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Chapter 25: Can and Can’t.

It is always good men who do the most harm in the world.

--Henry Brooks Adam



‘Leave,’ Malfoy said coldly to the shopkeeper, pulling himself upright and retaining a remarkably haughty air despite his harried and dishevelled appearance. His glare didn’t leave the pair of Gryffindors as he spoke, however, nor did he make any move to repair his damaged robes and cover his bare arm.

‘My own store?’

Draco did turn round slightly at this comment, to pin the man with a withering look. ‘Would you rather explain to someone else?’ he snapped, his voice a gap in his otherwise calm composure, as it shook slightly despite his best efforts.

The shopkeeper’s tone changed instantly, although whether it was out of respect for the family name or out of fear at the thinly veiled threat was anybodies guess. ‘Of course, Master Malfoy.’ He bowed low, his simpering platitudes oily with feigned humility. ‘It will be my honour to provide you with whatever you might need.’

Malfoy looked momentarily disgusted at the display before dismissing the man with a wave of his hand. ‘Privacy will do, for the moment.’ There was silence as the room cleared, the narrow door through which the owner sidled closing with the grinding of worn metal hinges, the latch clicking reassuringly loudly. Draco didn’t doubt the purpose of the otherwise innocuous noise, nor did he doubt that the man would have some way to overhear them. Clients of Knockturn Alley valued knowledge over mere trifles such as confidentiality, although they could be the masters of discretion, given the right incentive. It was incentive Draco would have to provide later.

‘Malfoy,’ Hermione gasped in disbelief, before he could consider the issue too deeply. ‘You’re marked!’ She stepped forward as though to examine the brand closer, as if she truly expected he would let her. Malfoy pulled his arm away sharply, hiding the grotesque mark behind his back.

‘Quick for a Mudblood, aren’t you,’ he sneered, halting Hermione’s progress across the room. She stopped as if jerked by strings, and Draco would have laughed at the flash of hurt he saw in her face, had the circumstances been any different. Harry jumped to her defence with his predictable quick temper, leaping forwards as if his body could shield her from Draco’s words.

‘Don’t call her that!’

Draco smirked, the discomfort he had felt over the familiarity with which Hermione had approached him fading behind a wall of antipathy. ‘Why not, or is the little Hero Potter going to stop me?’

‘Yes, I am,’ Harry said flatly, crossing his arms and holding himself proudly. He leant forwards slightly and with a vaguely conspiratorial air before he continued. ‘I’m going to stop you killing Dumbledore too.’ Malfoy went as white as a sheet as Harry brushed off Hermione’s frantic tugging on his arm and the whispered words anxiously telling him that he was handling it all wrong.

‘I don’t know what you are talking about,’ Draco lied unconvincingly.

‘I’m talking about Voldemort’s orders,’ Harry sneered, as Hermione gestured in defeat, turning on her heel. She rounded back on the two of them almost instantly, frustration evident as she tried to interrupt. Her mouth no more than framed the first syllable, Harry single-mindedly ignoring her. ‘Really think you can do it, do you?’

It took Draco a moment to realise he had been backing away; that Harry was slowly looming over him, a glint of fairly manic determination in his eyes. ‘I think you may finally have gone round the twist.’ Old habits warped his frank observation with spiteful taunting.

‘This isn’t going to help.’ Hermione tried to pull Harry back from where he was thunderously advancing on the Slytherin, her arms linked through his as she pulled him backwards. ‘Don’t antagonise him, or he’ll never listen.’ Draco took instant offense to being spoken about as if he wasn’t even there.

‘Listen to what?’ he jeered defensively. ‘Poor little Potty’s pathetic attempts to convert me?’

‘Like I’d waste the breath!’

‘Harry!’ Hermione’s snapped, outraged. Her tone managed to halt him, even if it didn’t garner his full attention. ‘Don’t forget the debt,’ she added, regardless of his growing scowl.

‘He never said I had to be nice about it,’ Harry argued mulishly. He had reluctantly turned to face her, but his eyes kept skittering to watch Draco, whose confusion was rapidly escalating. Hermione just held his gaze scathingly. ‘Tying the git to a tree is starting to sound more and more appealing,’ he finally mumbled, with only the smallest trace of humour, by way of appeasement.

