‘You return so soon?’ The Dark Lord looked up through slitted eyes at the bowed head of the figure at his feet. ‘I am surprised.’ There was a gentle taunting behind the softness of his words that spoke of hidden menace, his relaxed posture still intimidating.
‘I have news, Master.’ The figure remained hunched over as the Dark Lord regarded him with unwavering scrutiny, the corners of his lips quirking in a dangerous smile. ‘Suspicions regarding the traitor you seek, regarding one you believed loyal.’ A silence engulfed the empty room, as the kneeling, shadowed shape remained in perfect stillness, waiting, as the Dark Lord leant forward slightly, robes whispering on the gilded arms of the throne, voice dropping to a deep rumble.
‘And you doubt I have entertained these same suspicions myself?’ The robed shoulders flinched at the words murmured in his ear, swallowing audibly as his mouth dried and throat constricted. ‘You believe me to be perhaps too gullible or too trusting?’
‘No, My Lord.’ The sentence was cut off with a muted scream as his head snapped backwards viciously, body falling away as his face was thrown in the light and his eyes flew shut reflexively, screwed together in a grimace of unrivalled agony.
‘Speak of these suspicions you hold.’ he demanded, as the wand was lowered and the Dark Lord reclined leisurely back into his chair.
‘He is not loyal to you, Master.’ It was a desperate warning as the figure fell to his knees and fought not to fall further, coughing painfully and wincing at the burning in his lungs and the fire that trailed under his skin. ‘He entertains ideas, however fleeting or misguided, of challenging you.’
Voldemort swept smoothly to his feet, voice rising as his robes billowed away from him and he strode towards his fallen servant. ‘No one can challenge me.’
‘There is one, my Lord.’ Voldemort threw his answering curse with a furious roar that echoed from the high ceiling, the jet of light blasting from the tip of his wand with near shattering force.
‘Tell me now why I should not kill you for your insolence!’
‘I live only to serve.’ It was intended to sound merely as a statement of fact, not as the plea that leapt from his panting mouth.
‘Do you doubt your ability to bring me the boy?’ The figure shook his head silently, glancing through the strands of hair that clung to his damp forehead towards his questioning Master. ‘The plans I have spent years preparing, do they no longer satisfy you?’
‘There have been unexpected developments.’ There was no curse this time, but the threat of one waiting, hovering patiently in the immediate future sent an involuntary shiver down his spine.
‘Unexpected?’ The Dark Lord sounded sceptical, although that wasn’t all the rich voice contained. No, amusement lurked there too, tempering a sea of indescribable malevolence. Absolute power had not been required to corrupt a mind born and nurtured beyond repair. ‘You hide your own failure behind feeble excuses.’
‘I cannot follow them into hiding.’ The curse flew again, the bitter taste of blood flooding his mouth as he writhed on the cold floor, the smell assaulting his nostrils as they flared. ‘They must be drawn out.’
‘You dare to tell me what needs to be done?’
‘No, my Lord.’ The figure begged desperately, voice hoarse and cracking. ‘But you have power over him no other could comprehend. There is no other who can force them into the arms of those we seek.’ Quiet again, thoughtful and interspersed by the rasping breaths of the collapsed figure as he regarded his Master warily.
‘Perhaps I asked too much of you,’ Voldemort considered cruelly, leaving the figure too weak to argue or claim otherwise. ‘Perhaps all the power I have given is too much for you to bear. Bring me the boy alone, if that is all you can manage. I shall assign the extermination of this pathetic excuse for a rebellion to another.’ With those final words the Dark Lord turned away dismissively, waving a single hand towards the door to indicate his wish for the follower to leave.
‘But I can bring you so much more than just Potter,’ the voice begged, pushing himself onto hands which shook beneath him, arms trembling as every word grated painfully past his throat. ‘But not whilst he remains in relative safety. It would require just the smallest of threats.’ The Dark Lord paused in his retreat, his expression hidden as the figure waited, breath shallow and eyes bright.
‘You have not let me down before,’ Voldemort considered carefully, turning his head to glance imperiously over his shoulder before stalking into the far shadows, voice echoing behind his retreating figure. ‘I will draw Potter into the open for you, I shall do what you could not, but do not disappoint me.’
