me take the lead? Severus could prevent neither the silent exclamation nor the surprise that bled over into the link between them.

Stop jumping around and tell me what you want to fucking talk about, Snape.

Severus held back the impulse to respond with an insult, which would work against what he had told Potter they needed to do here, not improve it, and then nodded. "Very well. I think that we need to talk about the rape and ritual that the Lestranges imposed on us."

“I thought we’d done nothing but talk about it and its consequences for the last fortnight.” Potter’s breathing had slowed down again, and he regarded Severus under the bottom of his mug as though he assumed that he would explode in a minute.

A fair estimate of how I would once have responded to your presence, Severus told him. But nothing more than an estimate of how I once would have responded. I ask that you give me a fairer hearing now.

Potter’s lips parted, and he seemed as if he would say something unfortunate, but a second later, he inclined his head until his chin almost touched his chest. “Fine,” he said. “Tell me what you think we need to talk about.”

“Do you understand now that both Draco and I suffered from the rape?”

Potter’s head rocked back on his neck; from the shimmer of the bond, he hadn’t expected a question so direct. But he nodded. “Yeah, I do. It was still better than the death that the bond would have insisted on if I’d just left it alone, though.”

Severus paused. This was one thing he had not anticipated. “So you think that we might blame you for the rape?”

Might? I know that you did,” Potter said, and his mouth twisted oddly. “Because I was the one who set up that bargain with the bond and my virgin arse, and so I was the one who set up the situation where you had to rape me.”

Severus touched one hand to the side of his head, but dropped it without running it through his hair. That was too much a Potter-like gesture right now. “The Lestranges were the ones who set up the situation.”

Potter’s eyes had a gleam that was almost feral. “But I was the one who made it necessary for you to rape me instead of do something else.”

“I did not blame you in the way you are thinking,” Severus said. He didn’t know if Potter had been thinking this clearly at first, but if he had thought Draco and Severus would blame him for everything, it explained some of his reactions.

I wasn’t thinking that clearly at first, no. But I know that you blamed me.

Severus grimaced. Potter was not the only one who had discomfort to face in this situation. “I blamed you because I was entangled with you in yet another uncomfortable way, and because I had guilt that you seemed to keep flinging back in my face. Nothing I could do would be enough to make up for it, so why should I try? And there was the bond that was trying to kill you, and might have killed us, too.”

“Fine,” said Potter. “That’s blaming.”

“But I am past that now,” Severus said, and used one of Potter’s own tactics on him when he snorted, flinging open the bond down to its deepest levels. “Do you feel anything like blame from me now?”

Potter hesitated, then reached out and stirred his fingers slowly through the bond. Mental fingers, at least. Severus endured it, and then Potter settled back and shook his head in wonder. No, I don’t. I didn’t realize that you’d got past it.

“Perhaps I did not until we performed this latest ritual and banished the Lestranges from life,” said Severus. “But it is gone now. That means that we can—we should—discuss this affair between us free from their influence.”

“Fine,” Potter said, and stared blindly off to the side for only a moment before he began to speak. “I thought you blamed me, yeah. And I blamed myself. I thought I should have done something else. Something that fit the Auror I wanted to be. A really good Auror could have found some way out of there without involving either rape or death.”

Severus shook his head. “Most Aurors would not have had the presence of mind to react as you did.”

“Or a virgin arse to offer up,” Potter said, and eyed him.

Severus shrugged. “If you wish to say that is a qualification, then it is. But I remain curious as to why it was a qualification. Why had you remained a virgin until the Lestranges put us in that circle?”

Potter bristled for a moment, but looked at the fire until he calmed down. “Like that’s the most personal question you could ask me, after all we’ve been through,” he muttered.

Severus agreed, but held his peace. This was something that Potter had to come to terms with on his own, or not at all.

“Because I didn’t find the right way to lose it,” Potter murmured at last. “Because I thought it was supposed to be—oh, everybody told me it was supposed to be this grand romantic moment, and you would know the right time for it, and it didn’t matter if neither of you had ever had sex before, you would just know the right things to do.”

“I do not need any details of the Granger and Weasley intimacies that may have convinced you of this,” Severus said sharply, which was only true.

Potter looked at him with something so unexpected in his eyes that Severus did not recognize it until he touched the bond. Genuine laughter.

It flickered and was gone, but it had been there.

Potter shrugged and said, “I never had that grand romantic moment. And I wanted it. But there was the war, and there was getting ready to actually pass my NEWTs, and there was Auror training. I cared more about being a good Auror than I did about not being a virgin, and I had to study every second, because I never learned how to study in Hogwarts.” Severus blinked at another admission that he’d never thought to hear Potter make, but said nothing. “There was no time for something like what I wanted. I could have found someone for a casual fuck and disguised myself with a glamour so no one would realize it was the Boy-Who-Lived and have the temptation to run to the papers, but that wasn’t what I wanted. And I thought I deserved to have what I wanted.”

“Then that was another thing that—this situation took from you,” Severus said. He didn’t want to say that he and Draco were the ones who had done it, because technically that was not true.

Potter twisted his mouth up in an expression that Severus thought was both complicated and more complicated than Potter was letting it be. “That happened,” he said. “But when we finish the potion and the bond, then there will be something that can help make up for it.”

“Not change it,” said Severus.

Potter looked into his ale before frowning back at Severus with eyes that were shadowed, but steady. “Well, no. But if we had changed it, then we would have died. Or I might have ended up raped and dead. I know which outcome I prefer.”

“It did not sound as if you preferred it, with some of the things that you said to us.” Severus felt the memories sleeting past him, the memory of arriving to find Potter on the floor with the magic of the bond tugging at his ribs, and the memory of Potter dipping into his mind and feasting on any memory he wanted.

“I didn’t know what I preferred at the time,” Potter said, but with the edge of a warning in his voice. “I was a mess. I hope that I know better than to prefer death now.”

Severus let it rest there for a moment, and passed on. “What are you going to do when the bond is finished?”

Potter turned his gaze to the floor, although it hadn’t been what Severus had meant, and said, “Those bloody Aurors in the Manor’s cellars. They’re still a problem that has to be taken care of.”

“And then?” Severus asked.

“I can’t take them back to the Ministry,” said Potter, although Severus had actually been asking for what Potter would do after he had figured out a solution to the problem of the dead and maimed and sleeping Aurors. “There are too many people who would simply let them go, and the truth of what I did to them can’t be hidden behind Memory Charms.” He shut his eyes, and for a moment, let himself slump in the chair with exhaustion. “I don’t know exactly what to do.”

Severus paused, both to make sure that Potter was actually done speaking and to appreciate (in his own way) the trust that Potter was showing him, betraying fatigue like that in front of someone he had considered an enemy. “If your major fear is detection, then I can brew a potion that will work like a Memory Charm, but is stronger and cannot be reversed. It is one I came up with on my own, and I have not shared the recipe with any other Potions master. Without the exact recipe, they have no chance of discovering an antidote. Could you use that to lock the memories of what you did to them behind barriers?”

Potter gaped at him. Then he said, “You’re offering a potion like that to—to me?”

To someone who is still bonded to me and to someone who helped me get the most complete revenge I could envision? Yes, I am.

But we won’t be bonded by the time that I have to decide what to do about the Aurors, Potter argued back. And I don’t know what I could do for you this time that would pay back that debt.

“Perhaps it sounds strange, coming from someone as obsessed by the past as I was for so many years,” Severus said dryly, “but there is more to life than debts. Or you could think of it as payment for revenge. Or for ensuring that you would never have a huge romantic moment like the one you were planning. Any and all of those. Come, Potter,” he added, because the gape was still there in the bond, if not literally on Potter’s face anymore. “Is it that strange, when you agreed that our relationship had changed?”

“I know,” Potter said, and waved a hand. “Sorry. I just…I’m not used to thinking about this anymore.”

“Thinking about what?” Severus could not figure out what he meant even with a poke at the muddied bond.

“Thinking about what people offer me without a cost,” Potter said simply. “Unless their last name is Granger or Weasley. You’re right, we’ve gone through enough together that it shouldn’t be a surprise. But at the same time, you can’t deny that it was really, deeply fucked-up.”

“Perhaps so,” said Severus. “But now that some of the passion that made it so is gone, and the Lestranges are incapable of putting us in a similar position ever again, I think you must agree that we are able to choose how we react. This is the way that I choose to react. This is the potion I am offering you.”

Potter considered him hard enough that Severus could feel the effort making drops of sweat break out on both their foreheads. He waited instead of snapping. If what he had said about choosing his reactions was true, then he needed to do it now.

Perhaps more now than at any point so far.

*

He’s right. I don’t feel as angry anymore, and that means that I don’t need to be as angry at him anymore. If I don’t want to.

Honestly, there was still the temptation to feel angry at Snape, because what he had said was true. Harry’s virginity was gone now, and he wouldn’t ever get it back, or have the romantic moment he’d planned.

But there were so many other things that he could have lost, and would never have had. The revenge on the Lestranges. His life. The chance to go on from here, and be…something. Not the good Auror he had planned on, either, because the Ministry was crawling with too many people eager to do something with his scar. And he might have to deal with Voldemort again, if Stockwell and the Aurors accompanying her were right.

But he was sincere when he’d told Snape that it was better to be alive and have those choices and decisions to make instead of raped and then dead. And the Lestranges would still be alive, and they would have won.

Harry smiled. The fiery satisfaction he had got from the Banishing Curse hadn’t diminished, unlike some of the other passions that the Lestranges had once aroused in him.

“Harry?”

Harry started, and reared his head back to fasten his eyes on Snape’s face. Snape shook his head. I spoke your surname, and you didn’t respond. And your mind was working too fast to even feel the touch of the bond.

Harry took a deep breath. “Then I accept the use of your potion, and thank you. And I’m going to investigate the signs of Voldemort being back as soon as I use it. The Aurors can be dumped back at the Ministry as long as they have no memory of what happened to them. But from there, I really think that the investigation is the next thing I’m going to fling myself into.”

“My company is an option on that journey as well, should you wish it,” Snape said, with a mostly blank face. “I bear the Dark Mark, and so does Draco. We have much to lose if the Dark Lord returns.”

Harry paused, but only briefly. He shouldn’t be surprised by Snape’s general willingness to help him by now, even if he was surprised by each specific instance of it.

“I’d appreciate that. Thanks.”

It was worth the uncertainty he had gone through, to see the way that Snape’s jaw hung open when he added that last word.

Chapter Text

“I could get used to the sight of you sitting by my bed.”

As Draco had expected, that simply made Potter roll his eyes, before he leaned in and helped Draco sit up against his pillows so he could reach the tray the house-elves had brought more easily. Draco was actually much stronger than he’d been when Potter escorted him up the stairs, but he didn’t mind the extra help. It was nice to know that Potter wouldn’t snap at him as Severus sometimes did or torture him or turn away from him.

I heard that.

Draco flinched mildly as Severus slipped into the room. He looked back and forth between the two of them, seeing who knew what, before he announced, “The potion has a few more hours left to simmer. Then there will be an hour when I will need help tossing certain kinds of ingredients into the potion on a predetermined schedule, while I stir.”

Draco felt a great, waiting stillness settling into the middle of his stomach, and wondered for a second where it had come from, before he realized that Potter was leaning forwards. Hard to distinguish his emotions from Potter’s, at this point in time. “And then?” Potter asked, softly enough that Draco felt more than heard the words.

“Then it will need a few minutes to cool and allow some of its ingredients to settle into new positions,” Severus replied, sitting down in the same chair he had taken when they were discussing the Banishing Curse.

“And then?” Potter repeated, his body tense enough to quiver. Draco looked back and forth between the faces of his bondmates, and caught his breath at what was in the bond. Severus was teasing Potter. He did it with a straighter face than Draco could have managed, but that was what he was doing.

What happened while I was asleep? 

Later. Potter was the one who replied, his eyes on Severus’s expression. Severus understood the signal in those words, or had tired of his teasing, and simply nodded.

“Then we may drink it.”

Potter closed his eyes in what seemed like an expression of relief too great for words, then sighed and leaned back against his chair. The bond jumped and danced between them. Draco winced. His head was the only part of him that still hurt after his rest, but plucking the bond made it feel like someone was twanging a harp along his thoughts.

Could you not do that, Potter?

Sorry, Draco, said Potter absently, and stopped, turning to Severus. Draco turned with him, but shut his open mouth at what he saw in Severus’s slightly narrowed eyes.

You do not refer to me by my first name.

He doesn’t call me by mine, either, Potter said, standing up as if he thought he needed to come between Severus and Draco. It doesn’t matter.

Severus’s face grew pinched, but he nodded. Draco sat up, though. He knew that expression from before the bond had begun. Severus only looked like that when something did matter, but he was trying hard not to let it.

“Why don’t you call him by his first name?” he asked Potter, aloud. “I can understand our reasoning for not calling you by yours. You might resent it. But I never said that you should call me by mine, you just started doing it. I don’t know why you can’t do the same for Severus.”

Potter answered them in images, not words, each one pointed like a broken bone. He showed Draco the picture of himself after he had been captured by the Lestranges, and Potter had helped him to his feet. He showed Severus himself brooding, and the way he had swept around the classrooms in Hogwarts when Potter was young, and how he brewed. All of those pictures were closed-off, so composed and cold that they felt like marble walls to the touch.

“Fine,” Draco said. “But if it’s only out of pity, then I’d prefer that you stop.”

Potter shrugged as if his shoulder joints were locked up and suffering from pain. “As you will.”

Draco made a groaning noise and rolled his eyes at Severus. Severus took over what might be said to be his side of the negotiations, although his mouth was puckered with distaste. “It is more than pity that leads you to call Draco by his name. We can tell that from the images you showed us. Because you pity me somewhat, for not having words and being expert in an art that you despise.”

“I don’t despise it,” said Potter. “I know what potions can do.”

“I don’t want you to call me by my first name if it’s only out of pity,” Draco said, his words utterly calm and regular. “That’s what I meant. I do like to hear you call me Draco. But Severus and I would like to be treated equally.”

Potter turned and eyed Severus. “And you won’t explode on me?” he finally asked, his regard so wary and considering that Draco half-wondered if he still thought of Severus as an enemy. “Or tell me that I’m a disrespectful whelp for presuming where I’m not wanted?”

“That is what you thought I would say?” Severus was holding himself with much the same care as Potter.

“No,” said Potter. “I thought you’d say worse.”

Severus sighed and touched his forehead with one hand, smoothing up and down. Not quite a headache, Draco thought, but getting there. “I do not want to be your enemy. I thought we had settled this.”

Potter’s face worked; then he nodded. “I just didn’t know it mattered to you, or I would have been calling you Severus earlier,” he said. He still spoke as though Severus was a word in a foreign language that had suddenly materialized in English, but he no longer sounded as though they were forcing him into it. “I can do it.” He paused, then added, “Sorry.”

The quizzical expression in Severus’s eyes made Draco think he would ask what Potter was apologizing for, but mercifully, he refrained and let the apology sit there. “Good,” said Severus. He measured Draco with his eyes next. “Are you recovered enough to drink the potion?”

Draco snorted. “I’ve been letting Harry here pamper me, but I’m strong enough.” He registered the fleeting burst of surprise from Potter that he would call him by his first name in turn, but ignored it. “I only need to make sure I can take the heavy metals that will invade my body, right?”

“It would also help to be able to stand upright without swaying and not fall into the potion or drop the vial,” Severus murmured.

Draco rolled his eyes, gulped a little more of the soup that the house-elves thought appropriate for him, and laid the tray aside. “You’re not usually this snippy about my ability to recover from injuries, Severus,” he murmured, and stood up from the bed, carefully stretching his arms above his head and then holding his hand out in the position that he would usually use to scoop up a vial. “See?”

Severus reached out and poked him in the shoulder with a solid finger. Draco swayed and had to clutch the bed. Potter—Harry—stood there, careful, watching. Draco shook his head at him and maintained his footing without help a second later.

“I doubt anybody will be poking me during the potion-drinking,” Draco said.

Severus went on studying him, and Draco shivered with the anxiety from Harry’s direction, the fear that they would have to put off the potion for another day. Harry might call them by their first names and rescue them from torture and delight in his ability to perform torture rituals with them, but he didn’t want to be bonded to them.

No, I don’t, said Harry, very gently. I think that we aren’t enemies anymore, but we aren’t lovers or friends or anyone for whom this level of intimacy is appropriate.

You have strange ideas about appropriateness, Draco sent back, frowning. This bond is unique. How would we know what’s appropriate? 

True enough, Harry said a moment later, and sounded as if he was trying not to laugh. Anyway. A few more hours, you said, Severus? 

The pause before Severus’s first name was still obvious, but not as much as it would be if he had spoken aloud. Severus seemed to appreciate that, from the way that the bond in the back of Draco’s mind lightened. Yes. But I will require you in the lab before then, to show you where the ingredients are that I want you to cast in the cauldron and how fast you should do so. It will be a kind of dance.

“I’m a good enough dancer when my partner helps me along,” Harry said.

Draco didn’t take that as a challenge, though from the way Severus’s shoulders tightened, he might have. Draco nodded to Harry instead. “Well, then. Consider me your partner.”

Harry raised an eyebrow at him. Draco raised one right back, and reached for his soup.

*

Severus stepped out of the way as Potter—Harry carried a large pine branch over. The house-elves had fetched it from the grounds of the Manor. Harry began stripping needles from the branch and letting them fall into the secondary cauldron Severus had set up to contain the fast-brewing part of the potion, his movements swift and efficient.

He whirled out of the way the moment he had placed nineteen needles in the cauldron, because Draco was coming behind him, carrying strips of orange peel and preserved lemon rind. He cast the spell that would scatter them appropriately, while Severus watched him narrowly, his hand on the stirring rod that he would need to move in the first cauldron with its cooling potion approximately now.

As Severus stirred, he kept count of the beats of the rod against the cauldron, as automatically as he counted heartbeats in a stressful situation, without taking his eyes off Draco. But Draco betrayed no weakness, no trembling in his wrists or slurring of words. He would be able to finish his part in this preparation. Severus was certain now.

The heavier part was still Potter’s.

Harry, said Potter, and brushed past him, this time carrying a smaller clump of wild iris that Severus had had preserved under various charms in his store cupboards for a long time. It was every other petal that Harry began to pull loose and drift into the cauldron, exactly as Severus had said he should. Then he paused and cast an Aguamenti Charm at just the right time, too, soaking the ingredients in the cauldron so far with a stream of neatly placed water.

You dance better than you said you did, Severus said, as he finished the stirring and lifted the rod out of the cauldron, then turned his head to count the bubbles that exploded on the surface. With the bond, he could keep easy track of what Harry was doing at the moment, as well as the way that Draco was trundling the cage that held the next ingredient across the lab.

With the bond, Harry echoed, not a mocking tease of his own thoughts but an actual answer, as Severus realized a moment later. Harry dropped the iris on the floor and stepped smartly back and to the right, letting Draco bend down in front of the caged and spitting cat. He trimmed its claws with a flash and thunder of minor spellcraft, and the shavings flew towards the cauldron, caught up in the Whirlwind Charm that Harry cast.

Of course, Severus realized a moment later. They had been relying on the bond to make this possible in the first place, but for some reason, once they were in here and moving in circles around each other, neat steps, precise movements, it seemed larger than that. It seemed like a natural consequence of their harmony together.

The last time it will ever be so.

Yes, was all that Harry said. Draco didn’t respond with anything other than a grunt; he was concentrating too hard on cutting exactly the right amount of claw-shavings from each of the cat’s four paws.

Severus raised an eyebrow and turned back to the potion. The fifth bubble of a particular size had exploded. He lifted the first cauldron off the flame and turned to the second cauldron. Harry had cast a quartered circle, gleaming and made of soft fire, in the air above the second one, and was busy making sure that all of the claw-shavings Draco had clipped off fell through the lines into correct quarters of the cauldron.

I could do more, Draco said, or thought, or perhaps not even that conscious. It was a sullen throb at the back of Severus’s mind. Draco had moved out of the way, drawing the wheeled cage with the cat in it to the back of the lab. They would let it go once they were done with the potion.

I know you could, said Severus, and pressed soothing gentleness down into the back of Draco’s mind at the same time as he sent a small wave of approval towards Harry. Harry turned his head to the side so they could see the neck, and dismissed his flaming quarter circle with an easy wave of his wand. But I did not want to trouble you for blood so soon after you had finished your recovery.

Draco smiled sourly. Or you wanted the more powerful magical boost you thought we would get from Harry’s blood.

Both can be true.

Draco laughed. Severus frowned, afraid that the sound would make Harry start and disturb the steadiness of his hand, but it seemed he needn’t have worried. Harry drew back his hand and flicked his wrist hard, once. The wand drew a long, light line of blood down the back of his left wrist, and blood leaped out of it. Harry directed the drops into the cauldron the same way he had the claw-shavings.

Perhaps the bond was responsible for that steadiness, as well, Severus thought, as he moved forwards to grasp the lip of the secondary cauldron from the left, while Harry took it from the right.

Of course it was. You think I would come into a potions lab without it to guide me?

Severus had the fleeting, rippling thought that he might be capable of guiding Harry in the making of a sufficient potion without the bond, if he would listen, and then together they poured the contents of the secondary cauldron into the first, combining the potions.

The fumes produced on first meeting were dark green and potentially lethal. Severus raised his wand to cast the Bubble-Head Charm, only to find the spell already surrounding his face. It seemed Harry had cast it over all of them at once, and stood with his body partially shielding Draco, as if he believed the fumes would fly over to attack him especially.

I’m not a child, and I would appreciate it if you would stop treating me as one, Draco said sullenly, and shoved Harry aside so that he could watch the mixing of the potions.

The water sizzled, and the air filled with a strong smell of pine resin. The next moment it was, briefly, the scent of irises in bloom, and then came thick copper and ash, salt, baking bread. Harry wrinkled his nose. Pity that it won’t be that appetizing when we drink it.

We can use the bond to overcome any problems of taste as well, said Draco. The way we did the magical exhaustion in the Banishing Curse ritual.

Harry moved his head in agreement, and then they watched again, Harry and Draco knowing from Severus what they should be looking for. A single, spreading ring of gold appeared on the potion’s surface, and Severus tensed. If the gold touched the sides of the cauldron, then the potion would be defective, and they must begin all over again.

But the gold faded before it could get there, into a uniform, smooth, and brilliant green.

Severus nodded twice, once to Harry, once to Draco. Then a third time, for himself. The potion had worked the way he wanted it to, and it would be foolish to hold off on drinking it any longer.

Then let’s, and get this over with, said Harry’s harsh voice in the back of his mind.

Severus managed to refrain from rolling his eyes, although he wanted to. He stepped forwards and reached for the three vials he had laid on the table earlier, scooping them up and handing them out. Harry and Draco’s hands were in the right place to accept them. Draco Transfigured his into a goblet, perhaps simply to show off how much his magic had recovered. Harry ignored Draco as if what he did didn’t matter, instead simply staring into the cauldron.

I believe we should all drink it at the same time, Severus said. He wanted to give Harry first choice in dipping up the potion from the cauldron, but if he didn’t move him soon, he was afraid that Harry would never move at all.

Harry promptly started, nodded, and reached out. He didn’t need the hissed warning that Severus tried to issue, not to dip his sleeve into the potion, but Severus hissed it anyway, because it made him feel better. Then Harry held up his full vial in front of him, and moved aside so Severus could insert his vial and Draco his goblet.

Harry looked at them from the other side of the table. Severus blinked at him. Harry’s hold on the vial was harsh, trembling. He opened his mouth as if to speak, then shook his head and grimly held up the vial to his mouth instead.

The important thoughts he might have stated were all coming through the bond, anyway, Severus thought, and held up the vial.

Drink, he sent through the bond, and Draco and Harry nodded and swallowed the first gulp of the potion at the same time.

*

Harry now knew what it felt like for his brain to be on fire.

The fire seared through the center of his forehead, and made him worry for a mindless moment that Voldemort was back, before he remembered the far more likely culprit. He heard the vial break as he dropped it. He knew another numb second of stupid thoughts, that Snape was going to be upset about it.

Then he remembered to call him Severus.

Then his fingers went cold, at the same moment as the fire surged through his memories. Suddenly he was seeing the copper circle that the Lestranges had imprisoned them in, but it was on fire the way the Room of Requirement had been when he and Draco rode through it on his broom in seventh year. Harry reached back to the memory of the troll he’d fought beside Ron and Hermione, and the troll was surrounded by leaping red-gold flames. He thought of his friends, and they were encircled by fire as they stood waving to him from one of the photos on his mantel.

He didn’t want all of his memories to be consumed, but he had no idea how to fight it, or if he even could now that the potion was free and tearing through his blood. He opened his mouth to shout at Snape—

Severus

And felt two enormous tearing sensations at his temples, to left and right, which sent him to his knees. Harry wrapped his arms around his neck, wincing, silent. The pain was so great it’d stolen his voice as well as his balance, and he didn’t know what he would have said, anyway, as the weights fell away and he found he could breathe.

