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The Dark Lord says, "He failed."

Severus imagines that in the minds of Dark Lords, things are that simple. He supposes that yes, technically Draco did fail, but what does it matter, really? Dumbledore is--

What the Dark Lord wanted is done, and Draco is here, at Severus' side. In light of that, failure seems something of an academic concept, unimportant except to while away some time. Severus doesn't see the Dark Lord as having a lot of time to while, but then, that's why Severus is the Death Eater and the Dark Lord is the Dark Lord.

Or something like that.

He can feel Draco draw a breath in at his side. Severus' Legilimens comes to him so quickly, so naturally that he's not even entirely sure he's managed it for a second. Do you want to bloody well live?

Draco exhales.

Severus says, "Yes, My Lord, he did fail."

"Do not think, Severus, that I do not hear the objection in that statement."

"No, My Lord."

"You think I should afford him another chance."

"I think that were one so young capable of eradicating a wizard such as Albus Dumbledore you would be forced to kill him yourself. As it is, you may set another task for him, and see if he might not be a useful operative in lesser ways."

Severus can feel the irritation coming off of Draco in waves. Were he not Occluding so thoroughly, he is sure it would be enough to knock him from his feet. But Draco did fail. Severus takes extra care to Occlude his bitter, sharp pleasure at that thought.

The Dark Lord's eyes glow a dull red as he narrows them. "Another task?"

Severus tilts his head respectfully, and does not say anything. The bait has been laid.

"There are certainly other things that must be accomplished."

Severus is well aware. The plans he and Albus laid will only take care of so many of those things. If he is lucky, the Dark Lord will assign Draco one of them.

"The Mudblood. The one Potter is so fond of."

Severus heaves an internal sigh. Of course. "Yes, my lord?"

"A slow-working diffindo I believe, aimed internally."

Internal spells were seventh year material. Not that Severus didn't think Draco could manage; he most likely could with a little tutoring. Granger, however, was too important. Severus would have to think of something. He was forever having to think of something.

Next to him, Draco has the sense to say, "Yes, my lord, it will be my pleasure," without allowing his voice to tremble.

The Dark Lord's eyes swim with inward amusement and Severus has just enough time to think, no before Draco is hit by the very curse he will be expected to perform.

The Dark Lord waits until Draco has lost the ability to scream to reverse the effects. From everything he has read, Severus knows that the reversal is as painful--if not moreso--as the curse itself.

The Dark Lord laughs as he leaves, says, "Do with him as you will, Severus. You have rather pleased me this day."

*


Hands pull him up and the pain is staggering, but there is a small whisper in his brain--familiar if not comforting--that says, here is not safe. Draco would laugh, if merely the thought didn't cause pain. Nowhere is safe anymore, not the Manor, not Hogwarts, nowhere.

There's walking, at least Draco thinks it's walking. The pain is distracting.

The voice nudges, drink, and Draco does, because he knows the voice, and he cannot imagine the pain becoming any worse. He cannot.

The pain dulls a bit then, enough so that he can think, can place the voice. "Professor."

"I believe that arc of our relationship has come to an abrupt end."

It took Draco three months of school not to stumble over "professor." It is as easy as the barest of levitation charms to say, "Severus."

"Breathe," he says. "The potion needs air."

Draco forces air into his diaphragm. It burns and twists and cuts and then releases, and suddenly breathing is easy, instinctive, again. "Right."

"Can you do it?"

Draco's mind doesn't even bother giving him options for "it." "I--"

"Honestly."

Draco thinks about Granger, her stupid ideas and her muddied bloodlines, and the way that he used to know, used to be so sure that made her less, less unto nothing, but is stomach was still rippling in an unsettling manner, and all he can think of is how her hair whipped in the wind that day she had held him at wandpoint. He had hated her with everything in his thirteen year-old body, every bloody thing.

It had been a child's hate, similar to the hatred he had born for Albus Dumbledore, who was dotty and always, always favored the other children and who had been alive.

"Severus, I'm sorry."

Severus' laugh surprises Draco, as does his, "I wish I could be."

Draco blinks. Severus says, softly, "Granger is too important. I couldn't have allowed that. It is best that I would not have had to. It is best that you have somehow managed to understand that life is of value. All life."

Draco takes another breath, because he cannot figure out how to do anything else. "Granger is--"

Severus does not finish his sentence for him. He does nothing other than watch Draco. Breathing, once again, becomes complicated. Draco says, "I don't--" but he does, and maybe he has understood for a while. Maybe. This year has been so focused, so narrow, so father, mother, father, mother but maybe, in the periphery, there have been signs.

"Traitor," he says, but it's not an invective. It might be a question.

Severus takes it that way. "Yes." He doesn't move.

Draco thinks, mother, father, he thinks of angry brown eyes and a wand trembling at his throat. He thinks of how he walked away from that anger, whole and only slightly shaken. "Good."

*


There are hundreds of ways to fake Granger's demise, but none of them are reliable. None of them are near enough to foolproof for Severus to consider them. There is, in fact, only one strategy that bears thinking of, and it requires that Severus contact the Order.

Contacting the Order, of course, will undo everything he has managed to accomplish.

Perversely, he wishes Albus were here to talk things over with. Albus' moral compass was always more comforting than his own, regardless of whether it was actually more north-pointing or not. But now there is only the choice between Granger and Draco, between his cover and Draco, between possible victory and Draco.

Severus knows what Albus would have chosen.

Suddenly, it is comforting not to have to hear that judgment spoken. He cannot bend to it.

Severus has never much cared about the big picture, not if he couldn't see what mattered to him in the details of things. Albus was always good at finding those strokes of the brush. Much better so than the Dark Lord, who was all about wide, broad, strong swaths of paint, bright and blinding.

Severus learned how to see despite the glare.

There are options for whom he can contact within the Order. There is always Minerva. She is the most likely to know something of Albus' plans. She is the most likely to remember the countless small truces between them over the years, often at his behest.

There is Kingsley, who has a policy of listening before hexing.

There is Lupin, who owes him in blood and time.

There is Nymphadora, who is Draco's cousin and was his student and who used to smile at him even when he was quite sure she shouldn't have had any cheer left in her.

There is Granger herself, who is too smart for her own good, and who does have a surprising grasp of the big picture.

Telling Granger is, by default, telling Weasley and Potter, but is also most likely eventually unavoidable at some level, whether he is the one to speak directly to her, or whomever else he chooses.

Telling Nymphadora is equally likely to be telling Lupin as well.

Telling Minerva leaves her with just one more burden settled squarely on those increasingly aged shoulders.

Severus tracks down Kingsley at the pub he frequents with the other Aurors. It is an insane place to corner him, insane enough that Severus knows he will not get caught. Not by either side.

Severus magically compels Kingsley to stay a bit later than his fellows one evening and joins him at the table. There is a tiny, miniscule moment when he drops his glamour for Kingsley and Kingsley only. He does not move and Severus knows he has made the right decision.

Kingsley takes a sip and says, "I'm betting this is one amazing story."

One they don't have time for, not then. Severus nods tightly. "Third stone to the right next to the door that leads from Albus' office to his quarters. It's hollow. Inside is a ring. The stone is a Binding Stone. It will tell you what you need to know."

Speaking truth into a Binding Stone seals a contract far more completely than even a blood bond, or magically imbued ink. Severus and Albus both spoke truth into the ring.

"Let's assume that I believe you." Kingsley gestures for him to go on.

"The Dark Lord has contracted to have Hermione Granger killed."

"You believe we don't have people on the three of them at all times?"

"Draco Malfoy has been ordered to the task."

Severus sees as the implication flashes through Kingsley's eyes. He asks, "You have a plan?"

"Nothing that will work."

"We can't give you--"

"Much. But if there could be a distraction. If the Dark Lord could be stalled in his realization. I will deal with things from my end."

"I will see if anything can be done."

"The others cannot know."

Kingsley's smile is sharp, not particularly pleased. "You should not be here."

"Protect the children," Severus says, and it is not a kind order.

Kingsley raises his glass to the sentiment.

*


Draco notes, almost off-handedly, that Severus is unaccounted for quite a bit. He considers, for a moment, asking where he goes all time, but realizes rather quickly that after a year of being responsible for everything he is perfectly fine with simply waiting for Severus to tell him only what he needs to know.

What Severus says on the matter--finally, when Draco is beginning to wonder if perhaps he is going to have to do some thinking of his own--is, "Learn these." There is a barrage of spells then, so quick that Draco almost can't keep all of them straight, but he does because this is too serious to do anything else. Then he goes off to learn the spells, learn them until he can cast them in his sleep.

They are not easy. Draco can't figure out why until he begins to feel the shifting layers of the magic, begins to realize how different magic hides underneath the seeming intent of each spell.

Draco figures out eventually that the spells themselves are not important. What is important is the art of throwing off one spell and actually effecting another.

Draco figures out that sooner or later he will have to say the words to a spell that ripped him open, nearly bled him dry without a mark, and will have to mean something else. Something else that will look good, will look right, will look as though it matches those words. Something else that saves Hermione Granger's life.

Draco reads as many books as he can without catching the attention of other Death Eaters. He doesn't want questions as to what he is doing.

He doesn't find anything useful, which leads him back to where he started, to where he feels like he ends up all the time of late. He hates to go there, hates to interrupt Severus when the muscles of his shoulders are drawn up, and there are bruises that run from corner to corner of each of this eyes. But he says, "Severus?" and Severus says, "What is it, Draco?"

He only sounds tired, not angered.

Draco says, "I can't find the right spell. The one for. . .underneath."

Severus' gaze rests on him then, and it's blank, except that Draco thinks that's his way of expressing when he's been startled. "No."

"No?"

"I haven't completed it yet."

Draco has always known that Severus is brilliant. Even in his most disdainful moments, he has been peripherally aware of the man's ability to control magic like one of the errant students, to bend it to his mind and his will. He cannot help but simply repeat, "You have not completed it?"

Severus sounds amused as he says, "It is mildly complicated magic."

Draco knows that spells can be created, of course they can, or how would there have been spells in the first place? But the thought of actually creating one. . . "Severus."

And suddenly Severus smiles, actually smiles. It's quick and thin, but it is a smile. Draco smiles back out of sheer, shocked instinct. He stutters, "Is there-- Can I help?"

"Has any of your research proved useful at all?"

"I haven't been thinking in these terms."

Severus nods.

Draco hesitates and then asks, quietly, "You've spoken to them, haven't you?"

Severus says, "Work on your end of the problem, Draco."

Draco's starting to feel that not only do both ends land firmly in his lap, but every point in between. All the same, he says, "Yes, right."

*


The problem isn't that spells are hard to form--at least, they never have been to Severus; he knows others would disagree. The problem is that this particular spell has to be hidden in another to begin with, and has to have a masking effect of its own. It is a purely mimicking spell. It will give the afflicted the appearance of having been hit by the correct curse, and then, as appropriate, of being dead.

The latter needs to hold for at least half-an-hour. There aren't many limits to magic, but they exist and of late Severus feels as though he does nothing but run up against them.

He'd really like a vacation. Severus promises himself one just as soon as the Dark Lord has been vanquished and gets back to working on the problem immediately in front of him.

He is starting to validly panic that he won't be able to manage, that he will have to give Draco to Kingsley and tell the latter to hide him, that he will be left to figure out how to protect Lucius and Narcissa, neither of whom he feels any particular responsibility toward.

Then he does what he should have done all along: thinks in terms of potions.

He finds Kingsley again. It's easier this time, which is disconcerting, but he gets the feeling Kingsley has been waiting for him, making it simpler. He asks, "You went to Albus' office?"

Kingsley nods. "You have a plan?"

"You know what Draught of Breathing Death is?"

Kingsley doesn't hide his surprise. "It goes Living Death one better, people who have taken it have been buried alive. But it takes longer to kick in, yes?"

"Particularly if one adds some cane sugar. It takes roughly twenty-five minutes for the effects to become visible."

"So if she drank it, say, twenty minutes before she met up with Malfoy and his cronies--"

"Yes."

"And he'll make it look good?"

"Worry about your end."

"Speaking of, can anyone who's not you brew Breathing Death?"

"Come up with an excuse to have Horace brew it. He's perfectly capable. Depending on how much you feel up to telling Miss Granger, she is most likely as well."

"Can I tell her you said so?"

"Under no circumstances. Aside from which, do you truly believe she would make the attempt were you to do so?"

Kingsley smiles. "I think she would surprise you. I think most people would, were you to give them chance."

"One's heart can only handle so much shock, would you not agree? And you need me. Best I not risk it."

"Well then, perhaps when we need you less, and simply desire your presence more."

Severus looks at him. Kingsley's smile never falters, if anything, it deepens.

Severus says, "Tell them that they will not have long after this. Particularly should anyone discover the ruse."

"They know."

"Tell them in any case."

"Very well, Severus. They shall hear it from me."

Severus stands and is about to leave when it occurs to him to turn around and say, "Thank you."

Kingsley blinks. "Yes. Of course."

Severus laughs shortly at that.

*


When Severus explains the plan to Draco, he asks, "Understood?"

Draco says, "Yes." It is. All things told, it is a fairly simple plan. There will be a pre-planned raid. Potter, Weasley and Granger will be there because Severus' information has come from them--or, at least, someone who speaks with them. Draco will have several Death Eaters as witnesses. Severus will not be among them.

He must cast the words they expect to hear, but in truth throw off the underlying spell, the one Severus has taught him with no little difficulty. Most of all, he must time it right, he must wait for Granger to throw a specified hex of her own at him, or the potion that Severus has told the Order to have her take will not take effect once the masking portion of the faux-curse is done, and all this will be for naught.

