Holding The Fort
Thursday, 16 April
The Pensieve had been a gift from Emily. The way she'd put it was, "If you don't get enough stuff out of your head to enjoy going down the pub you're going to turn into a basket case." He'd followed up with comments to the health of her liver and the wisdom of letting a perpetually sauced little tart such as herself around children. She'd grinned and said, "That's saucy, not sauced." It didn't come as a coincidence that she gave him the thing his first birthday after telling her about the Death Eaters.
After the previous night's particular flavour of nightmare he had to decide if he'd done anything right in his life. Narcissa and Lucius had welcomed him home "properly" the first night of Easter holiday. He'd skipped over that part of the memory - something he'd learned from Albus - and stood, quietly, watching candlelight flicker on Lucius' sleeping face. A tangled blue sheet covered him to the waist, and he looked quite determined to become one with the pillow wrapped in his arms and crushed long-ways beneath his chest. A few strands of hair the shade of the palest sand had dried to his forehead with sweat. "Poor Luc," 'Cissa murmured while her fingers stroked Severus' bare belly. "He was up late last night."
"What were they doing?"
She shrugged. "He won't tell me. I think it had to do with that fuss in Bristol, though." Six Muggles had been tortured to death and left strung up beneath a bridge.
"You weren't there?"
"No, sweetie. It was just a little fun after our meeting and I wasn't feeling too well. Shame, I would have enjoyed it." She leaned down and kissed him gently. "Don't worry about me. It's nothing serious."
The true Severus hugged himself. He'd only gone twice into the memory of the next morning when 'Cissa was rushed to hospital with a miscarriage. There had been so much blood, red staining a black swathe through her blue robe and spilling over the dining room floor while her skin grew whiter and whiter. Soft tissue. Severus couldn't have fixed it. Lucius spent the day with his head in his hands while nurses asked if he needed anything. Severus answered for him; it was the least he could do, both in compassion and, because he had the gut-wrenching feeling the whole mess was his fault, miserable apology.
The memory Severus took her hand and stroked it. "How are your fingers?" Her frustrated scowl hadn't been a shock then and wasn't now.
"Sweetie, I know you tried, but it just isn't working." She looked apologetic. He twisted his face in an eerily convincing mask of dejection. "It tastes nice, if it makes you feel any better." Of course it would. The pretty liquid like molten gold contained a fair amount of cinnamon oil.
He hugged her quickly. "Roll over, I want to rub your back."
She obeyed - Narcissa would happily denounce Voldemort if she knew it would get her a backrub. Severus settled, naked, on her hips. (At this a heavy weight formed in his older self's chest; he knew it wasn't likely, three months of the new potion was a more probable cause, but there was still a chance that that had been what had hurt her.) He pushed her hair aside and let his fingers trail slowly over her shoulders. She purred.
"As soon as you're old enough I'm divorcing Luc and marrying you," she mumbled into a pillow.
Severus gave a short, nervous laugh. He jumped when Lucius shifted.
"I'm joking, sweetie. You can do better than an old lady like me."
"I don't think so." At the time he hadn't. Narcissa being female had its problems, but given enough time he could have probably gotten over those (so he'd thought). Her skin had been so soft, so flawless. Snape forced back an image of three moles on the upper right side.
'Cissa smiled back at him. "Of course you can."
She screwed her face up thoughtfully. "Let me see... he'll have dark hair, like you, and... he'll play Quidditch." She giggled at his noise of disgust.
"I don't want anything to do with a Quidditch player!"
"Of course you do! Don't you remember when Luc and I were dating? We took you to that Falcons match? You loved it."
"I was ten! Everyone knows ten-year-olds are idiots." He glanced down surreptitiously and a subtle weave of tension fell from his skin. The open wound and red scale on her back had been nothing more than a slight scar, blinding on her translucent flesh. Barely a month in twenty years had Severus not cursed himself for saving her life; it was reckless, stupid, and cruel to give her Gran's untested treatment under guise of something else. He might not have done it if he'd known she was pregnant - bad enough to risk one life. He was damned lucky Gran had been a genius.
"Idiot or not, you wouldn't leave until Omar Nicholas signed your robe."
Young Severus blew a raspberry at her. She snickered.
"Do you still have it?"
