“Harry,” Hermione said after a drawn-out silence. “This is the most ridiculous idea I’ve ever heard.”
“I’m not sure about it either, mate.” Even Ron looked at him as if he suggested a nargle hunt. “If you’re that desperate to learn what the Ferret is up to, we’ll have better luck trying the Polyjuice again.”
“You could put your newfound potions genius to good use,” Hermione said snidely, unable to resist the opportunity to needle him about the Half-Blood Prince’s book. “Even following a complete stranger’s untested instructions is safer than what you are suggesting here.”
They were sitting in front of the fireplace in Gryffindor’s common room, a rare occasion now that Ron was spending most of his evenings snogging the face off Lavender, and Hermione hers plotting their unfortunate demise. Harry did not even want to imagine the atmosphere in the sixth year girls’ dormitory. Ron had been telling them about his father’s briefcase that, in addition to holding all his paperwork, served as a tool kit, first aid kit, lunch box and once hid Arthur himself from a murderous cursed fridge. It should not have been surprising, given Moody’s trunk and the camping tents at the Quidditch World Cup, but Harry only now considered the possibilities. Unfortunately, his friends did not appreciate his brilliant plan.
“It worked out well for those Ancient Greek wizards Binns told us about,” Harry said, revealing his other source of inspiration.
“Of all the times you could decide to pay attention to History of Magic…” Hermione trailed off, tugging at a loose curl. “You know, I was thinking about experimenting with the Extension Charm on a bag the other day, actually. Just in case.”
“Hermione!” Ron clutched his chest in mock disbelief. “They are regulated by the Ministry! You aren’t thinking about going against the rules, are you?”
She harrumphed. “We all know there are situations where you just have to do what’s right.”
Harry nodded, remembering how she had set Snape on fire in their first year. Come to think of it, scolding Harry for spying on Malfoy was the height of hypocrisy coming from Hermione, the instigator of the original Polyjuice plan. “I know you don’t believe Malfoy is a Death Eater,” he said.
“You-Know-Who must be really desperate for minions to give any real position to the git,” Ron said.
“But you can’t deny he’s up to something,” Harry soldiered on. “Probably something evil. Whether he’s working on another batch of Potter Stinks badges or on Dumbledore’s assassination, we just need to know.”
Ron and Hermione exchanged looks. The three of them had this conversation many times already, and even though Harry’s friends were still sceptical about the whole Death Eater thing, they could not deny that some plot was afoot. For all Malfoy obviously fancied himself a master of cunning and clever deceit, he had the subtlety of a brick.
Hermione bit her lip. “Fine. But if anything goes wrong, don’t say I didn’t tell you so.”
Harry was ready to order a new briefcase when he had the ingenious idea to ask Dobby, and the little elf was more than happy to help. One of the many iterations of the Room of Requirement turned out to hold all the things lost or abandoned by generations of students. Soon enough, they found a worn but sturdy briefcase not far from the Vanishing Cabinet Fred and George had stuck Montague in last year. Getting him out had apparently been more difficult than Harry imagined, because the cabinet stood half-disassembled.
It was another week before everything was ready, but Hermione simply refused to speed up the process, telling Harry in a voice that brooked no argument that he would thank her for her thoroughness later. She fiddled and tinkered with the briefcase in a disused Charms classroom, banning Harry and Ron from it on the second day. Finally, after spending his Friday afternoon in preparations—and begrudgingly doing all of his homework at Hermione’s insistence—Harry was ready for his mission.
The Owlery met them with a drowsy rustling of feathers: its inhabitants were dozing off after the night of hunting. In a flash of white, Hedwig swooped from her perch under the high ceiling to settle on Harry’s shoulder.
“Sorry, girl,” he said, petting her. “But I’m going incognito today.”
She nipped his ear reproachfully.
“I promise I’ll send you with a letter soon. To the twins, maybe.” This would let Hedwig stretch her wings. Before, she could at least deliver letters to Sirius, but now Harry did not have much work for her. His chest constricted painfully at the memory of Sirius.
“Fred and George would approve of this plan,” Ron said thoughtfully. “Or at least find it funny.”
“Which is another reason not to go through with it,” said Hermione.
