A fire popping nearby woke Snape. His arm jerked, still reliving his flight through the forest.
"I've been far kinder to you than you deserve," came the slow voice of Draco Malfoy.
Snape opened his eyes and stared up at the high peaked roof which was topped with dormers in all four directions. Foggy daylight glared through them into the darkened interior. The rough beams criss-crossing below this were thinned by rot, propped on contrastingly stout stone walls. The place was small, and unfamiliar.
Snape fixed his eyes on Draco and waited. The young man's hair had grown out and it covered half of his smooth face.
Draco sat forward in a velvet chair, the only furniture in the room, and said, "I considered not letting you wake up at all."
Snape's shoulder began to throb from pressing on the flagstone floor. He shifted to relieve it, resisting checking if all the buttons on his robe were intact. It would not matter anyhow. And no sense in having too much hope.
Draco sat back and picked up a tumbler full of red liquid. "So, you finally met with Potter's disapproval."
"I have always had that," Snape grunted, laughing lightly.
"You think this funny?"
Draco gulped the rest of his drink and set the tumbler carefully aside before swinging to his feet. His tight black leggings accentuated his pacing. "The Dark Lord will still defeat him. Exemplary wand or not." He stopped, facing the wall. Without warning, he struck out with a Blasting Curse, sending forth stone shards and mortar dust. He wiped his face as he turned. "That was my wand and I want it back." He stepped over to Snape, polished boots flashing. "And you're going to help me get it."
Snape rolled flat to better look up at him. He made a face of disbelief. "It is laughable if you believe I have power of any kind, Mr. Malfoy. And . . . Potter is going to win this, I'm afraid."
With a jerk, Draco pointed his wand at the ceiling, then after a long pause, brought it around in a Cruciatus. Agony spiked through Snape's core, making his legs thrash. It shut off long seconds later. He rolled onto his side in a protective pose, even though the weak curse had surprised him more than harmed him.
Draco strode away and stopped with his back to Snape. "If you won't help me then you are only good to me for one thing, and that is getting me back in favor with the Dark Lord . . ." He spun, wand extended. " . . . who will win this. No upstart band of Mudbloods can possibly defeat him." He strode to the door, grabbed up a broomstick, and slipped outside.
Snape thought of Harry's unchecked power and muttered to himself, "That upstart band is shortly going to have bigger problems than the Dark Lord."
The fire popped again, sending glowing coal chips onto his robes. Snape raised himself up to brush off the sizzling cinders and sat with his back pressed against the wonderfully warm mantel. From this angle it was apparent that Draco had taken up residence in an abandoned gatehouse. Snape ran his hand down his robe front feeling for each button, then he rested his head on his knees.
A draft of air preceded Draco returning minutes later, face flush. "I sent a message to my Lord. I'm certain he would like to have a word with you and will not keep us waiting." Draco returned to pacing.
"See. There," Snape said, recklessly amusing himself while he waited for fate to descend. "Your whole attitude is wrong. No wonder high-bred families always got on so poorly with the Dark Lord. Will not keep us waiting," he mimicked. "You exist at the Dark Lord's convenience, at his whim. There is no concept of him keeping anyone waiting."
Draco had stopped to stare at him, so Snape went on. "You are free to pass along your tyrannical attitude to others to salve your ego, but you are nothing but a villein, a slave, in reality. And by not understanding that, you and your father have trouble garnering anything but ire from our lord. You are nothing, Draco. No, you are worse than nothing. I am nothing. You are a pawn, an empty vessel, clinging to notions of self-aggrandizement."
Draco struck out again with a curse, making Snape's arms spasmodically clutch his shins. It contained even less force than the last, but it lasted longer, long enough that Snape began grinding his teeth together.
When he caught his breath, Snape asked, "And that changed what?"
Draco's face contorted, but whatever he was going to say was interrupted by the door smashing open and dark figures swooping in and landing, wands extended, forming a crowded arc of Death Eaters. Draco jerked back a step, then stuck his chest out and stepped forward again.
For some reason, the Death Eaters' presence made Snape think of Candide. He winced; it was far better to have nothing and no one to care about. The pain of thinking about anyone but himself tore at him worse than Draco's substandard Cruciatus Curse.
The arc parted to let a figure stride through. Voldemort pulled the hood of his cloak back and raised his wand at Snape. He was as horrific a sight as ever. "Well. You please no master, do you, Severus?"