He shook his head. "No. Eversor..." he trailed off. She scowled and rolled over beneath him. A quick flash of pain crossed her face and she looked up at him sadly. A pinkish hand traced his cheek.
"Poor baby. You don't have to see that Squib ever again, you know."
He blinked. "Promise?"
She smiled. "I promise, sweetie."
A shiver started low in Snape's gut. If he'd used his brain he'd have known they would all be lies. No, he hadn't done anything right. Ever. Memento vitae, he thought sullenly and came back to himself. Someone was knocking at the door. "Professor!" Oh, bloody Hell. The boy picks his times!
"Stop that infernal pounding or I'll take points," he snapped as he dropped the Pensieve back in its drawer and locked it. He didn't like having it in his rooms. Too many bad memories, too many things he already saw every night.
It struck Snape that it was eight in the morning - the brat should have been fifty feet above the pitch. Scowling, he opened the door to find Potter soaked to the skin. Despite being plastered to his skull, his hair still tried to stick out everywhere. "Shouldn't you be getting knocked from a broom about now?"
"Are you kidding? Have you looked outside?" Harry shivered - his lips were turning blue - and Snape waved him in. A couple of flicks of his wand, the fireplace roared, and Potter was suddenly dry.
"I avoid looking outside whenever possible. You ought to know that by now."
"There's a hurricane going on, or something. Madam Hooch made us give it up - wind's up to about ninety miles an hour."
"Were any of your team injured?" Snape regretted it immediately.
Potter stared at him, openly astonished. "Since when have you cared if the Gryffindor team's okay or not?"
"The more of you on the sidelines, the better Slytherin's chances for the cup," he covered quickly. Harry didn't look hurt. If anything, he looked annoyed that he hadn't been allowed to risk his life for a silly game.
"You're so altruistic," the brat muttered dryly. He flopped down in his miserable chair. When did it become his chair? His lips were still blue and shivering. Snape growled and summoned his cloak to drop over Potter's shoulders. Harry wrapped it tight around himself, paused for a moment, and tightened it more. "Thanks," he mumbled.
"None needed. It reflects badly when students freeze to death in my office."
"And here I thought you cared." Harry pulled off his glasses to wipe them on his robe. "What took you so long? I was out there for, like, five minutes."
"It didn't occur to you to unlock the door?"
"I tried. Alohomora didn't work."
"Of course not, you daft--" it struck him hard that he'd assumed he'd given Potter the full spell. "Surely in all your sneaking and scheming you've come across other unlocking charms."
"That's Hermione's department."
"Oh, yes, Miss Granger does all the work while you and Mister Weasley take all the credit. I suppose she was the one who stole my boomslang skin?"
Harry glared. "No! She'd never do anything like that!" he yelled too quickly.
Severus rolled his eyes. "You really are a terrible liar, Mister Potter. I expect that's a Gryffindor trait." Somehow, he couldn't quite muster the outrage to penalize one of Harry's friends five years after the fact. This is quite unlike you, Severus. One might almost suspect you've developed a blind spot for the insufferable urchin. "What are you doing here, anyway? Shouldn't you be waiting for the wind to stop?"
"Eh. I told them I've got detention again tonight and I have to get it sorted since there's no practise right now. They wanted to know what I did to get stuck with you over holidays."
"Hmm. I'm curious as to what you said, I have to admit." Severus folded his arms and wondered vaguely when he'd started having regular civil conversations with those subhuman life forms called "students". One of them, anyway.
"I just told them I'm coming down for my daily rogering."
Snape swallowed and tried to shout at the same time and only succeeded in keeling over, choking. His heart rate had tripled. The cavity in his cranium was full of water; it sloshed. Harry leapt up and started pounding him on the back. He was situated in his chair and breathing hard before he managed to bellow, "YOU WHAT?"
Potter held up his hands. "I'm kidding! It was a joke! I told them I came down here to ask you something Friday and I knocked over a shelf and you're making me scrub down your office! I'm sorry, I thought you'd laugh." A small hand rest on his shoulder. "I'm sorry. Can I get you anything? Do you need a drink?"