Clearly nervous, Draco interrupted without thought. ‘What in Merlin’s name are you on about?’ he scorned, his expression quickly shifting into a leering grimace. ‘Or is this some hitherto unfulfilled fantasy of yours?’ Hermione barely managed to restrain Harry, who had spun back around, hands balled into fists.

‘Shut your mouth, you filthy little Death Eater!’ he roared.

‘Make me, you glorified excuse for a wizard.’

‘Right, fine, I will.’ Harry glared, pulling his arm free as Hermione stumbled and lost her grip.

‘Malfoy,’ she said desperately, the words spilling out in a jumbled rush as Harry advanced once again on the Slytherin. ‘We know Voldemort ordered you to kill Dumbledore, but you can’t. Harry, he got sent to the future, he saw what happened to you. You made him promise not to let it happen again.’ Harry whipped round to stare at her with betrayal.

‘What?’ Draco looked genuinely perplexed.

‘You saved his life,’ Hermione continued.

‘I would never!’ Draco declared at the same time Harry grumbled just tell him everything, why don’t you.

‘You saved it so he could stop you now,’ Hermione finished, glancing apologetically at Harry. Draco at least looked thoughtful, even as he sneered contemptuously.

‘You are lying, and lying badly,’ he said with absolute belief. ‘Besides, travelling to the future is impossible.’

‘So I keep getting told,’ Harry interrupted. ‘But if it wasn’t true, how would I know about your mark?’

Draco waved his unmarked arm dismissively. The gesture looked forced, as if the younger Malfoy had put conscious effort into stripping all such movements from the arm he didn’t want to draw attention too. Or maybe moving it too much hurt him, Harry considered with morbid curiosity. He knew the mark burned, but for how long and how often? ‘I wouldn’t be surprised if you accosted every Slytherin in school in such a way.’

‘Will you get your head out your arse for just a minute?’ Harry said, exasperated, Draco’s look of shocked indignation all the answer he needed. ‘Fine, then how did I know about your orders, hmmm?’

Malfoy had wrapped his haughtiness around him like a shield. ‘There are no such orders for you to know about, therefore I must conclude that you have become deluded and nothing you say can be trusted.’

‘Hark, the little miniature Death Eater talks about trust.’ Harry let out a bitter laugh. ‘Tell you what; let’s forget this for a laugh. How about I just call the Aurors to take a look at you new tattoo? Perhaps they’ll be good enough to get you a cell next to daddy dearest.’

‘Don’t you dare talk about my father,’ Malfoy warned.

‘I will talk about your family however I bloody well want, Malfoy. You’re all murderous lunatics, and if you think any of you deserve any better…’ He was cut off by a fist flying into the side of his face, a shocked gasp coming from Hermione.

‘What would you know about family,’ Draco shouted. ‘You’ve managed to kill off most of yours. At least it’s helping to get rid of all the trash though. Perhaps you’ll be good enough to dispose of the Weasley’s next.’

Harry roared indecipherably, launching himself back at Malfoy, shoulder meeting his thin chest as he barrelled them both onto the floor. ‘Don’t you dare talk about them that way!’ He punctuated his sentence with a blow that split Malfoy’s lip. ‘The Weasley’s are worth ten of you, you lying, cheating scum.’

‘And how much do you think you’re worth to them now it’s all taking off, huh?’ Draco sneered, exhaling sharply as Harry flipped himself on top of the blonde, pinning him down. ‘You think they’ll put you above the lives of their flesh and blood now they know how much of a danger you are to be near?’

There was nothing for a moment that stretched on and on. ‘The Weasleys will stand by Harry no matter what,’ Hermione eventually said softly in the outraged silence. She had her wand drawn, but it was aimed at Harry, whose eyes flashed murderously as though any second he would snap from his trance with the sole intention of beating Draco to a bloody finish. ‘We all will, and I know you don’t understand that, Malfoy, but it doesn’t matter, because one day you will stand by him too.’ Her words seemed to have calmed Harry slightly, as he shifted his weight from where he had straddled Draco’s chest. He didn’t offer Draco a hand as he stood, however, instead just making a half-hearted attempt to straighten his robes as Draco lifted himself stiffly onto his elbows. ‘That you do it out of love for only yourself is irrelevant, because you still do it. You recognise that Voldemort can’t give you what you really want, only this time that realisation won’t have to come too late.’ Draco looked sullen, still disbelieving as he pushed himself unsteadily to his feet, wincing as he prodded at his side with a finger.