"I was just discussing that very point with Mr. Malfoy here," Snape said, because Draco had started inching away through the ranks.
Voldemort hooked a finger and Draco was tugged magically back into the circle and dropped on his knees.
"I captured him for you," Draco said, arm waving, voice high pitched.
Voldemort turned his attention from Snape. "And . . . ? You expect something in return, do you?"
Draco's mouth fell open and he trembled for a instant before putting his forehead on the floor. He stuttered out, "Of course not, my lord. I am humbled to be in your service."
Voldemort stepped by him and stood before Snape, contemplating him. Inside, Snape felt his will giving way to defeat, and recent hope made it taste as bitter as ever.
"You are an unexpected prize, Severus. I want to use you well. You will get us into that blasted protected House of Black, where we will end this once and for all." He spun away. "Give him a quill and a parchment."
Several figures scrambled through their robe pockets and one scuttled over fastest and set a creased notecard and Spellotaped Neverout quill on the floor beside Snape's foot. Snape recognized Pettigrew's movements and especially the one paw like hand he used. The other he kept tucked inside his robes. Snape took up the card and stared at the texture of it, hoary looking in the low firelight. He was a secret keeper, but he had used Dumbledore's old invitation because it pained him too much to use such a power himself. He was even more pained now contemplating it again.
"He is not doing it, my Lord," one of the figures said.
"I did not expect him to do it willingly." He turned to Snape and spoke silkily. "After all, he lost everything to a weak secret keeper. Didn't you, Severus?"
Before he raised his eyes, Snape Occluded his mind, pulled a steel trap down around it, terrified that Voldemort may see the glimmer of a future, of a pathetic attempt at caring. "Your power with words is under-appreciated," Snape stated dryly.
Voldemort snorted through his nose. "Flattery! My. But I expect obedience whether you are someone else's dog now or nothing but a stray mongrel." After a moment, he gave a hiss. The closest Death Eaters shuddered as a soft brushing of silken scales rubbing on stone preceded Nagini slipping through the circle. The tubes of her body undulated, propelling her straight at Snape. She paused right before him, tongue flicking out between her daintily scaled jaws. Her head bobbed as she stopped, but her coils kept slipping, seething over the floor.
Voldemort hissed to her and she rose up, baring her teeth.
"You have a clear choice, Severus," Voldemort said, drawing out the Ss in his name.
Calmly, determined to retain something, if only pride in the face of defeat, he said, "I'll write the note and you'll kill me anyway."
Voldemort spread his hands and tipped his nose-less face to the side. "You die either way, so what does it matter? But you don't have to die. You are still mine."
Voldemort reached out a hand and Snape jerked his arm as his Mark burned. The other Death Eaters shuffled their feet or twisted where they stood.
"You are correct in that nothing matters," Snape said, putting the quill to the parchment. "But not for reasons you would understand." He lifted the quill and stared at the message he had written: You are already dead, Tom Riddle.
The notecard was sucked out of Snape's hand. Voldemort held it up to read it. His face twitched. He hissed, a sound like water dripping into an empty cauldron. Nagini's muscles heaved back and snapped forward. Snape put his foot up to block her, and she latched onto his boot, twisting his foot, pressing it toward his face so he had a close look into her ridged maw.
Snape twisted, tossing his foot to the side and kicking out at her. Voldemort raised his wand, but hesitated as Snape ducked low behind the snake's contorting coils.
The next moment, an upward breeze lifted everything, robes, and ash, and the whole upper half of the gatehouse vanished above them. Figures descended to fill the slate sky, forming a rough circle that echoed the circle within. Spells shot upward and exploded. A lone figure flew in close, hovering where the roof peak had been. Ten spells converged on the figure and ten Counters burst from the wand and the attackers collapsed.
With Voldemort distracted, Snape braced his hands and threw his captive leg to the side and brought his other booted foot down hard on her tail. But Nagini held her grip.
More spells were flying, more Death Eaters were falling, all from one wand. Voldemort grabbed up Draco by the throat and took something from his hand, then rushed toward Snape, eyes like furious coals. Death Eaters followed in a ring, protecting him as he bent to lay a hand lovingly on the scaly cold body.
The next second Snape was jerked by his boot and the world spun away.
