Harry Potter had been back at Privet Drive for little over a week, but his summer homework lay untouched on his desk, as did a letter from Ginny. The former he had no intention of touching – after all, he had no intention of returning for his seventh year – the latter he was going to open, as soon as he plucked up the courage. His head told him he had made the right decision to break away from her, but his heart was telling him he was a prat, and if he allowed himself to read Ginny's letter, he couldn't be sure which side would win.
A flash of flames just outside his window interrupted his musings. Leaping to his feet, he ripped the window open and allowed the phoenix to enter. "Fawkes?" Harry questioned the fiery bird.
The phoenix answered by dropping a package on his bed and landing next to it, trilling impatiently.
Harry pulled his desk chair over to the bed and sat down, pulling the carefully-wrapped bundle over to him. Dumbledore's tidy script clearly labelled the outside of the package. His hand hovered over the parcel, and he found himself having to concentrate on his breathing. Swallowing hard, he started to slowly move his hand away. How could it be? He was gone, wasn't he…?
Sensing his indecision, Fawkes flashed his flames and trilled angrily.
“Okay, okay," said Harry, “there's no need to turn my bed into ashes. I'll open it."
Pulling the edges of the package open, the first thing Harry saw was a piece of folded parchment. As he continued to open the parcel, another parchment slipped out; catching it before it hit the floor, Harry placed it safely on his bed next to the partially-open parcel.
He sat back in his chair to read the first letter.
I seem to be making a habit of apologising to you but once again, in my desire not to overburden you with information, I have failed to tell you something I should have imparted much earlier.
In an effort to remedy this, as I am no longer able to tell you in person, I have prepared one more memory for you to view. I'm confident you know how to work the Pensive by now, Harry.
Please view its contents as soon as possible; the information inside is more important than you could possibly imagine.
After viewing it, please read my second letter; it contains my final order to you. Yes, Harry, it is an order, because I realise that every part of your being will tell you to ignore this request, even after viewing my memory – possibly even more so. Nevertheless, it is my opinion that for you to finally triumph over Tom Riddle and succeed in your mission, you need to understand that things aren't always what they seem.
Whatever memory the Headmaster had left for him, Harry had the distinct impression he wasn't going to like it.
Harry carefully picked up the Pensive and carried it over to his desk, using his free arm to sweep the surface clear of its debris. Unthinking, he bent down, picked up Ginny’s letter, and placed it next to the stone basin before turning back to his bed and picking up the crystal bottle containing the memory.
Slowly, Harry pulled out the stopper, careful not to spill the contents. He wasn’t sure what effect that would have on the memory, but he was fairly certain it wouldn't be a good idea to miss any of it. Plus, he really did not want to have to explain to Aunt Petunia what the stain on her recently-cleaned carpet was. Equally slowly, he poured the silvery liquid into the basin, making sure every last drop was used.
Picking up his wand, Harry took a deep breath and touched his face to the swirling surface, prepared by now for the sensation of falling that accompanied trips into the pensive.
As he landed, Harry was shocked to find himself in the Headmaster's office. When he looked up to see the Headmaster seated behind his desk, he took an audibly deep breath and had to remind himself this was just a memory.
He had to blink when the Headmaster seemed to acknowledge his presence with a nod – perhaps, like Professor Slughorn, Dumbledore had altered the memory… However, Harry didn't have any time to think about it, because the door to the office suddenly burst open, and the last person Harry expected or wanted to see strode into the room, his cloak billowing behind him.
“Severus?” exclaimed Dumbledore, “For what do I deserve the pleasure of your presence, so soon after your last visit?"
“Headmaster," Snape replied, as Harry looked on, so shocked he was unable to move. His stomach twisted violently, and he found himself having to focus on not being sick. “There has been a change in circumstances since my last visit."
“I see," replied Dumbledore, uncommittedly.
“I have just come from a visit from Narcissa and Bellatrix; it seems once again I was correct. There is a plot against your life. Narcissa was most concerned about her son."
“And so she should be; young Draco is in for a difficult year,” replied the Headmaster, “but this we already knew, Severus; you made mention of a change of circumstances?"
“Yes, as I mentioned, Headmaster, Narcissa was most worried about Draco. So worried she travelled secretly – without the Dark Lord's knowledge – to my private dwelling, to seek out my assistance.”
“Do you mean…?” questioned Dumbledore, his mood unreadable to Harry who was still standing slack-jawed at the scene he was witnessing.
