‘Why can’t I just Floo back?’
‘Because I will not risk attempting to travel somewhere I may or may not be permitted to enter.’ Snape was definitely reaching the end of his patience, his tone clipped and icy as he resorted to grabbing Harry round the top of his arm and dragging him bodily down the street, his feet stumbling beneath him as he fought to regain his balance.
‘I will Apparate us to the street outside, and then we shall see.’ The remark was as dismissive as ever, a habit that was becoming increasingly irritating. Harry was fairly sure that at this point it would be less effort for Snape just to answer his questions straight away, instead of replying with the least possible number of syllables.
‘Where are we going now, then?’ Harry pressed, gesturing to the severe lack of Apparition. Even Snape’s glare was becoming drained in the face of his constant harassment.
‘Do you ever tire of asking that inane question? If you need to know what I am doing, I will tell you.’ Snape closed his eyes tiredly for a moment, no doubt anticipating the next round of questioning. He didn’t query his good fortune when none came, and continued as though Harry had caused him equal inconvenience with his silence. ‘It is a criminal offence to be caught Apparating into a Muggle area. There are, however, for those who know where to look, certain places less well protected from which we will be able to leave without detection.’ He pulled Harry into a narrow alley, stepping lightly over the rubbish that lined the ground beneath them before stalking ahead. When they reached a wall with no noticeable way of passing he stopped and held out his hand, prepared for Harry’s reaction to the gesture. ‘Rest assured this brings me no joy either. However, the more physical contact you allow, the less unpleasant the effects of this will be.’ Harry consented to the hand wrapping round his own, and the arm that pushed against the length of his. It didn’t prepare him for the feeling of being squashed down into a small ball of nothingness, or the sensation that his insides were trying to crawl out of his skin, as the world stretched and twisted around him. He staggered when they landed, automatically clinging for support until his equilibrium reasserted itself and he pulled away, blushing ferociously.
To his relief, the doorway to number twelve still stood exactly where he remembered it, as he stepped onto the overgrown path.
‘Potter.’ Snape’s sneer halted his steps. ‘Before you continue, would you be so good as to inform me?’
‘The house, Potter,’ Snape said unnecessarily slowly. ‘I assume you can see it, but I cannot. I would rather you enabled me to follow you before you disappear from my sight.’
‘It’s right there.’ Harry gestured widely, the sweep of his arm encompassing the two houses next door and a fairly wide patch of sky. It was apparently enough though, as Snape pushed impatiently ahead of him and opened the door, wand pointed down the musty hallway.
‘Fortunately for you, eloquence does not appear to be a requirement,’ he said with disdain, stepping across the threshold as Harry followed. He turned on him seconds after, barely giving Harry enough time to close the door, the small click of the lock lost to the Potion Master’s abrupt demands. ‘Did you search the house at all before leaving?’ Harry shook his head silently. ‘Are you sure?’
‘Yes!’ he declared hotly. ‘I just looked for Remus in his bedroom, then came straight down to the kitchen.’ Snape regarded him through narrowed eyes, obviously determined he was lying. Harry refused to meet his gaze though, leaving him with no choice but to reluctantly believe him.
‘You will stay in this very spot. You will not move and you will not speak. You will not do a single blessed thing until I tell you it is safe to do so.’ Snape stared unblinkingly at him, causing Harry to squirm slightly. ‘We do not know if the place has been compromised.’
‘Fine.’ Harry leant mulishly against the bare wall as Snape cast one final, disapproving look in his direction, before scaling the staircase. He heard a door open, footsteps above him circling rapidly and a muffled spell he couldn’t quite make out, before they moved away again. A second door opened as Harry sunk to the floor, fingers picking at the splintered floorboard in boredom and annoyance. He almost didn’t hear the faint click of the door closing again, as his eyes drifted up the stairs and tried vainly to see round corners. He wished Fred and George had gone out of their way to make some Extendable Eyes, even if the thought was kind of disgusting. Even a set of Extendable Ears would have done, since he could just about make out soft voices, muffled by the closed door. Moving slowly to his feet, Harry crossed the couple of paces to the foot of the stairs. The voices were still indiscernible, but there was no mistaking the angry tones of an argument. Lifting one foot, he gingerly tried the first step, lowering his weight slowly and relaxing at the silence that remained. Steadying himself with one hand on the railings, Harry stepped up again, the creaking wood making occasional protests beneath him. Half way up, he froze as the wood groaned ominously beneath him, but there was no break in the flow of heated words drifting down the staircase, so he let out the breath he had been holding and continued upwards.