Decisively, Harry put the briefcase on the floor and opened it. “It’s time.”
Despite his worries, the inside was quite roomy and did not feel like his old cupboard at all. There were windows on each wall showing the outside world, even though outwardly the smooth brown leather betrayed no sign of them. Before he climbed inside, Hermione put an old-fashioned aviator helmet they had found in the Room of Requirement on his head.
“I don’t need it,” Harry protested, looking up at their enlarged faces. He really could do without a close-up of his friends’ nostrils in his brain.
“Yes, you do. And don’t you dare take it off! I’ve put a few protective charms on it.”
Ron lowered a hamper to him. “Some food from the kitchen. Since you’re missing breakfast.”
“There’s enough to eat for two days!”
But arguing about food with Ron was more pointless than arguing safety with Hermione, so Harry took it, fighting the urge to roll his eyes. He would never tell Ron that, but sometimes his friend was just like his mum.
The briefcase snapped close over his head, and he heard Hermione muttering sealing spells. Nobody should be able to open it before Harry unlocked it from the inside.
“Good luck, mate.” The window showed Ron rapping his fingers on the outside surface. “Deliver it to Draco Malfoy,” he said to a big brown owl that flew over.
During the short trip from the Owlery to the Great Hall, Harry had time to appreciate the helmet and the padded walls Hermione had charmed extra soft. He was starting to understand why wizards did not consider mailing themselves with their owls to be a valid method of travel. This was almost worse than that time Harry was stuck in a car with an absolutely pissed Uncle Vernon at the wheel. At least his owl was not rambling drunken complaints about politicians, Harry, roads, good-for-nothing layabouts (read: Harry), other drivers and Harry again.
The briefcase was released unceremoniously with a stomach-lurching drop right in the middle of the Slytherin table, splashing porridge over one of the windows and Malfoy’s pointy face.
“What is this, Draco?” Parkinson’s voice simpered from above.
“No idea.” Malfoy turned the briefcase in his hands, flinging Harry from wall to wall.
His seeker reflexes saved him from being hit in the face by various snacks flying out of the hamper. When Harry straightened again, an apple in one hand and a squished sandwich in the other, Malfoy was reading their note with barely restrained panic. Harry and Ron had had many ideas, but Hermione had overruled them all, reasoning that vagueness would make Draco come up with whatever explanation he found most probable himself.
Await further instructions,
it read in generic Dictaquill handwriting. Unsurprisingly, Hermione was once again right. Malfoy looked positively terrified.
Studying his pointy face up close for the first time, Harry could not help but notice how drawn it was, dark circles pronounced under his grey eyes. He looked very different from the self-assured prat boasting on the Hogwarts Express.
Malfoy stood, jerking the briefcase upwards, and rushed out the Great Hall, ignoring Parkinson and Goyle’s questions.
Even when pitching his plan to Ron and Hermione, Harry did not expect such a swift success. Next time, his friends had better not doubt his amazing ideas! Maybe Malfoy would even bring him to the Room of Requirement so Harry could finally see what he had been doing there.
His glee turned out to be short-lived, because just outside the Great Hall, his front window zoomed in on the bottom of a black robe blocking Malfoy’s path.
“What’s in the briefcase, Draco?” Snape’s smooth voice asked from above.
“With all due respect, Professor”—Harry had never heard Malfoy talk to Snape in such a disrespectful tone—“my mail is my own business.”
“And it’s my authority and duty as a schoolmaster to check suspicious packages. Follow me.”
Malfoy obediently tagged after Snape to his old dungeon office he still occupied even though Slughorn taught Potions now. From the way Malfoy twitched, Harry got the feeling he was fighting the urge to bolt. Yes, Harry thought, bolting right now seemed like an excellent idea. But of course, Malfoy never did what Harry wanted.
“I don’t know who it’s from,” Malfoy said when the door closed behind them. “Probably Potter playing some stupid prank on me.”
Despite trying to sound convincing, it was clear he did not believe this, and, more surprisingly, neither did Snape. Since the man was always willing to believe the worst of Harry, this could only mean Malfoy did have some nefarious plan in motion, and Snape knew it. Had Voldemort really given him an assignment? Absently taking a bite out of the apple, Harry, eager to learn more, pressed his nose to the window. Despite looking like glass, it still felt like leather.
