…ld to get better.
He glanced at Harry and glumly thought, of course you can’t just sit on your fat ass and expect the world to get better either.
When he was younger, he’d been too scared of the other Slytherins to try and keep up his relationship with Milly and Vince. He had let it come between them as if it meant something. He even wondered if Milly and Vince had sensed his misgivings about them. He wondered now, had he ever brushed them off? Had they ever done something to approach him only to have him look away and pretend they didn’t exist? Did they start believing the things he thought about Slytherins and Death Eaters to be true? It would be irony indeed if it was his fault that the two of them joined Voldemort.
Terry, separated from all of them, had picked up friends in his new House and forgot they even existed except for the occasional polite meaningless, ‘hi,’ in the hallways. It was only later that he learned that Terry started hanging out with Milly and Vince quite often again in their third year. Once again, he was the odd man out. It seemed like he was always the one who got overlooked, and it was always his own fault.
It was Fourth Year when he started mooning over Millicent, even though most of the time he was too afraid to even look in her direction for too long. He’d watched her shyly, tried to get her attention in little ways but she never noticed. He almost asked her to the dance Fourth Year, but he was pretty sure, even now, that she would have just done something particularly painful and inventive to him. And why shouldn’t she? What had he done to deserve any sort of friendliness from her? She’d gone through some major shit over the years, and he hadn’t been around because he thought he was too good for her.
Last year, he’d felt brave enough to try and start to mend their relationship, only to find out she was dating Crabbe. And it wasn’t like when she was dating Derrick, which only lasted two months, or when she dated that Ravenclaw friend of Terry’s, and they fought so much that he wasn’t worried. Crabbe and Milly were serious.
He knew when he saw Crabbe--pacing back and forth in front of a flower shop during a Hogsmeade weekend, staring at the flowers like they were dangerous animals that were going to devour him whole if he approached them wrong--that it was serious.
Milly laughing happily. “I asked him if he was trying to tell me something, and he just looks at me like a lump, and I had to break it to him that he’d bought me pansies.”
He knew when he saw Crabbe, big, bumbling, clueless Crabbe, kiss her on the cheek, gentle and sweet as spring rain, that it was very serious.
And that was funny because Crabbe was the one man Neville was certain he could outmaneuver in the dating department. A rock wearing a tie was probably more suave then Crabbe would ever be.
Millicent and Crabbe had since ended the relationship, and Neville wasn’t about to let this chance slip by. It could be his last chance. He didn’t know where Millicent was going or what she was doing after Hogwarts. Maybe she was all signed up to join Voldemort. One way or the other he couldn’t just let it go without knowing.
He set his fork down, got up and followed her out of the Great Hall.
She turned down a corridor he knew would eventually take her to the dungeons and gulped, worrying so much about how to approach her without anyone else seeing, and without getting his ass kicked, that he was completely unprepared when he turned a corner and found her waiting for him, arms crossed over her chest and her mouth set in an angry line.
Neville started, squeaking in an embarrassing and completely unmanly way.
Her eyebrows rose. “Was that your idea of stealth? Because it needs work.”
“I . . . sorry, it’s just . . . erm.” He realized he was making stupid fluttery hand gestures that were utterly failing to explain what his lack of eloquence was not saying and flushed even more, wrenching his arms to his sides.
“Did somebody up and smack you with a stupid-charm?” she asked seriously.
At least ‘stupid’ was nicer than ‘fucktard’. Maybe she was in a good mood.
“Er . . . I need to talk to you.”
She blinked, looking completely unsurprised. “Okay.” She shrugged, reached into her robes and pulled out a glittering switchblade with a black handle and a small but sharp-looking three-inch blade. “Start talking, little boy, but the toll is a cut for every two minutes.”
The blood drained from his face and he backed away, hands raised, palms forward, stuttering. “Hey. I don’t . . . I don’t. . . .”
Pain. Torture. Crucio.
“You don’t need to talk that badly?” she asked silkily, running the flat over her palm and stalking him. “I understand.”
Anger spiked through him and gave him courage. He stopped retreating and took a breath. “Just a cut?” he asked sharply, retaking his ground. “Do I get to choose where?”
And he had the satisfaction of seeing Milly startled. Finally, she tilted her head at him and looked interested. “Alright.” She glanced down the hallway. “But not here. Follow me. There’s an empty classroom over here.”
Oh great, seclusion with the knife-wielding Slytherin. This had to be his best idea ever.
The classroom had obviously not been used in a long time. It was dark and dusty, the windows shuttered. Millicent wandered up to the head of the class and hefted herself up to sit on the Professor’s table facing him, crossing her ankles. He idled by one of the wooden desks, noticing that “MF KB” had been etched inside of a heart on the desktop.
“Well?” Millicent barked irritably when he didn’t say anything. “You’re being timed.”
“I. . . .” He looked up and realized he had no idea what he was going to say to her. “I guess . . . I guess, I’m sorry.”
“You’re sorry?” she asked incredulously. “O—kay. What wonderfully worthless information. Thank you for sharing.”
He kept his eyes on his toes and ignored her. “For the way I’ve treated you. I owe you a really big apology. You and Crabbe.”
A small pause, maybe an indrawn breath. “What are you talking about?”
“When we came to Hogwarts, we stopped being friends. Because of me. Because I didn’t like that you were a Slytherin. I thought it mattered. It shouldn’t be like that.”
“Oh, Merlin, what is this, a confession? Do you really think I give a damn about what you think?”
He hesitated, slightly deflated. “I want to apologize for abandoning you guys. And I want to try . . . I want us to be friends again.” He looked up at her, wanting her to see that he was serious.
His expression fell when he saw the cruel grin on her face, the laughter in her eyes. “Oooh, I get it,” she chuckled. “This is rich. Honestly, Longbottom, did you have to choose one right from the Slytherin playbook?”
“What?” he asked quietly, eyebrows furrowed. “What are you talking about?”
Her smirk widened. “The rumor that Potter’s kicked you out is all over school. Now suddenly you come to me, wanting to be best friends, wanting me to share all kinds of information with you. Aw, how incredibly transparent of you.”
He flushed, struggling to defend himself. “It’s not like that!”
“No?” she asked sweetly.
“NO! I’m not going to help Harry. What he’s doing is wrong. And you’re wrong too.”