“Yes, Albus, she has asked me to kill you, should Draco fail.”
“I assume you were unable to refuse, given your position."
Harry was surprised to see Snape's eyes drop almost imperceptibly as he replied, "Yes, Headmaster, that is the case."
“And yet, I sense there is more," replied the Headmaster calmly.
“You're not going to make this any easier for me, are you, Albus?" snapped Snape.
'I should think not', thought Harry,' you murdering ba–'
But Harry's thoughts were interrupted as Dumbledore responded to Snape's question.
“I certainly don't seek to make it any more difficult than it is, Severus, but as an old man who tries to learn from his mistakes, I have found it's better to impart difficult information than to keep it bottled up.”
“Well, you always have been better than the rest of us," Snape muttered, before continuing, “I was manoeuvred into the Unbreakable Vow. I am sorry; I have failed you."
Dumbledore's good hand slammed down on the desk, “I've told you before, Severus, you have never failed me, and you don't have it in you."
Snape seemed unable to reply, as the Headmaster continued to speak.
“Now how should we deal with this…? I wonder… Yes, I think…"
For the first time since Snape entered the room, a flicker of emotion crossed Dumbledore's face before he once again sat back impassively.
“Severus, I am sorry, but I must ask you to complete one more unpleasant task this evening."
"No, Albus, don't ask me to do that!" Snape backed away from the desk, a horrified expression on his pale face.
“I'm afraid it's the only way, Severus. We must at all costs maintain your cover, and Harry is more important than either if us; we need to insure one of us survives …"
“But, Albus …"
“No buts, Severus, if it comes to pass, your life is the only one we can guarantee …"
“Headmaster," Snape acquiesced with a resigned sigh.
“Your hand then."
“But what about a Bonder?"
“No, I don't think we want anybody else to know just yet, Severus, and if you will excuse my lack of humility, I am an exceptionally powerful wizard; I believe we will have no need of a Bonder.
“Now, if you please, your hand."
As their hands gripped each other, the Headmaster spoke, “Will you, Severus, with my full acceptance of the consequences, agree to carry out the act to which you are already Bonded?"
Swallowing hard, Snape replied, “I will, Headmaster." As he answered, a tongue of flame leapt from the headmaster's wand and coiled around their clasped hands.
“And in the event of my death, will you continue to assist Mr. Potter in the fulfilment of his duty?"
“I will, Headmaster." Once again, a tongue of flame came forth and followed the previous in wrapping its way around the two men's hands.
Harry had just enough time to scream, “But I don't want the traitorous git's help!" before he was pulled from the memory and deposited back in his bedroom.
For what seemed like the longest time, Harry sat on the floor, unable to move and unwilling to think about what he had just seen.
Eventually he needed to move as a cramp was developing in his left leg, and as he put his hand on his bed to lift himself up, it came to rest on Dumbledore's second letter. Thinking the contents couldn't be anymore shocking than what he had witnessed in the pensive, he settled on to the edge of his bed to read.
By now, you will know the truth, and as bitter as it may taste to you right now, I want you to understand I entered into that Bond fully aware of its consequences.
Professor Snape is not at fault (here, Harry scoffed audibly); he was following my orders, just as you have done in the past, and I hope you will do once more.
It is imperative that you seek out Professor Snape, Harry, and seek his assistance in your quest. It is my belief that only he can help you find the remaining objects. You may not like him, or agree with his choices, but you can trust him with your life, as I did with mine, despite what you may be thinking. I'm sorry but I cannot tell you why; just as I hold your privacy dear, so I do Severus's.
Harry suddenly felt overwhelmingly tired – he couldn't deal with this right now – and he fell back onto the bed and slipped into a long but uncomfortable sleep, during which the scene in the Pensive constantly repeated itself. When Harry awoke, however, he knew exactly what it was he was going to do
"Dobby!" Harry called out, and then there was a pop as the house-elf in question appeared.
The room where the two men were sitting was hardly what they would have chosen: the atmosphere was damp and musty; what was left of the wallpaper was hanging from the walls. Damp and unidentified creatures had attacked the floorboards so badly that the men’s movements were restricted to narrow walkways through the litter-strewn floor, for fear that they’d put a leg straight through into whatever lived beneath the rotten wood. Something that neither of them was keen to discover.
They were sitting on unsteady chairs on either side of the only other piece of furniture still useable, a small rust-covered iron table. Ignoring the rigid house-elf behind him, the elder of the two finished reading the unexpected delivery before dropping his arm limply at his side.