“If only you confided in me, Draco, I’d be able to help you.” Or, perhaps, Snape knew of it. Did he want to steal all the glory for himself? Even though Dumbledore always said that he trusted the dungeon bat, Harry had his doubts.
“I don’t need your help!” Malfoy’s voice rose high.
Harry cheered for him to stay strong. With Snape’s help, he had a chance to actually succeed at whatever he was doing.
“Very well,” Snape said peevishly. “If you insist on behaving like a stubborn child. Open it.”
Slowly, Malfoy put the briefcase on the chair and tried the latches. After a few unsuccessful attempts, Snape jostled him aside and cast several increasingly intricate unlocking spells. With each one, Harry’s palms got sweatier, but Hermione’s spellwork held. Something told him if the briefcase opened now, he would not get away with simply scrubbing cauldrons in detention.
Curiously, he was not the only one nervous. Malfoy’s hands were balled into fists, eyes trained on the briefcase.
After what felt like forever, Snape lowered his wand. “You may go, Draco. This might take some time.”
Oh no. No, no, no. Harry was not too bothered by the prospect of the Ferret catching him, especially armed with a few handy spells from the Prince. Snape, however, was a different beast. It would be bad enough if he thought it was a prank, but expecting something serious and finding Harry with a picnic basket inside? He was screwed.
Malfoy looked like he was going to argue but then deflated and nodded in resignation. Harry thought that despite all his protests, Malfoy was glad to make the briefcase somebody else’s problem.
After he left, Snape inspected the briefcase from every side, sending Harry flying again.
“Perhaps a revealing acid?” he muttered under his breath, turning to a cabinet on the other side of the office.
Harry vividly imagined some caustic potion corroding its way through the leather to pour on his head. Will the helmet hold? He wouldn’t put it past Hermione to charm it against minor hexes and falling farmhouses, but who could predict acid rain?
Before Snape could get anything, however, he froze mid-step and clutched his left arm. The initial relief that flooded Harry dissipated at the realisation of what exactly the gesture meant.
Snape summoned a black cloak and a Death Eater mask that he stuffed in his pocket, swearing under his breath. Harry snorted. Snape had unwittingly managed to teach him more today than over the last month of lessons, expanding not only Harry’s unlocking spells catalogue but also his vocabulary. Could one really do that to a niffler?
With a last wary look in the briefcase’s direction, his eyes unknowingly landing on Harry through the window, he strode out of his office.
Waiting exactly five minutes in case Snape decided to return for something, Harry got out. He had failed to learn anything about Malfoy, and his friends would not let him live this trip down any time soon, but at least he hadn’t been caught.
He had been too optimistic. The door was locked, and Alohomora did nothing to open it. Neither did the two spells Harry picked up from Snape just now. Wishing he had remembered more, he got back into the briefcase.
One thing Harry probably should have but had not anticipated when getting ready for the many dangers of his mission was boredom. He wished he had thought to grab the Prince’s textbook. He could bet the Half-Blood Prince would be a much better Potions teacher than Snape or even Slughorn: he always had some witty remark that made Harry almost interested in the subject. Besides, it would be a fitting read in this office, still very much Potions-themed. Harry shivered, watching as the eyes in the jar above Snape’s desk zoomed in on the briefcase and stared right at him. Feeling childish, he stuck his tongue at them. The eyes rolled up.
Two hours slogged by, during which Harry learned the layout of Snape’s office by heart. He had been there before, of course, most notably for the blasted Occlumency lessons, but never looked past the most disgusting ingredients. It turned out the office held much more curiosities than was obvious at a first glance. A couple of muggle chemistry books fit among magical tomes along with the same edition of Sherlock Holmes stories that the Dursleys had—and never touched—in their living room, and Harry was reasonably sure the beetles in a tinted jar between the murtlap tentacles and some glob of mustard-coloured mucus were, in fact, Cockroach Clusters from Honeyduckes.
Just when he talked himself into popping out again to take a quick look, the door opened, and Snape swayed inside. Was he drunk? Death Eaters probably got up to all kinds of things in their meetings. Maybe that was part of the reason why Malfoy wanted to join them so desperately. Spending time with two semi-sentient bricks with fists and Parkinson for a girlfriend could not be very exciting.