Snape's breathing finally slowed down, broken now and then by a slight wheeze. He looked up with watery eyes to find Potter staring at him with concern. A bit of a pink lower lip was caught between his teeth. Liquid rather unlike what the idiot brat meant came, unwanted, to mind. "I ought to make you scrub down my office for that!" A sudden coughing fit wracked him and Harry rubbed his back gently. "You stupid, stupid boy. Don't you know what would happen to you if--"
"I'd be expelled, and you'd be sacked." He said it so calmly. Severus heard him move behind the chair. Harry pulled him into a sitting position. A long mess of stringy hair was gathered from around his shoulders so it hung down his back. Those small hands that had pushed the nightmares away started rubbing out the extreme tension in his shoulders. Snape accidentally gave a small, approving groan.
"I'm sorry," Harry murmured. "I didn't think."
"No, you certainly didn't. Foolish, obnoxious little brat! Don't you realise how much you need to be exactly where you are?"
"Giving you a shoulder rub?"
"Ye--no! At Hogwarts!" He was getting far, far too relaxed in the boy's presence. That could be dangerous. Severus hadn't even been properly relaxed around Albus or Emily since Voldemort's return to power. He tipped his head back to glower at the cretin. "You are both the most pivotal wizard alive at this moment, and the most endangered. Someone has to look out for your safety."
Potter blinked at him. "Are you worried about me, Professor, or the Heir of Gryffindor?"
Severus pursed his lips. He could say one of two things: the obvious, or the truth. Much to his surprise he took the second option. "I'm Head of Slytherin, Potter. I couldn't give a damn about the Heir of Gryffindor."
It probably should have shocked him when those pink lips touched his. It probably shouldn't have when he leaned into the soft affection he so craved. Something like calm draped over him for the entire time Harry lingered there, gently pulling Snape's thin lower lip into his mouth, fingers beneath his chin and cradling his neck. This 'one week' idea hasn't been your most effective, Severus. It didn't bother him as much as he wanted it to. A sharp cry went through his soul when Potter pulled back.
"I hate you. Greasy bastard."
"Then we're even. Obnoxious brat."
Severus forced himself to look away from the gentle gaze. Something deep within it left a chunk of fire or a chunk of ice in his innards. It was difficult to tell which; much like stepping into an overly hot bath, the sensations it sent screaming through him were too powerful to discern immediately. They were followed with an appropriate shiver as Harry started rubbing his neck again. Potter asked quietly, "Do you need help with anything right now?"
"You're more than welcome to clean my office. In fact, it may look suspicious if you don't."
Harry chuckled. "Can't promise it won't look worse after I'm finished."
"You realise I was joking, don't you?"
"Severus Snape making a joke? Quick, check the prophecy! That has to be in there somewhere."
Snape smiled crookedly to himself. "Ten points, Mister Potter. How you made that excuse reconcile with having to bring your book is something I'd quite like to know."
"I said you're making me brew my own cleaning supplies." A warm chin tentatively pressed the top of his head. Severus didn't jerk away. The odd calm rushed him again when Harry's head settled there. "You really are an arsehole, y'know."
"It's a skill I've aspired to perfect."
Potter was silent. His hands still worked at the gradually slipping rigidity in Snape's muscles. After a long time he said, "I'm scared."
Severus looked at the sword. It still lay across the front of his desk. He'd not bothered to move it. In Potter's voice he heard an echo of himself, "Don't leave me."
"As am I," he murmured. Never.
It was a promise he'd do his damnedest to keep.
Honestly. The brat could have slept through a Death Eater siege on the school. "Wake up, Potter." Severus shook him gently. The office was, he supposed, in somewhat better condition. It was hard to tell with all the necessary clutter. Sometime between arguing about the Quidditch cup over lunch, and four hours later when Severus finally looked up from the Prophet, the brat had spread out Snape's cloak and curled up. A grimy toothbrush was still clutched in his hand. "Harry, wake up."
"M'not 'sleep." He hid his face in the cloak.
"Ten points, Potter."
A soft mutter; Harry shifted. Severus frowned.
"Fifty points, Mister Potter."
Snape growled to himself. "Two hundred points from Gryffindor!"
"Go stuff y'self, y'great greasy tit." A soft, final noise came from the prone figure. Severus raised an eyebrow.
Seconds later, five liters of icy distilled water came crashing down on Potter's head. He sat bolt upright, spluttering and wide-eyed.