From there it is up to Potter and Weasley to get Granger out of there, to not, under any circumstances, allow her or themselves to be captured. Draco, of course, must work to help them without the accompanying Death Eaters having so much as a pre-conceived notion of suspicion.

Severus asks, "Can you do it?"

Draco says, "Yes," because there are no other options. He thinks he can. Really, it's more that he hopes he can. But his mother and father are still alive, and Severus is helping him to stay that way, so Draco figures hope has gotten him pretty far up until now.

Severus narrows his eyes at him, as though he is listening to all of these thoughts. Draco knows he isn't. Trusts that he isn't. Severus simply knows the odds as well as Draco does. For all that, he nods, and doesn't ask again.

His faith, more than anything--or, at the very least, his willingness to let Draco believe he has faith--makes Draco want his "yes," to be true. More, even, than the fact that people's lives--Granger's, his parents, his--depend on it.

The realization is not a comfortable one. Draco pushes it to the side. If he is not lying, there will be plenty of time to deal with it later. Or plenty of time to keep ignoring it.

Either way, now is not the moment to make that decision. Now is the moment to practice splitting incantations in his head, to remind himself to keep things slow, to listen for his cues, to do everything, everything as it must be done.

Draco repeats the plan to himself one more time.

And then another, after that.

*


The Order, per Severus' instructions, leaks the information of Potter, Weasley and Granger's latest whereabouts through Nymphadora unto another Auror, a Death Eater so junior Severus at times forgets her name.

Severus does not ask to go along on what he has come to think of as The Granger Raid. He does not need to legilimize the Dark Lord to know it would seem suspicious, protective.

Draco needs protection, but he needs the protection Severus provides to him alive and well-considered more than he needs any help with the Order--especially given that Kingsley, at the very least, is looking out for Draco on that end.

When this is all over, granting that they are both still alive, Severus is going to send Kingsley a fruit basket, with kiwi. Ripe kiwi is a bit hard to get and a sure sign of appreciation in Severus' book.

He cannot go, so he spends the hours while Draco is gone--Draco and Mulciber and Grayback, for fuck's sake, nothing by half measures, this time--preparing potions that only take half his attention. He manages to brew them properly, but only just. Silently, he is deeply thankful that potions is one discipline that took too much effort, too much concentration for Voldemort. He will not notice that these potions are of the sort Severus should be able to make with his eyes shut, his magic inhibited, his fingers paralyzed. On a good day, none of those would inhibit him.

Today, he feels as if his fingers have been cut off.

It is. . .annoying. Annoying is the right word. Severus has been in far more danger, has enacted deeds that made his stomach twist, turn inside out, and plain out refuse to right itself. He has endured neglect and scorn and torture.

Waiting for Draco to return "successful" is worse.

There is no reason for it. That Draco has been in his life for over seventeen years is certainly no reason. That Draco often smiles that arrogant, indolent Malfoy smile when he should be utterly cowed, when he should shiver and run from Severus is hardly one either. That Draco actually listens when Severus knows he is making it hard to--has purposely raised his own volume in the pursuit of sending the listener on his way--is so far from being a reason that Severus can hardly countenance the thought as it rises in his mind.

Draco is just a boy, just a student, just another fool who turned his arm over and waited until his own screaming began. Severus' mind knows this. Every other part of him refuses to accept.

It is, well, annoying.

What feels like a week, perhaps ten days, Severus knows is only three hours. Three hours, twelve minutes, and forty-seven seconds. About the time it should have taken.

The Death Eaters celebrate that night--even the fact that they have not managed to abscond with the body is not enough to keep them from their absinthe, their potions, their more macabre pleasures. Severus joins, because it is expected. He joins, because it is a way to see Draco. He joins, because it is safer than not joining.

In the morning, Draco looks at him with eyes that are sick from more than alcohol and the other poisons he has poured into himself at the urgings of the others. Severus knows he has no way to truly verify that Granger is alive, that Draco has not, in fact, cast a curse that he knows all too intimately, upon her.

Severus gives him yet more poison to douse himself with and says, "Sleep."

Draco imbibes without argument and something in Severus, something that keeps him cold and still with fear, settles.

*


Draco felt the mutli-layered slide of the spell coming off his fingertips, through the conductor his wand provided. He knows he didn't mess it up.

In his dreams, when Severus hasn't slipped him a dose of Dreamless out of pity--or perhaps fear that the others, sensing weakness, will pry--Draco sees Granger writhe and scream and still.

Writhe and scream and still, and it doesn't matter that the not-curse felt right, it looked right and so he sees it.

For the first time in his life, he wishes he could talk to Granger. She could say whatever she wanted, he just needs to see her mouth move, watch as air flow allows for her to generate thoughts, words. Since he cannot, Draco watches his mother, who is still alive and tells himself, "Even if, even if, it was worth it."

His nightmares beg to differ.

He wonders what Severus sees at night, and what he tells himself in the light of day to make it calm, to keep himself sane and functional and effective. He wonders if maybe it's only him that has these qualms but he doesn't think so. Severus seemed. . .not disappointed to know that they existed.

Draco is a regular participant in raids now--he can feel the Dark Lord's anticipation of his failure, although he cannot figure out if it is personal, or about things Draco has no insight into. Other images join Granger in his mind until it feels crowded, claustrophobic, but she stays prominent, pronounced.

Draco thinks it is simply because he knows her. That as fraught as their relationship may have been, it existed. After all, he never wanted to kill any of the familiars or elves around the Manor, expendable as they may have been.

Draco does not admit, not even to himself, that he would have missed the familiars and the elves. He does not acknowledge the fact that he does not have to love something to appreciate it, to desire its presence in some form.

He wants to say things to Severus, to ask questions. He doesn't. Not only because he can't afford to be overheard, can't afford to have memories of the conversations in his head, but because it is safest to leave Severus to his own devices, to let him do as he will, work his own machinations. Severus comes around often enough as it is, surreptitiously checking, supplying Draco with brews that made things slightly easier.

Occasionally his hand drifts into Draco's hair, along the line of Draco's shoulder. Draco will do his best not to follow the touch, to take what is given and no more. He can see the approval in Severus' eyes at his behavior, can hear it in the few words Severus says.

Draco has never in his life had to make do with enough, but he finds that Severus makes it easy, or, at least, easier than he would have thought possible.

Once he finds himself following the tense curve of Severus' wrist, wondering at the line of his arm, but he does not push the robe back. Instead he asks, "Is there anything--"

Severus cuts him off. "Attend to yourself, Draco."

It is something a Death Eater would say. That and, "Attend to Our Lord."

Notably, Severus does not say this last. Draco almost wishes he would. He has gotten into the habit of listening to Severus, built up from years of respecting elders--the Right Type of Elders, that is--and being Severus' pupil and now it is something more, something less definable and more binding. Whatever it is, Draco would listen, if Severus said it. But he does not, so Draco plays at attending, plays in ways that no game would ever acknowledge as "play."

He plays without being able to see the larger gameplan, without knowing what purpose he serves, or even if he does, indeed, serve one.

He plays and waits to see whose side will win. He's not even sure he would recognize his own side at the moment.

Not unless Severus were standing at its fore.

*


Severus goes to meet Kingsley at the place that Kingsley has specified. At least, Severus thinks he has. The signs were not entirely clear. This is for the best, as if Severus isn't wholly sure, then nobody around him who might have seen or noticed said signs will have any idea that they were even an encoded language. Still, he might be in the wrong place or have decided upon the wrong time. In truth, there are a plethora of reasons why Severus can imagine he might not actually end up meeting his contact.

Because his contact has switched himself out for Potter, Weasley and Granger isn't one that occurs to Severus, but it doesn't take him long to figure out that it should have.

Potter and Weasley both have their hands up their sleeves. Severus knows they are curled around their wands. He smirks in their direction.

Granger says, "Hello, professor."

Severus doesn't really feel the need to remind her that he's no longer her professor. "Miss Granger."

"I convinced Mr. Shacklebolt I deserved a chance to say thank you."

It isn't precisely the sort of thing one says, "you're welcome" for, so Severus doesn't. "And those two?"

Granger shrugs, a smile playing at her lips. "They insisted on accompanying me."

"Of course they did."

Weasley glowers. Potter tries for a glower, but there's too much confusion in the expression. Severus doesn't mind allowing the sanctimonious little git to wallow in his own uncertainty, not at all.

Granger pulls his attention back with, "There are two more horcruxes."

He knows what she is going to say to him even before she says it and if there were some way that a silencing spell or some other magical step could be taken to inhibit the words coming from her mouth, Severus would throw the spell off without even needing his wand, his desire to change what will happen once she has spoken is so great.

She says, "I cannot stay hidden indefinitely."

"You most certainly can."

He swears she comes very close to rolling her eyes at him. She manages not to. "Perhaps indefinitely. But not forever."

"How long will we have, once they know she's alive?" Weasley asks.

It is less a matter of how long they will have than how long Draco will have, but Severus is not about to tell them that. Not under any amount of duress. "A month, I would imagine. Maybe less."

"Assuming the Order cannot keep her safe," Potter says. He sounds as though he is making that assumption.

Granger says, "No, even then." Her voice is soft, and Severus has to wonder if she's caught on, if her quiet is collusion. He does not wish to feel gratitude, so he chooses to believe otherwise.

"A month isn't a very long time," Potter says, and now he simply sounds young and scared. The sound is familiar and Severus firmly does not allow himself to think about Draco.

"We'll figure out something," Granger tells him, her smile tremulous and unreal, but all the more promising for it.

Severus does not say he will help them. He has his own problems, and he has done as much for Potter as he can. As much as anyone could have asked. The words sound more unsteady--even in his head--than Potter's declaration of time quickly running out.

"Do not attempt to see me again," Severus says.

"And if we need something?" Weasley asks.

"Mr. Shacklebolt," Granger says.

"At least one of you has the mental capability to breath and talk at the same time," Severus says, and slips into the night to return to his own problems, as if they are so very long a distance from those of the people he has just left behind.

*


Severus is hiding something. Draco can feel it in the thrum of his breath when they stand next to each other, can see it in the way his face is just a little too blank whenever they speak. He would ask, but he's pretty sure he already knows. There are a plethora of things Severus keeps from him, he knows, and only one alters the way Severus interacts with him.

Time is running out.

He doesn’t know how Severus knows. He can't overly much be bothered to care.

And although he trusts Severus to figure something out, he does, Severus has already figured things out for him at least twice, and sooner or later his way of figuring things is bound to fail.

The only thing to do is remove his mother from the situation. His father cannot be removed. If Draco is honest, he knows his father would not allow himself to be removed even if he could be. Or perhaps he would--Draco has never inquired as to relative levels of self-preservation and loyalty where the Dark Lord is concerned.

Nonetheless, it is his mother he can do something for.

His mother and himself, but he won't be leaving. Not his father, and not Severus.

Evidently he didn't need to ask his father to figure out where his own priorities lie in relation to each other.

The knowledge is novel, something to think about later, when there is time to think, as opposed to survive.

It takes some effort to get his mother on her own, to have her to himself in a place where he can talk to her at all. When the tea has been poured, when they've asked each other how things have been, and chatted politics in a way that can only be considered small-talk, Draco says, "It occurred to me the other day, how is Xpianus?"

His mother blinks languidly. "Your cousin?"

"Yes."

"He's well. Why, dear?"

Draco has no cousin Xpianus. He does, however, have a non-magical holding in what was once Agincourt--the battleground at which St. Crispin gave his famous speech. Xpianus is a Romanized Crispin, but it will have to be close enough, have to do.

His mother has always liked word games. So far she has given nothing away.

Draco hopes she knows about the holding. He is aware his father did not always share the things Draco thought he should have with his wife. Draco smiles a vague smile, "Oh, nothing of import. It's simply been a long time since we've seen him. Perhaps in the near future we should try and visit?"

"Things are rather busy here, for the moment."

"Yes, of course," Draco says. He is as positive as he can be that she has understood without asking her. "For the moment."

She smiles at him, the expression somehow not as sharp as her usual practiced look of joy. "You are a good son. Always thinking of family."

It nearly breaks him. He nearly says, "I love you, mum." He catches himself, he has to. His smile is a counterpart to hers--not quite as edged as it should be. "I am the sole heir," is what he says instead.

"Yes," she says, "you are."

He knows then that she will do as he tells her, go where he sends her, do what she must to keep him alive. Even without her praise it is enough. With her praise it makes him want to sob, want to be the barely seventeen that he is.

The tea they are sharing--despite having cooled to a perfectly digestible temperature--burns at his throat.

*


Granger is spotted when the second to last horcrux is destroyed. Of course, nothing is said about the horcrux, no, nothing that might suggest the Dark Lord is on his absolute last leg. Severus would say something himself, except that things are bad enough as they are, and he really doesn't need to be upsetting the Dark Lord anymore than he already is. Not, that is, until he can kill him.

The thought burns in his stomach, and despite itself, the sensation is pleasant.

Lucius shows up in the stronghold of the Death Eaters the next day, and Severus hears his screams for a week.

He knows what the silence portends.

Narcissa has disappeared. He does not know to where. He does not want to know.

Draco, who Severus knows has been taken to watch the proceedings around Lucius, must be given into Severus' care.

Luckily, knowing this moment would come, he put a little something aside. Something the Dark Lord will take as a bribe without realizing what it is. Severus mentions, casually, "I have a new potion that might interest you, my lord."

New potions always interest the Dark Lord, and Severus knew this one would more than most. He'd only been hinting at wanting it since the First War.

The Dark Lord's eyes glow with interest.

