Harry sighed, leaning over the highly polished handle of his broomstick. For a while, he’d considered buying another broom to use in the matches; he hadn’t forgotten the misfortune that had befallen his trusty Nimbus 2000, and couldn’t bear to risk damaging the Firebolt Sirius had bought him. Remus had pointed out the ridiculousness of this. Sirius would be overjoyed to know that the broom was being used against Slytherin – would want it to be a source of joy to Harry, not some kind of warped shrine.
And so Saturday evening found the Boy-Who-Lived flying in lazy circles above the Pitch on the aforementioned Firebolt, watching Ron bark orders at the rest of the team. Ron was a hard taskmaster, Harry mused, and unlike Oliver, didn’t seem inclined to let Harry play however he liked. Ron was an excellent strategist, and a bloody good captain, but he didn’t know a thing about playing Seeker – what pointers he gave were invariably useless. Harry wasn’t about to mention this to his best friend, of course.
Harry had taken it upon himself to keep watch over the area when the team was out; Voldemort’s attacks were growing increasingly closer to Hogwarts, and Snape had expressed some concern over this shift in tactics. He lacked evidence enough to ask Dumbledore to bar the students from playing their sport, but he’d asked Harry to stay alert, and be prepared for the battle that seemed to draw nearer with each passing day.
Ginny let out a yell, and Harry nearly fell off his broom before realizing that her cry had been one of victory, not terror.
“Jumpy, Potter,” he scolded himself. He rubbed at the sore muscles of his neck and resumed his laps. “And no wonder. Snape’s more paranoid than Moody,” he groused, and grinned. It was so clearly true that when he’d made a similar statement in training on Thursday, Snape hadn’t bothered with denial. The Potions master had merely muttered, “Well, he must be doing something right – he’s still alive, after all,” and Harry had been forced to agree.
A brief flash of movement caught his eye, and he fell into a Wronski Feint as Ron waved the rest of the team to the ground, wrenching out of the dive only inches from the ground and tumbling off his broom onto the grass. He lay there on his back, panting, until Ginny’s face swam into view above him.
“All right, Harry?”
“Yeah. Just tired.”
“Tell me about it,” she said, and rolled her eyes. “And to think I used to feel bad for you when Oliver would call the lot of you out every now and then to practice in the rain. We never seem to practice on a clear day!”
“Today’s not bad.” Harry glanced down at his robes and grimaced. “Well, it didn’t seem so bad when I was actually flying in it.” The thick mist they’d been playing in had soaked into their Quidditch robes and Ginny had begun to shiver in the rapidly cooling air.
“Oh, look,” she said abruptly, gesturing toward the forest, and Harry whirled, drawing his wand. Ginny shook her head. “No, it’s . . . just the thestrals.”
Harry narrowed his eyes, barely able to pick out the shadowy horse-like figures through the mist and distance. He hadn’t mentioned his Animagus abilities to his friends. McGonagall and Dumbledore knew he’d succeeded in completing the transformation, but only Severus knew what form he took.
Ginny knew of his fascination with the thestrals, even if she could not fathom its real cause, and she shooed him toward the animals now with an indulgent smile.
“We’ll wait on you,” she said, and went to change.
Harry walked across the pitch toward them, and the horses gathered around him. He ran with them, sometimes, when he couldn’t sleep. How they recognized him in human form he didn’t know, but he appreciated their acceptance just the same.
“Hey, Shadow,” he murmured as the young stallion nuzzled at his chest, demanding attention. “Good to see you again.” He scratched obligingly at the horse’s ears. He’d gotten used to the skeletal look of the animals, and no longer flinched away when those eerie pale eyes met his. “What’s wrong? Hagrid not fed you yet?”
The stallion tossed his head and bared his fangs, as though to say he was more than capable of catching his own dinner.
“Yeah, okay, stupid question. But—What in holy hell . . . .” He saw the red sparks from across the pitch, and paused – probably only another of Ginny’s pranks. “She’s taken over from the twins admirably,” he said to Shadow, but didn’t look away. The stallion’s ears pricked, angling forward, and Harry froze as green light flashed across the pitch. Only one spell cast that deadly glow . . .
Harry didn’t remember running to them. It seemed only an instant passed between seeing that tell-tale green light and kneeling beside the still form of the new Chaser – a third-year girl whose name he couldn’t seem to recall. It seemed somehow sacreligious, falling to his knees beside her body with tears already welling in his eyes, when for the life of him he couldn’t think of her name.
For a moment he couldn’t move, just stared up at the masked Death Eaters who’d taken away his last means of defense with those two little words. It was over . . . he was over.
“Harry!” Ginny’s voice rose above the sounds of battle, tinged with panic. And abruptly he realized he wasn’t as helpless as they all believed.