"Nice to see you've decided to join us, Mister Potter."
"What the Hell did you do that for?"
"Would you have preferred an icing charm?"
"You trying cleaning up your office once in a while and see how tired you get." Potter folded his arms and sulked. Snape took some small pity on the brat and dried him off.
"I have. Why do you think I let you do it?" The glare he received made Severus wonder if he was rubbing off on the insolent wretch.
"Greasy sodding bastard."
"Obnoxious slothful brat."
"I'm not slothful! I'm the one who's been working his arse off all day!"
"And a lovely arse it is." Snape smirked wickedly when Potter turned crimson. "It's nearly time for dinner, the storm is still raging, and I have something to show you."
Potter got slowly to his feet and hung up the cloak. "How d'you know about the storm?"
"I don't, but none of your teammates have come looking for you. However, they may have all come to their senses and decided that nine hours of practise a day is excessive when they should be doing their homework. They might be surprised to see their mighty captain asleep on the Potions master's floor."
"Beats showing them what else I've done on the Potions master's floor," Harry muttered. Severus gave him a cool look. "What d'you want to show me? And it had better not be your etchings."
"If you recall, Mister Potter," Snape said, licking his thumb and flipping through parchments on the desk, "you've already seen my etchings. You were certainly eager for a second glimpse a few days ago."
"Yeah, well..." Potter shifted nervously. "That was a few days ago." He hurried to the desk, head down, cheeks a bit pink. Snape glanced at him, slightly puzzled but determined not to let it show. He wouldn't acknowledge the jellylike sensation in his joints.
"What were you going to show me?" Harry asked.
"This." Severus handed over a page of neat, angular writing. The first notes had been done in Latin, and he'd spent a while translating and transcribing for Harry's sake. Severus watched him intently while Potter gnawed the inside of his lip. He only wanted a second opinion, and Potter was the most convenient person. Albus would be next, of course, but he wanted to see if everything was as clear as he'd thought.
The Prophet had regurgitated a few more particles of information: nothing definite, but he'd almost definitely narrowed it down to Hogwarts. No place else seemed to have the same sort of subtle pattern of happenstances. London was the only other real possibility, but most of those were coincidence - Quernus closing shop was hardly incriminating to the lot of them - or too glaring. He almost jumped when Harry moved a bit closer and absently ran his fingers over Severus' back.
"I don't think Edinburgh should be on here."
"There aren't enough things going on. Look." Harry pointed at the parchment. "They've had one instance of the Dark Mark, but that was a murder. The only other thing you've mentioned is something about mossroot fern. Seems pretty stupid to attack a city just because that Nott guy lives there and he grows the stuff." He looked up. "You've probably thought of all this. Am I being too obvious?"
Severus shook his head. "Not at all, go on."
Harry thought for a moment. "Most of the stuff seems to be around London and Hogsmeade."
"Care to share any thoughts?"
"If you were a Dark Lord, which one would you attack?"
Harry fidgeted. "Here."
"I'm here." He did have a point, but a mutable one.
"All of this started before you attempted your impression of a shish kebab, and while Voldemort likely suspects what you are he shouldn't have any sort of proof. There's also the possibility that you'll be sent to London, perhaps in the midst of a battle."
The boy tensed. Severus paused. Gingerly, he put an arm around Harry's shoulders. They were more muscular than his own, and about the same width despite their glaring difference in height. That was what nine hours on a broom every day did. Potter rest his cheek against Snape's shoulder.
"Can we just call that plan 'B'?"
Severus froze for an instant. What Emily had said on Sunday taunted him. Perhaps you are plan 'B', Mister Potter. He didn't like to think it, didn't want to think about it, but neither did he want it to go away. It had been too long since he'd felt like someone understood a little of what his Hellish existence was like. "Let's not declare anything that we don't absolutely know. Voldemort's actions have always pointed to Hogwarts being his ultimate goal. He's had absolutely no reason to change those plans, it would be irrational to think otherwise, and for the moment it's the safest place to be."
Potter thought for a moment. "Yeah. I can handle that." The impossible whelp dropped the parchment on the desk and wrapped both arms around Severus' thin chest. His cheek rested not far from where Severus' heart sped up erratically. "I shouldn't have been a Gryffindor."
Severus laced his fingers through hair like rabbit fur. "Why not?"
