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A Path Like Frost

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“That’s excellent, Hermione!”

Tonks’s hair changed to bright blue, and Harry smiled and clapped, as he watched Hermione’s misty cloud coalesce into an otter. Hermione blushed and turned to look at Ron, whose ears were bright red with frustration.

Hermione frowned. Harry decided to throw himself into the breach before they could start arguing. “Come on, Ron, let’s see yours.”

“It doesn’t have a form yet,” Ron muttered.

Draco snorted behind him. Harry gave his twin the kind of warning glance that Draco would know from previous experience would lead to Harry not talking to him for a week. Draco settled back, folding his arms.

“But I know I saw four legs last time,” Harry said firmly. And that was true; he wasn’t saying it just to make Ron feel better. “So it has to be an animal with four of them. Come on! Won’t you at least try?”

Ron cast him a glance. Harry smiled back at him, and Ron finally nodded.

“Can’t hurt to try, can it?” he asked, and ignored the way that Draco rolled his eyes. Harry nudged Draco in the side with one elbow. Draco gave him an injured look; that particular gesture was one that his twin never seemed to anticipate or avoid.

Ron backed up towards the far wall of the old classroom where they worked with Tonks on the Patronus Charms, took a deep breath, and closed his eyes. Harry could see his lips moving, and wondered if he was reciting the instructions for the Patronus Charm to himself, or maybe reliving the happy memory he wanted to use.

Expecto Patronum!” Ron yelled, as hard as he could, running forwards and whipping around in a half-circle as he aimed his wand.

Harry leaned forwards eagerly, and this time he definitely made out four legs, a small muzzle, and what he thought was a slim tail before the Patronus dissolved into silvery mist. He glanced at Ron with a grin, and saw that his friend thankfully had his eyes open and had seen it.

“Wicked!” Ron exclaimed. “What do you think it was?”

“Looked like a terrier to me,” Tonks said promptly, and grew small, floppy dog ears from the sides of her head, which made Ron laugh.

“It did to me, too,” Harry said when Ron turned to him. He hadn’t been that specific before Tonks said it—he’d just thought it was a dog—but now that he thought about it, he agreed with her.

“It looked like something. Ow!” Draco said, as he got another elbow in the ribs.

“You’ll have a corporeal Patronus in no time, Ron.” Hermione smiled at him, which made Ron turn redder than any of the rest had.

Harry shook his head at that, and at the way Draco was nudging him back about it. He turned to Tonks, feeling his stomach drop a little. “So—I mean, all of us almost have corporeal Patronuses. Does that mean you’re going to leave Hogwarts?”

Tonks smiled, and her hair turned bright green. “No, actually. Aunt Narcissa said that she wanted me to stay here and have a look around at some of the curses that are supposed to be embedded in the castle, like the one on the Defense post. She’d like it if I could either break them or call attention to them for other people to break them—which I’ll probably have to, because I don’t have the training to do it myself yet. I’ll come once a week, the way I have been, and we’ll go to lunch in the kitchens, or in Hogsmeade when we can do that.”

“Brilliant,” Harry said happily. He appreciated having a cousin and an aunt and uncle who were actually nice people, although he hadn’t met Aunt Andromeda yet.

“Can we—I mean, I think I might want to be a Cursebreaker.” Hermione had her hands clasped in front of her the way she had when Tonks first taught them about the Patronus Charm. “Can I have lunch with you sometimes, too?”

“Of course.” Tonks extended her smile to include Hermione and Ron with a little wave of her hand. “I’d hate to give up spending time with you just when I’m getting to know you. And you’re going to be magical powerhouses in a few years, if you can all cast the Patronus at thirteen.”

“Fourteen, for Hermione,” Ron said, sounding as though he didn’t know if he was correcting Tonks’s mistake or resentful of the fact.

Harry just ignored the way that Draco tried to poke him about that, too. No, his best friend wasn’t perfect, but none of them were. And if Draco really had retreated enough into a “Malfoy mindset” to think he was, then Harry was all too happy to bring him back to earth.

“Fourteen, then.” Tonks winked at Hermione, and her hair turned bright pink. “Who knows? Maybe I can get someone to come here who could actually break the curse on the Defense position, and then I can be a professor here for real.”