‘And what, exactly,’ he said carefully around his swollen lip, ‘was so terrible about my future that I would sink so low as to save his miserable existence, then?’

‘Well, Voldemort wanted you dead for one thing,’ Harry sneered as Draco went pasty white again, so much for not believing him.

‘And my mother?’

‘Who gives a damn about your mother, Malfoy?’

Malfoy’s features went hard. ‘I do, since you ask.’

‘Yeah, well all I care about is that fact that you want to murder a great man, who for some reason seems to think you pathetic life is worth more than his own.’

‘Dumbledore knows?’ Malfoy gasped, forgetting himself in an instance of blind panic.

‘What, you think I would tell you and not him?’ Draco looked mildly panicked at Harry’s words, as he took a step backwards, shaking his head, his eyes wide and anxious.

‘No,’ he said frantically. ‘He can’t know. If he knows then I could never…my mother…’

‘Oh, back on your mum again are we. Never took you for such a little mother’s boy.’ Harry said nastily as Hermione gave him a sharp slap around the back of the head.

‘Shut up, before you ruin everything even more than you have managed so far.’ She glared, before schooling her features into something more approachable. ‘Malfoy,’ she said gently, taking a step towards him.

‘Get away from me,’ Draco hissed menacingly. ‘Both of you.’

‘We just want to help,’ Hermione tried to placate.

‘Help yourselves, perhaps.’

‘This is what you want, you arrogant idiot,’ Harry exclaimed.

‘What would you know about what I want?’

‘Have you listened to a word I’ve said?’

‘Actually, yes, I have listened to every self-absorbed thing that has left your mouth.’ Draco jumped when his back hit the countertop once again, crossing his arms in a final gesture of defence. ‘Unlike some people, I am capable of hearing what others have to say, as opposed to being completely infatuated with my own self righteousness.’

‘You’re a fine one to talk.’

Draco narrowed his eyes murderously. ‘Oh, well, since the Golden Boy Potter is always right, perhaps you’d care to tell me why my mother deserves to die more than your pathetic excuse for surrogacy?’

Harry looked as if Draco had just asked him to explain why the grass was green. ‘She brought it upon herself; she’s a bloody Death Eater.’

‘She is not!’ Draco roared.

‘You’ve said the same thing about your dad plenty of times,’ Harry pointed out facetiously, ‘or are you going to claim that I dragged him to the Ministry that night and dressed him up in his little Death Eater outfit just so the Aurors could catch him?’

‘My mother isn’t marked,’ Draco said through gritted teeth.

‘Doesn’t make her a good person.’

‘So speaks the judge, jury and executioner.’ Malfoy’s voice was trembling slightly as he spoke now though, dulling the malicious tone. ‘Does it make you happy then, Potter,’ he continued snidely. ‘Does it fill you with the warm fuzzies knowing you’ve set another Slytherin up for failure?’ He cocked his head, jumping slightly at the sudden, muffled crack of apparition from the street outside, eyes widening fearfully as if expecting the Dark Lord to sweep into his presence to exact punishment in that moment.

‘Oh, you set yourself up for this one all by yourself.’ Harry looked smug, ignoring Hermione’s insistent tugging on his arm and completely oblivious to the shift in air as the door opened behind him. ‘This is Dumbledore we’re talking about, did you really think there was any way in which you would have stood a chance?’ He laughed lightly, shaking off Hermione’s hand and aiming his wand again, for all the use it was. It made him feel better though, more in control. Besides, Malfoy didn’t look in any condition to remember that Harry couldn’t actually use it. He looked ready to bolt - staring over Harry’s shoulder and towards the door - an act which Harry had no problem with provided he bolted a long way from Hogwarts.

‘If you do not refrain from aiming your wand at my son, I will ensure that your doing so in the future becomes an impossibility.’ Harry jumped at the icy tone, his gaze leaving Malfoy and swinging round to Narcissa, who regarded him with regal contempt. He barely took a moment to register it, however, his eyes drawn irrevocably to Snape, whose hand clenched her arm.

‘In the habit of listening to Gryffindors, are we Draco?’ Snape managed to drawl.

‘I…’ Draco appeared to pull himself together, at least marginally, his shoulders stiffening even if his eyes still looked rather wild. ‘Not normally, sir, no.’

