Harry's hand clenched tight over the handle of his wand, trying to keep his voice steady. "Are you ready for me?"
Professor Carrow nodded, but then shook his head, opening the door the rest of the way and standing aside. "The Dark Lord requested to witness this,” he said darkly, “And he is allowing your father to come as well. We are waiting for them.”
His stomach in knots, Harry’s eyes darted over his professor’s office, trying to catch hold of anything to distract him from that. Under a Silencio charm, a Muggle woman twisted her hands and legs against the ropes conjured to bind her. Wrinkles spread across her face from her mouth and eyes, and curly whisps of odd, not quite right, flat black hair hung around her face like a brittle cloud. A comfortable sort of pudginess thickened her waist. She looked so normal, just like everybody else, he couldn’t... He wondered if she had grandchildren. Maybe if it were an axe murderer or someone who wanted to kill him, or someone who really deserved it, he might be able to cast the Cruciatus Curse, but not...
For one morbid moment, he contemplated casting the curse on the Dark Lord himself instead, prove he could that way.
He sat in a chair facing his professor’s desk, fidgeting, unable to keep himself from glancing at the woman in the corner, both hands tight around his wand, waiting, and when the door finally opened, he jumped. His dad stood to the side and held it at attention, and Harry swallowed painfully as the Dark Lord strode grandly into the dim little office. Harry toppled off the chair, knocking it over in his haste to rise, and he glanced at Dark Lord’s face, righting it before falling to his knees. “Rise, Harry.” The Dark Lord smiled at him.
Harry had to suppress a shudder of revulsion as he fought not to snarl at the use of his first name. If he succeeded, if he fooled the Dark Lord, he’d have to get used to it. “Thank you, my Lord.” The Dark Lord tipped his chin up, and it was all he could to not to shove him away.
As he stood up, he saw his dad’s arms tensing and relaxing next to his pocket with his wand. Harry straightened his shoulders and gripped his own wand determinedly, and faced the Dark Lord.
“Now Harry,” the Dark Lord enthroned himself in the chair in which Harry had just been sitting. “Your Dark Arts professor has informed me that you have not as of yet successfully cast the Cruciatus Curse.”
Harry nodded, and out of the corner of his eye, he saw his dad shake his head. “Yes my Lord.” The Dark Lord watched him expectantly. His stomach felt like it was full of snakes, and no matter what he did, his eyes kept drifting back to the woman in the corner, face covered in tears. He tried to clear his mind, but every time he did, James’ face popped into his mind, smirking miserably as the curse didn’t even make him ache. Did he really have the courage... If he tried to deceive the Dark Lord and failed, well people had been killed for less. It didn’t matter. He had to didn’t he, even if there was almost no chance of it working. “But I practiced all summer and I have it down now,” he rushed to reassure him.
Anything was better than no chance at all.
With a small, sinister quirk of his lips, the Dark Lord pointed his wand at the Muggle and she shot across the room to land hard at their feet. Her back arched and she screamed silently beneath the charm. Harry could see all the way down her throat. “Well What are you waiting for, then?”
Harry closed his eyes and let his mind go blank, pointing his wand at the woman. “Crucio,” he said, quietly, but he didn’t even bother to cast the spell. Instead, he clenched his teeth and whispered Imperio inside his own head. He couldn’t cast the Cruciatus Curse at anyone, but the Imperius Curse was was easy, almost seductive. It flowed out of his wand like hot honey, and he stared right at her, meeting her glazed, cursed eyes. Act like you’re being tortured, he thought at her, suddenly squeamish, unwilling to think about exactly what that meant. She convulsed against her magical bonds, her hands seizing up into bony claws and she flopped around on the ground like she was drowning, head thrown back, mouth open. As she shrieked soundlessly, he felt her mind bending and yielding to his, and his stomach gave a huge lurch. He told it to calm down determinedly, it could be worse. It wasn’t like he really was torturing her, or taking her will away because he wanted to. He was trying to make it easier. She was going to be dead soon anyway. There was no way they were just going to put her back where they found her after all this was over, and if he didn’t do it this way, she’d die in horrible agony instead of just dying. It was better this way. Breathing hard though his nose, he steadied himself to keep from throwing up. He didn’t want to think about how bad this all really was, and he really didn't want to think about just how easy the Imperius Curse came to him.
At last he ended the curse, and for a moment she just lay there, too stunned to do anything else, but slowly she wriggled herself into a sitting position, gazing around at them all, wide eyed and baring her teeth fiercely.
Harry tore his eyes away from her and looked directly into the Dark Lord’s, lowering his wand. pushing his glasses up on his nose, he kept his mind relentlessly blank. The Dark Lord couldn’t see what he was thinking if he wasn’t thinking anything at all.