‘You must sleep like the dead,’ Tonks commented as Snape entered the kitchen with a scowl, robes rumpled and hair a tangled, oily mess that hung limply round his face. ‘I called you several times last night, but I guess you didn’t hear me.’
‘Hardly surprising,’ Snape sneered as he crossed the room, refilling the kettle from the previous morning and setting it in the fireplace. The flames crackled beneath it as he paused by the grimy window and leant on the frame, staring distractedly outside. ‘I have not had the chance to rest properly in a few days.’ Tonks made a small noise of understanding, staring curiously at Snape as the sound of gently boiling water slowly grew.
‘So tell me then,’ she finally asked. ‘Does the Malfoy brat really know Harry is here, or is that just something you said to stop him leaving?’ Snape looked away from the window, insulted at the words as Tonks glared silently up at him from her seat at the table, their voices low in the dim kitchen, the early morning sun yet to have driven the shadows away.
‘I assure you, had I felt any inclination to stop Potter from leaving, I would simply have Stunned him.’ He ignored her look of outraged shock, turning his attention back to the grey sky outside, scanning the distant horizon.
‘So he does know?’ Tonks just looked defeated, clasping her hands in her lap in a way that Snape found remarkably annoying, the fingers lacing in and out of each other, clenching and unclenching randomly as nails scraped against calloused skin, occasionally snagging a wisp of fabric from her robes. The kettle distracted him, however, a small whistle building shrilly in the fireplace as he levitated it onto the table with a sharp flick of his wand.
‘It is more likely than not.’ Two cups appeared next, popping into existence, the reflection of the window the only mark on their black surface. Tonks watched apprehensively as the thin, brown liquid swirled slowly to fill them, the whiteness of the milk forming a fading white spiral into the centre.
‘Which means You-Know-Who…’ She trailed off as the kettle hit the table with a thud, her hands shaking only slightly as she reached for the mug, fingers grasping round it thankfully as she pulled it closer, ceramic grinding against the wooden grain.
‘Also knows, yes, it would be a fair assumption,’ Snape sounded quiet as he spoke, his voice still strong and purposeful but lacking its usual determination. He sipped at his tea, grimacing slightly at the taste and the burning trail it left as he swallowed.
‘Then why - ?’
‘He does not know where to look,’ Snape cut her off impatiently, inhaling the warm steam rising from the hot drink. ‘His greatest achievement is no doubt proving to present the biggest obstacle now.’
‘He probably has the whole country looking for him.’
‘You forget that in the whole country, only four people know who he is,’ Snape sighed, draining the dregs from his cup and pouring himself another with methodical slowness. ‘Potter is a ghost, a spectre in this era. A forgotten memory the Dark Lord will not be willing to allow back.’
‘So Harry’s safe?’ Tonks said with a relieved sigh, wrapping her arms round herself and rubbing her arms vigorously in spite of the rising heat from the fire.
‘Unlikely. There is still the scar.’
‘It’s not as though the damn thing is a homing beacon.’ She spoke with more certainty than Snape felt the topic justified. There was no knowing what the scar was and was not, despite the fact that in this instance she was most likely correct. The scar Harry shared with the Dark Lord was freer and far less controlling than the Mark he himself bore, whilst at the same time being much more personal.
‘We should not dismiss it out of hand, though.’ Snape pulled out the chair opposite and they sat in almost companionable silence for several minutes, immersed in their own thoughts and preoccupations.
‘So, what happened to the portrait?’ Tonks unexpectedly asked, her tone casual although she didn’t miss the hard look that froze Snape’s expression.
‘I assume it was once a portrait,’ she continued with a smile as Snape stood, a scowl fixed firmly to his face as he dumped his mug in the empty sink, the kettle joining it with the harsh ringing of metal on ceramic. ‘Oh, no need to look so insulted,’ Tonks commented with amusement. ‘I was hardly searching the place for incriminating evidence.’
‘I would not be surprised if you were,’ Snape sneered, what little passed for civility on his part lost to the insinuated accusation he was not hearing for the first time. ‘Especially given your reluctance to share anything more than inane hints about some miraculous item which, according to you, promises ultimate victory against the Dark Lord. It must be so tiresome basing your assumptions on mere speculation.’