The door to his room was ajar, no doubt the way he had left it. Harry didn’t recall seeing anything potentially threatening in it, but then again, he hadn’t really been paying very much attention. The door to the room Snape had already searched was also swinging open, as Harry edged past it, willing Snape not to come storming out into the corridor at that moment. The words were much clearer now as he approached the closed door, and it suddenly occurred to him with dismay that Snape could very well have charmed the thing to be inaccessible. Why he didn’t bother with a silencing charm whilst he was at it made Harry think it unlikely the thought had even crossed his professor’s mind. His hand closed round the cold door handle and he twisted.
‘You are a fool, old man,’ Snape’s voice was low as he raised his wand. ‘Incendio!’
Harry threw the door open, bursting through as it hit the wall behind with a loud bang, and staring aghast at Snape’s extended wand as the portrait burst into hungry flames. He spotted a flash of white disappearing off the edge of the crumbling canvas, the heat of the flames making his eyes water from the dry air as Snape rounded on him angrily. ‘Potter! I told you quite specifically to stay downstairs.’
‘Who was it?’ he asked desperately, voice frantic with worry. Snape paused for a second before answering.
‘Phineas Nigellus,’ he eventually replied, crossing his arms as Harry continued to stare at the dying flames.
‘He could not be trusted, especially given that he still has a portrait in Hogwarts.’ Harry’s eyes widened as he remembered the use to which Dumbledore had put the portrait, and at the thought of who now sat in his old Headmaster’s chair. ‘I could not risk him passing on information.’
Harry swallowed, his throat now parched and painful, seemingly made more so at the prospect of what he had to admit he had seen. ‘I think he ran away, just before your spell got him.’
‘What?’ Snape roared angrily.
‘I saw something running off the edge of the frame,’ Harry said nervously as Snape strode towards him.
‘Did he see you?’ Snape grabbed his shoulders, fingers pinching hard as Harry shook his head.
‘I don’t think so.’
Pushing Harry distastefully away, Snape snarled, ‘You are an idiot. Stay here, and I mean really stay here this time.’ He stalked past Harry, slamming the door behind him and muttering a few words before his footsteps retreated again. A couple of half hearted turns of the doorknob verified the locking charm Snape had used, not wanting to be caught unprepared a second time, and Harry fought back the uncomfortable mixture of helpless anger and shame. It was a couple of minutes before Snape returned and the door was opened. The man didn’t bother with niceties, his thin frame blocking the doorway as he glared imperiously down at Harry. ‘Will you finally listen to what I tell you?’ he demanded as Harry nodded resentfully. ‘Will you?’
‘We shall have to wait and see if that is actually true, I suppose.’ Snape stepped out of the only exit, allowing Harry back out into the hallway. He kept his head down as he moved, his pride throbbing in tandem every step. ‘But rest assured, you will find yourself locked back in that damn room if I even suspect you of disobeying.’ Harry nodded mutely again, coughing reluctantly even as the action burnt his sore throat. He got no more than a jerk of the head for further instructions, and he trailed morosely back down the stairs as Snape stormed ahead and entered the kitchen. A glass of water was thrust tersely into his hands when he finally entered.
‘Thanks,’ he muttered, taking a couple of sips. A gentle tapping at the window caught him off guard as he jumped, slopping the cold liquid down the front of his robes. Snape merely rolled his eyes before opening the window, a large owl soaring in and perching itself on the back of a chair as Snape detached the large roll of paper from its leg.