The Dark Lord smiled. “Amycus, would you please leave us?”
Harry stopped breathing as he watched the Dark Lord finger his wand and tap it absentmindedly against the arm of his chair. “Yes my Lord,” he heard stammered from behind him, “I’ll be... I’ll be in the staffroom if you need me.”
With a careless wave of his wand, the Dark Lord closed the door behind the Dark Arts professor and turned back to Harry, who stared at his wand tip to keep from looking at his face, or back at his father, whose eyes were boring into the back of his neck. “Impressive,” the Dark Lord remarked, and the tension leached out of Harry’s muscles, leaving them weak, “but very very foolish.”
Harry’s stomach dropped out of his body, leaving an empty sucking space behind. “What? I don’t,” he swallowed. “Know what you mean.”
The tip of the Dark Lord’s wand pointed directly at him, as Harry's dad came up to stand behind him to rest his hand on his shoulder. “You didn’t cast the Cruciatus Curse,” The Dark Lord whispered dangerously, “This is the Cruciatus Curse. Crucio.” In an instant, the wand arched through the air and the curse hit his dad right in the forehead.
His dad collapsed to the floor, writhing and screaming, screaming... The Dark Lord’s eyes lit up when Harry stared shocked at him, and Harry couldn’t speak. He pointed his wand directly at the Dark Lord, but there was nothing, no spell he could think of that the Dark Lord wouldn’t block. Falling to his knees, he put his hand on his dad’s trembling shoulder, and pulled his feet up under himself.
His eyes found the dark lord’s, his pupils huge with horror, and he froze. Something seized up inside him, those red, staring, gleeful eyes pinning him into place, and he was afraid. It wasn’t the fear of death, or loss, or the very real fear he had coming into the office, but something nameless and different. Something inside him recognized the Dark Lord, and wouldn’t forget what it had seen.
His father’s convulsions shook through him from where his hand touched his dad’s shoulder, and his face broke into a snarl. All of a sudden, his muscles unlocked, and that fear kept coursing through him, and he couldn’t make it go away. So he did the only thing he could do. He sprang into the air. His arms wrapped around the Dark Lord's neck, his legs tangled with his waist, and he bore the Dark Lord to the ground. With one hand pressing hard into his throat, he grasped the dark lord’s wand with the other, but the Dark Lord yanked it back, the friction burning into Harry’s palm, but it didn’t matter, because his dad had fallen silent behind him, and he had his hand around the Dark Lord’s throat, and...
With a great surge upward, the Dark Lord threw him off and lurched to his feet. Harry tumbled to the ground, catching himself one armed, and pulled himself up, wand in hand, to face him.
“Are you going to duel me, Harry?” His voice was soft, almost friendly, and Harry thought he was going to be sick on the floor. “How brave.”
“My Lord, no!” Harry’s head snapped around to see his dad, visibly shaking, fighting to stay upright, stumbling towards them. He could see the wand, tucked in his father’s hand, along his arm.
The Dark Lord ignored him. “Do you know who did this to me?” he asked, holding up his wand hand, and showing off the three stumps of his fingers, cleaved off where they would have met his hand. “Your mother was brave too.” Harry shivered.
“My Lord, he was only defending me-”
“Quiet Severus.” The Dark Lord smiled genially, and Harry gripped his wand a little tighter. “I remember when you were born, you know. You share a birthday with Neville Longbottom. I remarked on it at the time.”
“What are you talking about?”
“It takes a great deal of power to silently cast the Imperius Curse, doesn't it?” he asked, and Harry stared, absolutely lost. “And a very strong will. You would be quite the enemy in a few years.”
There was no question now; he was about to die. “Yeah, probably.”
The Dark Lord's smile narrowed, thinning down into a smug, sharp line as he turned to Harry's dad. "Tell me Severus, how many times have you defied me?"
His dad kept his face calm, impassive, the muscles twitching and trembling with the after effects of the curse and nothing else. "I have never defied you, My Lord."
He laughed, high and cold, and it echoed around the room like breaking glass. "Come now, Severus, you know better. Let's count them off together, shall we?"
Severus swallowed, "My Lord-"
"You slept with a Mudblood. You got her pregnant. One." The Dark Lord nodded to him.
Harry's father flushed and Harry tried to think of something he could do while the Dark Lord was distracted. His mind whirred. His skin felt too tight, stretched to breaking over his flesh and bones.
The Dark Lord waited until the silence began to hurt all on its own. "I've always wondered if you were the one to somehow spirit away the Hogwarts ledger, but that happened after young Harry was born, didn't it?"
