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Unbreakable

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Severus Snape hates a lot of things. He hates dunderheads, foolish Gryffindors, and children in general. It’s a publically known fact that he loathes James Potter, Sirius Black, Remus Lupin, and Peter Pettigrew – never mind that two of them are already deceased. He is quite capable of hating them as equally in death as he had in life, thank you very much. He also hates teaching, insufferable know-it-alls, self-entitled arrogance (certain platinum haired godsons notwithstanding), and meddling old coots. He quite dislikes stupidity, divination of all sorts, and – if he’s being honest – owls. They’re messy and an absolute menace to a well-kept potions lab. 

Of course, all of this pales in the light of summer. He hates summer more than anything else in the entire world.

He hates it because he knows that as soon as the imbecilic little ankle biters are gone that it will start itching again. That he’ll have, at most, the length of time it takes the Hogwarts Express to travel from Hogsmeade to London before the vow begins to hound him. This particular one, made on November 2, 1981, burns like cuffs around his wrists. The first time he had felt it – or rather, the first time he had been aware of it – had been in the summer of ’84 and it had itched like he had stuck his hands in a vat of bubotuber pus without gloves. Given his profession and his inclinations towards spell and potion creation - with all the inevitable experimentation that goes along with that - he had passed it off as a simple reaction to something that he had been working with. He’d taken a cleansing bath and ignored it, sure that it would go away within a day or two.

Except it hadn’t gone away. Ever. In fact, in many ways it had gotten worse. More than once the pain of it had woken him from a fitful sleep, tears streaming down his stoic cheeks and an unspoken scream clawing at his throat.

It had taken him another seven years to realize the source of the itching and burning. It had abated down to practically nothing at the beginning of the most current school year and then, oh then, it had flared to something just a few steps below a good crucio when Potter’s broom had started bucking and fighting to throw its rider off a hundred and fifty feet up in the air.

The vow. The unbreakable vow he had taken to protect Lily’s son.

If he hadn’t been so busy countering Quirrel’s jinx and putting out the fire that Miss Granger had spelled onto his robes he probably would have passed out. Or screamed.

He’s learned to live with the pain since then. It’s certainly too much to ask that Potter might avoid being in danger for any significant length of time. The insolent brat.

Still, ignorance had been bliss.

It is bad enough when they’re at school, when he’s in the middle of a lecture or grading papers or – Merlin forbid – a potions lab and the low buzz at his wrists turns into full-fledged inferno. It’s worse that such a thing doesn’t stop when Potter leaves the wizarding world.

No, if anything the buzzing gets worse.

“Hogwarts is the safest magical place in Britain, especially for young Harry,” Dumbledore had waved off the first time he had brought his concerns to the headmaster. “I fear that once he is away from the school the threat from Voldemort and his Death Eaters only rises.”

“Then keep him here,” Severus had spat.

“I cannot. The blood protections on the boy are strong and must be renewed by living in proximity to the blood of those that cast them. They keep him safe enough while he is away and I do keep an eye on him.” The old, twinkling eyed coot had nodded at the shelf of silver and glass instruments across from his desk.

Severus has listened to that conversation, or a variation thereof, many times over the last handful of years. He’s listening to it right now, in fact, barely tracking the familiar words as he stares at Dumbledore with no small amount of contempt, his arms crossed over his chest.

“…threat from Voldemort is higher than ever. He knows the prophecy now, no doubt he ripped it out of poor Harry’s head, and I have managed to destroy something of value to him,” Dumbledore intones, the blackened flesh of his hand twitching with the last statement. Outwardly, Severus knows his face is the epitome of cold disinterest but inside, behind the safety of occlumency shields that not even the Dark Lord has been able to break, he snarls. “His power and knowledge are increasing, as is his desperation. It is a dangerous combination, Severus. Most dangerous.”

Even a year ago he would have accepted – but not quite believed, because he likes to think that he’s become a great deal less gullible in the last decade and a half – the explanation and let the subject matter drop.

But a lot changes in a year.

“The Dark Lord has always been dangerous,” Severus points out silkily. “And he is not the one that worries me.”

Dumbledore’s bushy eyebrows nearly fall off his head. “Is there something you need to tell me, Severus?”

Truthfully, Severus can think of quite a few things that Albus would classify as need-to-know should he, in fact, know that Severus knows them. Which he doesn’t. Thank Merlin.

“Nothing that you do not already know,” he drawls and barely resists the urge to roll his eyes.  “It is his home life that I am worried about.”

“His home life?”

If the old fool’s eyes sparkle any harder Severus thinks that he might go blind.

Severus picks his words carefully. More carefully than usual, at any rate. “I do not think that with…” That Bitch Petunia and the piece of flabberworm excrement she had managed to procure as a spouse “…muggles is the best place for the so-called Chosen One.”

Albus suddenly looks like someone has kicked his puppy. Or phoenix. Yesterday had been burning day, it seems. The pathetic potential is nearly at maximum for the crimson and gold flaming chicken.

“Severus,” the disappointment in the headmaster’s voice is enough to make him want to hurl. “They are his relatives, his only living family. It would be a great disservice to keep Harry from those that love him just because they don’t have magic. I thought you beyond such petty foolishness.”

He stares, absentmindedly rubbing his wrist against the softness of his robes as he struggles not to drown in some sort of desperate laughter.  “Love him?” he repeats quietly, thinking of the memories that he had seen and felt.

Dumbledore stares him reproachfully. “Of course. They are his family. Of course they care for him.”

Oh, you blind old fool, Severus growls behind his mental walls. Do you really not see? Or do you simply not care?

Given that Severus himself had not seen until he had literally witnessed it happening he admits that the chances for the former are higher than he would like. Of course, given a great number of Dumbledore’s decisions over the last couple of decades he can’t rule out the latter either. Or perhaps the twinkly eyed bastard has finally gone senile.

Perhaps it is a mixture of all three.

The grimace stays buried with his thoughts and he fights the urge to grind his teeth as the lines of magic around his wrists give another jerk.

They beat him, he wants to say. I watched ‘Tuney strike him in the side of the face with a frying pan for burning the bacon.

They starve him, he longs to point out. You know that nearly every adult in this castle has remarked on the brat’s small stature. Have you never wondered why?

They’ve beaten him down and robbed him of all affection, he wants to snarl. Merlin, ‘Tuney and her beast of a husband and their lard of a son make his father look loving. They’ve taught him that he’s worthless.

And doesn’t that just explain… pretty much everything, actually… of the last handful of years.

He wants to shout, to yell, and break every damn thing left in this office. Not that there’s nearly as many of the absurd little devices as there used to be, thanks to Potter. He wants to lean over the desk and shake Dumbledore until the headmaster understands but he doesn’t. He can’t. He tells himself that he doesn’t want to invade the boy’s privacy any more than he already has. He tells himself that Harry wouldn’t appreciate his secrets, his weaknesses, being aired for public consumption. He tells himself this and it’s even the truth. All good lies are.

The truth of the matter is that in the dark, quiet recesses of his heavily shielded mind he fears that Dumbledore already knows every injustice that Potter undergoes – that he knows and does nothing. He wonders and he is too much of a coward to ask.

Suddenly unbelievably weary, Severus rubs at his wrist and lets Dumbledore steer the conversation into less rocky waters.

 


 

Severus is still thinking about it when he leaves the Headmaster’s office.

He had been angry, so unbelievably angry, after their first occlumency lesson. It had been awful enough that he had been instructed – by both masters, nonetheless – to not actually teach the boy anything of use. Rather, he was supposed to use the time to rip Potter’s mind open. The Dark Lord wanted to exploit the connection, Dumbledore wanted to provoke the Dark Lord into revealing himself. Both had gotten what they wanted and not only had Potter been caught in the middle but he’d had to endure a man he hated rooting around in his head like an overexcited niffler, crippling visions, and – thanks to both of the former – the loss of his beloved godfather.

Shit. He hates the stupid mutt, but even thinking about the whole thing makes Severus want to drink until he’s staring at the bottom of the bottle. Multiple bottles.

Wearily, he pauses in the shadows and pinches the bridge of his nose. He’s getting to old for this. Too old, too tired.

Merlin’s saggy balls, he’s thirty-six. Thirty-six.

So he had ripped the boy’s mind wide open, as requested, and what should fall out but memories that had made him want to vomit all over his office floor. To grab the boy and hold him and promise him that he would never, ever have to go back to that bloody house. To march straight up to Dumbledore’s office and strangle the man with his absurd beard and demand what in bloody hell made him think that Petunia Evans would be a suitable caretaker for a magical child.

But, contrary to popular belief, Severus Snape does control his temper. He has lost too much to choices made in a rush of emotion. So he waits and continues their lessons

… and then the brat looks in his pensive.

And then he’s drowning under a whole different tsunami of anger.

And then the mangy mutt dies.

And now he’s standing here in the shadows of the alcove on the second floor that the bloody Hufflepuffs  like to use for their more amorous pursuits, rubbing at his wrists and wondering if his life could possibly get more complicated.

So of course the magical bindings pick that moment to go from uncomfortable burning to fiendfyre  against his skin and the suddenness of it takes Severus to his knees.

 


 

Arabella Figg’s garden is a mess.

Severus’ lip curls in disgust as he steps out from behind an overgrown rhododendron bush and into the still, buzzing warmth of a late afternoon in Little Whinging. The tangle of vegetation obviously agrees, leaves faded and limp beneath the weight of an unheard of English sun. Wordlessly, he flicks his wand and sighs a little in relief as the cooling charm washes down the back of his neck and spreads over damp skin. Still hidden by the ungroomed hedge and the wooden slats of the fence he transfigures his frock coat into a hair ribbon, which he uses to pull his hair back from his face. His boots, trousers, and deep green button down are all close enough to muggle fashion as to pass unnoticed but he does take a moment to undo the top few buttons and roll up his sleeves to the middle of his forearms.

 And reinforce the glamour over his dark mark, of course, because he is not a dunderhead.

Notice-Me-Not and Muggle Repelling charms in place – a duo which, in combination with actual muggle clothing, is more powerful than a Disillusionment spell, doubly so with his versions because he’s woven in some minor memory charms that encourage those who see him to forget what little they see – Severus steps over a cat lazy on the gravel walk and makes his way out of the squib’s private jungle.

He wants to run, to fly, to move in a blur of twisting black smoke across the hazy blue sky and eat up the distance between him and Potter as fast as he can. But he can’t. It would attract too much attention. Not from Albus, because if the old fool can still believe that Potter is fine when Severus’ wrists are being sawn from his wrists by the weight of his oath then clearly the headmaster’s monitoring wards are faulty or simply not there to begin with. No, he is more worried by the prospect of actual observation both from the nosy muggles and from the Order of the Phoenix member on guard duty.

Severus spares a moment to hope that it’s not Lupin camped out near the boy’s house today. He hadn’t had the time or the presence of mind to grab the potions necessary to mask his scent and the spells aren’t exactly foolproof. Not to mention that he has serious doubts about being able to perform the necessary wand movements when his hands are trembling like this.

So he ignores the way his muscles are twitching and the way his heart is seizing oddly in his chest and strolls calmly down the street until he reaches the hedge at the corner. There he pauses and peers casually up the length of Privet Drive to the tree across from number four and inspects it for the tell-tale shimmer of movement that denotes a disillusioned being. The paltry, dappled shadows are empty and still and he’s not sure whether to sigh in relief or growl at the fact that Mundungus bloody Fletcher has clearly abandoned his post again. He’s going to strangle the useless bastard. Or feed him to a werewolf.

“…in the car Duddykins! We don’t want to be late for our reservation!”

The familiar shrill voice tears Severus away from thoughts of punishment for the dirty, shifty-eyed little thief. It’s been twenty-one years since he’s heard that voice but it’s not one he’s ever likely to forget. If nothing else, it’s still as sharp and braying as it had been when she’d been screaming at them – at him, at Lily – across the park.  Petunia Evans. Dursley, he corrects himself as he eyes the woman currently hustling an enormous, lumbering boy towards the back of the car. She hasn’t changed a bit in the last two decades. Oh, she’s clearly older, with lines bracketing her lips and eyes, and she likely colors her hair, but her face is still a little too long, her lips a little too thin – and made even thinner by the way she keeps them pressed together. She’s still the ‘Tuney that he’s despised and pitied for the majority of his life. 

Jealous bitch.

“…the finest for our son!” a fat, red faced man adds in as he follows Petunia and the fat boy out of the house. “Got to celebrate, haven’t we? That’s my Dudley, Smelting’s Heavyweight Champion!”

Severus sneers. The boy is certainly a heavyweight something.

Thankfully it is only a few painful – utterly painful – moments before the trio of Dursleys are tucked inside of their vehicle and pulling out of their driveway, all of them utterly ignorant of the dark haired man strolling across the street as they leave. Nor do they see him pause on their front porch, staring at their front door like he expects it to strike out and bite him.

Part of him, the part that has spent five years staring at Potter’s face and seeing nothing more than the boy’s bloody father staring back at him, wants to turn around and leave. He’s not supposed to be here, after all. He’s not even supposed to know where here is. Surely Potter is okay. His relatives certainly wouldn’t be going out to celebrate if he wasn’t.

Severus chokes back the snort that pulls at his throat. He doesn’t need memories or even the burn of the oath to know that that hope is utter hippogriff shit.

He eyes the door. He has come this far, left Hogwarts without warning and violated Albus’ standing orders to not contact or disturb Potter while he is at his relatives. How could he not with his promise burning around his wrists so fiercely that it is only by the sheer strength of his occlumency skills and his conditioned tolerance of pain that lets him stand and move when he should, by all rights, be screaming on the floor.