‘Ah, so some extenuating factor has made this the exception to the norm then.’ If he didn’t know any better Harry would almost have believed Snape stumbled as he made his way forward. ‘I am, as always, on tenterhooks to hear what this fascinating development has been.’ Harry opened his mouth to speak, receiving a swift kick in the leg that caused him to gasp.

‘I swear, Harry,’ Hermione hissed in his ear. ‘If you say one word I will curse you into silence myself.’ She received a suspicious look from Snape, but she met his gaze with a glare of her own before he turned back to Draco.

‘Since when does Harry Potter, of all people, tell you what you can and cannot do?’ The end of the question was practically gasped.

‘He doesn’t,’ Draco scowled.

‘What else did he say to you?’

‘Nothing, it isn’t important…’ Snape all but collapsed at his feet, his hand shaking as it reached out to the nearest counter for support, upending an array of glassware that smacked dully against the floor, their contents drifting into a lazy surrounding halo. Draco didn’t seem to be able to take his eyes off them.

‘It is important.’

‘He…’ Draco shot a wary glance at Harry.

‘Severus, are you sure this is wise,’ Narcissa said softly, looking meaningfully towards Harry and Hermione. ‘Those two…’

‘Can be easily Obliviated,’ Snape snarled. ‘So unless you happen to be skilled at resurrection, I would suggest you encourage your son to speak.’

‘Dumbledore knows,’ Draco suddenly admitted, his voice tight. Snape quirked an eyebrow.

‘You are surprised?’

Draco looked horrified at the insight. ‘But, I thought…’

‘No, it would appear you did not.’

‘You think he is just going to let me do it, do you?’

‘Yes,’ Snape said simply as Harry made a noise of outrage.

‘What?’

‘The man is a Gryffindor, Draco,’ Snape said with all the disdain he could manage. ‘He would not strike down one so young when he believed there were a chance you could be saved.’

‘Voldemort is sending you out to die,’ Harry interrupted desperately, seeing the first threads of doubt he had created starting to dissipate. Narcissa had her wand in his face at the same moment Snape grunted almost soundlessly, his hand clutching his chest.

‘Be quiet,’ Narcissa said softly. ‘Lest I find myself convincing Severus not only to Obliviate this encounter from your mind, but also the knowledge that your little friend here ever accompanied you.’ Harry’s eyes widened at the implied threat.

‘Much as I hate to say this, but Potter may have a point,’ Draco said shakily.

‘Except there is one thing he isn’t telling you.’ Snape was pasty white. ‘Isn’t there?’ Harry just shook his head. ‘After all, if you truly believed what you are saying, you wouldn’t be here so desperately trying to convince Draco otherwise.’ His breath was coming in short pants now. ‘Tell him, Potter.’

‘No.’

‘Tell him his future or I will force it from you.’

‘Are you saying it’s true?’ Draco looked stunned. ‘Potter saw the future?’

‘A future, yes.’

‘What happens to me?’ he suddenly demanded, swinging back round on Harry. ‘Granger said I couldn’t kill Dumbledore, she said that you knew what would happen to me. Well, what is it?’ The frantic look got worse as Snape let out a low chuckle.

‘Why, Miss Granger, what a practically Slytherin way of phrasing it.’

‘Phrasing what?’ Draco demanded.

‘I believe when she said you couldn’t, she meant it as a more generalised, moralistic turn of phrase than the literal interpretation you seem to have taken.’ Draco looked hopeful. ‘Fundamentally true, I suppose, if you happen to see the world in such glaring shades of black and white.’

‘Don’t tell him,’ Harry growled. ‘Dumbledore may not let me do anything about you, but I will bloody well change this.’

‘You killed him, Draco,’ Snape said softly, it appearing to be all he could manage. ‘You can do it, and Potter knows you can. Why else would he be here? You did fine then, and you will do fine now.’ There was something jarring about hearing Snape’s voice so reassuring. ‘Your doubt is the only thing that can cause you to fail.’ Something eased Snape’s pain as a flash of relief passed across Draco’s features. It was replaced a second later with dawning annoyance.

‘Mother brought you here, didn’t she?’ Draco cast her an infuriated glare. ‘And I bet I can guess why. I told her not too. I can handle this – you just said I could yourself.’

‘I have no doubt that you can.’ Snape pulled himself to his feet, a thin hand brushing at the collar of his robe. Draco’s lack of concern was rivalled only by his lacking surprise at his professor’s sudden recovery. ‘It is, perhaps, an issue for another time.’ His eyes traversed the space to Harry, who was practically trembling with angry betrayal.