Instinctively, he still reached out for the bond, to feel if Draco and Severus were in pain, too, and to lower the barriers that kept them from exchanging the full range of thoughts with one another.

But they were gone. And Harry wavered on the floor and ended up falling onto his hands and knees, which reminded him so much of the posture that he’d ended up in again and again when he was doing Occlumency in Snape’s office that he couldn’t help but laugh.

“What are you laughing for?” asked a harsh voice in front of him, a voice that it actually took him a minute to identify, when three minutes before, before the potion, it would have been automatic.

Harry had to turn his head and look, now, to see whether it was Draco or Severus. Or should he call them by their last names, now that they were no longer bonded? No, probably not. They would still be cooperating in the search for Voldemort and whether there was something that could be learned through his scar, and they would probably want the courtesy of being called by their first names.

It was Draco. He leaned back on his heels and stared at Harry, strange and disheveled. Harry wondered, now, how long he had mostly been seeing Draco from the inside of Draco’s own head, so that Harry wasn’t as aware of what he looked like physically.

Harry reached out mentally, snorted at himself, and said, “This just reminded me of another time I kept falling to the floor.” He turned and glanced at Severus.

He, of course, had managed to remain sitting up, or perhaps had simply sunk to the floor in a sitting position in the first place. His face was pale, and sweat had broken out on his forehead, but he inclined his head to Harry as though they were having a polite discussion.

“I believe I share the same memories,” he said, and then glanced at the broken vial Harry had dropped. Maybe Draco had had the right idea, Harry thought, Transfiguring his own vial into a goblet. Severus drew his wand.

Harry tensed, and that was another strange thing. A few minutes ago, he would have known beyond a doubt that Severus was drawing his wand to repair the vial, as he did, instead of threatening him.

But he would have to get used to it, to freedom and loss. He sat up himself and nodded to Severus. “I’m going home. I’ve got to see my friends and tell them what happened.” And enjoy being by myself in my head for the first time in weeks.

The thought was his alone, without an echo. Harry felt his hands beginning to tremble, and clenched them furiously.

“Yes,” Severus said, without blinking. “Perhaps Draco would welcome you back to the Manor within three days? It would take me at least that long to brew the potion I was telling you about anyway, the one that will keep the memories of the Aurors you captured locked in the back of their minds,” he added, for Draco’s benefit.

“Three days is good,” Harry said, and knew that they were looking at him oddly, that he probably sounded odd. He didn’t care. He knew he had to get away from them as soon as he could, and he nodded to them and smiled and stood up and walked out of the room, clutching his wand.

He Apparated as soon as he was beyond the wards. He didn’t even bother to Summon the few things he had brought with him, like other robes. They would come to him as soon as he wanted, or he could leave them there until he came back. It wasn’t like he didn’t have others.

He Apparated to the doorstep of Grimmauld Place and let himself inside, then ran up to his bedroom and slammed the door.

And then he leaned against it and laughed, laughed until his stomach hurt, until his reeling mind hurt, until his face threatened to split, laughed with joy, because he was free.

Chapter Text

“I can scarcely believe it.”

Hermione’s voice was full of wonder instead of real doubt, though, which meant Harry could lean back and grin at her. His mug was full of Firewhisky, his stomach of a good dinner that Molly had cooked in celebration of his announcement. “I’m not going to say it was easy, because in the end, what with brewing the potion and surviving the tortures and kidnappings that we did and all the rest, it wasn’t easy. But the end result is worth it.”

Hermione nodded and smiled at him. She sat across the kitchen table from him, next to Ron. The other Weasleys had gone outside already, for the display of George’s fireworks that was the real purpose of the evening. But Molly had pressed a hand down on Harry’s shoulder first, and murmured how happy she was, and promised to bake him a special cake to commemorate the occasion. Harry was a little afraid of how she was going to decorate it.

“Does this mean that you won’t ever have to deal with the pair of them again?” Ron sounded hopeful as he studied Harry over the lip of the mug. “Pair of gits. They couldn’t leave well enough alone in the first place.”

Harry snorted and shook his head. “I doubt it. I’ll have to talk with them about a few other things. And don’t call them gits,” he added, if belatedly. “They—they weren’t so bad, in the end.”

Ron stared at him, opened his mouth, and then shut it again and shook his head. “I can’t even say it, mate,” he said, and saluted Harry gravely with his mug. “Better you than me. Good for you if you really feel that way, but I remember a time when I think you would have asked us to curse you if you’d ever expressed a similar sentiment.”

Harry turned to Hermione instead of answering. He hoped that she would understand, where no one else did.

From her smile, and half-frown at Ron, it seemed she did. “You shared a bond that let you see into each other’s thoughts,” she said. “That can’t be easy to give up, even if it came from a horrible thing.”

Harry nodded. “That’s it exactly. I keep reaching out with my thoughts like they’re still there, trying to judge how far away they are and what they’re thinking.” He felt his mind move in the right kind of shudder, rippling inside his skull, and snorted. “There it goes again.”

“Do you think they’re experiencing the same thing?” Hermione looked interested in a scholarly way.

“I have no idea,” Harry told her. “Really no idea, now. But you can owl them and ask them, if you like.”

Hermione’s face went pink. “No, that’s all right,” she said, and poked Ron in the side with her elbow to stop his snickering. “I can live without knowing. I just think it was fascinating that a potion managed to part the bonds between you after all, without all the rituals that the books said would be necessary.”

“This bond was unique,” said Harry, thinking again of Draco and Severus and how much he had hated them, and what had happened to form the bond. That particular thing wasn’t something he liked thinking about, but he could see the necessity of his bargain again, and he was willing to do it, now. “Maybe that means that the way we broke it had to be unique, too.”

“I’d still like to know more about the brewing process, to see if I might be able to use something like it to break the bonds that hold house-elves…”

Hermione trailed off as Ron took her hand. “Why don’t you owl Snape about that?” Ron suggested. “He’d probably be willing to share the recipe, and I don’t think that Harry absorbed enough of it while he was in the middle of making it.”

Hermione began to explain why everyone should pay attention to any and all useful knowledge at all times, but Harry saw Ron wink at him, and knew that his best mate was doing this to enable him to escape some of Hermione’s awkward questions. Harry smiled back at him and left the room while Hermione was still trying to convince Ron in an argument she would never win.

Maybe she would owl Severus, and maybe she wouldn’t. Maybe Severus would be willing to share some of the secrets of the potion with her, and maybe he wouldn’t. At the moment, it didn’t matter to Harry.

He went outside, to watch fireworks raining down, shining showers of blue sparks and red ones and green ones. His chest moved with easy breaths, and he could lean on the side of the Burrow and enjoy the show and matter to no one but himself. He could retain, in his head, all the thoughts he wanted.

The night air had never tasted so sweet.

*

“You have slept in disgustingly late.”

Draco shrugged at Severus and dropped into place on the other side of the table. He didn’t bother mentioning that, if he was up disgustingly late, Severus was also very late in sitting down to breakfast. “Toast,” he said to Mizzy, the house-elf who appeared to serve him. When Mizzy frowned at what probably sounded like a scant breakfast, Draco added, “A pile as tall as my head, and drizzled with butter and marmalade.”

Mizzy nodded in approval and disappeared. Severus was making yet another twisted face when Draco looked across the table at him. “Butter and marmalade both at once?” Severus asked, sitting back with his cup of tea. On his plate, Draco noticed, different sorts of crumbs lay separated from each other, as if Severus had cast charms that set up invisible barriers between them.

“Yes,” said Draco. “And I’m probably going to chomp my way through most of them and send bits of food flying. I might even chew with my mouth open. Just so you know.”

Severus applied himself to a study of what looked like a thick black book from the Manor’s library. Draco waited for his food to come before he leaned forwards to study the title. That was in purple-embossed, flaking letters that were hard to read both because of their color and their age. 

The Art of Bonds?” Draco shook his head, and leaned back, swallowing another delicious mouthful of mixed butter and marmalade. “What do you need that for? Or are you trying to find out why the potion worked?” Sometimes Severus created experimental potions knowinghow the ingredients would work together, but then he had to go back afterwards and reason out why his modifications interacted that way.

“Partially that,” Severus said. “And partially, I am trying to figure out whether the bond will cause us any trouble now that it is gone.”

Gone and trouble don’t usually coexist,” Draco pointed out, and dunked a piece of his toast in a swimming sea of yellow and orange when Severus leaned around the book to glare at him. Severus shuddered and retreated from sight again.

“That does not apply to Potter,” Severus said, and turned a page. “He can be gone from the Manor and yet cause us all sort of trouble, as he amply proved during the time of the bond.”

“But he’s not trouble right now,” Draco responded, automatically, before he noticed what else was wrong about Severus’s response, the more wrong thing. He frowned at Severus. “You promised that you would call him Harry.”

Someone less used to Severus would not have seen the pause in the flick of his finger before he turned the page. “Did I? Yes, perhaps I did,” Severus said, and went back to gazing at the book. Draco knew, from the motion of his eyes, that he wasn’t reading.

“He’s not going to be pleased if he comes back in three days and finds out that you’re calling him Potter,” Draco pointed out, and ate another bit of toast. He sighed. The warmth and the sweetness was enough to distract him even from his argument with Severus. “I just hope he realizes I’m still willing to call him Harry.”

Severus laid down the book and gave Draco his full attention. Draco swallowed even though there was nothing in his mouth. Sometimes, when he did have Severus focusing on him, it became difficult to remember why he had wanted to have it.

“This nonsense and chatter about first names was important when we were bondmates and had to cooperate against our enemies,” Severus whispered. “It is less than a child’s toy now. It is a distraction. Why do you persist in it?”

Draco knew Severus well enough to think of one tactic that would work. He forced himself to lean back and shrug casually, stretching out as though this chair was his bed. “All right. Forget I said anything. Just imagine that when he comes back, he’s calling you Snape, the way he always did.”

Severus frowned at the wall. Draco began to eat once more, although he kept an uneasy eye on Severus. It was still possible that Severus would decide to blame the wrong person, Draco, for his mood at the moment, instead of the right person, himself.

“That is a distraction, as well,” Severus murmured. “Yes, perhaps I would feel dismayed, but that is nothing but a distraction.”

“Right,” Draco told his toast. “Like I said, forget I said anything.”

Severus didn’t, though. He sat there, drumming his fingers on the table, and setting up a corresponding ripple in Draco’s nerves. Draco breathed shallowly, realized what he was doing, and forced himself to breathe deeply and ignore Severus. This was not the middle of the war, this was not the Dark Lord’s inner circle, where a single wrong word could cost them everything. Severus was his friend, despite all appearances to the contrary. Draco finished his plate of toast and called for one of kippers.

The house-elf had barely brought it when Severus asked abruptly, “You think that he would be hurt?”

Draco eyed Severus. “Harry?” he asked, just to make sure that they were talking about who he thought they were talking about. When Severus made a sharp, sideways motion with one hand, he nodded. “Yes, he would be. Or he might just decide that he should retreat into calling us both by our last names because we didn’t think enough of him to continue treating him that way.”

“He would probably spare you the condescension.”

Draco shrugged. “I would go on calling him by his first name. That invokes an equal relationship between him and me. I don’t know that he would ever feel comfortable talking to you like you were an equal, but if he did, he would probably go with your last name if you were using his.”

Severus retreated into silence again, and stayed that way for the rest of the breakfast. Draco said nothing, either. He had already said everything that he could say. And perhaps it wasn’t worth persuading Severus on the matter. Draco could hardly feel Harry’s anger or frustration, now, if he did get angry or frustrated by what Severus was calling him. He might hide his emotions well enough that Draco would have no idea what Harry was feeling. And Severus could certainly do that.

If it was important, Draco had made all the efforts he could. It was up to Harry and Severus now.

*

Severus considered the cauldron critically. It was the pewter one in which he had brewed the first part of the complicated potion that had freed them from the bond. He didn’t know if he should attempt to keep the potion that still lingered in it—probably useless by now, since its high temperature had been part of what kept it potent, and it had cooled—or simply clean it out and start anew. Of course, with a complicated and experimental potion like this, he might have to use more thorough Cleaning Charms than a simple Vanishing one.

He was in a moment of delicate, crystalline concentration, which meant he jumped in an undignified way when the owl rapped on the window.

Severus turned and crossed the lab to the owl. He found himself hoping it was from Harry, or Potter, or whatever one should call him. That would allow Severus to be blistering to someone, and relieve some of the strange feelings that crowded under his breastbone and paraded up and down inside his skull.

But when he had convinced the owl to sit on the perch he kept for the birds in the corner of the lab, and had unbound the message that was attached to its leg, he discovered it was no such thing. It was from Granger.

He skimmed past the greeting, which meant nothing in any case, and on to the meat of the letter.

Harry told me that you freed him and you and Malfoy from the bond with the help of an experimental potion. I’d really like to know more about that potion and what it entailed. Would you be willing to send me the recipe? Or a description of the effects, if you don’t want to share the recipe itself? Harry’s told me a little about what it did and what it looked like, which is enough for me to determine some of the ingredients, but not all of them.

Then there was her signature. Nothing more than that. Severus ran his eyes over the letter again and again, looking for some sign that she was not that shameless, but no. She was. She simply demanded his recipe for an exquisite potion, and then sat and waited for him to provide it.

Severus knew he was smiling in nearly an immoral way as he set the letter down. He considered for a second whether Harry would have put Granger up to sending the letter.

But no, he would not have. He might have suggested that Granger ask Severus, but he would not have expected Severus to share the recipe simply because Harry was Granger’s friend. He knew Severus better than that. 

This was the product of Granger’s curiosity, which Severus had never wanted to encourage because he found it too prying, and not specific enough to Potions themselves. Granger would have applied that same curiosity to any subject, and in fact, she had, when it came to solving the little “mysteries” that Hogwarts presented her and her friends with. She had no particular appreciation for Potions. It was only one more kind of knowledge she could cram her head with.

Severus sat down to write a letter that would indeed vent his feelings, without hurting Harry or Draco.

*

“Hermione, are you all right?”

Harry stuck his head out of the bathroom. He’d spent the past few days at the Burrow, rejoicing in the simple feeling of family and camaraderie and the lack of questions from his friends. He knew that Ron was wondering why he didn’t go back to the Aurors, what was happening with the reclamation of his job, but he was good enough not to ask. The more time Harry spent talking and joking and drinking and reminiscing with his friends, the more he wondered how he could ever have missed the bond.

“I’m fine. I will be fine.” Hermione had maybe realized that she wasn’t about to get away with that last lie when Ron was clearly concerned about her. “I just…I should have realized that he was going to do something like this, but I didn’t think…” Harry heard her sniffling. “I thought it was a harmless request.”

What happened? Harry started down the stairs, his heart hammering loudly enough that he couldn’t hear anything else until he was on the ground floor with Ron and Hermione.

They were near the bottom of the steps, Ron standing with his arm around Hermione’s shoulders. Harry caught his eye, and Ron nodded. This was something serious enough that they needed to take time to discuss it alone. Harry Summoned some food from the kitchen, mostly the new, fresh bread that Molly had baked that morning, and they went out into the back garden. No one else was around.

Hermione took one of the chairs across from Harry, and spent some time wiping at her face, as if that could get rid of the marks of tears. Harry felt himself go still as he considered them. He didn’t want one of his friends to be crying. Ever. Especially Hermione, who usually only did it in times of great stress.

“What happened?” he asked. Ron was holding a piece of parchment, but it was already torn almost in half, and he didn’t look as though he wanted to let go of it.

“I wrote to Professor Snape to try and get his recipe for the potion that he fed you to break the bond.” Hermione pressed her hands against her eyes. “I thought it would be useful if we could use it in the future to help other people who were tied by the same kinds of bonds that you had to Snape and Malfoy.”

Harry bit back a sharp sound of exasperation. It was natural that Hermione would think of something like that, and want to help other people, too. He would have thought of it himself, maybe, if he wasn’t celebrating being free so much. “And Snape doesn’t want to give it to you?”

“This is what he wrote back,” Ron said, and handled the torn letter over after all, then leaned across to Hermione to kiss her cheek and whisper something. Hermione shook her head and buried it in Ron’s shoulder.

Harry spread out the letter. The tear down the middle was easy enough to Reparo back together, and then Severus’s familiar script almost sprang from the surface.

Granger-Weasley,

The potion I invented was unique to the case of our bond. It was difficult to create, and I will share the secrets with no one except those who know what we suffered through and helped me to brew it. It is not to be distributed freely to your futile pet causes, the likes of which, if your efforts to help house-elves and werewolves are any indication, will never rise above the level of a schoolgirl’s nonsensical dreams. Were you a true Potions master, or did you have any respect for my art at all, you would know that one does not simply ask another Potions master to share his secrets. One offers a reasonable recompense, measured in magic or coin. Before you attempt to set a price, let me assure you, nothing you could offer would tempt me. Not your meager money, earned as it is with Gryffindor nonsense; not anything magical you could invent, when I am an experienced spell-crafter myself; and certainly not your body. I am surprised that your teeth do not often catch on Weasley’s hair, and that you were able to persuade him to be interested in you at all. Perhaps the misfortune of his freckles made him willing to accept a girl who has never been in the same vicinity as beauty.

He hadn’t bothered signing it. Well, he wouldn’t have to, would he, Harry thought, a little dazed with the viciousness at the end of the letter. It had started out almost reasonably.

Reasonably? I’m thinking of Snape and reasonable in the same sentence?

But he was, and there was even a little twinge of discomfort in the back of his mind when he tried to think of Severus as Snape. Plus, although he was angry with Severus for sending this letter, he was not as angry as he should have been, as he would have been with anyone else who had mocked his best friends.

That worried him.

He looked up from the letter to find Ron watching him with hot eyes. “Don’t even try to defend him,” Ron snarled. “He ought to know better than to write anything like that to Hermione.” His hand tightened on Hermione’s shoulder. “When I find out where he’s hiding…”

“You know he’s in Malfoy Manor,” Harry snapped. “For fuck’s sake.”

Ron lifted his head in a way that reminded Harry weirdly of Nagini. “I said,” he breathed, “that you shouldn’t even try to defend him.”

“It’s not really that,” Harry said, and lowered his head, rubbing his hands over his ears. He almost wished he could cover them completely and just run away, leaving the problems between his friends and his—other people behind. He had no idea what to call Draco and Severus now that they were no longer his bondmates.

But that wasn’t the most pressing problem, and it was just like his stupid brain to distract him with wondering over small things. Harry tugged his mind back to the actual subject with a wrench, and sat up with a gasp. “He shouldn’t have said what he said about Hermione’s appearance. I agree that was uncalled for. And your appearance,” he added, hoping to soothe the fire in Ron’s eyes. “That was also uncalled for.”

“I’m going to hurt him,” Ron said.

“No, you’re not,” Harry said. “Because going over and hexing him would get you hexed. That’s even assuming that the wards on Malfoy Manor would let you in, which I bet they won’t. And then I would be caught in the middle, and—and right now, Severus is the only one who’s got me caught in the middle, and he’s the one I’m going to have to talk to. I’d prefer if you didn’t add to the burden by trying to attack him.”

Ron held his wand tightly for a few seconds, and Hermione tighter. Then he relaxed with a long sigh and said, “I assume you’re going to do something about this?”

Harry nodded. “Of course I am. I’m going to go and tell him off for putting me in the middle.”

“And insulting Hermione?” Ron was looking the scariest Harry had ever seen him. He thought Ron might have been able to jump into a whole nest of spiders himself.

“He won’t care about that,” Harry said, and felt his face burn when he actually listened to the words he wanted to say next. But that didn’t change the obligation of having to say them—and fuck Snape for putting him in this situation anyway. “He’ll care about insulting me, though. About inconveniencing me.”

Ron gave him another piercing look, one that made Harry want to squirm in place. It was only by a supreme effort that he held himself still. He knew it shouldn’t be this way, but it was this way. At least he could trust Ron and Hermione, and he knew that if they stayed here and he was the one who went after Severus, no one would be hurt.

Physically, anyway. And it wasn’t like the mental pain he suffered could hurt anyone else anymore, the way it would have through the bond.

“Fine,” Ron muttered at last, his hand tightening on Hermione’s shoulder until she pulled back and glared at him. Ron noticed and looked a little sheepish. “Just remember that we’ll have to talk, afterwards, and make sure that the punishment Snape suffered is enough.”

Harry bit his tongue, stood up, and smiled at Ron. “I think I can bring back an apology,” he said, and slipped out of the garden.

And if he had to make up the apology, or rephrase one that was given to him as being to Hermione instead…

That was just what he would have to do.

Chapter Text

“Exactly what did you mean by that?”

Severus’s spine stiffened. Once again, he had been lost in a moment of crystalline concentration, his attention on the potion in the cauldron, and his hand rested on a tiny pile of red and golden autumn leaves. He had to add the leaves to the cauldron one at a time, making them drift on the surface before they sank. It required precise placement and control of the muscles of the hand that Severus had worked a long time to develop.

And it seemed he was not to have the pleasure of brewing as he wished to this morning, either.

“What do you think I meant by rejecting your friend’s rude plea for a potion recipe that I invented myself?” he breathed, and cast a Holding Charm on the potion. It was less powerful than a Stasis Charm, but wand magic that had too much of his strength behind it could damage this particular brew. “I thought I made myself clear enough. If not, then I suppose I will need to do something else, so that she knows never to approach me again.”

Footsteps shook the floor of the lab behind him. Severus started to turn, shielding the cauldron with his body. He would not put it past Harry to spill the potion in revenge.

But Harry surged into his face instead, closer than Severus could remember them being since that disastrous day in the copper circle. He tried to retreat. The table pressed against his back, and the rim of the cauldron. He had to hold still, or he risked spilling the potion himself. And that would be a deeper and more venomous wound than anything Harry could inflict on him.

“You knew that writing that to Hermione would hurt me,” Harry said, his teeth barely parting to let the words through. “And her, but I know you don’t give a fuck about her. That was written for me to see. That makes it all the crueler, too. You could have been less rude if you just wanted to get my attention. You thought you’d indulge your spite and get my attention at the same time.”

Severus did have to stare, because he had never thought that Granger would show the letter to anyone, except perhaps her husband. “I did not want to catch your attention!”

Harry curled his lip, and Severus winced as he caught a glimpse of his teeth. “Really? Then why weren’t you surprised that I’d seen it?”

Severus winced again. But yes, perhaps that did have the ring of truth to it. Granger was nothing to him. Her requests and letters were nothing to him. He would have ignored it if—

If there was not some deeper reason that he had for writing such a piercing letter, one that demanded a response. Weasley or Granger would not have been able to get through the wards on the Manor to hex him. Harry could slip through them at any time.

“Perhaps the letter was meant for your eyes,” he conceded, admitting what he could barely admit.

“Why say that to her?” Harry’s voice hadn’t wavered, even though he had forced Severus into confessing part of his vulnerability. “Why hurt her so badly? What the fuck do you want? I thought we parted like—I mean, as well as we could when everything was so fucked up. And you’d made that bargain to brew that forgetting potion and help me in the investigation with Voldemort.” He utterly ignored Severus’s flinch; this close, Severus could not delude himself into thinking that Harry had said the name only to enjoy his humiliation. “Why did you do this? You could have put what we’re doing in danger. I thought that finding out whether he’s really coming back was more important to you than hurting me.”

Severus clenched down a hand on the chair behind him. He couldn’t retreat, and in a duel, Harry might best him, because he would use Dark spells without hesitation. He did have the chance to wield truth as a weapon, however. “Because you are still important to me, and you should not be.”

Harry eased back, his brows rising. “Do you mean that the bond still exists for you?” he asked, shaking his head. “I don’t see how it could; that potion we drank was pretty specific about ending it, for me. I know that I can’t feel any trace of you or Draco.”

“No,” said Severus, and closed his eyes. He knew this would be humiliating for him, and he would have given a great deal to be elsewhere. But he had brought this situation upon himself, or at least one could argue that he had. So he would endure through the consequences. “I mean that I still spend too much time thinking of you, wondering why you are not here, weighing my actions with you in mind. I should not do that.”

Silence. Then Harry said, “You mean that you did—you did something you thought would bring me back, and something that would make me think about you as much as you were thinking of me?”

Severus sighed. Spoken aloud, that was even more humiliating than he had thought it would sound. “Yes,” he said. “You need have no fear that I will do it again. The result is not what I hoped.” And let Harry imagine what the result was going to be, since Severus had no intention of describing it.

Silence, and more silence. Then a hand touched his shoulder. Severus grunted and opened his eyes, determined not to move away, even if there was a fist heading for his face.