‘It’s just my owl.’ Harry scowled as Snape smirked at his discomfort.
‘You’re still getting a newspaper?’ he questioned to cover his embarrassment at overreacting, as the large bird flew off into the bright sky and the window was slammed back into place with a crash.
‘Of course, although the idea of free press has become somewhat outdated.’ Snape stared at Harry’s perplexed expression, misreading the nature of the confusion. Harry had been worried purely about the appearance of the magical animal at a place supposed to be hidden. Harry wondered how bad things had been for Snape to automatically assume his question had been so much larger. ‘Life goes on Potter, what did you expect? A world devoted to endless torture and gesticulation? Enslaved millions spending their every waking minute grovelling and worshipping? Tithes and tributes, perhaps?’ It all sounded so ridiculous, made even more so by the fact that, yes, it was exactly what he had expected. ‘People still need food, and homes. They still need to be clothed. They still get ill or hurt and require medical attention. Children still need to learn, although the curriculum is naturally somewhat different to what you remember. The very basis of life has not changed; we would fall apart without it.’ A moment of silence followed, Snape’s voice becoming no more than a bitter undertone. ‘We very nearly did.’
Snape recovered himself admirably, sneer back in place as he looked down his nose at the table before him, apparently reluctant to look directly at Harry. ‘Power goes to ones head, and absolute power reduces all reason for anything beyond the most basic of instincts. People were starving and dying needlessly…well, more needlessly. The Dark Lord almost found himself with nothing and no one left to rule.’ Harry said nothing, simply gazed at the folded newspaper with blinkered eyes, moving slowly towards the door even as Snape pulled out a chair and banished the worst of the dust.
‘What are you going to do now then, sir?’ he asked with careful neutrality. Snape barely looked up.
‘I am going to sit in some well deserved peace and quiet for the first time in too long and think, since evidently I now need to be doing it for two.’
‘I’ll leave you alone, then.’ Harry got nothing more than a dismissive grunt in reply, as he closed the door quietly behind him.
The house hadn’t changed much since he’d last been in it. Even his usual chair still sat at its proper place around the table, although he supposed it had become someone else’s after time. It didn’t offer many clues as to what had happened in it though. It was too clean, once one looked past the accumulation of so many years’ dust and dirt, to have been abandoned in desperation. The beds were made and the sink empty. Even the chairs surrounding the table at which he now sat were ordered perfectly. Someone had taken the time to tidy before they left.
Thinking about it, it seemed logical to assume that the house had served less as a base of operations and more as a prison to those it was trying to protect in its last moments of use. And someone had definitely been the last to leave, and had left in the knowledge they would not be coming back.
Snape doubted the Fidelus Charm was still responsible for protecting the place, despite the initial similarities. For one thing, Potter’s pathetic attempt to inform him of its existence had been far from satisfactory to fulfilling the charm. More importantly though was the simple fact that Potter had most assuredly not been around when the last remaining resident fled, and therefore the passing on of the responsibility of the charm would have been impossible. The whole thing positively reeked of Albus’ influence. Elements of the Fidelus Charm amalgamated with your basic property protection wards, which allowed access only to the rightful owner, seemed the most likely conclusion, from what he could gather from the limited evidence. Not that it particularly mattered, since Snape doubted they would find the place stormed any time in the near future. Curiosity was an unpleasant thing, however, when there was little chance of a satisfactory answer.
A small fire in the littered hearth provided a source of warmth and an escape from the damp and musky smell that engulfed the house after being empty for so long. Rooting around in the drawers revealed a serviceable kettle, restored to all its former glory with a harsh cleaning spell. He had to use a spell to create water, since the plumbing gave an unholy wail when the tap was turned. Whilst he was quite capable of summoning tea, too many discussions with Albus over such a creation had led to an appreciation of the real thing. Hanging the kettle carefully over the flames he sank back into his seat again in quiet contemplation.