It takes nothing more than a wandless alohomora to get inside the house.

The shock of it leaves Severus standing in front of the cracked open door for nearly a full minute. All of these years, all of the times he has stood before that enormous desk and bit back his hatred for James Potter and informed the headmaster that the oath was acting up again and been soothed with reassurances of powerful wards and monitoring charms and yet here he is. He is a dark wizard and a marked Death Eater and yet he has been able to stroll up to Number Four without a by-your-leave and breach the security of the home with nothing more than a first year spell.

An overly ornate lamp in the far corner of the sitting room shatters beneath the surge of his anger and he snarls wordlessly in response, struggling against the emotions and shoving them back behind the smooth emptiness of his occlumency shields. Shaking, he leans back against the door and takes several deep breaths while rubbing at his wrists. “Where are you, Potter?” he mutters, once he finally has his emotions back under lock, stock, and key. The brat is here. He can feel it. The oath is practically buzzing against his skin. Taking another deep breath he shuts his eyes and drifts through his mindscape, mental fingers drifting over potion stores until it comes across the vial of powdered asphodel that represents his oath. The moment he touches it is aware of it, glowing like spell fire and taunt like a string drawn between him and Potter. He follows it, drifting silently up the stairs and down the hall to a door.

A door locked by seven different types of locks and fitted with a small cat flap.

Severus shuts his eyes and forces himself to let go of his wand before he inadvertently snaps it. Or burns the house to the ground around them in a surge of sheer, furious, wordless will.  When he has the rage shoved down and locked away in a box of fresh aconite he undoes the locks with a wave of his hand, unwilling to touch them with his bare skin, and pushes the door open.

The smell of blood hits him hits him in the face immediately, the overly artificial lemon of ‘Tuney’s cleaning chemicals no longer able to overcome it in the face of a lack of air flow. “Merlin and Morgana,” he breathes as he steps across the threshold and stares at the room. It is a small room. He knew that, had seen it in Potter’s memories, but truly the memory hadn’t done it justice.  Less than ten feet square there’s nothing in it but an old single bed, a desk, and a wall covered in shelves holding a remarkable number of broken toys and a small handful of books. There are no longer bars on the window but he can see where they were once attached.

There is, however, a smear of blood on the floor and the size of it literally makes his heart stop in his chest, occlumency shields be damned.

Nothing else is out of place. The bed is still neatly made - though the thin blanket and lumpy pillow make Severus scowl - and the desk is neatly organized with a stack of books on one side and a half filled piece of parchment lying in the center of it. There’s nothing on the floors, save for the empty owl cage in the corner, and not a speck of dust to be seen anywhere. In fact, the only thing marring the room is the violent mar of crimson spread across the floor: a puddle and a scarlet arch that disappears beneath the bedframe.

Severus gets down on his knees and peers under the bed.

Merlin,” he breathes again at the sight that greets him. Kicked under the bed are a t-shirt and a pair of jeans, but beyond them he can make out the golden expanse of flesh huddled against the back wall. “Potter?” he calls gently.

The flesh does not move and his heart limps against his ribs.

“Harry?”

When there is still no response, no twitch of movement or whisper of sound he doesn’t hesitate to move the bed away from the wall with a slash of his wand. The ball of flesh flinches at the sudden light streaming across skin brushed with blood and painted in bruises. For a moment Severus just stares, the sight of Potter, huddled and broken completely whiting out his mind until it is so empty that even the silence of it rings. Because this, this can’t possibly be the boy who has sat in his class for the last five years and matched him glare for glare. This can’t possibly be the boy who dives hundreds of feet in pursuit of a shiny metallic object. This can’t possibly be the boy who has tangled with the Dark Lord not once but five bloody times and emerged from each encounter with his life. Nothing he knows of Potter – rash, foolhardy, brave, and impetuous Potter – fits with the cowering, quivering lump on the floor.

Nothing? He asks himself silently as he sinks back down next to the boy. Now you’re just lying to yourself, Sev. He’s seen the memories inside the boy’s head, not all of them, and clearly not the worst of them, but he’s seen them. There have been other signs over the years, signs he should have paid more attention to, signs that he should have…

Severus shakes his head sharply. “Harry?” he calls again and the boy whimpers, curling tighter and pressing himself to the floorboards as if he wishes to simply sink through them and be gone from this horrid little room. Severus doesn’t blame him. Waving his wand he quietly casts a basic diagnostic spell and watches, his face growing paler and paler as he watches the spell lit words scroll past his gaze. Broken ribs. Pierced lungs. Internal bleeding. Dislocated shoulder. Broken wrist. Concussion. Dehydration. The list goes on.

In short, injuries that are far beyond his abilities to heal. If they had been simple flesh wounds – slices, cuts and the like – he could have healed them, at least partially. Likewise wounds caused by dark spells he could have countered and unwound or at the very least put into stasis and while potions could heal a great deal they were usually secondary measures, given after the charm work had been done. Simply put, he’s too educated, too specialized. He's an unlicensed medi-wizard who deals almost exclusively in potions and curse wounds – and he doesn’t need to see the darkening finger marks on Potter’s arm to know that this damage has been done by foot and fist.

Gently he slides his fingers across the boy’s neck until they rest, light as a butterfly, on the point of his pulse. “Easy, Potter,” he murmurs when the boy jerks like he’s been struck. “I’m not going to hurt you. I just need to check your pulse.” It’s only partially a lie. The diagnostic spell is already telling him the boy’s pulse: thin and weak and far, far too slow. He just wants it to be wrong.

It’s not.

Severus shuts his eyes and takes a deep breath. He has to get Potter out of here, now, and to medical help. But to where? And whom? His first thought is to take the boy to Hogwarts but there are two problems with that. First, it is very likely that Poppy is not there as she frequently spends the summer holidays traveling to study and work in clinics around the world. Perhaps more importantly, though, is the fact that Albus is there and he does not trust the man with Potter’s life. Not now. Not anymore. He could take the boy to St. Mungos even though it would likely spark a complete shit storm with the press. Especially as they’ve spent the last couple of weeks heralding him as the bloody Chosen One. Plus, the boy is still underage and Albus is his magical guardian. The headmaster would be notified as soon as they stepped foot in St. Mungos or any other magical clinic. He could take Potter to a muggle doctor. If no one looks past the surface they might pass as father and son. As long as Harry remains unconscious, anyway, or delirious. He rather imagines that getting into a shouting match with the boy in the middle of the A&E coupled with the superfluous use of last names would likely dispel that image rather quickly. Besides, the moment Potter’s core is stabilized the boy will start healing at a rate that is positively alarming and that is sure to bring either Albus or the Ministry down upon their heads.

Christ, he’s not really sure which meddling idiot terrifies him more: Albus or Fudge.

 “…Snape?”

Severus blinks and stares down at the young man that he has spent so much of his life simultaneously hating and mourning. Familiar green eyes peer up at him through that ridiculous mop of black hair, their surface glassy and dull. Beneath his fingers the boy’s pulse jumps and stutters. Severus’ own heart nearly leaps out of his chest.

 “Obviously,” he drawls to cover the sudden surge of terror. “Try not to speak or move. Your injuries…”

“…not tha’ bad,” the boy slurs, his eyes – Lily’s eyes – drifting shut. “…’snot real. You…wouldn’t…nice’me.”

Something that feels suspiciously like a tear slips down his cheek and drops off the line of his jaw.

He has to get Potter how out of here. If there is any hope of the boy recovering from this he needs to do what he should have done years ago. He needs to actually keep his oath, the one he had sworn amidst anger and grief and pain, instead of pushing it aside and accepting the platitudes that Albus bloody Dumbledore provides as an excuse to neglect his duty to Lily’s son.

In the end, he undoes the transfiguration of his frock coat with a touch of wandless magic. He can’t bear the thought of wrapping Harry in the threadbare blanket from his bed or – Merlin forbid – the ratty clothes lying on the floor.

The house is quiet as he moves across the hall and down the stairs. Almost unnaturally so. It should be louder. There should be noise. Battle, perhaps, or at the very least a dozen voices raised in concern as the heralded Boy-Who-Lived, the mighty Chosen One slowly dies in his arms. But there isn’t. It’s just them. Just Severus Snape, reviled Dungeon Bat, Death Eater Scum, and all around Greasy Git. Just another unkindness to heap upon Harry Potter.

The Fates seem to like kicking him just as much as they like kicking Severus.

Well, fuck them.

The street is empty, as far as he can tell, though he has no doubt that at least a half dozen mindless busy bodies currently have their noses pressed to the glass somewhere in the hopes of scenting out some juicy secret in their neighbors’ mediocre lives.

The thought alone has him pausing halfway out the door. The lack of wards on Petunia’s house had been appalling and almost entirely absent – some residual blood magic, anti-apparition and anti-portkey wards, and little else. But he wonders as he stands on the front stoop with a black wrapped body in his arms, why all of these imbecilic gossips had never once bothered to report the abuse clearly happening right before their eyes.

Gaze narrowing speculatively, Severus carefully shifts the bundle of Harry Potter and flicks his wand in a spell that he has performed so many times in his miserable life that he could quite possibly perform it even when fully unconscious. He’s certainly done it while half asleep more times than he can count. His magic follows the curve of his wand like a whip, snaking past the tremors and the agony in his skin and gliding through the air to touch and taste.

He doesn’t know what shocks him more – that he finds exactly what he suspects or that he expected it in the first place.

That’s it, then. He can feel the last of his loyalties going up in smoke even as he strides – carefully, so bloody carefully – down the walk to the invisible line at the street marking the edge of the anti-apparition wards.

“I’m sorry Harry,” he murmurs into the thatch of black hair. “This will not be pleasant.” The unconscious youth does not stir in his arms and there’s that to be grateful for, he supposes. Severus can only hope that the unconsciousness holds. He knows from experience just how painful apparating with injuries such as these can be. “Lily, please forgive me,” he adds hoarsely and then turns on his heel.

He knows of exactly one healer that will not go running to Dumbledore. Or the ministry.

The soft crack of his disappearance is all but lost to the lazy hum of the heated street and it barely provokes a flicker of the front curtains from Nosy Number Seven.

Chapter Text

Severus nearly stumbles as he lands in the foyer of Malfoy Manor but a shaky step forward, and then another, onto the tightly woven rug is enough to keep him from planting both he and Harry on their faces. He has just a moment to take in the deep, warm hues of the rug lying against the cool, polished marble of the floors and the quiet, discreet hum from the portraits hanging on the paneled walls before a quiet pop announces the arrival of a house elf.

“Welcome to Malfoy Man… oh, Mister Snapes! What can Libby be doing for you?”

Severus tightens his grip on Harry and takes another step forward, heading for the stairs. “Is the Lady Malfoy at home, Libby?” he asks.

The little creature bobs her head above the pristine, starched whiteness of her pillowcase. “Yes. Mistress is being in the orangery.”

“Can you inform her that I have arrived and am in need of her services? I will be in the blue room and she will need her kit.”

Bulbous eyes widen at the steady words. Severus grunts and his knee rolls beneath the weight in his arms – slight as it is – as he begins to climb the stairs. Bloody thing. He’s definitely getting too bloody old for all of this. Thirty-six be damned. On days like today he feels even older than Albus.

 “Libby will tell her,” the elf finally squeaks. “Libby be telling her right away Mister Snapes!”

Outstanding. That’s the healer down, at least. Cissa would refuse to treat Dumbledore – or even the Minister for that matter – if they lay dying in front of her but she would never refuse to treat a child. Even if that child is Harry Potter.  Now he just has everyone else in this bloody house to deal with.

Severus can already feel the migraine beginning to form behind his eyes.

“Is that Potter?”

The muscle next to his eye twitches and he pauses in the middle of the staircase to throw a glance down at his godson. Draco is standing in the center of the corridor leading up from the lower level, shirt sleeves rolled neatly to his elbows and hair tied back from his face in a smooth, platinum plait. He’s too neat, too controlled to have been anywhere near whatever miserable pieces of humanity that his father and the Dark Lord have stashed in the dungeons and Severus rather doubts that the boy even knows how to make a fucking cup of tea let alone anything else that might be edible so the inevitable conclusion is that the boy had been in the potions lab.

Also, the fingertips on his non dominant hand are still stained a deep greenish-brown.

“Yes,” he says shortly, fingers tightening around the curve of the boy’s body and his mind already moving in at least six different ways behind his walls, calculating shielding tactics and spell trajectories and the odds of Cissa ever forgiving him if he destroys the foyer and bruises her son by burying him in the debris.  “Is He here?” he asks as he resumes his climb.

Draco is silent for a long moment, mouth hanging open in a plebian move that would no doubt make the pale young man blush if Severus were to point it. However, the question seems to startle him back into the present moment.

“Yes,” he replies with a swift jerk of his head, paling even further. “In father’s study.” His steely eyes narrow in the next moment, gaze darting from where Harry rests in Severus’ arms to the entrance to the study buried in the shadows of the east corridor, running his own calculations behind the cool disinterest of the pureblood mask. Things have not been easy for the Malfoys this past month. Lucius had not been so foolish to be caught in the ministry like so many others but he had, ultimately, failed to complete the task the Dark Lord had set for him.

The Dark Lord does not approve of failure.