“Really?” she purred.
“Yes. Think about it! You’re smart, you’d know if you just stopped to think for a moment that none of this adds up. It doesn’t make sense! None of it makes sense. Tell me, Milly.” he stepped towards her, head high, eyes fierce. “Tell me the truth. Do you really believe Hermione kidnapped Malfoy?”
She actually hesitated, going very still and then she clucked her tongue at him. “The truth, Longbottom, is that I don’t care one way or the other. I’m just following Pansy’s orders.”
“But that’s just it! They’re dangerous orders! We’re going to tear Hogwarts apart from the inside. It’s like every year we get closer and closer to the edge. Harry and the others are going to be expelled. Pansy and you are going to hurt people. Dumbledore’s going to get fired. Who benefits from that, Milly? WHO?”
She stared at him.
“Did you know Umbridge tried to kill Harry,” he asked her. “Did you know that? First they took away our right to defend ourselves and then they tried to turn this school into a giant brainwashing hamster cage, and those who didn’t conform were turned into prisoners. If they oust Dumbledore, the Ministry will own us, Lucius Malfoy will own us. They’re out to get us, Milly! Hogwarts needs to be protected!”
“Great conspiracy theory, hon. And let me guess, you’re going to save us?” she asked snidely, but he could see the laughter was gone from her face.
“I refuse to believe you don’t care. Harry was right about one thing--I can’t sit around and do nothing. We need to find out the truth. We need to show everyone what’s really happening.”
“What’s really happening? Tell me, if you’re so clever, what is really happening?” she mocked.
He closed his eyes. “I don’t know.”
“Hmm.” She sneered.
“Truthfully, Milly, does Pansy really believe that Harry and Hermione took Draco?”
Millicent nodded without hesitation and then slyly said, “Are you telling me that there is absolutely no chance that Potter did?”
Neville hesitated. He thought of Harry and of his hatred for Slytherin and for just an instant, he doubted. But then he shook his head. “There are men who would. There’s a war going on and the sacrifice of one kid would be worth it in their eyes. But not Harry’s.”
Her eyelashes lowered. “What about Dumbledore’s?”
Neville gave her a lopsided smile. “The only reason Dumbledore would kidnap Draco would be to protect him.”
Uncertainty flashed behind her eyes, and he nearly crowed in delight. She shook her head. “You’re misplaced faith in them is not proof. Besides, what if you’re right? What if Draco took Granger? What if he’s killed her?”
“That changes nothing,” Neville whispered. “I’ll fight him, not Hogwarts.”
She sat back, eyes hooded, tongue briefly touching her lips as whatever devious little thoughts in her head were sorted and calculated and brought to their conclusion. “And you’ll fight me.”
Neville felt his mouth twist. “Yes. If you side with him. If you become a Death Eater.”
“Alright.” She hopped down from the desk. “This little chat is over.” She glanced at the clock. “You’ve wasted twenty minutes of my precious limited youth. That’s ten cuts, oh my.”
“Twenty minutes?” he sputtered. “How do you figure twenty. . . .” His eyes locked on the blade and he drew himself up, breathing in sharply as she advanced on him.
“Not going to run?” she asked him darkly, stopping in front of him. “My wand isn’t drawn. You had plenty of time to run.”
“Gryffindors don’t run. I agreed to this.” He swallowed hard.
She looked disgusted. “You really are a dumbass. Where do you want it?” The blade flashed under his nose in a deadly arc, and he flinched.
He thought quickly and drew the sleeve of his robe up, exposing his upper arm. Lots of muscle, less damage. “Right here.”
She looked at his arm, the pale smooth skin, and snapped, “You sure? Want to rethink that? You get to choose where.”
“Right there,” he repeated firmly and gasped when the blade sliced like cold fire through his skin. Blood welled up and poured down his arm. It wasn’t a deep cut.
“Where?” she snarled, blade raised. She looked furious.
“Another there,” he said hoarsely, trying not to panic at the blood, wondering how much he would lose from ten cuts.
“You get to choose where,” she repeated through clenched teeth. “Are you sure this is where you want it?”
“Yes,” And then he hissed as the blade struck again, crossing the other cut, making an ‘x’.
“You deserved that just for being a retard! Now where?”
He let his sleeve down and pulled up the other one.
“What the fuck!” And he was startled by her outburst. “Why don’t you run?”
He looked away, jaw set. “My parents suffered much worse than this. More than I could ever imagine. I can bear a little pain.”
Her fists clenched, and she took a deep breath. “Longbottom.” She said like she was trying not to scream at him. “I said the price was ten cuts. You asked if you got to choose where, and I said yes. You get to choose where. Anywhere. Do you understand me, dumb fuck? ANYWHERE.”
He stared at her, her words finally sinking in. “Anywhere?”
“Isn’t that what I just SAID?” She did yell at him now.
His sleeve dropped. “Like, like if I said, I wanted the other eight cuts on . . . on this desk?”
“Then I would say ‘oh darn, you’ve outsmarted me, I guess I didn’t notice that GIANT FUCKING LOOPHOLE’.”
“I want the rest of the cuts on the desk.” He said quickly, squeakily, pointing to make sure.
“Get out of here. You deserved the two you got.”
“Thanks Milly.” And he knew better than to stick around after saying that. He scrambled for the door before she could react and paused there, watching her begin to scratch something into the desktop with the blade point. She seemed to be taking a lot more than eight cuts but he didn’t mind.
He wondered what she wrote there and doubted it was what he wanted it to be, but allowed himself to dream anyway. Maybe he’d even come back here one day and look.
He fled.
Dreams of Hermione.
They came and went like hummingbirds through his mind, a flash of color, ephemeral. He could never quite catch them, and he wasn’t always certain they had been there to begin with. He would glimpse honey curls, a flicker of brown eyes, hear a distant laughing voice calling his name, “Harry!” But when he turned, only the strange landscapes of his mind were there to greet him, and she was gone far away. It was like a badly tuned radio station, fading in and out, sometimes so clear that he could reach out and touch her cheek and sometimes as if they were connected only by the meanest thread.
She was often there running about in the background, not really part of his dream, not really obtainable, lost in a world that he could see but not touch, a world that had little to do with his own. His own dreams became mazes, as if every one was a room full of ominous doors, and if he was lucky maybe one of them would lead him to her, and he would almost reach her before she faded away.