"Interfering old fool," the man muttered.
"But that looks like Potter's scrawl, sir!" said the younger man, oblivious to the look that passed briefly over his companion's face, preferring instead to try to read the parchment dangling down by the professor's side.
"Then why, Draco, has he not signed it with his own name?" replied Snape as he pointed out the letter’s signature, covering the rest of the letter so as not to disclose its contents.
"He's always been an egotistical know-it-all, sir."
"Even so, I doubt Potter has quite reached the heights and delusions of grandeur to suggest that he is a Prince," replied the former Hogwarts professor with an ill-disguised smirk. He carefully folded the parchment in half, then in half again, before placing it in the palm of his hand – where green flames suddenly enveloped it, leaving no trace that anything had ever been there.
"But he is a Half-Blood," muttered Draco.
"As are many people," admonished Snape, before turning to watch his young charge. It was time to find out where his young charge felt his immediate future and safety lay. "Who do you think has the potential to cause you the most harm, Mr Malfoy?"
Malfoy paled even more than normal. The past year had weighed heavy on the young Slytherin and despite his false arrogance – as Snape had called it – he had failed in his task. When it came to it, he had been found wanting – his father would be ashamed of his lack of backbone – and now he was on the run from just about everybody, leaving his family to pay the consequences of the Dark Lord's retribution.
"I ask you to think about this, and not consider it lightly. Your very life could rest on your answer," Snape continued. "Is it the boy who you have fought with at school, over trivial matters, but who, despite his arrogance, has stood against the greatest wizard of our time more than once and somehow – despite his patent inability to learn – managed to survive? Or the Dark Lord himself, who does not accept failure lightly?"
Draco looked at his professor seriously for a moment, before nodding. "As long as I can reserve the right to change my mind if circumstances alter."
"Likewise," replied Snape as he removed the Impedimenta curse from the house-elf. "Take this to your master," he ordered as he passed a candle stub to the disorientated creature.
Harry dropped the candle as he put his arms out to break his fall. He dragged himself to his feet and brushed the detritus from his clothes. Faded and half-empty fast food wrappers from the closed up take-away farther down the street were the more pleasant of the items he removed.
"Why am I not surprised?" Harry wondered aloud as he took in his surroundings. It seemed an entirely appropriate place for the murderous traitor to hide out.
After his last encounter with Snape in the grounds of Hogwarts, Harry was determined to be ready, so before he knocked on the door, he straightened his back and readied his wand.
As the door swung open, the first thing Harry saw was his nemesis Draco Malfoy lounging on a chair in the corner, and without even thinking about it, his arm snapped over and Malfoy's face was locked in wide-eyed surprise as the full body bind took hold.
In almost the same instant, he turned to point his wand at the black-robed man standing near the furthest wall of the room, watching impassively.
"Give me one reason not to hex you and call the Aurors in," snapped Harry.
"Lack of a wand?" replied Snape lazily, as Harry found himself thrown backwards, and he could only watch as his wand arced towards Snape's outstretched hands.
"If you had actually listened in my lessons, Potter, then I wouldn't have this," admonished Snape as he brandished Harry's wand.
"I don't need a wand, you cowardly b – " Harry's response was cut off before he could move or say anything more when he was once again thrown backwards. This time he grunted loudly as his back hit the wall, where he remained stuck and unable to remove himself no matter how hard he struggled.
"I seem to remember telling you NOT TO CALL ME A COWARD, POTTER!" Snape raged.
"What else did you expect me to call you?"
"I presumed that was what you came here to find out? But perhaps I've been wrong all along, Potter, and you do know everything." replied Snape.
"Maybe I do. Maybe, Professor Dumbledore told me everything."
"Then why are you here?" sneered Snape.
"Why did you send the Portkey if you know so much yourself?" Harry responded.
"I have my reasons," replied Snape. "None of which concern you."
"As do I," Harry forcefully replied while folding his arms.
"Well, then, it seems we have little to say to each other," replied Snape, as he released the spell that had held Harry to the wall, causing him to stumble forwards. "And yet, so much."
"I'm not talking with him here," replied Harry, looking directly at Draco. “Not only did he conspire all year to kill the Headmaster, but he twice nearly killed my friends with his incompetence."
"His incompetence, Potter, allowed Professor Dumbledore to complete his final task – to give you the knowledge you needed. As you would be aware, if you have taken any notice."