The potion allows the user to tap into unwanded potential. The Dark Lord can do it of his own, but most of his followers cannot. And while the ability to function without a wand is not something a wizard cannot live without, it does simplify things enormously.

"It is not yet at its full potential," Severus tells him. "It still has to be taken at regular intervals for effectiveness to be achieved."

He waits a few days before hinting that some appreciation would not go amiss. It is not a large hint, simply another mention of the potion.

Another few days, another mention. Death Eaters have begun using it, it's usefulness has been proven. Severus is sure to mention this as well.

It worries him that he doesn't know where Draco is. He knew where Lucius was, there was no way to not know. He knows to whom Lucius was given. MacNair, Greyback and Dolohov have made that clear enough.

Draco is hidden, not even his mental signature to be found. Granted, that might be Draco's own doing, a self-protective move. Still, it is unsettling.

Severus smirks at the (already) rehashed tellings of Lucius' last days, smirks and plays the indifferent pet to his lord, the man who has no opinions or emotions that might conflict with Him by whom Severus is owned.

His Lord should know better, but Severus thinks that with each part of his soul, he cut off a bit of his foresight, his cleverness. He would have done better to lay aside immortality for his own mind, but then, that's just Severus' opinion.

Severus carefully does not consider what Draco must have felt watching. There are some things he is not sure that even he could hide. He has hidden Albus, and that was nearly too much to ask. He will not push himself past his own breaking point, it will do nobody any good.

Eventually, Severus gets what he wants, if not in the way he wants it. When Avery and MacNair leave hopped up on Wandless Variant #4 (he will come up with a more snappy title when he can sell it, rather than just giving it over to people who have no appreciation for the skill behind it) and come back with the body of one very dead Lupin--the Dark Lord has decided he needs to see results--said Dark Lord gets an idea. "It is easier for you, is it not, to have test subjects for your creations?"

A few choice mental words later, Severus has to wonder if it's too much to ask that one thing, just one bloody detail go well for him in all of this. Still, it is a way to at least know where Draco is, for short periods of time if nothing else.

"My lord is endlessly gracious," he says.

*


Draco has nearly gotten used to the seamlessness of the dark. At first it was tempting to close his eyes against it, until he learned that closing his eyes meant seeing things that weren't there. He has learned to keep his eyes open, assiduously.

There is rarely food and water. The only touch involves pain. Draco spends a lot of time thinking about his mum. He never thinks about where she is. He doesn't trust his Occlumency that much. He just thinks about her.

He does not allow himself to think about Severus.

When he can't hold on to the coherency of thoughts, he forces his mind to inane places: the last Prophet article he read; the arithmancy problem he could never figure out last term; quidditch scores.

He knows his ability to focus is fading. It terrifies him that he will give something away. He doesn't even know if anyone is paying attention. It's hard to believe they would be, locked away like this, sound and light and heat absent.

It's hard to believe, but Draco knows he must. Knows that if he stops he will be responsible for much more than father's death.

The thought makes him dry-heave, leaves him sweaty and shaken. He curls a little tighter, lifts as much of himself as he can from the stone floor. He counts seconds as he inhales and then, as he exhales. He keeps his eyes open.

He is struggling to keep his eyes open when a clean shaft of light fills the room and he has no choice but to squeeze them shut against the pain. In the moments when he is trying to block out the assault of light--it's white even behind his eyelids--there are hands on him and Draco jerks back.

"Draco."

For a second, Draco thinks he has lost control, that he has given into the urge to think of things he must not. Then he puts the events together in his head, slowly, the light, the hands, the voice. "Severus."

It doesn't come out as a full word, more a few consonants strung together.

Draco feels the edge of a glass at his lips. Severus says, "Slowly."

Draco sips at the proffered water. It is cold and clean and for a moment there is simply the ecstasy of having fluid. Severus says, "Shh," even though he hasn't spoken and Draco remembers that he has to keep his mind quiet, too.

"Severus," he says again.

Severus explains, "The Dark Lord has given you to me for testing purposes only. I cannot take you from here. I am attempting to get him to see that a valid test subject must be properly fed, but he is--"

"Severus," Draco repeats. It doesn't really mean anything. Mostly that he understands, he thinks he does. Draco curves his fingers over Severus' wrists and holds on.

Severus says, "There's broth."

Draco can't see. He doesn't know how Severus can, except perhaps by magic. The spoon comes to his lips, however and he takes the liquid. It's too hot, burning along his tongue and into his throat. He doesn't care. Food is the last thing he's going to complain about.

Finally he asks, "Tests?"

"Don't think about it. I won't hurt you."

The words make Draco laugh. He can't help it. He knows he can be hurt more, he knows he can, but it seems immaterial.

Severus allows him to laugh, even though he can feel the other man's discomfort with the incipient hysteria. Draco feels the spoon at his lips and obediently swallows.

When the spoon doesn’t return again, Draco says, "Nice to see you."

Without warning, Severus holds Draco's face in his hands. "Draco."

Draco waits, but he knows there isn't really anything to say.

Severus says, "I'll return."

Draco, for all that he probably shouldn't, believes him.

*


Severus tests the potions on himself. It's a bit hard to hide this fact--particularly when something goes wrong--but he manages with good timing and over twenty years of having built resistance to ingesting even the worst of potion mistakes.

He feeds Draco round after round of placebos, with the occasional pain or purging variant to make it look good. He tries to avoid purging as much as possible--Draco isn't getting enough food as it is.

A million times a day Severus considers his options, considers contacting the Order, asking them where the last horcrux is, taking care of things himself. He knows he can't, he knows it is idle--worse yet, foolish--speculation.

He can only convince the Dark Lord of his need to see Draco two to three times a week, and things have reached a point where all he is doing is watching Draco slip from sanity into something less. He won't sleep, and Severus knows why, but it is only expediting the process.

Not for the first time he wishes he had someone, anyone, to talk to, and the loss of Albus, the slow deterioration of Draco is like a fine, but deep wound to his gut, taking hours, days, weeks to kill him.

Draco still recognizes him, though, which is something.

Severus knows it won't last.

On the day when Draco asks where his father has gone, Severus knows time is limited, if it isn't out already.

He takes the risk of legilimising Draco, of reinforcing some of the mind patterns that will allow him to hold on. Draco blinks at him in the aftermath and says, "It's better when you don't."

Severus says, "I know," but he can't quite give up yet.

Draco nods, accepting the answer. He's gotten quite good at acceptance. Eight months earlier it would have made Severus' life easier. Now it feels like another fight lost.

Severus thinks Bella is suspicious, but the nice thing about Bella being certifiably mad is that the Dark Lord has a tendency to suspect she's, well, mad. Grayback is certainly suspicious, but the Dark Lord will take any whisperings from that quarter to be jealousy.

Severus has always, always been an active part of this conflict, regardless of what side he was acting on behalf of. It is torturous to wait for others--for Potter--to make a move so that things can proceed; torture to know that his only use now is to protect Draco, who cannot adequately be protected, not by Severus.

Albus would be disappointed, but it is unnecessary, because Severus' disappointment far outstrips what even the old man could have called up.

The week that Draco looks at him with confused, blank eyes Severus nearly walks out and kills the Dark Lord himself, just for the momentary satisfaction it would bring. He manages to restrain the impulse. This cannot be for nothing, it cannot be.

He does touch Draco's face and whisper, "Draco," but Draco doesn't seem to recognize his own name. Either that, or he's simply beyond paying attention.

Severus pokes at Draco's mind, but in a bizarre fit of gasping, desperate sanity, Draco has warded his mind so well that not even Severus can find a crack, a place to slip in and repair. It is for the best, of course, he wouldn't want anyone else thinking to look around, and the protection afforded touches Severus in ways he wishes it didn't.

He slips fully back into his own, lonely skull and ignores the bereft feel of having returned safely.

*


There is a wall around Draco's mind. He's not sure who put it there, but it seems important, so he leaves it alone. It seems like something a friend must have done, to help him. Protect him.

He doesn't have friends in this place. He knows what they are, his memory supplies pictures of two boys, rounded and giant and not particularly talkative. Sometimes he's talking to them, they are in this place, but then he remembers that they're not, and it's confusing that he's found them here, where they don't belong.

They go away when he remembers. He would hold off the memory, but his mind will just bring it along as it will, the same way it brings along memories that he would love to fight off with the sheer awareness of the event having happened at another time, but those are more tenacious.

Draco tires of seeing his hands compelled to curve around the handle of a knife, seeing his own fingers and palms and joints and muscles carve delicately into his father's stomach, at first nothing but blood and pleading spilling out with each cut, but soon enough parts of his father are draping his wrists, painting his skin red.

There is nothing to distract him here. Sometimes he thinks about wandering past the wall, but the wall is there for a reason, Draco can sense that much. He stays behind it, with the boys who never rescue him when he most needs it and his father and laughter that is not friendly, that always accompanies Draco's awareness of pain or fear.

At times, brief moments of quiet, there is a distraction. It is outside the wall, but for all that, Draco knows it's there. It's comforting, warm in a way this place isn't, strong in a way Draco knows he cannot be.

Those times, more than any other, Draco wants to knock past the wall, see what this distraction is, why it only comes sporadically and never stays.

By the time he gets up the nerve to so much as press his fingers against the barrier, the distraction is always gone.

Sensing weakness, it is usually then that the worst of the visions, the ones that Draco has trouble remembering aren't real--or at least, aren't happening now--swarm in on him. Sometimes they can hold him in their grip until the distraction returns. Draco would beg it to stay if he knew how.

For the moment, they can't seem to find him. He has found an alcove in the wall, a place to tuck himself away in. They will discover it, he knows. They always find him sooner or later.

For the moment, though, all is silent, silent and black and cold, and it is almost, almost a comfort.

*


The Dark Lord does not say a word when the last horcrux is destroyed. Severus wouldn't even know except that there is something, a shift in the magic coursing through the Mark. Nobody will mention it. Nobody will do anything except eye everyone else warily and try to figure out what this disruption of the normal portends.

For Severus, it portends hope--in the most terrifying way possible.

Potter must kill the Dark Lord. Severus would do it himself--it is his most private, most relished fantasy--but if there is one thing Severus knows, it is that prophecies are not to be messed with.

Kingsley has risked one meeting with him since the destruction of the previous horcrux to explain that when the time comes, they will alert him of Potter's presence. It will then be Severus' responsibility to get Potter to Voldemort, preferably with the best chance possible to actually defeat him.

A week after the odd, splintered pulse has throbbed up his arm, Severus risks a meeting. Once again, he finds himself facing not Kingsley, but Granger. Only Granger.

He says, "It can't wait. It can't."

She says, "If it doesn't, Harry might very well fail."

"Potter might well fail regardless. If it waits, we could have the creation of another horcrux on our hands."

Granger says slowly, "I suppose."

"You really want to have to start all over again?"

She tilts her head. "How's Malfoy?"

Severus silently curses the muscle in his jaw for flexing, but he neither says anything nor does he let a single emotion pass through his eyes.

"Right," she says.

"He will bring another horcrux into existence, given enough time."

"We're not certain he can. Seven was an unprecedented number."

"It is the 'not certain' aspect of this that concerns me."

She looks worried too, but there are a lot of things to be worried about, so he doesn't take it as a sign of agreement.

"If he has done the unprecedented before, there is really nothing to say he cannot again."

"I. . ." She trailed off only to admit, "I have made that point."

"And?"

"It does not alter the fact that if we send Harry in there unprepared then it may be no better than waiting and having the event of another horcrux on our hands."

"You could wait forever and Potter will never be as old or as experienced as the Dark Lord. That's the unfortunate part of his having been born considerably after Him."

"We haven't managed to come up with a strategy, even."

"Come up with one."

"Easy for you to--"

Snape raises an eyebrow.

"We're doing our best."

"This isn't a battery of NEWTs, Miss Granger. There are lives at stake here. Considerably more than just your precious Potter's."

Her eyes glint, hard and unimpressed. "But those others are rather dependent upon his, are they not?"

Severus cannot say no without giving ground. Nor can he say yes without the same result. He hates her for being right more than he has hated anyone--Dark Lord included--in a while.

The rigidness seeps out of her bones. "We are working--"

"It is not impossible that I will be found out, either. At which point, you lose any inside advantage you have."

"You think that likely?"

Severus has already killed the closest thing he has ever had to a friend. He is not wholly certain he can let Draco die. Not even to finish what he has started. He would like to believe that he can, but he does not know. "It is not outside the realm of possibility. Much like an eighth horcrux."

"We understand that time is an issue."

They don't; not like Severus does.

"Give us a little more."

Severus tells her, "It's not mine to give."

*


There is a word--"Draco." He thinks it should mean something, but it doesn't and he shies away from trying to puzzle it out, as he senses that if he does, he will know other things, things he has no desire to know.

There is another word, "Severus," and that word comes with a different sense of what will unravel should he remember--reconnect--its meaning.

He stays clear of it as well.

For the moment all is blessedly disconnected, and if there is pain it is momentary, and he does not have to remember it when it is gone, can't really, not even if he chooses to. Of course, this truth also applies to things that are not pain, things that are warmth and laughter and other pleasant sensations which he wouldn't mind holding to.

At this time, he is willing to take the loss of all things good for the avoidance of all things bad.

There are points when he thinks perhaps it would help with the cold and the screams--the ones he does not think are his own, but he can't tell, not anymore--and the dark to be able to hold to the others, but he just has to remember that they will go away and numbness will come.

It is not always easy to remember anymore.

The cold creeps upon him and he shivers.

*


Severus thinks Granger listens to him, because it's not as long as it probably should be before Kingsley shows up where he shouldn't be, says, "Wednesday."