Obviously Tonks had been expecting him to bring it up sooner, as neither had mentioned the topic since the evening before, and even then only in the briefest of ways. In fact Tonks had purposely avoided it, her regret at mentioning it so flippantly obvious. She had refused to answer any number of his questions, treating him to a worn smile, as Snape grew more and more irate. Yes, it existed, but no, she couldn’t tell him what it was. Not yet, at least. Really, he knew about the resistance? She would never have guessed. Nevertheless, that didn’t change the fact the she wasn’t about to lead him there, no matter how much he ranted or, at the height of his annoyance, partook in a pitiful attempt to cajole. And no, she didn’t trust him, not enough for this. There were the lives of others at stake; their consideration was needed before he was permitted to just barge in. Was he really that surprised? ‘So, did you find what you were looking for?’
‘I hardly said it could do all that,’ Tonks chastised, choosing to ignore his angry ramblings and venting. Snape could vaunt and posture all he wanted, it wasn’t about to get him any closer. ‘I merely indicated I might have access to something that may prove useful.’
‘Something which you then adamantly refused me access too.’ Snape seemed to snatch himself away from thumping the table in annoyance, pacing the room instead. ‘Or even any further information on.’
Tonks arched an eyebrow meaningfully at Snape’s sudden display of outrage, her voice slow and pointed as she assured herself of his full and undivided attention. ‘Your little speech may have worked on Harry - in fact I am glad it worked on him - however I have yet to be convinced.’ She shot Snape a look to convey that she was becoming further from convinced with every exasperated huff he issued.
‘Perhaps you would like me to overthrow the Dark Lord myself,’ Snape snorted mockingly. ‘Single-handed, even. Would that finally be enough to persuade you of my loyalties?’
‘Just tell me about the portrait.’ She leant back in her seat as Snape threw himself back into his, outrage still twisting his features as she attempted to lighten the conversation. ‘Must have been quite the fire, the room still stinks.’ Snape’s lips curled upwards in disgust, her laid-back comment coming across as patronising and belittling.
‘I was not willing to risk the occupant discovering Potter here,’ he managed to grind out evenly enough, every word accompanied by a faint screaming in his head, his pulse racing with fury. ‘My own presence was much more easily excused.’
‘Four people, Snape,’ Tonks observed. ‘You said it yourself.’ The blood was roaring heatedly in his ears now, his jaw throbbing slightly as he unclenched it only with effort.
‘You cannot Obliviate a portrait, my dear Auror.’ Some of the rage subsided as Tonks pursed her lips at his snide reply, and Snape smiled maliciously. ‘Your clumsiness has spread to your thinking.’
‘Who was it?’ she asked sharply.
Tonks looked disbelieving, mouth open and rendered momentarily speechless as though she had the response to a completely different answer prepared and had to fight from blurting it out anyway. ‘What? Why on earth would he still be here?’
‘You were expecting someone else?’ Snape’s anger had warped quickly into a sort of self-satisfied smugness, black eyes glinting as he regarded her with wide-eyed innocence.
‘Quite frankly, yes.’
The scream sliced through the morning air, shrill and urgent.
‘Harry!’ Tonks gasped, leaping from her seat, a dusty vase crashing to the floor from a shuddering sideboard, its long since dried occupants crumbling to dust as she ignored her bruised side and threw open the heavy door. The steps creaked ominously beneath her as she hauled on the banister, taking the stairs two at a time, soft shoes slapping on the rotting wood as Snape swept quickly behind her. The screams still swirled around her; harsh and piercing with barely a pause for breath as she heaved open the door to the bedroom, rushing to the side of the bed. ‘Help me do something!’ She flailed ineffectually at Harry’s legs, earning herself a swift kick to her all ready aching side as she battled with the sleeping boy. ‘Damn, he’s bleeding.’ She swiped at his forehead with the edge of the sweat soaked sheet, leaving a pale red stain across his glistening skin. ‘His bloody scar has split.’ She turned back to the doorway, looking for help from the Potions Master, just to find it empty as she cursed to herself, returning her attention to Harry. ‘Come on, wake up. It’s just a dream.’
‘It’s no dream,’ Snape said flatly as he re-entered, a bottle clenched tightly in a fist that threatened to crack it. Tonks continued pulling at the sheets that had wrapped themselves restrictively round Harry’s entire body and were now damp with perspiration. ‘It would appear our question has been answered.’