They landed in total darkness. Snape shook his captive boot off and crawled blindly until he struck a stone wall. The place smelled of damp and the floor was icy. He tried to Disapparate, but was knocked flat by a Barrier.
As he pushed to a sitting position, a light came up, the glow of Voldemort's wand. Snape could hear his old master's hissing breath as he too pushed himself up. A soft scrapping sounded as Nagini shifted on the gritty floor to bump her master's legs.
Voldemort's face came into the light. "Your death has been delayed far too long, Severus."
Snape rested a shoulder against the wall. He had to resist laughing at his own predicament, imagined it as an old memory in a Pensieve. He had no sense of caution left. "You would never do me the favor of a quick death. Too kind for you."
The blue light moved farther from Voldemort's flattened visage as he pointed the glowing tip at Snape. A thick loop of Nagini's body flopped over and the pinpoint wand light wavered. Faint hissing sounded.
"She is hurt," Voldemort said. The wand light moved farther away as Voldemort bent over the seething coils, petting the snake. "Severus, you must help her."
"Me?" Snape blurted, a hysterical laugh choking his throat.
The wand came up brighter, illuminating half the cellar. Nagini contorted in a desperate manner now. In the light, Snape saw that his sock was torn and bloodied and his foot was swelling. Dean Thomas' heavy boot had not saved him.
"Hurry," Voldemort said pointing his wand at him. "I do not know how to heal and you do. I have seen it."
Snape crawled closer to kneel beside the snake. "I'll need your wand," he said calmly, meeting the red eyes expectantly. He had passed through into that blissful terrorized calm and had to resist smiling.
Voldemort held out his wand. "Hurry, she must not die."
Snape took up the wand, which had a handle as cold as one left abandoned on the ground, and looked over the creature. He knew in detail about snakes from dissecting them for potion ingredients. This one seemed unable to breathe properly. Snape aimed a Balloon Charm, then a Knitting Charm at the middle right side near where he estimated the trachea connected to the larger right lung. The contortions stilled. Snape rocked back on his heels. The wand flew from his hand before his exhausted brain could think what to do next with it.
"You always had ideas, Severus," Voldemort said, stroking Nagini just behind the head. "That was your downfall. Well, that and believing in something as pathetic as love."
Snape closed his eyes at the throbbing in his foot, wishing himself elsewhere to die. Keeping his head down, he opened his eyes and wondered where the Portkey had gone. This was the Malfoy cellar he was certain, and returning to the heat of battle would be preferable to this.
"Yes, my Nagini, my precious Nagini. We will take you somewhere safe." Voldemort cradled her broad head on his breast. Nagini responded to this attention, coiling up beside him.
The swelling and prickling numbness from her poison was spreading up Snape's shin. He touched the swelling with his hand, then touched his robe buttons, but there would be no hope for that, he had two minutes, perhaps.
Nagini looped her long body and curled tighter, as if to prepare for sleep. Snape watched her with unfocused eyes, watched as her tail slid around, crooked, dragging the lifeless last foot of it along behind. Holding his breath, Snape waited.
"Yes, we will go somewhere safe for a very long time. Just as soon as I reward this servant with a quick death." One-handed, Voldemort adjusted the grip on this wand.
Nagini looped her body again and the next curl rolled and slapped the floor, sliding right by Snape's knees. Without so much as a twitch of warning, Snape slapped his hand down on the broken bend in Nagini's tail. An airy hiss sounded and a scream as great jaws latched onto Voldemort's face.
Voldemort and the snake thrashed. Voldemort tried to pry his fingers under the snake's teeth, beat on her, but still she held on, coils winding and unwinding over legs and arms.
It wasn't until Voldemort dropped still that Nagini fell from his face to sweep over his chest, tongue frantically tasting his face.
"Traitor . . ." Voldemort hissed. "You were always a traitor." He put a hand up to feel where blood leeched from the rows of punctures in his face. His voice grew raspy. "Severus, my servant, in my pocket. Quickly. I cannot start again. I cannot die."
Snape moved, but Nagini hissed at him.
"No, Nagini." Voldemort's voice slurred as he spoke.
Snape felt in Voldemort's nearest pocket and pulled out three potion bottles. He was no longer the Dark Lord's brewer and so did not know the bottle shapes by sight.
"Hurry, Severusssss . . ."