Lucidity came in varying degrees. Most of the time, it didn’t even register in his mind that there was anything significant in her appearance there. He sometimes forgot that she was lost. Other times he was happy to see her, bursting with the vague, half-formed idea that seeing her was something to be excited about, but he couldn’t always remember why it was so important that he talk to her, why he felt so sad and why he sometimes had the terrible feeling that, though she stood before him smiling, she would soon be gone far beyond his reach.
He was never fully aware, never completely rational, but sometimes he was clear-headed enough to realize he was dreaming. Only there was no guarantee that Hermione would be in the same state. He might ask her the most desperate of questions, only to find that her mind was too deeply buried in slumber to understand.
“Where are you, Hermione? Tell me where you are! Where is Malfoy? Where did he take you?”
“What do you mean, Harry? I’m right here.”
“But you’re not here! He kidnapped you!”
She shook her head. “I have to find the secret thing, and the wolf doesn’t know where it is. The others do, but they’re not talking. I thought the unicorn might, but it doesn’t know either. The frogs know. They know where to find the secret thing but I can’t understand what they’re saying.”
She spoke in riddles, rambling on about nonsensical things.
“I just realized it’s all the same. North and South and I could be home. I could be home right now but I’d walk right through you. Its like layers so thin they’re right on top of each other, but you don’t see them.”
“Hermione, what are you talking about?”
She looked up at him earnestly. “We’re blind, Harry, every one of us. We’re blind.”
She said the most terrifying things.
“I met a God,” She told him dreamily. “I met a God, and It ate me. It swallowed me whole, sucked my dreams away like marrow from my bones.”
“Hermione. . . .” he groaned, holding her dream-self by the shoulders, urging her to, for lack of a better word, wake up.
“No.” She frowned, looking thoughtful. “It wasn’t me. It was someone else. There’re three of them, and they’re all together but all alone. The God loves them.” She started to cry.
Other times it was she who spoke to him with rapid urgency and palpable frustration, and he knew the words were terribly important, but they were muddled or quickly forgotten in his sleep-fogged mind, fading just as they reached his ears.
If only he could remember. . . .
“Harry, we’re in a forest! I don’t know where. There was a portkey, a portkey brought us here, but I don’t know what it looks like, I never saw it.”
“There’s something here with us, Harry. Something terrible. I thought we were alone, but we’re not.”
“It has to do with the Malfoy name. If only I could find the link. . . .”
“Oh Harry, listen to me! Try to listen!”
And rarely, very rarely, they came together in a maddeningly not-quite-conscious state that allowed them to exchange a brief few words.
They stood together, side by side, in a room full of people. It seemed like some sort of nightclub. It was dark, everyone was dancing, strobe lights were flashing and they could both feel the pound of the base thrumming through their bodies, but the music was strangely muffled, distant. In each corner of the room there was a large slumbering lion and a tall brass torch.
Harry stepped up beside her. “Am I dreaming of you . . . or are you dreaming of me?”
“I don’t know,” she murmured.
“You missed Snape’s pop quiz.”
“Did I? I wonder why? Where was I?”
“I think you were off looking for more books. But you’d better stop missing class or you’ll get detention.”
“Yeah.” All of the lions sat up, heaving themselves up, tails lashing, and the people filed from the room.
He hesitated. “There’s something really important we’re forgetting. . . .”
She sighed. “I know. I can never remember until it’s too late.”
He caught her by the shoulder, sensing somehow that time was short. “I love you, Hermione. I wanted to tell you before, but I was too scared. Now it’s too late.”
“I love you too, Harry.” She told him simply, smiling a little.
“There are a lot of things I never told you. I knew you’d think badly of me.”
She flicked his dark bangs out of his face. “It’s trivial now. It doesn’t mean anything. The only thing that matters is that we find each other again. You can’t do this alone, so I’ll come home. I promise.”
And he knew then, clearer than he would ever know it again. “But you’re not coming home to me, are you?” The lions reared up on their hind legs and became statues. “Hermione?”
“ . . . No. I’m sorry.”
Malfoy had become much more common in Harry’s dreams as well, and he was royally disgusted with his subconscious for daring to conjure up the ferret.
Luckily, Malfoy wasn’t as frequent a visitor as Hermione, nor did he interact with Harry that often. Most of the time he was off in the distance alone, absorbed in some strange task. Once Harry had seen him, dressed in tattered mockery of royal clothes, riding what looked like a shaggy, crippled unicorn with its back legs bent at strange angles. Another time, Harry found himself following Hermione, walking on the surface of a giant oily lake, and when he looked down he saw Malfoy struggling deep down beneath the water.
Although Hermione often appeared alone, Malfoy only appeared when Hermione was in the dream as well. Malfoy only interacted with Harry when both he and Hermione were close by. Then it was always a fight. Malfoy always drove him away, screaming at him angrily to leave, shoving, punching and shouting obscenities until Harry jerked awake.
Then one night Malfoy appeared alone.
He was standing in a forest, an exquisitely detailed forest, not fogged in the least by his sleepy mind. He could feel the cold, wet breeze on his face and make out the shape of the leaves on the trees and every twig and branch on the ground, only it was all gray, colorless--lifeless. There were animals walking around, weird stick-like creatures that stumbled about with wide, sightless, soulless eyes, and slack, drooling mouths.
He held very still but one of them saw him, teetered towards him, blank white eyes fixed on his face, its throat working as if it was trying to make some sound, and the others around it followed. He jerked away in repulsion, tripping backwards in his haste. The creatures neither sped up nor slowed down, just kept coming slowly, inescapably. The one’s throat worked so hard that white bubbles leaked from its open mouth and black fluid seeped like tears from another’s eyes and they closed in on him and . . .
“What are you doing?” Asked someone curiously.
Harry whipped around to find Malfoy standing behind him. Malfoy, colorless as everything else, wearing heavy cotton robes, his hair slicked back neatly. Malfoy looked at him oddly, almost fiercely and without a shred of recognition. There was something--off--about him, something that raised the hair on Harry’s arms, as if he wasn’t looking at a person, but a dangerous animal.
“Malfoy!” he hissed, finding his voice, glancing around quickly and realizing that the strange animals were gone.
The other boy’s expression flickered. “Who are you?” he asked, faint surprise coloring his voice.