Wednesday is two days away and as good a day as any, so far as Severus is concerned. Draco no longer eats on his own, no longer responds even instinctively to touch. Possibly, this is all too late anyhow, but he will have to worry about that later. One problem at a time. Or at least, less than five.

Severus has always been the Death Eater's potion brewer, even when there were others who were skilled in the discipline, if not masters. He has, over the years, used it to his advantage more times than he can recall. It's actually somewhat amazing they haven't caught him, but he's sparing with the ways he reveals his extra-curricular brewing. Sparing and subtle.

Today he is lying aside a history of subtleness. If they do not succeed, whether he was subtle or not will make very little difference. Or maybe he just wishes it wouldn't. Maybe he's just ready to be done. He knows there is very little maybe about it.

He has been testing potions on Draco. Antidotes. He has been testing them on himself as well. Body weight, metabolism, these things matter. Draco doesn’t need much as far as dosage goes. The potions burn straight through him, unsupported by nutrients or liquids.

He gives one to Draco Wednesday morning, downs one himself. Hopefully, any Order members who come will have taken theirs. He releases his airborne poison and waits. There will be Death Eaters who are naturally resistant. Grayback and the Dark Lord, most certainly. There are a few others who wouldn't surprise him, the things they have done/have had done to their bodies over the years altering their body chemistry to the point where he simply cannot compensate in his brewing, not without extensive testing on the specific subject.

The potion releases evenly, lightly, the way Severus expects it to. He is almost surprised, despite his general control over his creations. It is unusual not for things to go wrong when Severus most needs them to go right.

It makes him nervous, makes him want to scratch his skin down to blood and muscle and bone.

He keeps his hands at his side.

He stays still.

He waits.

The potion will take less than a full second. Then he will have to hunt those who have resisted down, take care of them one by one, hope that they do not converge and make things harder. Hope that he can take care of them by the time Potter and co., make their appearance, or at least enough of them that said co. will not be horribly distracted by what's left.

Severus closes his fingers over his wand and slides out of his lab, ready for this, ready for the end.

*


Draco is so, so sure he has inured himself against everything. There is just him here, not even him sometimes. Just space and air and breath.

Until the magic rips everything open.

*


Bella is resistant. Not wholly. She is resistant enough not to die, but the poison crazes her and it takes Severus four successive Avada Kedavras to take her down. It's exhausting, particularly given how much energy the antidote siphons off of him.

He's tracking down Grayback when he feels. . . He doesn't even know what the sensation is. It crushes into him, pulls at his insides, twists parts of him he didn't even know existed.

What did you do, Granger?

When he can remember how to move forward, Severus does, propelling himself through hallways that before have always seemed to be of reasonable length but are suddenly interminable.

The first thing he thinks has nothing to do with the scene that greets him when he reaches the center of where the disturbance originated. It is not about Voldemort or Harry or anything terribly important. It is, oh, there he is, upon seeing the body of Grayback. Weasley has evidently taken care of the situation.

Granger is on the floor, at Potter's side.

Potter is clearly, unquestionably, dead.

Severus doesn't think about that part. "Where's the Dark Lord?"

On the other side of the room, Tonks shakes her head.

"Words, Nymphadora."

"He's dead. Gone, he's gone."

"The magic ate him entire," Granger says, her voice soft, dead. "Harry was supposed to be able to support the spell."

Severus says, "You gave him a spell to open up inroads into magic itself, to use the magic to. . .what, to--"

"The idea was to complete the process started by seven horcrux creations, to take out the last piece of soul and destroy it. He could live with one eighth of a soul, but absolutely none?" She shakes her head.

"Ah, so you expected a seventeen year old to be able to support Soul Magic?"

She looks up at him, her eyes red-rimmed and hollow and yet when they hit him he can feel the sharp edges that are hidden. "There wasn't time. Or did we not have a discussion to that effect?"

The Dark Lord is dead. He can get to Draco. Potter can be unimportant until later. "I have to go."

"Snape," Granger calls. He has never heard her use his name without his honorific.

"Granger."

"You owe us. You and Malfoy."

She has only an inkling of an idea.

*

Draco is left disoriented, his consciousness both vague and sharp in the wake of the magic. He would ask what happened, but he has made it a policy to stop asking questions.

The disturbance allows him to recognize the light when it comes. He wouldn’t, otherwise. It has been too long.
He does the only reasonable thing, and hides.

*


There is no reaction to his muted lumos, but there hasn’t been any reaction to anything in at least a week, maybe more, so Severus is not surprised. He probes delicately if somewhat deeply into Draco’s mental wards but finds nothing.

That is not surprising, either. Even as a child, Draco always knew the best places to hide.

It is not enough to make Severus despair. Not near to enough.

He rubs at Draco’s fingers—they are cold—able to show some type of concern now, able to do as he will. The thought is almost paralyzing in its depth, beauty. Severus keeps his fingers moving.

He works at the muscles of Draco’s arms, his stomach, his legs.

He will get Draco’s mind back. He will.

He doesn’t want Draco yelling at him for letting his body go. Being the ungrateful prat he sometimes—mostly—is, Severus doesn’t trust him to do anything else.

He doesn’t want that, but he’ll stand for it, if he gets to hear Draco yell again.

When he has grounded himself enough with touch, Severus gathers Draco to him, ignoring the death-like weight he provides.

Severus grabs a spare robe from the room he has been staying in, covers Draco, and goes to find the others. Nymphadora finds him first, almost running into him. She looks down at her cousin’s still form and nods as if something has been said to which she is in reluctant agreement. “We got the Apparition wards down. Do you have somewhere to go?”

“Spinner’s End, for the moment. Your mother will be familiar.”

“You’ll say if you move on?”

Severus looks at her.

“Even if I weren’t to, Shacklebolt would be at your side. You’re the one who contacted him, so you must have some idea that I’m speaking honestly.”

He does, which doesn’t mean he can simply give himself over to trust. Give Draco over to that. He tightens his hold and then loosens again, as he realizes how very close to the surface all of Draco’s bones are, his blood is.

Still, Voldemort is dead.

Potter is dead.

“I shall owl.”

“And if you need something.”

Severus frowns.

Nymphadora looks at his arms, shrugs. “Mum always missed Narcissa, even if she wouldn’t say. I wouldn’t mind bringing her back something of her sister.”

Severus nods but does not promise to communicate.

Nymphadora seems to consider it enough. “Right, then.”

Severus thinks carefully—it’s been a long day, a long month, a long few years—and pulls the magic necessary to Apparate from somewhere inside of him.

*


There is more magic. Magic being imposed upon him.
Draco wonders if they’re hurting him.

It feels safer than it should.

It feels, which is obviously a bit of a malfunction, but Draco can’t be bothered to tamper with it. There’s hiding to be done.

There is more magic and then there is warmth, and Draco knows he can’t exactly be considered sane—he’s hiding in his own mind—but he wonders if perhaps he has broken past the last boundary to utter madness.

It’s a better sensation than partial sanity was.

*


Severus originally learned the mind arts not as a way to defeat Voldemort—although, admittedly, the knowledge served him handily in that sense—but as part of completing his Potions Mastery. There are certain potions, the ones that only the best of the best can create, which require a very large infusion of mind manipulation.

Severus’ final project was in regard to these types of solutions.

He has not much thought about them since then. At the time, he was largely just showing off, more than expressing a particular interest in pursuing the matter.
Now, almost twenty years later, Severus finds himself going back to his own work, to the work of others before and after him. Mind magic-infused potions are among the most powerful for healing mental conditions. They are not so much a place to start in Draco’s case, as a part of the journey and a destination.

Severus finds it mildly ironic that he has Draco entirely in his charge and it is only now that he will begin to truly experiment on him.

Aside from any of the practical matters, Occlumentical potions take an enormous amount of concentration, and Severus is not up on the theory. It is something to distract himself with, and he desperately needs the distraction; so much so that he refuses to acknowledge even the need, even what he is allowing himself to be distracted from.

He gets stuck conceptually within his first week of reading up and has no choice but to contact a former classmate.

He sends an owl stating,

Dmitri—

I understand you have professorship at the Master’s Academy at the time that I write this communication. Congratulations.

I require someone more intimately acquainted with interdisciplinary potions brewing, particularly those which are Occlumency-based. If your publications are representative of your actual work, you would seem to be leading this field.

I know we have not spoken in some time, and that we were not friends last time we spoke.

The favor I ask is not for me, not wholly.

A timely response would be appreciated.

Severus Snape


It is perhaps not as ingratiating as it should be, but Dmitri was never all that impressed by hierarchy when Severus last knew him. Hopefully that will not have changed.

The reply comes fairly quickly—everything seems to take longer than it should, but when Severus glances at a calendar it’s been less than a week. The Academy is in Rome. Owl travel takes a bit.

Severus—

Indeed, it is a pleasure to hear from you. I am fascinated to hear what it is you could need.

I shall be in the isles shortly, the International Committee for Ingredient Strictures is meeting there this month. Tell me where it is we can have a drink together.

Your friend, Dmitri


Severus rolls his eyes, but he isn’t entirely displeased at Dmitri having made things so easy.

He owls back with the encrypted directions of how to reach Spinner’s End. He’ll import a bottle of vodka for Dmitri. He intends to get things done, not socialize.

He returns to reading and recording his questions. He has two weeks until Dmitri arrives.

Draco now takes food only through the direct, magical depositing of such into his system.

And Severus still has plenty of things he cannot think about. One thing. It feels like more.

Two weeks is an interminable length of time.

*


There is a pattern.

There has not been a pattern before, not that Draco can remember.

But there is a pattern of light and dark, hands and no hands. There might be a pattern of other things, but the first two are as much as Draco can acknowledge and stay hidden.

He is tempted by the pattern, so utterly, viscerally tempted to respond to it.

That is probably what they are waiting for.

*


Dmitri shows up better looking than he was when he and Severus were sleeping together and it puts Severus in a bad mood right off. His mood is not improved by the way Dmitri kisses his cheeks, says, "It has been too long," and ignores his rather ungracious reply.

"This is not a social visit."

"No reason why any visit can't be at least a little social. Might I have some tea?" Dmitri asks.

Severus hates himself for actually having put something together.

"How have you been, Severus?"

"Busy. I have a potions question."

"Answer my questions first, and I will help find you the answer."

Severus sneers, but he grabs the tea tray and sets it in front of Dmitri. Dmitri pours each of them a glass. He takes a sip. "You haven't published much."

"You taught at Durmstrang for ten years; you know what I've been doing."

"I know the rumours. The two are not equitable."

Severus raises an eyebrows. "You doubted the rumours?"

"Had I any reason not to?"

Severus scowls.

"You are anti-social, Severus, not a psychopath. I do not entertain carnal relations with the latter, nor have I ever."

"Interesting distinction. Do the lines ever become unclear?"

"No. I work with people who are brilliant. I am--and I say this merely with self-awareness, not conceit--brilliant myself. We have our idiosyncransies, Severus. Our brains wouldn't discover the things they did if we didn't think in different waves, lines, than most people."

The plain-spoken recognition of who he is, has always been, will most likely be forevermore, takes some of the tension forcibly from Severus. "The rumours were not always untrue."

"They were in the end, though." It is a bit of a question, if mostly a statement.

Severus nods.

"Is it over for you? Is his death the end?"

Severus looks away to smile. The smile is bitter, venomous perhaps. "Do you imagine it is?"

Dmitri's, "You always held to things too long," is soft. "No. But I think you need no longer be stuck."

Severus does not say anything.

"You contacted me regarding your research. I never expected to see that letter. You were always horrid at asking for help."

Severus disagrees. At the moments when he has most needed it, he has always known exactly where to go for help. "It's not research. Or rather, it is not research for the sake of publication or academic argument. The problem is of a practical nature. So sorry to disappoint."

"Hardly. You have intrigued."

"Come, I must show you something." Severus stands.

Dmitri follows his lead, tea cup still in hand. Severus comes to the door of the room wherein he has ensconced Draco. He pauses. "You cannot touch."

Dmitri blinks slowly. "Very well. I shan't."

Severus opens the door. Draco is--as he has been since Severus brought him here--still upon the bed, wrapped in blankets, breathing slowly, evenly. Dmitri steps inside. He asks, "May I?" and taps one finger to his temple.

Severus takes a breath. If he does not allow this he has asked Dmitri here for nothing. He takes another breath, reminds himself that this is in protection of--not violation of--Draco. "Yes."

The probing takes maybe thirty seconds. Severus pretends the time does not stretch, pull into unwieldy forms. Dmitri looks at Severus. "I see. Come, let's go take some more tea."

This time it is Severus who follows Dmitri, back to where they began.

Dmitri says, "I will need the whole story."

Severus says, "Pour me some more tea."

*


Draco has gotten used to the feel of gentle prodding along his mental wards. He is confident the person questing cannot find him.

He is thrown by the feel of a second person's probing, another person's.

It almost causes him to slip. Almost.

More people is not a good sign. Not at all.

*


Dmitri does not ask who Draco is, either in the broadest sense or to Severus. Severus appreciates his reserve, even if he does not say so.

He does ask, "What was done?"

Severus has been recording what he can remember, from the temperature of the room where Draco was kept, to the potions he fed him, to who visited--that Severus knew of--and any other miscellanea which will help. Dmitri works his way through the notes several times, asking about minutiae such as how finely the angelica roots had been diced or how many layers of wards had been placed inside the room.

He helps to feed Draco and bathe him and dress him.

Finally Severus--who suspects that Dmitri stays out of more than just intellectual curiosity--says, "If you were to desire that we resumed the course of our relationship, I would not be adverse."

Dmitri says, "Come," and leads them from the laboratory to the kitchen.