Severus stood there mute, and Harry's hand shook around his wand.
"How did the Longbottoms know that I knew about the prophecy, Severus?"
"My Lord, I would never-"
"Be quiet." He put his hand on Harry's shoulder and smiled when every muscle in Harry's body knotted together. "The Longbottoms were friends with your wife, weren't they. You told her. And she told them to be ready for me. Two. What else Severus? How else have you defied me that I don't know about yet?"
"What's this about?" Harry questioned roughly, and the Dark Lord looked down at him like he had somehow forgotten Harry could speak. "If you're going to kill us, get it over with."
"Such a brave boy," The Dark Lord said to his father. "Are you going to tell him about the prophesy?"
"My Lord," his dad said again, and for the first time since he had entered that office, he could hear the real hopeless resignation in his father's voice, the real knowledge that they weren't going to get out of this.
"Tell him the prophesy."
"Harry." His dad glanced at the Dark Lord automatically. He let hs face twist and his lips pull back into the sneer he had never let the Dark Lord see, and he let his son see him make that expression. "Before you were born, a seer made a prophecy that the Dark Lord could be defeated by someone born in the end of July to parents who had defied him three times."
Suddenly, Harry wondered how James had defied the Dark Lord before he was born, how he had gotten himself a death sentence, and then the earring and slavery instead, how his mother had defied the Dark Lord. The strange thought that she had once really fought in the war that had put the Dark Lord in power, on the losing side, that she had fought and that was why she was dead was almost impossible to grasp. Impossible to grasp that she had once been someone, and the man who had killed her was going to kill him and his dad too. "And he thinks that I'm..."
"You are very useful to me, Severus. You have been... most useful to me over the years." His smile was small, and even more frightening than it had been. "It would be a shame to kill you."
"I really don't care if you think it's a shame-"
"Silencio!" The Dark Lord jabbed his wand at Harry. "If I kill you and the boy, some other child who fits the prophesy will come to take his place."
"It has been known to happen," Severus said, hiding his bewilderment.
"I think I can make you loyal to me," The Dark Lord murmured ominously. "I think I can ensure that you never betray me again."
Harry had grown up hearing about how dangerous the Dark Lord was, how he could see though any lie, how he wouldn't hesitate to kill anybody who crossed him, and in all that, somehow no one had mentioned that he was completely insane! His mouth moved. He could feel the air coming out of his throat as if he were talking, but the Dark Lord's spell held.
Tackling him had worked once. He backed up quietly and ran for him to knock him over, but the Dark Lord turned and held his wand to Harry's forehead. "You don't want to make me kill you."
"I thought you were going to kill me anyway," Harry mouthed soundlessly.
"Sit down Harry, Severus." The Dark Lord turned to where they had left the Muggle woman, but she wasn't there anymore. She had crawled to the door, her arms and legs bound to each other, and was struggling to her feet when the Dark Lord's spell hit her and dragged her backwards to him. He patted her hair, but the words that left his mouth came out a low hiss, weird dark words, from a language lost except for fragments in spells like the one he was chanting. Harry's dad opened his mouth to interrupt, but the Dark Lord flicked his wand and cast a soundless silencing charm without even pausing the flow of words. The Dark Lord's eyes were glowing. The glow came from inside him, low and dark red, and when he spoke, Harry could see it pulsing behind his teeth.
The glow poured out of the Dark Lord's mouth and hovered in front of him like breath on a cold day, and he pulled the Muggle woman to him, holding her head in one hand and her shoulder in the other as she tried to squirm away. On one word, louder than the others, he brought his hands together, snapping her neck. Harry thought he was going to throw up. The room spun, but he couldn't blink, couldn't close his eyes. When her neck had snapped, the red glow that had left the Dark Lord's body snapped too, breaking off in his teeth. The glow still inside him snapped back, contracting down inside him, vanishing. The glow in front of him snapped down like a rubber band into a bead of dark, dark light, pulsing from the end of his wand. He brought the wand low, to Harry's head.
"Have you guessed what I'm doing, Severus?" he asked coldly. "Have you guessed what I'm going to turn your son into?" The wand touched Harry's forehead before his father could answer. He screamed behind the silencing charm and screamed and screamed until he could feel it snap too, and the sound of his screams filled the room the way the agony filled his head.
When the Dark Lord removed his wand, Harry hung limply from the arms of the chair, vaguely afraid he was going to slide down to the floor where the woman's body lay, eyes still open. The room wobbled around him and he tried to stay as still as possible. "What... happened?"
"I told you I could make you loyal to me, Severus," The Dark Lord said lightly as Harry put his hand to his head. It was bleeding. "How do yo feel, my little Horcrux?"