Snape backed away from Nagini's head, even though her attention was entirely on her master. He popped the cork out of the first bottle and smelled hemlock and flint. The next smelled of betony and something like ink and it sparkled with silvery debris.
Voldemort's wand fell to the floor as he reached a trembling hand toward Snape.
Snape met Voldemort's glowing eyes and said, "It's true that Dumbledore would save you were he in my place, ever hopeful you will use yet another chance to redeem yourself. But I am not he. Nor is there any such thing as redemption."
Snape's Mark burned hot, then cold. With one last hiss from his lipless mouth, Voldemort's arm fell limp across Nagini's neck and the pain in Snape's Mark faded entirely. Snape froze in fascination, watching Nagini's tongue following the outline of Voldemort's bloody jaw until the throbbing in his leg grew too much to ignore. Tipping his head back, he swallowed the entire bottle of potion.
Snape's stomach rebelled at the vile bitterness but he kept swallowing to keep it down. A wash of cool moved through his limbs and the ache in his leg eased.
Voldemort's wand had rolled to the wall. Moving with slow patience, Snape reached a hand out for it, grasped it, then pulled it slowly back to him. Nagini ignored him, choosing instead to pile herself on what was left of the heat of Voldemort's body.
Snape tried to stand, but his leg rebelled. It would need more time to recover. He crab-crawled back to the corner of the cellar wall, and held the wand so he could monitor Nagini and rested his forehead on his shaking hand.
Again, Snape re-illuminated the wand and stared, hungry to believe to his core in the sight before him. The bands around his heart tightened painfully as his better sense mocked him with doubt. But Voldemort's pale limbs did not so much as twitch, and Nagini appeared to be asleep.
Footsteps tapped down the stairs and Draco emerged, stopped, and stared. "What happened?" he asked. Snape could hear the young man swallow as his Adam's apple bobbed.
"His pet killed him."
Draco's mouth barely made a sound as he said, "The Dark Lord is dead?"
Snape thought he would try again to stand. He waved his discarded boot over, examined the holes in it, and tried to slip it on, but his foot was still too swollen.
"The Dark Lord is dead?" Draco demanded, voice rising an octave.
"Hard to imagine, I'll admit," Snape said, using a Distention Curse on the boot. The wand cursed things well. "If I were you, Mr. Malfoy, I would run as far away from here as you can manage. Do not look back."
Draco's jaw worked. "Potter, you mean."
"I sacrificed more for you than you know." Snape paused in trying to wedge his foot into the formless leather. He stared at the young man to be certain he had his attention. "Run, Draco. Now."
The doors in the room above banged open. Snape Fetched the Portkey off of Voldemort and threw it at Draco, who spun away just as Ginny and Neville piled down the narrow staircase.
They stopped in exactly the same spot Draco had.
"Is he?" Ginny asked.
With the added light from their wands it was nearly daylight. Snape pushed to his feet with the help of the wall. When Ginny prodded Voldemort's foot with her toe, Nagini struck out, but fell short. The distinctive ring of Damascus steel sounded as she pulled Gryfindor's Sword from the scabbard. "Come here, you slimy thing," she taunted, waving the tip of the sword in front of Nagini, who feinted at it, but her coils began to slide off her master and she flowed with the momentum and followed the lure.
"Snakes aren't actually slimy," Neville pointed out.
"Neville," Ginny complained, then grunted as she took a swipe at the creature, slicing into its body, which made it writhe and hiss and strike repeatedly as it shed blood.
"Let me help." Neville waved a Net Charm and tightened it twice. He put his arms around Ginny and grabbed the hilt as well.
"I don't need that much help, Neville. And don't let Harry catch you this close."
"Hurry up and swing then," Neville said.
The sword flashed as it arced back and swung forward, lopping clean through Nagini's neck.
As a dark stain of blood spread from the netted heap, Snape limped halfway to the stairs just as more figures emerged, Hermione followed by Ron.
"Where have you been?" Ginny asked the newcomers.
"Harry collapsed," Hermione said. She looked back. "But I think he's all right now."
Indeed, Harry was just then hurrying down the stairs and slowed as he took the last step, keen eyes taking in the scene.
"Is that Voldemort?" Hermione asked, voice pitched unnaturally high. "Is that Nagini?"
"Yup," Neville answered proudly.