“You’re too young, Cousin Tonks,” Draco said bossily.

“I got an Outstanding on my Defense NEWT,” Tonks said, “and that’s all you need.”

Draco gave her a puzzled frown. Harry hid his smile. Tonks had obviously learned that the best way to handle Draco was to state facts and act as if all reasonable people agreed, and Draco would basically go along because he wanted to be seen as one of the reasonable people.

“Is it really?” Hermione asked, and then she and Tonks were off in a discussion of teaching standards that bored Harry so much he started packing up his things. Ron gladly imitated him, and Draco trailed after them as they left the classroom, calling, “Bye, Tonks!” over their shoulders.

Unusually, Fred and George were waiting for them outside the classroom. Harry could practically feel Draco getting all stiff and protective behind him. He held out his hand towards his twin while giving Fred and George a wary smile. “Hi, you lot. What did you want?”

“Saw something we thought you should know about,” said the twin Harry thought was George.

“Yeah, unusual,” said Fred, with a nod. “And it’s not like the person in question—”

“Does things like this on a regular basis. Professor—”

“Snape is packing up his classroom, and dropping loud hints that he wants to see you—”

“Right away. I mean, he wants to see ‘Henry Malfoy,’ but that’s what it amounts to.” George shrugged. “Said it loud enough that—”

“He must have reckoned we were hiding there,” Fred said, and exchanged a grim look with George. Harry thought they were probably more worried about how Snape had known they were there than why he wanted to see Harry.

“Reduced to playing messenger owl, are you?” Draco asked with a nasty sneer.

“Not reduced.” Fred put one hand in the middle of his chest.

“One of our favorite roles, that is,” George said, with a nod. “Especially—”

“When we get to open the messages and confiscate things that might be with them.” Fred leaned forwards a little. “Like boxes of sweets.”

Draco stared at them, his jaw dropping a little open. “Did you take that box of sweets that my mum sent us?” he demanded, folding his arms and vibrating as if he was about to leap on both the twins.

“We’ll never tell,” said George, while Fred, standing slightly behind him, nodded emphatically, his eyes locked on Draco.

Draco shrieked and drew his wand. Harry hesitated, but Fred winked at him, and he abruptly realized what this was. The Weasley twins were distracting Draco so that he wouldn’t insist on going with Harry to talk to Snape.

Harry mouthed, “Don’t hurt him,” and hurried off. Ron, who seemed torn between cheering on his brothers and cheering on Draco, stayed behind, and Harry saw Fred shift a little so that it would be harder to look down the corridor after Harry.

Harry took a deep breath. Snape had been one of the people who’d acted weirdest after Harry had discovered that he was Draco’s brother. Harry had no idea what he wanted to talk about now, though, that he couldn’t have talked about in the last year and a half.

No way to know without going there and asking.

*

“Ah, Mr. Malfoy. Come in.”

Snape’s voice was carefully neutral. Harry stepped into the classroom without closing the door behind him, Mr. Tonks’s lessons ringing loudly in his head. He might need to retreat at any moment.

Snape turned to face him. Harry let his eyes dart from side to side in the moment before he started speaking. The classroom looked surprisingly bare, and it took Harry a moment to realize that all the vials Snape usually had ready for student potions, plus some shelves of books on the far side of the room, were gone.

“You are owed the truth,” Snape said, staring at him. “But it took me some time to decide how to tell you.”

Harry licked his lips and shifted from foot to foot. Mr. Malfoy would probably be tutting at him right now for so openly showing his discomfort, but Harry honestly couldn’t help it. He wasn’t used to this kind of Snape. “I mean. Um. Thanks, sir. But if you don’t want to, you don’t have to.”

“I am leaving. This will be my last chance to do so.”

Harry felt his mouth fall open. “You mean, leaving leaving? Not coming back?”

“Your eloquence astounds me, Mr. Malfoy,” Snape said dryly, and Harry felt his ears turn an even brighter red than Ron’s. It was the one thing he most disliked about looking like his family, this pale skin. “But yes. I have already submitted my resignation to the Headmaster. There is no reason for me to stay any longer.”

“And that’s what you wanted to talk to me about?” Harry asked, trying to choose the smartest of the questions that were swarming around his head.