‘Talk to him now, why don’t you,’ Harry bit out He half expected to feel Hermione’s hand against his arm, or something, some gesture that let him know she was either backing him up or telling him to shut up. There was nothing, and he didn’t dare look round to her after Narcissa’s threat. ‘Since you’re Obliviating us anyway, where’s the harm?’ Snape sent him a derisive look in return, ushering Draco towards his mother, who petted his hair absently. Malfoy squirmed away, and Harry hated him more and more with every inch of distance he reclaimed.

‘You should go,’ Snape gestured Narcissa towards the door. ‘The fewer people who see you here, the better it will probably be for us all.’

‘You will be alright?’ she asked with near concern, although her eyes drifted meaningfully to the Gryffindor pair, belaying that the enquiry had been directed in any towards his health. Snape didn’t look quite recovered, a thin line of sweat still beaded his forehead and his eyes were sunken.

Draco had no such compunctions about subtlety. ‘Who cares?’ he snarled with a glare at the potions master that had Harry wondering exactly what it was he had missed to turn the Slytherin from respect to disgust so completely. ‘I’m right, aren’t I? Really you just want us out of here so you don’t have to discuss it. Much easier to fob me off at the school.’

Snape opened the door for them both, Draco steered by the arm of his mother, which held him securely for how thin it was. ‘It would do well for us both if you remember some of your manners by the time you get there,’ Snape said meaningfully. ‘And that the wandering ears of your fellow students are not the only thing you should be concerned about in a place such as this.’ Draco didn’t look appeased, but he held his mouth shut in a thin line and allowed his mother to lead him from the store and back onto the alley. Harry watched him leave with an anxious desperation to follow and undo everything Snape had somehow managed to do. He had been so close, and now he seemed further than ever before.

‘You might think you’ve won,’ Harry said after a moment, his voice a low rumble. ‘But I swear, you can Obliviate me, but I’ll find a way to remember. Then Dumbledore with have no choice but to listen to me.’

‘I’m not going to Obliviate you, you idiot,’ Snape snarled. Harry looked up, his eyes clouded with fury beneath his fringe.

‘You told him everything!’

‘I would not have needed to, had you actually listened to the Headmaster, and done as you were damn well told for once.’ Snape’s voice grew progressively louder with each word. ‘As it is, I can only hope he can find a way out of this mess you have created!’

‘I created?’ Harry scoffed. ‘Malfoy was about to run away like the coward he is. As far as I can see that would have solved a whole bunch of problems, except you had to butt in and ruin it all.’

‘No, Potter, I had to ‘butt in’ as you so eloquently phrase it because you cannot just leave things be, and because now, thanks to your interfering and heedless actions, there is more at risk than a mere debt.’

‘A mere debt?’ Harry mocked with incredulously. ‘Is that how you would refer to the thing you owed my dad?’

‘The debt will not kill you should you fail to fulfil it,’ Snape said quietly after a moment’s silence. ‘Others, however, have now been dragged into this farce, and their lives could well be forfeit should you succeed.’

‘Who?’

‘If you think I am unwise enough to tell you that.’

‘More of your precious Death Eater mates, is it then?’

‘No,’ Snape snarled. ‘People on your side, who have been fighting and risking their lives. For you. I will not have you endanger them further in your ill-thought attempts to do good, and your belief that you know best!’ Harry glared mulishly beneath Snape’s angry glower. ‘You will cease this course of action.’

‘I won’t.’

Harry recognised the shuttered expression that closed on Snape’s face, and was appalled that the anger he knew lay beneath it caused him a moment’s unease. ‘Even the Headmaster has requested you leave well enough alone,’ Snape said levelly, ‘will you not heed even him?’

Harry swallowed around the dryness of his throat. It seemed that no matter how much he tried to explain, no one listened. ‘He doesn’t know, though.’