There was only a complicated expression. Severus could not have read it even with the bond. He thought. The certainty that would have made him more comfortable had fled with the kind of certainty that would not.

“I think this is something we need to discuss with Draco,” Harry said, and turned and led the way out of the lab.

It had to be leading, because Severus was following. That was obnoxious in and of itself, but not as obnoxious as having Harry stand there and continue to talk into his face was. Perhaps this was the simple consequence, rather than the complicated one, of his decision.

At least with Draco, he would have a third person to share the burden of Harry being here with.

Is it a burden? When you missed him enough to reach out and write a letter that you knew couldn’t help but catch his attention?

Severus immediately rejected the thought. Harry and Draco would probably interpret this as a sign that he had missed Harry, but he need not do it to himself..

*

“Three days have really flown past,” Draco said aloud, laying his book aside, when Harry and Severus trooped into the library. It was better than some other things he could have said, and better than the introduction he thought one of them would have given to the matter otherwise.

“They have,” said Harry, and settled down near one of the shelves that wasn’t far from the door, leaning against it but not sitting. “How have you been using your freedom?”

“Reading, a lot,” Draco said. “Thinking about what I can do now that the Lestranges are gone, and whether there are any other Death Eaters out there who might want to target me. I suppose it’s not possible to let word of what we did to the Lestranges spread? A little bit? That would give my enemies a second idea about trying for me.”

“I suppose it might be possible if we could somehow confine it to Death Eater circles,” Harry said. “I don’t think that would work, though. Someone in the Ministry would pick it up, and there goes my chance of not getting arrested for Dark magic.”

“And we know that some of the Death Eaters had connections in the Ministry because of the way that Aurors helped Rabastan and Rodolphus.” Draco sighed and pushed the book away. “Well, it was a good idea while it lasted. What brings you here?”

“Severus wrote a letter to Hermione.” Harry turned his head to look at Severus, his face so opaque that Draco wondered if he had learned a lot about concealing his emotions just from being around two Slytherins for a while. Then Draco wanted to snort. Right. It was more likely that Draco had got too used to reading Harry’s emotions through the bond and was lost without it. “A hurtful letter. Here, read it. I want all of us to be working off the same page.” He held out a piece of parchment towards Draco.

Severus turned his head as if he would object, and then leaned back more heavily against the door. That was unusual enough in itself that it made Draco open the letter. He wanted to shake his head, he wanted to tell Severus that this was a stupid way to get Harry’s attention and get him back here, but done was done.

Draco skimmed the letter, sighed, and laid it down. “I can see exactly why you came here,” he told Harry, and then faced Severus. “You know that was stupid to do.”

Severus’s mouth set in a way that promised no good to Draco for saying that. But he said, “It was not—I did not do it out of hatred for Granger.”

“Right, I know,” said Draco. He held Severus’s eyes and wished that Severus would look at him more fully. Draco had seen this before. Severus had wanted to protect Draco during his sixth year, when Draco was doing his impossible task for the Dark Lord, but he had thought the best way to do that was to annoy Draco and follow him about and drop dire hints without explaining the truth. Now, Draco knew it was because of the Unbreakable Vows and Severus’s desire to preserve both his own life and Draco’s. But at the time, all it had done was make Draco more determined to succeed. He might not have let Death Eaters into the school at all if Severus hadn’t made his temper flare.

“That does not make it any more excusable, you would say.” Severus’s mouth was rigid and the line of his neck looked painful.

“No,” said Draco. “It doesn’t.”

He and Severus held glances long enough that Draco became sure Harry would interrupt, but he didn’t. When he looked over, Harry was standing there passively, his face blank and his eyes taking in both of them at once.

“Did you come here seeking to make it up to Granger?” Severus asked the question with his mouth quirked in a way that made Draco roll his eyes. Of course Harry had come here for that reason. Ridiculous to think that it would come back for them.

“I came here to get an apology,” Harry said, and he was speaking with more energy now, although his voice remained soft enough that it was hard to hear it. “And to tell you to stop putting me in the middle by insulting my friends. They would do the same thing if they’d insulted you. I wouldn’t like that, either.”

“Putting you in the middle of what?” Draco asked. He hadn’t thought that Weasley and Granger were still holding onto House affiliations so strongly. “A war between Gryffindors and Slytherins?”

“Between two sets of people who are important to me,” Harry said. Draco paused a moment to admire how diplomatically he had phrased that. “I don’t want it to happen. I would prefer that it didn’t.” He looked at Severus. “Ron was on the verge of coming here and trying to batter his way through the wards. I said I would come instead and collect an apology. So. Will you please tell me you’re sorry, and then I can take that back to them, and that’ll be the end of it?”

“I thought we were going to investigate the Dark Lord’s return together,” said Draco, before Severus could speak. “That’s hardly the end of it.”

Harry blinked at him. “I meant—the end of this particular problem. I didn’t mean that I was going to walk away and never come back. If nothing else, I still need the potion to use on the Aurors that Severus is going to brew for me. And to get the Aurors out of your cellars.”

He tried a smile. It looked faltering and weak, and Draco knew trying his own would probably result in the same thing. He shook his head and sighed. “So we’re no longer bonded, but we don’t really know what kind of connection we have now. That’s normal. It doesn’t mean that we secretly want the bond back, or something.”

“I know,” said Harry. He glanced at Severus. “And you can send me an owl instead of hurting one of my friends, to get me to come back.”

Severus had a very peculiar expression on his face, Draco thought. Maybe this was a genuinely new situation for all of them, one that even Severus had never seen before. That would be comforting. Draco wouldn’t be alone then.

“I will—you may tell Miss Granger that my purpose in writing that letter was not to harm her, and that I should not have…said certain things,” Severus finally said. “But I will not give her the recipe for my potion.”

Harry snorted. “At this point, I don’t think she would take it if you offered it to her along with the credit for discovering it.”

“That, I would never do.” Severus cleared his throat a second later. “So she need not ask for it again, either.”

“She won’t, don’t worry about that,” said Harry, and then went on waiting.

Severus grimaced. “What do you want, an apology in specific words? I do not think I can give you that, either. You know the real reasons I did this. I hardly think Miss Granger would appreciate being reduced to someone else’s appendage. But if you told her the truth, that is what she would feel like.”

Harry blinked, an arrested look on his face. Then he said, “You don’t need to worry about who else I’m going to tell about your real reasons. My friends have to know, but that’s because you reached out and involved them in this stupid situation in the first place. So you don’t need to worry what Hermione feels. She’ll understand the truth. That’s more important to her than how independent she is in someone else’s eyes. I’m going to tell her the real reasons?”

His voice rose at the end, and he stepped away and turned, so that he was looking at both of them at the same time. Draco was glad Harry had remembered he was in the room. This was in danger of becoming something too private between Harry and Severus. He wished that Severus had asked him before he did something like this, because Draco could have thought of a less explosive way to invite Harry back to the Manor, and he also wanted Harry not to forget there was a third person involved in this who might have ideas of his own about Harry’s friends.

Not that Draco had any such ideas to add right now. He thought Granger probably did need the apology, but he didn’t want to spend too much time on her or Weasley. If Severus gave her an apology, neither one of them would owe Harry’s friends anything. And Draco was intent on keeping his debts as small as possible from now on.

Except the ones that could no longer be avoided. That could be a source of positive pleasure.

*

The moment had already gone on so long that Harry could feel hope dying in his heart. Severus could have said something before now if he was really going to send the apology. So Harry would have to do what he had privately resolved to do and make one up.

He didn’t want to do that. But God, he was so sick of all this, Severus’s insecurities and feeling caught between two versions of himself and the need to keep going back and talking in new, uncomfortable ways about his new, uncomfortable ties with Severus and Draco. If he could come up with something that solve the problem in front of him and give him some peace to think, he’d take it.

Severus finally shifted his gaze so that he was staring at a point on the bookshelves next to Harry instead of directly at Harry himself, and said, “You may tell Miss Granger that I did not mean the insults on her appearance.”

“She won’t believe that,” Harry pointed out, his mind alive with the time at Hogwarts when Severus had insulted Hermione for the size of her teeth.

“Very well,” said Severus, and lowered his voice still further. “You may tell her that I—apologize for doing it, and will not do it again.”

Harry hesitated, wondering if Ron would accept that, then shrugged again. He thought it was the most he was going to get out of Severus, and that made sense. He had already pushed further past Severus’s barriers than he’d thought he would.

“Thank you,” he said, and nodded to Draco. “Let me know when you want me to come back to discuss those potions and our next hunt for vengeance.” He moved towards the door, wondering if Ron and Hermione would still be out in the back garden of the Burrow. It would be convenient if they were. Harry wanted to tell them what had happened without anyone else in the family overhearing.

“Wait.”

Harry stared at the thin black line in front of him. It was Severus’s arm, extended to bar his way. He sighed and stood still, only rolling his head back on his neck to look up at Severus. “What now? I promised that I’d come back for the things you need me here for.”

Severus lowered his arm, but said nothing. Instead, he glanced over Harry’s shoulder at Draco.

Draco made a soft sound that might have been amusement. Harry thought he would have known, when they had the bond.

Then he grimaced at himself. Of course I would have. That isn’t enough of a reason to wish for it back.

“I think that what Severus means is that you’re here now,” Draco said. “And in our own way, we have missed having you around.”

“All right,” said Harry. If he said it slowly, it might seem less strange than it did. “But I still don’t understand what this has to do with me leaving to go back to my friends. They’d probably get nervous if I was gone for much longer, anyway.” He knew that Ron had said Harry could go to the Manor and handle Severus, but he had forgotten promises before when he was in the middle of anger or worry about a friend, and this time, it would be both. “I need to tell them what happened.”

“All right,” Draco said in return. “And if you sent them a Patronus or an owl, they might feel that you were choosing us over them.”

Harry stared at him. It would have made sense for Draco to pick up on that with the bond, but without it…

In the end, he shrugged and went with the opening Draco had given him. “I don’t think they’d believe that, exactly, but they might come here. I don’t want them to. I don’t think it would be a good idea for anyone.”

“Including you,” said Severus, his voice back to neutral.

“I’m one of the people under consideration, yes,” said Harry, and had to smile at the look on Severus’s face. What, did he think that I was placing myself at the bottom of the list or something? He really has changed from thinking that I’m selfish all the time.

Well, but so had he changed from the days when he only thought about the effect the bond had on him. 

“So I’m going back to the Burrow for today,” Harry continued. “I think that I’ll probably be able to convince them that I’m not under mind control or intimidated by you or anything best that way. But I’ll come back tomorrow, if you want me to.” Draco nodded; Severus didn’t move one way or the other, simply watching as if he thought that he couldn’t influence the outcome.

“Good.” Harry took that for enough of an invitation, when Draco was the one who owned the house. “What time?”

*

“That was strange.”

Draco offered the comment so neutrally that Severus knew it was up to him to respond, or not. For the moment, he sat there, staring at his hands folded on the table in front of him, and said nothing.

It had been strange. From the confrontation with Harry in the Potions lab, to the fact that he couldn’t simply let Harry walk out of the door once he had his apology. And Severus understood his own behavior, and understood Harry’s motivations, and did not have the fear that Harry would laugh and gossip with his friends about Severus behind his back. 

It was so strange to understand all that, and particularly to be without fear when he had handed someone else so vulnerable a part of himself.

It gave the lie to what Severus had hoped was the truth after they had drunk the potion and ended the bond: that the changes to his life because of the bond had not been permanent. If he could trust James Potter’s son that much, and even give an apology to someone he did not care about, someone he had insulted, then he had changed after all.

Carefully, he turned the conclusion around in his mind, looking at it the way he would the first idea for an experimental potion, pointing out the flaws to himself before he committed to days of theorizing and ingredients-gathering and brewing. Was the change a negative thing? Would it affect his ability to produce good potions? To remain safe in the world, now that the Lestranges were gone? To participate in this investigation he had promised Draco and—Harry he would help them in?

No, he decided at last. That meant the change existed, but it wasn’t negative. Severus could not call it positive, either, when he throbbed with discomfort because of it, but at least it would not cripple him.

“Finished, now?”

Severus glanced up, startled, and saw, from the way Draco focused on him, that he had at least understood the general outlines of what was going on in Severus’s mind. Severus nodded and stood. “I had several things to think about, but I believe I have put them in their proper places,” he said. “For the moment, I would like to go to the Potions lab.”

Draco smiled. “Of course, Severus. And would like to check the wards on the cellars one more time, and make sure that the Aurors are really secure now.” He nodded to Severus and left the library. Severus listened to his footsteps fading in the direction of the staircase.

Draco might have died during his second capture by the Lestranges. He might have been badly hurt. All of them might have died during that first capture, if Harry had not been a virgin and made his bargain with the bond.

No matter how uncomfortable this was…

It is better.

Chapter Text

“Snape really apologized?” Ron asked for the fifth time.

Harry sighed and sipped again at the Muggle beer that he had stopped in London to purchase. He wanted something he could drink without paying much attention to it for this conversation. Maybe he should have remained alert, without a drink of any kind, but he didn’t want to. He wanted a cushion between him and the world to keep him from snapping at anybody, including himself.

“Yes, he did,” said Harry. “He didn’t want to. He tried to get around it in all sorts of ways. But when I threatened to leave and not pay attention to him anymore, then he did it.”

Ron sat up, slowly, the way he did when someone accidentally let slip the important clue that might lead to them solving the mystery. Harry blinked at him, then around at the house and the garden. Hermione had gone inside after the second time Harry had said that Severus had apologized. Harry thought she probably believed him, didn’t want to hear about it anymore, and wanted some time alone. He could understand all of it.

Especially when Ron was staring at him in a way that implied Harry had done something wrong.

“He never would have taken you not paying attention to him before as some sort of threat,” Ron whispered. “He would have been glad about it, if anything.”

“I know,” Harry said. “The bond changed a lot of things.” It had also changed the way he felt about them, changed Snape and Malfoy into Severus and Draco, but Harry didn’t think Ron would like it if he tried to discuss those things with him. “But as long as it makes him pay attention and means that he won’t say anything else like that to Hermione and you—or write it to you, whatever—then I’m happy.”

“I’m not.”

Harry sighed aloud this time, the way he’d wanted to sigh many times since this conversation began, and flopped back in his chair to stare at the stars. He remembered barely anything from Astronomy, now. It wasn’t a subject that had much use for most Aurors. He just knew that the stars were pretty to look at, and right now, they weren’t exasperating him the way his best friend was. “What now?” he asked. “If you think that he should apologize in person or something, that isn’t going to happen.”

“I just mistrust his obsession with you.” Ron said the word “obsession” seriously, and went on looking serious even when Harry shot him a blank, expressive look. “He didn’t apologize because you made him see sense or because he upset Hermione.”

“When would you expect Snape to apologize for anything like that?” Harry demanded, sitting up.

“I wasn’t expecting him to apologize at all,” Ron said. “And that makes it all the more worrying that he apologized just because you were upset with him.”

Harry shook his head and waved a hand. “I don’t think it was really that. We’d planned to work together. He wants to show off his potion-brewing skills to me. And he also wants to know if it’s true that Voldemort could be coming back. Of course it concerns him, when he still has the bloody Dark Mark on his arm—”

“Stop giving me a load of bollocks, Harry.”

Harry looked down into his beer, and did so. “I don’t know what you want to hear. It’s true that he apologized because he wanted me not to be upset with him. It’s true that he wouldn’t have done that before the bond. But the bond happened. It’s not like I can go back and make it not have happened.”

“I didn’t expect to see you so friendly with people who raped you.”

Harry’s fingers tightened on his drink until he thought he might throw it at Ron. And Ron was still his best friend. He released the hold instead, and made his voice be calm. “It’s a little more complicated than that.”

“I don’t see why.” Ron laid his hands on his knees. “Maybe you feel differently about them now that they’ve helped you, but—”

“That’s exactly it,” Harry interrupted. “That’s it exactly.” He wasn’t going to go into all the different permutations of the bond and the strange things that had sprouted out of it with Ron. He wasn’t sure that he could, that he remembered it all, anyway, and it would embarrass Severus and him. Draco would come out of it looking the best, but Harry still found himself as reluctant to share private things Draco had said with Ron as he would be to share private things about Ron and Hermione with them.

This is so weird. But like the weird things he had gone through with the bond, he just had to live with it.

“I wonder if the bond affected them differently than it did you,” Ron said finally, leaning back in his chair. “I mean, they seem to miss you in this strange way, but you don’t seem to miss them at all.”

Harry shrugged. He wasn’t about to get into that, either, how oddly his mind jerked and shuddered sometimes, reaching for companions who weren’t there, people he wanted to check on or scold or share a reflection with. 

“Well, all right,” Ron said. He had waited several minutes, but he sighed now and seemed resigned to the fact that Harry wasn’t going to respond. “But tell us if they’re taking too much of your time. Hermione and I will come and get you out of there.”

Harry nodded politely. He had no intention of telling Ron or Hermione any such thing. He hoped that Hermione would be okay with the apology, and not ask Severus about the potion again. (Well, at least that wasn’t likely to happen). “Thanks, mate,” he added, because Ron seemed to be waiting for something more, and reached across the table to shake Ron’s hand.

Ron smiled and looked back to normal. Harry was glad one person was.

*

Draco paused. Then he stepped back from the sleeping Auror he had been investigating and drew his wand.

So far, the others all seemed secure under the hold of Severus’s potion, and he hadn’t found any break in the wards or sign that someone was armed or could slip in and help them wake up. But he had been searching them for wands, and encountered a slip of paper in a pocket that bent with a crackling sound. He’d tried to take it out of the robe pocket, and a defensive spell had sprung up, shimmering above the pocket.

Now, he carefully examined it. Protective spells were harder to attach to clothing than they were to something like stone or wood, because cloth shifted around all the time and protective spells wanted stability. But this had been done by someone skilled, forming an arc like a white rainbow with beads of brighter light sliding back and forth along it. 

It all seemed a lot of effort to go to if all the Aurors had wanted was a defense against pickpockets.

Draco set about finding a way through the protective spell. Again, it took longer than it should have, with him trying different combinations of charms and unlocking spells and ward-destroying hexes until he saw a dimming in the outline of the white rainbow. Then he pressed his wand forwards and right against the side of the rainbow, and spoke a hex that he had first learned to combat improperly set wards that would keep him from moving between rooms in the Manor.

A final spit and sparkle, and the rainbow vanished. Draco sighed, paused a while longer to make sure that the unconscious Auror was really unconscious and wouldn’t move, and then cast another spell that would warn him of traps. That gone by without incident, he reached in and took out the piece of parchment.

It proved to be a mess of random letters and numbers. Well, maybe less random than it looked, Draco conceded, studying the placement of them with a fascinated eye. It was probably a code. 

He didn’t know how to crack it with a few quick skims, though. He ended up putting it in his pocket and turning for the stairs. Severus was good with all sorts of mysteries and puzzles, even if he focused mostly on potions. He could help Draco with it.

*

Severus laid the final stirring rod aside, and shook his head. Brewing the forgetfulness potion to use on the Aurors had been more difficult this time than it had when he last brewed it. He must be getting old.

Or you have too many other distractions on the brain.

Severus grimaced. He had to admit that was the most likely culprit. Every time he thought he had them subdued, images of Harry would show up in his brain and look at him with raised eyebrows, or images of Draco being tortured by the Lestranges. Severus almost wished that all of them could have been taken that time. Then he would know he had had some part in breaking Draco free.

He would not care about your guilt, and neither would Harry.

That at least was true. Severus bottled the potion with a tap of his wrist, moving all the liquid from the cauldron to the flask with a single spell. Most potions couldn’t stand that sort of rough treatment so soon after brewing, because it would cause the ingredients to separate again and become blobs drifting near the surface, but this potion was thicker than many others. Severus hoped that it wouldn’t cling to the drinkers’ teeth and tongue this time. That sort of thing made it difficult for it to work properly.

“Severus?” 

He glanced over his shoulder. Draco stood in the doorway of the lab, expression patient. That meant he was concealing impatience, of course. And Severus owed that knowledge to the years that he had taught and scolded and indulged and befriended Draco, not to the bond, which made it peculiarly precious.

“You found something?” He knew Draco had gone down to check the Aurors again today, but he had not expected that Draco would discover anything new when the wards had been sturdy and holding them yesterday.

Draco grinned at him, and Severus half-shook his head. He was imagining what a similar smile would look like on Harry’s face, which was a ridiculous supposition. Harry did not have to smile like that for him.

“Is this a bad time?”

That attunement he and Draco had to each other after years of working together, and survival during the war, and which the bond had only briefly ruined. Severus said, “No. I was thinking of something else. What did you find?” He held out his hand, a silent command Draco should know better than to disobey.

Draco’s return look was too wise for his years, but at least he took out the parchment and gave it to Severus without fussing.

Severus swallowed, and did not show how close he felt to having the wind knocked out of him. “This is a code I have not seen in years,” he whispered. “I thought the Death Eaters had given up on using it when it was deciphered it during the first war.”

“I thought it had something to do with the Death Eaters,” Draco said, with rough satisfaction. “But why use it at all, if it was deciphered?”

“I suspect that few of the Aurors who participated in breaking the code are in the Ministry now,” Severus said absently, looking all over the parchment for the beginning of the code. There it was, the soft curve under a capital G that looked like a flowing part of the Q beneath it unless you knew what you were looking for. “Or perhaps, if they are, they were part of the group that took Potter and the coincidence of the code proved fortunate for them.”

“Harry.”

Severus felt the muscles creaking in his neck as he looked up. Draco looked him dead in the eye, and refused to back away even when Severus gave him what he thought was his very best sneer. 

“I beg your pardon?” Severus finally asked, when he couldn’t avoid the words any longer. He knew perfectly well what Draco wanted to say, but he didn’t think that it was important enough to waste any more time on.

Apparently, Draco disagreed. He gave Severus a smile that was no smile. “His name is Harry. You agreed to call him that. The last time he was here, he called you Severus. I don’t want to see you reversing your given word before a Gryffindor does.”

Severus closed his eyes. “My given word has mattered little to me. I have been forced to break too many of the promises that you want me to hold sacred.”

“The most important promises, like the one that you told me you made to Harry’s mum, you never broke,” Draco whispered. “You kept the one to my mother. You kept the one to the Headmaster. So don’t push this away because of that.” He paused, during a time in which Severus felt no obligation to open his eyes, and then continued. “Does it help if I refer to it in a different way? Not as keeping your given word, but as being consistent with yourself.”

Severus considered that carefully, eyes still closed. Yes, he could see it. He wanted to be at least Harry’s equal. And he wanted to concentrate on important things. Little distractions, little irritations, like calling Harry by the wrong name, or writing taunting letters to Granger, turned him aside from the important ones.

“Fine,” he said, opening his eyes. “Harry was kidnapped by Aurors who had associations with Death Eaters. We already know that. This code is likely the same as the one I knew. And I can decipher it.”

He turned away to begin doing that, focusing on the G that the curve indicated as the first letter of the message, and tried to ignore Draco’s proud smile.

*

“You’re sure that this potion will work on all the Aurors?” Harry tilted the flask that Severus had given him back and forth. He didn’t miss Severus’s wince as he did that, but he ignored it. He was hardly going to drop the thing and shatter it. He had to admit, though, that the potion didn’t look like much. Just dirty tea. “Even the ones that might have protections against Occlumency or Legilimency in their minds?”

“Where did you get the idea that Occlumency or Legilimency could protect you against potions that influence the mind?”

Harry put the flask back on the table and shrugged at Severus. “Something I heard in Auror training.” He changed the subject before Severus could open his mouth and blast and damn such bloody superstitions as Aurors got trained in nowadays. “As long as you’re sure it’ll work, then we can use it now.”

“One moment,” said Severus, and nodded to Draco, who came forwards and held out a piece of parchment to Harry. “Draco found this coded message in the pockets of one of the Aurors yesterday. Beneath it is my transliteration of the code.”

“The Auror was a ginger fellow,” Draco added helpfully. “Probably a secret Weasley cousin or something.”

Harry rolled his eyes at him and took the code. As far as he could see, the letters were a jumbled mess, but then he began to see the soft curves beneath certain ones, which Severus had written in a certain order at the bottom of the page. “What do the numbers mean?” he asked absently, studying the letters himself, trying to figure it out before he looked at the translation.

“They tell you how many letters the next word has.”

Harry lifted his head with a frown. “Then why doesn’t the message start with numbers, instead of letters?”

“Because the man who invented it was not as great a genius as he thought he was,” said Severus, as dry as Harry had ever heard him be. “He expected us to begin with letters, follow the curves to the next ones, and be able to recognize the word’s ending and the point where we needed to switch to numbers.”

“Oh,” said Harry. “So Vol—”

Yes.”