"Who killed Voldemort?" Ron asked.
"He did," Ginny said, gesturing at Snape.
"Snape did?" Ron blurted. "Blimey!"
The blow of Harry's hands knocked Snape back, nearly toppling him. He grabbed up Snape's robes and drove him back into the rough stone wall. "He was mine," Harry snarled into Snape's face, eyes glittering in the wandlight. "How dare you?"
"Harry!" Hermione shouted. She rushed over and tugged on Harry's arm. "Let go. What are you saying? Voldemort is dead. We did it. Who cares who did it?"
Ron joined her on Harry's other shoulder and also pried at his grip. "Come on, Harry."
"He was mine," Harry repeated, voice lower and calmer. "The prophecy said so . . ."
Hermione adopted a bright tone as she said, "Harry, let's go and tell the Ministry, come on."
Ron let go to toss his hands in the air. "Let's go and have a party!"
Neville and he hugged each other, while Ron bounced on his toes. Others came down the stairs, ran up again, shouting and cheers echoed down into the cellar. Harry released Snape with one last shove and accepted a grand kiss from Ginny. With a hobbled gait, Snape slipped along the dimly lit wall, behind a pillar and up the stairs where he could Apparate away.
Snape paced the room at Grimmauld Place, collecting up bottles into a small trunk. Candide tried to follow behind and they collided when Snape turned.
"We must go," Snape whispered.
"You said He-Who-Shall— you said, oh I can't say his name. If he's dead, why are you running?"
Snape started to reply, then stopped. It was true he was running and it was not clear his promise to Dumbledore was fulfilled. "I don't have time to explain right now. I can explain it when we are somewhere far away. Tasmania, perhaps."
"Severus," she laughed, then fell serious. "I don't want to go that far away from my family. Really."
With a bottle of Graphorn powder in one hand and a tin of shredded dragon tendon in the other, Snape turned to her. After such a day, such a life-long struggle, her words tore at him. He still needed something to hold onto for the future, it seemed, once he had tasted the lure of hope. He had learned things about his own past delusions in that other place, and wished to act upon this new knowledge, if at all possible. He wished to start over, at the very least.
Snape set the bottles down on the brewing shelf and stared at them, wondering again about his promise. Dumbledore's painting was out of reach, so he could not ask it an opinion on the matter, should he wish to risk asking at all and have all choices removed from his life, yet again. Speaking low, Snape said, "You do not understand what is happening. I know, precisely, what he will become. I am doomed here. Everyone is doomed, perhaps, but especially me."
A knock sounded on the door and Lavender opened it and leaned in. "Someone here for you, Mr. Snape."
From below, Katie Bell's voice shouted, "Did you tell Mr. Snape his boyfriend was here to see him?"
Lavender stepped back and gestured for an old wizard to step inside. Snape stared at the newcomer with lowered brows.
"Your what?" Candide asked.
Lavender grinned at Candide's question and asked, "Certainly you recognize Mr. Totten?"
"Yes," Snape said, covering his lack of knowledge. "I simply did not expect to see him."
"Different reaction than last time," she said, smirking.
Snape spared her a glance as he stepped closer to the visitor, finding some recognition dawning. The old man certainly had distinctively pale green eyes, like faceted Peridot . . .
Snape stopped as his heartbeat faltered. This was too much.
"Maybe you should close the door?" Candide suggested to the young lady.
Lavender huffed and did so.
"What are you doing here?" Snape asked weakly. He now recognized with certainty the familiar face through the wrinkles and expertly scraggly beard.
The other Harry approached, reaching out with his hands, eyes full of some strong emotion. When Snape retreated a step, Harry stopped and let his arms fall. He touched his lips and his chest, a gesture Snape had never seen before.
"Am I supposed to understand that?"
Harry fished in his pocket and pulled forth a wood framed slate and then fished in his pockets some more for chalk while Snape stared, wondering if he had lost his mind and was imagining this. Harry worked at the slate, rather a long time, then held it up. The writing was crooked, inexpert.
"What?" Snape blurted. He gathered himself. "Why aren't you talking?"
Harry made a slicing motion in front of his beard, across his neck.
"Maybe he knows we're monitored?" Candide asked.
"Go and check that we aren't. In the dining room under a tea cozy hidden among Mrs. Black's pewter teapot collection."