He made the Change on sheer will and desperation, called the animal inside him to the surface even through the face of paralyzing terror. And as the animal form took over, his fear ebbed. The thestral knew no fear of these puny humans, with their feeble, flailing limbs and loud voices. They had tried to take his family from him, and that would not be tolerated.
Harry reared, screaming his challenge to the heavens as he charged the men in front of him. There was no time to reconsider what the animal instincts inside him were telling him to do, no time to marvel at his own brutality before he was on them. He ripped out the throat of the first – somehow he’d forgotten that the creature he’d become was no mere horse, but a predator. He stomped viciously on the fallen Death Eaters, felt the bones crunch beneath his hooves. He couldn’t remember how many he’d already killed – too many, the human side of his brain warned – but he couldn’t stop himself. He turned, looking for Ron and Ginny, and realized just how formidable the odds were against him. The Death Eaters were swarming the pitch; his friends had probably already been taken, and without their presence to guide him, he lost control.
His call had summoned the other thestrals from the Forest, and with them, Dumbledore and the other professors.
“Dear Merlin,” Snape hissed, pausing for an instant at the edge of the Pitch, stunned by the carnage laid out before him. He’d not seen such a slaughter since first joining the Death Eaters at the height of Voldemort’s reign. He saw the black horses, knew that one of them had to be Harry, but couldn’t quite fathom the boy he knew instigating such a massacre.
“Don’t hit the thestrals!” he ordered, his voice carrying easily to the other teachers. “One of them is Harry!”
“Severus, help!” One of the Death Eaters was running toward him, and as Snape hesitated, the largest of the thestrals broke off from the battle and went for the fleeing man.
“Harry, no!” Severus stepped in front of the panicking Death Eater, but he wasn’t protecting the man behind him so much as he was Harry. Potter might be caught up in the animal’s bloodlust now, but knowing he’d killed a cowering and defeated man was something entirely different than self-defense. It would destroy him, Sev knew, and understood too how great a thing he risked. If Harry didn’t falter . . . if the animal took over and killed Severus for denying it its intended prey . . . .
The thestral slid to a halt only inches from Severus. It wavered, white eyes wild, muzzle dripping with the enemy’s blood. “Harry,” Sev said softly, and the great beast turned away, called back the attacking animals.
“Traitor,” the Death Eater he’d shielded hissed in the cultured tones of Lucius Malfoy, shoving Snape out of the way and slicing out at the stallion’s face with a dagger. Harry reared up again, and those huge hooves came down with thunderous force.
“You alright?” Snape asked, dusting himself off without a second look at the trampled mess that had once been his boyhood companion.
Harry shifted back. “I think so.” The thestrals trotted to him, and one rested its head on his shoulder, crooning softly in sympathy. Absently he stroked the soft hide. “Did they get—”
“The Weasleys?” Snape finished for him, and shook his head. “I don’t know. We should wait for Albus, and then, if they’ve been taken, we’ll see what can be done.”
“I should go after them—” Harry began.
Severus cut him off. “No. You’re exhausted, and injured, and wouldn’t do them a bit of good, flying around in this condition. You don’t even know where they’ve been taken.”
Harry reached back, clutching at the thestral’s back for support, but he couldn’t seem to steady himself. He saw Snape’s eyes widen in surprise as he crumpled to the ground without another word, leaning back against the horse’s foreleg. “Shadow,” he murmured; the stallion lowered its head to look him in the eyes. “Find them,” he whispered, putting every ounce of strength he had into making the animal understand what he wanted. “Please . . .”
Shadow nudged him gently, and nickered in response, backing away. And then Severus was beside him, supporting him, and Albus Dumbledore’s voice came from somewhere behind him, the words hushed: “Severus, what’s happened to him?”
“Hagrid,” Harry managed to say, fighting to explain what he’d learned from a brief scan of Malfoy’s dying mind. Snape hadn’t wasted all this time teaching him Legilimency for nothing. “They brought daggers . . . for the giant . . . but they . . .” Harry couldn’t seem to catch his breath. Snape’s hand ran down his side, his fingertips gently probing the knife-wound there.
“He’s been stabbed,” the Potions master said blankly, staring down at the blood covering his hands. “He’s been— ”
“Severus!” McGonagall was shaking him.
“The knife punctured his lung.” Snape found his voice again, and his composure. “We have to get him to Poppy, and quickly.” He leaned over the boy. “Harry? Can you hear me? Just hang on . . you’re going to be fine.” Please, God, let that not be a lie.
“Sev . . . don’t let them die. Okay?” Harry pleaded. “Follow . . . follow the horses,” he said faintly. His eyes locked on Snape’s for an instant, but without the barrier of the boy’s Occlumency shields, an instant was all the professor needed.