“Five minutes, Draco,” he begs quietly. “That is all that I ask.” It’s all he dares ask and even then it’s no small thing – and they both know it. People have been tortured for a delay of five minutes. Bugger that, people have died for delaying five minutes at the wrong time.  Severus turns slightly on the stairs, just enough so that his godson can get a half decent look at the body in his hands – at Potter’s ashen face and blood painted skin, at the bruises blooming across his flesh and the way his arm hangs at an unnatural angle. “Please,” he adds after a beat of silence and Draco recoils from the word like it’s a flame whip, eyes going impossibly wide as that mask of his breaks for just a second.

Draco jerks his head again, a silent assent.

Five minutes. Severus has five minutes before Draco will tell the Dark Lord that Severus Snape, the Dark Lord’s Potion Master, the Dark Lord’s Spy, the Dark Lord’s Most Trusted has taken the Boy Who Lived to a guest room in Malfoy Manor without telling him.

Five minutes. He has five minutes to try and keep his oath.

Five minutes before the Dark Lord likely kills them both.

 


 

The Blue Room is exactly what one might expect from its name. It has always been Severus’ favorite of the Malfoy guest suites. He had stayed in it more than once before Lucius and Cissa had insisted that he have his own set of rooms at the Manor. He keeps the house at Spinner’s End because it is his, vile, despicable thing that it is, and it has proven wise, more than once, to have a bolt hole and an address that is not associated with anyone but himself. Despite that, he has lived the majority of the past eleven summers here at the Manor and it is more his home than anything has managed since Black and Potter ruined Hogwarts for him.

The dark wood floors are almost entirely covered by various handwoven wool rugs dyed in deep indigos with delicate splashes of green and cream. One of them alone is probably worth more than he makes in a month. And that’s including all the potion patents that he holds. The walls themselves are a deep blue that would do any Ravenclaw proud and the windows draped in cream silk a few shades lighter than the cream of the upholstered chairs set on either side of a small table before the fireplace. There are bookshelves and armoires and a desk all in the same polished cherry. The bed is the same – polished cherry draped in cream with throws and pillows in blue and green. It’s to the bed that he goes, striding across the massive room and its beautiful, horrendously expensive rugs as if his heart isn’t burning to match the lines of fire at his wrists and the tremors haven’t gotten so bad that he feels like he’s likely to simply seize and fall over at any moment.

Sighing in relief, he carefully lays Harry down the bed, gently folding the front of his frock coat over the boy’s groin to preserve his modesty. And to prevent Severus from getting a good look at the bruises there. Truthfully, if he actually sees them he thinks the odds are good that he’ll be committing murder today.

Messily and with a gleefulness that would make Bellatrix beam with pride.

Actually, it will probably be for the best if he doesn’t look at the boy at all.

He strokes the hair back from the boy’s face and lets his fingers fall to the pulse point on Harry’s neck. It’s there. It’s so faint and unsteady that he can barely feel it nudging away at his fingertips but the relief at being able to still find it at all is enough to make his head swim and his vision blur.

“Severus, what are you doing… oh. Oh. That’s Harry Potter.”

Cissa stands in the doorway, framed by the polished wood, and for just a moment she looks like she’s taken a bludger to the face. Then the pureblood mask, the stoic, polite indifference that Severus swears is so practiced that it’s bred into their very bone structure at this point, slides over her features and once more the Lady Malfoy, veritable ice queen, stands before him with a slim black bag clutched loosely in her hands.

Now, Narcissa Malfoy nee Black is no fool and only a complete and utter dunderhead would ever make the mistake of thinking otherwise. Cissa is smart. Scary smart. Beneath that icy mask is a woman who is sharper than a basilisk fang and twice as deadly.

And she’s watching him now, trying to figure him out. Like any good alum of the snake pit she’s reviewing the available information and running the odds to determine the best course of action. So to help her make her choice Severus simply ensures she has plenty of information.

He silently steps away from the bed and leaves Harry lying there, bloody and broken and vulnerable.

Oh,” she takes a step forward before she can stop herself, a hand flying up to cover her lips. “Oh, that poor child. Sweet Circe, Severus, what…?”

“It is beyond my abilities,” he informs her softly. “I have given him a bit of a Grade Two pain reliever and wrapped him in a stasis charm but it is failing.” Merlin, it’s a bloody miracle that it has lasted this long. Stasis charms are unreliable when it comes to anything but spell damage and even then they’re wildly considered a last ditch effort.

Which, of course, sums up this entire situation quite admirably.

He doesn’t tell her about the injuries. He finds that he can’t, not really. The words get stuck in his throat as he stares down at the pale body on the bed. He doesn’t tell her about how he found Harry or about the wealth of blood and other bodily fluids she will find on his skin. She is a healer and a Death Eater’s wife. She’s seen more than enough to figure out what has been done to Harry before she even draws her wand.

“I must go speak with the Dark Lord,” Severus murmurs after several heavy beats of silence. “I am going to ward the room. You will be able to leave but you will not be able to re-enter.  No one else will be able to enter unless I bring them or the wards fall.”

Cissa looks up from where she is pulling items out of her healer’s bag. “And if they fall?” she asks quietly.

“Then I am dead and I suggest you leave by the most expedient means necessary because no doubt the Dark Lord will make sure that Mr. Potter soon follows.”

She nods and curls her fingers around her wand, a delicate piece of cedar that practically shines beneath her touch. “Severus… why?” she asks gently. He looks back at her, at the careful mask covering the face of a woman who has been a… a friend, dare he say, more often than not over the past two decades and presses his lips together.

“Once, a long time ago,” he finally responds as he pauses, hand on the door, “the person I loved best in this world was killed and I made an unbreakable vow to always protect her son.” He stares at the contrast of his pale hand against the shined silver of the doorknob and the dark swirl of the wood. Behind him Cissa inhales sharply but otherwise does not react and Severus cannot help the little bitter laugh that bubbles up out of his throat as he rubs his wrist absentmindedly against his leg. “Today, I finally remembered it.”

 


 

His five minutes are up, he knows, but that doesn’t stop him from pausing once he shuts the door behind him. A quick slash of his wand leaves the palm of his other hand open and bleeding. Rocking forward onto his toes he reaches up to wipe it across the door molding, a sacrificial offering that danger might pass the room over. For a moment he’s sitting in the hot, stuffy heat of Spinner’s End, listening to Tobias’ voice slur his way through bible passages but it is no faceless, omniscient, usurping god that he seeks to mark the room against. Nor is it even the more real and immediate danger of the Dark Lord. There are few wards that could stall the Dark Lord and he has neither the time nor the preparation to cast them. No, these wards are for everyone else. For Draco, for Lucius, for whomever else is lodging at the manor or waiting for an audience with Him.

The rush of the wards going up hits him like a tidal wave and he rocks against the sudden drain of magic swirling out of him and climbing the walls. He stays there, braced against the door, wand in one hand and blood leaking from the other, and takes several deep breaths before he straightens and shoots a quiet episkey at the self-inflicted wound as he strides down the hallway.

He can feel the rising magic by the time he reaches the stairs. It’s a tangible pulse that echoes in his bones, his heartbeat instinctively adjusting itself so that it aligns with the beat of the power that now coils through the manor like a massive bloody snake. It’s cool, but not cold, and whispers as it flexes against his skin with a strength that nearly takes him to his knees as it purrs promises of power and acceptance, of knowledge and companionship. It had won his allegiance when he was seventeen, his devotion given before he had ever even seen the Dark Lord in person. He hadn’t needed to see the man to know what he was, hadn’t needed to agree with everything that he said to know that his place was at the man’s feet. Even now, after everything, the siren song of the Dark Lord’s power is enough to make him tremble with want, with the desire to go to his knees and bow his head and submit his strength to his Lord.

At the bottom of the stairs he puts his wand away, slipping it into the holster on his right arm, and undoes the disillusionment on his mark. The mark that he has loved and loathed in equal measure. Unconsciously, he rubs the tender skin of his right wrist against it, smoothing over the inky lines left undulating in the tightening press of its creator’s presence. It stings. Oddly enough the pain is welcome, a bracing counterbalance to the burning.

Though.

Though, the burning seems to be dying. The sear and flash fire heat fading into something more gentle, more warm, the strings of his oath suddenly comforting instead of punishing against his skin.

There is not much known about unbreakable vows– at least by the sweating, imbecilic masses – beside the fact that they are unbreakable. Most witches and wizards will never swear one. Even the Dark Lord had not made his followers swear one. He’s sworn two beneath Dumbledore. In retrospect, that probably says something about his two masters. Something that he has tried really, really hard not to examine too closely over the past decade and a half.

Bloody fuck.

Dubious morals and trust issues aside, having sworn multiple unbreakable vows Severus is in the unique position of currently living with the daily weight of multiple vows. Even if he does try to frequently ignore them. He imagines that if you asked the average wizard on the street about an unbreakable vow they’d make some asinine comment about how they’re unbreakable or else, you know, you die – which is, strictly speaking, true. But it isn’t everything.

 An unbreakable vow isn’t just a magical oath. It’s not a simple yes or no, do or do not. It’s not like swearing on his wand. The binds left behind are more than a magically held promise to keep to certain terms or die. They’re sentient. Not enough to be considered alive, not really, but the magic of the oath is aware enough to not just kill violators but to warn and punish those who skirt too close to breaking their word… and to reward those who fulfill it.

The burning dies with every step he takes towards the study, replaced with glowing warmth that reminds him of early summer sunshine against his skin edged with the smooth, heated hit of good fire whiskey running down his throat. It’s the warm, soothing pleasure of a new book in his lap, sitting curled before a fire with nowhere to go, no one begging for a scrap of his time.

The last time the vow felt this good around his wrists he had just thrown himself between Harry and a werewolf.

Do you, Severus Tobias Snape, swear to always protect Harry James Potter, the son of Lily Potter nee Evans to the best of your abilities?

If he is to die today – something that seems highly probable – than at least he dies with approval on his wrists.

Forgive me, Lily.

Severus sweeps past Draco, standing pale and wide eyed in the shadows cast by the staircase, and walks through the door to face the Dark Lord.

 


 

“My Lord,” Severus drops fluidly to one knee in the center of the room and bows his head. Behind him he can hear the heavy door click shut with a gentle nudge of magic. Instinctively, his shields tighten against the brush of power and for a moment his mind scrambles with all the elegance of Longbottom faced with the task of brewing a Befuddlement Draught. He hasn’t prepared any false memories. He hasn’t…

“Sseverusss…”

… he sucks in a deep breath and only decades of iron control over his reactions keep him from jerking upright at the smooth baritone that caresses his ears instead of the high, breathy tones that he has come to expect. Only the unmistakable, familiar hissing pronunciation of his name assures Severus that it is, in fact, the Dark Lord speaking. That and distant memories, memories of days long past when the Dark Lord was…

… he sucks in another breath and forces himself to let it out slowly, fingers digging into the pile of the rug as he focuses on the delicate design of the scrollwork imbedded in its weaving.

“…my standing order is for everyone to leave Harry Potter alone, to not touch or harm a single hair on his head” – item number one on Severus’ ‘Things Dumbledore Would Want to Know But I Don’t Want to Tell Him’ list, because gods know the bloody old coot would do with that  information- “so explain to me why young Malfoy was just in here reporting that you have brought him here bloody and unconsciousss.”

The temperature of the room plummets with the Dark Lord’s displeasure and Severus rocks forward with a pained gasp as his power flexes, squeezing down upon him, a feeble mortal no more than prey caught in the great serpent’s coils. It’s cold and hard and stinging, frozen iron pressed against his soul, and the air stills in his lungs, lunging, clawing, gasping…

“…Explain to Lord Voldemort why you have disssobeyed.”

Severus strains against the force of his master’s magic, struggling to get enough air into his chest to speak, to whimper, to… “I… had… to…” he finally manages to force past the clench of his throat and the pressure in his chest.

The cold is enough to stop his heart.

The warmth at his wrists is enough to keep his blood flowing.

“Was it Dumbledore?” the Dark Lord hisses sharply. “Did he order you to hurt Potter?”

The shock of the question is enough to inflate his lungs with oxygen and the rug swims back into focus as he rocks over it. Why would Albus hurt the boy? Use him like some bloody pawn on a fucking chessboard? Yes. A thousand times yes. The world itself is nothing but pawns to the likes of the mighty Albus Dumbledore. But to hurt a child so badly? To order him hurt? He would not. He would never…

He left him in that home, his own thoughts echo back at him. He left him there and spelled it with enough notice-me-nots and attention repelling charms to satisfy the security of a World Cup.

But maybe those were meant to protect Potter, to turn the nosy eyes of the neighbors away from the young wizard living in their midst.

You thought Harry had a better chance of living in the same house as the Dark Lord than beneath the protection of Albus Dumbledore, his own mind reminds him.

More importantly, why would the Dark Lord think such a thing of Albus and his Golden Boy?

Severus goes utterly still as a pair of feet step into his line of sight. The skin is pale, almost luminescent but it is just soft, human skin stretched over the lone lines and elegant arch of bone and sinew. “…Severus?”

It is a quiet demand, the force of it curling around him, wrapping him in its power and compelling him more surely than any imperio could ever manage.

And he lets it.

Eyes glazing with the heady intoxication of the magic filling his lungs and swirling through his veins, Severus tips his head back and looks up at the Dark Lord.

And his heart stops.

Truly, this time.

The poor, shrunken muscle goes completely still behind the cage of his ribs.

It matters not that his lungs are burning, that his chest feels like it is caught in vice, that there are black spots swimming in his gaze.

A face he hasn’t seen in nearly sixteen years stares back at him.

No.

The Dark Lord had not looked so good, so young, so alive even then.