Harry hesitated. “W-where’s Hermione?”
Malfoy’s eyes narrowed as he contemplated Harry. “You don’t belong here,” he said, and his expression darkened with dawning realization and something like fear. He drew back a step. “You came here on your own,” he accused, mouth twisting into an angry snarl.
“Malfoy, what. . . ?”
Something huge rose up behind Malfoy. It rose up and up, and it was so huge that it blocked out the sun. It was so huge, it blocked out the world, it became the world. Harry looked, unable to help himself. It was the most beautiful and terrible thing he had ever seen, and it was the only blurry thing in his dream because, and he knew this somehow, his tiny, feeble mind could not comprehend it. He was insignificant. He was nothing.
How could a mortal comprehend a God?
And then it spoke to him, and its words were like the death of a star, so huge and crashing and unfathomable. A sound, a feeling, an experience no mortal should bear. And as the world shook apart, he remembered that a Mandrake’s cry was fatal, and that the eyes of a Basilisk would kill, and he covered his ears but he heard anyway, he could see the sound, like shock waves, and his body went rigid as his insides solidified. Every living, breathing ounce of warmth and life in his body was sucked out.
He froze to death on the spot.
He became a pillar of ice.
Harry woke in full convulsions, his heart stuttering in his chest. He couldn’t breathe, his eyes rolled to the back of his head, and he struggled to stay conscious, his lips blue, mouth foaming. His jerking body flailed clumsily and fell out of bed. The painful jolt of hitting the ground, forehead slamming into the cold floor, seemed to jump-start his lungs, and the air was like razor blades in his dry lungs. He wheezed it in and screamed it out, numb fingers clawing and tearing at the floor against the pain, ripping his fingernails, blood smearing across the stone.
His heart seized once more, and he arched up off the floor but the pressure suddenly released, like a clamp opening, and the failing organ began pounding like a sledgehammer in his chest, strong and steady. He coughed violently and slumped against the floor, blood staining his lips, shuddering and weak, only distantly able to hear Ron and the others, hollering for help.
In the midst of that chaos he had a brief moment of clarity, a brief moment to realize that the dreams were more than just his rambling mind.
Because he had nearly died.
Somehow Draco Malfoy had tried to kill him.
Severus Snape strode with swift steps down the corridors of Hogwarts towards the infirmary, every crack of his heels on the stone floor radiating his fury.
It was six in the morning, and he had barely had time to return his personal effects to his room and catch four hours of much-needed sleep after making his report to the Headmaster, when he was summoned once again, the ghost messenger informing him fretfully with wringing hands and a positively revolting display of anxiety, that young Harry Potter had taken ill.
His lip curled, a torch on the wall flickering wildly as he stormed past, robes snapping.
Poor Harry Potter had nightmares. Sound the alarm! Rouse the troops! Adorn sackcloth and anoint yourself with ashes, the mighty hero has been robbed of his beauty sleep.
What utter rubbish! He could not understand why the Headmaster continued to condone this obvious and gratuitous cosseting of a boy who, by legal rights, was an adult. It was ridiculous! Shielding him from the real world would not allow him to learn the skills to survive. Jumping at his every whim and showering him with attention every time he scraped his knee was not only spoiling him but inflating that already oversized sense of self-importance along with that infuriating ‘woe is me’ attitude the whelp carried around like a funeral shroud.
Well, if they expected him to coddle the little ingrate, they had another thing coming. Life was tough. Deal with it.
He wasn’t feeling all that wonderful himself. The expedition had been tougher on him then expected and left him feeling cold, weak--drained.
After fleeing the forest, he had briefly considered taking an unconscious Lucius Malfoy to St. Mungo’s but decided he’d rather not chance the publicity. That left him with two choices, either take Lucius to an Order member or to the Dark Lord. Both options left him cringing and in the end he’d taken Lucius back to Malfoy mansion, basically throwing him at Narcissa and wishing him the best.
But Lucius, it turned out, wasn’t all that ill, and he had his own private healer besides. Problem solved. Severus had wanted to leave immediately to report back to the Headmaster but Lucius was awake enough to demand he stay and threatened to go straight to the Dark Lord if Severus didn’t. Rather than deal with that particular barrel of fun, Snape had opted to stay.
He and Lucius had a rather interesting discussion, and then Lucius shut himself up in a room downstairs for a few hours. Severus had passed the time stalking about the mansion and then in an even more interesting talk with Serge Lestrange. It was midnight when Lucius came searching for him and demanded to accompany him to see the Headmaster. He hadn’t liked it, but figured he could satisfy Lucius and then have a real talk with Dumbledore later.
It turned out that there really wasn’t anything to hide. He had presented everything he had found on his expedition and everything he had experienced, had explained that the memory of the dark presence in the forest was still so fresh he could feel it pounding in his skull, taste it like something bitter in the back of his mouth.
Dumbledore had become graver and more solemn with every word. Severus could almost see the wheels in his head spinning as he placed every word, no doubt with astonishing accuracy, into the giant puzzle that was slowly filling out before them. He knew better than to expect the Headmaster’s input immediately, Dumbledore would meditate on what was said before revealing his own insights.
Lucius had offered little to the meeting, choosing to remain silent for the most part and explaining away his presence by saying only that he had Apparated to Draco’s most recent location once the clouding auras that shielded the children had cleared away. That suggested that Malfoy had been within the forest for most of the day, but the blond man simply refused to enlighten them as to just how he had occupied those hours.
The only time Lucius spoke without being asked a direct question was when the subject of Draco came up. Lucius had sworn adamantly that the boy they had encountered in the forest was not Draco, and had become angry when Severus argued with him. Snape figured this was his way of covering for his son after the boy’s blatant admission to murder.
Except Hermione Granger was still alive.
Dumbledore had assured him of this repeatedly. So unless the Headmaster had somehow been fooled, which was possible but unlikely, the boy had lied for one reason or another. Really there was no point in trying to surmise the ‘why’, any number of reasons came to mind, each as unlikely as the next.
“What has happened?”
Speak of the Devil and He shall appear.
Abruptly and full of questions apparently.
Severus started as Lucius Malfoy melted from the darkness like the vile creature he was. Malfoy was supposed to have left school grounds after his private talk with Dumbledore, however many hours ago that had been. The fact that he was still slinking around infuriated Snape anew.