He heats water for tea and then steeps the leaves. "If I were to desire?"

Severus shrugs. "No doubt there will be a publication in this, which is reward, certainly, but you have come quite some way and--"

"Why do you care whether he wakes?"

"He is my responsibility."

"Why?"

"He was my student."

Dmitri looks at Severus with faint reproach.

"He was my friend's child."

The reproach deepens. "Both of those are what were."

"Everything is what was. He is non-responsive."

"Mm," Dmitri says, and pours the tea.

Severus thinks about not taking the cup from him, but that seems revealingly petty, so he accepts it.

"There is no doubt in my mind that duty always drove you far more than the average person, even the average wizard, but this is something else, my friend."

"We are not friends."

"We were."

"We were not."

"No, Severus, we were. You simply chose to pretend that what we had was nothing more than skin on skin, but if it had been nothing more, you would have owled long before the better part of a quarter of a decade had passed."

"Regardless, what we were has nothing to do with what is or is not at this moment."

"That fact that you can't speak of what we were has everything to do with what is."

"He is a child," Severus hisses, and thinks duty, duty which brings up flashes of another child who was not precisely a child and Severus swallows some of his tea hastily to wash away the taste of bile and failure rising up in his throat.

"Yes, well, strong emotions are, by definition, unruly things."

Severus looks away from Dmitri.

"I would desire, Severus, but not if it were payment for services rendered. There was a time when it was much more, even if you chose not to acknowledge it."

It seems ungracious not to tip his head, not to say, "I would not have owled did I truly believe otherwise."

"No. No, I cannot imagine you would have."

"There must be some way--"

"Perhaps, but we shall leave recompense for later, shall we? When we have awakened the--" Dmitri smiles wryly, "child."

"You always were too impressed by your own cleverness."

"Was I?"

"Yes." It is a fonder memory than Severus lets on.

*


Draco isn’t being incautious. One can be, he knows. One can let oneself slip away in the hiding space, never to be seen again.

Despite knowing that he may never be able to surface again, Draco thinks this is a bad idea. Giving up too easily is something Hufflepuffs do, he’s sure.

There has to be an anchor to keep a person from getting lost in himself, though, something of enormous importance. Draco’s something is a something called Severus. He does not know what it means, there is nothing solid attached to the word/artifact.

It is his something, though, and he holds to it. Tightly.

*


“What is something that makes you less afraid, when you are at your most terrified?”

Severus looks up at Dmitri. “Is there context for this question?”

“I’ve given you the context. Most terrified.”

“In those contexts there really isn’t anything.”

Dmitri rubs at his forehead. “Make the question hypothetical, imagine yourself as someone else, just answer the query, Severus.”

Severus taps the tip of his quill lightly to parchment. “The sense that things will get better.”

Dmitri nods. “Would you agree if I said that moments of either hope or comfort are the only things which truly combat fear?”

“Perhaps not the only things, but certainly significant ones.” Severus pauses, takes a second to consider the thought path Dmitri is leading them down. “You think the way to solve this is not to pull him out, but to have him come out of his own accord.”

Dmitri tilts his head. “We’ve tried pulling. We’ve tried tugging, jerking, flinging. The human mind is a remarkably self-sustaining piece of work. I believe our only option is to appeal to it.”

“That makes the assumption we can reach him by any means.”

“It does, but you called me here because I am the world’s foremost expert on reaching the mind through applied potions. Let us have our moment of optimism.”

“Carry on with that.”

Dmitri laughs. “Let me ask this, then: if you were Draco Malfoy, and beyond your most terrified, what is something that would make you less afraid?”

Lucius is dead, Narcissa is missing. Parkinson, Crabbe and Goyle are currently incarcerated. “Perhaps knowing that the Dark Lord has perished.”

Dmitri purses his lips. “A presence is generally better than an absence, you know that Severus.”

“He is lacking in vital presences.”

“There is you.”

"I am not—"

“I do not believe you would tell me if you were. Even if you knew. Which I doubt you do. Very well, we shall go with the current blight of Dark Lords.”

Severus doesn’t think that’s such very bad information to receive. Ever.

"But if it doesn’t work—"

“Just make the attempt.”

“Is this your moment of optimism?”

Secretly, very secretly, Severus thinks it is.

*


It is a shimmer.

Draco does not know how to define "it" or even know what "a shimmer" actually means, but that is what the sensation feels like, a sort of sprinkling of light in his mind.

The first time it scares him so much he nearly lets go his anchoring point, nearly lets himself float free.

Draco, though, has always liked shiny things, unicorns and the silver lining of Firebolts and the Slytherin crest.

Tentatively, he reaches toward the shimmer.

He stops short of actually touching it.

*


The irony of it is that the potion itself, the combination of ingredients, isn't that complicated a brew. A couple of the items require a trip to Finland, but Severus can actually make it there in two Apparitive jumps, so they don't count as hard to acquire.

The process is a two-day combination of stir and wait, stir and wait.

It is only at the very end that things become tricky, when it takes two Masters, one to continue the folding, stirring, and waiting whilst the other "folds" in pieces of his consciousness, the knowledge which needs to be transmitted. Severus attempts to convince Dmitri that his slightly stronger legilimency makes him the more viable candidate for this latter part of the process. Dmitri says, "If this is going to work, Severus, you will need not to be a fool," and Severus mostly takes his point, even if he scowls at him over it.

Severus tries to keep his mental efforts focused, to give Draco what he needs and no more. Severus has not been given what he needs enough in life to know that this will probably be enough. He is aware that if it is not he will have nobody but himself to hold accountable. At the last moment, he possibly lets some of his control slip, allows a bit of his concern to color the potion--literally, a swirl of blue appears. Severus cautiously finishes off the steps, not rushing, not rushing. No good has ever come of letting emotion get in the way of brewing, and it is for this reason as well that he finds this so impossible, so counter-intuitive, even as it is necessary in this instance.

Even when Severus has clearly let go of the magic, tapered off the spells on his end, Dmitri keeps at his end, stirring cautiously, evenly. He does not say a word about the new shade of the mixture.

Severus is perhaps lucky in his friends at times. He wonders if it balances out those times when he is horrendously unlucky in them. He wonders if he deserves a balance on that score.

He closes his eyes for a few moments, breathes evenly, regains his own mental space. "Well?"

"You can see," Dmitri tells him.

Severus can. The brewing has been a success. It would almost be easier had it not, almost be easier to keep trying things that only have vague likelihoods of actually affecting a change. The possibility of failure is always more terrifying the closer to the realization of one's goals one becomes.

That said, if the mildly-tricky part--well, tricky, truth be told, only Severus has far more practice with mind magics than any sane person will ever accrue--is the addition of legilimentical aspects, then the truly tricky part is the application of the potion to the actual subject. It cannot be fed to the patient, nor transferred into the bloodstream through either magical or interjection-based means. It must be rubbed into the base and tip of the spine by someone working consistently to establish a mental link.

The link can take days to hook up--if it ever does--and the action must be continuous. Once the link has been accomplished, the person applying the potion must hold the link--while still working the potion into skin--and help the patient to follow his own path back into consciousness. If the patient has erased that path, he must attempt to rebuild one for him.

Severus can be an arse, but he doesn't even consider asking Dmitri to apply the potion. Even were he willing to request that sort of dedication, Severus knows he is better suited, more practiced in application rather than theoretical use of legilimency, more acclimated to Draco, aware of where he might have placed the stones along his path.

Severus eats something, sleeps a solid ten hours, takes care of the sorts of bodily needs that he has lately--historically--been happy enough to ignore, to deprive himself of. He will need focus. Dmitri will help, will see to his basic needs, but starting off at a lack will help nothing, in a situation wherein assistance from unforeseen corners is all that Severus can hope for.

He rolls Draco onto his side, supports him, holds him with pillows. He dips his fingers in the potion, warms it slightly between his palms and presses his hands to Draco's back.

*


The shimmer is clean, it tastes of heat, something Draco has forgotten about.

The problem is, Draco does remember that the most harmless seeming of things are often the most deadly, more dangerous, most foul.

The warmth, the purity is almost impossible to resist.

Draco does, aware even as he does so that he will eventually give in.

He always has.

*


Draco's skin is so soft under Severus' hands that he has a hard time holding on, afraid that like butter or cotton or undiluted gold, Draco will melt, bend, reshape under his ministrations.

He only wants Draco to wake up.

He works his fingers in cautiously, consistently. His tentative touches along Draco's wards are at first nothing more than the brushing of a finger, but as his actual fingers begin to hurt, as he begins to sense a passage of time even if he can't validly account for that time, Severus turns his attempts into caresses, a self-invitation of sorts.

He feels Dmitri on occasion--it's hard to think in terms of names, in terms of physical entities, but Severus makes himself. He does not want to reach Draco only to find himself lost as well. Dmitri will come and feed him, give him energizing potions, sit by him. Severus will keep at his work, dipping one hand when the potion begins to dry, then the next, never two at once. The contact must not be broken.

He feels the--it's not a crack, not exactly--opening after the third or fourth time Dmitri has supplied food. It is not wide enough--spatial descriptions make no sense when speaking of the mind, and yet Severus has never found an alternative way to describe things--for Severus to slip into, past, but it is enough for him to make his presence louder, less ignorable. His fingers, sore as they are, rub slightly deeper.

When Severus has nearly given up, gone to look for another entrance, the opening splits just a tiny bit further apart, and Severus darts in before the damage can be repaired.

He calls, "Draco."

"Draco, we need to speak."

"Draco, it is time to leave this aside."

"Draco, stop being a bloody twat."

Draco, however, seems to feel he has done his part in simply allowing Severus entry.

Severus disagrees. He will "shout" until he is hoarse, until Draco wants to cover his ears if he can remember how to move his bloody arms.

Dmitri feeds him again at some point, when his throat is feeling raw and useless, despite having never once opened his mouth. Severus is exhausted, utterly done in, his mind repeating its calls by instinct more than ability at this point. He cannot tell if his hands are still moving. He is trying, but the nerves seem to have detached.

Severus knows he sounds desperate when there is something--not an answer, not exactly--a shifting, maybe. Something.

"Draco?"

"Draco!"

"Severus?" comes the response.

"Draco, is that you?"

"Severus," Draco--for it is certainly Draco--says again.

It takes Severus a second to understand why Draco is saying his name with such stilted tones, enunciating every syllabus. Then he remembers about anchors, about how Draco would have had to choose one. He does not think about choice of anchors, he thinks about how to get Draco to where he can understand something, anything.

"Severus, that's right."

"Severus."

And so it goes, Severus repeating his own name countless times until finally Draco says, "Hello, Severus," and it sounds like a greeting.

"Hello, Draco."

"You found me?"

"Yes."

"Do I have to leave?"

"Yes."

"I'm safe here."

"You'll be safe out there. Voldemort is dead." And Severus has no intention of letting anyone lay a hand on Draco ever again. Ever.

"You're...certain?"

"I am."

"I don't know how to get back."

"I do."

"I'm not sure how to follow."

"Don't. Just hold on." Severus extends a mental hand to him.

Slowly, Draco takes it.

*


Draco thinks, too much, oh, too much, but then, despite more hands being on him the sensations lessen, and Draco gets that they've covered him in some sort of numbing balm, something to cut down on the return of sensation until he can filter it himself. He concentrates on breathing. Everything is so much more effort than he remembers it being, but he has the sense it's been a while.

"How long?" he asks, or tries to ask, because evidently talking has become more complicated than it once was. He works to release the last of his mental wards so that he can ask the question without having to work with his throat again.

Hands come to his throat, thicker, more solid hands than Severus has. Draco's eyes flicker up to the owner of the hands, a man with a mass of black curls and eyes that match his hair. He smiles down at Draco, says, "Hello. I am Dmitri."

"Potions Master Dmitri Sidorov Kuchin," Severus corrects. "And it has been nearly four months since you last gave me any sign of recognizing either myself or the fact of my presence.

You said--

"Try and speak," Severus says. It is both a request and a command.

"Dark. Lord," are Draco's first two words aloud. He wonders if maybe he should have chosen others. He always thinks about things like that after the fact.

"He is dead."

Draco almost asks, "Dead?" but if Severus is saying it, it means death in the will-not-bother-you-anymore sense. He closes his eyes, wanting to feel the relief as deeply as he can manage. Emotions are still a little bit tricky to access, but he manages, because this is important.

Finally he asks, "Potter?"

"Dead as well."

Draco would frown, had he the facial control. He had merely been inquiring as to whether Potter had actually done the job or not, like he was bloody well supposed to. The fact of Potter's continued existence--or lack thereof--is supremely unimportant, so far as he is concerned. Except, clearly not to Severus, which is...a whole other list of questions on its own. Draco's too tired for that just at the moment. "He killed--"

"Oh." Severus makes a motion that is not quite a shaking of himself. "Yes. Potter was the one to accomplish the deed, if aided a fair amount by Miss Granger, Mr. Weasley and a cadre of Aurors."

"And you."

Severus purses his lips. "I suppose."

"Thank you," Draco says, because while he is well aware that the list of why Severus wanted the Dark Lord dead stretches back long before him, long before his conception, even, he also knows what the final impetus was, because he is awake and alive and mostly sane. He is in a bed and if he says, "I'm a bit hungry," Severus will nod and say, "Yes, of course," and stay with him while Dmitri heads off to bring back some food.

*


Severus pulls out of Draco's mind gently and with more than due caution.

The feeling of disconnection once again after so many months of inability to feel the slightest mental spark from Draco causes a sort of crushing sensation in Severus' chest. He ignores it.

Draco's breath breaks slightly, so Severus replaces his hands on Draco's arm. He squeezes for a second and then follows Dmitri out of the room with a murmured, "Sleep."