"I'm still scared. Gryffindors are supposed to be brave."
"Bravery and fear are not mutually exclusive." Severus waited for a reply; none came. "Where else would you have gone? Hufflepuff?"
Harry shook his head. In a tiny, shameful whisper, he said, "Slytherin."
"Mister Potter, might I remind you that I am a Slytherin?" Snape's voice was low and soft, and perhaps a little bit teasing. "The Sorting Hat put you where you were meant to go."
"Um... it tried to put me in Slytherin. Y'know, first."
"Why didn't it?"
"I asked it not to." He tried to pull away. Severus wouldn't release him. Harry didn't struggle, didn't return.
"Potter, I want you to listen to me for a minute." He waited for protest; none came. "A very long time ago someone said to me that we're defined by our choices, not by what has been forced upon us. You were defined as a Gryffindor the moment you had the courage to speak up for yourself." And that, my dear Severus, is why you never stood a chance. "You wouldn't have made a terribly good Slytherin." Harry wouldn't meet his eyes.
"Why not?" he asked, obviously unconvinced.
"To start, I wouldn't have let you survive a day in my House with some of the stunts you've pulled. I mean, really, allowing a student an Invisibility Cloak? I would have cast so many warder spells you couldn't have gone to class without setting off an alarm."
Potter chuckled softly. "I thought Slytherins were supposed to break rules."
"Bend, yes. Rewrite, whenever possible. Break... where's the cunning in simply doing what you're told you shouldn't? That's what courage is for."
A smile flickered across Harry's face. "Professor Dumbledore told you that thing about being defined by choices, didn't he?"
Snape's eyebrow twitched. "It is the sort of thing he spouts off, isn't it?"
Potter shook his head. "No. I mean, yes, but he said something sort of like that to me at the end of second year. Right after I got out of the Chamber of Secrets."
"You don't believe him?"
Harry glanced up for a moment. His fists tightened on the back of Severus' robe. "I don't know."
Severus pushed him out at arm's length. The fingers clutching his robe loosened perhaps more easily than they should have. "What will it take to convince you?"
Potter's went rigid, like he'd just been given the mother of all pop quizzes. He stood quietly for a moment, eyes flickering slightly and one narrowing in thought. "Time, I suppose."
"Nothing else? Just time?"
He shrugged. "Don't know. It'd help if I knew what was going on."
Snape smirked. "That, Mister Potter, is what I am for. Perhaps," he traced the brat's hairline with a single finger, "between Slytherin cunning and Gryffindork stupidity we can force that 'Voldemort' fellow to rethink his plans?" Damn you, Albus. Can't you be wrong for once?
The surprised flutter of Harry's eyelids was quickly replaced with a subtle relaxation from his forehead down to the muscles beneath Severus' hands. "Does that mean I've got more detention?"
"If you're willing to earn it."
Potter arched an eyebrow until his fringe hid it completely. "Oh, brilliant, earn it. What am I going to have to do? Tip my cauldron over Malfoy's head?"
"I can certainly guarantee that would earn you a detention. Several, in fact. However, should you do that I may have to turn you over to Mister Filch."
Harry's exaggerated look of disgust made Snape suppress another smirk. He loosened a hand and looked at his watch. "Bloody Hell, it's five to six. You need to get to supper."
"You're not coming?" Harry almost looked hurt.
"Can you think of anything more suspicious than the two of us arriving together for supper? It's bad enough you've spent ten hours in my office. Perhaps I ought to hex you to make the show more convincing." He started to draw his wand.
"Uh, no, thanks." Potter held up his hands. "If anyone asks I'll tell them you fed me one of Neville's potions."
"Which would leave me in the difficult position of how I managed to raise you from the dead."
Harry snorted. "I'll think of something."
"I would hope so. A neuron is a terrible thing to waste."
Potter gave him a look that clearly said "ha-ha-very-funny" and held up two fingers.
"See? You're starting to learn simple gestures. You may even learn to feed yourself."
"I'll feed you, y'greasy bastard." He suddenly turned red again. Severus widened his eyes in mock prudery.
"I think that's another ten points for shameless innuendo."