‘And you shouldn’t know either.’ It sounded almost like a threat from Snape, who was standing so close Harry could see the first spots of grey in his hair, the ones that would multiply over the years. He forced his breath out evenly, remembering with gut-wrenching clarity the nausea he had felt when that same hair had been all that separated him from a look so dissimilar to the one boring into him at that moment. He remembered the pity he had felt also, but not the reason behind it. ‘So let me make this simple for you,’ Snape was continuing. ‘You will do as the Headmaster has said, because he deserves your respect, and your trust that he knows more about the current situation than you could ever hope to comprehend.’ Harry got the distinct impression Snape was asking him for something the man had been unable to deliver himself. ‘And, for your benefit only, we will maintain that you are only doing so for the Headmaster’s sake, and his sake alone. We will uphold this as the truth up until the point where you try something this foolhardy again.’ It was gone in an instant, but something passed behind Snape’s eyes; a look that echoed the person he would become. ‘When this happens, it will be my turn to ask you. And rest assured I will not be so nice about it then.’

‘You want Dumbledore to die.’ Harry was horrified to hear his voice crack slightly.

Snape stood up straight. ‘I guarantee to you I want no such thing.’

‘Then…’

‘Loathe as I am to say it, but listen to Miss. Granger, since I doubt I particularly want you to listen to the ramblings of the absent part of your little triumvirate, and you have proven you will listen to no one else.’

‘It’s not like she knows any more than I do!’ Harry exclaimed, earning himself a raised eyebrow before Snape turned his full attention to Hermione, whose continued silence had been more calculated than anything else.

‘Perhaps not.’ Hermione tilted her head at the implication in Snape’s comment, but still said nothing, her mouth pursed into a thin line. ‘But at least she knows that, and knows why.’ Harry stood agape as Hermione considered that.

‘I never did get a chance to thank you,’ she said eventually, her voice oddly stiff, as though she were putting conscious effort into removing all emotion from her tone. It was probably the only thing that kept Snape from storming out in a swirl of black robes and sarcasm, and no doubt the reason she did it. Instead Snape just stared at her, until he let out an exasperated sigh.

‘You may thank me by living up to my expectations. I am sure I do not need to tell you not to pass on what you have heard to anyone?’’


-o00o-



‘I had no choice!’ Snape snapped defensively. ‘I wasn’t prepared for something so completely irrevocable! What would you have suggested I do?’

‘Exactly what you did.’ Dumbledore gestured once again to the seat before his desk, and was once again ignored. ‘What else could you have done?’

‘I could have said no,’ Snape maintained with a snarl. Dumbledore raised an eyebrow questioningly. ‘I could have refused, argued that my word should have been enough. If not that, I should have just let the damn thing kill me!’

‘I am very glad you did not.’

Snape looked scornful at the sudden sentiment. ‘I have effectively guaranteed that Draco will be capable and willing to murder you before the end of the school year,’ he said with patronising slowness. ‘Should that prove impossible, I have instead promised that I will murder you myself. Tell me, Albus, should I sell the soul of a sixteen year old boy to save my own, or banish mine of my own accord? Which would make me less of a monster?’

‘If you have recited the vow exactly as spoken, and I believe you have, then those are not your only options.’

‘Draco Malfoy must not fail,’ Snape repeated. ‘More specifically, he must not fail in his task. Where is this apparent ambiguity you have seen? If anything, Potter has proven that there is none. The bloody vow is so open that Draco risks my life with every second he partakes in a little self-doubt!’

‘I am somewhat doubtful myself that that is all it would take. From what I can gather, it was more than a ‘little self-doubt’ that triggered the episode.’ Snape did not appreciate his brush with death being referred to as an episode. ‘Draco appeared to be utterly convinced there was no hope. You cannot fault him for that.’

‘I can fault Potter for leading him there!’ And he did. Oh how he did.

‘I will speak with Harry. For the moment, at least, he must leave young Draco to do as he will.’

Snape found his words taken from him. ‘You would ask him to ignore his debt?’ It was impossible that the Headmaster would demand such a payment from his most precious student. ‘I know the price for failure of one, and it may not be death, but Potter might prefer it were. You would have him live with that merely to save my life?’

‘I would not refer to your life as something mere, and that is not my plan. Harry will fulfil his debt.’ Of course. Potter would always be saved, come hell or high water. Snape felt his disbelief washed away on the much more familiar current of resentment.

‘Then I will die. I should be grateful it is at least better than the alternative.’

Albus glanced derisively over the rims of his glasses. ‘Perhaps - instead of drowning in your apparently abundant, if somewhat unnecessary, self-loathing - you could try to show Draco that failure is no more than exactly what he makes of it.’ Dumbledore ignored Snape’s incoherent spluttering, opening his uppermost desk drawer and removing a worn looking amulet from within. ‘This was a gift, from Sybil, supposed to protect the wearer from bad influences. I suppose it does no harm to test it. Is the potion ready?’