Harry held up a defensive hand. “Sorry,” he said, but he thought it did make a certain amount of sense. Of course Voldemort wouldn’t want someone else creating a code that his people would use. It might make them less than totally dependent on him, and he couldn’t havethat. “So. Okay.” He tried to sweep his eyes along the curves, following them from letter to letter, but it was difficult. So many of them seemed to be parts of other letters, and sometimes he thought he was looking at a nonsense word, only to realize that it was probably the beginning of another one.

“Will you just look at the translation, Harry?” Draco murmured suddenly. “You don’t need to prove you’re smarter than Severus.”

Harry stiffened his back against the insinuation, but Severus said nothing, which made it easier to just look at the bottom of the bloody page.

Great opportunity. Can capture Potter dazed and reeling. Mind affected. Bond to Snape and Malfoy. Bring implements for ritual circle.

Harry’s hand tightened on the parchment. “That reduces the number of suspects considerably,” he whispered.

“Exactly,” said Draco. Harry looked up to see him leaning forwards with his hand on the table, his eyes ravenous. “How many people knew that you’d suffered mental affliction as a result of being captured by the Lestranges, instead of just wounds? How many people even knew about the bond to me and Severus? Not many.”

Harry licked his lips, sick with fear for a second. He wouldn’t suspect Ron or Hermione of betraying the secret, not for a moment. They were his friends, and he would trust them forever and to the ends of the earth.

But Kingsley? Maybe. Harry was coming to accept that a lot of the Aurors he knew, like Nelson, had other loyalties and ideas in mind than helping to support Harry as a member of the Aurors.

Then he thought of an even more likely candidate, and the breath went out of his lungs. “How much experience would you have to have with ritual circles and torture and bonds to recognize the possibility of me being dazed by something like this? Or realizing that it might make me mentally vulnerable?”

Draco looked at Severus, who shrugged with one shoulder and said, “Much? I thought there had been no bond like ours in the annals of the literature.” Even now, even here, he could work up a nasty tone, Harry thought. At least now he knew that nasty tone wasn’t directed at him. “That must mean that the bond would be hard to recognize, hard to predict in its effects.”

“But not impossible, not as long as you knew that a bond existed?” Harry asked again. His heartbeat was fast enough to make him dizzy now. He ended up leaning against the table. Draco frowned at him. Harry shook his head and straightened up. “Because if that’s so, then I think I know who betrayed me. Us. And if the Aurors could learn that code from Death Eaters, then someone who’s not an Auror could learn that code from them.”

“But it was Aurors who captured you, who betrayed you,” said Draco sharply. “You knew that much.”

“We were looking for the person who could have told them about my bond and figured out that I’d be snooping around in the Ministry rather than just believing my story,” Harry reminded them. “And one person who could have is that Healer who examined me right after the rape.” His face burned. “She knows in intimate detail exactly what I went through. And she asked me all these details about the ritual circle.”

“What is her name?” Severus’s voice was low. He had his head bowed, his fingers flicking among the vials, as though he was looking for something.

“I don’t know,” Harry admitted. “I wasn’t in the frame of mind to pay attention to details like that at the time.”

“Then we will find out.” Severus lifted his head, and Harry took a step back. As much as he and Severus had argued before the Lestranges took Draco, he thought he hadn’t ever seen the real Professor Snape, Potions master and Potions monster, before now, at least since school. Here he was. “It will not be hard to discover the name of the Healer who tended to Harry Potter after his latest capture by Death Eaters.”

“Maybe it will,” Harry said, arguing back out of habit more than anything else. “Not many people know that many details about the capture. And I’d like it to stay that way.”

Severus’s eyes glittered. “But the records will be available at St. Mungo’s. And I do have some contacts there.”

“People you sold potions to?” Harry guessed, but Severus’s blandly superior face said that he wasn’t about to reveal their names to Harry. Harry shrugged. He couldn’t resent that, could he. “Fine. And maybe I’m wrong.”

“I don’t think you are.” Draco’s eyes were distant, fixed on the wall. “It doesn’t answer the question of why that Healer would want to betray you, but at least we have a clue.”

“Um, thanks,” said Harry. The praise made him want something to do with his hands, so he picked up the parchment again. Severus would kill Harry if he touched one of the precious vials. “And the potion is ready to feed to the Aurors now?”

“I already said that,” said Severus.

Harry shrugged. “All right. Am I going to go and feed the potion to the Aurors while you contact the people you know at St. Mungo’s?”

He realized a second later that he was asking for orders, as if Severus was one of his instructors in the training program or an Auror of senior standing, and stifled a sigh. Yes, it made him feel stupid, but that was the way things were working out, and it was better to follow his instincts than struggle against them.

“I think that you and Draco are going to go together to feed the Aurors the potion,” said Severus. “I need only write a letter, which will not take me much time, and will involve no contact with dangerous persons. But you should not be alone when confronting your enemies.”

“All of them are senseless right now,” Harry pointed out, watching Severus out of the corner of one eye in case that made a difference. It didn’t seem to.

“And likely to wake up in a not-so-distant future. Some of them may wake up when you pour the potion down their throats.”

“In which case I have my wand and I can Stun them.”

“It doesn’t make that much difference, does it?” Draco interrupted. “It’s not like I mind going along with you. Unless you mind having my company.”

Harry scowled. “Don’t start that kind of game again. I don’t mind having your company. Just like I don’t mind Severus writing to St. Mungo’s.”

“Then why are we still standing around here and arguing?” Draco asked, and moved towards the door.

Harry followed him, scowling only slightly. He had the impression that Draco and Severus had somehow slipped around him, or stolen a march on him.

Oh, well. It’s not as though I’m really uncomfortable with them doing that.

Chapter Text

“Hold that one’s head, will you?”

Harry mutely held the head of the prisoner Draco had indicated, watching as the thick, murky potion flowed into the man’s mouth. For a moment, he snorted and acted as if he would start awake, but Draco reached out and massaged the Auror’s throat roughly. He swallowed, then moaned and fell back against the floor.

“So the Dreamless Sleep Potion will still hold them for now?” Harry had to admit to cursing himself when he realized that he hadn’t asked Severus that question. The answer would have told him whether he had to keep leaping at shadows or not. He had already drawn his wand twice since they had come down into the cellars, and that only because he saw the shadows of Draco’s movement out of the corner of his eye.

“Yes,” said Draco, and shook hair out of his face. His expression was unexpectedly brilliant and direct. “What did your friends say when you took them Severus’s apology?”

“You want to know that?” Harry froze, and Draco had to reach over and tap his wrist to get him to let go of that Auror and move on to the next one in the line.

“Yes. I want to know if we’re about to be invaded by an angry Weasley assault. Is it so strange that I’d ask?”

“I just thought you wouldn’t be interested enough to ask,” Harry said, and shook himself, and applied his brain to the actual problem. “Ron didn’t believe the apology at first. I made him believe it. I think Hermione accepted it faster.”

“And so no invasion is imminent?” Draco heaved Stockwell out of the line, frowned at her, and nodded at Harry. “I think we should give her a double dose. It won’t hurt her, and she was the one who was in possession of the most secrets and masterminded that ritual they were going to use on you.”

“All right.” Harry arranged himself so that he could comfortably hold Stockwell’s head and pry her jaws apart at the same time. “No, no invasion. Hermione wanted the apology, I think. She wants to think that Severus isn’t such a bad sort and she could get along with him.”

Draco paused as though he thought that was strange again for some reason, but poured the potion down Stockwell’s throat before Harry could ask about it. Then he did a second dose and stepped back, looking up and down the line. “I think that we’ve done everything we can here. They shouldn’t remember anything, including their original plan to pin you down in that ritual square and ask about the Dark Lord.”

Harry grunted. “Good.” He briefly regretted not using Veritaserum on more of the Aurors, but he thought Stockwell had been the leader, and they had used it on her. They could view the Pensieve memory if there was something important they were forgetting. He turned towards the stairs.

Draco followed him, closely. Harry glanced back at him in irritation. “You know, you don’t need to constantly baby-sit me. I know that Severus thinks I get into danger all the time, but he and you have got into your fair share of it, too.”

Draco said nothing. Harry rolled his neck to ease a few of the twinges of pain in it, and added, “And you’re not bonded to me anymore, so it’s not like you can feel what I do.”

A soft smile slid across Draco’s face. “Is that the only reason you think we might follow you about? How funny.”

Harry stopped on the stairs and turned around, nearly causing Draco to fall backwards down the steps. “Stop with the bloody Slytherin mind games,” he snapped. “Stop with the staring and the riddles and so on. Maybe I would have understood what you meant with the bond, but it’s gone, so I don’t. Just say what you want to say.”

“Have you ever considered that it’s not that simple?” Draco folded his arms. “If we’re going to reduce everything to House traits, Gryffindor forthrightness isn’t always the solution, either.”

“No, but it’s faster.”

That made Draco smile again. “Fine. So it’s obvious that all of us are having a hard time letting the bond go. Severus hasn’t even left the house yet, and there’s no reason for him to stay close to me at all times. And you wouldn’t keep coming back here if you couldn’t stand us.”

Harry shrugged tensely. Despite everything, he hadn’t expected Draco to come out and say it like that. “Okay. But once we get through the investigation into if your Dark Mark is coming back to life, then we won’t have any reason to be around each other.”

“The bond’s over, true. However, have you considered that its emotional effects don’t dissipate so fast?”

“Well, yes,” said Harry. “Of course. Otherwise, we would have wanted to go our separate ways before now.”

Draco sighed and looked at the ceiling for a moment. “And we don’t, and we’re still concerned about each other, and Severus wrote a whole mocking letter to a friend of yours he never would have normally spent a moment on because of the lingering effects,” he said. “So the concern that you’ll fall into danger is more of the same sort of thing.” 

Harry stared back. He had considered that, of course he had, but he had thought it was too straightforward for a Slytherin like Draco or Severus to admit to. Maybe they could admit they were concerned about him if they had a million hours, ten thousand bottles of Firewhisky, and a locked room they otherwise couldn’t get out of. However, what they did in reality was write taunting letters to Hermione, and let Harry force apologies out of them.

But Draco was different from Severus. And he was looking at Harry with the same sort of patient glare that he often used on Severus. Harry didn’t want to be classed as stupid or stubborn.

“Fine,” he said. “Thanks for letting me know. That doesn’t mean you need to follow me so closely you trip me up on the stairs.”

Draco snorted behind him, and Harry turned and climbed again, listening to the sound of Draco’s footsteps. Sure enough, he dropped back a little, and let Harry have the literal space to climb in peace. 

Bewilderment still rang at the back of his mind. Did they think that more of those Aurors were going to Apparate through the wards of the Manor and grab him?

On the other hand, no one could have predicted that Harry would have his ribs almost torn out of his chest because of the bond, or that the Aurors would grab him in the first place to do a knowledge ritual.

Better safe than sorry, I suppose.

*

Severus looked up when Harry and Draco came into the library. Harry was still glancing at Draco in a way that told Severus a significant conversation had taken place. Severus held back his immediate inquiry. He thought that matters would improve all the more for being left alone until Harry was ready to speak.

“You have administered the potion to all the Aurors?” he asked, laying his Prophet aside. There was still nothing in the paper about the Lestranges, about the suspicions of the Dark Lord returning, about Harry retiring from the Aurors, about anything. That was all to the good. Severus did not want any whisper of this to get out. It was bad enough that their enemies had known enough about the bond to hurt them with it.

“No, we thought we’d leave a few unmedicated for fun and profit,” Harry snapped, and flopped into the chair that Draco had used the last time they were in the library. “Of course we did.”

“And you haven’t heard back from your contacts at St. Mungo’s, of course.” Draco took a perch on a high stool that he used most of the time for reaching chained books that he couldn’t Summon, inspecting Severus’s face.

“Not yet,” said Severus. “I do not think it will take them very long. They value my potions more than they value protecting the privacy of one particular Healer. And as long as I insist that they leave her punishment up to us, they will see no reason to become involved.”

“That’s what it’ll be, won’t it?” Harry murmured to himself, and tapped his wand against his knee. “Punishing her for what she did to us.”

“If it turns out that she did in fact do it,” said Severus. “She might be innocent, as hard as that is to contemplate.”

“It’s harder to contemplate Kingsley turning traitor on me,” said Harry.

“But you have plenty of practice in thinking about hard things now, after being with us,” said Draco, and only shrugged when Severus tried to give him an eloquent look to tell him to shut up. “You’ll have to face the possibility, if it comes up.”

“I never said I couldn’t.” Harry’s glare looked like a Paint-Stripping Potion. Draco didn’t appear to be affected. “Just that it’s harder for me to think that a friend might really have turned against me.”

“And against us,” said Draco. “And against the concept of justice, unless you think that we deserved to be tortured by the Lestranges because we’re Death Eaters.”

“You know I don’t fucking think any such thing.” Harry bounded to his feet and turned away from them both to pace across the library. “How are we going to get the Aurors back to the Ministry without being suspected?”

Draco opened his mouth to say something, but Severus frowned him down. Draco sometimes went too far in the name of “honesty,” which he said he’d needed to practice since the war and so thought everyone around him should also practice. Severus disagreed. At the moment, he was in the mood to pick at Harry, and it was needless.

Draco leaned back, shrugging. That left the burden of the answer on Severus, but he had had time to think about that problem and the solution, so he did not mind giving it. “We will turn them loose with their wands at a great distance from the Manor. They can Apparate back to the Ministry or to their homes on their own. I rather think that most of them will choose to go home first. That will make the reports, as much as they can remember anything to report, suspect and scattered. And that, in turn, will make the Ministry less likely to come close to the truth.”

Harry halted and gave him an intensely grateful glance. Severus chose not to acknowledge the snort Draco gave. Draco could have come up with this himself if he was less involved in teasing, or Harry if he had less to think about.

“All right. Should we all take them to individual places, or leave some in small groups?”

“Take them to individual places,” Severus said. “The forgetfulness potion will wake them up slowly, counteracting the Draught of Living Death, but only over days. We can leave them in deserted places hidden or in places they are likely to be found, whichever we prefer.”

“Deserted places,” said Harry, at once. “Otherwise, someone might find them and think they’re in a coma and take them to St. Mungo’s, and the more people do that, the more of a consistent pattern they might notice.”

“Meanwhile,” said Draco, “I think we should do a mixture. That’ll make it harder to notice the pattern at all.”

He and Harry glared at each other. Severus sighed and pinched the center of his forehead. “You’re right, Draco. The scattered pattern is less likely to result in detection. Now, Harry, are you angry at Draco for a reason, or not?”

“Only because he keeps acting like I’m idiot and haven’t even considered the possibility that Kingsley is betraying me.” Harry went back to prowling around the library. “And because he told me that you and I and everyone else are suffering emotional aftereffects from the bond. I know that.”

“But you’re not coming up with plans to deal with the possibility. What are we going to do if Shacklebolt betrayed you after all? Or are you still determined to ignore the fact that we care for your safety?”

“I’ll deal with them as they come up!”

“Children,” said Severus, in the mild tone that never failed to attract Draco’s attention. It attracted Harry’s too, and made him bristle, but at least that was better than persisting in this futile argument with Draco in which, Severus thought, they did not even substantially disagree. “Yes, we need only consider possibilities that Shacklebolt is the traitor if we uncover definitive proof that the Healer is not.”

Harry shot Draco a triumphant look, which disappeared as Severus went on, “The problem of being emotionally entangled after the bond, if it is a problem, is here right now, and must be dealt with now.”

Fine.” Harry swung around again. “Look. I don’t mind if you’re concerned about me. I only mind when you do stupid things like writing the letter to Hermione. But when I leave here and go back to—well, I can’t go back to being an Auror, but go and do whatever I’m going to do to replace that, it’s probably going to be dangerous. You can’t follow me around all the time and prevent me from getting in trouble, okay? My friends live with it. If you want to think you’re my friends, you will, too.”

“I don’t think we’re the same as your friends,” said Draco, with a frown that Severus knew meant he had thought about it deeply, however mocking it sounded on the surface.

“Right, you’re not,” said Harry, his face looking like he really wanted to slap someone but was restraining his hand. Severus was started to find that he recognized the expression; then again, perhaps he had seen it often when Harry was in school. “So it’s even more imperative that you realize you can’t keep me from doing things.

Ah. Severus understood much better, now. He moved, enough to draw Harry’s attention to him and away from Draco’s mouth, which was, unfortunately, opening again. “We are not trying to keep you from doing things.”

“Good,” said Harry after a moment. “Then what’s the catch? Why do you care if I go down and feed the potion to those Aurors or not?”

“Because we care about you,” said Draco, and walked his fingers down the arm of his chair, shaking his head. “I already said this.”

“But you’re talking about following me around and not wanting me in danger. That sounds like trying to keep me from doing things.” Harry had folded his arms and seemed in serious danger of turning his back on them. Should he do that, Severus thought it unlikely they would manage to attract his attention again.

“We may not be your friends,” said Severus. “That does not mean we will not be concerned when you dash into danger. We may not be bonded anymore. That does not mean we will try to hold you captive.”

“So it’s something in between, is what you’re saying.” Harry sat down again, which Severus considered progress, and looked from one to the other of them. “Maybe it’s something that really doesn’t need a name.”

“A name would help us talk about it,” Draco began.

“But would make it more embarrassing, perhaps,” Severus cut in smoothly, identifying one of Harry’s concerns, since he shared them. “Yes, we need not name it. Only accept that we would like to know when you go into danger. Taking the Aurors to individual locations should not involve it, or should involve an acceptable amount of risk. Otherwise, I would not have proposed it.”

“As long as you want to know and you’re not going to do anything to stop me.”

“I still don’t understand this obsession with risking your life,” Draco muttered, shaking his head. “You’re free now. You don’t need to go back and be an Auror like your friends might have been expecting. Why wouldn’t you want to go off and try something else? Something that doesn’t involve danger at all?”

“Because being an Auror was important to me.” Harry narrowed his eyes. “That’s over now, but not through any choice of mine. So I want to do something that’s as like it as possible.”

“Very well,” said Severus, cutting short another discussion that he suspected would be mainly mocking on Draco’s part. Harry had stated his objections; Draco understood them, because he was not stupid. Whether or not he could argue Harry out of them was not something worthy of being tested, in Severus’s view. “Then we will wait a bit longer for news from St. Mungo’s to arrive, and then we will begin to take the Aurors to a list of locations I have already made up. That is acceptable?”

He glared at Draco, who rolled his eyes but nodded, and Harry, who was already nodding. “The owl wouldn’t try to follow you if it doesn’t come before we leave? Because someone might notice a man with an owl going after him in a Muggle area.”

“St. Mungo’s owls are well-trained and fast flyers, but even they cannot keep up with an Apparating wizard. One that missed me would be far more likely to wait at the Manor for my return.”

Harry nodded, and for a few moments they sat in silence. Draco was looking at Harry with a complicated expression that Severus could not divine and perhaps did not wish to. He was no longer absolutely sure about what Draco wanted from Harry, the way he would have been with the bond, but he thought that that way lay danger.

So tense was the atmosphere that Severus was not surprised to see Draco almost leap out of his chair when the owl knocked on the window. A second later, he shook his head and went to fetch the owl, bringing it inside and taking the parchment off its leg.

“Let me see it first,” Severus commanded, extending his hand. “My contacts are shy and sometimes overly literal. If I must be able to tell them with truth that I read it first, it is a distinction worth preserving.”

Draco sighed soundlessly, but brought the letter to him. The bird, meanwhile, had circled off and perched on the edge of a high shelf, beak buried in its breast feathers as though it hadn’t had rest in ages.

“Open it, then,” said Harry, leaning forwards like a hound about to take off in the chase.

Severus gave a little shrug, the only sign of irritation he would show, and then unrolled the scroll. There was only a single name in the middle of the parchment, which Severus hoped was the one he had asked for. Sometimes his contacts’ shyness, so useful in other matters, got the better of them.

“Irene Tarriash,” he read aloud. “I am not familiar with the name. Does it have some sort of significance to you?”

He glanced at Harry and Draco both, but Harry was the one who drew his eye, even before he bared his teeth. There was a deep glow in his face, the very lines of his face, that made him fiercer.

“Oh, yeah,” Harry breathed out. “Yeah, I suppose I should know who a Tarriash is.”

*

Draco enjoyed watching the way Harry’s face had changed. Harry had been intent on Severus and what he would say, but he was also tapping his hand on his leg. Part of him was distant from this, Draco thought, already focused on the trials they would go through taking the unconscious Aurors to various locations. 

But now he was as focused as a lion ready to leap on prey. He almost caressed the parchment, his eyes deep and alight. Draco wanted to move around to the side to see the expression better, but Severus asked a question and changed Harry’s face before he could. “Why should you know a Tarriash?”

Harry gave them both a sour smile and put the parchment down. Draco sighed out a little. “Because the first arrest I made on my own was of a Dark wizard named Herman Tarriash who had been a suspect in several other crimes, but had managed to make those investigating Aurors think he’d been unfairly accused.”

“How did you capture him when those others had failed?” Severus sounded a little disgruntled, or maybe disbelieving. Draco didn’t know why. Seeing Harry in this mood, it seemed perfectly obvious to him how Harry had managed it.

“Because I was patient enough to keep watching him even when we were supposed to have given up and left him alone.”

“I believe that is illegal.” Severus sounded more amused than anything else as he reached out to take the parchment back from Harry.

Harry shrugged, relinquishing it. “Nothing wrong with watching the things someone does in public, and the people they choose to visit, and the shops they patronize. I never even followed him into a shop. It was enough to put the pieces together, and prove that he was familiar with some places and people he’d claimed not to know anything about. But his family would not shut up about it. How dare I arrest one of them, and so on.”

Draco frowned. The way that Harry was describing the family made them sound like one of the pure-blood ones with enough power to throw their weight around, but he’d never heard of them. “Who are they?”

“Muggleborns who only marry other Muggleborns, but then all of them take the same name, no matter who marries who,” said Harry. “They say that they have an illustrious founder. I don’t know, I’ve never heard of him. All that mattered was that we did catch Herman, and manage to connect him to a bunch of other crimes, and he’s spending a lot of time in Azkaban now.”

“I wonder that you didn’t recognize this Healer, if you knew Tarriash,” Draco said. He knew, from the way Severus frowned at him, that he was being provocative, but again, that was on purpose. He wanted to see the way Harry’s eyes widened and filled with fire.

He got his wish, but mostly because Harry was glaring at the past, he thought, rather than him. “I never saw her. But I heard the name. She’s his sister. It makes sense that she would blame me for it, even though she should really blame her brother and all the Aurors in general.”

“If you were primarily the one who handled the case, the way she chose to blame you makes sense,” Severus cut in. “But in the meantime, we need to discuss how to track her down. I would be surprised if she’s still in the open.”

“Really? I wouldn’t.” Harry shrugged. “She took the risk of coming up and treating me without a glamour or anything, and she couldn’t have disguised her trail that way if one of your contacts was able to tell you that she was the Healer of record. No, the Tarriashes are arrogant. She probably thought I would never find out the connection.”

“We have the motive, then,” said Draco. “And we know where she’s likely to be. Do we really have to wait to go after her?”

“Yes,” said Harry, giving him a surprised look for the first time since the conversation began. “I can’t just march up and arrest her anymore. I have to hide and watch her, and learn her routine, and—”

“I believe this is the place where we demonstrate our difference from your friends,” said Severus. Draco caught on to what he meant immediately, and smiled. “We do not have to accept your going into danger or become Aurors. We will simply go with you.”

Harry hesitated.

“She betrayed us, too,” Draco pointed out. “I don’t think she cares that much, but she did. We thought we would be safe behind the wards, in the safehouse. We weren’t. Is it really so strange that we would want revenge?”

Harry lifted his head. “Of course not. Let’s go, then.”

“A modicum of planning is still necessary,” said Severus in a half-strangled voice, and stood up, and left the lab.

Harry blinked at Draco, who shrugged casually back. He had to struggle to hold his laughter in, but it was exultant laughter, not mocking. 

It would just be difficult to explain that to Harry.

Chapter Text

Severus raised a hand for silence as they came towards the entrance of St. Mungo’s. Harry paused, then nodded and lowered his wand. They weren’t going to march in and arrest Tarriash as if they were Aurors, but neither would they simply burst in and kidnap her in a whirl of limbs. They had to plan.

The problem was that Severus and Draco seemed to have some sort of plan, if the number of vials clinking in Severus’s robe was any indication, but they hadn’t bothered to explain any of it to Harry.

“What do you think we should go for first?” Harry whispered, careful to keep his voice low. He only hoped no one would show up to go into hospital and think they were doing something strange. “Healer Tarriash’s office, or her current location?”

“How well do you know the layout inside?” Severus jerked his head at the front entrance, his hand tightening on what could have been his wand or a potions vial.