Before the Potters.

Before Lily.

“My… Lord…” he whispers, staring up into the devastatingly human face.

 How? Why? Albus had been so certain, so bloody certain, that the Dark Lord’s human visage had been lost for all time. He had been so certain that the diet of snake venom and unicorn blood had rendered the cold, snake-like appearance permanent. There may have been some immeasurably wise sounding shit about how monsters could not hide their true self forever. Severus had wanted to vomit all over the man’s desk. Instead, he had nodded.

 The Dark Lord extends his hand, long fingers slipping through the curtain of Severus’ hair to slide down the length of his jaw and grip his chin tightly. Severus leans into the touch, allowing it to force his eyes higher, away from the fullness of his master’s lips and up the line of his nose to…

Instinctively, he focusses on the bit of flesh just to the side of that crimson gaze.

The lines at his wrist twinge.

He curls his fingers into the carpet and clenches until he can feel some of the threads beginning to come loose. He can do this. He can do this. He has to. He has to or he and Harry are dead and he will have forsaken his promise utterly.

“Look…at…me,” he manages to force past the clawing pressure in his chest, past the burning in his throat.

And then he meets the Dark Lord’s eyes and lets his mental shields fall completely.

Chapter Text

…red hair streaming behind her like a halo as she swings back and forth, back and forth. “Watch this Tuney!” she cries and leaps from the swing. The other girl screams just a little as the little red-haired witch hangs in the air for a moment before floating gently to the ground.


 

…”Look, I can do it too!” a twist of his small fingers, teeth digging into his lip with his concentration and the stick in his hand moves, morphing into a butter yellow flower, its petals soft and sweet.


 

… “Freaks! You’re both just freaks! It’s not normal what you can do!”


 

… “Don’t pay attention to her Lils. We’re magic and someday we’ll simply leave the muggles behind.” Her hand is shaking in his own and there’s a stick poking at the small of his back


 

… “Slytherin!” It’s not a surprise but it still hurts. Hurts to walk away from where she sits all shining smiles and copper hair to sit at the table on the opposite of the hall.

 


 

The Dark Lord tears through his mind like a rampaging dragon. He is not gentle. He is not kind. He does not offer mercy or understanding. He simply takes, ripping through his memories in a blur that leaves Severus disoriented and in pain as he relives dozens, hundreds, thousands even, of memories one on top of the other.

The smell of the park, the touch of Lily’s hand, the way his father’s fist felt against his face. His mother’s sobbing, the scent of the cheap whiskey and the stale beer that Tobias would drink until the whole house stank of it, the thin spirals of tobacco smoke from the neighbor’s cigarettes. The little clearing behind the park where he would hide, the way the sun made Lily’s hair gleam like copper, the flutter of an owl’s wings as it dropped a letter in his lap and another in hers. The scratch of the Sorting Hat against his forehead, the cool of the dungeon walls next to his bed, the sting of the scraped skin on his hands and knees and the sound of Sirius Black laughing as the mutt kicked his books down the stairs. Studies, notes, assignments, potions, the way his heart hammers in his chest when the Marauders start hunting him, the anger and the biting force of his magic lashing out.  Dark nights in the library and dim days in the common room all flick past, faster and faster like an old time muggle picture, the gray and the gloom broken by stolen moments with bright strands of copper and laughter and gleaming emerald eyes.

 


 

…red hair streaming, spread around her head like a halo, beautiful green eyes staring, unseeing at the ceiling. The air is thick with plaster and dust and her body is still warm and pliant as he gathers her into his arms. Behind him, in the crib, Harry cries for his mother.


 

… “You promised!” he cries as he slumps against a bookcase. “You promised that she would be safe!” There’s a hole inside of him, gaping and raw and as empty as the green eyes he has loved for over a decade. It hurts more than anything else has hurt in his entire life. More than Tobias’ fists. More than his mother’s submission to such abuse. More than the broken bones and stinging hexes and hateful slurs. More than a crucio. More than the first time he killed a person. More than having the dark mark carved into his arm. He has forsaken everything. Lost everything. And it hurts.


 

… fingers around his wrists, wand pressed to their joined hands. “Do you, Severus Tobias Snape, swear to always protect Harry James Potter, the son of Lily Potter nee Evans to the best of your abilities?” A pause. A breath. A broken beat of a heart that doesn’t, shouldn’t, can’t , exist anymore. “I swear.” A spark. An oath. A bond.


 

The smell of liquor – of fire whiskey and beer and cheap wines, of whatever he can get his hands on. The way it sits heavy in the emptiness of his gut. The way his body shakes. The way his hands shake. The curl of smoke from the cigarette held between his fingers. The view from the top of the astronomy tower. The play of the potion inside of the vial, pale and odorless but viscous like droplets of honey clinging to the inside of the glass. The feel of lightning inside his veins, the rapid beating of his heart, the way his breath becomes short, and the feel of a cold and clammy sweat breaking across his skin while he chokes on the foam rising in his mouth. The way the bezoar crunches between his teeth and the tears stream down his cheeks, both bright with the bitter taste of failure.

Pain.

Ten years pass in a blink, the whole of it shades of pain and failure and shame and guilt and…


 

the shock of black hair makes his heart pound in his chest, makes his breath catch, makes his entire body freeze in instinctive fear. Fourteen years gone and inside he’s still a child, caught in the open by his tormentors. Then the boy looks around and it hurts. Oh, stone and sky, it hurts to see Lily’s eyes in Potter’s face.


 

… green eyes, Lily’s eyes, staring up at him, full of frustration and defiance. The eyes might be Lily’s but Harry is his father’s son, conceited and arrogant to the core. Too good to do the reading. Too good to treat those in authority with respect. Too much a Potter to be anything of his friend. He didn’t know he had enough heart left to break. But it does.


 

The pain in his wrist when the Nimbus gives its first lurch. The track of his blood, beading down his calf from where the flesh is torn and mangled. The feel of Potter’s eyes on him, defiant and suspicious. The way his heart stops in his chest, the way the oath burns around his wrist as he bursts into the room behind Dumbledore and catches sight of wild black locks sticking out from beneath the stuttering idiot, who has been reduced to little more than ash. The bitter taste of betrayal, familiar on his tongue, as green and silver roars into scarlet and gold. Of course. Of course. Of course. The ache. The pains. The headlines of the newspaper, screaming at him and the crash of that ridiculous muggle vehicle into a tree. The drip of water, the stench of fear, the warning on the wall. The familiar, rolling hiss that makes his blood freeze in his veins.

Not possible.

The whole of the next three years summed up in two words and Severus watches it whirl and spin around him like a thousand reels of muggle film.

The feel of the damp cold against his skin, the sound of the dementors’ breath rattling in his ears. Lupin. Black. The howl of a werewolf echoing in his ears, the stench of his own fear. The familiar hand of despair wrapping her cold hands around his heart, the sheer fury bolting through his veins as the bloody mutt escapes the consequences of his actions again. The slow, steady crawl of sensation and movement and color returning to his dark mark. The Triwizard Tournament. Karkaroff. Bloody Dragons. Bloody Black Lake in Fucking February. Bloody maze. The punch, the burn, the return.  Albus, questioning. Everything hurting. The disturbing hem hem of Dolores Umbridge. Visions. Dreams. Occlumency lessons. Cursed hands. Promises. Oaths.

A spark. A bond.


 

The Dark Lord tears from one memory to the next to the next, plunging them in and ripping them out, spilling every secret, every thought, and every emotion out for the entire world to read. It goes on and on and on. His entire life is unraveling like a spool of thread.

He lets it.

His head is screaming. His throat is raw. He can feel the warmth of tears and blood streaming down his cheeks as he stares, unblinking, into the Dark Lord’s scarlet gaze as the past two and a half decades become one long endless pain bubbling beneath his skin.

And then the Dark Lord is gone. Simply gone, like water washing away, a dam being drained, and Severus falls to the ground, gasping desperately for air.

Or he would have, did the Dark Lord still not have a hold of his face.

Instead, his knee simply gives out and he slumps to the side, his head resting against the Dark Lord’s leg.  He flinches against the contact, expecting a crucio for touching him and far worse for what the Dark Lord has seen in his mind but he cannot move. He cannot. He is caught as neatly as a fox in a trap, long fingers woven through his hair to keep him from falling away.

“Oh, Sseverusss…” the hiss of the Dark Lord’s voice is a balm against shredded neural endings, frightening in its effectiveness.  His aching mind struggles to make sense of the tone, of the words, of the way the Dark Lord rubs gently at the sweep of his temples. He gives up after a few minutes. There’s simply no sense to be found here. The axis of his reality has been shifted and it’s tipping his entire world on end. “He played you as much as he ever played me.”

“My lord…?” His voice is wrecked, nothing but a rasp of air moving out of his lips.

“More perhapsss.  I, at least, have always been his enemy.”

Distantly, Severus thinks that he should be protesting that statement but he can’t find the strength to actually open his mouth. Or the conviction.

His mind is open, gaping and raw, as spread out and unorganized as a boys’ dorm room the day before the train leaves. It is chaos: unimaginable chaos, with all of his protections and compartments stripped away and obliterated. Yet somehow, in all of this destruction, with his brain feeling like it’s been pushed through a bloody sieve, it’s easier to see. Patterns and clues that he has been blinded to by his own prejudice and misplaced trust are suddenly, achingly clear.

Severus shuts his eyes but that doesn’t stop a fresh wave of tears from leaking out beneath his lashes. A part of him wishes that the Dark Lord had simply killed him. Death may be final but at least he would not be faced with how utterly Dumbledore has played him, how completely he has been used. How completely they all have been used. He had known that the twinkling old fool was both prejudiced and prone to viewing everyone around him as pawns on a chessboard but this… the extent of his manipulations…

Severus wants to laugh, laugh because there is absolutely nothing else to do as his entire life lies in ruins, ripped and torn between madmen before it ever had the chance to properly exist. He and Harry and how many others? How many others have had their lives commandeered and laid to waste in pursuit of Albus Dumbledore’s goals?

“Too many,” the Dark Lord hisses and his fingers tighten in the strands of Severus’ hair. In contrast to his voice, the tug on Severus’ hair is almost gentle, grounding as he drifts, battered and broken, through the metaphorical storm tossed seas of his own miserable existence. “Some of us – like yourself and young Potter – more than others. He has been the Headmaster of Hogwarts for thirty years and was a professor there for over fifty years before that. To see the faces of his victims one needs to look no further than the remains of magical Britain.”

“And no one… realized…” Severus pushes the words out though they make his throat feel like he’s gargled with any one of Longbottom’s cauldron melting brews.

The Dark Lord’s hand stills in his hair and it is all he can do to not whimper like some neglected crup at the cease of sensation. “Sssome of usss did,” he corrects and Severus feels his stomach drop at the implication. He didn’t. He’s the youngest Potion Master Britain has ever produced and holds more potions patents to his name than anyone. Ever. He’s also been creating his own bloody spells since he was thirteen bloody years old but he can’t apparently be bothered to notice that the infuriating old man that he works with day in and day out is not-so-slowly taking over Britain and destroying the wizarding world. A sharp tug pulls him out of his thoughts. “You did,” the Dark Lord corrects, emphasizing his words with further tugs on his hair as he summons memories from the potion master’s mind. Every time that he has disagreed with Dumbledore, every time that he has stood or sat across from the crazy old man and questioned his motives and his sanity – a hundred times, a thousand times beyond Severus’ desire to count all flash across the back of his eyelids. “You noticed. You joined me, did you not?”

“But…” I left. I betrayed you. I abandoned you. I have worked to destroy you. Severus doesn’t bother to voice his thoughts. He doesn’t need to, not with his mind still thrown across the floor of Lucius’ study. He couldn’t hide anything from the Dark Lord right now even if he wanted to. Merlin’s bloody arsehole, he couldn’t hide anything from Albus right now.

“Yet it is at my feet you are kneeling.”

Severus flinches at the reminder and shuts his eyes even tighter as he waits for the shame to crash over him, to whisk him away until he drowns, a mere leaf lost beneath the floodwaters.

He waits.

And waits.

And it doesn’t.

It… doesn’t.

Severus inhales sharply and the Dark Lord’s fingers tug gently on his hair.

The bands around his wrists are soft and warm, the kiss of the summer sun against upturned skin.

Severus exhales in a long, shuddering sigh and still the shame does not come. Ripped open and laid bare he can’t find a single speck of shame in him anymore, nor any guilt. The two have been washed away, ripped from him in a moment of absolute desperation and now… now he can find nothing but relief.

It is over.

No matter how this ends his life as a spy is over. His cover is not just blown, but obliterated. Now, he goes where Harry goes, as he should have from the beginning. Maybe then they would have ended up somewhere besides a grave. Still, the idea of finally dying is, on his part, somewhat more pleasant that Severus should admit. The idea of Harry dying is distinctly more painful – and not just because of the oath. The thought of those eyes – Lily’s eyes – going dark and unseeing is more than he can bear.

But if he will endure it if he has to, the flash and the burn and the agony of the oath as it no doubt kills him. No doubt the snuffing of his mortal existence will be utterly eclipsed by the loss of Lily’s son, of the young man who, in a different life, a different existence, might have been his son. If Severus were an optimistic man he would hope that the Dark Lord had a single shred of mercy left in his body and that he would end them quickly. If not for Severus, than at least for Harry. But, alas, Severus is not an optimistic man. He’s a realist and as such he only hopes that whatever death the Dark Lord deals them will be swifter than whatever long, drug out thing the Dursley’s would have inflicted upon the boy.