All silly thoughts left Harry’s mind when he noticed Snape’s pain-filled expression.
With effort, Snape opened the nearest cabinet, but the vial he grabbed slipped through his shaking fingers to shatter at his feet. Groaning, he sagged down on the floor in a black heap.
“Damn.” He could not just leave the man like that. Sighing, Harry opened the briefcase from inside and hopped out. He would be in detention until Voldemort finally came to kill him.
Snape’s eyes widened as he saw Harry. “What—? Hallucinations already?” He groaned.
He must be in even worse shape than he looked if he could not summon the energy to berate Harry properly, and he looked as lively as a Dementor.
“Let me take you to the Hospital Wing, Professor,” Harry said, but Snape shook his head.
“N-no,” he managed, his teeth chattering. “Get out.”
“I don’t think so.” Harry imagined Dumbledore’s reproachful look at their next Voldemort backstory lesson; better have the Headmaster disappointed at Harry for trying to spy on Malfoy than for letting his spy die.
Thankfully, there was another vial like the one Snape had broken, a purple potion labelled ‘Nerve Restorer’. Fuck. Cruciatus exposure. Madam Pomfrey made him drink one just like that after he got back from the graveyard at the end of his fourth year.
Only when he kneeled to feed the potion to Snape, did he notice that the robes were soaked with the blood. A lot of blood. He couldn’t see where it came from, some of it getting on his own clothes as he put the vial to Snape’s lips. He kept a tight hold on it. He would not panic. He would not panic. “You’re wounded, sir. We need Madam Pomfrey.”
Snape jerked his head stubbornly again and waved his hand. A section of the bookcase shimmered and turned into a door.
Taking the hint, Harry slung Snape’s hand over his shoulder and tried to pull him up. Using magic seemed to deplete the last of Snape’s resources, and his eyes rolled back in his head.
“Don’t you dare to die on me, Professor,” Harry said, hoisting him with a grunt. To his surprise, Snape was not much taller than Harry but heavier than he looked. “Imagine dying in the hands of your most hated student. You should pull through on spite alone. Just think of all the points you’re going to take off Gryffindor. Do you really want to miss that?” Good thing his housemates could not hear him now, but he was not above appealing to Snape’s Potterphobic nature if that meant he would pull through. Harry was sick of death following him everywhere he went. “If you die, I…” Harry flailed, trying to come up with a suitable threat. “I’ll name my son after you!”
Snape shuddered against him. “You do that...” he ground out. “And I’ll... haunt you... till the end of your days.” He managed the last steps to the door with barely any help after that, so Harry surmised that the strategy of annoying him out of dying must have been working.
The door led to a living room, so normal and cosy in comparison to the office that Harry doubted for a moment it belonged to Snape. Maybe a closer look would reveal a bat under the ceiling, but Harry did not have time for it. Another door stood half-ajar, showing a glimpse of a bed, and he carried Snape there. His Professor was going to kill him tomorrow anyway, so he might as well get him comfortable.
Snape drifted in and out of consciousness as Harry unbuttoned his robe, revealing a white shirt soaked in blood, the metallic smell overpowering.
“Fuck,” Harry muttered, pushing the shirt up, breathing through his teeth. That looked bad. Really bad. He tried to remember the spell Tonks had used to heal his nose. “Episkey!”
“Try... Vulnera Sanentur,” Snape rasped.
After several increasingly shouty attempts, the wound closed. Snape would surely give him a T on his next Defence lesson for not using non-verbal magic, he thought stupidly as he sagged on the edge of the bed. When he looked up, Snape was staring at him weirdly.
“What on Earth... is that... thing on your head, Potter?” he asked.
Flushing, he yanked off the aviator helmet and watched, horrified, as Snape lost consciousness again. Forgetting his embarrassment, Harry shook him by the shoulder, eliciting only a faint moan.
“Professor!” he cried, leaping to his feet. Oh God, should he call Madam Pomfrey, after all? But Snape did not want to go to the Hospital Wing. He paced along the bed in agitation. What would Hermione do?
The Hermione in his mind tartly informed him that she would not get into such a situation in the first place. Then she told him to calm down.