Harry rolled his eyes. As long as they told him the plan eventually, he was willing to play along with their secretive little games for now, and it was true that they had as much investment in seeing Tarraish punished as he did. “Fairly well. I’ve been here a lot, and visited the various wards when we had to interview witnesses or escort sick prisoners.”

“Very well,” said Severus, and Harry couldn’t decide for a second whether that was a response to his question or a declaration of how well Severus knew the layout himself. “Then we will go to Healer Tarriash’s office.” He motioned to Draco and himself. “You will seek her out. I think she will want to see you.”

“Yes, that’s probably true,” Harry said, as dryly as he could, and won a smile from Severus before he turned and glanced at Draco. “What are you going to do to her when she and I get there?”

“Severus is the one who came up with the plan, and not me,” said Draco in a fake-modest voice, casting his eyes down.

Harry snorted and turned around again. “All right, mastermind. What then?”

“I think you can imagine what will happen then without the need for words.” Severus touched something that was definitely his wand this time and glanced at St. Mungo’s as if he was imagining all the many ways that the Healers inside might try to shield Tarriash, and the ways he wouldn’t allow her to be shielded.

Once, Harry would have shivered and felt sorry for any person that Severus Snape was looking for in that way, because it would probably have been him. This time, it was weirdly comforting, like knowing that you had a cold north wind at your back that would strike at your enemies alone.

Draco was comforting, too, but since Severus seemed to be in charge of this particular escapade—and maybe he needed to be, to make up for what he perceived as his failure in battling the Lestranges—Harry would defer to him.

“Fine,” said Harry. “I’ll send a Patronus if something happens and Tarriash doesn’t want to come with me.” He strolled towards the hospital.

Draco caught his arm and leaned in. “How dangerous do you think she’s likely to be?”

Harry turned around, taking his arm from Draco but also catching his eye in turn, and smiled. “I thought you were willing to let me take the risk and find out. And thank you for that. It means that you won’t be hovering over me all the time.” He paused for an artistic moment. “Or did Severus come up with this part of the plan, and you just realized that I might have to take a risk? Quick, dissuade me from it!”

Draco stared at him long enough that Harry thought his tactic might backfire, but then he snorted and stepped away. “Go on, arse.”

“Thank you,” said Harry, with a smile that he made sure included Severus and was as sincere as possible. Because he meant it. It was a lot for them to let him walk away and into danger, at least based on the way they’d been acting when he was around the captive Aurors.

That’s what will have to happen, if we’re going to survive as friends, he thought, as he trotted into hospital. They’ll have to trust me to take risks, and I’ll have to trust them to work with me and keep their word.

Put like that, he thought he could do it.

*

Severus looked around the office they had found their way to. It had gleaming bookshelves and a desk and a chair. Everything, except the chair’s cushioned seat and the books on the shelves, was made of steel. Even the files that lay on the desk reposed inside replicas of folders made of steel.

“Compensating for something, do you think?” Draco asked, casting the round of spells that would guarantee they didn’t trip into one of Tarriash’s traps.

Severus shook his head in silence, and continued patrolling the office, not touching anything. It was unusual, certainly, but he had learned the lesson during the war. You couldn’t always rely on someone’s personal belongings to give a true picture of who they really were. For that, you needed their expressions and body language.

Of course, a written confession of the reasons behind Tarriash making this betrayal would also help. But there were things one could expect to find, and things one could not expect to find.

“Severus.”

Draco’s voice made him turn very quickly, his wand in his hand. Draco was staring at a book on the shelf nearest the door. A complicated swirl of pink light that Severus recognized had manifested around it.

“Interesting,” Severus breathed. “Why would a Healer use that particular hex to defend a book, no matter how valuable?” He moved towards Draco, and cast a few spells of his own, mostly private ones he had developed, to make sure that the light indicated the curse he thought it did. The pink glow only deepened, which meant Draco had discovered the right answer.

The curse was one that would turn all the body’s defenses against itself. The healthier a person was, the faster they would sicken; their blood would burst out of their veins, their brains’ acuity would curl into paranoia that stung like a scorpion, their immune system would tear itself apart. Severus had never heard of a Healer using it.

They might know it, because they had treated it or seen its effects, but using it was a different matter.

And to protect a book, the kind of thing that someone might have brushed a hand against innocently as they came in the door? It was mad.

“We have to break through,” said Draco, coming to the same conclusion Severus had, although the gleam in his eyes made Severus suspect that Draco was more eager to tackle the curse than he was.

“Or we have to wait until she is here, and capture her, and interrogate her about what the book contains,” said Severus, but his voice was faint. He was measuring the distance between himself and that pink light.

“You know what it contains.” Draco looked at him sideways with that look that said he knew Severus was being deliberately difficult.

Severus said nothing. Yes, he suspected that the book might contain a description of a bond such as the one they had survived, or the twisted ritual that would produce one. But they could not be sure, and it was a silly risk to take for less than complete certainty.

“How could she know that the outcome of the ritual would be this bond, before we knew it ourselves, and when it was unprecedented?” he asked again. “The Lestranges did not know. They meant us to die, not to survive with a strange bond.”

“She could have looked it up afterwards.” Draco had walked around so he was looking at the book from another angle, through the pink light instead of straight at it. “This isn’t a book I recognize. Severus…”

“The bond is over now. We don’t have to worry about finding every possible book on it.”

Draco glanced at him, and Severus flushed. Yes, very well, he still would like to know if such a bond would have lingering emotional effects, and if everything they felt was natural. He was not sure that he would do much about it if he did know, but he wanted the option.

“There is still no saying that the book will contain that. Or that it will contain information we want to know.”

“You were the one who used to tell me that I should want to know more than I should want to hide,” Draco said. “Do you think I can get rid of this curse, or will you tackle it?”

“I will tackle it,” said Severus at once. He didn’t want Draco getting hurt because of the curse on the book, and he wouldn’t know how to handle it in the way that Severus did. “Stand back, and make sure you have something to shelter behind if this goes wrong.”

“Is that supposed to be reassuring?” Draco muttered, but he willingly took shelter behind the desk.

Severus moved to the side, and spent a moment examining the book. Yes, the curse extended all the way around it, instead of only resting on the cover, as would usually be the case. Unusual, but pointed. Tarriash really wanted to make sure that no one touched the book, and she was willing to risk the death of an innocent to get away with it.

But also a point of weakness. The curse was made to cover a flat surface. Extending it all around a three-dimensional object like this…

Severus raised his wand. He thought for a moment of checking for spells on the office that would detect the use of Dark Arts, but dismissed it. His own created spells did not fit within the parameters of the Dark Arts unless someone who didn’t know them wanted to assign them the label. They were spells no one else knew.

He brought his wand down and to the side, so that the tip brushed the pink light. He heard Draco gasp. He ignored it. He knew what he was doing.

As the light began to surge out, disregarding the wood of the wand and trying to make contact with his flesh, he murmured, “Rumpere.

The unusual form of the word and the light that danced from the wand and the curse as they met made Severus have to move backwards for a second. He thought that it might not be enough to counteract the curse.

The next spell was already rising up his throat when Draco made a surprised little noise and said, “I think it worked.”

Severus took a step back and considered the book in front of him. Yes, the pink glow had stopped, and it did seem as though the book was calmer than it had been. The sense of lingering Dark magic had dissipated.

“Well, then,” he said, and reached out and laid his hand on the book’s cover, reveling, just a little, in Draco’s choked cry of warning and the way he stumbled to his feet.

But nothing happened. The book sat still, and nothing stung his palm or flicked against his magical core. And blood didn’t start running out of his ears and nose, and he didn’t start sneezing hard enough to break his ribs.

Severus nodded in satisfaction, and opened the book.

He scanned the index and found the listing for bonds. The book as a whole appeared to be about unexpected magical effects when it came to common spells and rituals, but the section on bonds was reassuringly thick.

He found a few places with bent pages, and began to read. But then Draco, who had been standing near the door, raised a hand warningly, and Severus began to pay attention to more than the words in front of him.

“So good of you to take time out of your day…”

Severus didn’t stay to hear the answering words. That was Harry’s voice, and that one recognition was enough. He put the book back on the shelf and slipped over to the side of the door, with Draco. His hand was on his wand. Draco took the opposite side from him and smiled at him, lifting his own wand.

It reminded Severus of the ritualized movements they had done together to be rid of the Lestranges, and he had to blink and shake his head, hard, to clear the haze of memories and focus on the present. He had the impression that they would be able to do little against Tarriash unless they focused.

The door opened.

*

It hadn’t taken Harry long to find Healer Tarriash. From the look that came into the eyes of the people he questioned, most Healers knew who she was and regarded her with a trembling, amazing amount of fear and awe.

She was working on the Spell Damage Ward, studying a teenage girl whose hair appeared to have turned into orange tentacles. Harry eyed the hair for a second, wondering what curse could have done that. Then he snorted. He thought he recognized the aftereffects of the Hair-Clipping Hex cast by someone drunk.

Tarriash looked up at the sound. Her mask really was perfect, Harry thought. She showed nothing but a thin-lipped smile of pleasure on seeing him, and she nodded.

“You probably came to talk to me for a good reason, Auror Potter,” she murmured. “Just give me a few more minutes to figure out what happened here and how to reverse it.”

“The Hair-Clipping Hex?” Harry offered. He reckoned it wouldn’t be too suspicious if he offered help. Tarriash probably thought he had come to her for the “help” she had promised him after she had investigated his damage from the rape.

And the eagerness with which she had listened to the details of what happened with the torture and the ritual circle…

Harry’s stomach tightened with disgust, but he kept his face bland and his hands empty and loose. Yes, it was disgusting, but he had come this far, and he wasn’t going to ruin the best chance that he and Draco and Severus had.

“Cast by someone with some impairment?” Tarriash took a step back and studied the girl again. Harry didn’t miss the way the girl’s shoulders tensed up at the guess, and neither did Tarriash. “Keeping quiet because you want to hide the name is one thing,” Tarriash told her. “Or because you want to hide that you were out drinking Firewhisky. But keeping quiet on the cause just means you’re here longer.”

She was really good at this, Harry thought. At being a Healer. At encouraging people to confide in her.

It made him wonder whether they had the right traitor after all. But Tarriash was at least someone with a motive. And if she knew a lot about bonds and ritual circles, then she might be able to help them in a different way, if she hadn’t betrayed them.

The girl confessed what had happened after that, and even came close to detailing the true circumstances, by Harry’s estimate, rather than exaggerated lies for effect. Tarriash nodded, and clucked, and gave her a potion that would begin the process of reversing the hex, and took her to a room to sleep off the dizzy side-effects of the potion. Then she turned and came back to Harry.

“You’d like to talk to me?” she asked, and lowered his voice self-consciously. “About what we discussed last time?”

Harry nodded. “Can we do it in your office, though? I don’t want everyone in hospital to hear about it.”

“Of course,” said Tarriash, and her smile was thin and triumphant and broke her mask for a second. Her eyes were so eager. Harry’s doubts quieted. It was her, and she wants to hear about me suffering.

They made their way down the corridor and towards Tarriash’s office. Harry made sympathetic and soothing noises about dragging her away from her work, and Tarriash made soft little sounds about how it was nothing when she might help the Great Harry Potter. Harry thought his own smile was getting progressively tighter, but if Tarriash noticed, she wasn’t going to ask questions.

They stepped into her office, and Harry couldn’t keep himself from jumping when Severus’s voice spoke a Stunner from the right side of the door. He had thought that Severus and Draco would set up a more complex ambush for some reason.

Tarriash turned fluidly towards the Stunner and raised a Shield Charm against it. Then she tried to shriek. But Draco had already cast the Privacy Charm that would keep any sound from escaping the office. Harry smiled at him and moved around near the bookshelves, silently assessing the properties of the office. No obvious escape route other than the door, although he supposed it was possible that one of the shelves could swing round and uncover a hidden passage.

“Auror Potter! Help me!” Tarriash blocked another spell from Severus and turned towards Harry, her eyes wide.

“The way that you wanted to help me bear the consequences of the trap you set up?”

Tarriash’s eyes hardened, and she didn’t waste any time pretending she was innocent. She simply sprang straight for Harry, her wand lashing out. Harry set his feet and raised a Shield Charm of his own.

One of her spells went through it, but only one, and Harry leaned his head back so that it just clipped his earlobe and made a bit of blood flow. The way Draco hissed about it was really unreasonable, but at least the punch Draco then planted in Tarriash’s midsection got her attention.

Severus finally cast his Stunner and landed it in Tarriash’s wheezing face as Harry Disarmed her. Then Draco marched up to him and examined his earlobe with a frown that caused Harry to roll his eyes.

“It doesn’t matter how small the battle is, you still contrive to get wounded.” Draco lifted his wand and healed the wound as though Harry had asked him to.

“Contrive, as though it’s on purpose.”

“It might as well be, given that you’re a trained Auror and could guard yourself against danger better than you do—”

“Children,” Severus said, the same way he had when they were in Malfoy Manor and he wanted to disrupt a squabble.

Harry winced at the noise. He hated being called a child, and that was probably why Severus did it. At least Draco had shut up at the same time, and Harry could touch his earlobe, feel that it was fixed, and nod to Draco in a thanks that didn’t require words.

“Fine,” he said. “Now that she’s Stunned, what are we going to do? Interrogate her here, take her somewhere else and do it, or just take revenge on her?”

“She has a book that was heavily protected against intrusion, with a curse that would kill anyone who touched it.” Severus picked up a thick book and tossed it to Harry, ignoring his struggles to catch it. “I looked at it, and it does contain information on bonds, although I did not have time to read them in detail. It is important, I think, that we ask her what she meant by it and the betrayal—what she thought would happen as a result of the betrayal—rather than simply killing her.”

Harry blinked, and nodded. He flipped quickly through the book, finding the few worn and bent-down pages, and began to read.

telepathic bond can be disrupted in extraordinary ways by simply introducing one more person to it. Regrettably, this kind of research cannot be performed with most humans, and creatures such as house-elves do not have enough mental similarities to wizards to make good test subjects. What little information is available suggests that disruption of a ritual could produce a lasting bond in the following manner.

Harry skimmed the next few pages, feeling sick. The author of the book seemed to discuss the various ways that you could torture someone into accepting a telepathic bond and the times it wouldn’t work as opposed to when it would with calmness. Even interest. If that was the sort of thing that made you “Dark,” a word the author mentioned more than once, then Harry knew he wasn’t, no matter how much he liked to use Dark Arts spells.

He slammed it down, and Severus nodded. “I believe that we should interrogate her here. Even on the chance that she merely found the book after she learned from you about the bond, she deserves to have some questions asked of her.”

“Fine,” said Harry, and swallowed. “Do you have some Veritaserum, or does one of you know some good interrogation spells?”

*

Draco had to admire the way that Tarriash came back to life. The moment Severus revived her, she sat up in the chair they’d bound her to, and looked down at her arms. She seemed to know already that, although the bonds weren’t visible, they weren’t going to break if she jerked on them. 

She looked up, and smiled at Harry first, then at Severus. Draco clenched one hand, down at his side where it wouldn’t matter and wouldn’t be seen. The smile said, at least to him, that she thought she had something on them because they had suffered first, whatever they might do to her in retaliation.

“So,” said Tarriash, and shut her big brown eyes, which Draco might have thought handsome in another situation, with a little sigh. “The Auror who arrested my brother for nothing and the Death Eaters who walked free when they committed far worse crimes than Herman’s want to talk to me?”

“Not the way you might think,” said Severus, and glanced once at Draco. Draco nodded. Severus had asked both him and Harry if they were all right with one of the spells Severus wanted to cast, and it was like Severus to check again with Draco, given what Draco had gone through with causing pain during the war.

Tarriash’s words were as good as a confession, though, and Draco had suffered at the hands of the Lestranges twice. He could lay even the second kidnapping at her feet, if he thought about it. The Lestranges had wanted to see what the bond was doing to Draco, and tried to use the bond as an instrument of torture against Harry and Severus.

Dolor veritatis,” Severus whispered.

Tarriash’s eyes opened, probably because she didn’t recognize the incantation. The invisible bonds around her glowed for a moment, and then settled back into invisibility again. Tarriash turned her head in several different directions, and seemed to pause when she didn’t feel any further restrictions on her movements.

“What was the point of that spell?” she asked finally.

“Lie and see,” said Severus. “Now. How much information did you give to the Lestrange brothers, and how much of the pain that they inflicted on us did you plan for?”

“Nothing—”

Tarriash screamed, abruptly, and her head slewed sideways as though someone had slapped her. Draco saw the long black mark, like a burn, show up on the side of her neck. It faded a second later.

“Yes,” said Severus. “Lie, and you will suffer. Do you want to answer the question again?”

Chapter Text

“There are people who will punish you for this,” Tarriash whispered, sagging against the bonds that held her to the chair. Her voice was faint and harsh. 

Severus watched her in silence. He judged that now she was fairly beaten by the power he had shown her and would answer truthfully. She seemed to think that she would be able to do that, then be set free, and come back and have vengeance on them later. 

Severus was not about to do that. He had learned from the Lestranges’ mistake in leaving them alive and functional. Corrupting someone with a telepathic ritual might be all well and good in theory, but more practical was killing your enemies once they had ceased to be useful to you.

“I am sure that you would like to think there are,” said Severus gently, and moved a step forwards. That made him the one Tarriash’s eyes focused on. He let them. He would do what he could to protect Draco and Harry from being noticed, even by someone who wouldn’t survive the interrogation. “Now. What part did you play in the betrayal of the safehouse wards?”

Tarriash tensed her muscles, and said nothing. A second later, she moaned, and stared down at her legs, which were trembling.

“Did I mention the secondary consequence of the spell, which inflicts more pain the longer you take to answer?” Severus asked softly.

The glare she gave him probably contained more hatred than she had ever mustered against Harry. Severus nodded patiently back. Then he waited, and the trembling grew pronounced, and Tarriash finally huffed out a short gasp of agony and replied.

“I didn’t know anything about the initial plan the Lestranges made.” Her legs grew still, and she stared down at them as she continued. “But I was approached by some people sympathetic to me in the Aurors, and they told me that the Lestranges wanted revenge on Malfoy and Snape.” Her glare picked them both out. “They were also the ones who told me that Potter would be doing the guarding.” A second later, Severus saw that her hatred for Harry was, after all, stronger. “So then I decided that I would give the Lestranges some notes I had about Potter’s fighting style and likely tactics.”

How important those had actually been, Severus did not know. But it was plain that it was enough, at least for Draco, who had turned pale. The expression on Harry’s face had become difficult for Severus to read at all.

“You bitch,” Draco whispered.

“How did you arrange to be there as my Healer when we rescued ourselves?” Harry asked. His voice was bland, like his expression.

Severus cast a sharp glance at him; Harry was doing exactly what Severus wished he would not do with Tarriash, draw attention to himself. She loathed him enough already. But she didn’t seem to loathe him with any greater intensity as she answered. “I’ve healed enough people from Dark afflictions and spells they wouldn’t want noticed that I could pull strings in St. Mungo’s. When they heard that the Aurors needed a Healer, they called for volunteers, and I arranged for the only other woman who volunteered to be…elsewhere. I wanted to see what you’d suffered with my own eyes. And it was worth it,” she whispered. “Oh, it was worth it.”

Severus held out an arm, so that it slammed into Draco’s chest when he tried to step forwards with a snarl. Harry didn’t seem that much affected. “Name the Aurors you were in contact with,” he said.

Tarriash closed her eyes and began to reel off several names, most of which Severus didn’t recognize. But he did know Stockwell, the leader of the attempt to sacrifice Harry in the knowledge ritual, and Nelson, the Auror they had stripped of his magic.

Draco seemed to be dancing from foot to foot, nearly literally, as Tarriash finished her answer. “And how much do you know about the ritual and the consequences of what happened to us?” he snapped. “How much of it was your planning?”

Tarriash gave Draco a narrow, considering glance that made Severus want to shove him out of the way again. But the damage was probably already done, and acting now would just reveal that he wanted to protect his—his colleagues against Tarriash’s notice. Better to remain still and make it seem as if that prospect did not trouble him.

“I knew from my contacts in the Aurors about the experiments the Aurors had been conducting trying to make telepathic bonds possible. Some of the victims of those attempts had come here.” Tarriash shrugged, a motion that she couldn’t make casual. Severus wondered what she was about, until he saw the way she watched Draco and Harry, again. She was trying to hurt them any way she could, sting and sting them until they ached all over, because she was just that kind of viper. “It was also simple to steal those notes and send them to the Lestranges, with some details about the kind of ritual circle that would be most effective in binding three people.”

Severus said nothing. Not only did he want to deny Tarriash the satisfaction of seeing his pain, he thought that he might kill her now if he moved.

Draco did move. He ducked around Severus’s arm, and he headed for Tarriash with his wand clutched in one hand and a dreamy smile on his lips. Severus opened his mouth to shout. Draco did not like inflicting pain, had been used as little more than a rack by the Dark Lord, and would regret this later, whatever he might feel now.

Harry neatly tripped Draco, swept him around in his arms as Draco began to fall, and laid him against a wall. Severus could not hear what Harry said to Draco; he had laid his mouth too close against Draco’s ear.

To distract himself, Severus turned to Tarriash and said, “You know what will be the necessary end of this?”

Tarriash turned her madly joyful eyes away from Harry and Draco and looked at him. “I know that you can’t murder me in the midst of St. Mungo’s without triggering more wards than you knew existed,” she said. “And it’s only inside my offices that the spells to prevent the detection of Dark Arts exist. Do anything outside them, even something to hide my body, and you’ll be stopped at once.”

Severus smiled. She probably thought she was effectively threatening him because she could only tell the truth now, and so he had no alternative but to believe her. “There is more than one way of killing someone,” he said, smiled more widely into her puzzled eyes, and turned to study Harry and Draco.

*

“This is what she wants, you realize that. To hurt you until you strike back because you’re so hurt, not because you’re considering the scope of your retaliation and what would hurt her most. Don’t let her get to you.”

Draco closed his eyes, and swallowed. He wanted to say that he was different from Harry and Severus. Harry was used to dealing with criminals who wanted to hurt him because of his Auror career, and for that matter, people who hated him just because of who he was. And Severus had learned patience, or had it enforced on him, because of the way that he had to act with potions, who didn’t care if you were upset or not when you brewed them.

But what experience did Draco have to prepare him for taunts like this? All he had was the fluttering pulse in his head that drove him on to vengeance, and the experience of that bond, and how horrible it had been.

That’s not true. You have something more right now. Feel the way that Harry is touching you.

Harry’s hands pressed down heavily on his shoulders, that was true, and his breath slid over Draco’s chin. His body wasn’t actually touching Draco’s, but not that far away, either, sensed more than felt. Draco reached up and laid his hand over Harry’s, letting himself be forced to relax the way that Severus would be around a potion.

“We can do this if you just hold onto your temper.”

“We can do anything, right?” The words were glib and light on Draco’s tongue, and he tilted his head back to lock his eyes on Harry’s. “Including replacing the bond with something more? Something else?” His hand moved to the nape of Harry’s neck.

Harry’s eyes, gone cautious, weren’t what Draco had wanted to see. “You should consider that later when we’re in a different situation,” he said, moving his head so that Draco’s hand fell off his neck. “And with someone who’s willing to participate in a bond again. I’m not. I don’t ever want someone in my head again.”

“Not what I meant,” Draco whispered. “A bond in the sense of friendship is different than one forced by a ritual, don’t you think?”

Harry didn’t answer, instead moving away and turning to face Severus. Draco dared a look with him, suddenly wondering how Severus felt to see him and Harry so close together without him. Severus didn’t look anything other than prim and slightly displeased, though, the way he did when Draco messed up a simple potion.

“This book that we found,” Draco said. He felt calm, centered again, with the two people he valued the most right there. He picked up the book that Severus had removed the curse from, and saw Tarriash’s face contract. He smiled. “Yes, we removed that nasty little spell you thought would defeat us. Well? What kind of information does it contain on the ritual circles and the bonds?”

Tarriash seemed to struggle against answering for a moment, but in that instant, bubbles of burned skin appeared on the side of her face. Draco watched in appreciation. He had had no taste for causing pain to the Death Eaters, but he wondered now if that was because most of them had never directly hurt him, only the Dark Lord. If he’d been able to hold someone under his wand who had hurt him, like the Dark Lord himself, who knew what he would have done?

“I found the book only after I realized that you had survived and bonded,” Tarriash finally gasped. “I wanted to understand what had happened, why the trap hadn’t worked.”

“And what did the book tell you?” Draco asked, swinging the book around, and watching the way that Tarriash’s eyes nervously followed it. “Where did you get it?”

“I removed it from the library of St. Mungo’s,” said Tarriash. Of course, the one library that we probably wouldn’t have been able to get access to, Draco thought, trading a grimace with the others. “And the book told me that a bond and ritual circle like the one you were exposed to could only be transmuted by a sacrifice.” Her eyes went back and forth between them. “I am trying to determine what sacrifice it would have been. Not your magic. That was all I learned.”