Dmitri waits until the door is shut to say, "You will most likely need to stay with him."

"The potion should not create dependency."

"No, but months of hiding out of fear probably has."

Severus opens his mouth, ready to simply deny the possibility. He hears the stutter of Draco's exhalation. "If I pay court to such a dependency, it shall do nothing but encourage it."

"I hardly think one night is going to cause the problem to last in perpetuity. We can work on reducing it in the morning. For the moment, he needs actual sleep."

"I can give him--"

"Non-induced sleep, Severus."

Severus closes his eyes for a moment. Draco is not the only one who needs sleep, and Severus is not entirely certain he will find it without being near to Draco.

"I will not think less of you in the morning."

"Keep your opinions to yourself, Dmitri."

"You never listen to them, so saying them aloud accomplishes roughly the same end."

Severus looks at Dmitri, doing his best to seem unimpressed. Dmitri looks back at Severus, actually unimpressed.

Severus turns and goes back into the room.

Draco is waiting.

*


Draco awakens to warmth and comfort. He thinks, Severus, then, what?, then, yes, I remember now.

Draco opens his eyes and, for the first time since breaking the surface of his own mind, looks around. The room is small and fairly plain. The wood is a light teak, and there is a window that lets in plenty of light. The only real adornments are a few shelves tightly packed with neatly ordered books, and the bed itself, which is covered in a chocolate brown quilt, heavy and soft. Draco rubs his cheek along it, reveling in the positive reinforcement of returned sensation.

Severus mutters, "Draco?" and due to being tucked at Draco's back, the word rustles over the skin at the back of Draco's neck, fluttering into Draco's ear.

"Did I wake you?"

"No. And full sentences are an improvement."

"I--" tried to keep myself intact, seems like a bit of a lie considering how long he splintered aspects of his mind just so as not to have to respond to anything happening to him. "I worked to keep my thought patterns alive."

Severus' exhalation isn't a sigh, but it's lustier than a mere breath.

"Are you going to yell at me?" Draco asks, not so much fearful as curious.

"I should."

"But you won't?"

"I imagine that hiding seemed a fairly logical response to the situation in which you were placed." Severus sounds wistful, as though maybe he wishes he'd thought of that before it was too late.

"It seemed the only logical response. Was there one I missed?"

"Not a logical one, no." Severus says this quietly.

"Is the illogical one worth mentioning?"

There is a long silence and Draco senses that even if it is worth mentioning, he won't be learning what it is. Severus surprises him. "You might have trusted me."

"I trusted you enough to let you lead me out of hiding. Whatever do you mean, I might have trusted you?"

"To take you from the situation in the first place. To not allow you to be kept, killed slowly like a forgotten lab rat."

"You against the world as we knew it, Severus. Trust was not the issue."

"I had faced larger odds."

"Oh, when?"

There's another pause. "The fact that I cannot immediately conjure an example does not negate the validity of my assertion."

"No, but the fact that your speech patterns become even more formal when you're flustered--and you tend to become flustered when wrong--is a pretty sure sign."

Severus resorts to, "Hush, child."

Normally Draco would allow the nickname, but something about it hits him wrong, like a open palm slamming quick and sharp into his chest. "I think I've earned the right to be something other than a child. If not by bravery then by survival. Would you not agree?"

"You will always be a child to me."

Draco doesn't know when he's learned to hear Severus' lies, but the sound of the falsehood rings high and obvious inside his head. He decides to let it go, too worn out despite sleep to pursue it just at this moment. He goes back to the matter at hand. "I trusted you, but I could not trust the situation."

"Next time, you'll try?"

"I should hope there won't be any next time."

"Draco."

"I suppose you have earned that much."

"You suppose?"

Draco smiles into his pillow.

*


After a day of assisting Draco in tasks that require a certain level of motor-skill control which he has yet to regain, Severus stays with him until he is asleep before making his way to the sitting room.

Dmitri has already poured brandy.

Severus forces himself to drink in small sips. The burn is clean, tempting. Severus pulls back on the desire to let it rage through him.

Dmitri says, "My employers have been owling."

"Say you wish to leave, Dmitri. Do not blame others."

"It is less that I wish to leave than that I feel my presence impedes his progress. You have the knowledge and the interpersonal strength with him to complete this process, but not with an interloper constantly about."

"He will have to re-familiarize himself with the public at large before long in any case. I see no reason for him not to start with one person. A person for whose character I can attest."

Dmitri's smile is dry. "Caution, my friend, I might begin to think you value my company."

"Value, yes? Enjoy, no."

"Of course." Dmitri raises his glass and takes a sip. "It is for the best, and you are aware of this fact, even given your professed--perhaps even true--reticence."

"Hardly, there are still any number of things that could go wrong, a fair number of them resultant of the potion itself."

"There is always correspondence, and you are, in your own right, a Potions Master."

"Emergencies will not wait for owls."

"No, but the floo will generally suffice."

There is a long silence in which Severus finishes the brandy more quickly than he perhaps should. Finally he breaks the stretch with, "Please. Left to my own devices, I have a history of failure."

"You will not be alone, Severus. He will be here. And I will be no more than a pinch of powder's length away. There are others, too, others whom you mention when you think you're not saying anything. A girl named Granger. A woman named Minerva, whom I must presume is the same as the esteemed Headmistress of Hogwarts. A man named Kingsley."

Severus pours himself some more brandy.

"You asked for my assistance. Surely theirs cannot be so much greater a step?"

"We had time and distance aiding in the patching over of our rifts."

"The rift was never quite so great as I believe you imagined it to be. As, I think, your failures have been lesser than you have framed them. Undoubtedly, perception is everything, except for when there is an alternative perception."

"Such as yours."

"Or his. His will do quite well, I have decided."

"As you have decided to leave."

"As I have."

Severus has always accepted defeat more gracefully in the wake of than in the build up to it. He clinks his glass gently to Dmitri's. "Safe travels."

Dmitri's smile is as subdued as the sound of their glasses meeting. "You simply do not want to have to deal with the paperwork should I splinch."

"Your knowledge of me has taken a turn for the impeccable."

*


Everything from breathing to drinking to thinking is harder than Draco remembers it being, but he's certain he's catching on. Having Dmitri out of the house helps. It isn't that he didn't like the man; he didn't know him. Just now there are enough unknowns without adding more into the mix.

Severus is patient and quiet and altogether unlike Severus. It is unnerving. New.

Finally Draco asks, "Is there damage I don't know about? Something wrong with my eardrums that shouting will cause them to burst? Something weakened in my nervous system that can't handle small upsets?"

In return Severus asks, "There haven't been enough large upsets for your taste?"

"I was pointing out that you do not scare me. In a roundabout sort of fashion, I will grant, but--"

"I was the person pouring potions down your throat."

"Thank goodness. You were able to keep them largely harmless."

Severus shies away from the gratitude, as Draco has known he will. That part is familiar, and Draco wonders if maybe that's why he's bringing this up at all, just for the comfort factor. That seems a little cruel, all things considered. By way of reparation he tries, "I didn't mean you had to yell. I just meant you didn't have to hold back."

"You-- I am not as prone toward yelling when around you."

Draco isn't entirely sure what to do with that level of honesty from Severus.

"And a fair amount of energy is requisite to the upkeeping of ire."

"You're tired," Draco translates. He has realized this, in some ways. Who isn't tired of late? Even with only Severus and him present, Draco knows this isn't confined to them. It is an odd knowledge, when he has spent so long only knowing the things that pertained to him. It is not as overwhelming as he would have expected it to be, simply, well, new.

Severus says, "It will improve with sleep."

Draco's not entirely sure. They have both been sleeping more than their fair share. "Is it-- Do you miss--" He cannot force himself to finish.

"He would not have outlived me, regardless of circumstance."

"That's not really an answer. At all."

"And you're being impertinent."

"You are no longer my professor."

"I am still your elder."

"You're still a prig. I'm not quite sure the two are equivalent, but if you insist."

Severus looks at him for several moments. Draco is beginning to wonder if he should apologize for the name calling--despite not being sorry--when Severus' lips curl up and he lets out a soft noise that it takes Draco a moment to recognize as a laugh. Draco's relief at the sound is so much that it's easy, easier than anything has been since he first woke up, to join in, to laugh as well.

Despite the weakness of his body to support the laughter, the feeling is cleaner, fuller than it has ever been. He looks over. Severus is still smiling through the laughter.

*


When Draco has proven himself able to walk the length of the house, make himself tea, and use the floo if need be, Severus sends an owl to Kingsley stating, "We should speak."

Kingsley returns the owl with a meeting place and time. Severus appreciates the brevity, if not the presumption that any time will fit into Severus' otherwise underpopulated schedule.

Still, he arrives promptly. Kingsley has ordered them drinks, which soothes the sting a bit. He asks, "Would I be correct in assuming that we would not be meeting were Malfoy still catatonic?"

Severus dips his head.

"I am happy to hear of your success."

Severus knows that is not the same as, "I am happy he is well," but he also knows that friendship, or any relationship tangentially in the order of friendship, is a series of compromises. He nods in acknowledgment of the sentiment. "Will there be charges?"

"Bill Weasley has asked his family to desist from charging Malfoy with any accessory to crime, and any other charges that might come up against him in that vein have very little substance. Hermione has convinced Ron to leave off of attempted murder as well. We are working on Katie Bell. If she does press, it would most likely be a year in Azkaban, given that she is neither dead nor mentally or physically disabled."

Severus slowly filters out a breath he hadn't realized had been in him all this time. "And me?"

"The portrait awoke. I suppose nobody told you. I should have thought-- In any case, it is strictly forbidding any charges in this case of its model's death."

"And for Potter's?"

Kingsley slows in his movement to bring the glass to his lips. He doesn't stop, just momentarily loses momentum. "You didn't kill Potter."

"That's a bit semantical, would you not say? Granger was quite clear in her assertion that Potter was not yet ready, that the spell took preparation--"

"We made the decision to go in and get the two of you out. We could have decided to leave you. War has its casualties."

"You did not choose me over him, that was not the implied decision, even if it became the formalized one."

"You won't be punished for the whimsy of fate, Severus. For all that's-- We're not as good as we'd like to be, but we try not to be any worse than we have to be."

Severus finishes off his drink in one fairly unwise gulp. Kingsley orders him another and doesn't say a word about the tears of alcohol-induced burning in his eyes.

Kingsley says, "I don't really believe Potter expected to survive in any case." The statement is tinged with a certain regret.

It is nothing to match the fierce raging of failure-related regret that surges in Severus, as violent as the path of the single-malt scotch they are sharing. "There was a Life Debt. A responsibility. Instead he--"

"You believe that his sacrifice perverts the Life Debt?"

Severus closes his eyes for a moment. "I know it wasn't simply for me. That the Dark Lord had to be faced, had to be faced by Potter. But the confluence of events...yes. Perverts is precisely the word."

Kingsley runs a finger around the rim of his glass. "Out of curiosity, what do you think we could do to you that would possibly be worse than having to live with that?"

Take Draco away. Severus will not say that, will not admit that despite himself he sometimes sees Draco as a second chance. He has no Life Debt to Draco, but there is something else, something strong like it, something that at times whispers teasingly of redemption, or, at the very least, comfort in a lack of redemption. He shakes his head. "Very little."

"I think we'll stick to the easy ones, in that case."

Severus clinks the rim of his glass to Kingsley's in a gesture of thanks and perhaps something more.

*


Severus returns from having been gone with food, like Draco might yell at him if he returns empty-handed, and all right, Draco may have thought about it, since the house is somewhat large and silent with Severus gone--even if Severus really doesn't talk much when he's actually there--but wasn't actually going to.

The food is good though, so Draco lets Severus think it's the reason he's forgiven.

He's feeling not terribly guilty about his emotional omission until Severus says, "I have spoken to Kingsley Shacklebolt regarding your legal status."

"That's where you went?"

Severus looks down at the food. "I had mentioned I was going out."

"Yes, well, some other pertinent information might not have gone amiss."

Severus nods. "Understood."

Draco sighs. Partaking of actions such as walking and eating are still tiring. It is hard to navigate the emotional fjords of Severus Snape as well. "You left to ensure my safety."

"I had to know of mine as well."

That wasn't what Severus had brought up, though, and Draco knows, somehow, that it isn't what forced him out of the house in the first place. "And my status is?"

"Secure, for the most part."

"The most part?"

"There are some dangling ends, but Kingsley feels assured they will come to naught."

Draco wonders whether he wants specifics, decides he does not. "And yours?"

"Even more assured than yours, evidently." Severus does not look as though he believes the news.

"Good," Draco says, truly not caring about the details so much as the outcome, which is the one he wants.

"Yes," Severus says softly and Draco knows this time, knows that Severus does not believe what he is saying.

Draco rubs a hand over his eyes and thinks about his father and says--doing his best to see that his voice does not crack--"There are casualties of war."

"And so your nightmares, they are fully of your own experiences, they show nothing of your father, you hear nothing of him--"

"Stop it."

"--do not wonder where it is your mother--"

"Stop," Draco hisses. And, "I know where she is."

"Do you? Or do you know where it is you planned for her to be--"

"Stop, Severus!"

Severus glares, but does not speak.

"I shall owl her. But I feel that I would know had something gone wrong. And so far as my father, as I said, there are casualties. I did not say it lessens the loss, or the grief, or the intensity of the nightmares, the guilt. But how could I have changed that? Could I have killed Granger? Should I have?"

"What do you believe?"

"For my father's life? You have to ask?"

"Yes," Severus says.

Draco opens his mouth to say, "Of course," but what comes out is, "I wish I had," and the two are not the same.