Wasn’t anybody paying attention to these things? Shouldn’t somebody have checked to make sure murderous Head Death Eaters had actually departed, or was there someone about with a real desire to wake up to a room full of slaughtered school children? Why not just hand them to him on a silver platter?
Lucius watched him expectantly, cane planted in the stone floor. He looked relaxed. Snape wasn’t fooled.
“Well?” Malfoy demanded.
“The Potter brat,” Severus muttered grudgingly, taking a single wary step back, hand on his wand. The two of them might have been briefly united during their foray, but they were back on home turf now and there was no telling what Lucius was about. “It appears he has taken ill.”
One pale eyebrow rose. “And this requires half the castle to be roused and an emergency staff meeting to be called? Shall I ring up the Ministry, as well?”
“Disgusting, isn’t it?” he barred his teeth slightly, relishing the brief and rare opportunity to commune with another Potter-hater. And then severing that link with the all the abruptness of an axe to the neck, “Perhaps if some people were a bit subtler in their frequent, reoccurring, repeated attempts to snuff the little bastard, the staff wouldn’t keep him tucked beneath their aprons.”
Lucius’ fingers stroked the head of his cane idly, the corners of his mouth curling unpleasantly and responded in kind. “Yes, well, perhaps such ventures would be unnecessary if someone on the inside had at least attempted to do his job once in the last six years. Surely it couldn’t be that difficult. I’m certain it would only take one good go at it to get the little bugger.” Lucius stepped towards him and Snape stiffened. “But I suppose you’ve been too busy saving his life.”
“I’ve done nothing of the sort.” Snape rebuked sharply. “I’ve merely kept up appearances.”
“Hmph.” A sound that could have meant anything or nothing except this was Lucius Malfoy and the sound could be accurately interpreted as ‘I know you’re lying but I’ll play along for now and the first chance I get, I’m going to inflict excruciating pain upon your person. Bonzai!’
Lucius’ lack of response disturbed him, and he hesitated, loath to take his eyes from his adversary. But he couldn’t just stand there, and Lucius wasn’t moving so he straightened his spine and strode towards the door. Lucius raised a hand as he passed and Severus flinched automatically, then had to grit his teeth in humiliation when Malfoy merely tucked a loose strand of blond hair behind one ear. He smirked at Snape knowingly, gloating. Severus hunched his shoulders and hurried on, Lucius falling into step behind him.
He and Malfoy had once been on much friendlier terms. Lucius, though several years older then he, and one of the most malicious Slytherins Hogwarts had ever seen, had always treated Severus with a measure of dignity when they were in school together. As adults, Lucius had been cordial, even sociable. But now Malfoy suspected he was a traitor and hated him for it, not because he was disloyal but because he was one step closer to freedom.
Lucius also greatly disliked the leeway Severus received as a ‘spy for the Dark Lord’. He saw it as favoritism or was jealous of the decisions Severus was allowed to make for himself that would otherwise be entirely up to the Dark Lord. And he especially didn’t like that Severus was not his to bully around as the other Death Eaters were, and so Snape found himself the recipient of a special sort of spite that Lucius held all for him.
He rapt on the door to the infirmary sharply and entered without waiting for acknowledgment. Dumbledore was seated beside Harry Potter’s bed, and Madame Pomfrey was bent over the ailing boy helping him drink something that must have tasted foul from the expression on the boy’s face. Potter was shivering, curled up in a mound of blankets with the steaming mug clenched in his bloody, clawed fingers. He looked awful, nearly white. Bags sagged under his eyes, emphasizing the dark circles there. His blue lips trembled and his usually wild hair was completely out of control.
What in the world had the brat done to himself this time?
Irritated, he hoped it didn’t involve stolen potions from his cupboard . . . or maybe he did, because then he would be able to insist on expulsion once and for all.
“Ah, Severus, perfect timing.” Dumbledore said quietly, gesturing to a chair on the other side of the cot. “Take a seat . . . oh, and Mr. Malfoy, come in.”
The Potter brat’s head snapped around, green eyes going wide and then narrowing in snarling rage at the sight of Lucius, but he was either too weak or too smart (and Snape was betting on too weak) to lunge at the man, and stayed reclining in his bed though he exchanged cold looks with Malfoy.
The two men sat, Lucius with a graceful flourish and a mockingly benevolent smile at the sick boy that Dumbledore either ignored or did not notice. Snape maneuvered his chair discreetly and adopted a better angle with which to intercept Malfoy should he try anything.
“Come on, drink up,” Pomfrey urged briskly, helping him finish the cup. “There now.” She clucked, straightening and glared at the men. “I’m allowing this only because it’s you, Headmaster, but the child needs his rest and if I believe you’re doing him more harm then good,” she wagged a finger at him sternly, “Headmaster or no, you will be leaving.”
“Thank you, Poppy,” was all Dumbledore said, but she sniffed as if he’d acquiesced in a sullen manner and bustled out the door. Dumbledore waited for the door to close then addressed Potter quietly. “Do you feel well enough to speak awhile longer, Harry?”
The boy nodded lethargically, and Snape noted uncharitably that a subdued, half-dead Potter was an almost tolerable Potter.
Dumbledore seemed to weigh Potter’s answer and finally sat back, looking exhausted. “Mr. Potter was brought to the infirmary on the brink of cardiac arrest, also experiencing a disturbing and unusual set of symptoms. He has been . . . rather viciously attacked.”
Severus didn’t even attempt to hide his reaction and stared pointedly at Lucius.
Malfoy shifted in his seat and Snape wondered if it was a sign of guilt or excitement. Probably excitement. Lucius didn’t know what guilt was and was, most certainly, orgasmic at the idea of Potter killing over.
“What a terrible shame!” Lucius cooed and everyone in the room heard the unspoken ‘that he didn’t die’. Malfoy glanced at Snape, noting the accusing glare and frowned. “Oh come now, Severus, surely you don’t think I had something to do with this. I am a gentleman, I haven’t a violent bone in my body.”
“No violent bones,” Potter rasped weakly. “Just violent everything else.”
Lucius gave the boy a narrow disapproving look, which Potter returned candidly, and finally shrugged. “Touché.”
Merlin, this was disturbing, the two of them were having a moment.