Candide slipped out.
Harry made the slicing motion again and stared at him, with what could only be hopefulness.
"What is the matter with you?"
Again the slicing motion. Again Harry stared at him acutely.
Anger was filling Snape's ragged nervous system. "What are you doing here? Now of all times."
Harry scratched at the slate again and held it up.
Snape's muscles quivered in shock. He mouthed silently, "You want the wand?"
Snape steered himself to the edge of the bed to sit down, knees too weak to stand. He tipped his head back and tried to calm his heart which was running away from him.
Harry touched him shyly on the arm.
"Are you concerned about me?"
Snape glared at him in disbelief, then rubbed his face. "What happened to you?" he demanded.
Harry repeated the slicing motion but with less enthusiasm, then he reached out and grabbed Snape by the sleeve of his robe and shook it while staring straight at him.
"You want me to use Legilimency on you?"
"Do you know what kind of a day I've had?"
Harry let go and sat beside him, hands in his lap. After a breath he looked around the room with interest, gestured with his thumb in the direction of Candide and wagged his eyebrows.
"I have lost my mind," Snape said.
The door opened and Candide returned. She hobbled over to the bed and dropped a crystal ball she had hidden inside her robes. "That?"
Candide said, "Neville said you are wanted at the Ministry. Minister Jorkins wants to give you a medal. Shake your hand. That sort of thing."
Harry gave him a questioning look.
"Would you leave us alone again?" Snape asked her.
"If you wish. Lavender offered to find me something nice to wear from the dead pile. The thought doesn't bother me as much now. It's like that person gets to go celebrate the end of He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named too." She closed the door behind her.
Harry's surprised gaze turned to back Snape. He pointed at him with his brows high in question.
"Yes. Me," Snape said, feeling a rush at the thought. "I tricked Nagini into killing him." With difficulty, he pulled his mind back from the scene in the cellar to say, "But about you . . ."
Harry locked their gazes with an determined expression, and Snape pulled out Voldemort's wand to run a Legilimency spell. The glimpses he received, of those creatures in the underworld gnawing away at Harry's flesh, the indescribable pain of separation when Voldemort tore himself free, made Snape think his day had not gone so bad, really.
"So, you are free of him?"
Harry nodded, biting his lip. He put a hand down on the bed and leaned heavily on it, like an actual old man might. His head followed, resting on his hand as some kind of tremor traveled over him.
"You are not exactly well, are you?" Snape asked.
Harry eventually sat up and scrubbed his face, then stroked his beard with fidgeting motions. He shook his head, which was not a clear answer.
"You did not realize the Dark Lord was gone," Snape said. "What powers do you have left?"
Harry took out the slate again and wrote enuf.
Snape peered at this and said, "We will not be asking you to write any treatises I see."
Harry gave him a smile, which annoyed Snape for what it told him about how much this young man could understand him.
Harry wrote out wand again and held it up.
"In a hurry, are you?"
Harry nodded, and Snape stood up. "So am I." He stood thinking. "We need to get to Dumbledore's painting. He had a plan, I believe. I hope." Snape worked his jaw. "But it is in Potter's room which has been enchanted so that only he and the Weasley girl . . ." He stopped and looked down at Harry, face relaxing. "Perhaps while everyone is at the celebration . . . Will you do that? Dumbledore can read your messages, I'm certain. And you will have lots of time."
Candide knocked and opened the door. "Everyone is going, Severus . . . you're not going to wear those rags are you? Here, let me fetch you something." She went off.
Snape stood, but hesitated departing. Somehow this young man, his former tyrant, had transformed the landscape of his future, in just a handful of minutes. Harry sat, staring up at him with his open, earnest, pale-eyed gaze. Snape lifted a hand toward him, then clasped it into a fist before touching him. Harry touched his lips and his chest again, which brought Snape up short of the doorway long enough to shake his head in disbelief. Luck was not something he trusted, and this felt like nothing but.
Harry strode along the first floor balcony of Grimmauld Place. He held his beard back and leaned over the railing to listen to Lupin chatting with someone downstairs. Satisfied they were occupied, he unsealed the door to the room on the end. Inside it smelled of Hogwarts, which was probably Ginny's lotions and soaps. Harry spell-sealed the door behind him with an extra charm so he would have time to slip away if interrupted and hunted about for the painting. He found it behind the wardrobe, propped it on a chair, and took a seat on the bed.