Severus' laugh is bitter. "Wishes."

Draco nods knowingly. "Wishes. What would you have me do, Severus? Spend my life wrapped in my own failure as I would have in my own mind had you not forced the issue? That was somewhat cruel of you, in that case, to wake me."

Severus says, "Of course I would not have that."

Draco does not say anything else. For the moment, his point has been made.

After several minutes, Severus says, "In any case, we should begin to think on what you wish to do with your future."

Draco closes his eyes. "Perhaps in the morning."

*


Severus finds out from Kingsley that Granger has begun advanced work apprenticing with Flitwick and interning in the Muggle government as a liaison. Her work involves some sort of bridge between Muggle and magical "technologies" and is largely charm-based. As such, when she can be found on their side of the world--and Severus has no interest in venturing into the Muggle one--she can be found at Hogwarts.

Severus goes, because despite the fact that she has not said anything, has not so much as contacted him, she is owed. And she is still alive, able to allow Severus fulfillment on the debt. Draco has a point, Severus knows, about getting outside oneself, moving past the things that cannot be changed, but the only way he knows how to begin is with the things that can be changed.

Filius looks cautiously delighted to see him. He shakes Severus' hand and asks, "How are you doing, my friend?"

Severus nearly pulls back at the bold term, but Filius has never much cared to tiptoe around the feelings of others, has always barreled over Severus' sense of propriety and distance. "I am well. I was hoping to meet with your apprentice."

Filius gives Granger up without so much as another question. Severus makes his way to the library, which is a predictable spot for her to be. She has books spread every which way and yet Severus can see where there is an organization to her mess, a pattern that can be followed if one knows where to start and in which direction to head. He seats himself across from her.

She says, "A moment," without looking up and he waits.

When she does look up he can see that she hasn't been sleeping, probably hasn't been eating as much as she should be. It clearly takes her a couple of seconds to process the fact of who is sitting across from her. Finally she asks, "How is Malfoy?"

"Recovering," Severus tells her.

"That's good, then."

"Let's continue this conversation in the kitchens."

"This is a conversation?"

"It will be shortly."

"Let me go threaten Madam Pince with vandalism should she or anyone move my books."

"You can gesture toward me. She knows I carry through with my threats."

"She's learning with me as well."

Severus smirks in approval.

They make their way to the kitchens largely in silence. Most of the elves hide once they arrive. Granger says, "My fault."

The one who stays is noisy and effusive in his greeting, but he brings food and the look of hope on his face prompts Granger to eat, so Severus considers the effort a victory.

Severus nibbles at a biscuit and tries to talk, but it's not until she says, "I wasn't really expecting you," that he can pull a, "Kingsley says you spoke to Weasley," from himself.

Her eyes narrow a bit. "It wasn't for Malfoy. Nor for you. Enough is just enough. I want him to move on."

"I know," he tells her. "All the same."

She dips her head. "You came all the way out here for that? An owl would have done."

"I wished to formally extend my services, to verbalize the fact of the Debt."

Granger chews slowly, swallows before saying. "I am neither Harry's kith nor kin. Even were I, Muggle-borns were 'exempt' from those practices, those privileges. And you have, notably, already saved my life."

He dips his head in acknowledgment. What is important, though, is, "I have found that honor and the letter of the law very seldom completely coincide."

Her smile at that is sharp. "True."

"And you are the witch of whom I asked the deed, the sacrifice."

She taps her finger in a slow, considered rhythm. "What would you have me ask of you?"

"If I were to request it, it would not be much in payment, would it?"

"No, I suppose not. And if I were simply not to ask?"

Severus looks down, away from her.

"Ah, I see. Very well, I shall come up with something."

He should thank her for the kindness, but the words have no interest in breaking past his lips.

*


Draco owls his mother.

It is hard to know exactly what to say. Finally he settles on,

Mother,

I hope this letter finds you well. I am safe. Severus is caring for me. The Dark Lord, should you not have heard, is no longer.

Your son


He tries to say that he misses her. He tries to say that he wishes his father were alive to owl. He tries to say, "I could use some advice."

His erasing spell finally eats straight through the original piece of parchment and there is nothing for it but to simply start over.

He sends Severus' owl and makes himself walk away from the window. He needs distraction, from himself and from everything else of late. It is this need that drives him down to Severus' lab space.

Severus is not home. The note on Draco's bedside mentioned Hogwarts. Draco wonders what's left for Severus at Hogwarts, but the question seems inimically cruel, which is something he is only to people who are not Severus.

Draco peruses the ingredients immediately available and decides where to go with them. Something simple. Useful.

A cleaning solution.

Draco gets to work, the step-by-step nature of the work getting in the way of all the words he couldn't say, all the things Severus doesn't say, all the silence and leftover fear and the parts of his world he would prefer not to dwell upon.

When Severus finds him, the potion is very nearly done. Severus looks at him questioningly. Draco says, "I became bored."

"There were books."

"I needed something upon which concentration was mandatory."

Severus nods.

"I trust your trip was successful?"

"We shall see."

Draco doesn't press. He doesn't really want to talk about the owl he sent, either.

"You are welcome to brew with me, whensoever I do."

"I am not certain my magic is quite yet up to anything more extensive than this."

"One must rebuild. It will not just settle back in at your beckoning. It is more that you are out of practice than that there is anything wrong with your mind or magic-store."

It is also, Draco knows, that it takes an enormous amount of magic to hide for as long as he did, that his stores are still being replenished. "I will help where I can."

Severus says, "Yes," and Draco does not think he is referring to what Draco just said.

*


Narcissa shows up at Severus' door and says, "My son informed me he would be here."

Severus lets her in and does not acknowledge the part of his mind that was hoping it would take longer for Draco to reach her, longer for her to answer his call. That last is perhaps the worst betrayal and Severus would hate himself for it had he any room left for self-hatred.

Draco smiles upon seeing her, not quite a grin but something that desperately wants to be one, something that would be one were Draco not quite so much Lucius' and Narcissa's son. He does go to her, hug her, say, "I am glad you are safe."

She seems unsure of what to do with this person who was her son months before when he left but is now someone else, someone who looks like him and even mimics him passably, but who also touches her, tells her things that are not hidden in metaphor and propriety.

Severus thinks, hold him, he is your child. She does, she closes her arms around him and smells his hair and Severus wonders if he accidentally broadcast that thought, accidentally mandated her actions.

Severus asks, "Will you be staying a while?"

She shakes her head. "I remembered your house, Severus, and did not imagine there was room for one more. I've taken rooms in London for the moment."

Severus knows she would have taken rooms--plural--even had she intended for her stay to continue being a lone one. He also knows she mentions the rooms to make Draco aware that he is welcome, that she perhaps even wishes he would join her.

Severus is, admittedly, somewhat surprised when Draco simply kisses his mother good evening and sees her to the door. Unable to stop himself, he says, "You realize that was an invitation?"

"I was raised by her, Severus."

"Her rooms are most likely more comfortable than anything this house has to offer."

"Not anything," Draco says lightly, moving quickly into, "I've grown accustomed to my bed here."

Severus does not miss the first statement. He also does not allow himself to consider the possible interpretations. Of late, Severus has become far too hopeful for his own--or anyone else's--good.

Draco tilts his head and says, "I did not realize she was coming. I would have given some warning."

Severus frowns. "She is your mother. I do not mind."

"No, but I would have preferred for you not to have to think that she was coming to collect me, that I would simply leave with her."

"I am not holding you here."

"You are, but not of your own purpose."

"Draco--"

"Shut up, please, Severus. You can talk all you want, and it's not that I don't enjoy listening, your voice has always, always been a guilty pleasure, but you've been so far in my mind that you have seen places I cannot consciously recognize as part of me. And I have felt you in those places. I know who I am to you."

Severus really would like to get out of this room, this conversation, before he is sick all over the floor. "Who you are to me is of no significance."

"It is if that person is compatible with who you are to me."

Severus tries to reconstruct what Draco has just said over the distraction of the roiling in his stomach. "That is gratitude and loneliness speaking."

"You can be in love with me without respecting me? That is an interesting concept, I must admit."

"I can respect you while still recognizing the extremity of your youth."

"Do you even know when you're lying to yourself, anymore?"

"Always," Severus says, without stopping to breathe. He opens his mouth to take it back but Draco just shakes his head.

"Good night, Severus."

By the time Severus remembers that "good night" is the appropriate response to that parting line, Draco is already gone.

*


Draco goes to see his mother. He brings wine and a box of candied orchids, both of which he ordered by way of owl.

The world outside Severus' house is a lot bigger than he remembers it being, a lot louder.

By the time he reaches his mother's rooms, all Draco really wants is to be back in that house, but he hands her the wine and when she says, "Share a glass with me," he says, "That would be lovely," and means it more than he ever has in his life.

The wine is bone dry, the way his mother likes it, and the taste does not do much for Draco, but the tight warmth as it settles is deeply appreciated. They speak of inconsequential things to begin with, working up to the question of whether Narcissa should begin to look for more permanent lodgings.

Just when Draco has reached the bottom of his glass, has begun to feel himself safe, she asks, "He saved your life?"

"And my sanity."

"Have you spoken to him of a Life Debt?"

"It's a sensitive topic for him." Draco imagines that should he say anything, it will be the metaphorical lacewing sliver that sets the entire potion ablaze.

Narcissa pours more wine for the both of them. "That you are indebted?"

"The notion of debts in their entirety."

"Ah." Narcissa swirls the wine in her glass. "Then you are attempting to repay it without inquiring as to his preferences of recompense?"

Draco frowns. "I haven't yet--"

"You did stay with him. Despite my offer."

Draco makes himself sip, not gulp. "That had nothing to do with what I feel I owe him, although I suspect the both of you read my intentions in that way."

Quietly, Narcissa asks, "Then what were your intentions?"

Draco thinks about it, thinks about how to say it to his mother, how to say it to himself. "To make him see me as an adult, an equal."

"I am not sure there has ever been a time when Severus has viewed another human as an equal."

"The Dark Lord is dead. It is a new world."

Narcissa smiles, a small curving of her lips, lifting of her cheeks. "You have your father's disregard for the rules of nature."

If Draco was going to inherit something, he doesn't mind it being that all too terribly much.

*


Severus does not sleep much. He tries, but sleep brings Potter to him--James, Harry, it no longer matters, if it ever did--enraged and terrified and beyond the reach of Severus' help.

When he wakes he generally finds his way to his lab, not even to brew, just to organize, to be around the familiar scents, good and bad.

Draco will not allow Severus to give him Dreamless Sleep--"I have spent quite enough time less than conscious this year, I believe"--and so Severus has company more often than not. Draco looks tightly drawn, honed to nothing but bone and will in those late night hours, and Severus wishes he would take the Dreamless but is ever so glad he does not.

For all that Severus had gotten used to being lonely, he does not miss it, not even in theory.

They don't talk during these times, neither willing to speak of their own fears and--as a result--both reluctantly respecting the other's right not to either.

Until the night Draco says, "My mother asked if me staying with you was my way of fulfilling the Life Debt."

"I have not invoked a Life Debt."

"They are not invoked, Severus. If they were, you would have been free of the Potters long before now."

Severus steels himself not to react to the comment. "Then I release you of it."

Draco just looks at him.

"I ask that you not attempt to fulfill it through pity," Severus tries.

"I told her we hadn't even spoken of it. That you were touchy around the notion."

"And then you reconsidered that she might see more than you, being on the outside?"

"I reconsidered that you might be thinking that's what this was. Honor by way of pity. You can been something of an idiot that way."

"Flattery will get you nowhere."

"And sarcasm will not even get you that far."

Severus goes back to cleaning several of jars used for fermenting.

Draco sighs. "If I pitied you I would be finding active ways to get you out of this house and on the road to a fully-realized existence. You must know this about me. I generally believe that what I know is best for people is best."

Draco has a point. Not one Severus is ready to grant him, but a point all the same. Severus jerks as Draco pulls him to his feet. He hadn't even heard him walk over, which is unusual. For the most part, Severus is aware of the movements of everyone around him, but particularly Draco's. Draco says, "Come."

"To where are you manhandling me?"

"The kitchen. We're going to have breakfast."

"It is four in the morning."

"And we're both awake."

Once they're in the kitchen, Draco warms the water for tea, charms the muffins that Severus forever has on delivery to heat a bit, sets out some of the cheese and fruit being kept in the cooling box. Severus finds that he actually is hungry and takes a bit of honeydew melon and a muffin. The muffin is cream cheese-cinnamon, slightly crisp on the outside, dense and sweet on the inside. Draco pours him the tea once it has steeped, and then sits in the chair next over, picking grapes off their stems one by one and popping them obscenely into his mouth.

Severus snaps, "Eat like an adult."

Draco merely smiles at him, and carries on as he will. "Or what?"

"I will stop sharing the muffins."

Evidently, it's not a strong enough threat.

*


"Will you, then?" Draco asks.

"Yes," Severus tells him, clearly resolute.

"Then I shall just have to take what I want," Draco says.

Severus puts his hands over his muffin, but he's thinking in the wholly wrong direction and Draco just leans in, surges up, puts his lips to Severus' and tastes just a hint of sweet, baked goods. He pulls back just enough to breathe against Severus' lips, wait for him to take the bait.

Severus says, "Don't--"

Draco kisses him again, a little bit slower than the last, his tongue flicking lightly against Severus'.

"Draco--"

And again, this time sucking at Severus' lower lip.