It had been only three days since the unaccountable disappearance of the Boy Who Lived, and Snape had never had the misfortune of seeing the Headmaster so truly frantic. Owls streamed through his window in and endless flurry of hope, the fireplace barely finding the time to cool before another would rush through, scarcely exchanging more than a couple of words before leaving once again to continue the fruitless search.
‘There is nothing, no trace of him whatsoever?’ Lupin shook his head, not finding it in himself to use anything as final as words in answer as Dumbledore turned his eyes to Snape, the pale blue for once faded and dull. ‘Severus, please tell me you have news?’
‘The Dark Lord does not have him.’ Albus sagged with relief into his chair, his entire body slumping forwards as he held his face in his hands. The man was defeated, his weakness exploited to its full potential.
‘How could we have failed him?’
‘He is not looking for him either.’ Dumbledore stiffened again at Snape’s flat words, exhaling heavily. ‘Lucius offered to lead the hunt upon discovering he was missing. He was rejected. Apparently Potter is ‘nowhere we are yet capable of going.’’
‘So he knows where Harry is, but can’t get to him?’ Lupin’s brow furrowed in deliberation before he thumped the desk in an uncharacteristic display of anger, tiny glass charms from unnamed objects rattling gently as Fawkes ruffled his feathers and crooned from his perch. ‘It doesn’t make any bloody sense!’ Dumbledore shook his head, whether in disagreement or complete and utter despair was anybody’s guess.
‘And Voldemort will tell you no more?’ The Headmaster met Snape’s flat gaze and held it for a couple of uncomfortable seconds, leaving Snape with a disquieting feeling of guilt he felt compelled to dispel.
‘He is not telling any of his servants any more than that. Apparently the joke is his, and his alone. At least for the time being.’ Dumbledore sat in contemplative silence for what seemed an eternity before speaking again, his words slow and weighted.
‘It causes me great distress to ask any more of you, Severus, but there is so much more than just your own life at risk.’ Snape refrained from pointing out that his life had been at risk for quite some time. ‘You must get closer. Whilst your information thus far has been invaluable, and instrumental in saving any number of lives, I’m afraid the occasional advanced warning of times and dates are no longer enough. We need to know what he is thinking.’ Snape nodded, his expression blank as he rose from his seat.
‘You understand it may be some time before I am able to return.’ Dumbledore at least refrained from the injustice of giving him the opportunity to back out.
It wasn’t as though he hadn’t expected it. The Dark Lord was no fool when he accepted Snape back into his fold. Excuses had been given and listened too with a disturbing attentiveness, punishments had been doled out and the benefit of the doubt had been given to an extent. But the Dark Lord would not be taken for an idiot simply because he had been too free with his trust.
Therefore the information Snape had been given was always vague, to say the very least. He was given enough by the Dark Lord to satisfy Dumbledore that his position was secure, and he was given enough information by Dumbledore to ensure the Dark Lord believed he was gathering all the information he could. And all either one had ever ended up with was exactly what the other wanted them to know. Lives were saved, sometimes by sheer fluke alone, and sometimes through a misplaced dropped comment. But his usefulness was limited by both sides reluctance to risk more than they felt they could afford.
Whilst he was still actively working for Dumbledore, the information he supplied was effectively worth less than nothing. Whilst he was still working for Dumbledore, his life was apparently worth even less.
He still felt a wave of bitterness. Albus had only asked of him what needed to be done, but a part of him insisted that the old man had had no right to request he sacrifice his own safety, and eventually his whole future so completely. He had turned away from the Dark Lord, had sacrificed every shred of dignity he possessed and begged the old man for sanctuary, for safety. And it had been given. But nevertheless it remained true: Albus Dumbledore giveth, and Albus Dumbledore taketh away. He had gone because he knew he had too, but sometimes he felt that Albus had not completely understood all he had been requested to give up.