"It was still his choice; he had a whole year to back out."
"Back out of a direct order from the Dark Lord? I knew you were an imbecile, Potter, but do try not to talk about things you could not possibly understand. Draco's family was threatened, Potter, his mother and father..." Snape paused to let his words sink in. "His mother and father were threatened with a slow and excruciatingly painful death should he fail. Then there is, of course, what the Dark Lord does with failures, so please don't talk about Draco's choices, unless you understand the consequences."
"He deserves them," snarled Harry.
"Really?" replied Snape, "Then why doesn't 'The Chosen One’ provide the retribution he so desires?" Then he took something from his pocket and threw it over to Harry, who instinctively caught it.
He looked down to see what he had caught, and blinked in surprise when he unclasped his hand to remove a Muggle pound coin.
"It's a Portkey, Potter," replied Snape. "It will deliver Draco straight to The Dark Lord's associates; feel free to use it; he's certainly in no position to stop you."
Harry just stared at the coin in his hand as if it was burning a hole through his palm.
"Well, come on, Potter. I'm waiting."
Still, Harry did not move.
"Come on, Potter, what's stopping you? He's right there and cannot do a thing about it. I always knew you lacked backbone, boy," Snape continued to goad.
But still, Harry did not move.
"What's wrong, Potter? Surely, you cannot be feeling merciful for him; you said it yourself – he deserves it. Mercy is for the spineless, the weak. Are you spineless, Harry?"
"Mercy?" growled Harry suddenly, "What would you know about mercy? It takes more backbone and courage to have mercy than you will ever have!" added Harry as he flung the coin back at Snape as hard as he could, hitting him on the shoulder.
Snape, for his part, didn't even flinch as coin hit him. "It seems as though you have at long last managed to learn something from the Headmaster, Potter; well done."
"Don't you dare speak about Professor Dumbledore! You have no right. He trusted you, and you betrayed him."
Before Harry could even register the movement, Snape was close enough to jab his wand in his chest and for Harry to feel Snape's breath on his face.
"I assumed you had watched the Headmaster’s Pensieve, Potter, but perhaps I was wrong. Or more likely the great Harry Potter thinks he knows better?"
"Pensieves can be altered," stated Harry, once again thinking of Professor Slughorn's memory.
"Yes, they can, but as I'm sure you noticed in that bungler's memory, those changes leave traces that even an incompetent such as you would notice; was there anything like that in the professor's memory?"
Apart from Dumbledore seemingly acknowledging his presence, Harry couldn't think of a single thing that might have indicated tampering.
"You can't, can you?" said Snape not moving from his position in front of Harry.
"You still chose to kill him," spat Harry; "you should have chosen to die, to accept the consequences of the Vow; Dumbledore was a better man than you will ever be. Do you even feel shame about what you have done? Do you have any guilt, Snivellus?"
The back of Snape's hand caught Harry straight across his face.
"Hit a raw nerve have I, Snivellus?" replied Harry has he carefully touched a hand to his tender cheek, unsurprised to find the telltale wetness of blood. "What are you feeling inside that greasy head of yours?"
"You should have some idea, Potter, surely."
"What are you on about? I've never killed anyone."
"Why, Potter, have you never made a spur-of-the-moment decision that resulted in someone you loved dying?" Snape asked pointedly.
"You leave Sirius out of this!" Harry replied angrily, pushing Snape back sharply.
"I will not leave Black out of this," replied Snape calmly, "because you need to understand."
"I don't need to understand anything from you."
"But you are going to – seeing as you asked what was going on in my – what was it? – greasy head.
"Now sit!" demanded Snape while pushing Harry towards the table with surprising strength.
Harry wasn’t all that surprised when Snape pushed him down as close to Draco as the table would allow. “If we are to talk, Potter, it’ll do you good to remember that good and evil aren’t the only choices. If the world were only that black and white, life would be so much simpler. No, Draco’s presence will keep you aware of the grey choices in between.”
Harry, for his part, didn’t complain, but he shifted over in his chair to put as much distance as he could between himself and the Slytherin.
“Now, as I was saying, Potter, take the responsibility you feel for Black’s death.” This time Harry held his tongue; any response he had could wait he decided – besides, he wanted to see how Snape explained himself. “Now, think about having to carry out that act yourself, having to look him in the eye – beforehand."