“And who, or what, was the culprit?” Snape asked quickly, figuring whomever it was had probably been apprehended already or else the castle would have been on full alert.
“Tell them, Harry. Tell them what you told me,” Dumbledore urged gently.
Potter took a deep breath, as if gathering his strength. “It was Draco Malfoy,” he whispered hoarsely, his breathing still weak as he returned to glaring at Lucius whose full attention he had now. “I was dreaming . . . it was a dream. I was in a forest, a gray forest, there was no color. There were these animals. They were like stick-animals walking around, colorless, their bodies were shriveled and their fur was white. Malfoy was there. He was angry. He said I didn’t belong there. There was something else, it was. . . .” Potter hesitated, eyes becoming dazed and unfocused as he remembered. And when he spoke it was almost like he, himself, didn’t quite understand what he was trying to say. “It was . . . it was like the sun, only dark. I couldn’t look at it or my eyes would burn away. I couldn’t stand in it too long or my skin would melt. It spoke to me. It told me it was a God. And I believed. It told me . . . it told me to die.” The speech seemed to wear the boy out and he ended in a slur and sank down against his pillows, eyes closed.
Lucius was silent, his lips parted slightly in shock.
Snape tried to find his voice and settled for shaking his head. “It must be a coincidence. Or he overheard! You know as well as I how he sneaks about.”
“No coincidence.” Dumbledore said, solemnly. “It makes sense.”
“Just how does this make sense? Why would Mr. Potter dream of that. . .” he struggled for a word that wouldn’t give Potter any more information then he already had, “thing we saw? He is in no way connected to that place.”
“But he is connected to Miss Granger,” Dumbledore pointed out.
“Tell me more about the boy,” Lucius demanded sharply of Potter. “What was he wearing? What did he look like?”
Potter’s eyes cracked open. “Thick robes,” he mumbled. “Hair slicked back. His eyes . . . his eyes. . . .”
“Were not Draco’s,” Lucius finished angrily, triumphantly. “As I stated before, whatever this thing is, it is not my son.”
“I hope you are right, Lucius,” Dumbledore answered gravely. “Because if you are not, then we are too late.” Both men fell silent. “Tell me, Harry, have you been dreaming of Hermione lately?” Dumbledore asked. “Strong dreams. Vivid dreams.”
“Yes,” Potter husked after seeming to think over his answer carefully. “All the time. She . . . I think she tries to tell me things.” He wet his lips. “I think the dreams might be real. But they’re not. . . .” he hesitated, his eyes skimming to Lucius, apparently Severus wasn’t the only one trying not to give away too much information. He touched his scar. “They aren’t like my other dreams. I’m not connected to Hermione. How could I dream of her?”
“I’m afraid you are incorrect, Harry,” Dumbledore answered gently. “Miss Granger is connected to you through your love and friendship.” Lucius made a rude noise, which everyone ignored. “She is reaching out to you. You dream of her because that is where she is closest to you. I wouldn’t be surprised to find that Mr. Weasley and Miss Weasley dream of her as well.”
“I don’t understand. Where is she?” Potter asked faintly. And Snape was certain those feverish, glazed eyes and delirious tones were at least partially faked.
Potter wanted information, and figured he would get more by acting as though he were too weak to act on it or too delirious to remember it. Severus was certain Dumbledore wasn’t rash enough to give Potter too much information, and he was proved right when the Headmaster rose heavily to his feet in a swish of robes.
“I’m afraid nothing is for certain yet, Mr. Potter. It would be best for now if you were too rest. Tomorrow you and I shall talk privately on the matter.”
Potter looked vaguely disappointed but his eyes flicked briefly to Lucius, and he nodded tiredly, settling back on his cot. “Yes sir.”
“Goodnight, Harry,” Dumbledore said affectionately and Lucius and Severus stood to follow him.
“Until next time, Potter,” Lucius inclined his head mockingly, and Snape saw Potter flip him off when Dumbledore’s back was turned. “How uncouth,” the blond man muttered haughtily and followed Dumbledore out the door.
The walk to Dumbledore’s office was silent. Lucius, who under any normal circumstances, would have been either badgering Dumbledore with threats and accusations or going on about his evil plans for the Ministry, was uncharacteristically quiet. Snape kept an eye on him, noting the thoughtful scowl on the man’s face. They had just reached the office when he suddenly understood what Lucius was brooding about.
“You haven’t dreamed of Draco, have you?” he stated gleefully. Lucius stopped short. “Potter dreams of his little girlfriend every night, but your own son doesn’t look to you for help, not even subconsciously.”
“Severus, that is enough,” Dumbledore cut in quietly.
Lucius’ eyes narrowed. “Oh, it’s quite alright,” he assured easily in that silky smooth voice he always adopted just before someone died. “I know enough of poor Severus’ inferiority complex to understand he needs these little victories to keep him going.”
“Please, Mr. Malfoy. . . .” Dumbledore started in warning tones.
Lucius continued as if Dumbledore weren’t speaking, “There now, Sev, you got me. You’ve won.” He made a conceding gesture, giving a little bow, before fingers came to rest on his chin thoughtfully. “Though I can’t say I’m surprised that you’ve been dreaming of my son.”
“That’s not what I. . . .” Snape sputtered, but Lucius only smiled unpleasantly.
“Of course I’m certain that’s nothing new for you, Severus, you’ve always had a taste for the young ones. But I must warn you, my friend, if it goes beyond dreaming, you will answer to me.”
“That’s enough!” the Headmaster barked.
“The plundering of innocence is your forte, Lucius, not mine!” Snape shouted, face burning with mortification. “Just ask Narcissa!”
And Lucius was just suddenly in his face. Snape started to jerk back but Lucius gripped his upper arm like a crushing vice. Severus stabbed his wand against the other man’s chest with his free hand.
“Another move and we’ll see the inside of your chest cavity,” Snape hissed.
Lucius’ expression didn’t change. “I wonder, what would she say?” he whispered.
“Severus, lower your wand,” Dumbledore boomed. The old man looked furious, probably seconds away from drawing down on both of them, and heaven help them if it came to that. “Step away from him, Lucius.”
Lucius released Severus but immediately slung his arm across Severus’ shoulders. “Pish posh, Headmaster,” He chided jovially. “Surely you don’t think I mean him harm. Such nonsense. Come now, we have much to discuss.” He gestured his cane for the office door and fairly dragged Severus inside while the Potion’s Master struggled and demanded to be released.
