Dumbledore sighed. “Well done, Severus.”
“They will suspect it was me.”
The newspaper laid open on the table; a moving picture demonstrated how the infamous corner of Borgin and Burke’s was mysteriously burned to ashes last night. Under the picture, the caption claimed: “Cause, undetermined. Presumably accidental.”
“Why would they?”
“Why wouldn’t they?” Severus asked. “Bellatrix never trusted me.” He rolled up the Prophet and absently let it unfold again. “There were no witnesses, however, and the cabinet’s twin is completely destroyed.”
Dumbledore trailed his lips with a long finger. “Young Malfoy will have other things to take care of for now. If your Lords questions you, we’ll see.”
“If my Lord questions me, we won’t have time to see, I think.” Cradling his head in his hands, elbows resting on his knees, Severus tried to focus after twenty eight hours of sleep deprivation. “You should leave the castle for your own safety before the term ends.”
“There is no need to rush, Severus.”
“No need to rush? They want you dead. He told me he believes Draco to be a waste of time. You didn't think he would rely on a teenager for this, did you? I’m next.”
Dumbledore fell into skeptical silence; they had discussed this before. “You have to convince him to postpone their plans until summer.”
“Then, I have a plan of my own,” Dumbledore responded simply, and the boiling rage that had been melting Severus’ brain for the last hour almost snapped. Inwardly, he was a mess. Outwardly, he was expected to still be Severus Snape.
“A plan, which I suppose I’m not trustworthy enough to know.”
Dumbledore seemed to be aware of Severus’ state of mind, but didn’t glance at him for more than a second. “In time. Has Harry agreed to his new schedule?”
“I’m following orders I know nothing about and I’m expected to agree to plans I’m not even slightly aware of? I believe I deserve to know.”
Severus swallowed the bitter bile of threats he couldn’t make and surrendered. “I haven’t seen Harry but in class this month. He visited my office a few weeks ago but when he realised that he’d be training an hour per week he simply stopped.”
“And he didn’t tell you why?”
“No.” He didn’t have to. “Besides, he has a life now.”
Dumbledore chuckled. “Yes, although some of his peers are still struggling with the new reality. They’ll accept it, let’s hope. Eventually, he will too.”
“I imagine this comes easily from someone who never attempted so.”
“The times were different back then, Severus.”
“Harry is going to be fine. You don’t need to worry.”
“On the bright side... He brought me something important. Something I needed but had no way to access. I suspect he used Felix Felicis to get it it, and Hagrid had a rather funny story to tell me about it.”
Severus creased his brow in expectation but decided against interrupting him.
“This memory... Horace's memory... confirms my greatest theory, the one I’ve been working on for the past years – but also proves that there is so much to be done. The significance of it… it explains everything.”
“You care on expanding on that or are you just informing me of your delight?”
“I am going on a trip soon and I’ll take Harry with me. I want you to protect the school and be very careful while I’m gone.”
Severus was a spy. For whichever side it may be, he was still a spy. If the Dark Lord had done anything to keep himself from dying, it had to be Horcruxes. And if Marvolo’ ring was a Horcrux and was now destroyed, that only meant that there were more Horcruxes. In how many pieces could a human being split his soul? And would he still be a human being afterwards? If living without a soul was possible, were they still talking about humans – or was the Dark Lord an entirely different creature?
Questions he could not ask. He was expected to suspect nothing about all this. "As you wish.”
Whatever Dumbledore and Potter’s adventure was, it ended ingloriously, with Dumbledore panting his lungs out and Potter banging at Severus’ door to wake him up in the middle of the night and have him help them. He had no choice but comply, for habit was a better master than duty and Severus couldn’t tell whose arse he was currently kissing. Duty, he remembered, once meant thinking for himself. Now it was lost somewhere between thinking to himself and thinking for others.
So he followed Potter to the Astronomy Tower and managed not to scowl at Dumbledore’s poisoned form hunched over the floor. He did scowl when Potter avoided his eyes, determined to convince him that there had never been anything more between them. He did scowl when it occurred to him that this used to happen the other way around. They helped Dumbledore to a sitting position and Severus hurried to take him to his chambers, if only to avoid the tremendous ghosts and the possible wandering students. Dumbledore chuckled all along, entertaining fantasies of his future funeral and complaining that he did not need any help, he could walk perfectly well, thank you very much.
Severus didn’t speak to Potter as he closed the door to his face and Dumbledore collapsed again. He didn’t speak to Dumbledore either as he gave him a strengthening potion and a healing one. He didn’t ask where they were and what they had been doing. He casted several spells to check Dumbledore’s blood pressure and fever and went through his books to see what else he could do. Dumbledore only bothered to inform him that the cause of his fever was poison half an hour later. Severus swore and fumed, but what did it matter?