Severus stumbled to his feet as Dumbledore and the others floated the boy onto a stretcher and rushed him up the Hospital Wing and Poppy Pomphrey. He wanted to be there, but he knew Poppy would throw all of them out within seconds of seeing her patient, and if he didn’t pull himself together by the time Harry needed him, he’d end up doing more harm than good.
“Shadow,” he called, cautiously approaching the young thestral he’d glimpsed in Harry’s memories. If he succeeded in doing what he thought he had . . . It was interesting, the things Potter tried due to his ignorance of the wizarding world. But if this worked . . . .
Gently he lay his hand on the thestral’s muzzle, and he shivered as he met its gaze. “Please find them,” he said, feeling beyond stupid. But Harry had tried Legilimency on the animal before he’d collapsed, and believed he’d felt the thestral acknowledge his request.
The stallion dipped its head in what Snape swore looked like a nod before it took to the air in a rush of wings, followed by half a dozen of the others. The rest of the flock – or was it a herd? Severus thought irrelevantly – milled around him in mild confusion before one of the females lined herself up beside him in the manner of a trained mount.
“Okay, Potter.” Snape took a deep breath and placed his hand on the mare’s neck. “But if your pet demon throws me, I swear . .” Quickly he slid onto the animal’s back, grabbing for the ebony mane as the thestral flicked open enormous wings and launched itself skyward. Sev took a quick glance down at the receding ground below and closed his eyes, his lips moving in a litany of silent prayers. He didn’t look up again until he felt the slight jar of the landing and heard the click of the mare’s hooves on stone.
He recognized the balcony she’d landed on. “No animals in the hospital wing,” he said, opening the glass doors and attempting to slip through without her. She bared fangs the Loch Ness monster would be proud of and growled ferociously. “Poppy is not going to like this.” It rankled, letting an animal get the better of him, but he wanted to be there when the boy regained consciousness. He didn’t have time to deal with Potter’s new playmates. He shoved the doors open again and stepped into the ward, ignoring the thestral that followed him inside.
“Poppy’s working on him,” Dumbledore said as he entered, and made no comment about his newly acquired shadow. “It’s . . . it’s bad.” He rose immediately as Poppy entered the room, and the spark in his eyes died at the severity of her expression.
“He’s asking for you, Severus,” she said, and for a moment he couldn’t move. That was his child in there – not by blood, but he knew just how little blood mattered when it came to relationships. For a moment despair all but crushed him, before fury took its place.
“Damned if I’ll give in to his little death-bed rituals,” he growled under his breath. He shoved open the doors to the hospital wing and marched into the room, and could have looked no more grim if he’d been storming the front doors of Voldemort’s stronghold. “Potter!” he bellowed. “What do you think you’re doing? There’s work to be done, Weasleys to rescue! Get it together!”
Harry’s eyes opened slowly. “Sev?”
“Come on, Potter. Don’t tell me a few mere Death Eaters are going to be the end of you? Where’s that vaunted Gryffindor courage?”
“I hope . . with them.” Harry turned his face away, and Severus saw the shadows there. So young, he thought savagely. He’s only a boy, really, and yet . . . A single tear trailed down Potter’s face, and Snape reached forward to brush it away before realizing how parental such a gesture seemed. Not that any hand had wiped away his childhood tears – and from the look on Harry’s face, there’d been precious little sympathy in the Dursley household, either – but dammit, he was old enough to look back on the memories now and realize that somewhere along the line, someone should have.
“Well, you certainly can’t protect them if you’re dead.” Snape raised a hand to forestall the protest he saw in Harry’s eyes. “I know – that ridiculous theory you prescribe to. He’ll die if you do, and all that rot. But believe me, Potter, if I thought there was an ounce of truth to such speculation, I’d’ve bumped you off myself years ago and saved this school a great deal of aggravation.”
“No . . .” Harry coughed, and the harsh sound made Snape wince. He hoped Harry hadn’t noticed. “You’d never . . prove the Prophet . . right.”
“That sad excuse for a newspaper did have it out for you,” Sev agreed. “And anyway, Potter, you can’t die today.”
Amusement flickered in the boy’s eyes, and Severus reveled in that spark of life through the pain and resignation dimming that vibrant green gaze.
“Merlin, Potter . . . . why?” Snape tapped his foot in mock impatience. “Let’s see. I’m already getting a late start on my ‘rescue the Weasels’ mission – like the world hasn’t got enough of the red-haired rodents – which could conceivably take up all my spare time for a week. There’s always a chance that the Dark Lord will summon me, and that always puts a serious dent in my day. I’m going to have to help re-spell the castle and inform a group of very unhappy Slytherin, Quidditch-mad teenagers that their favorite sport will be canceled until further notice, and clean up after their temper tantrums. And that’s just what I have to do today. So no, Potter, I refuse to squeeze your funeral into my itinerary.”
“Sorry for the . . . inconvenience.”