Too little, too late, Sev. Just like always, he thinks and for a minute the single bead of bitterness hangs suspended in his mind. Then it is gone, pulled apart and dispersed beneath the haze of relief. Whatever happens next is out of his hands. He’s made his last move, played his last play.

He. Is. Done.

“Oh, Severusss…” the Dark Lord’s sigh sounds impossibly weary. “Did I not place the boy under my protection? Did I not proclaim that not a single hair on Potter’s head was to be harmed?”

Severus opens his eyes to find the Dark Lord staring down at him. Waiting. “You… you did, my lord.” A pause. “I… I assumed that you wished to kill him yourself, my lord.” It was not an absurd assumption, Severus thought. The Dark Lord had, after all, given orders along those lines before. And while normally Severus would classify the Dark Lord as unpredictable he had noticed that his first master is prone to being rather… obsessive… in the case of the Boy Who Lived to Make Severus’ Life Difficult.

The Dark Lord sighs. “I would sooner cut the nose from my face than harm that boy. You don’t believe me,” he adds, eyes narrowing as gently taps his fingers against Severus’ scalp.

Severus absolutely does not but shattered mind or no, that is not something he is stupid enough to say out loud. The Dark Lord can pluck it from his bloody mind if he wants it.

Something that looks suspiciously like a smile twitches at the corner of full human lips. “My oath, on my magic, that I mean Harry Potter no harm and that I consider him my own and as such worthy of all the protection that entails.” The pressure of the oath catching hold is enough to make him dizzy, his breath coming in short little pants as black dots explode at the edges of his vision.

 “... what?” he manages to wheeze out, the hoarseness of his voice quickly turning to a hiss as shards of glass cut into the palm he puts to the floor to steady himself.  

Severus blinks. Once. Slowly.

The study around them is totally, utterly wrecked. The last time he had seen destruction on this magnitude Finnigan and Longbottom had been brewing partners.  There is literally nothing, nothing except the piece of rug beneath his knees and the Dark Lord’s feet, that is left in one piece. The rest of the flooring has been torn up and shredded, the books pulled from the bookcases and rained down upon the room like autumn leaves in the depths of the Forbidden Forest. All of the furniture is shattered, overturned, and scattered like broken corpses around the room. The expensive gold and diamond chandelier is sticking halfway out of the wall and the entire wall of windows has shattered inward, covering the floor in a thick layer of glass shards. The room is so full of the Dark Lord’s magic that it’s a wonder the walls are even standing.

“… what?” he repeats with a little more force.

“I protect what is mine,” the Dark Lord all but growls and the hand in his hair tightens so much that it almost hurts. Around them the magic flexes and something, a portrait possibly, falls off the wall with a crash. The fingers in his hair release and he can’t quite quell the small surge of disappointment at the loss of the Dark Lord’s touch.  “Can you stand? We should continue this over tea.”

“Of course, my lord,” he replies instantly, regardless of whether it is true, and continues to stare at the wanton destruction. He can’t believe that he didn’t feel any of this, even accounting for the pain of having his mind ripped open and spread about. When Harry had smashed up Dumbledore’s office he had felt the backlash of the boy’s power clear on the other end of the castle. But here, here he had felt nothing.

Some spy you are.

The Dark Lord pauses at the study door and looks back. “You did not feel it because I did not wish for you to feel it," he dismisses. "I told you, I protect what is mine.”

Severus swallows and, after a few unsteady moments, rises to his feet.

Chapter Text

The crunch of the glass beneath his boots counterbalances the raggedness of his breathing and the pounding of his heart as he slowly follows the Dark Lord out of the ruined room. He feels an uncomfortable sort of empathy for the wreck of Lucius’ study. He too has been laid to waste beneath the fury of the Dark Lord’s strength, ripped open and left in raw chaos.

And apparently been turned into a poetic imbecile in the process.

Severus sighs, forces himself to straighten so that he isn’t slumped over like a complete ninny and sweeps from the study with as much of usual presence as he can muster. Which is to say, not much at all, but at least he’s not crawling.

Draco is still standing in the shadows of the corridor, staring at the study behind Severus with a mingled look of terror and awe, and he barely manages to keep from rolling his eyes at his godson. Or snapping a stinging hex in his direction. Fucking idiot. When you think the Dark Lord is going to torture and murder someone you don’t stay to see what happens, you dive for cover and get out of the bloody way. He catches the younger man’s pale gray eyes as he strides past and jerks his head toward the back of the house in clear instruction, though he doubts that the little dunderhead will obey. Draco – like Potter, he supposes – has always been too nosey for his own good.

He wants to laugh – bitterly of course - a little at that thought. It his absolute bloody luck that of all the young men in the entire world he’s sworn to protect and provide for, it is those two. Opposite sides of board and him caught in the middle in a tangle of guilt and even more impossible promises, unable to do anything but half-ass either relationship.

By the time he follows the trail of the Dark Lord’s magic to a sitting room on the west side of the house, overlooking Narcissa’s rose gardens and an intricate koi pond the size of a small lake,  the trembling of his weak mortal flesh has turned to outright shaking highly reminiscent of the seizures following a particularly vicious round or two of the cruciatus. He does not ache, though, as one might expect with such a simile. If anything he is numb, his entire body of flesh entirely apathetic to the idea of existing or feeling at all.  Somewhere at the center of him he is strangely cold despite the summer temperatures and the layers of clothing wrapped around his body.

Shock, probably, a distant part of him notes. Merlin knows his mind is scraped raw and what he has managed to rebuild of his shields are about as strong and effective as a wet paper napkin.

 He stumbles at the threshold and would have gone down were it not for a strong, slender hand steadying him with a firm touch to his shoulder. He doesn’t realize, not until the Dark Lord touches him, just how bereft he feels. How empty and cut off from everything with nothing but the strange iciness thrumming at his center. It feels good. Too good. He’s touch starved he knows, has been for decades, for his entire life, but this is more than that. The simple curl of a hand around his shoulder, the weight of it, the warmth of it – none of it should feel this good.

Severus doesn’t like it. He doesn’t like it at all.

Wait.

No.

That’s a fucking lie and he desperately tries not to lie to himself. Mostly.

He likes it but he doesn’t trust it.

He freezes beneath the Dark Lord’s hands and pulls at his weak occlumency barriers as he bows his head. “My lord…” He bites down on the I’m sorry that wants to follow so hard that he tastes blood but the words stay trapped inside his mouth.

Not that it probably matters. Bloody Potter probably has better mental shields right now than he does.

He might actually have hated the brat a little for that, were it not for the fury he can still feel bubbling beneath the apathy and the guilt running rampant in his veins.

The Dark Lord’s magic is as intoxicating as a case of Ogden’s finest and as demanding as well placed imperio as it brushes against him, spurring his gaze upward.  Inhuman crimson eyes stare out of an all too human face, pinning him in place as sure as a thousand little pins.

 “It is not your fault, Severusss.”

The words are too much and, distantly, Severus feels his knees buckle.

The Dark Lord tightens his grip and holds him to his feet.

It is not your fault, the words whisper again inside of his head and Severus blinks against the tears suddenly welling from his eyes. Again.

There’s something terrible, something that he does not want to examine too closely, about hearing those words from the Dark Lord’s mouth. Thirty-six fucking years he’s lived and this is the first time he has ever heard those words directed at him and that sheer fact warms something as surely as the hand curled over his shoulder.

It’s not true, of course, because this whole mess decidedly is Severus’ fault. It’s a point of fact that he’s had some time to carefully consider and come to terms with. Usually with the help of a bottle of whatever is hardest and cheapest. Still, the truth is the truth: the last fifteen years of Britain’s wizarding history could be blamed on the fact that he had whispered a piece of a prophecy in the Dark Lord’s ear.

“Sit,” the Dark Lord orders and Severus sits, collapsing into the elegantly upholstered chair drawn up next to a daintily laid table. “Drink,” the Dark Lord sets a large, almost bowl like mug in front of him and Severus obediently picks it up with shaking hands. It is still a little too hot but the heat is welcome and Severus sips carefully, hunched over and braced against the table so that he doesn’t fall flat on his ugly face. The chocolate itself is rich and creamy, smooth as silk as it flows over his tongue and curls in his gut and he can’t stop the soft sigh of satisfaction that bursts from his lips.

He sits quietly, focusing on the drink in his hands as his thoughts race meaninglessly around in his head. They’ll not do him any good until he can organize the fucking things and he can’t do that until his mind isn’t such a shattered mess. And he needs to know what’s going to become of Pott – of Harry. So he sits and he drinks his hot chocolate and when the Dark Lord wordlessly piles a small plate with thin slices of cheese, raspberry filled biscuits, plump grapes, and juicy spears of peaches and pears he eats as well. Despite not feeling hungry or thirsty in the slightest – which, he recognizes, is a dangerous state all of its own – the food and drink help and by the time he is done he feels… well, certainly not normal. That would be a bit of a fucking miracle and since no higher power, existent or otherwise, has ever seen fit to show him miraculous favor he doesn’t expect them to start now.

“Thank you, my lord,” he murmurs after a moment, when he feels that he can get the words out without them shaking. None of this feels real. 

Severus Snape has experienced a great many things in the thirty-six years of his miserable life.

He knows what it is like to go to bed hungry, to wake up to no food in the cupboards. He knows what it is like to only have two sets of clothes, both so threadbare and patched that it’s a bloody miracle they stay together at all. He knows what his nose breaking feels like and how a broken beer bottle feels as it drags along his ribs. He knows what it feels like to laugh in the sun, to hope and dream of a better place. He knows what it feels like to have all those dreams taken away. He knows what it feels like to be hunted like an animal and he knows how pure, terrified fury feels bubbling in his veins, blinding him and stealing the words out of his mouth and replacing them with something else. He knows how it feels to kill a man. He knows the exhilarating, dizzyingly feeling of success. He even knows how a perfect, crystalline moment feels, when everything in the universe is suddenly bent his way. It happened for him, once, and he still can hardly believe it. He knows how a woman feels, hot and tight, clamped around his cock and he knows the weight of another man’s cock sliding across his tongue. He knows what a ten thousand galleon bottle of scotch tastes like, rolling around his mouth.

Severus Snape knows a lot of things – has experienced a lot of things. Merlin, he has re-experienced nearly every last one of them over the last hour and they are all now delightfully fresh in his mind. So fresh that he seriously considers attempting to obliviate himself.

Being helped to a chair and plied with hot chocolate, easily eaten finger foods, and a trio of potions – of his own making, obviously, because no one else is nearly competent enough to warrant putting their brews into his body under anything less than absolute life or death circumstances – by the Dark Lord is not among those things.  Frankly, it might be one of the most terrifying, perplexing experiences of his life.

The fact that the Dark Lord is sitting across from him fixing his second cup of tea is not helping.

It is too normal. One does not sit and have tea with the Dark Lord, for Merlin’s sake!

Severus has no frame of reference on how to react in this situation. He doesn’t know what is going on or what is going to happen and that fact galls him to the core. It is his bloody job to know things!

Of course, you’ve done so well with that haven’t you, Sev?

The soft clink of a potions vial being set on the table draws his attention and he stiffens at the sight of it. Of course. Of course the Dark Lord would want to verify the things he has seen inside Severus’ skull. Severus wouldn’t take his word for it either, were he the Dark Lord. He forces himself to inhale and exhale slowly and deliberately. Harry is safe, the Dark Lord has sworn an oath to it, and Grimmauld Place is protected by a fidelius. Not even veritaserum can break that charm and Severus is not the secret keeper to begin with. Not that it matters, he supposes. If it he were the secret keeper he would shout the address from the bloody rooftops and take out a front page advert in the Prophet if he thought that exposing the place would help Harry.

Still, it tears at something to know that even vulnerable and open as he is, more bare than if he were lying naked and bleeding on the bloody floor, that it isn’t enough. That his word isn’t enough.

Which is preposterous. He’s a fucking spy. Of course his word – his own mind – isn’t enough. There must be verification. Always.

“Two drops under the tongue to ensure honesty but still allow me my own presence of mind?”

Severus comes back to the present, to the table and the cocoa and the bloody tea at the Dark Lord’s question. “Yes, my lord,” he confirms and stretches out a shaking hand to take the potion bottle from him. And really, allowances must apparently be made for the state of his mind – which has, Merlin forbid, robbed him of all common sense and left him as observant as his godson’s muscle monkeys – because there is no potion bottle forthcoming. In fact, by the time that fact clicks in Severus’ skull the Dark Lord has already got the vial up by his lips, carefully tipping two drops of its contents into his mouth.

Severus stares. “My lord…”

The Dark Lord meets his gaze calmly and sips at his tea as if he hasn’t just dosed himself with the most powerful truth serum in existence.

Severus… Severus does not know what to do. He’s pretty sure that would remain true even if he were in full possession of his mental faculties. The fact that the Dark Lord pushes the antidote, clearly still sealed, out to the center of the table does not help clear things up. Not a single, bloody bit.

“There are things we need to speak of,” the Dark Lord begins. “Things that you need to know but there is little trust between us.” The Dark Lord actually sounds sad, regretful even. “Hopefully, in time, that trust can be rebuilt but what I have to tell you cannot wait that long.”

“It begins with the meeting of two young men. There was nothing special about their meeting. One was freshly called home by the death of his mother and the other was in town visiting a relative. They were simply in the right place, at the right time. They quickly became friends, confidantes, and even lovers. By the end of the summer they were bonded, magic and soul.” Severus can’t stop the widening of his eyes at that bit of information. To bind yourself such to another wizard – or witch – is almost unheard of and carries a great number of risks or consequences, rather, should it be broken. He eyes the Dark Lord speculatively. A broken bond would explain much about the Dark Lord’s spiral into madness.