It must have been, Draco thought, or Severus’s spell would already have punished her. He looked at Severus, who had his arms folded and a considering look on his face, then at Harry, who nodded and stepped forwards.

“What do you know about Voldemort coming back?” he asked.

Tarriash flinched, but Draco thought that might be as much at the name as because she was surprised or frightened. “What? I heard nothing about that. Do you mean—do you mean that you sacrificed your defeat of him so that you could survive the bond?”

Draco opened his mouth to ask what she meant, but Harry plowed him down. “You’re not to ask questions. I want to know what you heard about methods for removing the bond, either elsewhere or from that book.”

“The book said the bond could only be removed by reversing the sacrifice,” said Tarriash. “You would have to take back your magic or restore to life the person or animal you sacrificed. Not likely.” She looked satisfied.

“Your information is outdated,” Draco said, and took even more satisfaction than he thought she had felt in watching her squint at him in frustration. “We got rid of the bond, and we didn’t need to reverse the sacrifice.”

“Perhaps not the best idea, Draco,” said Severus mildly. He had moved close enough that one hand rested on Draco’s shoulder, not far from his neck. “Even if she is going to die…”

He didn’t want Draco to reveal any more information, Draco knew that. He would have rolled his eyes if he wasn’t facing Tarriash. If an enemy they were going to kill wasn’t safe to tell the truth to, who was?

Harry shifted off to the side, and caught Draco’s glance. Draco looked at him, and considered seriously, for a second, what Harry had sacrificed, and what would happen if Draco mentioned it to Tarriash accidentally.

Then he sighed and stood down. The three of them were safe to share information among, and if he couldn’t be content with that alone, then he would be ungrateful. He had already known that he couldn’t tell anyone else the truth of the Banishing Curse that they had used on the Lestranges, either. He rolled his head and murmured to Severus, “Is there anything else that we need to know?”

“She hasn’t outright answered the question about Voldemort,” said Harry. “Did you know that the Aurors who were going to take me captive a second time would have asked me questions about Voldemort, because they thought he was coming back?”

“I knew nothing,” said Tarriash. She was flexing one hand as though working something up from her side or the side of the chair, although Draco knew that they’d thoroughly taken her wand away. He decided to keep a sharp eye on that. “The most I heard about the D-Dark Lord was that the Lestranges regretted his defeat and thought his spirit felt satisfied when they had exacted revenge from you.”

Harry studied her, so calm and deadly still that Draco wondered if he believed her. Then he said, “Severus, would you mind Legilimizing her? I don’t know the right questions to ask, and I don’t dare let her die without more information.”

“Very well,” said Severus, without demurring as Draco had been sure he would do. He raised his wand and murmured the incantation, and his gaze locked with Tarriash’s. Draco moved off to the side. He had once accidentally interrupted the Dark Lord’s eye contact with a prisoner he was using Legilimency on, and he had had flashes of unwanted images and memories. It had taken him days to feel like the inside of his head was his own again. Although he suspected the effect would be milder with Severus than it had been with the Dark Lord, it still wasn’t something he wanted to experience.

“We seem to be at another dead end.”

Draco grimaced as Severus stepped back and broke the eye contact. Tarriash was shuddering with her head down, which Draco noted with satisfaction. It at least showed that Severus hadn’t been gentle with her. “You didn’t see anything about the Dark Lord in her mind?” Draco asked.

Severus shook his head, his mouth twisted in a grimace that other people might have taken as wry. Draco had known Severus longer, and could see the faint desperation behind it. Severus might not want to charge into situations without a plan, but on this count, he was close to doing so. “She knows nothing. She has done enough to hurt us that she deserves punishment, but all she did in regards to the Aurors was pass information on to them. She did not know what they intended to use Harry for.”

Draco sighed and leaned against Tarriash’s desk. “Where else do we search?” He had to admit that he had no ideas, and his skull felt hollow when he tried to think of them. Harry’s unexpected insight into Tarriash’s involvement was a fortunate break of the kind that probably wouldn’t happen again.

“There’s one thing we can try.”

It was Harry who spoke, his voice nearly sepulchral. Draco turned to him. “No,” he snapped.

Harry stared at him. “You don’t even know what I was going to propose.”

“I know that tone of voice. You only use it when you’re going to talk about something noble and stupid and that you want to do all on your own. No.”

Harry sighed noiselessly. “I thought we’d had a talk about trusting the risks that I want to take.”

“Draco is right that risks should be confined to as small a magnitude as possible,” Severus cut in. “However, I for one would be interested in hearing your suggestion.” His gaze cut across Draco’s, and the little jerk of his head said that if Harry’s plan was too dangerous after all, they could always reject it after they’d heard it.

Draco swallowed back a protest. The reason he knew that gesture was that he had proposed some silly plans of his own when he was a Death Eater, and Severus had listened to them and then rejected them, and prevented Draco, several times, from blurting them out in front of anyone else.

But if he had paid Draco the compliment of listening to him, Draco thought it only fair they do the same to Harry. He sighed and turned back to Harry reluctantly. “What did you have in mind?”

*

Harry watched their faces for a second to make sure this wasn’t a false alarm and they weren’t about to start insisting that he couldn’t make his own decisions. But although Draco’s mouth still had grim lines about it and Severus’s face was entirely blank in a discouraging way, at least they didn’t interrupt.

Harry nodded and heaved the book that Tarriash had found. “My suggestion is a knowledge ritual adapted from the one that Stockwell and the others were going to use on me. Not as dangerous, not as apt to hurt me.” He saw Draco’s mouth open, but he lifted his voice and talked on. “This book can probably tell us one that we could use. If it has our bond in it, then it has information on incredibly rare things. A knowledge ritual that’s safe to use is an incredibly rare thing.”

“I don’t want to put you at risk,” Draco announced.

“I must admit that this idea is not one I favor,” said Severus at the same time.

Harry paused a second to clear the confusion of hearing two different voices at once out of his ears, and then shrugged a little. “It’s true that we’ll have to study for a bit. But we’ve relied on one ritual to take revenge on the Lestranges already. I think we can trust each other to put enough time and preparation into it.”

Draco and Severus looked at each other. Harry waited it out. He did think they were communicating on some level he couldn’t access, but that came from shared experience and had nothing to do with the bond or even having been in Slytherin together. He would have done the same thing with Ron and Hermione in front of them, not even meaning to.

“The idea could be tried,” Severus muttered at last, and Draco nodded, although Harry thought he could hear the creaking of tendons in his neck as he did.

“Good,” said Harry, and turned to Tarriash, who had been entirely too silent during these last few minutes for his taste. Even supposing she was still recovering from Severus’s Legilimency, she had the look of someone who was listening and storing up secrets. “And what are we going to do with her?”

“I said there was more than one way of killing someone.” Severus’s voice, mild and deep, made Tarriash look at him and away from Harry, at least. Harry would be a little ashamed to admit how relieved that made him. Tarriash’s eyes flamed as if she wanted to burn him alive with the force of her hatred, and she might succeed if she went on looking at him for too long.

“I told you that any Dark Arts you use will be detected. There’s more. The spells on my office that confine the Dark Arts inside will fall the minute I die. So you’ll be surrounded by people who want to know what all the Dark magic inside here is, whether or not you’re the ones who originally put it there.”

“Thank you for the warning,” said Severus. He glanced back at Harry. “You can’t think of any other questions that you want to ask her?”

“Is the only reason you hate me because I arrested your brother?” Harry asked her then. “That’s a hell of a reason to hate someone, when he was the one doing the crimes in the first place.”

“Herman was a genius,” said Tarriash flatly. “In ways that you don’t understand, and never will.”

She wouldn’t say more than that, so Harry shrugged and turned to Draco. He shook his head. “I want to take that book with us, but other than that, I don’t think she can tell us anything else.”

“Fine,” said Harry, and waved Severus on. He had to admit he was a little curious about what the man was going to do. It probably involved one of those spells that Severus had invented, but Harry couldn’t think of anything he’d seen in the Half-Blood Prince’s book that would adequately punish Tarriash for what she’d done.

Severus faced Tarriash and said nothing for a moment. Then he murmured, “A pity that we cannot bring a Dementor here. But it would not accomplish what I want it to, in the end.”

“You developed a spell that mimics the Dementor’s Kiss?” Harry asked, impressed in spite of himself. He hated Dementors, but he could recognize how skilled someone would have to be in magical theory to invent a spell like that. They’d briefly studied, in Auror training, some people who had tried and failed, and ended up as soulless husks.

“Yes,” said Severus. “But my spell does not suck the soul. It sucks away knowledge. Any knowledge I ask it to. And it leaves a corner of the victim’s mind alive and trapped, and screaming. They know what happened, but they cannot communicate it to anyone, even what is left of their own mind. It comes out only in relentless nightmares, for the rest of their lives.”

“No!” said Tarriash sharply, in a shrill voice that Harry thought expressed her real fear for the first time.

Severus paid no attention to her. He came up to her, tightened the magical bonds on her with a nonverbal spell that Harry recognized, and laid his wand in the center of her forehead.

“I am going to take your knowledge of Healing,” he said. “I am going to take your knowledge of what we were doing here today, and the conversation we had in front of you. I am going to take all knowledge that you had of the Dark Arts, and rituals, and bonds, and curses. Everything, I think, relating to magic.” He paused, and smiled. “Except Lumos. You will ned some protection against the darkness, after this.”

Tarriash screamed into his face and tried to struggle, but that was why Severus had tightened the bonds, after all. Harry listened to the unfamiliar chant, and watched as magic spread around Tarriash’s face and head like clinging ivy vines. Slowly, knowledge and spark and something more drained from her eyes. Severus moved back within a few minutes, admiring the way she helplessly blinked.

“I haven’t damaged her magical core,” he explained, when Draco looked a pointed question at him. “There will be no sign that it was affected. She could relearn what she has lost. It will only take her years, and years, and years.” He smiled once more at Tarriash, and turned and left.

Draco followed him, the book on rituals and bonds clutched under his arm. Harry looked one more time at Tarriash. She was staring at him in a dazed way, the way that someone might who was just coming out from under the influence of a Memory Charm.

He knew he should be horrified by what he had witnessed, the way he should be by his own use of the Dark Arts and the Wand-Cracking Charm he had seen Severus employ.

He should be.

But he had changed. And his impulse to follow Severus and Draco out of the room, and be close to them, was stronger than his impulse to stand there and stare at Tarriash and contemplate her. So he followed.

He smiled as he did it.

Chapter Text

Mate. Where have you been?”

It was more a statement than a question, Harry knew, as he let himself into Grimmauld Place alongside Ron and Hermione. They hadn’t entered the house while he was gone, even though he knew the wards would have let them in. They seemed to be content to sit on the front step for some reason.

“With Severus and Draco,” said Harry, and dropped his cloak on the floor. He knew Hermione would roll her eyes, but he was too tired to do anything else at the moment. He and Severus and Draco had confronted Healer Tarriash in the early afternoon, and spent the rest of it Apparating dazed Aurors around Britain. He went straight to the kitchen and began to build a sandwich half a dozen ingredients high. “Sorry if you sent me a Patronus and I didn’t respond or something. I’ve been pretty busy.”

“We were worried about you.” That was Hermione. Harry heard a swish, and turned to see her floating his cloak off the floor. He held in a sigh. That was her choice, and he had known he was irritating her by dropping it there, almost tempting her to interfere. “We hadn’t heard from you all day, and you said that you would only be gone a short time when you went to Snape’s house.”

“Malfoy’s,” Harry corrected her absently, and decided that he wanted pickles on his sandwich as well. They would drip on the bread and make it soft, but he could always cast a few Preservation Charms to hold it together. “They’re staying in Malfoy Manor.”

He knew from the sudden, tense silence behind him that he’d said something wrong. But he ignored the situation, and added tomatoes to his sandwich, and cheese, and pieces of beef. Then he cast those Preservation Charms and bit into it, sighing. Apparating always exhausted him like nothing else.

“I knew that,” Hermione finally said. “I did know that. You must have mentioned it once.”

Harry turned around and leaned his back against the kitchen counter, studying them. He didn’t know what they wanted. They watched him with shadowed eyes, but they had done that since he was raped. He wondered if they thought he was still suffering from the consequences of that.

Well, in a way they were right, and Harry would be suffering from the consequences all his life long. But he couldn’t curl up and do nothing because of it. He was changed, he would accept the changes. He had been a virgin, he wasn’t one. He had been hurt, he had taken revenge. That was the way it worked.

“Yes,” said Harry. “And we were following up some leads about who might have betrayed us. It wasn’t anyone else in the Ministry, thank Merlin. I think we found all the Aurors who might have betrayed the safehouse wards.” He took another bite of his sandwich. His stomach had stayed silent when he was with Severus and Draco, for a mercy, but now it was awake and grumbling.

“You did find them?” Ron leaned forwards. “What did you do with them? Did you report them to Kingsley?”

Harry shook his head. “Until this morning, Kingsley was one of the ones I suspected.”

Ron jolted as though Harry had sent lightning down his spine. “Kingsley? Mate, what—that’s ridiculous, you know that, right?”

“I know that now,” Harry pointed out, and ate some more of his sandwich, filling his mouth with the satisfying crunch of pickle and tomato. While it was full, it prevented him from having to answer more questions.

“Because you found out who really did it?” Hermione drew her wand and used it to drag the table closer. Harry dropped into one of the chairs, but Summoned his own plate before she could do it.

“Yes.”

Ron waited, and started tapping his fingers on the table when Harry just went on eating his sandwich. “Well, mate?” he finally burst out, when he didn’t sound as if he could stand it anymore.

“I’m not telling you more than that,” Harry said, finishing one corner of his sandwich and looking him dead in the eye. “It would put too many people in danger.” Like Severus and Draco. And Ron and Hermione, too, if there are still people in the Ministry who would kill to protect the secret that they were part of a group hoping to use a knowledge ritual on me.

“But you would tell Snape and Malfoy,” Ron said, and looked down. Harry opened his mouth, and found that he didn’t have words to say.

Ron was jealous. He knew that slight green tinge to his face all too well.

In all the thoughts that had occupied Harry of his friends finding out that he had used Dark Arts and worked alongside Draco and Severus, he had never anticipated this reaction.

Harry shook his head and put his sandwich down, this was that important. “Listen, Ron,” he said. “The reason I can tell Severus and Draco is that they were there with me. If they’d been somewhere else, I wouldn’t have told them, either.”

“But we used to be the people you could tell everything to.” From the uneasy look Hermione flashed Ron, she thought he should really be the one to say this, but he couldn’t at the moment, his jaw locked as if he would spill his churning stomach otherwise. “Listen, Harry. What changed that that isn’t the case?”

Harry pressed his fingers into the table. He was debating what to say when Ron added, in a faint voice, “Unless that’s another of those things you can’t tell us.”

Might as well be blunt, then. “I was raped.”

Ron opened his mouth. Hermione moved her hand from the table to his shoulder. “I think that’s what we don’t understand most of all,” she murmured, in a voice that was trying desperately, Harry thought, to sound calm. “Why you can talk to the people who r-raped you about this, but you can’t talk to us.”

“Because the rape changed me, just like Ron said,” Harry muttered. He was still hungry, but he couldn’t have eaten right now even if someone had put treacle tart in front of him. “There are some things about me that are mean and angry now. I don’t know if that will ever go back to normal. And the revenge I want to take—you wouldn’t want me to take it.”

Hermione and Ron frowned at each other as if uncomprehending. “But I never blamed you for wanting revenge on Voldemort or Bellatrix,” Hermione said. “I was worried about how dangerous it would be, but I never said that you shouldn’t do it.”

Ron nodded vigorously, peering at Harry as if trying to find some trace of the boy he had been best friends with for years.

“I just wanted to kill them, though,” Harry said. “Or to have them gone from my life.” Really, by the time he was ready to kill Voldemort, he didn’t care how much the bloody arsehole suffered, he just wanted him gone. Now, he didn’t think he would have been so amenable to Dumbledore’s plan to kill Voldemort essentially without pain. “Not the kind of bloody revenge that—I’ve taken.”

Hermione’s eyes trembled for a second, but she closed them instead of breaking out in tears. Ron whispered in an awed tone, “What did you do?”

“Took care of the Lestranges,” Harry said, and found himself smiling. He couldn’t help it. He would always smile at the thought of the Banishing Curse that had taken the Lestranges, and nothing was going to make him regret that. “And some other people who betrayed the location of the safehouse or the wards or the fact that I was going to be there to the Lestranges.”

“You can’t just go around slaughtering people, though,” Hermione said in a small voice. “You’ve got to take them in and have them tried justly.”

“I thought about that,” Harry said. “But apart from the fact that I’m not the only one who deserves vengeance, and Draco and Severus would probably never agree to that, there are too many Aurors who were involved in this bloody mess. We couldn’t trust they would hold the Lestranges properly, or the others, or that the trial would be fair. There might even be some members of the Wizengamot who would want to free the Lestranges just because they resent Draco for his father’s influence, or me for mine. The Aurors and the justice system both failed me on this one. I won’t let them touch the Lestranges.”

Not that they can, now. But that was another of those things that Harry thought might alienate Ron and Hermione from him if he revealed it.

“You can’t be the one to make the decisions, though.” Hermione sounded on firmer ground here.

“Why should the Wizengamot and the Aurors be the ones to make the decisions, when I can’t trust them for reasons I just told you?”

“Bring in someone impartial from the outside who can,” Ron answered while looking slowly back and forth between Hermione and Harry, as though he assumed this was a fight between just the two of them and he was intruding. “Like Kingsley.”

“I told you. Until a few hours ago, I distrusted Kingsley as much as the rest of them.”

“You can’t be your own law and executioner!” Hermione was almost in tears.

“When everyone else failed me, then yeah, I can,” said Harry, and shook his head when she looked at him pleadingly. “I can’t go back in time and change what happened, but I can make sure that the Lestranges don’t get to stay around and torture me again. I can make sure that the people who betrayed me—us—understand exactly what happens when you threaten someone who has nothing to lose.”

“I don’t understand what that means!” Hermione was clasping her hands in front of her. “You’re talking the way someone who mistreats house-elves talks!”

Harry blinked, then snorted a little. He supposed he shouldn’t be surprised that she would make that comparison. “I thought you were going to say, like a Death Eater. But I mean that I have nothing to lose except my friends anymore. I can’t go back to being an Auror, because some of them plotted against me and I would never trust them again. I can’t go back to being non-raped.” It was the only word he could think of under the circumstances, although Ron blinked and Hermione flushed. “I can’t be what I wanted to be. So I’ll take revenge.”

“You could use that to justify anything. To strike at anybody.”

Harry felt the temptation bubbling up inside him to tell them about the possibility of Voldemort being back, and the way that Stockwell and the rest had justified hurting him. But he held it back. Keeping his secrecy, and the cloak that had protected Draco and Severus, intact was still more important than blurting things out in a passion.

“I only used it to strike at the people who hurt me, and them,” he said. “The ones no one else would punish.”

“You could have waited. You could have asked questions! Someone would have had to notice something was wrong and answer you!”

“And in the meantime, the word could get back to our enemies and they could strike at Draco and Severus, if not me,” Harry murmured. His interest in the conversation was fading rapidly. Ron and Hermione would remain his friends, but there were some things he wouldn’t be sharing with them. Well and good. That was the way it was. “No. My fame might protect me, but not much would protect them.”

Hermione looked as if she hadn’t expected any of Harry’s arguments to work. Harry felt irritation bubbling up, and told himself to be calm. There was no reason for Hermione to simply bow to his arguments when she didn’t know anything about the circumstances.

But he wasn’t going to tell her anything about the circumstances, either. There was simply too much going on, too much that might endanger Severus and Draco.

And your friendship with Ron and Hermione? 

Harry didn’t really think much could do that, though. If they walked away from him after this row, then he would have to change his mind, but he hadn’t seen anything so far that would have been able to make them do that.

They sat there in silence for a little longer, and finally Ron, after glancing at Hermione and clearing his throat several times, ventured, “Do you have to exact any more vengeance? I mean, is there anyone else you have to punish?”

“There’s one more thing we have to do,” Harry said, with careful emphasis. “There’s something about the case that might or might not be true. Somebody told me it was true.” There was no way he would mention Stockwell’s name, either, or let Ron use it to track her down. “If we can find out it’s false, though, then no. Everyone we want to take vengeance on will be punished, and not all of them are dead, either,” he added, seeing Hermione’s eyes widen. “I don’t see any reason to kill the ones who are still alive.”

It occurred to him that Severus and Draco might disagree with him on that, particularly when it came to Tarriash. But that was another thing he would keep to himself. He wasn’t breaking a promise to his friends. He was telling them what was true as far as it went, as far as he knew right now.

“And if it’s true?” Hermione, it seemed, would pursue this to the bitter end.

Harry looked at her coldly, unable to help himself. “It concerns someone who’s threatened me before. I promise, you’d have no problem with me punishing them.” He really did long to tell them it was rumors of Voldemort’s return, because then they would stop arguing with him and probably even help him, but he couldn’t take the chance. He would never take the chance, when someone might make the connection with the Aurors who had disappeared and then showed up randomly sick and confused and bereft of their memories.

“Another rogue Death Eater?” Hermione leaped to a conclusion and sat up, staring at him, eyes wide and fearful. “Oh, Harry. Promise you won’t confront him without someone at your back! You could be captured again.”

“If it’s true that they’re linked to the case, I won’t be going alone,” Harry said, and reached out and squeezed her hand. He recognized her words for what they were, an unspoken peace offering. She hadn’t even insisted that she and Ron should be the ones to help him. “Severus and Draco suffered because of this person, too. If it turns out that it’s true and he’s connected to the case.”

“How are you going to find out if it’s true or not, though?” Ron had to ask. “If your informant thought it was and that’s the only source you have?”

“Please don’t ask me that.” Harry spoke the words quietly, and found himself holding his breath. If Ron persisted, if he asked too many questions, then it would be like Draco and Severus and their refusal to let him go down and feed potions to the drugged Aurors alone. There was such a thing as too much overprotectiveness, and too much curiosity. Severus and Draco had pulled back from the first one. Harry wasn’t sure that Ron and Hermione could pull back from the last one.

Ron gave him one more piercing look, the kind he had used when Harry was struggling during the Auror training program and trying to hide it from everyone else. But then he nodded and reached out and put a hand on his arm.

“If we need not to ask, we won’t ask,” he said, and then looked up and held Hermione’s eye until she nodded, slowly and reluctantly. “Maybe we should just—be grateful that—”

He sounded like he was struggling with the words. Harry held his shoulder until he managed to meet Harry’s eye and say them.

“Maybe we should just be grateful that you’re not changed more than you have been,” he whispered, “considering what happened to you.”

And Harry knew it was going to be all right, really all right, and he smiled at them both, and changed the subject.

*

Draco woke early, from a sleep that had probably endured only three hours. Then he went downstairs and found out that the house-elves hadn’t made bacon, even though he had specifically ordered that. He snapped at them and made them bow and scrape and squeak and apologize, and then he sat down in something dark and sticky in the middle of his chair. Of course, it had last been Severus’s chair, and the inconsiderate bastard had probably come out of his lab with a potion dripping from the hem and not paid any attention to where it dripped.

Draco had stood up and was scrubbing at the middle of the chair when Severus emerged from the direction of his lab. Draco saw some yellow discoloration on Severus’s sleeve, and the only thing he could think of was that Severus was probably going to drip all over the table, and get the potion in Draco’s food when the house-elves finally prepared his breakfast the way he wanted.

The words that emerged from his mouth weren’t planned, but he couldn’t regret them. “Stay away from me if you’re only going to make messes for me to clean up.”

Severus, who was carrying the book that Healer Tarriash had stolen, lifted one eyebrow at him. Then he saw the stain Draco was working on, and shook his head. “The presence of unicorn opal makes that potion impossible to clean with a charm,” he said, and took a potent Dissolving Solution from a pocket in his robes. The unspoken words about Draco needing to recognize unicorn opal and when it was an ingredient in something floated around their heads as Severus came around the table to spread the solution.

“You aren’t considerate,” Draco whispered, stepping away from him. “You never look where you’re going and what you’re doing and I hate it.”

“No, I am not considerate,” Severus said, looking at him in the blank way that someone would when waking up from a dream. “But it never seemed to bother you before. What has changed?”

Draco could not tell him about sleeping poorly and not having his breakfast ready when he woke up. Severus would dismiss such trivial reasons for a reaction.

As he should. You know you’re being childish.

“Forget it,” Draco snapped, and walked around the table to another chair, luckily as his breakfast finally appeared. He sat down in front of the plate and attacked it with what he hoped Severus would dismiss as hearty appetite, and not an attempt to bury his emotions in small physical gestures.