Taking a deep breath, Harry forced himself to still and inspect Snape. With trembling hands, he removed Snape’s bloody robe and shirt completely, revealing no more wounds but an angry bruise on his chest. Harry stared at his skinny frame and pronounced ribs. What if one of them was broken? What if Snape was now bleeding inside?
Squashing the panic that started to rise again, he levitated a bed cover over Snape, praying he would not remember Harry tucking him in. Snape was bound to be livid. No matter. Angry Snape meant alive Snape. What wouldn't he give to have Sirius or Cedric be angry at him now.
Desperate for something to do, Harry spotted beads of sweat on Snape’s forehead and went off in search of a towel. The bathroom, like the living room, was surprisingly normal, and contrary to many students’ beliefs, Snape did own a bottle of shampoo. It was the same brand Neville used.
Settling a green and silver towel on Snape’s head, Harry remembered that he was in the Potion’s Master’s quarters and made a foray back to the office. The potions cabinet was fully stocked, and Harry grabbed Fever Reducer and Blood Replenisher from the shelf, resolving to try them later if Snape’s condition did not improve. While he was there, he checked the door, which opened easily now. With a sigh, he closed it again and locked it.
Snape spent the night in fitful sleep, but his fever broke by dawn. Harry watched the first rays of the sun colour the dark waters outside the window. He was completely knackered and confused, trying to reconcile his hateful Professor with the vulnerable man in this bedroom with its fluorescent rubber plant in the corner and muggle crime novel on the night table.
Figuring he could leave Snape alone now, he stood up from the chair by the bed, stretched his stiff limbs and put the book back, next to the food hamper. He was so close to finding out who really killed Mrs Hicklebottom, but staying longer and chancing his Professor waking up was not worth it. The spiky commentary in the margins hinted at another piece of the puzzle, and Harry would have to think about it later.
When he was already in the doorway, a voice called him. “Potter.”
“Sir?” He braced himself for the explosion.
“Don’t forget your helmet.”
On Monday, Harry lingered in the Defence classroom. During the lesson, Snape acted as if nothing had happened, and Harry felt oddly disappointed. The Half-Blood Prince’s book burned a hole in his pocket. Just a few days ago, he would have felt terribly betrayed by the revelation of the Prince’s identity. Now, although he still was coming to terms with the idea, it made sense to him. Snape could be darkly funny—usually at Harry’s expense—and the Prince had a certain mean streak. Harry was glad he had not thought to try that ‘For Enemies’ spell on Malfoy yet.
The Prince also seemed to be a much more sensitive soul than his adult version. He drew flowers on the pages, for Merlin’s sake! Harry froze, realising that those flowers were exclusively lilies. No, there were limits to his acceptance. It was just a coincidence. Just like that SS+LE inscription inside the suspiciously heart-shaped shrivelfig picture on page 348. It meant absolutely nothing.
Harry gestured for Ron and Hermione not to wait for him. They had seen Snape intercept Malfoy with the briefcase and were now cross with Harry for acting cagey about what actually happened after they spent the night increasingly worried. Apparently, they had been planning his breakout from Snape’s clutches had he not turned up by morning. The magnificent plan, according to Ron, who had sounded rather disappointed, involved his Invisibility Cloak and quite a few contraband products from Fred and George’s shop.
Fortunately for Harry, the night also resulted in Lavender getting the wrong impression and dumping Ron, so his friends had more than enough drama to focus on besides him.
He waited for the last student—twitchy Malfoy sending Harry death glares—to leave and came over to Snape’s desk, discreetly wiping his sweaty palms on his robe.
“What do you want, Potter?” Snape asked without raising his eyes from the parchment he was reading.
Should he ask how Snape was feeling? Mention the Prince? Finally, he settled on, “I wanted to know who killed Mrs Hicklebottom. Was it her sister?”
“You don’t think it was the duplicitous butler?” Snape asked after a moment of silence.
“He acts too much like a villain to really be one. Sir.”
Snape pursed his lips and made a complicated gesture with his wand. The book appeared on the desk. “No dog-earing. Now stop bothering me and make yourself scarce unless you want to end up in detention.”
Grinning, Harry grabbed the book and scapered. Maybe his mission was a success after all.