Snape nodded and gestured to the table in front of his desk. Harry sat down and tried to look as adult and serious as a conversation with Snape seemed to warrant.

“I know the Headmaster has told you about the prophecy,” Snape said, his gaze disconcertingly direct. “And it is true that no one exactly knows what will happen with it now, when you are not the child born at the end of the seventh month, nor born to parents who have thrice defied him. However, I am in agreement with Professor Dumbledore that the Dark Lord still believes in the prophecy, and his belief, rather than its literal truth, is the important thing.”

Harry just nodded. He was worried about the prophecy himself, and didn’t think that Voldemort would just hear that he was really related to the Malfoys and say, “Oops, I made a mistake.” But he didn’t know what to do about it, or how it related to Snape’s leaving.

“I made an Unbreakable Vow to protect you,” Snape said bluntly. “Or, rather, to protect the son of Lily Potter.”

“Yes, sir,” Harry said, because he’d already known this. He felt his skin tense all over and prickle. He’d tried to talk to Snape earlier in the year about the Vow and what it meant, but Snape had always ignored him or found an excuse not to talk to him. It was more than startling to suddenly realize he was about to get what he’d wanted, when he’d already given up on seeking it.

“I was the one who delivered the prophecy to the Dark Lord,” Snape said. “Therefore, when I realized that it had caused him to target Lily Potter, who had been my childhood friend, I was filled with remorse, and went to Professor Dumbledore. I switched sides. I promised to spy for him, and I made that Vow when you survived.”

Harry felt as if the world around him was reeling. He had wanted information, but he hadn’t thought he would get this much, and not like this. Or this information, to tell the truth.

“You—you were the one responsible for the Potters dying?” he whispered. “That was—that was terrible of you, sir.”

Snape stood taut, as if he was forcing himself not to flinch, but he merely shrugged. “I did not realize who it would target,” he said, and went on before Harry could say that it was terrible anyway, even if it turned not to be Harry. “So, I stayed on as Potions master at Hogwarts, in a position that I am sure you have noticed I hated and nearly no one else wanted me in, either, because I wished to atone. I thought that guarding you and spying on the Dark Lord when he returned would be enough to do that.”

“But then you discovered that the boy you vowed to protect never existed at all,” Harry murmured.

“Yes. If I made the Vow in your name, or in the name of ‘the only survivor of that Halloween night’ or something similar, it would still hold. But I made it in the name of ‘Lily Potter’s son.’” Snape shook his head, a weird expression creeping over his face. It took Harry longer than it should have to recognize it as a smile. “And so, I have recently determined that the Vow no longer binds me.”

Harry gave him a nervous smile. He would have liked to go somewhere and think about all this, instead of sitting there. “All right. So you’re leaving, sir? Resigning, you said?”

“Yes.” Snape bent over and shut a small leather case Harry hadn’t noticed sitting on the floor beside him with a snap. “I thought at first that I might offer you copies of some photographs I still have of Lily, but I fear that would be—inappropriate.”

Harry nodded. Part of him would still have liked to have them, but, well, he had the photo album of the Potters Hagrid had given him, even if he had hidden it carefully in the bottom of his trunk and never took it out when his parents or Draco were around. And he wasn’t sure what he would feel staring at the face of a woman who had loved him and kidnapped him and died for him and caused his parents misery for twelve years.

“I hope you have a good holiday, sir,” Harry said, because it was the only thing he could think of to say, and then added, “Do you know who Professor Dumbledore is getting in as the next Potions professor?”

“I have no idea.” Snape looked so happy when he was saying it that Harry ducked his head to hide his grin.

“All right. I—thanks for telling me the truth.” Harry had thought of saying something like, “Thanks for guarding me,” but Snape hadn’t had any choice in that, and he was really happy to be free and not doing it anymore, so Harry thought he wouldn’t. And he couldn’t really thank Snape for the other information he had talked about.

Even if it’s better to know it than not know it.

“A word of advice,” Snape said, and pinned Harry in place with his gaze. Harry held his breath, wondering if it would be about the prophecy or Voldemort. But Snape said, “Make your slices smaller when cutting up ingredients such as horned slugs. If you do not, you will never be as good at Potions as your twin.”