Severus groans, swears, "Bugger," and pulls Draco by his robes from his seat to Severus' lap. Draco does his best to get himself balanced, to wrap himself around Severus but it's hard to concentrate, because the important part is the way Severus is bleeding up into him, his teeth even seemingly fitting to Draco's. Draco hasn't kissed a lot before now, but he knows it's usually more work, that this is so infinitely, bizarrely easy.

Draco brings the hand that's not clinging to Severus for dear life up to Severus' buttons. It's a tricky procedure, undoing them with only one hand and he finally growls, "Help me."

At least, it's meant to be a growl. It might be something far closer to a plea.

Severus says, "No, no," even as he brings his own hand up.

It goes to Draco's robes.

That's fine, Draco can give a little to get a little.

Severus is magic at getting someone out of his clothes. For several moments, Draco enjoys the feeling of being utterly bared underneath his hands, against the soft, broken-in wool of his robes. Then he insists, "Help me."

Severus listens to more than just the spirit of the request this time.

Draco shifts himself. It's not easy, but while Draco is not the most motivated of people, when he wants something, he wants it, and he wants to be straddling Severus, to push his cock into Severus' to make Severus gasp and bite Draco's lower lip.

So he does.

There's oil in the cabinets, Draco knows, and he summons it without the need for real concentration. He is focused, so very focused on this, on Severus, on himself, on this moment that it is as if the world is coming together to help him out with it. Draco slicks up Severus' cock, his fingers pressing their cocks together, and the sensation is so intense that Draco has to close his eyes for a bit, breathe and think of black, black, black just to recede from the edge.

Severus starts to ask, "Have you--"

"Yes," Draco says, because this is something he was curious about, something he wanted, something he's taken before. The last person didn't mind so very much, either.

He lifts himself up, slides down on Severus' cock and he has to give up breathing for a bit, just a bit, until the world widens a little bit again and there's room for air. Then Severus moves him, shifts his hips, rocks himself up just a bit, and Draco is back to forgetting that bodily functions are necessary.

He can feel Severus trying to set a leisurely pace, but they've both waited too long and Draco is not going to assist in that, instead stabbing his hips in a sharp, short rhythm that has him climbing toward orgasm, falling over its cliff, in no time.

Severus follows shortly on his heels.

At the bottom, Draco clings to him, says, "Tell me this changes things."

Severus is silent.

*


Severus spends the next week assisting Granger in cataloging a collection of books she has recently charmed out of a private wizard's ownership. He brings heavy pastries and well-breaded pies in the hopes that they will either cause her to look less honed, less shaved down, or get her to sleep a little. She needs to stop doing whatever it is she's doing to herself, but he has no right to say that and they both know it.

He wonders, all the same, what is stopping him.

She asks, "Are you using me for something?"

He says, "You assume I could?"

"Yes."

He doesn't say anything else. He is using her, and it's enough that he knows it.

She allows it to continue, for all that he's sure she knows as well.

He goes home late at night and leaves early in the morning, and it's a system that works until Draco stays up waiting for him, catching him as he walks in the hall. Draco says, "I thought I was supposed to be the adolescent in this relationship."

"This isn't a relationship," is the best Severus can come up with, and even he will admit, it's pretty weak.

"We live together and we've had carnal intimacies," Draco draws out both words. "It's something resembling a relationship."

"Those carnal intimacies were a momentary lapse of my otherwise considerable will. Such things are bound to happen over the course of a wizard's considerable lifetime."

"They weren't, you're just a coward."

Severus hisses, "Yes."

The admission seems to enrage Draco even more and Severus wonders if maybe he should prepare to duck, but in the end Draco fights with words.

Severus will realize later that he should have ducked regardless.

"What, Severus? What do you fear? That your colleagues will laugh at you? The numerous colleagues who have supported you through this trying time in your life? Or is it that I will laugh? That I will one day awaken and see a living corpse as my chosen partner? Or perhaps that your phenomenal failure to protect those whom you had Vowed to will spread to anyone you should care to try your hand at caring for, that you are more communicable and poisonous than the Mark on our arms?"

Severus closes his eyes, and wonders if Draco truly expects him to choose.

"I should give up," Draco spits. "If for no other reason than that you have no respect for me, none, and I always imagined that my partner would, but it seems my pride is a very different creature with you."

"I respect you," Severus tells him. As much as Severus has ever respected anyone, he does this man--boy, no, man--before him. He is simply not good at respecting others.

"If you respected me, you would grant me the capability of my own failings. You kept me alive, but you never seem to remember that part, the only pertinent thing to you is the part where I wouldn't talk. But I talk now, I talk and walk and do spells. Because of you. Why did you bother restoring those things to me if you planned to continue on as if I was still lacking them?"

"I know you--"

"No you don't."

Severus does, but he knew that Potter did too, he granted Potter that sort of independence and self-authority and that had been a mistake.

Fear is so much easier an emotion than hope. Infinitely more simple. "I do," he says. "But I do not know how to simply let you have it on your own."

"Find a way, Severus. Or I will be forced to."

There is something dire in the pronouncement, and Severus, who has been threatened enough to numb the experience considerably, feels the threat unto his very marrow. He thinks about calling Draco on the threat, but if he does and Draco follows through, then Severus thinks that the blame which already runs so deep inside him will splinter him, break him open into useless pieces irreversibly. He says, "I shall do my best."

"Then I have confidence," Draco says, sounding like he actually means it.

*


Draco makes his way to Hogwarts because desperation breeds even stranger bedfellows than politics, and Draco is intensely desperate. He knows whom it is that Severus goes to see, goes to help, when he's there.

He finds Granger alive in the Great Hall, finishing breakfast while she reads. Draco takes a moment to stare, to revel in the way she can still turn pages, curl her mouth into a moue of disbelief. Then he moves toward her, slides on to the bench across from her.

She holds up a finger and finishes whatever sentence or paragraph or page she is immersed in. She looks up and says, "Good-- Oh, um. Good morning."

Draco responds, "Good morning."

"Do you mind me asking what you could possibly need of a mudblood?" She says the last word with a sort of delicate irony that Draco is hard-pressed not to admire.

"Not me," he says, and when he hesitates she nods a bit.

"Ah. Professor Snape."

"He has come to you about the Debt, has he not?"

"I have not come up with anything to ask of him. For now, what he gives I will take, but no more." She puts her fingers to her temples, presses. "I am tired of being angry."

"And if he needs the asking."

"Then tell me what I should ask of him. Perhaps I owe him the consideration of discovering it on my own, but I haven't the energy, Malfoy, truly. Tell me and I will help you, help him, whatever the case may be. It is a better alternative than not helping."

"Potter will need to be memorialized."

"You feel I should ask the Professor to spearhead a project that will largely involve overseeing the rape of Harry's person until he is nothing of himself, only the shelled representation left behind?"

"When I thought about it the process was more simply the mess of dealing with the Ministry throughout, but yes, I suppose your description is appropriate."

"For prurience sake, explain to me why that is a wise plan."

"At the very least, he will balance out the raptures others will want to festoon Potter with. And he did actually know him."

"He hated him."

"But he felt a duty to him, and if he has a way to carry out that duty, to see it to its last part? All the better that he should hate every moment of it. Severus generally can't believe in accomplishment if it is not accompanied by pain."

Granger sighs. "I shall give the matter some thought."

"I should be indebted."

"No, Malfoy. No more debts. If I do it, it is for him and his debt, and perhaps my debt to him for my life and for the end, even if it was truly the end in ways I had not wanted it to be. But nothing between you and I. Not in that manner."

Draco nods. To some extent, he understands her fervency. He is no more pleased to be saddled with the onus of Severus' guilt than she. Or if he is, the distinction is not by much. "Very well. Then let us say that I should look upon you with a new regard."

"Be still my heart," she drawls and Draco finds himself smiling.

*


When Granger tells him what she requires of him, Severus does not even think to argue. What he thinks is that it is a relief, a relief to have the Debt defined, to understand it as having a finite ending point, even if the true value of the Debt has been entirely undermined, made moot.

Severus hates every second of having to deal with the Ministry, of having to be fair to a boy whom he once only had to protect. He hates it, and the clean, easy burn of the hate works as a sort of antiseptic for some of the messier emotions surrounding the Debt.

He cannot release his guilt, it is too much part of him, too essential now to the person he has become, but he finds himself able to push past the grief it induces, the deathly still inertia.

Draco helps him with money, teaches Severus things about bribes that even Severus has never understood. Severus knows Draco does not do it for Potter. Severus asks, a month in, when his mind is beginning to clear of its own clutter and he can see things beyond the barrier of his own consciousness, "Did you ask Granger for this?"

"She would never have asked you for anything. She would have let you dangle. Gryffindors are so utterly kind." The word is not meant as a compliment.

"She listened to you, Draco. She gave what you asked. Leave be."

"What is she to you?"

Severus can hear no jealousy in the question. "A woman who listened when I most needed her to." The admission brings with it an acknowledgment that when all is said and done, Severus would not have traded Draco's life, not even for Potter's, not even for his sanity, had it cost him that. The awareness is a hard thing, and he feels a bit choked trying to swallow around it. He manages.

"She does seem to have picked up that skill," Draco says.

"And you that of asking for help." A sign of maturity, Severus knows. There have been others. He has been willfully ignoring them.

"Only for you," Draco says quietly.

"Your mother, no doubt, makes that list."

"I am not certain she makes the list of those for whom I would ask a Gryffindor for help."

Severus supposes that is fair. He appreciates the gesture. More than appreciates, but he can't say that, so he does what he should not do, should be far less capable of than the words. He leans in and kisses Draco.

When he pulls back, Draco licks his lips. "Was that by way of thanks?"

"Yes."

"Save your gratitude."

"You enjoyed it well enough."

"I want more," Draco says.

"Sometimes it is important to take what we can get."

"That is your motto. I am a Malfoy."

Severus sighs. He really is.

*


Draco is, however, perhaps less of a Malfoy than he used to be. He does not tell Severus this, of course, but when Severus will occasionally slip his hand over Draco's in the evenings, when they are sitting in the study, or draw a kiss from him before they wish each other good night, Draco is perfectly, wholly willing to take what he can get.

This, of course, does not mean that he will not press for more.

He does.

Every kiss, every touch, is--so far as Draco is concerned--a challenge. And for all his other faults, both acknowledged and otherwise, Draco has always risen to the challenges set before him.

There are nights when Severus comes home from the ministry so full of dammed rage that if Draco felt the need to be cautious around him, he would go to his room, wait for the emotions to drain. Instead he tends to provoke Severus, secure in his safety, in that Severus will not harm him.

It is bizarre, that surety, and Draco looks forward to the day when he shall be able to take it for granted. At the moment, he is busy relishing it, delighting in the fact that Severus will scowl and scream but not hex or curse or even hit.

Severus, in fact, will not touch him.

This is less of a delight than the lack of violence, and Draco is determined to put an end to it.

Draco picks an evening when Severus is at his absolute worst--has actually insulted Draco's mother--to aim a divestio in his direction.

Severus does not get out of the way in time, and Draco is given his upper hand. Severus says, "Oh yes, humiliation as a way of getting me to stop is a brilliant tactic."

"You thought humiliation was my plan?" Draco asks, approaching swiftly.

Severus looks like he is thinking twice. "Draco--"

Whatever he is going to say is evidently cut off by the pleasure of Draco's mouth clamping onto his cock with one strong, introductory suck. Draco takes his time with the rest of the blowjob, enjoying his control, the look of strange, uncertain awe in Severus' gaze the one time Draco chances to look up.

When he is done, Draco asks, "I'm sorry, you were saying?"

Severus says, "It was unimportant."

"In other words, my tactics of non-humiliation worked?"

Severus pulls him up. "I suppose you expect that I shall take you to bed and show you just how much?"

"I never presume," Draco says.

"Yes, yes you do."

Draco smiles. He does.

Then again, with Severus, he often gets his way.

Luckily for him, this time is no exception.

*


Severus wakes up on the third day in a row when Draco has simply stayed after their evening activities and comes to terms with the fact that for a while now, nothing has preceded said activities--no anger, no fear and no hurt. There is often amusement, but for the most part the event comes out of need, out of desire, out of emotions which perhaps should be part of carnal relations, of sex, of making love.

The thought seizes in his chest, panic and acceptance warring, disallowing him a breath.

Then Draco rolls over onto him and asks, "You're going to be late tonight, yes? The meeting with the Minister?"

The real world, its daily nuisances, the way pieces fit together even when they possibly shouldn't, comes crashing back into Severus, breaking away at the block in his lungs. He inhales. "Yes."

"Would you like me to hold dinner?"

"You needn't--"

"I asked if you should like it. I know what I need and needn't do, thanks much."

Severus should tell him no, should stop this burgeoning pattern of comfort and normality in its very tracks. "I should."

"Very well."

"Did you have plans for the day?"

"My cousin and I are meeting for lunch to discuss a possible career plan, as well as the situation as it stands for Mother."

"Give Nymphadora my greetings."

"Of course."

"Try not to anger her so far that she causes harm."

"I can take care of myself, Severus."

"So you keep telling me."

"So you keep staying to be told."

It is a fair point. Severus tries to make himself get out of bed, roll away, anything. Instead he finds himself arching slightly for a kiss. Draco gives him it, but not before charming their teeth clean. The action is so very Draco that Severus can't help but laugh, and the reaction is in and of itself cleansing.

He cannot remember the last time he regularly woke to laughter. He does not think there ever was one.

The kiss is lazy, not particularly slow but not moving in much of a direction, either, a kiss for the sake of kissing.

When it is done, Severus finds himself holding Draco to him, an arm slung possessively about his hips. He asks, "Were I to let go, what do you imagine you should do?"

Draco grinds his cock against Severus'. "Finish this. One way or another."

Severus lets go.


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