Severus’s eyes were still on him when he took his seat in the chair Draco had abandoned, though. Draco cursed, knowing the sensation, and made sure that all food was out of his mouth before he spoke again. “Aren’t you worried about the aftereffects of the Dissolving Solution on your poncey arse?”

“The potion bonds to the first object it touches, nothing else, and dissipates immediately, without even fumes,” Severus said quietly. Draco shuddered, and clamped his hands and attention down harder on the edge of the plate. “What is troubling you?”

“Just stupid little things,” said Draco. At the moment, he would take Severus being bitter and scathing over Severus being perceptive. Severus being perceptive led to things like him discovering Draco’s task for the Dark Lord in his sixth year. “It doesn’t matter. It’s nothing. Forget it,” he added, when he looked up in hope and found that Severus was still pensively regarding him.

“It is not nothing,” said Severus. “And since I think that I may know the source, it behooves me to speak to you about it, for the sake of peace in the household.”

“Of course, for the sake of peace in the household,” said Draco, and saw Severus narrow his eyes further. Well, good. Maybe a scolding would follow. “Not because you actually care about me at all, you cold bastard.”

“And the source is what I suspected it is,” said Severus, half-nodding. “I noticed that you enjoyed the way Harry held you against the wall yesterday.”

Draco’s hands curled in loathing. “If you dare suggest that I feel sorry enough for what happened to allow him to rape me—”

There was a strange sound, one that Draco didn’t know anything about despite his mental catalogue of Severus noises, and he looked up. Severus was laughing in a little wheezing, gasping choke, his head turned away. Draco stared at him. He thought it might be the first time he had ever seen Severus display genuine amusement, rather than exploding at someone who had earned his ire through being stupid, which would explain why Draco didn’t recognize it.

“Forgive me,” said Severus, when Draco pushed his chair back and got to his feet. “But such a speculation would never have occurred to me. What did occur was that you may want to be close to Harry for some time in the future, and you fear that ending this knowledge ritual will mean the end of contact with him.”

Draco stilled. That thought hadn’t come to him before, but it made him hurt and burn too intensely inside for Severus to be wrong.

Severus nodded, apparently having read the truth through the combination of Draco’s expression and body language. “I can understand that fear.” He hesitated, and Draco recognized the way that he would sometimes steel himself to approach an uncomfortable confession a moment before Severus said, “I have experienced it myself.”

Draco reached out for the nearest wall, because something else had come up in his mind, and he didn’t know how Severus would react when he proposed it. “But doesn’t that mean that the potion didn’t work after all? That the bond didn’t end? Because there’s no other reason for you to feel something like that.”

Severus was quiet. Then he asked, in curiously precise words, “Why were you not surprised to find yourself feeling it?”

“I didn’t know exactly what was upsetting me before now.” Draco turned around to study Severus. “And you used to scold me answering a question with a question.”

“I was the professor, you were the student,” Severus murmured, but he was looking unseeing into his teacup, without the proper bitterness that such a response required. “No, I think the bond is gone. I think we would know if it were not. We would have experienced some premonition of Harry’s emotions when he was at a distance, for example.”

“Then what is it?” Draco struck the wall in frustration.

“As there is not a name for what we are to him,” said Severus, retreating into his favorite distant tone again, “friends being inaccurate and any other word not being comprehensive, I do not believe there is a suitable name for why we miss him.”

Draco peered suspiciously at Severus. “As long as you don’t think the bond is active again.”

“I do not tolerate such insults to my brewing skills,” Severus warned him, eyes growing dark enough to reassure Draco that he spoke the truth, at least as far as he knew.

That left Draco to wonder if Severus was right, if it was just that there was no name and he would have to learn to live with this as he had to learn to live with sharing Harry with his friends…

Or whether he did know the right name, and did not dare to use it.

Chapter Text

“How are we going to do this?” Harry asked.

Draco tensed up and kept his eyes on his wineglass. He knew that Severus had read the book that Healer Tarriash had stolen, and read it again, and read it again. And Draco believed that he wouldn’t want to sacrifice Harry mindlessly any more than Draco would. So Dracodid trust Severus to set up a ritual that would tell them what they wanted to know about the Dark Lord’s return, “reading” Harry’s scar, without hurting any of them.

But it still frightened him to think about, and so he had restricted his role today to providing the wine and the meeting place, and asking Harry if he was doing all right. Even that question Harry had greeted with a curious sideways glance, as if he couldn’t understand why Draco would be so worried about his well-being.

Draco kept his mouth smartly shut, and only looked up when he heard Severus say, “With the participation of all of us, of course.”

Draco blinked in surprise, met Severus’s eyes, and realized how stupid he had been to sit there feeling fear at all. Or perhaps he hadn’t been feeling the right kind of fear. Perhaps he should have foreseen the emergence of Severus’s long-buried Gryffindor side, and been anguished about that.

“How can we help?” Draco asked. “I thought Harry’s scar was the most direct connection to the Dark Lord. It’s certainly the only one the Aurors thought about using.”

“The Aurors who kidnapped Harry are not the most intelligent of their kind,” said Severus, in a tone that made Draco wince a little. He could imagine it opening blood in a long line down his arm. “And they did not have among them anyone else with a direct connection. We have three.” He tilted his left arm.

Draco swallowed. He disliked the Dark Mark, and spent most of his time with his arm covered, ignoring its existence. But he was no coward. The uncertainty of the situation, the outcome of the knowledge ritual and if it would work at all and exactly what he was feeling towards Harry, was what kept getting to him.

If Severus had a plan, perhaps he could give up those first two fears. He bent nearer. “How will this work?”

“You’re assuming that I’m going to let you have a part at all,” Harry interrupted pleasantly before Severus could speak. “Why should I let you risk yourselves, when I’m the one who is most affected by this, and the one who can get you the answers you need? No.”

“You don’t understand,” said Severus, mildly, for all that Draco could see old arguments sparking back to life in his eyes. “As we do not get to make the decisions about you taking risks that you deplored so loudly, you do not get to make the decisions for us. If we wish to help you lessen the danger of this ritual and gain the knowledge that makes it imperative to perform, then we will.”

Harry snorted and glanced sideways at Draco. “Did Draco really choose it? He had no idea what you were going to propose, did he? You can’t tell me that’s a willing choice.”

“Well, now that it’s out in the open, I can decide whether or not I want to do it,” Draco snapped back, immediately irritated. No wonder Severus had told him vaguely that it would be all right in the past few days, when Draco had asked for details. He must have been working out how to adapt the knowledge ritual so that it could have three subjects instead of one. That had taken all his concentration. “And I want to. I don’t want you to bear all the brunt of what’s going to happen in the ritual.”

“I’d rather do that than be afraid of what’s going to happen to you two!”

Harry’s arms were folded, his eyes darting at them like lightning from the scar on his forehead. Severus held up one hand and turned to Draco with faint, very faint, mockery in his face. Draco nodded back. Yes, fine. He knew now that Harry was invested in their safety as strongly as they were in his, and he admitted that it had been silly to suggest Harry would simply abandon them. Severus could shut up now.

“I will explain the design of the ritual,” said Severus, his words even and precisely spaced-apart. “I will do that very carefully. You can cease to worry when you actually hear the details, I hope? You will ask questions about any of the magical theory that you can’t understand? You can trust us?”

His tone contained a little of the old challenge that would have been between Professor Snape and the Boy-Who-Lived, Draco thought. Harry immediately bristled and nodded. “Of course I can! I didn’t mean—”

“I understand you better than I did,” Severus interrupted. “It feels no better to be subjected to patronizing concern than it was to feel it.” He turned back to Draco. “Would you object to being the leader of this ritual?”

Draco blinked. A leader of a ritual was someone who empowered it, began it, was sometimes the only reason it worked. “Why me? I thought you would want that role, since you’re the one who came up with the idea to make the ritual safe to use.”

Severus shook his head, eyes still snapping. “I will be playing the role of balancer instead, the link between the two volatile poles of you and Harry. I think it better that someone more mature and calmer play this role.”

“That’s stupid,” Harry promptly began.

“Don’t worry,” Severus told him. “Your role, the anchor, was sometimes played by the person who was sacrificed in the ritual. I presume you would find that a natural extension of your eagerness to give up your life?”

Harry pulled back his head, such a sharp expression on his face that Draco thought he might stomp away after all. But then he sighed and looked away. “You’re a bastard sometimes.”

“Only sometimes, I think,” said Severus, and with a complicated expression on his face that Draco suspected would be hard to translate for anyone on earth except Severus himself. There were times that Draco missed the bond. “And you’re going to let us do this, aren’t you? With Draco playing the role of leader and me playing the role of balancer. And you’ll be anchor.”

Harry frowned at Draco. Draco turned his palms outwards. He hadn’t agreed to this, except insofar as he’d sat silent just now instead of objecting. He hadn’t had any idea of what Severus was planning.

“Just tell me that the proportion of risk we’ll have to bear is equal,” said Harry, and glanced back at Severus.

The way that Severus’s lips parted and his eyebrows rose for a second gave Draco an unexpected glimpse into his core. So ha, Draco thought, content in a weird way. If having Harry hold me against a wall does it for me, being considered an equal to the Great Harry Potter evidently does it for Severus.

I’m not going to let him forget this.

Severus cleared his throat and looked sharply at Draco, as if he could hear his mental sniggering. Draco held up his hands and widened his eyes. He wouldn’t say anything about it aloud if Severus didn’t want him to.

Severus shook his head and turned back to Harry. “Yes, they are. If we are going to perform this ritual, we need to trust each other, and I know that you would not trust me if our positions were not…equal.”

There was a tiny hesitation before that last word, if you were in the pattern of observing Severus and you knew what to look for. Draco bit back another snicker and nodded. “I think that he’s right, Harry. The knowledge ritual the Aurors wanted to use is obviously unacceptable. A three-pronged one would work better.”

“From the perspective of you allowing me to participate at all,” finished Harry with a sigh.

“When you get over this irritating habit of dismissing our care for your well-being as a desire to put restrictions on you, then let me know,” Draco snapped. “We aren’t the Lestranges, you know. Not all of us are enamored of chains and bindings.” He tapped his fingers on his knee as Harry studied him.

“Fine,” Harry said at last. “How long is the ritual going to take to perform? Do we need anything special for it? Does it have to take place at a certain time of the day or night?”

“Almost exactly an hour,” said Severus. “And yes, we must draw a ritual square and gather the implements. As for the time, that is not a component of the original ritual that the Aurors planned to use, but the book suggests that noon would be the best hour.”

“The time of brightest light,” Harry murmured, sounding like he was in a trance. Maybe he needed to be, to convince himself. “The time when the mind might reveal and clarify itself.”

Draco started. Sometimes he forgot that Harry did have some training in magical theory. Of course he did, or he wouldn’t have been able to help them as effectively in the Banishing Curse, but Draco kept forgetting anyway.

“Yes,” said Severus, after a pause that Draco liked to imagine concealed his own surprise. “So. We would best perform it tomorrow, then, since it is already late morning now. Will you wish to go back to your friends for tonight?” 

Draco knew a challenge when he heard one. It seemed Harry did, too. He half-smiled. “I’m going to stay here,” he said. “I already spoke with my friends, yesterday. They know what happened in broad, general outline. I didn’t tell them about what we did to the Lestranges, or about Healer Tarriash, only that we were still working to identify someone connected with the case.”

Draco swallowed another snicker. That was an accurate description of the Dark Lord, he supposed, if one made the description so general as to be useless.

“Do you have a room I could use?” Harry stood up and glanced at Draco.

“In a house this big? Of course.” Draco turned to Severus. “What implements will we need?”

“I am going to gather the plants,” Severus said, in that haughty way that always reminded Draco he was a Potions master and Draco was not. “I want you to be responsible for the stones and earth from the grounds of the Manor. The bond that your ancestors had with the land should guide you instinctively to the right ones.”

“And what will I do?”

“You insist on being right in the middle, of course,” Severus said to Harry in a resigned fashion. Draco didn’t need the bond this time, though, to see the way that Severus leaned back in his chair and tilted his head as if receiving sunlight from some distant source. This was the sign of a relaxed Severus. “I would like you to gather this short list.” He produced a parchment from a pocket in his robes. “Some of the materials may be available in the Weasleys’ garden; I noticed a number of nesting birds there. Others, you may have to buy.”

Harry didn’t even care, Draco saw, from the way his hand grasped the list and his eyes shone. He just wanted to be doing something that would help.

I wonder if that’s why he became an Auror in the first place. Why he took on the sacrifice that the bond asked him to make. Not because he wants to be a martyr all the time, but because he wants to feel like he’s helping.

It touched Draco with fire under the breastbone, to think about that, that Harry Potter would want to aid them.

“Right,” said Harry, scanning the list with the expertise of someone who had to read boring reports and files all the time at work. “I’ll be back for dinner, right after I dump some of my stuff in that room someone promised me.” He looked at Draco with mild impatience.

Draco shook his head, and repressed the temptation to reply that Harry was welcome to any room in the house, and he should have known that. He understood Harry feeling more comfortable with a designated place. “Right. Come on.”

He led Harry up the steps to the room he had mentally chosen, all the while reeling mentally from the mere fact of having Harry Potter in his house, having him here willingly, and about to help them.

No. He’s not here willingly because he missed you. He’s here to perform the knowledge ritual. And what is he going to do when that’s done?

Draco bit the inside of his cheek. There were times when he wished that Severus had never revealed the real reason behind his behavior to him. Draco had to admit that he wished for a closer connection with Harry, now, and would be watching anxiously to see what he would do when the ritual was done.

Or you could just ask him.

But that was last resort. Draco wanted Harry’s company, but he hadn’t overcome his lingering fear of looking pathetic while he wanted it.

*

Harry nodded and glanced critically around the room. “This is good.” It was, of course, a lot nicer than his room in Grimmauld Place, with heavy blue and purple tapestries of sea scenes hanging on polished marble walls and floors that looked as if they wouldn’t dare to get dirty, but Harry wasn’t about to let Draco know that.

From his smug smile, Draco might know it anyway. He inclined his head graciously. “Then please stay as long as you like. You don’t need to hurry away the moment the knowledge ritual is done, you know.”

Harry started and looked at Draco. Draco looked back with the kind of wide eyes that Harry once would have been able to interpret instantly, but now he had to rely on his own brain and knowledge of Draco to do it for him—and both of them seemed sadly lacking.

Stupid bond. Stupid knowledge ritual. Harry paused, and then added in two more, because he might as well. Stupid brain. Stupid Slytherins.

“Thanks, but I don’t want to intrude on your hospitality,” he said, thinking that he had phrased it just the right way.

Draco snorted, a sound ridiculously juicy for such a pale and haughty face. Harry stared at him in amazement. Draco was too busy scowling at him to notice. “When have I begrudged you my hospitality since this whole thing started?” he demanded, depriving Harry of a few snotty answers that would have begun, “Well, during the war…” “I want you here. Severus wants you here. I’m not sure what more we could do to make that clear. Deck out this whole room in Gryffindor colors?” He waved his hand around the bedroom, and then paused and pointed out a door Harry hadn’t paid much attention to. “And the bathroom, too, that’s through there. You can have a bloody scarlet loo if you want.”

Harry folded his arms. His heart was pounding the way it did when an enemy pinned him into a small corner, which was absolutely ridiculous, and he knew it. That didn’t make his heart slow down any. 

“I don’t know why you want me here,” he said. “Once the knowledge ritual finishes, you could be justified in turning away from me and never thinking of me again.”

“Because the whole bond thing is so easy to forget,” said Draco. His eyes had darkened, and he took a step towards Harry that read as more threatening than lots of things Harry had seen when he was an Auror. Harry would have put his hand on his wand, but that seemed stupid, too. This was Draco.

Someone who probably doesn’t want you to go away.

Harry shuddered a little, not at the thought of staying but because what Draco might ask of him might also be more than he wanted to give, and looked off to the side. “It’s not easy to forget, but I thought you might want to put it behind you.”

“Hardly.” Draco breathed the words from right in front of him, from the distance he’d crossed without Harry knowing it. “Or did you mistake what I was asking you entirely in the Healer’s office?”

“You were asking me to let you go so you could murder Tarriash.” Harry knew that was true. He had never doubted it was true until Draco asked him to speak the words, and then suddenly his tongue was too big for his mouth. He shook his head impatiently and bore on. “I don’t see what that has to do with the bond.”

“I wanted to touch you,” Draco said. “I liked it when you held me against the wall. Did you mistake that completely?” He paused, his hands stretched around either side of Harry’s head so he was touching the wall behind him. “Or maybe you’ve simply held too many suspects in that position. It’s no wonder you don’t see anything romantic in it.”

Harry swallowed. Now that Draco mentioned it, he was close enough to watch the pulse fluttering in Draco’s throat, and to see the way that his eyes widened and his fingers curled. He supposed you might think of that as romantic if you were into it.

And then his brain caught up with the words, and he shoved lightly at Draco’s shoulders. “Romantic?” he asked. “Are you insane? Did you forget how the bond started? How could you stand—how could either of us stand to touch each other, after that?”

“But we’re standing here and touching each other,” Draco said equably. “And maybe romantic was the wrong word. All I know that is that I want to be close to you and have some guarantee of continuing—closeness after the knowledge ritual is done with.” Harry had the impression that he’d got rid of some other word like friendship, which Harry had to agree didn’t square with what they had. “I just want that. Can you guarantee that?” He glanced at Harry like he was a drowning man and Harry had a rope.

Harry swallowed again. He dropped his hands from Draco’s shoulders and rubbed his face.

He had been willing to tell Ron and Hermione that the rape had made permanent and long-term changes in him, and that the existence of the bond meant that Draco and Severus were close to him. He had planned to stay close to them. He agreed that friendship wasn’t the right word for what they were to each other. 

He just hadn’t thought that either Draco or Severus planned to ask for this form of closeness to replace the friendship.

“Let me think about it, all right?” he asked, not turning to Draco. “I never intended to forget about you once we completed the knowledge ritual. But we have to finish that first. We don’t even know if Voldemort is back yet. If he is, we have to make fighting him our priority.”

“If he’s back,” said Draco, who hadn’t flinched at the name, it seemed, because he was too busy watching Harry, “then we’ll contain him and make sure he can’t harm us.” He paused. Harry let the silence continue, despite the intense pressure he could feel on his ears and mouth.

“But if he’s not back,” Draco whispered, “will you find some other excuse to run away?”

Harry turned his back violently. “I won’t abandon you,” he told the mirror on the wall behind him. “I don’t want to. But I don’t think I can contemplate a—a romance, okay? I never did before. Enough to stay a virgin. Just leave me alone and let me think about it.”

Draco hesitated, then nodded and left, all in the mirror. Harry went on watching him there until the door shut.

Then he huffed and leaned his forehead on the cool glass of the mirror.

He had lots of things to think about. But he also had a list of ritual ingredients to gather, and he was going to do that first.

*

Severus sighed and examined his list again. He had been sure the Manor gardens contained all the plants he needed, but of all things, he could not find dandelions here. The house-elves probably kept the grounds too clear of them.

He took a step towards the front doors, intent on Apparating to a few undisturbed wild places he knew where most of the plants might grow, and then paused as he saw Harry coming down the stairs. Harry nodded at him and walked more briskly.

Severus raised his eyebrows. Was that the way it was, then? If Harry wanted to be away from him for some reason, Severus would let him go ahead.

But then Harry stopped, and sighed, and turned to face him. “Draco said that he wants to be—around me even after we’ve finished the knowledge ritual,” he said. “Is that true for you? Because it would be weird to be friends or whatever we are with him if we don’t also include you.”

Severus held back an impulse that was too smug for its own good, and cocked his head. “It depends on what you mean by ‘around.’”

Harry grimaced as if he’d swallowed a snail. “He mentioned something about romantic, and liking it when I touched him in hospital. Honestly, all I did was hold him against a wall,” he muttered to himself.

Severus held back his own snide assessment of what that had looked like, and might have felt like to Draco, and simply nodded. “I would not say that my thoughts are exactly the same as Draco’s. I no longer know his thoughts. But I would not wish to simply wave farewell and never see you again.”

“Even though you and I have—” Harry searched for the words. “A more volatile history than Draco and I do?”

Severus held back his laughter at the terms that Harry had chosen to phrase that in, and simply nodded. “Yes, that would be part of it,” he said, and translated when Harry looked at him blankly. He could sometimes take pity on someone who badly needed him to. “The volatility of our history itself makes me want continued engagement.”

“Because you’re a masochist?”

Severus laughed in spite of himself, and took the widening of Harry’s eyes at the sound of his mirth as payment enough for losing his dignity. “No,” he said. “Because I find that I do not know how to name what lies between us, and I would like the time it will take to name it.”

Harry cocked his head, eyeing Severus as though he was truly inexplicable. Severus remained calm. Harry had not retreated or tried to name it yet. This might be progress.

“Okay,” said Harry. “As long as we’re not springing into some kind of crazy romantic relationship?” 

“We are not,” Severus said. “We might not ever give that name to what we are.”

“That’s true,” said Harry, and shook himself like Hagrid’s boarhound shaking off water. “Well, I don’t mind staying around and trying to find the name.”

He left. Severus gave himself a few instants of quiet to recover from the blow to his dignity before he followed.

Chapter Text

“I think that you’ve sufficiently proven yourself.”

Severus kept his voice bland, but caught the flash of pride in Draco’s eyes nevertheless. In truth, Draco had outdone himself. He had chosen the largest room in the Manor, had the house-elves scrub it down so that it was free of lingering magical influences as well as the tiny specks of dust that might imperil their ritual square, and then carved the square in the stone himself, the way the leader had to, with a command of his power that Severus frankly hadn’t known he had.

“Good,” said Draco, and gestured to the box of ingredients waiting beside him. “I thought we could go through these together. I’ve picked up the most magical stones from the grounds, but they only resonate with my power. They should ideally resonate with all of ours.”

His gaze went past Severus as he spoke, and Severus knew that Harry had arrived. Severus nodded. “It shouldn’t take that long. This close together, the resonances between our separate kinds of power will be easy to detect.”

Harry hesitated audibly, then moved towards them. “They will be?” he asked. “Sorry. I just never did something like this before.”

Severus eyed Harry critically. He seemed to be more stiff-backed than he had yesterday, although Severus knew for certain that he had found all the ingredients that Severus had sent him out for.

Well. This was a ritual that could still be dangerous, and it had to remind him of what the Aurors had wanted to do to him. Perhaps some stiffness was to be expected.

“Reach out and pick up one of the stones from the box,” Severus instructed Harry. “Hold it in your hand and concentrate on the power that you can sense from it. When you can feel something, nod your head if it’s comfortable, shake your head if it’s uncomfortable. I’ll try to tune my own magic to the stones that you find comfortable.”

“Doesn’t Draco need to do that, too?” Harry, of course, had to come up with a question, even as he dug down into the box and lifted up a smooth, round pebble.

“They’re already compatible with mine, or I wouldn’t have picked them up in the first place,” said Draco, and smiled a little at Harry. “Now you and Severus have to choose from among the ones that I’ve already sorted for you.”

Harry relaxed, for some reason. Severus was beginning to think that he might never understand him.

Or perhaps he would never understand exactly what the interplay was between Harry and Draco. That did not mean that he would never understand anything about Harry.

Harry shook his head about the pebble he held almost at once, and discarded it. It took several tries before he focused on a piece of quartz, and Severus stretched out his own hand above the stone and concentrated.

He could feel the shimmering resonance of it after a moment of concentration, the vibration that played in the stone’s core, the long-ago remnants of some spell performed on the Manor’s grounds or Malfoys who had used a larger piece of rock the stone had once been part of in a ritual. It did not matter where the magic came from, as long as it would play into and not jangle against Severus’s own power.

And this hum felt reassuring and sympathetic. Severus nodded, and Draco held out a box that Harry deposited the stone into, before he reached for another one from the original box.

Draco had a strange look on his face, one that Severus studied idly for a few minutes before Harry found another stone that he wanted to try. It was contentment, Severus realized finally. Even doing something as simple as this together seemed reassuring and comforting for Draco, and of course he would want to experience more of it, activities that would tie them together and keep them—

Close, Severus decided, and turned to the next piece of quartz that Harry had nodded over.

*

Harry stood in the center of the ritual square, while Severus stood on the rim of it and Draco stood beyond him, aiming in a straight line towards the far end of the room. It was the position of anchor, leader, balancer, the way it needed to be, at least if Harry had understood Severus’s notes correctly.

And he thought he had. In place of the demand for knowledge that the original ritual would have enacted, this one relied on the knowledge the participants had of themselves. The rocks that they had selected resonated with their magic along the corners of the square. The plants Severus had gathered and brewed into a potion they’d drunk just a few minutes ago were ones that reinforced clarity of mind and strength of thought. The bits of birds’ nests, animal fur, and nails and hair that Harry had been in charge of finding were strung on small cords around their necks and wrists, and would spread Harry’s touch over all of them at once.