‘He’s been told,’ Tonks muttered despairingly as another scream caused her to wince. ‘Can’t you do anything, at least stop the pain?’ Snape opened his mouth to reply cuttingly, his words overwhelmed as Harry arched on the bed, springs creaking beneath him as his voice cracked under the strain, leaving nothing but a hoarse wheezing in its place.
‘I have no idea if it will work,’ Snape explained quickly, pushing Tonks less than gently out of the way and flipping the small cork stopper to the floor. His vision snapped round abruptly as Harry suddenly sat bolt upright on the bed, eyes wide and staring straight at Snape. Lit with an inhuman glow he could do nothing but stare straight back as a single word hissed quietly in the musty room.
Harry slumped backwards, breath coming in harsh, rasping pants as Tonks just stared.
‘You have to go,’ Snape said coldly.
‘What?’ Tonks snapped out of her stupor, advancing on him violently in confrontation. Snape just stared at her blankly, features pallid as he breathed in slowly through his nose, exhaling with a long hiss through his teeth.
‘You must leave this place, now.’
‘But Harry, he’s in no state to be moved.’
‘It does not matter.’ Snape aimed a spell at the sheets that had been thrown to the floor, thickening and drying them before he bent down and snatched them up, proffering them to Tonks and thrusting them at her when she made no move to take them. ‘Wrap him up warm, and be sure he does not wake.’ He tipped the contents of the glass he was holding down the boy’s throat.
‘I will do no such thing.’
‘Did you not hear what just happened?’ Snape’s voice shook slightly as he spoke, his hands also shaking almost imperceptibly as he encouraged Harry to swallow, tilting his head forward and wiping away a trail that dribbled down his chin.
‘You’re overreacting to the nightmare of a teenage boy.’
‘That was not Potter.’ Snape rested the head gently back onto the pillows. ‘It was the Dark Lord.’
‘How?’ At least Tonks didn’t bother arguing with him. It was a small mercy, in Snape’s opinion, although a greater one would be if he didn’t have to keep answering the questions of people who really should know better, especially when he had other things to see too.
‘The scar is a connection.’ There was still no argument forthcoming, although Tonks did look rather more dubious as she blocked his path from the room. ‘Surely you remember what happened in the Ministry, no matter how long ago it was.’
‘Of course.’ Her defensive reply lost its edge, as she still looked plagued by questions she either didn’t dare or felt it was an inappropriate time to ask. One managed to battle its way through though, as she stared at the now silent figure of Harry lying with deceptive peacefulness on the bed. ‘But we knew You-Know-Who knows he is here; we planned for the worst. And we agreed this was the safest place.’
‘Exactly, was,’ Snape said carefully, trying to side step around her. ‘When Potter was all the Dark Lord was looking for.’
‘Did you not hear a word of what just happened?’ Snape suddenly roared, his face pale against the darkness of the room as Tonks shrank back momentarily before regaining her poise, the drawn curtains blocking all light apart from a single slither that sliced through a gap and scoured a bright path across the floorboards. ‘Traitor! The Dark Lord knows I am here, he knows I have betrayed him. Potter’s scar may not be capable of giving away his location, but I guarantee to you that this bloody thing is.’ He gestured to the spot under his heavy robes where the Mark lay on his arm. ‘You have to leave. The wards here will not hold, not without Albus, and especially not after years of neglect.’
Tonks listened silently as he spoke, her face slowly setting with resolve. ‘You’re coming too,’ she said firmly, fingers finally grasping round the blanket that had lain forlornly in her arms as she wrapped it carefully round Harry, tucking it round his shoulders before hoisting his slight frame into her arms.
‘Are you out of your mind?’ Snape gasped with incredulity, offering no assistance as Tonks started to sag under the extra weight. ‘He will be able to track you both through me the entire time I remain.’
Snape finally saw the tiniest glimmer of fear as Tonks looked up at him. ‘We need you.’ He heard the slight tremble in her voice that belied her forceful commands as she tried to shift Harry into a more comfortable position before walking once again towards the doorway.
‘Great, two bloody martyrs,’ Snape muttered loudly, gesturing wildly before sweeping out after her and catching her on the top step. ‘Where do you propose we go then?’