The morning came and Severus hadn’t slept. Once the sun arose, Potter stormed in uninvited and demanded to see Dumbledore. Severus waited outside, for he was not as mature and wise to swallow down crucial war information as a sixteen year old was. Dumbledore managed to walk steadily and stated that he wished to be left alone so he could prepare himself for breakfast. When Severus saw him again in the Great Hall, his face betrayed nothing.
Dumbledore seated himself at the centre of the head table and Severus decided to let McGonagall take his usual seat next to him. Having lost his appetite himself, he poked hatefully at his pancakes and glanced at the Slytherin table regularly.
Focusing on the upcoming N.E.W.T.s and O.W.L.s he ought to prepare, Severus blocked out both Dumbledore and Potter and occupied his mind with the simple tasks he was allowed access to: Teaching. Scheduling examinations. Keeping away from Golden Hero.
But really, how useful he was. Blessed.
His first class of the day was first-years. He had a headache by his third class, and when the sixth years came in he managed to successfully not look at Potter and not be intrigued by his insolence and fight back. He took the points he should when Potter whispered to his friends and failed to remind Gryffindors of how disgusting they were before the bell rang.
When his mark burned him, and his veins throbbed from wrist to shoulder, he hadn’t thought yet of how to postpone Dumbledore’s murder without being suspicious. He didn’t understand why Dumbledore remained here, while knowing how easy it’d be for Severus to kill him, and thus natural for the Dark Lord to ask him to. Severus dreaded the next Death Eater meeting and dreaded the Malfoys too, and Draco had yet to blame him for the twin cabinets and the fire. All in all, Severus knew nothing.
Nothing of what the Mafoys thought, or his master, or his other master. Or Potter.
Unopened gifts contained hope.
Severus clung to it.
Dumbledore’s invitation for tea that afternoon could just as well be an invitation to limbo for eternal torment under the commands of justice. He declined the tea but went to Dumbledore’s office anyway to hear what Dumbledore really wanted to say.
“My plan for the summer,” Dumbledore started, but he explained only Severus’ part in it.
When the detailed description was finished, and Dumbledore pointed out that he was planning to inform Harry soon too, Severus only hoped he would have the chance to see the boy’s face while doing so.
He did have the chance to watch Potter’s face through it, and the consolation was Severus’ to seek. Once again, he couldn't remember having agreed to this.
“I have promised you, that I will reveal everything to you when the time comes, Harry.”
Potter glanced at Severus for a backing he wouldn’t give. He turned to Dumbledore. “But apparently that time hasn’t come and yet you still expect me to act like a coward and go hide somewhere. I don’t want that, sir. With all respect. I want to fight. I don’t like this.”
“You will fight, Harry. You are already doing so. You will only hide to protect yourself until the time comes.”
“No. I don’t even know where — this place is. I don’t get it. I want to stay here.”
“The location will be shifting - as long as you stay in the safe house, it it will be taking you with it. I wouldn't have chosen this, Harry, but you will soon be of age and your aunt’s house will fail to protect you.”
“Hogwarts is not safe anymore.”
“Then nothing is!”
“We will escort your family to a safe location. Your aunt’s house should be emptied before your birthday, for their own sake.”
Potter didn't like it. And Severus found himself being less amused than he’d thought.
“Why not Grimmauld’s Place?”
“The Order will need to focus on —”
“On not protecting me. You don't want me there so they can work on their plans without worrying about my safety. I want to be in the Order, sir — I want to be useful. I have to be useful. I’ve trained.”
Severus’ mind drifted to his past conversations with Dumbledore and searched for the parts that had been missing. Or the retouched ones. He could clearly recall this urgency for Potter to hide in a safe house for the summer as well as Dumbledore’s dilemma between taking Potter with him in his mysterious hunting and leaving him out of it for the time being.
“What about Hermione and – what about my friends, sir? Are they not going to be in danger too? Why can’t I fight? Why keep me away? I don’t understand.”
It was impossible to understand Dumbledore’s motives. The boy should have known better.
“In time,” added Potter, bitterly.
Severus’ agenda, on the other hand, was simpler. All he had to do was to blissfully await for orders to finish Draco’s job, and then decide whether he’d refuse and have the Dark Lord kill him for treachery, or drop his cover, become useless, and get killed anyway.
He could always finish the job, of course.
Severus remained silent as Dumbledore kept explaining only the necessary fragments of this schedule to Potter.