‘Severus,’ Dumbledore greeted warmly in spite of the cold air that spilt around them. ‘You are looking well. Much more so than your last visit.’ Snape merely nodded in reply. He did not need reminding of the circumstances of their last meeting
‘I have not much time. To cause any suspicion at this delicate stage would prove disastrous.’
‘I know, my boy.’ Snape winced at the familiarity, as a cold gust swept around them, the scent of the trees that gathered threateningly around them thick and cloying. ‘Which is why I fear this may be our last meeting, although I admit I will not miss this location.’ Snape barely spared the clearing a glance. The Forbidden Forest was unpleasant at the best of times, and this deep it boasted any number of concealed dangers.
‘It is not the most ideal of places, nevertheless it has sufficed.’
‘I have asked so much of you, more than I ever had any right to ask.’ It wasn’t going to stop him from asking more though, Snape realised with cold indifference. ‘You have repaid your debt ten times over.’ He placed a gentle hand on Snape’s stiff shoulder that did nothing to ease the tension. ‘But now I fear it is only a matter of time.’ He looked so very old and frail in the moonlight as he sighed, his head falling to stare sightlessly at the grass beneath his feet. ‘I had always believed we would find him. At the last minute if need be, but it appears the last minute is here and Harry is still not to be found.’ He waved Snape into silence before the tirade could launch itself free. ‘But I will not believe he is dead.’
‘Nowhere we are yet capable of going,’ Snape quoted with only a trace of his familiar sneer. ‘The afterlife, Albus, somewhere we cannot go. So much effort has been wasted searching for a boy who is dead when it could have been put too much better use. No wonder the Dark Lord is laughing!’
‘I understand your anger, but I will not believe it. I merely ask that you trust my judgement one last time. He will return.’
‘At this rate, he will have nothing left to return to!’
‘He will have something,’ Dumbledore said softly, his gaze piercing Snape meaningfully. He scowled not so much at the comment, but at the unspoken insinuation behind it. ‘You must not let Voldemort know of your treachery. There is no room left for moral objections or personal preferences. Harry will return, and I ask you to do what you must to ensure you are alive and well when he does so.’ Snape bit back on the sarcastic retort. He had already done what he must in order to remain standing to that day. And Albus had said it himself, the debt had been repaid several times over.
‘Very well.’ Snape tilted his head in acquiescence. It was the only option. ‘I wish you luck and good fortune, for I have no doubt you are going to need it.’
‘No more so than you.’
Sometimes Snape wondered if the old man had any idea what he asked of him, what he would be required to do to fulfil the wishes of a fool blind to the true nature of serving such darkness. He was fairly sure that had he know, he would have realised he was asking for far too much.
‘Let her speak.’ His Master’s voice rang in the still air of the room, the silencing charm lifted as Minerva looked hatefully across the room to where he stood, no longer masked but face to face and somehow all the more personal for it.
‘For what reason?’ Her voice was thick, blurred with heavy accent. ‘I have nothing to say to either you or the traitor.’ The Dark Lord merely smiled, drawing his wand with aching slowness.
‘Have it your way.’ The lazy blue line of the spell struck her in the chest, which started to shrink, her whole body forced into the transformation until a matted tabby crouched defensively in the circle. ‘Severus, the honour is yours.’ A glint of pleasure lit behind his eyes as he advanced on her, and his Master hissed in approval. He seized her matted fur from behind her neck, lifting her struggling form with ease and raising his wand.
‘What would you prefer, My Lord?’ His lips quirked slightly in anticipation.
‘You are always so inventive, Severus,’ the tones almost hissed. ‘So let us find out exactly how many ways there are to skin a cat.’
He had been caught up in his own thoughts for too long; had not noticed the eerie quiet that filled the House. Swearing to himself he pushed the chair back with a scrape, stalking towards the door and flinging it open.
It wouldn’t surprise him if the brat had taken the opportunity to disappear on some foolish act of stupidity or another. He had, after all, only endeavoured to drum the lesson into his abnormally thick skull three or four times. A quick charm revealed the front door had not been opened, though. Snape was about to check upstairs, in the unfounded hope that the boy had simply gone to sleep, when he noticed a small door under the stairs hanging ajar. Curling his fingers into the gap he pulled it fully open, the faint light of a wand creeping up the stairs as he ducked through the opening.