"Shut up." If only his friends could hear him. I don't think I could look a student in the eye ever again. Potter went up on his toes and pressed his mouth to Severus'. Severus returned the kiss - there was no question of thought anymore, it was simply the right thing to do. A low, slightly husky whisper filled his ear, "And, no, I wouldn't mind another look at your etchings."
Before Severus could respond with scathe or dissent or mind-numbing arousal, Potter grabbed the broom he'd stood by the door and ran out. Snape was left standing behind his desk with only an unusually fluttery heart and the watch ticking in his hand. Slowly, he closed it and slipped it into his pocket.
The Gryffindor team kept glaring at him. Potter motioned wildly, back to the staff table, apparently describing the array of horrors to which he'd been subjected during his extended detention. Minerva had perched on the long bench after walking near and screeching to a halt. She looked up, caught sight of Severus watching, and gave him a "how-could-you-do-that-to-a-student?" glower. It was rather like the look he expected should it ever slip what he'd actually done to the student in question.
Snape stabbed a small tomato and wrenched it from its thin shroud of poppy seed dressing. He gnawed it slowly. Tart slime, pregnant with tiny seeds, oozed over his tongue. It made an unpleasant contrast to the hard poppy seeds. Still, he ate slowly, letting the foul combination punish him. You're not even fighting anymore, Severus. Pathetic, ugly, stained, wanton, filthy old man. He couldn't quite make himself feel it, though. Some of the little brat's innocence seemed to be wearing off on him - his honest advances had almost driven Snape to the point of... thinking he might deserve them.
"Could you pass the salt, please, Severus?"
He raised an eyebrow at Arcadia and shoved the little pewter pot her way along with a tight-lipped glare. Her perpetually startled brown eyes went rounder and she quickly started sprinkling minute spoonfuls of salt on her lemon custard. It took her a minute to notice. "Oops, ha, ha. I could stand to drop a stone anyway."
"Only a stone?" he muttered. She shrank from him, round face flushing. Everything about Penny was round, from her cheeks to her hands to her plump body. It was like she'd covered herself in an adipose shell to hide from the Dark Arts she was supposed to be battling. One would think that, after all these years, Albus would trust me enough to know I'm not going to talk!
He ate in silence. Emily sat at the other end of the table, and she always chattered like a magpie at Rolanda. At the moment, she was tugging on a deranged curl and looking at it with snide disbelief. Sometimes he wondered how she'd ended up in Slytherin in the first place. God forbid she ever become Head of House. The possibility preyed on his mind, and once again Severus reminded himself that nothing and nobody was worth subjecting the school to that horror.
He was busy hacking his gammon to death when the pain struck. Snape dropped his fork. Subtly, he let his burning left arm slide into his lap. Severus hoped the drops of sweat breaking out on his forehead weren't too obvious. Something touched his trembling upper arm. "Are you okay?"
"Fine, Professor Arcadia." Black spots were starting to weave in front of his eyes. Someone shouted. He barely glanced up and saw the Gryffindor Quidditch team clustered around Harry; the boy leaned on his elbow, face contorted, back rising and jerking far too much. One of them said something, and he shook his head, grinding his forehead into his palm. Albus came up behind the brat. He touched his shaking back, muttered, and Harry unsteadily stood up. For a moment the blue eyes landed on Severus and their sternness told him all he needed to do.
Steadying himself on his good right arm, Snape pushed himself back from the table. He considered going to the headmaster's office first. Are you that starved for another taste of the Cruciatus Curse already? He couldn't see beyond a few hazy feet as he staggered back to his room. Nobody followed him; even the Slytherins were too preoccupied with Potter. All of the Slytherins. Breathe in, Severus. Breathe out. He'll be okay. Albus will get him sorted.
The mask felt like ice. Shards of frost lanced through his arms as he wrapped it tightly in his hooded cloak. Only when the little bundle was tucked under his everyday cloak did he have the sense to push up his sleeve. The Mark stood out in sheathed pus. Severus nearly lost his dinner when he saw the skin bleed from sallow to red and suddenly back to puffy sallow.
Blindly, groping by the shapes of the bottles, he found his own variation of Painkilling Potion: a bitter, concentrated, morphine-saturated gel. If swallowed in any excessive amount it would kill. It had an advantage over traditional Painkilling Potion, though. It could be used topically. With unsteady fingers he rubbed far too much into his arm. It numbed the Dark Mark enough for him to walk.