Once inside, Severus was able to wrench himself free of Lucius’ grip and was promptly ignored as the other man took a seat in one of the plush high-backed chairs and folded white-gloved hands in his lap. Snape stood fuming, opening his mouth for another scathing comment, but a warning look from Dumbledore silenced him and he took a seat stiffly at the far end of the room, away from Lucius. The Headmaster, who normally would have started a meeting by offering both parties candy, sat heavily in his chair with a tired sigh.
“So,” he began, opening the large map on his desk, eyes skimming the glowing marks, in particular the two gold marks that stood side by side near the center. “We have located the children.”
“Oh yes, we’ve located them,” Lucius agreed, amiably, and knocked the head of his cane on the tabletop rather violently. All the marks on the map vanished. “We are just unable to find them. Imagine that. Every spell and enchantment within our ability tells us that my son and the Muggle-born girl are within that forest and yet we go there and find absolutely nothing.”
“We have found something,” Dumbledore said softly, rolling the map closed. “Traces. Echoes.”
“Headmaster?” asked Severus.
“I’m afraid that Miss Granger and young Master Malfoy may be well and truly lost.”
“Why do you say that?” Lucius asked, softly, dangerously.
“As you’ve seen for yourselves, the children are in the Black Forest area. They just aren’t in the Black Forest. I believe they have passed through a gate of sorts. That is why we cannot find them, that is why the auras that shielded them have cleared away. They passed through a gate, have traveled beyond our reach, and therefore there is no longer any reason to guard them from us. They have crossed over . . . or rather, they were taken.”
Severus shook his head, not understanding. “You mentioned that before, that there were two powers shielding the children from us.”
“And if we know nothing else, we now know what those powers are.” Dumbledore said with a trace of satisfaction.
“We do?” Lucius asked sarcastically.
“You spoke of a presence, Severus, an all-consuming presence that radiated throughout the forest . . . a malevolent force that seemed to disappear before it attacked you. Perhaps it did not disappear, perhaps it tried to take you into itself before it struck.”
Snape swallowed hard at the implications. “It is still with me,” he admitted. “Not as though it followed me, but as if it is even now residing within me. I was going to suggest Lucius and I undergo some purification spells. I can still feel it.”
“Like blackened rot in the back of my brain,” Lucius murmured almost to himself. “A God. I do not believe in such things.”
“I have reason to believe that this power is one of the forces that has been shielding the children, probably the one that has withdrawn. And from all accounts it is the one that invaded Mr. Potter’s mind and attempted to murder him.”
Lucius scoffed, crossing one leg over the other. “That is ridiculous. Why Potter? Even if Severus and I have somehow brought a piece of this thing back with us, why Potter?”
“Well Mr. Malfoy, I suppose it is most easily explained by simply reminding you that Mr. Potter has been contacted several times by Hermione Granger. But there is more to it than this, I assure you.” He smiled and continued quite cheerfully, “You see, Harry Potter is also remarkably disciplined mentally. Muggle-raised wizards usually are, as they must maintain constant control over the powers that, in their world, supposedly do not exist. Mr. Potter also has several years of experience controlling and maintaining his ‘special’ mental links. Add to that Mr. Potters advanced training in Occlumency, Patronus summoning, Defense Against the Dark Arts and his quite admirable ability to cast several spells without actual contact with his wand, and you will understand that it was a very small thing for Mr. Potter’s slumbering mind to use his link to Miss Granger to attempt to seek her out without first waiting for her to contact him. The trouble came when, instead of Miss Granger, he stumbled across the entity that holds her captive.”
Lucius made a face like someone choking on a particularly bitter pill and then his attention snapped on the last word. “Captive. My son is being held captive?”
“That is why we were unable to locate the children until a few days ago, Lucius. The presence that shielded them from us has had them under its control from the beginning, from the very moment they set foot into that forest.”
“If that is true, then it is a wonder the children are even still alive,” Severus whispered. “It probably could have killed them or taken them through the gate at any moment it chose.”
“Very true.”
Lucius looked angry. “You’re suggesting this thing, whatever it is, was powerful enough to open some kind of gate and snatch them from Diagon Alley?”
Dumbledore shook his head. “I do not believe it took them from Diagon Alley. I believe other powers may have intervened on that matter.”
“And the other?” Severus prompted. “The second power that still shields them?”
“Indeed. The second . . . well, perhaps Lucius should explain for himself.” Dumbledore looked at the other man expectantly.
Severus had the rare opportunity to see Lucius looking completely blank, and then the man’s brain must have caught up with the conversation because he visibly balked. “I don’t know what you could possibly be referring to.”
“Come now, Lucius,” Dumbledore said with some of his old twinkle. “This isn’t the Spanish Inquisition. We are all working here for a common purpose.”
Lucius coughed lightly and straightened haughtily. “I’m afraid I still can’t recall what you mean.”
“Shall I bring out the copy of the receipt of sale I acquired from Borgins and Burkes?”
The blond man went rigid. “If you are referring to my recent purchase, then I will have you know that it was obtained through wholly legal means and I was simply to hold it until it could be transferred to a safe location where it would be. . . .”
“That is quite alright, Mr. Malfoy,” Dumbledore interrupted firmly. “I do not care at the moment where or how it was purchased, I only care that you confirm my suspicions.”
“What?” Snape asked, looking between the two. “What is it?”
Lucius sighed gustily, and leaned back in his chair, finally replying in a bored manner, “An uncharged Base.” He continued on blithely ignoring Snape’s shout of disbelief. “But I do not see what that has to do with anything. Draco was ordered not to touch it and he knows the consequences that would befall him should he disobey me.”
“Lucius, you fool!” Snape roared, remembering the blade marks he’d found all across the forest with new horror. “Draco drew the blade! It was probably the first thing he did! How could he resist? How could you let that impulsive, irresponsible brat of yours handle an uncharged Base? Are you insane!”
Lucius had gone white. “He. . . ? No, it’s not possible. He lives still, and the blade would have killed him the instant he laid hands upon it! He is just a boy. He wouldn’t have survived!”
“Perhaps he didn’t, Lucius. Did you ever think of that?” Severus mocked harshly. “Perhaps that thing we saw in the woods was the ghost of your son! That blade. . . .”