‘Potter?’ He was crouched on the dirty floor, wand held in a shaking hand and legs crossed, the space around him littered with innumerable old papers, some faded to a dull yellow and the edges curled with damp, some completely unreadable. His eyes were red, but his face blessedly dry, as he lifted the newspaper from his lap and held it up in the light so that the front page stood out clearly.
‘Albus Dumbledore Dead.’
‘It doesn’t say much,’ Harry offered as Snape quickly surveyed the cellar, resting it back in his lap as his finger trailed down the smudged and faded lines of text. ‘Death Eaters got into the school, but it doesn’t say how. Some sort of fight at the top of the Astronomy Tower, but with no witnesses…or at least none willing to talk to the Prophet, most of it seems to be a guess.’ He didn’t look up.
‘Draco,’ Snape offered, casting a quick Scourgify on the lowest step and sitting carefully so as not to disrupt the tense and unspoken truce momentarily in effect. ‘He got them into the school.’ Harry still didn’t look up from the page, but his eyes ceased their rapid scanning and were still behind his thick glasses. ‘No one was expecting it. It was his initiation, so to speak. His final act to prove his unwavering loyalty.’
‘Malfoy killed Dumbledore?’
‘Wouldn’t have thought he had it in him.’ Harry wiped at his nose with the sleeve of his robe and sniffed.
‘It was something of a surprise to all of us, Albus most of all, I believe. But you were no doubt aware of his ability to see the good in anyone.’ Harry smiled faintly before his forehead creased in thought.
‘You were there?’ Snape nodded tentatively. ‘Why didn’t you stop him?’
‘I didn’t realise either his intention, or his commitment. He had not shared his orders with me.’
‘His own Head of House?’
‘I was no longer a member of the faculty,’ Snape explained. ‘Albus believed I was more likely to earn the trust of the Dark Lord were I not so obviously torn between two Masters.’ Harry chuckled hollowly to himself. ‘It was the first time I had seen Draco in many months.’ It was the first time he had seen Albus since his final request.
‘Do you think it would have made much of a difference, if you had been around more?’ Harry said softly, as though unaware he was airing his thoughts aloud. ‘Could you have talked him out of it?’
‘He was always an evil little git. I take it that is how he managed to get his filthy little hands on Hogwarts.’
‘It was one of the reasons,’ Snape confirmed. ‘He had done much more by the time the school was conquered though.’ He seemed to sense Harry’s continuing disbelief. ‘Albus would have died anyway. I was sent to watch Draco, but others were sent to watch us.’
‘It must have been hard for you.’ Harry looked up and watched Snape intently as he spoke, voice laced with false concern that was as transparent as his motives. ‘Watching him murder Dumbledore? After all he did for you for all those years.’
‘I did only what he wanted of me,’ Snape replied flatly, refusing to rise to the bait as Harry shrugged, turning back to the paper.
‘Haven’t found anything ‘bout Ron or Hermione yet.’ He changed the subject with evident ease. ‘Haven’t actually found anything on any of the Weasleys.’
‘You won’t. I believe the paper stopped printing some time before they were caught.’
‘Did you?’ The anger flared again for a moment as Snape shook his head. ‘Good, because I wouldn’t forgive you for that, not ever…no matter what Dumbledore said.’ They sat in terse silence for several minutes, with only the rustle of crackling newspaper until Snape stood.
‘Is there anything else you wish to know?’ Harry shook his head steadfastly.
‘I’ve gotten enough of an idea from these, thanks.’
‘Very well. You may have another hour, but then we have places to be.’ Harry looked curious.
‘To see if my suspicions are correct,’ Snape said thoughtfully as he made his way carefully back up the tiny, narrow stairs. ‘And perhaps find you another ally or two.’
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