Harry, determined not to show or feel any signs of sympathy for the man, turned away from Snape and stared into the corner of the room, watching a spider slowly make its way up the wall. As much as he tried not to, he couldn’t help but imagine himself in Snape’s position, and watching his Godfather tumble over the tower’s parapets.
“So why make it then?” replied Harry, who surprised himself with his calmness.
“I saw no other choice.”
“There are always choices,” replied Harry, “Professor Dumbledore taught me that.” Harry fought to keep a note of accusation out of his voice; despite his misgivings, he had the horrible feeling he would have to come to some kind of understanding with the man who had killed his mentor – at least for now – and reacting in the wrong way would definitely prejudice that.
“I had no other choice because the Professor would have been killed anyway; do try to remember I wasn’t the only one there, and if I hadn’t done what I had too, there was the penalty for ignoring the Vows I was placed under.”
“So you killed the Professor to save your own skin?”
“NO! POTTER, do you not listen? I killed the Headmaster, but what would have happened if I hadn’t? Yes, I survived, as did Draco. And because I survived, the Order hasn’t lost its only source of information on the Death Eaters’ activities.”
“How very Slytherin,” replied Harry. “I suppose you have to justify it to yourself somehow.”
“Yes, Mr Potter, I do. I need to justify it so I can do my job,” Snape’s voice was very measured as he spoke, and Harry wasn’t sure what made him more nervous, Snape’s usually snide tone of voice, or this version.
“You really think Tom will let you back in?”
“The Dark Lord doesn’t take well to people ignoring his orders, so I doubt I’ll be welcome back just yet, and I have no desire to test his patience.”
Harry shivered uncontrollably; the memory of Voldemort’s Cruciatus Curse was still strong in his memory. “If you can’t return to Tom, how do you expect be of any use?”
“Thankfully, my actions will be viewed by some of The Dark Lord’s supporters as an act of supreme loyalty, and many of them owe me favours, not least Narcissa.” Snape nodded towards Draco as he finished speaking.
“You think anybody in the Order is going to listen to anything you say? That they’ll trust you?”
“Well, Potter, that all depends on you, doesn’t it?”
“Yes you, Potter. Do try to keep up,” Snape sneered, “Who else but The Chosen One to act as my link to the Order?”
“Why would I do that?” asked Harry incredulously.
“Because you need my help. Because Albus would have wanted it,” Snape moved closer as he was speaking, and by the time he had finished, he was close enough to lean right in and whisper into Harry’s ear, “Because you’ll need help finding the Horcruxes.”
Harry’s eyes widened in surprise, but before he could say anything, Snape straightened up and stepped away. “But we’ll keep that conversation for another day. For now, you have enough to think about; I wouldn’t want to tax that brain of yours too much. Moreover, I think young Mr Malfoy has spent long enough under your curse.”
Before Harry could disagree, Snape handed him back his wand and another candle-stub, and within seconds, he felt the telltale tug in his stomach.
"So, we're working with Potter, then?" asked Draco, as soon as the professor removed the body-bind from him.
"For now, Draco. For now..."
The first thing Harry did after landing back in his bed at Privet Drive was remove his dirty clothes and slip into the bathroom to take a shower – whether to clean the stench of Snape and Malfoy's hideout off him, or the fact he had just agreed to work with Snape, he wasn't certain. He certainly wasn't ready to fully trust Snape, but as things stood, he didn't have a lot of choice.
Feeling cleaner on the outside at least, Harry wrapped one of Dudley's old dressing gowns around him – his cousin's dressing gowns were one of the few items of his clothes he didn't mind wearing; there was something comforting in wrapping an overly large gown around you – and padded back into his bedroom. While he was clean on the outside, on the inside he still felt grubby, and he knew of only one way that he was going to change that. As he walked past his desk, he picked up one of the letters lying there.
Climbing on to his bed and arranging his quilt and pillows around him, he made himself comfortable and slowly unfolded the letter. He knew he might regret this later, but after the night he had just had, he didn't really care. Already feeling better for just holding it, he settled back to read Ginny's letter.
A/N Many thanks to Kelleypen, Katieay, Allie and Sherry for their wonderful beta work.
This story is only a one-shot and will not become a full chaptered seventh year story, I just wanted to explore some of the issues that cropped up in my mind upon the completion of HBP.
For those who are interested, I have brought all my fics together in my own archive, which has been wonderfully illustrated by Ayne Greensleeves. It is here where you will be able to find out about new fics/chapters first. Please come by and take a look: http://www.bartsspace.co.uk/the-library/