Across the table the Dark Lord’s mouth ticks upward, no doubt amused by the thoughts Severus’ head is still bleeding all over the fine linens.

“They were powerful, brilliant, charismatic men and like many powerful men,” he continues, staring intently at his tea, “they wanted to change the world. They delved into old myths in search of forgotten powers and experimented with magic. They planned for a revolution, for a world in which the Statue of Secrecy was overthrown and in which wizards had taken their rightful place over the rest of the planets inhabitants. They agreed that the world could not continue to exist on its present course. They agreed that the ends justified the means, that there would be violence and there would be death but in the end it would all be for the Greater Good.”

Severus feels sick, his blood pounding oddly in his ears and his hands shaking as he grips the edge of the table, a terrible certainty beginning to form in his head. Because he’s heard that phrase before. He’s had it uttered to him calmly and condescendingly and there, there, my boy… Oh, Merlin, what has the old bastard done? What has Severus allowed – no, helped – him do in the name of the Greater Good? He has given his fucking life to that…

“…I speak, of course, of Albus Dumbledore and Gellert Grindelwald.”

Severus closes his eyes. He wants to laugh. He wants to cry. Dumbledore and Grindelwald? That’s ridiculous. Absurd. He has a better chance of finding his godson blowing a Weasley in the middle of the Great Hall. “That’s…” he tries to protest. He tries. But he can’t. Partially because he can’t make the words come out of his mouth and partly because he can feel the Dark Lord’s magic flex around him in wordless warning.

Be quiet. Let me speak.

“Near the end of the summer they became embroiled in a disagreement-turned-duel with Dumbledore’s brother. During the fight a stray curse killed Dumbledore’s younger sister. Grindelwald fled and bereft, Dumbledore  renounced his plans and began to champion the cause of muggles and mudbloods. Then, as we all know, Dumbledore defeated Grindelwald in a duel in 1945 and had his bonded and former lover locked away in the fallen Dark Lord’s own prison. Peace has been restored, the light has triumphed, and Dumbledore, already a respected Master of both Transfiguration and Alchemy known around the magical world for his research and his insights in addition to his influential post at Hogwarts, becomes a household name overnight. The Vanquisher of the Dark Lord Grindelwald: the man who single handedly ended a war. The kindly champion who would usher in an era of goodness and light and magical equality.”

Severus sneers, a feral, vicious sounding scoff falling from his lips. For all that he twinkles like a diamond and looks like everyone’s favorite grandfather, right on down to the disgusting lemon candies that he carries everywhere and offers to everyone Dumbledore is anything but kindly. The old goat is the most manipulative bastard Severus has ever met and he’s known a lot of wizards and witches supposedly prized for their cunning and ambition in the last decade and a half. He’s having tea with the bloody Dark Lord for Merlin’s sake!

“You and I, among others, know better but it is a mask he has worn and cultivated for a very long time. It is certainly what the majority of the wizarding world believes. Albus Dumbledore has been synonymous with Good,”  the word is spat across the table, a gauntlet thrown before the masses, every syllable filled with every ounce of disdain and disgust that the Dark Lord can dredge up. The older man’s fury is palpable in the air and, perhaps even worse, echoed in a vicious howl from inside Severus’ chest. “But I digress. I have a story to finish.”

Severus swallows, his throat suddenly dry.

“So here we have our two young men, not so young anymore, though they have grown even more powerful and brilliant as the years have passed. One has been defeated by the other but despite his crimes he is not killed, merely locked away. Gellert Grindelwald spawned a magic war that swept across Europe like a tide. Proportionately, he caused as much damage and loss of life to the wizarding world as the muggle’s second world war caused to theirs. In contrast, my actions have been limited to Britain and I have, at best count, killed a thousand people including muggles either personally or by my orders. Yet, I am being hunted like a fox and nothing but my death will suffice. I must confess, this discrepancy both bothered and puzzled me for quite some time. But that was before I knew of Dumbledore and Grindelwald’s bond.”

Because Dumbledore is many things, including sentimental, but he is not stupid and he wouldn’t risk his bonded dying. Not when it would surely render him crazed or a faded husk of his former glory.

“So, our story. Grindelwald is neutralized and Dumbledore remains with the whole of wizarding Britain sitting gratefully in the palm of his hand. What does he do with this power? Seemingly nothing. He turns down numerous, frequent requests for him to join the ministry in various capacities. He even turns down the nominations for Minister. Instead, he promises that he will always be available to offer them counsel, should they require it, and he retreats back to the school. Eventually he is made headmaster and, as promised, he offers his opinions to the ministry when they ask for it. And they do ask for it. I dare say, especially in the early years after Grindelwald, he is probably consulted about everything from cauldron thickness to matters of international diplomacy.”

“They still do,” Severus mutters, thinking of the stack of ever changing mail that sits in a special box on the headmaster’s desk. Of the owls that are ambushing him everywhere, day or night. Of all the times that he has left the school for an afternoon – or even longer – on ministry business.

“Wizards,” the Dark Lord observes, “are creatures of habit. Left alone we stagnate.” And Merlin, isn’t that the sad truth. The entire wizarding world is little more than a huddle of pathetic ninnies waiting for daddy to tell them what to do. “But, despite all appearances to the contrary, the wizarding world has not been stagnant in nearly fifty years. It’s been changing slowly, so slowly that I nearly missed it – that I would have missed it had I not fought my way inside of Harry Potter’s mind. It was pain - unimaginable pain,” he quietly confesses, “but it was also a light shone upon the pieces of the puzzle, allowing me to finally start putting them together.”

“And what did you see?” Severus asks but he doesn’t need to, does he? Not really. Not with all of his walls and shielding knocked down and his mind torn open. Now that his memories and thoughts are littered about him like so much refuse it is easy to swoop among the rubbish and pick up the pieces from where they glitter dully – or at least enough of them for him to get the general picture. He is not a complete dunderhead. There is, a lifetime of questionable choices aside, a modicum of actual intelligence between his ears.

The Dark Lord tells him anyway.

It begins with the demonization of Slytherin House. Always proud and aloof in comparison to the other houses it becomes the scapegoat of wrong doing. Cunning becomes synonymous with lying and sneaking. Ambitious becomes synonymous with bribery, extortion, and general ruthlessness. Self-preservation becomes cowardice and a lack of morals. In contrast, Gryffindor is built up. Blatant favor is given to the headmaster’s former house.

Not that Severus needs the Dark Lord to tell him that. His entire seven years at Hogwarts is a testament to how Dumbledore favors Gryffindor. Encourages them, even. He almost fucking died and what happened to Dumbledore’s guilty little Gryffindors? Nothing. Nothing but a  slap on the wrist.  

The slow decline of Hogwarts comes next. Classes are cut, associate professors are gradually let go and not replaced, hundreds – if not thousands – of additional books are restricted, course aims are edited, and syllabi are shortened, made more manageable for precious little minds. Severus is aware that despite his ability to eventually beat some knowledge into the little Neanderthals that Hogwarts’ scores on OWLs and NEWTs had been slowly, but steadily declining in comparison to the other major magical schools.

 He knows, intimately, as only a teacher can, that even with the smaller class sizes of the past decade they are severely understaffed but hearing it in the Dark Lord’s smooth, measured baritone makes it all the more real. There is scarcely a dozen adults – because Binns is a senile ghost, and Filch is a squib who is so angry and bitter that he makes Severus look like a cheerful grandfather with jumper pockets stuffed with peppermints in comparison -  for the care and teaching of over three hundred magical children. And even that is being generous because if Sybil’s been sober for longer than thirty seconds in the last decade he’ll kiss Dumbledore full on the mouth and Hagrid frequently causes as many problems as he takes care of.

Merlin, is that ratio even legal?

The man’s interference at the ministry is the most open secret in Britain. In the immediate wake of Grindelwald’s defeat the fear of another Dark Lord was capitalized on. Millennia of traditions, whole lines of familial rituals, and entire branches of magic were outlawed overnight. In their place dozens of laws were made to protect muggles and to promote a society that was easier for muggleborns to comprehend. Magical beings and creatures were shoved into the shadows, repainted as beasts and monsters. Werewolves had never had it well – a fact that Severus can’t quite bring himself to be upset over –  and goblins had always been viewed suspiciously but vampires, veela, and countless others suddenly found themselves as second class citizens where once they had been equals.  Just as Slytherin became the enemy, so did wizarding traditions and culture become dark and antiquated – the breeding ground for dark wizards and the epitome of every anti-muggle or anti-muggleborn sentiment the wizarding world had ever had.  A self-fulfilling prophecy if there ever was one.

None of this is new, though hearing the Dark Lord say it all out loud, to hear it all at one time, is enough to make Severus feel like he is about to shatter. Still, even if his heart feels like its breaking, if he feels like he is hemorrhaging all over Narcissa’s fine china and Lucius’ great-great-great grandmother’s French linens, he knew this. Even locked behind his walls, he knew this. He had to, he had to have seen it at one point, at least in part because he had been drawn to a charismatic madman preaching isolation and separation from the non-world, a man who advocated earlier introduction to the magical world for muggleborns, a man who demanded foster programs and centers of care for magical children left without a home or who wished to integrate into their new world. A man who cared for magic – all magic.

And yet here he is. Traitor to the Dark Lord and little more than Dumbledore’s puppet, though he supposes that he’s a traitor to Dumbledore now as well.

Traitor to everyone but Harry bloody Potter, in the end.

Around his wrists the vow hums like a pleased cat.

Fucking thing.

The Dark Lord pauses in his narrative to drink another cup of tea and wordlessly, windlessly, floats a cup of it across the table to Severus, who grasps it gratefully. His hands shake. He hates it. Weak, weak, weak, his heart pounds but he doesn’t move. He can’t. He needs to know. He needs to hear. He needs to save Lily’s son.

“Now, let me draw your attention back to the original goals of Dumbledore and Grindelwald. Above all else, they wished to do away with the Statue of Secrecy and establish a world in which wizards and witches ruled over everyone else. Grindelwald’s attempt took the easiest path. His attempt was a full frontal attack: violence, coercion, bloodshed. He wielded an enormous amount of power and used it to try and force everyone to his ideal. Obviously, he failed.” The Dark Lord’s lips twist in a sneer as he puts his cup down. “Dumbledore’s attempt has been more like a slow acting poison, a single drop placed in cups of tea day after day, year after year until it builds up to a fatal amount. His path has been the longer one, far more subtle, and significantly more successful.”

The words hang between them like smoke: wispy and insubstantial, just waiting for the faintest of breezes to come along and blow the accusations away before Severus breathes it in. But then it’s too late. The moment breaks, he inhales, and then they’re there, inside of him where he cannot escape them: pooling in his lungs and seeping into his veins, racing around his body as his heart pounds and his hands shake and…

He doesn’t even realize that he is on the ground and retching until the Dark Lord is there with him, long cool fingers carding his hair away from his face and banishing the contents of his stomach with a flick of his wrist.

“He wouldn’t,” he whispers, his voice still hoarse despite the coolness of the water the Dark Lord had just held to his lips. “He wouldn’t,” he repeats desperately. Albus Dumbledore has done a lot of despicable things but… “He wouldn’t enslave…”

“Wouldn’t he?” the Dark Lord interrupts calmly, the points of his nails dragging against his scalp. “And what has he done to you, Ssseveruss? One of the strongest and most intelligent wizards of this century and he has you bound until you cannot move, rotting away in the dungeon of his castle, stuck teaching basic potions to minds who don’t particularly want to learn them. You and I know, better than most, that benevolence does not mean equality.”

And Severus… he has no response for that and, for what feels like the hundredth time today, he would have fallen flat on his face were it not for the strength of the Dark Lord holding him upright.

Eventually he gets up off the floor with the Dark Lord’s assistance and settled back at the table, this time in the chair directly to the Dark Lord’s left and the other man’s hand still resting comfortingly – and Severus can’t help but laugh a little hysterically at that descriptor – between his shoulder blades. Weak, weak, weak beats his heart in time to his father’s voice and Severus shakes his head to clear it. The Dark Lord is saying something but Severus doesn’t think it is directed at him – a suspicion that is confirmed when he hears a house elf pop away.  A moment later the Dark Lord pushes a fresh cup of tea in front of him and presses two potions vials into his shaking hands. One is a stomach soother and the other a mild calming draught. After verifying that they are both still sealed and that it is his mark on the vials he downs the former in a single gulp and dumps a mere quarter of the latter into his tea.  He’s having enough trouble right now without completely dulling his thoughts but a quarter? A quarter will take the edge off. A quarter will make him less likely to spontaneously break into tears or erupt into inappropriate giggles of hysteria at the Dark Lord’s table.

There are certain lines that Severus will not cross and acting like a bloody thirteen year old girl is one of them.

“He wouldn’t,” he finally whispers, when half of his tea is gone. “He couldn’t.”

Never in his miserable life has he wanted to believe something as much as he wants to believe this.

“He already controls Britain and has significant influence in Europe and the States. He has diminished and outlawed our society to the point that, in many ways, it is not much different than that of the muggles. He has cultivated his image flawlessly and owns the hearts and loyalty of, by my estimate, at least a third of Britain’s wizards to a level of mindless zealotry and a great deal more beyond that that simply don’t see the point or worth of opposing him. Those that have opposed – or would – have found themselves ruined, dead or at the very least highly distrusted. After all, who is most likely to oppose Dumbledore?”