The question caught Snape off guard. ‘So soon?’ There was only one potion the man could be referring too, and he had spent his every free moment tweaking and honing the brew since the idea first struck him. Never mind that every time he touched it the Headmaster’s words teased and tormented him. I need you to help me survive them. The whole thing still reeked of a test, be it of loyalty or character. But Albus had found something of great importance to the Dark Lord, important enough that he would risk the most ingenious and insidious curses Snape had ever seen to get it. Snape had promised to help, and all Snape’s power lay in potions; it was the only place he knew to find a solution. And Dumbledore had been right, it had been beyond Snape’s skill to circumvent the protections. The single brief view he had garnered of them from the depths of the Headmaster’s pensieve had shown a writhing mass of malevolence. Surviving them was the only option, and even that seemed far-fetched.

‘I see no point in waiting, and the children will be returning to school in a matter of days.’ Potter and Draco included, no thanks to the former. ‘I would rather this be finished, one way or another, by then.’

Snape shook his head. As much as the school was a sanctuary, it was also a tether. They should wait no longer for fear of waiting indefinitely. But surely, he considered, such a wait would be better than to have the students arrive and only their hated Potions professor to explain away the death of the man they relied on so much. ‘I have barely had the time to scrape the surface.’ Months would not have been long enough. He was attempting to create the impossible. ‘I could not even begin to predict what some of the curses will do, let alone hope to save you from them.’ After all, a cure to anything was no different to a cure for everything. Thousands had tried before him. Who was the Headmaster to believe he could succeed where they all failed?

‘I am sure you have done your best.’

Snape barely refrained from smashing something. ‘And you are not listening to me when I say my best is not yet good enough.’

‘It will have to do, I can wait no longer.’

‘Why you, then?’ Snape argued heatedly. ‘As you so repeatedly keep telling me, this is Potter’s destiny, not yours. Why are you doing his duty for him?’ It was a petty and childish argument. At the end of the day, why anyone?

‘He is still a chid, and I will keep him from it for as long as I can.’ In Snape’s mind the response lacked any real meaning. There were other children who suffered more, with no one willing, or left, to fight their battles for them. ‘There will be a time, yes, when he must accompany me, but that is not now. Whatever fights I can bear for up until that time, I will.’

‘He doesn’t deserve it.’ He didn’t. Lily would have done, but her son had none of her patience or understanding. No, Harry was his father’s son, all hatred and prejudice hidden behind the façade of justice and light.

‘I believe otherwise.’

He didn’t want to let it lie. ‘And I cannot convince you against this?’

‘My mind is set.’

But he had too. Dumbledore was not a man to be swayed. Snape supposed he should be appreciative for that. It was a quality of the man that had saved him time and time again. ‘I suppose I should be grateful, then,’ he sneered. ‘If I fail to save you, at least I will have saved myself from this damned vow.’

He had expected anger, or at the very least impatience. Albus rarely indulged his fits of sullen acrimony for long. He didn’t want to have to bear the beseeching look that stole across the Headmaster’s eyes instead. ‘There is a way to salvage all of this, Severus, and I will find it. You have my word on that.’ Dumbledore reached out to grasp Snape’s wrist, holding more tightly than Snape would have thought possible. ‘I am asking you, as a friend, to believe me.’

Any other person would have reciprocated in kind, would have valued and repaid the sentiment with similar words of gratitude. If nothing else, they would have nodded in recognition of all that was said. ‘The potion, or what of it I have brewed so far, is ready.’ It was the closest to a thank you he knew how to get. ‘There is one thing you might do for me, however. I would not ask had I more time...’

The hand loosened and slipped away, leaving a ring of softly burning flesh where the fingers had clenched too hard. ‘What do you need?’

‘One more night,’ Snape said carefully, glancing round the room for the presence he could hardly have missed, making sure it was there. ‘And a bottle of phoenix tears.’

----------

Author's Note: I just want to take a moment to apologise for how long it has taken me to update. I hit a block, which didn't want to budge, and eventually I got a little tired of throwing myself against it. I seem to have gotten back into the swing of it now, so hopefully the updates will start to come much more regularly. Whatever happens though, I have every intention of seeing this fic through to the end. Thanks for reading =).



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