"My," Dumbledore said. "Have we met? We have met, haven't we? Give me a moment." The portrait peered about. "Where is Harry?"
With quick series of waves Harry removed his disguise.
Dumbledore squinted at him. "You again! I see. I did not quite understand this last time, I believe." He spoke in the tone reserved for troublesome students.
Harry held up his slate which already had written on it Vold Dead. Snape did it.
Mood shifting to intrigued, Dumbledore asked, "Is he now? And did he?"
The painting's image rubbed his beard, knotting his fingers up doing so. "That is very interesting."
Harry quickly wrote out wand which was getting easier with practice.
The painting frowned. "Yes. Yes." His lips worked a bit. "But if you cannot speak, I expect we cannot do much planning, and I need to understand more than you can write out. Can you bring Severus to speak with me? I realize Harry has me prisoner here, but perhaps you can arrange something, nevertheless." He sadly shook his shaggy white head. "Harry is ignoring his promises to me."
Harry nodded that he would do that and put the painting back as he found it. With his disguise reapplied he slipped away to a corridor leading to the Ministry Atrium. One of the Weasley twins was making a drunken speech at a lectern set atop a long table. Sitting at the table were Harry and Ginny flanked by Ministry employees and a handful of Wizengamot members in faded robes, looking decrepitly old. Tankards and torn bread were scattered on the table, as if plates were hard to find. The Atrium felt cursed, and the walls showed heavy spell damage.
Harry slipped between crowded rows of chairs and benches until he could crouch beside Snape, who sat between Candide and McGonagall. Harry blinked at the medal pinned to Snape, the Order of Merlin. He pointed at it and Snape waved his surprise away.
"Isn't that a lovely medal?" Candide said, eyes bright. "Should I make room?" She shifted over on the bench and Harry slipped in, keeping low.
A check of the head table revealed Harry's gaze to be upon the gesticulating Weasley twin at the lectern.
"We always knew Harry would come to great things . . . but we did not dare dream how great . . ."
Intruder Harry took out his slate and looked around the hall, thinking of who would make a trusted ally in their mission. He wrote Hrmn on the slate and pushed it before Snape.
Snape nodded and with a subtle gesture, wiped the chalk off with his sleeve and drew an arrow pointing to his left, where McGonagall was sitting. Harry bent forward to glance down at the professor. She sat hunched, face thinner than he imagined it could get, and her robes were bundled tight, high up her neck, despite the warmth of the crowded Atrium.
Rn, Harry wrote and Snape shook his head almost imperceptibly. He held his hand out for the chalk and scrawled FG. Harry added a question mark for his surprise, and Snape nodded firmly. L? Harry wrote. Snape's eyes narrowed. He lifted his gaze to the head table, then after a gap, looked around, all with casual movements. He wiped the chalk off and tilted his head sideways. N induced Snape to nod.
That was probably enough allies, Harry considered. More would be a risk. Up at the head table, Harry was holding his golden goblet out for more mead, which he gulped down. He certainly appeared to be settled in. Intruder Harry gestured with his fingers that he and Snape should go.
"Totten wishes to have a word."
"Good luck with that," Candide said with a grin before taking a swig of mead herself.
They returned to Grimmauld Place and Harry gestured for Snape to wait in the brewing room, but Snape grabbed his arm before he could slip away for the painting. He mouthed, "We have been followed."
Harry's shoulders fell. He had not noticed that. Snape proceeded to mix up a potion from bottles on the shelf. He put this in a cup and, louder than necessary, said, "This should help with those chillblains."
Harry sipped at the cup, which tasted like potion thickener in water. While he did this, Snape unhooked the medal and tossed it on the counter.
Harry pointed at it.
"I don't care about it," Snape said. "And if I don't have Pepperup, I will not make it another minute remaining upright." He drank directly from a large bottle and recorked it.
Harry tugged on his sleeve to make him look at him. You don't want to care about it, he thought at him, needing two tries because Snape was not expecting his communication.
"A difference that makes none."
Snape took the empty cup back and set it on the counter, on top of the medal's blue ribbon. He crossed his arms and considered Harry in a pose of waiting for something. "So, how are things back where you come from?"