Harry understood the principles. He thought Severus had modified the original knowledge ritual in a smart and interesting way.

But he also thought that they might not know themselves as well as they needed to, and a soft sliver of ice seemed to have been inserted into his spine.

Draco began the ritual, as leader, holding up his wand and weaving a coil of smoke back and forth over the side of the room where he stood. When he spoke another spell, the smoke began to expand, not forming more of itself but making a large blue loop that shone like a lasso around Severus’s torso and hands. Harry waited in silence for it to cross the edge of the ritual square. He could do nothing with it until then.

The moment arrived. Harry held out his wand towards it, making the strings of fur and other objects on him sway softly, and began to chant the spell that would command the smoke to wreathe around him like a snake. He threw in a hiss of Parseltongue at the end, which Severus had thought would be a good idea.

The smoke climbed and lazily draped itself around his neck and hair. Harry was tempted to hold his breath against the smell for a moment, but then he exhaled, and realized that the smoke wouldn’t enter his lungs. It would stay exactly where he was supposed to put it unless something about the ritual messed up.

Harry raised his head. As the balancer, Severus was supposed to cast the next two spells, one directed towards Harry and one towards Draco. 

But Severus stood there with his wand held up and laid flat vertically on the air, as though he was pushing against an invisible door. Small drops of sweat stood out on his forehead. Harry licked his lips, and held back the urge to cough. The smoke was not climbing into his lungs. He had to remember that.

“There is a barrier here,” Severus said, his voice low as though he didn’t want the ritual to hear them. Since the only magic in it right now was the magic they were providing, Harry thought that was a little silly, but he could respect the impulse. “Something that should not be here. I cannot cast the spell.”

“What kind of barrier?” Draco, too, barely moved his lips. 

“A barrier of will,” said Severus, and paused. “You told me that both of you were willing to go through this. Is that not true?”

“I am,” said Harry, startled. Of all things, he hadn’t thought that would be a problem. He and Draco both trusted Severus. He looked at Draco, who nodded with the same wrinkled forehead and narrowed eyes. No, Harry didn’t think Draco was harboring any secret doubts, either, or they couldn’t have got this far.

“There is still a barrier,” said Severus, and his face was dark in a way that Harry had seen only during the war. “Perhaps the Dark Lord’s presence…” He moved his wand back and forth, and then spoke another spell, not the one Harry knew they needed, perhaps just to make sure that he could.

A second later, the halo of smoke around him turned white and drifted sideways, and then formed around Draco, clinging and washing up and down like seafoam. Draco looked both startled and angry, turning his head from side to side as though that would erase the evidence of him being the one who was resisting the ritual.

“I need to know what question you would like to ask instead, Draco,” Severus said, in a voice like iron filings.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about!” Draco’s expression was straightforward, flustered and flushed. “I want to know if the Dark Lord is coming back! Of course I do!” He jerked at his left sleeve, so angry that it took him two tries to pull it up and reveal the Dark Mark. “Do you think that I hate this any less than you do? Do you think I secretly want him to come back or something?”

“No,” said Severus, although from his slowly shifting wand, Harry wondered if he really believed that. “But there is another question you wish you could ask instead. I know there is. I need to know what that question is, Draco, and why you’re so set on finding the answer.”

Draco hissed like a balked cat. Harry certainly heard no edge of Parseltongue that he could have reasoned with in those words. “I don’t know what I would want to know more!” Then his face went pale, and his posture still.

“You didn’t know,” said Severus. “Now you do. What is it?”

Draco stared at Harry. Harry looked back, wondering if Draco thought he was the key to Voldemort’s return, if the return would somehow concentrate on Harry’s scar and make Harry back into a Horcrux instead, and if that meant Draco was afraid of him. It would hurt if so, but Harry had put up with worse pain.

“I want to know what exactly,” said Draco, and paused, and licked his lips, and swallowed.

“You must ask it, or we cannot continue with the knowledge ritual,” said Severus. “We must be united in our desire to figure out whether the Dark Lord is coming back.”

Draco licked his lips again and again. Harry narrowed his eyes at him. From the way Draco was staring, this had something to do with Harry himself, but Harry didn’t know what it was, and he was getting rather tired of trying to divine it.

“Well?” he demanded. “Spit it out.”

Draco did, finally. “Why were you still a virgin able to sacrifice your virginity? It makes no sense.”

Harry clenched his hands down so hard that he nearly snapped one of the strings holding a bit of squirrel fur around his neck. He closed his eyes, reoriented himself so that the floor wasn’t spinning, and said, “What business is that of yours?”

“I’ve wondered it,” said Draco, not in the apologetic tone that Harry had expected, but simply. “And it’s apparently more important to me than the Dark Lord’s return.” Harry heard him hesitate, the little scuffle of his shoe over the floor. All of Harry’s senses seemed to have sharpened as he stood there in darkness, listening. “No, it—it’s part of the bond. It’s the reason the bond could form in the first place. And it’s part of, part of the explanation that might tell me whether there’s any chance in the future.”

“For a romantic relationship,” Harry muttered. He looked at Severus. Surely this was disrupting the knowledge ritual and the far more important task of learning whether Voldemort was back in the world?

But although Severus was frowning at Draco, his face wasn’t thunderous. He didn’t even twitch or make the little twirling gesture with his wand that Harry had learned indicated impatience. Harry swallowed a sigh. He reckoned that Severus would have to intervene later, if they did take up too much time. Right now, they weren’t.

“Yes,” said Draco. “Sorry, but I was thinking…you said it was complicated. That we weren’t your friends. I don’t know if we can name what we are, but I want to understand it more. We can’t have the name, so I want the history.”

Harry sighed and scratched the back of his neck. “No offense, Draco, but I don’t think I can ever have sex with you the way you’re thinking.” They had to be honest, didn’t they, so they could go back to investigating Voldemort’s return? “Not when my one experience of sex was like that.”

Draco’s flinch was deep enough to penetrate his bones, but he said, “That might not be what we—could have, anyway. I want to know why it happened at all. The bond is the most fascinating thing to me, not the Dark Lord’s return. And this is—something I might never know, even if we settle into friendship.”

Harry groaned and rubbed his face with one hand. “You mean I’m the most fascinating thing to you,” he mutters. “You’d think you’d be over that now that you’ve seen the inside of my mind.”

“That’s not true!” Draco had surging color in his cheeks that made Harry open his mouth again, but Draco continued quickly. “I’m fascinated with Severus, too!”

Severus turned around and gave Draco a long, inscrutable look. Draco either didn’t see it or chose to ignore it for now; Harry would bet the latter. Draco was still staring at Harry. “I know some of what Severus thought, because I was in the same position as him when it came to the bond,” he whispered, and flinched. “Maybe I don’t really have the right to ask this, but I have to, to get the ritual back on track.”

Harry rolled his eyes, because it was that or burst out cursing. “Would you ever have asked it?”

“Later, if you were more comfortable with me and willing to answer.”

Harry calmed himself, with an effort. Yes, Draco wasn’t perfect, not by a long shot, but it wasn’t like Harry was, either. “Fine,” he said. “I was a virgin because there were other things to concentrate on. Unless you think I should have thought about my cock when there was a war on and we were all struggling to survive.”

He’d deliberately put it as crudely as possible, and from the flush that deepened in his cheeks, Draco knew that. But he persisted. “If you missed out during the war, fine, I can understand that. But it’s been almost six years since the end of the war. Why?”

“It never seemed as important as other things,” said Harry. That was the simple truth, and one reason that he hadn’t tried to explain it to other people. “But the other part was that I watched Ron and Hermione, and I saw what they had, and I wanted that. They knew each other from the time they were kids, and they were meant for each other. I thought I had that, a couple times, but it always ended pretty quickly. I think I was looking for something that would take years, like it took with them.”

Draco looked smug. Harry rolled his eyes. Arguably, he had known them for years, too, but it wasn’t remotely the same.

“Anyway,” said Harry. “Why does it matter that much why I was still a virgin? It was a lucky thing for you. For all of us.”

“It’s not just a matter of luck to me,” said Draco. “I don’t want you to go away.”

“I told you that I’m not going to run out the door the minute the knowledge ritual is done,” said Harry, giving a pointed look at the smoke eddying around them. If it ever would be done, with the way that Draco went on. But so far, Draco didn’t seem to be picking up on that. Harry plowed on. “I’ll stay in touch.”

“I want more than that,” Draco said.

Harry sighed and rested his forehead on his hand. “Even knowing that it’s more than I’d give anyone else who wasn’t a friend?” he asked. “I can’t forget about the two of you and walk away, but I’m not sure that I’ll ever be able to give you what you want, either.”

As he spoke, he looked at Severus, who stood still and hadn’t moved. His eyes were the only things that shifted, slowly blinking, back and forth between Harry and Draco. He looked as if he had gazed into the heart of a sun and didn’t know how to look away.

“It doesn’t matter that much to you, does it?” Harry asked him, because he didn’t know where else to turn for his lack of answers to Draco’s questions. “Whether we just talk, or kiss, or what?” He turned to Draco when Severus didn’t answer. “And you don’t know how long it would take for me to feel comfortable kissing anyone again. I mean it. Anyone. How can you know? Do you really think that we’ll have a normal relationship?”

*

Draco might have said something sensible, with time and thought, but from the direct flash of his eyes, he was not going to. That left it up to Severus to intervene.

“The fact of your virginity obsesses Draco because the bond obsesses him,” he said, and saw Draco turn and glare at him. Well, it was true. There was no other way that Draco’s desire to know would have got in the way of the far more important matter of learning whether the Dark Lord was back. “That does not mean that we must all be obsessed the same way. It does not mean that something need happen between us this day, this month, this year. This decade. We are wizards. We will live perhaps a hundred years more.”

“That’s true,” said Harry, although he was looking at Severus now as if he was the one who had pushed too far. “But do you really think this connection between us will last that long?”

“It is not one that I had pictured ending.”

Harry blinked several times, and reached up with one hand, moving it back and forth as though there was dust in his eyes. “That’s mental,” he whispered. “I understand that you feel this strongly, but—that’s mental.”

“Who knows how long it will last, on your part?” Severus murmured. He supposed that, of all of them, Harry was the one most likely to find someone else and settle into a normal marriage, or relationship. On the other hand, he had not done so until this point. They were not the destined relationship he had been seeking, but they were not like anything else normal, either, so Severus felt comfortable dismissing the notion that things would simply snap back to “normal” for Harry someday. “I cannot easily see it ending for either of us.”

Draco frowned a little, but flipped his head down in a short nod when Harry looked at him. He did not say anything, Severus thought, wisely. Harry already had an abundance of things to think about.

“Fine,” said Harry. “I have to admit that it’s kind of comforting, in a weird way, to think that I might always have people in my life who are—connected to me.” Severus nearly snorted. There were other words Harry might have sought out, but he had chosen a neutral one. Perhaps that was also wise. “But you don’t have to date me, seriously. Or kiss me, or fuck me, or whatever else you were thinking you had to.”

“Are you familiar with the concept of desire, Harry?” Draco muttered, shaking his head. “That has very little to do with have to.”

Not as familiar as he could have been, Severus thought, watching Harry, how startled and young his face appeared right now, fronting their questioning. He thought Harry had probably concentrated ferociously on all sorts of things, whether or not he realized it. Surviving the war. Becoming good at his job. Surviving the ritual that had seen them tortured and then surviving what he thought were the unreasonable demands of the bond. With all those gone, there was perhaps room for a gentler kind of concentration, one that might let him explore his own desire.

Or desire to do more than survive, anyway. Severus could admit that was one longing Harry was passionately familiar with, and had just as passionately fulfilled.

If he could focus on something else…

The smoke eddying around him tightened. Severus sighed. They could consider such things and the inevitable distractions they presented later, when they were out of the knowledge ritual and had the answer they had come to seek.

“So you have your question responded to,” he told Draco. “You know yourself well enough now to continue? You have a clear enough mind?”

Draco looked him directly in the eye instead of flinching as he once would have before such criticism. “Yes. We can go on.”

Severus smiled without need for further comment and turned to face the square carved into the floor again. He cast the spell that would weave the smoke around all of them, and the strings that they wore, containing the bits and parts of animals that Harry had scavenged, rose up and floated towards the smoke.

This time, there was no barrier. This time, the lines of the square thrummed with power through the stones they were carved on, and Severus could hear what sounded like the whispers of other voices chanting along with them.

They knew what they wanted to ask. And Draco was the one who spoke first, as leader, his voice clear and precise. “Has the Dark Lord Voldemort returned to life in any fashion, in any part of himself?”

The string of power that ran through him to Severus vibrated and began to pick up speed. Severus tilted his head back and gritted his teeth at the same time. It was like being back in the bond, both the intimacy and the disadvantages of it.

He didn’t need to speak. Instead, he rested his wand on his own Dark Mark and spoke to the echo of the Dark Lord’s power there, then passed both the echo and the question down the cord to Harry. He would use them to reach out into the darkness of ignorance and force a response from it. Somewhere lay the knowledge. It would come to them if they reached strongly enough, if they willed strongly enough.

Given the strength of Harry’s concentration they had both heard him confess, Severus did not think that was the difficult part. If Harry felt more distant from them, though, or less inclined to cooperate…

He did not. He was speaking the words, his hands extended towards the nearest of the stones that they had found which resonated with their power.

“Has the Dark Lord Voldemort returned to life in any fashion, in any part of himself?” Harry said the words in a low voice at first, building up to a grating roar. “I will know, and I will know now.”

The power stabbed out from him, riding a wave of will that Severus liked to think came from all of them, though perhaps the largest part of it was Harry’s. It collided with some far, distant barrier that Severus didn’t recognize, and in fact reeled back from. For a moment, he felt his blood pounding with magic, and as though some vast mind had turned in their direction and was considering them, and as if the knowledge of the universe waited to rush into his thoughts and overwhelm him.

Then the sense of magic retreated, and Harry lowered his hands, looking shaken. He touched his forehead and winced. Severus tensed as he saw the slow trickle of blood leaking from under his fringe. Perhaps that was their answer, that the Dark Lord was once more active in Harry’s scar.

But Harry slowly pulled the hair away, and then they could see.

The scar had changed shape. In place of the jagged lightning bolt were capital letters. NO.

Draco caught his breath harshly from behind Severus. Severus knew he had seen it, too. He didn’t take his eyes from Harry, who was staggering from the backwash of power leaving his body, but he backed up until he could put one hand on Draco’s shoulder. Draco squeezed his wrist, and Severus read in that silent gesture all they would ever need to say to each other about their relief.

Even as Severus watched, the bloody letters changed back into the lightning bolt, and Harry staggered to his knees. “I’d forgotten how much that hurts,” he muttered, still clutching his forehead.

Severus moved forwards to take his shoulder and help him to his feet. “You understand that he is not coming back?” he asked quietly. Harry could not have read the message.

Harry snorted at him. “When I heard a voice like a bell in my head telling me no, I understood, all right.”

Then, without fuss, he fainted. Draco shook his head and called for a house-elf to help them take Harry back up to his rooms.

Severus leaned carefully against a wall. One dread possibility, at least, was over.

His gaze lingered on both Harry and Draco, who glanced back and forth between them as if he was their own personal balancer. Perhaps something else can now begin.

Chapter Text

“You didn’t tell us you were going to be gone that long.”

Harry made an apologetic face at Ron and hugged him, watching Hermione over Ron’s shoulder. She seemed a little more inclined to simply frown at him, but Harry had to admit that he didn’t know how much she was trying to hold herself back.

“We had to conduct a knowledge ritual to find out that information I told you,” he said. “And I did send you a letter yesterday.”

Ron snorted. “That you were rooting around in the garden for bits of fur and bone! That doesn’t tell us much, you know, mate?” He stepped back and gazed critically at Harry, as if examining him for signs of suspicious Slytherin diseases. “It doesn’t stop us from worrying.”

"I'm sorry," Harry said, as sincerely as he could. And that was pretty sincerely. But he couldn't stop from thinking about the way that his friends would have reacted if they'd seen the knowledge ritual and the way that the force, or creature, or whatever it really was, had answered the question, and couldn't help snickering. "The important thing is that the ritual told us for sure that there's no danger of the person connected to the Lestranges coming back and harming us again. That's all over and done with."

"The person is gone forever?" Hermione asked him, with a twist of her voice and a raise of an eyebrow that told him she probably suspected the truth.

Harry gave her a bland look. "Yes. Completely gone."

Finally Hermione softened and came over to give him a hug and a soft kiss on his cheek. "I can't pretend to like it, or understand it, but I'm glad that you have this sort of peace. I just wish we had been able to do more to help you achieve it."

Harry placed his arm around her shoulders and led her towards the Burrow, picking up Ron's shoulders with his other arm on the way. "You lot helped me more than you could ever know," he told them softly. "By giving me something normal to come back to. Draco and Severus are good at lots of things, but normal isn't really them."

That made his friends laugh, and then Ron made a joke about Gryffindors and Slytherins that started Hermione talking about the past, and soon they were sitting around with food and drinks talking about past Gryffindor Quidditch games and what would have happened if Hermione, for some incomprehensible reason, had become a Beater. It was the sort of reasoning that made sense when you were drunk, if not the morning after.

And all the time, Harry sat there with both a smile, sincerely felt, on his lips, and a sense of mourning and uncertainty in his heart. It didn't drive out the joy he felt at being in the presence of his friends, but it was there all the same, the same way there was an unacknowledged Gryffindor part of him beating at the bottom of his mind when he was with Draco and Severus.

The thing he couldn't tell his friends, although it was there at the back of his mind and sometimes even in his tongue, was that he wasn't sure if he did normal anymore, either.

*

Draco sighed as he set aside the second book he'd been trying to read for enjoyment that day. He felt restless and out of sorts, trying to imagine what he was gong to do now that the excitement of the knowledge ritual and their vengeance was gone. Severus had his brewing, always, and the way that they had made the Aurors reappear, Harry might be able to resume some of his old life. But Draco was left with no abiding passion or interest of his own.

That's not true. You must have done something to fill your days, before. You didn't spend all your time with Severus.

That was true, but the memories filled Draco's head in strange, wispy traces that seemed all light without color. Had he really spent all day reading the paper and writing letters of business? That had hardly filled an hour this morning. He'd lost the ability to make it stretch, to think of time as something that would be his to play with, making what he did a matter of no great urgency.

He stood up, restless beyond measure, beyond words, and went to see what Severus was doing in the lab. That was a stopgap measure, too, but at least he would be with one of the two people who had become the most important to him for reasons he couldn't help.

When he knocked at the door of Severus’s lab, there was no response save a faint, dull sound, and the appearance of a yellow ward above his head. Draco sighed. That ward meant any noise he made would automatically be silenced inside the lab, so as not to disturb Severus while he worked on a delicate potion.

Draco grimaced. All that time that he’d wanted to be rid of the bond, and now he kept running into situations where the bond would be useful.

He settled down in the corridor to wait, Summoning a chair and the book he’d been reading earlier. A history of Muggle-wizard conflict wouldn’t be his first choice, but this book was written from such a different, non-pure-blood perspective that Draco had been a bit surprised to find it in a Malfoy collection. At least it gave him something to argue with.

*

Severus checked when he opened the door of his lab and found Draco sitting on a chair a short distance away. The sense of quiet, pulsing contentment that he had finally made the new version of Wolfsbane do what he wanted melted away, and he automatically drew his wand and glanced up and down the corridor, searching for Harry.

“What is it?” he asked, turning back to Draco, who was gaping at him.

“What do you mean, what is it?” Draco shook his head and laid down a book Severus hadn’t consciously realized he was holding. “I only wanted to talk to you, but you had that bloody ward up that wouldn’t let him me knock. I was just waiting for you to finish.”

Severus slid his wand back into his sleeve, feeling a trifle ridiculous, but only a trifle, for the reasons that he rapidly disclosed to Draco. “You could have waited in many more comfortable places. The library, for example. And had a house-elf give you word of when I had done. Or you could have seen me at dinner.”

“As if a little discomfort would put me off the things I want, now,” Draco said flatly, and cast the book aside completely.

As he stood, Severus had a moment’s vivid sympathy with Harry, who had stared at Draco during the knowledge ritual as if he knew what it was like to be hunted. This Draco moved with an intensity that he had never had before, and walked up to Severus and peered into his face as if he had a perfect right to do so. Severus found himself lifting a hand to ward Draco off, and Draco only caught it and turned it over.

“What is it going to be like, now that the bond is gone and even our questions about the Dark Lord are answered?” Draco whispered. “Are you going to retreat from me, and just make us friends again?”

“If I were going to do that, I would have gone home already,” said Severus. “I have a perfectly good lab there.”

“Why haven’t you?”

Severus’s muscles tightened. He knew the answer to that question, not because he had spent a long time pondering it, but because the instant Draco spoke said question, the answer appeared in his mind.

He did have to swallow and respond, little though he wanted to. “Because you are here.”

Draco kept his head and his hands up, but motionless. Then he reached forwards again, touch as confident as though he knew Severus wouldn’t reject it.

Severus shivered as Draco touched his shoulder and the side of his neck, but he didn’t move away. This was—not inevitable, perhaps. Perhaps a side effect of the bond. Perhaps a way to try and recapture the closeness without tying themselves up in the idiocy of the bond.

Or perhaps it was simply an acknowledgment that the bond had happened, and they could not go back to pretending it had not.

“So your heart is beating like it wants to leap out and hide in my hand,” Draco said in a thoughtful voice, “but you aren’t actually retreating from me.”

“I know that if I did, you would only come after me,” said Severus, and attempted to clear his throat and shake his head when Draco shot him a sharp glance. “That is not the only reason that I am doing this.”

“Good.” Draco curled his lip. “I don’t want to be pitied. I’m going to live with the inevitable instead of struggling with it, but I don’t want to feel like I’m settling for second best.”

Severus bristled. It was true that he had never had a regular lover or someone who wanted to spend long periods of time with him for more reasons than temporary alliance or life-debts, but he was not second best. “I would not do that, either.”

Draco paused as though waiting for something else. Severus didn’t move. He was too pleased to see the crack in Draco’s self-confidence that he thought desire had put there.

“Fine,” said Draco. “As long as we’re thinking the same things, then.” And he proved that they didn’t always do that by leaning forwards and kissing Severus, who had certainly not expected to be kissed.

Severus did not dislike the kiss; it was simply new. He reached up and locked his hands around Draco’s head and neck so that he was the one who could control the pace and depth of the kiss. From the way he hissed, Draco didn’t dislike that, either.

Severus slowly tasted Draco’s lips, his tongue, the corners of his mouth, his palate, his teeth. Draco was panting by the time he had finished, and Severus took pleasure in that, as well. If he was also affected, at least that showed that they were both the same, in several ways.

“Bloody hell,” said Draco, slumping against him and panting into the side of his collarbone, which was a sensation Severus had had no idea could bring him so much pleasure. “It’s going to be hard to wait for Harry to return.”

“Why should we?” Severus had not thought beyond the first few minutes of this encounter, but if those minutes now passed showed any indication, it was that they could let their hands and bodies could lead the way. His hand slid down towards Draco’s groin, and he did not specifically remember commanding it to do that.

“If you think we can do this without Harry, then we’re not thinking the same things, after all,” Draco said quietly, pulling back and staring up at him.

“I was not thinking of doing everything without him,” said Severus, and tensed his neck. “Merely that we could begin.”

Draco grinned. “Then we’re closer to thinking the same things, after all.” He had got his hands into Severus’s hair and was doing interesting things with it, mostly running his fingers back and forth as if he was trying to make it into curls. “But I would still feel better if he was here for the first time.”

Severus tried to look as if he was completely neutral about all of this. He knew it was probably futile, but he tried, anyway. “You don’t know that he’ll want to participate fully as we do. Perhaps he’ll only want to watch.”

Draco moaned against him, and his hips moved in a way that was completely uncoordinated. Severus stared at him. He didn’t need to ask what kind of reaction his words had inspired; what he didn’t know was why.

But Draco’s face was pale and slack as his, and when the color did come back into it, he glanced away. “I didn’t know that about myself,” he muttered, feeling the back of his neck as though his blush was a surprise to him, too. “I’m not sure I needed to know that about myself.”

“I think that we will learn far more than that,” Severus murmured, and placed a hand casually on Draco’s shoulder when he tensed as if he would have withdrawn. “Will you allow such knowledge to make you retreat?”

“I was only pulling away to get some air,” said Draco. “Since I don’t want to go further without Harry around.”

“And you don’t know if he will want to go even so far as this,” said Severus softly. “It is not cowardice?”

“I won’t deny that I was a coward a lot of the time in the war,” said Draco. “But I haven’t been one since then. Did you think it was something other than courage that let me bring t