“Er,” Harry said, stunned. “Thank you. Sir.”

Snape nodded and gestured out the door with one billowing sleeve, and Harry went out, shaking his head. He sighed when he found Draco in the corridor. Draco had given up following him everywhere all the time every day, but he still took his “protective big brother” act too seriously for Harry’s liking.

“You could have waited for me,” Draco grumbled, falling into step beside him.

“Yeah, but Snape wanted to talk to me, and I don’t think he would have if you were there.”

Draco gave a long sigh that seemed to use up half the air in his body, but shook his head in a way that felt more like accepting what Harry had said than disagreeing with it. “What did he want to tell you?”

“That he’s leaving. Resigning. And he thought I deserved to know about that Vow he made, which doesn’t bind him anymore because he vowed to protect Lily Potter’s son, who doesn’t exist.” Harry was going to keep the bit about Snape being the one to carry the prophecy to Voldemort to himself until he figured out how he felt about it.

Well, and because he came from a vengeance-happy family. It was entirely possible that Mother or Father or Draco would want to hunt down Snape, even though he hadn’t had anything to do with the kidnapping, because he was part of the reason Voldemort had targeted Harry.

“What!” Draco exclaimed, coming to a dead stop.

Harry turned to him and nodded. “I know. It’s kind of weird he talked about it when he was avoiding talking about it to me all year—”

“Not that!” Draco folded his arms and huffed dramatically. “He can’t just leave! He’s the Potions Professor! He’s Slytherin’s Head of House! Who are they going to have in to replace him?”

Harry blinked, then chuckled. He hadn’t even thought about the fact that Snape’s leaving would mean the Slytherins needed a new Head of House, but then, it wasn’t his House. “I don’t know. Maybe the person who taught Potions before Snape? And maybe one of the other professors was a Slytherin and could take over those Head duties?”

“This is not fair!” Draco declared, and turned around as if he was going to march right after Snape and make him explain himself. But when Harry looked around, Snape had already disappeared. If he’d really hated being here, Harry supposed he couldn’t blame him.

“It is not fair!” Draco repeated, turning around and fuming at Harry. “I suppose you don’t care, because you never liked him! But I care!”

“Well, try to find him and talk to him about it,” Harry suggested, and Draco gave him a determined nod before turning and running off. Harry shook his head and went back to Gryffindor Tower, where he was sure that Ron and Hermione would be waiting for him.

Later, he found out that Draco had sent off an owl to their parents with a long rant in it. Harry was just as glad that he hadn’t had to listen to more of it, but he did wish he could have been there to see their parents’ faces when they got it.

*

“You’re sure that you’re going to be all right?”

Harry was biting his lip, and he couldn’t seem to stop. Mrs. Malfoy reached out and gently healed his lip, and Harry nodded and focused on Mr. Malfoy, who was lying back on a white gurney in St. Mungo’s. Harry couldn’t really look at his father’s outstretched arm with the Dark Mark, so he focused on his face.

“Yes, I will be,” Mr. Malfoy said gently. “I won’t hide the truth from you, boys. This is going to be a long and painful procedure. But Healers have advanced in their knowledge a great deal in the last few years, and, well, limb regrowth is available to those who can afford it.”

Harry thought he should probably be worried about the poor people who couldn’t afford it, but just at the moment, the thought flickered and died on the edges of his mind. He kept looking at Mr. Malfoy as the Healers came out and checked him over, weaving their wands in diagnostic magic that made no sense to Harry.

“We’re ready to take you back into the ritual surgery ward, Mr. Malfoy,” one of the Healers, a tall woman with red braided hair, said at last.

“Why does he have to go to a ritual surgery ward?”

Draco’s voice was very small and very tight. Harry reached over and held his brother’s hand. Draco grabbed on and squeezed and squeezed.

“Because we don’t know exactly what will happen when we begin to amputate his left arm, young Mr. Malfoy,” the red-haired Healer said gently. “As far as we know, this is the first procedure of its kind to remove the Dark Mark. There might be reasons why it’s never happened before. The Mark might react violently. Others who have tried it might have died. We’ll be in a secure space where the violence of the Mark’s magic, if any, will be contained, and we can heal your father of any wounds he receives immediately.” She checked a large golden watch hanging from her robe and nodded. “We should move him now, or we’ll lose the favorable conjunction of the stars tonight.”