“May very well have saved both their lives.” The soft statement cut Snape off mid-rant.
He turned to stare at the Headmaster, dumbfounded. “What?”
“For whatever reason, Draco survived the first draw of the Base and the children have managed thus far to keep the blade alive. The Base is the second power that hid them from us. The children are the blade’s main source of energy, it will protect them as long as they are its key providers, and that may be the only reason they are still alive.”
“They? You mean that filthy little Mudblood tramp touched MY knife?” Lucius exploded. “Then Draco is as good as dead! An Uncharged Base is extremely delicate, it is only a matter of time before her filthy blood taints it completely and it fails. If that little bitch kills my son. . . .”
“Do you believe your son could have carried the burden alone?” Snape shouted back. “You know how horribly unpredictable a Base is! Even if they are treated with utmost care they may still rebel at any time and kill their handlers or try to take over them! Were Draco to keep the blade in his possession for too long, the blade would devour him whole, body and mind!”
“Do not overreact, Mr. Malfoy,” Dumbledore pacified. “The children are obviously doing something right. But you are correct that a Base is extremely delicate and extremely unpredictable. It is within our best interests to find the children as soon as possible. That being said, I assume you had some other purpose for the blade. You must have acquired it on Voldemort’s orders, did you not?”
Both Lucius and Snape hissed, flinching at the name.
Dumbledore looked unimpressed and continued,“He must have arranged a plan for raising the Base to majority, and you must have assumed that he would go about it the way others before him have: through the accounts of the Perfect Flame. Those accounts are very detailed, from the first Drawing of the Base, to Sir Garth Horis’ sacrifice of his own life to forge it into a Subtle Knife. The accounts are indeed detailed but they are only actions. They do not contain the secrets to perfecting a Subtle Knife. Voldemort knows this only too well.” Dumbledore paused. “You see, our children were very lucky. They were somehow transported to a forest rich in magic. The animals, plants and even the air are all so powerfully magical that it supplements the energy the knife would otherwise have to take entirely from the children. Anywhere else on this planet and the Base would certainly have killed them by now. Isn’t that a wonderful coincidence? Then of course, there is the astonishing luck that the Base accepted Draco immediately instead of killing him. And the strange matter of it keeping both children hidden from the rest of us.”
Lucius had gone very still. “Just what are you saying?”
Dumbledore looked him right in the eye. “Only that young Master Malfoy has everything he would ever need to raise the Base to majority . . . including the sacrifice, a muggle-born girl child, to fix the blade into its final form.”
Lucius was silent for nearly half a minute. “Impossible,” He whispered. “The Dark Lord would never entrust such a mission to my son. Not without. . . .”
“Not without telling you?” Snape finished for him with nasty glee. “Now, Lucius, don’t be simple. You must have realized that it was all a matter of time before Draco toppled you from your throne. He’s been nipping at your heels for quite some time.”
“No, my son is . . . he is too important to the. . . . He wouldn’t be risked. He is. . . .” Realization drew Lucius’s eyebrows together, started a tick at the corner of his mouth while a slow crimson flush of rage streaked up his pale skin from his throat to stain his cheeks. “Impossible,” he repeated harshly. “I do not believe it.” He was suddenly on his feet, lips peeled back in a snarl, “It’s all much too convenient for you, Dumbledore.”
“Mr. Malfoy. . . .” Dumbledore started but Lucius stalked to the door and wrenched it open.
“I must hand it to you, it is an extremely convincing tale. But not convincing enough.” And slammed it on the way out.
Snape stared at the door. “He must be extremely angry if that was his parting shot,” he drawled. “Will someone see him out for certain this time?”
“Of course, Severus. Moody is awaiting him at the bottom of the stairs.”
“Hmph. He’s going to love that.” Another pause. “ Do you really believe that Draco was given a mission by the Dark Lord, Headmaster?” Snape asked, thinking of the homicidal Draco he’d met in the forest.”
“It is possible. It is also entirely possible that Mr. Malfoy was given the mission without ever knowing it. He may have been handed the blade and thrown into the wilderness to do or die. Or perhaps the mission was meant for someone else and Mr. Malfoy somehow became involved. In any case, I think I would be very happy to discount all of those theories as soon as possible.”
“I believe . . . I believe those theories are unlikely. The Dark Lord was very angry when Draco disappeared. And what Lucius said was true, Draco seems to be much too important to be used as the Dark Lord uses the rest of us.”
Dumbledore stroked his beard, troubled. “Explain, Severus.”
“I have mentioned it to you before, how the Dark Lord favors Draco. His Death Eaters are merely his tools, to be used and cast aside as he sees fit. An endless supply of slaves. Draco may represent the next generation, but he is still just a tool with no inherent value over any of the others. Yet the Dark Lord seems to have taken a personal interest in him. He enquires after Draco’s health quite often, sends the boy gifts. He insists the Death Eaters treat the boy with utmost respect, and, even more damningly, he has told us quite literally to treat Draco as we would him. I was unable to make sense of it, especially considering how Draco has never attended any meetings, and has only a paltry interest in the Death Eaters at best.”
“And you have discovered the purpose?”
“Lucius asked me some rather pointed questions last night. I hadn’t the slightest clue as to what he was fishing for but the questions themselves were rather enlightening. I also had a rather long talk with Serge Lestrange yesterday before returning to the castle.”
“Lestrange?” The Headmaster sat up. “They are with the Malfoy’s then? What did he say?”
Severus made a disgusted noise. “Unsurprisingly, he raved on like a lunatic. When I steered the conversation to Draco, he became especially excited. He ranted about how Draco was his young Lord, and how Draco would lead them all into a new era. I said I couldn’t see the Dark Lord giving up his position to a teenager and Serge was polite enough to explain, with much shrieking and flailing, that Draco is not the Dark Lord’s heir, he is the Dark Lord’s vessel. It seems He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named does not want Draco. He wants Draco’s body. Or, more precisely, he wants to be Draco Malfoy. That is why he doesn’t care about Draco’s poor attendance or lack of enthusiasm. He means to supplant Draco’s soul with his own in due time.”
Dumbledore stared at him in horror. “I had known that Voldemort was returned to his original body and that it was in the poor condition he left it in. He has grown old and he has done … Продолжение »
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