The question is not rhetorical. “The old families. The purebloods.” Those that have lost the most to the changes in policy, law, and cultural practices in the last fifty years. Those that currently flesh out the Dark Lord’s ranks.  

“Because they remember,” breathes the other man, his voice a hissing rattle that seeps around the room like a draft sneaking in through a broken window. “Because they, like us, know that muggles are dangerous. Dumbledore expects muggles to greet the magical world with wonder and delight. I suspect he imagines wizards as kindly, devoted shepherds overseeing their flock. But he does not know muggles. Not like we do.” The Dark Lord drains his tea with a move that makes Severus suspect that the man is rather wishing that the piece of fine china was filled with something a great deal stronger. “I lived in London during the Second World War,” the Dark Lord confesses and Severus blinks, staring at the other man as a long, pale finger traces around and around the rim of his teacup before obviously forcing himself to place his free hand flat on the table. The one still braced beneath Severus’ shoulder blades is tense, though, the thumb moving back and forth. Severus is not sure who the gesture is meant to comfort, him or the Dark Lord. He’s not sure he cares. “I was not permitted to stay at Hogwarts during the summer holidays. Instead, I spent the months between years huddled in a dilapidated basement and hoping that the next bomb didn’t bring the whole building down upon my head. It was always a bit of a surprise to make it to the first of September and still be alive.” Around them the older man’s magic flexes, mirroring the curl of his fist upon the table.

Weak, weak, weak, goes Severus’ heart. The Dark Lord smiles, bitter and large until his lips are stretched thin and colorless over his face.

“You know. I know. We know what muggles are like. We know the destruction that they are capable of. We know how they react to things – to people – that are different than their perceived norm. They hate what they fear and they fear what they cannot understand or control. The purebloods – the old families, they know this. Somewhere, deep in the stories that have been handed down for generations they remember a time when entire branches were hunted and destroyed because of their magical ability. They remember learning how to run, how to hide, how to leave everything so that they might live another day. But those families are dwindling. How many of the old families are left? How many are hovering at the edge of death? I take responsibility for the loss of the Prewett and the Bones lines, as well as the Potters. The decimation of the Longbottoms was done in my name, though not at my behest. My uncle was the last of the Gaunts, your grandfather was the last of the Prince line, and the Malfoys have hovered at the edge of patriarchal extinction for generations but beyond that… I could list off the entire Sacred Twenty-Eight plus a dozen more and with the exception of the Weasleys most are hanging on to existence by their very fingertips. The last denizens of their Houses are in sitting in Hogwarts’ halls, in classes less than half the size of those when I attended, even accounting for the rise in mudblood enrollment. Who is left to oppose him?” the Dark Lord asks quietly, painfully. “Who is left? At this point, all he would have to do is get rid of the Statue of Secrecy – or violate it in such a way that it cannot be remedied – to set the next stage of his plan into motion.”

Severus eyes the rest of the calming draught and dismisses it in the same moment. Not even the whole of Poppy’s stock, plus his own, plus enough firewhiskey to drown every student third year on up would be enough to put a dent in this emptiness that suddenly aches at the center of his being. It’s not his heart, though that is still pounding away with all the grace and rhythm of stampeding Gryffindors, but some nebulous something that exists further south. The axis of his world has been destroyed, his entire universe flipped inside out and upside down and he’s having a hard enough time just bloody breathing.  “He can’t. He won’t,” he whispers one more time, one last hurrah before giving into the emptiness. “He’s dying. Your curse saw to that. Even with my assistance he will be dead by the end of the school year.”

The fact that such a statement fills him with nothing but relief when mere hours ago the same thought had brought him crushing despair is more telling than he wants to admit. But after lying to everyone else he does try not to lie to himself and he is relieved. Glad that the twinkly eyed old bastard will die a slow and painful death. In truth, he had been glad of it before this moment but now, seeing it all laid out for him, he no longer has to feel guilt for it.

He has been absolved. He is done. He is finished.

Oh Sev, you've never been that lucky. 

The Dark Lord sets a plate of dry toast points in front of him and wordlessly Severus picks one up and begins to nibble on it, knowing without even looking that his Lord will abide no other course of action.

“Albus Dumbledore has proven that he is nothing if not flexible in his plans,” the Dark Lord sighs, watching Severus with a level of scrutiny that makes him feel strangely warm, “and old he might be, but his mind is still sharp enough to make the rest of us bleed. He knows that he won’t live long enough to see his plan through. He’ll have accepted it. Dumbledore has always been pragmatic. Now he is simply arranging the board for his pawns to play out. Once his victory is assured his heir can no doubt complete his vision for him.”

“Harry?” The boy is as close to a protégé as the headmaster has and no matter how the potion master views his best friend’s son he can’t imagine the young man leading the charge to integrate the magical and muggle worlds. Especially not in light of what he saw earlier today.

Even thinking about it makes his wrists itch.

“Of course not. I rather think that mudblood of Potter’s would be the old coot’s choice.”

Severus' incredulous cry is loud enough to echo. “Granger?

“A self-righteous witch who has only ever experienced tranquility amongst muggles and views the wizarding world as a bigoted, medieval place that simply needs to be caught up to the muggle way of things?” the Dark Lord drawls. “Yes, I imagine she is exactly what Dumbledore has in mind for the endgame. Besides, I imagine that if everything goes according to Dumbledore’s plan you, I, and Harry will all be just as dead as he is.”

The fire around his wrists is enough to make him scream at the thought. Nothing but a high pitched whine leaks out from between his teeth, though, leaving Severus sounding like an ignored tea kettle.  “And how is he going to manage that?” he finally gets out, drawing on his tattered shields and using the back and forth, back and forth of the Dark Lord’s thumb on his back as a focus for his fraying control.

“The sssame way asss last time, it seemsss,” the Dark Lord finally says, his words slow and careful, the emotions in his usually controlled voice enough that his words slip around the edges, the hissing syllables treading closely to parseltongue.

When the Dark Lord does not continue Severus gathers a courage he hadn’t known until today that he even possessed and prompts, “And what titillating scheme has he concocted?”

Severus has seen many things in his life – many impossible things. He never thought he would see the Dark Lord look sad and the fact that such a look on the older man's startling human face is turned at Severus is enough to make his blood run cold. “It is simple. It involves his greatest opposition - me - and a faked prophecy.”

 

Severus Snape hates many things... but of all those things he hates this moment the most.

Chapter Text

He doesn’t know what to do.

Which, honestly, should not be such a startling sensation. He has never had much control over his life. How could he? Poor little half blood shit with more smarts than wisdom and a chip on his bloody shoulder that’s bigger than the fucking Atlantic. When he was younger he had thought that he didn’t have any choices, that the situations presented in his life had only one possible outcome. But then everything else happened (Fate being a heartless, relentless teacher of consequences) and he’s spent the last eighteen years trapped in a miserable prison of his own making, torn between death and betrayal and guilt and a madman.

Just not the madman he had thought.

And now he is here, sitting in the Blue Room at Malfoy Manor with a time turner clutched in his fist while his earlier self is downstairs taking tea with the Dark Lord and having his world ripped out from under his feet. Again.

Severus sighs and glances to the bed where Harry lays sleeping. Narcissa has done her best but there is only so much even a talented healer can accomplish in the space of an hour. Still, the boy is no longer suffering from imminent, life threatening injuries, nor is he in any position where he will receive more. Plus, he has a list of potions nearly a page long that he will need to start brewing to help correct the years of neglect and abuse he has suffered. For the first time since his parents were murdered the boy has the possibility of going an entire two months without fresh injury though Severus is not overly optimistic. It will probably be too much to ask of the brash Gryffindor.

Still the oaths around his wrists are indolent and purring in their approval.

He supposes he should be grateful that something is going right. Instead, he worries because while his earlier self is listening to the Dark Lord recount how Dumbledore has planned – and nearly succeeded- in toppling the Statute of Secrecy and enthroning wizard kind over the poor, helpless muggles he is stuck in this room, in this chair, trying to figure out how the bloody hell he is supposed to condense this down and explain it to Harry’s suspicious, stubborn mind. A mind that has been cultivated in Dumbledore’s image for years with a totality that makes Severus swallow back bile.

Dumbledore and the Dark Lord Grindelwald are more than married and despite the latter’s defeat the former is still carrying out their plan of world domination…?

There is no real prophecy. What he told you is a carefully constructed lie originally used to draw his enemy into a trap and destroy him and is fulfilling that role a second time around because like the Dark Lord you pose a significant threat to Dumbledore’s goals?

The Headmaster is trying to have you killed and he will never stop because you hold a piece of the Dark Lord’s soul in you?

Oh, yes. Severus can see how that will all go positively swimmingly.

The problem, he decides after several moments of thought, is not what he has to do but the fact that he has no bloody idea how to do it. Or, perhaps even more finely, no idea how to get Harry to believe him.

Veritaserum, while seemingly obvious, is out. Severus has made a great deal out of the superiority of his ability in potions (and everything else) over the past five years, especially in comparison to the boy. While not untrue, strictly speaking, the inevitable negative connotations he has built up regarding both himself and potions will lend the boy to even less trust than usual. The boy had barely trusted him to try and get the Order a message when he thought his dogfather was being tortured by the Dark Lord, only driven to his appalling attempt by sheer desperation and lack of any other possible option. He’s certainly not going to trust that Severus is speaking the truth even under the influence of truth serum. He’ll either assume that Severus has already dosed himself with the antidote or that he’s simply replaced the potion with water and not actually taken it at all.

And if Harry Potter knows anything about swearing oaths then Severus will melt down his best cauldron and drink it. Magical oaths and vows are tricky, unpredictable things. He knows this more than most.

He might be able to persuade the boy into viewing pensieved memories of his conversation with the Dark Lord but he thinks his odds of Harry actually believing what he sees to be very, very slim.

What it boils down to is that no matter what Severus says Harry Potter has no reason to listen to him. To trust him.

Lily’s son has no reason to trust him.

And it is no one’s fault but his own.

Well, his and Dumbledore’s.

In this, at least, Severus can share the blame of making the only child – the only living part – of the woman he loved (loves) fear and hate the very sight of him. He had supplied the bitterness (and the anger and the grief) and had let them twist into something remarkably close to hatred. All it had taken was a little nudge here, a little reminder there. For the greater good.

Severus has the almost uncontrollable urge to get blinding, stinking, fall down drunk.

It’s not even Halloween.

It almost feels like it though, there in the center of his chest.

C’mon Sev, he drawls to himself, there’s no way out but forward.

Rennervate,” he intones, out of his chair and at Harry’s side before he can talk himself out of it. Again. The vow twinges at his wrist but it doesn’t burn. It is miffed at his actions but understanding. The vow has more emotional range and understanding that ninety percent of the dunderheads that march into his classroom every year.

Severus barely stifles the urge to roll his eyes at the stray thought as it breaks free of his fragile shields and rolls across his mind.

Oh, this is going to go so, so badly.

Harry comes awake instantly, with a totality that would have startled most people. It is the alertness of someone used to being hurt, someone who has been taught to think of themselves as prey: there is no safety. Not even in the place you sleep.

“…Snape?”

He might be alert but Harry’s voice still comes out sounding like a merman trying to speak through a mouth full of gravel and a dirty sock.

“Don’t try to sit up,” he murmurs as the boy pulls himself practically upright before Severus manages to stop him a gentle touch to his arm. “Please try to be less of a Gryffindor at the moment. You are still healing and foolish feats of bravado and bravery will only hinder your recovery.”

Lovely start. Insulting insinuations about him and his house is an excellent method for provoking trust. The voice in his head sounds suspiciously like the boy’s mother. He’s half tempted to do something stupid just to hear it again. How disgustingly Gryffindor of him.

“Why did I stop taking Remedial Potions?” Harry asks. His voice is barely more than a whisper but his eyes are steady, meeting Severus’ gaze unflinchingly even after all they have been through.

The sheer bloody cheek of him…!

Severus barely bites back the frustrated growl that fills his chest and crosses his arms over his chest instead as he bites out, “I stopped attempting to teach you occlumency after I caught you face first in my pensieve, watching Black and your father sexually assault me.”

What little color the boy has abandons him instantly and Severus doesn’t need the warning zap of pain streaking up his arms to make him want to hex himself.  Sighing wearily, he pinches the bridge of his nose and begs for patience. Merlin knows, Pott – Harry, he reminds himself viciously – will rob him of what little he possesses all too soon and he needs to keep his head for this conversation. This cannot be allowed to devolve into the practiced sneering, blatant disrespect, and hateful yelling that has marked the majority of their communications.

“I will not apologize for telling the truth,” Severus finally says because he won’t. He has never excused James Potter’s crimes and he is certainly not going to start now. It wouldn’t do either of them any favors. “But it was unnecessary and crass of me to speak it now and I do apologize for that. I am sorry, Harry. You have been through enough.”

Harry jerks his head unsteadily, green eyes wide and confused. Severus empathizes. If, this morning over breakfast, someone had tried to tell him that he would be apologizing to Potter’s son (and mean it…!) he would have laughed until he choked and drowned in his own tea.  “Where…” he pauses to lick dry lips. “Where are we?”