“You should be. And you know, Potter, if you get better quick, you might even be deemed fit enough to ride one of those bloody horses and lead the way to the Weasleys. And, as Albus and Minerva are not going to want to ride a thestral all the way to the Dark Lord’s headquarters, that presumably leaves me riding one of the beasts if you’re still stuck in this hospital bed. So, Potter, if you play your cards right, I might even . .” Snape shuddered, and continued in an exaggerated whisper, “owe you one!”
Severus blinked. “You didn’t, Potter –” his voice shook with outrage—“just suggest that I was sweet. What a truly nauseating prospect. So of course, I was undoubtedly mistaken. The Headmaster is sweet. Puppies are sweet. Ex- Death Eaters turned Potion masters are not sweet.”
“I thought . . . after Sirius died . . that it would be okay – if he killed me. ‘S what I’m . . for.”
“No, Harry.” Severus whispered it, his fingers tightening around the boy’s. “That’s not who you are.”
“But I have . . to be careful, now. Because . . you care. I thought, when he died . . . that no one ever would again. But you know . . all there is to know about me . . and you do.”
Severus was aware of Dumbledore’s soft footsteps behind him, of McGonagall’s wide-eyed stare. He could hear Poppy – bless her sense of discretion – checking supplies across the room as though there was nothing unusual in the sight of him at Potter’s bedside. And he squeezed Potter’s hand in brief reassurance.
“Yes, Harry. I do.”
“And somehow . . that makes things okay.” Potter’s eyes fluttered closed, and Snape shot a glance at Pomphrey, who gave him a gentle smile. He looked down at the boy, his fingers testing the pulse at that too-thin wrist. Potter slept, and from the faint smile on his face, Voldemort was too busy to disturb his slumber.
“Poppy?” Severus queried.
“He’ll be fine, thanks to you. His magic is keeping him alive now, healing the damage at an astounding rate. You gave him the will to fight, Severus. And that’s something I, for all my training, could never do.”
“What?” Snape barked, turning to glare fiercely at Minerva, whose gaze flicked from him to Potter and back again, as though she couldn’t decide who had most surprised her.
“Severus . .” Albus laid a hand on his arm. “We need to gather the Order, begin our search for the Weasleys.”
Snape chanced a last look at Potter before turning away. “No need. If Potter could have me fawning over him—”
“And he does,” McGonagall murmured.
Severus ignored her. “—then he could certainly convince a herd of thestrals to do his bidding. They’ll find the Weasleys, faster than we ever could.” He padded back through the doorway, and smiled faintly when he saw the great black animal standing there. He whistled, softly, and the mare obeyed his summons, slipping past him to stand over Potter. Gently she rested her muzzle on his chest – as if to assure herself that the boy breathed still, Severus thought – before turning again to the Potions professor.
“I knew – after the attack today – that he was a thestral, and exercised some control over the others here,” Dumbledore said. “But I would never have expected them to view him as their leader . . their alpha male.”
“He runs with them, some nights,” Snape confessed. “Oftener than he would have me believe. And still, knowing that, it surprised me too.”
“He has a unique gift, beyond what powers he shared with Voldemort.” Dumbledore’s tone was grave, but there was hope in it still. “He inspires loyalty, like no one I have ever seen. The students, here, will fight for him – even those who would not do the same for me. And sometimes, I envy him that.”
Severus could not imagine Dumbledore envying anyone anything. “He doesn’t realize,” he whispered. “It would only disturb him, if he did.”
“He’s a Gryffindor.” McGonagall offered this bit of wisdom as though it answered everything. And, perhaps, it did.
“I care about him . . too much, perhaps. I hid the truth from him because I wished to protect him. And in the end, I only drove him away.” Albus sighed. “He has you,” he said to Snape, “and I will admit I had a few concerns when his choice became apparent. But he brings out the best in you, for which I am grateful. He needs someone to care, and he would no longer believe that I do.”
“Tell him that, someday,” Severus advised. “He may not believe, but it will change him nonetheless. Because he loves you, sees you as a sort of grandfather. And it hurts him to go against you, even in ways that do no harm.” He hesitated. “He asked me once . . . why his parents died to save him . . . why so many people seem willing to do the same now. And I couldn’t give him an answer – because I am one of those people. I would not have believed myself capable of that . . depth of emotion.” He shrugged, looked down at Potter’s sleeping form. “He makes you believe. And he would never understand just how special a gift that is.”
They stood in silence for a moment more as Harry stirred in his sleep, united briefly in their concern for one small Gryffindor Seeker. The thestral rustled its wings and took up a post at Potter’s bedside in a manner that clearly stated her intention to serve as his protector. Severus paused beside the black horse on his way out of the room.
“Guard him well,” he said quietly. “He doesn’t realize what he means to us all.” And he closed the door gently behind him.