‘I have an idea.’ The lack of conviction in her voice failed to make Snape feel any better about her foolhardy insistence. ‘But they will not be pleased to see us.’ There were few people who were ever pleased to see Snape anymore though, and at least the direness of the situation had forced her hand and mellowed her stubborn streak. The secret was not worth risking the lives of all three of them to keep, especially when all the act of keeping it achieved was more wasted time and increased risk.
Snape nodded in agreement. ‘Our options are remarkable limited at the moment.’
‘Muggle?’ Snape stopped suddenly, hand resting on the banister as he regarded her with disbelief. ‘You’ve recruited Muggles into the resistance? We will stand out like a like a black cloud in a clear sky. No wizard can hide amongst the Muggles, the Dark Lord has seen to that!’
Tonks paused in her descent, staring penetratingly and emotionlessly at Snape, her voice calm and level and yet remarkably menacing, each word paced and weighed for emphasis. We will not be said again, they told him, so take heed. ‘I’m not taking you to the resistance, Snape, not now and not unless there is absolutely no other choice.’ Snape looked ready to shout, his lips pursed into a thin line as Tonks glared at him unfalteringly. ‘I do believe I have made that perfectly clear.’
‘Your loyalty to your friends is touching, but misplaced.’ Tonks shrugged, a difficult gesture given the burden in her arms. ‘Rest assured that I could have wiped out this little rebellion in a moment had I felt the desire.’ He was shouting down the stairs after her by the time he finished, as Tonks walked away, leaving Snape no choice but to chase after her, his hand grasping her shoulder to get her attention. He would be damned if he would continue to argue with her retreating back. ‘But we are on the same side, and it really is time you started acting like it. All your refusal is doing is inviting the unavoidable that much closer. There are not many who would be willing to help us as it is, yet you insist of further isolating the few who might.’
Tonks eyes narrowed. ‘We haven’t been on the same side in over twenty years,’ she hissed as Harry stirred restlessly, moaning incomprehensibly under his breath. ‘Besides, it is less warded there than this damn place. We wouldn’t last two minutes.’
‘Then there is nowhere we can go,’ Snape snarled, following as Tonks moved away again and back into the kitchen, stepping carefully over the broken shards of the vase. ‘We may as well just stay here and accept the inevitable.’
‘There is one place we might be able to go, provided the occupants are still there, and it is very well warded. Albus saw to that.’
‘No,’ Snape said flatly as realisation hit. Some ideas were not worth even considering.
‘As you said yourself, we do not have much choice.’
‘They must be dead.’
‘Why?’ Harry’s eyes fluttered open as he struggled weakly at Tonks raised voice, and she shushed reassuringly, gently stroking his hair until he settled back quietly, placing his limp body carefully in the nearest chair. ‘So far the Dark Lord hasn’t made a single move against the Muggles. Besides, he didn’t even try to touch them in the six years Harry was there. Either he couldn’t, or he didn’t realise how important they were. I doubt that is a lesson he has yet learnt.’
‘He has been biding his time. Why lose what little he has out of impatience to have everything?’ The years prior to his final conquest had, if anything, taught the Dark Lord the virtue of patience. He had sequestered the wizarding world with an iron fist, removed from it every Muggle influence he could find. He had been ruthlessly methodical and unfeeling in his extermination, but he had not outreached himself. After all, he was immortal, which meant he had several lifetimes and more to create the Eden he so sought. The Muggles would fall, it was inevitable, and it would be all the more painful for their ignorance of what was coming. ‘He has ignored them for the time being, but not forgotten them. But these ones he would have killed. He must have done.’
‘Are you certain?’ Tonks asked compellingly, gathering Harry in her arms as she wrapped the covers round more tightly round his trembling body, looking desperately at Snape as she waited for an answer. Her resolve was waning, as the first threads of panic gnawed insistently at the fraying edges of her tight control. ‘You must be certain.’ Her voice was shrill with the tendrils of fear.
‘I did not do it myself,’ Snape admitted reluctantly, unsure if it was welcomed news or not. Certainly it didn’t make their choice any easier or seem any more right, any less likely to prove itself the deadly pitfall it threatened to be. ‘So I cannot be.’
‘Then we must at least look.’ If she was waiting for Snape to convince her otherwise, perhaps even bully her onto a different path, she would remain sorely disappointed, as Snape merely inclined his head in acceptance of her lead. ‘Even if the son is the only one still there, it could prove to be enough.’
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