“Someplace safe,” Severus assures calmly, retaking his seat in the chair beside the boy’s bed. “I brought you here after discovering your… injuries. You have been treated by a capable Healer and will continue to be seen by her until all of the issues are resolved as well as those that linger from…earlier times.” He presses his lips together so hard that his face hurts. The list of things done to the younger man lying in the bed – to Lily’s son, a child he has sworn to protect – is enough to rip him open all over again. It is one thing to catch glimpses of the years of systematic abuse in the boy’s head. It is something else entirely to see the results of it organized into a stark, unforgiving list. Severus rather suspects that the bloody list will haunt him until the day he dies. “I must apologize for that as well. For not taking you from that place sooner. I let my feelings for your father and godfather get in the way of your safety. I can promise you that it will not happen again.”

It comes out a little clipped and probably a little cold but Severus has never been good at conversations involving emotions. They always leave him unbalanced. He knows how to study people, how to predict outcomes and twist that knowledge into influencing conversations. He knows how to spot weak points. He definitely knows how to exploit them. He doesn’t really know how to talk to people. He never learned. He doesn’t understand it and even after thirty-six years can only barely manage to emulate it.

But he is sincere.

He hopes Harry hears that, at least.

“I don’t understand what’s happening,” Harry finally admits, voice flat. “I don’t… why would you…?”

Severus wants to close his eyes (and his ears and his heart) against the thousand, pain filled questions contained within Harry’s voice. He doesn’t. He has neither the time nor the right to such a luxury because he helped create this. He – willingly, maliciously, gleefully – helped mold Harry into a young man who doesn’t trust him. Who views him as an enemy.

He inhales slowly and exhales through clenched teeth to the count of ten so that he doesn’t sick up all over his boots. Again.

“Your mother,” he finally says because he can’t think of any other bloody way to approach this whole mess.

“My…mother,” Harry repeats slowly, blinking owlishly as he finally sinks back into the pillows.

“Lily Potter – or, as I knew her, Lily Evans,” Severus says and once he starts talking it is surprisingly easy to talk about the woman that he loves. “We grew up just blocks from each other. I saw her perform accidental magic in the park and found a scrap of courage to walk up to her and introduce myself. I didn’t… I didn’t get along with the other neighborhood kids. My clothes were too worn, too weird for even the piss poor streets of Cokeworth, my father the neighborhood drunk, and my mother the strange, unusual woman that all the neighbors gossiped about. But I was a wizard and I was more than willing to share my knowledge of the magical world with the muggleborn from up the street. We were friends. The best of friends.”

Harry is staring. “You… knew my mum? But you never…! And no one ever…!” He freezes and stares at Severus for a long moment before growling, “You called my mum a ...!”

“I did!” Severus cuts him off with a rough swallow. “I did,” he repeats bitterly. “I lashed out in a moment of fear and humiliation and I begged for forgiveness but…” She had never given it and the pain of that – the pain of being unforgiven, the pain of her being so unwilling to try to understand that she wouldn’t even entertain the notion of forgiving him – will haunt him until the day he dies. And quite likely after. “Lily Evans was my best friend and I loved her,” love her, he corrects in his head, “fiercely and I lost her in a moment of foolishness. I have never forgiven myself for that. When she died,” he swallows again and clenches his hands against the memory of that night, of the heavy, limp weight of her body in his arms and the feel of her hair brushing against his cheek. “I made an Unbreakable Vow to do everything in my power to protect her son. To protect you.” He pauses and takes a deep breath. “Do you know what an Unbreakable Vow is?”

Potter – Harry – looks as panicked at the question as he did that very first day of class when Severus had (unfairly, he can admit it) put him under a verbal firing squad.

“Er… a vow that you can’t break?”

Severus does not hex the boy but it’s a fucking close thing.

“It is a vow made and bound by magic,” Severus explains, “and if I break it, the magic of it will kill me. If I come close to breaking it, it hurts me in warning.”

Harry stares, clearly so shocked and unsettled by this conversation that he can’t even muster up the energy to be suspicious of Severus, which is probably for the best.

“I suspect the Vow is what made it possible for you to get inside my head during our pathetic attempts at occlumency this past year,” he adds thoughtfully, letting the random tidbit roll right from his head and out his mouth. A familiar mulish expression twists the boy’s face at the insinuation that he didn’t personally break into Severus’ mind – as if that is possible! He has been a Master of Occlumency since before Harry was even born.

He gives the boy a pointed look and raises one eyebrow in question. Is this really what he wants to get hung up on? This is the most civil conversation they have ever managed to have and he wants to ruin it with his overinflated ego?

Harry deflates beneath the look and Severus continues, barely managing to mask his surprise, “There have been many times that I have ignored the pain of it. For many years because I did not know what it was and after you came to Hogwarts because I was persuaded that it was necessary.”

Memory of the complete lack of practical protections on his relative’s home is enough to make his wrists itch.

When he finally speaks again he is careful to look in the boy’s eyes, to let him see the sincerity of the emotions that are still far to close to the surface to be safe, “Today I reached the end of what I was willing to endure – and let you endure – for the Greater Good.” The boy shivers, folding in a little on himself. Always a Gryffindor with his heart on his sleeves and his every thought written on his face. He’s heard that particular catch phrase before.  “So I took you. I dare say that 'Tuney isn’t going to miss you,” he adds, muttering to himself more than anything, “the wretched bitch.”

Harry’s lips twitch into something that might actually be a smile.

They sit in silence for several minutes: Severus, trying to gather his thoughts and Harry… Well, who knows what’s going through his head.

“So you really knew my mum?”

Severus blinks. “Yes,” he says and, knowing that such a simple answer won’t be enough, rips himself back open with more honesty. “She was the best and brightest part of my life.”

“Will…” Harry pauses and takes a deep breath, “Will you tell me about her sometime? Sir? It’s just no one ever talks about my mum.”

Severus closes his eyes and takes a deep breath. Of course they don’t, the bloody fools. The woman who managed to defeat the Dark Lord with what Severus suspects must have been an impressive bit of blood magic, the woman who is famous for sacrificing herself in defense of her son – of course no one talks about her.

Fucking imbeciles.

“Of course,” he forces himself to say, even though it hurts. “I even… I have some of her things, from when she was younger. Letters, pictures… I think I have a Gryffindor scarf of hers somewhere.”

He does. It’s in a locked and warded box in his quarters at Hogwarts wrapped around the copy of The Little Prince that she had given him for Christmas during their fifth year.

“Oh.”

Yes. Oh.

He knows how much he treasures those items and how much they hurt. How much more will they mean to Harry whose only memory of his mother is listening to her die?

“So is this your house?” asks Harry, blessedly changing the subject and looking around him with interest.

Severus lets his lip curl in amusement at the thought of Lucius’ reaction to that. “No,” he answers decisively. “It is, however, my home. Or as close to one as I have ever come, I suppose.”

Potte – Harry’s – face scrunches up in obvious thought. “…Hogwarts?” It’s a question, Severus thinks, but he doesn’t get a chance to answer (not even a chance to raise a silent judging eyebrow) before the boy adds to himself, “… but it doesn’t feel like Hogwarts. Or look like it.”

“No,” Severus agrees quietly. “Not Hogwarts.”

“Then…where?”

“Someplace safe,” is clearly not going to be enough of an answer for a boy used to breaking all the rules and sticking his nose where it doesn’t belong.

(Not enough for a boy who has likely only survived this long because of sheer dumb luck and his stubborn refusal to let things go.)

Severus hesitates for just a second, mind racing behind shakily reconstructed shields. If he brushes Harry off again he suspects that this awkward, tentative truce between them will be broken. If he lies he will absolutely destroy any miniscule smidgen of trust the foolish boy has in him. If he tells the truth… well. He imagines there will be a lot of yelling and jumping to conclusions and the idiotic Gryffindor will dig in his heels and refuse to budge from his preconceived notions and sense of righteous superiority.

There are no good choices. Story of his fucking life.

“You are… at the home of the only healer I trusted not to endanger your life further,” he finally answers. It’s more of an attempt to buy time than anything else.

“…Madam Pomfrey?”

Severus shakes his head. “While a formidable mediwitch and quite capable of dealing with most of the disasters – real or imagined – that the numerous squalling hellions in our care get themselves into she is not, strictly speaking, a Healer. Nor do I trust her to keep to her medic’s oaths if the Headmaster asks her to break them by giving him information he should not have.”

“Why shouldn’t he…”

“Because he is the Headmaster of your school. He is not your parent, guardian, grandfather, or long-lost uncle. He…!” Severus bites of his words before he can work himself into the fury he can feel bubbling through his veins like a poison.

 “Harry,” he finally says, looking into those familiar green eyes, “I have treated you horribly since the moment we met. In part because I hated your father and I hold a deep resentment for the trespasses he made against me but mostly I have treated you thusly because Albus Dumbledore demanded that I do so, just as he has demanded that you return to that miserable place year after year as the vow I have sworn makes me burn until I cannot even stand.

“I know you are not particularly fond of me and I have given you little, if any reason, to trust me but I need you to listen to what I am about to say,” Severus pleads. “I beg you, if you never listen to another word I say please listen to what I am about to tell you. Your life and mine and that of innumerable others depend on it.”

Harry searches his face, jaw set tightly and eyes fever-bright, for something. Severus doesn’t know what. He doesn’t know what the boy hopes to find on his features that will convince him of the truthfulness of his words. He just doesn’t know but whatever it is Harry must find it because, slowly, jerkily, he nods his head.

“Alright. I can do that.”

 


 

Harry runs.

Lungs burning, chest aching, he runs.

He runs, slipping and stumbling down an opulent hall, fingers dragging along the wall to keep himself from falling. The portraits whisper and mutter as he goes past but they’re just a buzz in his ears. His mind is too busy screaming to hear.

The stairs nearly kill him and he can’t stop the soft cry that wrenches from his lips as his weight jerks at his arm as he stops his fall. He grits his teeth and hauls himself upright. Shaking. Shaking. Shaking. He can’t stop shaking. He can’t stop.

He can’t. He can’t. He can’t.

“…Potter?”

Harry flinches from the touch, scrambling away pale hair and pointed face. Opens his mouth but he can’t make the words come out. Can’t tell the other boy to go away, to just stop.

Can’t. Can’t. Can’t.

Harry runs.

It feels like he runs for forever but he knows – distantly, so distantly – that he hasn’t. That he can’t. His lungs are burning, his chest can’t expand. He’s dizzy. He’s nauseated. He thinks he vomits on a plant. He’s not sure. He can’t remember. Everything aches.

Harry runs.

He makes it outdoors and the sun is warm on his face but he almost can’t feel it, can’t believe that it’s shining when he’s so cold inside.

When he falls to the dirt he doesn’t get up. He can’t.

He lays there with the sun on his face and his fingers digging into the ground and…

He

Just

Can’t

Dumbledore in his office. Dumbledore behind his desk. Dumbledore, “I think it is time I told you”.

…and either must die at the hand of the other for neither can live while the other survives.

Snape with his hand on Harry’s shoulder. Snape in the chair beside the bed.

It is a lie. There never was a prophecy. Dumbledore created it as a trap for his strongest rival.

Dumbledore with an understanding smile. Dumbledore in the infirmary.

The night your parents were killed a portion of Voldemort’s powers passed into you.

Snape with his hands folded in his lap. Snape with his eyes unwavering.

A piece of the Dark Lord’s soul now resides in you. You are under his protection. He will never seek to harm you again.

Dumbledore avoiding him. Dumbledore refusing to meet his eyes. Dumbledore refusing to answer his questions. Dumbledore cutting him off from his friends.

He is fascinated with you. He believes himself the greatest wizard of recent memory. He cannot fathom a power that he cannot understand. He will never stop hunting you.

Snape, hands shaking.

The Headmaster is shaping the world in his image, pruning from it all powers that are not his own.

…either must die at the hand of the other…

Harry bows his head and screams.

He screams and screams and screams and he can’t stop.

It’s like a wave breaking out from him, rolling over everything. Pulling it under. Drowning it. Destroying it. Ripping it to pieces.

He screams until his throat is raw. Until it burns and aches just like the rest of him.

Harry screams until he can taste blood in his mouth.

His parents, dead.

Cedric, dead.

Sirius, dead.

Harry Potter, dead.

Or as good as.

Harry screams until he breaks, until the cries become jagged bits of laughter pouring out of his throat like glass. His teeth are bloody and his vision is white and his fingers are clawing and clawing and clawing… He’s coming apart. He’s floating away.

He can’t stop.

Can’t. Can’t. Can’t.

His fingers grab onto something smooth and dry, sun warm and soft. He holds it. It curls around him, a weight that holds his hand and his arm and his torso to earth.

“Oh, Harry,” a whisper, nothing more but it’s there. It’s there, it’s there, it’s there and then there’s darkness. His ribs twinge and his stomach heaves but nothing comes out. Nothing comes out. “It will be okay,” the voice rumbles beneath his ear. “I promise you, Harry. It will be okay.”

Harry bursts into tears.

And he can’t stop.

He

Just

Can't


 

In the midst of Narcissa’s carefully manicured rose garden Severus sinks to his knees amongst the mulch and, mindful of the twisting coils of the Dark Lord’s familiar, gathers a hysterical Harry Potter into his arms.

“I promise you, Harry,” he whispers into the gravity defying shock of black hair, “It will be okay.”

The vow hums and the boy’s laughter abruptly turn into sobs that wrack his too thin frame.

“It will be okay,” he repeats and gently rocks the boy in his arms. “It will be okay.”

Severus doesn’t know how it possibly can be but he knows that he must try. For Lily. For the Vow. For Harry.

For himself.

I protect what is mine.

At the edge of the patio the Dark Lord watches with keen eyes and waits.