Harry fished in his pocket for the photograph of Arcadius he had brought along. He held it out. Snape took it by the very corner and stared at it, eyes lost.
"Going very well, then," he whispered.
Harry pointed at himself then made walking motions with his fingers again.
Snape caught onto this right away. "But you need to get home. Soon. Of course." Without warning, he strode to the bookshelf and ran a complicated spell. "It is clear now. Those blasted Weasleys and their never-ending array of magical gadgets. Fortunately they have hot mead getting cold and cold mead getting warm and would most likely prefer to get back to it." He pulled a wide book out and turned it around so the spine faced the wall. "Go on then. We haven't much time."
Harry slipped away and slipped back with the painting.
"Severus, I heard you destroyed Voldemort yourself." Dumbledore exclaimed upon getting free of his velvet covering.
Snape huffed. "I still do not like his name. And I think I am now owed some consideration on this point. If I have not earned the right to consideration now—"
Harry made a circular gesture to hurry things up.
Snape tipped his head. "I never conceived that I could be saying this on the Dark Lord's Death Day but we have a rather large problem."
Harry wrote out horcrx and held that up to Snape, then added a question mark after it.
"Yes, there is one left," Snape said. "He wears the locket around his neck."
Harry turned his sign to Dumbledore and made a slicing motion across his own throat.
The old wizard replied, "If you are asking me how we can remove the probable Horcrux from Harry, there is one possible way, without killing him, that is. If you pierce, but not break, the death seal on the locket you may be able to entice the soul slice inside Harry to join the other one. That is, if you can convince it that is the safer location. But you will need to be familiar with how a Horcrux is made to do this, and you risk your own soul."
"You are expecting me to do that, I suppose," Snape stated. "You always take the health of my soul into consideration when you make your plans."
Harry waved his hand between them.
Dumbledore went on, "A death will be required. Someone's death, that is."
Harry pointed at himself.
Snape said, "You are willing to kill yourself for this? Why?"
Harry shook his head and frantically waved his arms, then dropped them and scrambled for his slate again. He could not think of how to write experienced, so he wrote all ok instead.
Snape read the message and said, "You are either an idiot or a deep philosopher."
"Severus . . ." Dumbledore chastised.
Harry underlined the words on the slate and made a calming motion with his hands. He could do this.
"What do you think, Albus?"
"I think the young man seems confident."
"I think he may be addled," Snape said, and for a second appeared concerned as he studied Harry, but he turned away without saying more.
"You will need assistance in subduing Mr. Potter for the process, and that will not be easy," Dumbledore said.
"Already being planned for." Snape crossed his arms, appearing dragged down hard by the weight of his shoulders. "We should return you to Potter's room and I should return to the party. We cannot be suspected, or we are doomed."
Harry was asleep on the edge of the bed when the others returned from the celebration. He had magically widened the bed, and he was jarred awake when someone bumped into it.
Candide sounded drunken as she whispered, " Shhhh. Don't wake him. I can sleep in the middle."
"You don't know him very well," came Snape's low reply. "He is not as harmless as he looks."
Harry did not move, pretending to still be asleep. He heard the sound of cloaks being shed.
"Oh, someone gave me this to give to you," Candide said. The sound of paper being unfolded followed. "Severus, are you really going to leave?"
Snape exhaled through his nose. "Not yet, apparently." A wand illuminated and moved along the brewing counter. A stirring stick slid along a cauldron edge, around and around.
"Are you using He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named's wand?" Candide blurted out.
"That's a creepy thought. Imagine all the dreadful spells and death on that thing."
"The children here took mine, but have not thought to ask for this one."
"Who would want to use such a wand?"
"Someone who lacks one, utterly," Snape stated in that tone where he wished to gain the upper hand for no good reason.
There was a silence and the achingly familiar smell of Candide's face cream overlaid the scent of ale. "You can be very grim. I'm not sure I like that."
Snape must have turned based on the sound of his robes shifting. "I have survived." He snorted. "So far."
Harry sat up.
Candide said, "Sorry we woke you."
Harry snapped his fingers to get Snape to look his way.
Knock it off , Harry thought at him. You are fighting yourself and pushing her away.
Snape's gaze grew hard, but he did not reply. Harry dropped back onto the bed and rolled away from the both of them. A minute later the wand light went out and someone settled in at his back and a minute after that, Harry was asleep.