Harry held onto Draco’s hand, and felt Mother’s arm come around his shoulders, as the gurney levitated into the air and the Healers walked around it, back behind a white wall that shimmered with inlaid silver lines. Harry released a shaky breath. He had no idea what was going to happen, and that scared him.

And part of him felt selfish. Mr. Malfoy would never even have considered doing this if not for Harry and their fears that Voldemort would target him. No matter what anyone said about him being under the Imperius in his Death Eater days—the Healers certainly believed it, or they would have refused to treat him—Harry knew he hadn’t been.

But he remembered the way Mrs. Malfoy had reacted when Sirius had nearly kidnapped him again. Mr. Malfoy would do anything to defend him, too.

“Come, boys,” Mrs. Malfoy whispered, and escorted them from the room to the waiting area where they would have to stay for a few hours.

Harry leaned back in his chair and stared at the ceiling. Draco was pacing in circles until Mother snapped at him and made him sit down. Harry tried to listen for any sounds of the surgery, although he knew he wouldn’t be able to hear it behind the wards.

Somewhere in there, after what felt like hours of waiting and sick hoping, he fell asleep.

*

Pain like he’d never felt woke him, screaming.

“Henry! Henry!”

Harry could hear his mother and his brother, frantic, but he couldn’t stop screaming. And he couldn’t stop clawing at his forehead, where the pain was flowing from.

There was blood on his fingers by the time that Mrs. Malfoy bound Harry’s hands to the arms of the chair. He sobbed and writhed, and heard Draco shouting, “Fix him! Fix him!”

Then, abruptly, the pain stopped.

Harry sagged back in his chair, breathing hoarsely, and felt Mrs. Malfoy crouch down next to him. She cast some spells which looked like the diagnostics the Healers had used on Mr. Malfoy, and then she conjured a glass of ice water for his throat, tipping it slowly for him. Harry swallowed and swallowed. He couldn’t move his arms, which were still bound to the chair.

“Sorry about that, dear one,” Mrs. Malfoy whispered, and cast the spell that released his arms. Then she gathered him close and rocked him. Harry put his chin on her shoulder and tried to think past his trembling and the blinding pain.

“What happened?” Draco demanded, dancing around them. “What happened?”

“Draco, hush,” Mrs. Malfoy snapped, in a tone Harry had never heard from her before. It worked, though, since Draco hushed. Mrs. Malfoy leaned back and carefully brushed Harry’s hair out of his eyes. She hissed.

“What?” Harry whispered, although he thought he knew. The pain had come from his scar, after all.

“There’s blood on your scar,” Mrs. Malfoy said quietly. “And I don’t think all of it is just from where you clawed at it.” She reached up and wiped it away. Harry flinched despite himself, but her gentle touch didn’t cause any more pain. He swallowed as he thought about the agony he’d endured.

“Mrs. Malfoy? Are you all right? We thought we heard screaming.”

Draco promptly moved in front of Harry, and Mrs. Malfoy flowed to her feet, shielding him with her body. “My son had a terrible nightmare,” she said gravely. “But what about Lucius? Is he—” She took a ragged breath, and Harry suddenly wondered how worried she had been. He hadn’t really thought about it.

Harry couldn’t see around his twin to get a glimpse of the Healer’s face, but he heard the smile in her voice. “The Mark is gone, Mrs. Malfoy. The amputation was successful. We’ll have Mr. Malfoy rest for a month before we start the limb regrowth. But I promise you, I don’t see any reason that he shouldn’t regain full function in his left arm.”

Mrs. Malfoy shuddered a little, and Harry thought she might cry if there weren’t so many people there. “Thank you,” she whispered.

The Healer talked with her a little more, while Harry leaned against Draco. Draco touched his shoulder and whispered, “What was that, Henry?”

Harry shook his head. “I have no idea.”

But part of him was wondering exactly when Father’s arm had been amputated, if someone had kept the records of that.

And if it would coincide with the time he’d started screaming.

How alive was the Mark? How alive is my scar? How are they connected?