He didn't remember getting to the Forbidden Forest, but he Apparated into a dim, dust-crusted room in the old Riddle house. Cold rain soaked through his clothes and dripped from his icy hair. His bare hands were blue. He stuck them under his arms.
At least twenty others were there. The firelight flickered on their masks, cast long shadows over the rotting Persian rug. Wormtail hunched just next to the fire. No other Death Eaters were that short, or that plump, or had silver hands that looked molten and glowing in the light. He was shaking.
"You've arrived," hissed a soft voice from the cracked leather armchair before the fire.
"Yes, My Lord." Snape bowed his head. Even if the Dark Lord couldn't see it, his followers did. He glanced around as best he could. Several of them were wobbly. Herbert Goyle leaned heavily against the wall. He looked like an injured gorilla.
"Why so long?" Voldemort's silken, high-pitched voice reached out delicate fingers of sound to caress him. It felt like feathers. Severus dreaded to think of its effect if he'd not had the potion.
"We were in the middle of supper, My Lord. It would have looked suspicious to leave suddenly."
Abdominal muscles turning to lead, Snape gathered himself and strode to stand in front of the chair. Voldemort sat, one leg crossed over the other, leaning on his elbows with his flat chin on his fingertips.
Severus did as he would have anyway, bringing the hem of the Dark Lord's surprisingly coarse linen robe to his lipless mask and resting his right hand on a skeletal knee. The fabric seemed to shift between blood and black. Its contrast to dead skin made Severus dizzy.
"My Lord." Snape braced himself for the inevitable agony. Instead, spindly fingers pushed back the hood of his cloak and tenderly stroked his hair.
"Your grandfather would have been proud of you."
"Thank you, My Lord." Severus trembled. Any Death Eater did, this close to his destruction. I'm so sorry, Gran. I'm so, so sorry.
"You look very much like him, you know, although you have your grandmother's hair. And her eyes. Curtus had two different coloured eyes, you know, quite unusual." The skeletal hand came to rest on the back of his neck. All around, Snape heard the unsure breaths of the rest of the Death Eaters, felt Pettigrew's jellylike presence close behind him. The rug felt like decaying flesh under his knees. Voldemort tipped Severus' head up; the Dark Lord smiled. "My faithful servant." The sweet voice concealed knives.
"I am, My Lord."
The red eyes closed in a parody of joy. Severus winced as long, bony fingers tightened around the back of his neck. He squeezed his eyes shut and in a moment felt his mask lift. A feathery, forked tongue darted over his skin. It paused at his lips. Too soon it brushed his ear. "Cunning," Voldemort whispered too low for the others to hear. "We should both be grateful no doubts linger as to your loyalties."
A soft, amused hiss constricted around him. Snape remained calm, held steady. He found Voldemort studying him with the barest hint of a smile. The utter stillness of his flesh, the fixed gaze of serpentine pupils, the hidden perfect tension of his wasted body made Severus wonder when the cobra would strike - and if he would have the time to duck.
"I charge you with protecting the Heir of Gryffindor. You already have his trust, or should in your position. Distract him. Keep him safe. Make him soft so I might defeat him that much more easily."
Severus couldn't play dumb. Someone, possibly Walden with his Ministry status, had learned about Harry and leaked everything. "Yes, My Lord." Something crumbled in his soul.
"Severus?" The tender fingers were cold against his face.
"Yes, My Lord?"
Voldemort drew his wand. "This is for not telling me sooner."
The bolt ripped his veins and writhed out through every nerve in his long body. Severus fought it, he fought it as hard as he could, kneeling and shaking and foaming at the nose and mouth and eyes - oh, god, my eyes! My eyes! - and going blind in a flood of red until the curse melted his brain and he screamed. "AVIA! AVIA! ERIPI! AMABO!"
For an instant he thought he saw her on the edge of sanity. She held out her hand. He tried desperately to reach it. Just a little closer, just a little closer, just a finger's brush closer--
The world went black.
Latin Lexicon For Latin Lovers
Eripi: save, rescue - imperative tense (i.e., "save me")
Amabo: please (one of many ways to say it)
Special thanks to Sarah who unwittingly inspired Gryffindor's loss of two hundred points! *evil grin*
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