“You will not be alone. Severus will teach you.”
Severus will teach no one, he thought. Severus will be left alone.
“Will you not, Severus?”
Severus mentally rose his middle finger to the man, and was positively sure that Dumbledore was wholly aware of it. He nodded.
“Sir, with all respect,” Potter said from the chair across him, “If what you say is true and a war is going to break out soon, I don’t think I can stay out of it. I refuse. Voldemort has been hunting me all my life, and now you want me to hide?”
It was curious, indeed. Severus himself could not assume much of it and it only seemed foolish to postpone a battle long ago reserved between the two. If the boy was to get himself killed anyway, the sooner the better.
Potter was frightened, Severus thought. Frightened by the idea of war, the possibility of dying and the duty of killing. It occurred to him that Potter was too young for this, and yet his foolish bravery was insisting on offering himself in a sacrifice he barely understood.
“Why not now? If we let him begin a war people will die. So why not now? People will die.” Frightened and desperate.
And he did have a point so to speak. Severus arched a brow at Dumbledore, meaning that he would demand an honest explanation later. He received an imperceptible nod that only assured him that he’d be fed rubbish. If Dumbledore wanted him to do this, he’d have to confess first.
“Now, as spectacular as it would be to blow up the school this very evening, I am afraid that I have not completed my mission yet, and thus you cannot be exposed to Voldemort.”
“Now, the details.”
The details of the great safe house he was going to lock Potter in for the summer did not interest Severus, and he doubted that Potter was listening either.
Severus, for his part, had yet to find why he was pinned on this blasted chair witnessing the light leave Potter’s eyes as he was slowly accepting his doom.
“And Severus will be helping you,” Dumbledore said at last. Potter left, and Severus didn’t need to be told to stay for just a word.
"So the boy… the boy must die?" asked Severus.
"And Voldemort himself must do it, Severus. That is essential."
He didn’t want Severus to train him. He wanted to use him as a feint, to keep Potter away so he doesn't die accidentally by some random Death Eater with a false temper. The boy was carrying a part of the Dark Lord’s soul. A Horcrux, most likely. It all made sense now. A thread of spikes clutched around his heart and he had to suppress a choking sound that was either laughter or an Unforgivable. "I thought… all these years… that we were protecting him for her. For Lily."
Dumbledore tried to explain, going through all the details that were always there, all the hints that Severus should have seen but hadn’t, all the mistakes that had been done and couldn’t be taken back, all the truths that were just before his eyes but was refusing to see because he had never imagined that betrayal would come from the hand that was feeding him. He had the right to know. All these years, he had the right to know.
A pathetic voice inside him insisted that Potter couldn’t die. Shouldn’t. And let the world be damned.
Dumbledore looked at him. Severus’s stomach had turned to ice.
"You have kept him alive so that he can die at the right moment?” He'd taught Potter to seal his mind. He'd put effort to it. It took almost a year to perfect it. “You have used me… I have spied for you and lied for you, put myself in mortal danger for you. Everything was supposed to keep him safe. Now you tell me you have been raising him like a pig for slaughter…”
His words trailed off as he recalled Potter’s trust in this man, and his trust in Severus. He would have to lie to Potter. To set up another farce, this time under the excuse of “training” while they’d wait for Potter to die.
“But this is touching, Severus. Have you grown to care for the boy, after all?”
When Lily died, Severus swore to protect Harry. How could Dumbledore even ask? How could he question it? He wasn’t going to hand Dumbledore yet another weapon against him. Dumbledore’s eyes glimmered as though he had hit a raw nerve and was waiting for the outcome.
“For him?” Severus said, not even knowing what the truth was anymore. Needing to distract Dumbledore, he drew out his wand and prayed for this to be enough. “Expecto Patronum!”
From the tip of his wand burst the silver doe. She bounced on the desk and Severus felt the warmth of her protection guarding him against the pain in his chest. Dumbledore watched her fly away, and as her silvery glow faded he turned back to Severus, tears running down his face.
“After all this time?”
Dumbledore’s words echoed in his mind. Could he really care for Harry Potter? Was it possible?
The moment he saw Potter arrive to the Great Hall, eleven years old, stupid, skinny, short as an elf, dumbstruck, surrounded by other idiots, he knew he’d give his life to protect him if necessary. He knew he wouldn’t hesitate. It was for Lily, and he had loved Lily with all his heart, but when he kept saving Potter’s life again and again he was saving the life of someone whose heart was still beating.
He hadn’t started caring for Harry now.
He always cared.
“Always,” said Severus.