Harry groaned. "What?"
"You see, Severus," the Dark Lord breathed. "You can't work against me now. You can't try to bring about my fall, because your son would have to die first, and you, you never want to see that happen, do you." He turned to Harry and traced the cut on his forehead with his finger tip, flicking away the blood when he had finished. "And you Harry can't kill me, because for me to die, you have to already be dead."
Harry leaned over in his chair and ruined the Dark Lord's speech the only way he could, vomiting, heaving until the spasms in his back and stomach had brought all the food and stomach acid, and bile in him to the surface and spewed it out over the floor and the Dark Lord's robe.
The Dark Lord fleered. He stepped away from Harry and the stinking mess and his feet and whirled on Severus. "He is my vessel now. I put a piece of my soul into him. Now, whatever he knows, I know. Whatever he sees I see. And if you ever even consider defying me again..." He smiled and let it hang. "I'm letting you live to continue serving me, Severus. I'm letting your son live. He even gets to keep his status as a pure blood." He stood back, straight, the dark magic still swirling around him. "Leave. Go home. Contemplate how you will repay me for my mercy."
They stumbled out of the fireplace together, the blood seeping sluggishly out of the neat, clean, lightning shaped gash on Harry's forehead. He leaned heavily against the wall as James sprang up from his chair and Snape staggered to the couch and pulled his feet up onto it, still in his shoes.
Hustling Harry over the chair he had just vacated, James shot a glance over his shoulder at the House Elf. "Tea for both of them, I think, Tippy. Could you..." Tippy nodded, and vanished with a pop.
Sometimes it struck him how odd it had been, treating Tippy like an equal, someone he had to ask instead of tell, and how it wasn't odd at all anymore. He pulled a pair of blankets out of the cupboard under the stairs and tucked one of them around Harry's shoulders. As the kid drew it around himself, James watched the way he moved, watched the white grip of his clawed hands.
There were habits built over half a lifetime, a whole lifetime, if he looked at his son's instead of his own, that urged him to leave, to retreat when he had unfurled the second blanket and laid it out on top of Severus, to maybe listen in at the door if he couldn't stop himself, but not to stay. Instead, he cleared his throat. He looked sharply at Severus's shaking hands above the blanket. "Those are Cruciatus tremors.
His master glowered at him from behind his limp, oily hair. "Dismissed."
James clamped down on the part of himself only too happy at the prospect of fleeing and raised an eyebrow. "Are you going to tell me what happened, or are you going to make me guess?"
"Later," he choked out. "Not in front of Harry."
James's eyes darted to the face of the boy in question, who sat still, sunk into the chair without looking up at him. James's stomach clenched in worry at the way Harry didn't jump up and insist that if they had anything to say, they could say it in front of him, and remind them that he had been there today with the Dark Lord too. The way he just sat there scared James worse than the shivers from the Cruciatus Curse wracking Severus's body, and worse than the strange, careful cut on Harry's forehead.
They got Harry up to bed together, himself and Tippy, half carrying him as he leaned on their shoulders. "Are you going to be up to starting classes with everybody else tomorrow?" James asked as they deposited Harry on his bed. Harry nodded without looking at him.
Tippy brought him another cup of tea as James sat with him and made sure he drank the potion that would keep him looking like Snape's son for another day. As he watched him swallow it down, his fingers quivered to brush the hair out of Harry's face so that he could kiss his forehead, or wrap his arms around him, and for a few minutes, be his father.
But Harry wasn't his, and wouldn't welcome his kisses and hugs, and it had hurt so much less before he had known. Harry was his owner's son, and it was one thing to feel affection for the boy he had reluctantly helped raise, and another for tha boy to return it, and let James lay a claim on him.
With a sigh, he stood up and took Harry's empty teacup and empty potion bottle and closed the bedroom door behind him. Barefooted, he padded silently down the stairs and set the cup and bottle on the kitchen counter next to the sink. Tippy was gone, holed up for the night. James would have to come back and wash them later.
He stepped through the doorway and walked over to the hearth, where the ashes from Harry and Severus's arrival lay scattered. "Are you going to be able to make it up to your room?"
Severus shifted under the blanket. "Later," he said, voice creaking. "After I have decided what, if anything, I will allow you to know."
James refrained from pointing out that he was supposed to be an ally, or suggesting that the other man was just being spiteful. For a while, neither of them spoke. Finally James broke the silence and turned his lips up in the harmless, conciliatory smile he had perfected a long time ago. "I have an idea. How about I tell you what I think happened, and you decide whether it's safe to let me go on assuming what I think happened actually happened."
Severus pushed himself up and nodded stiffly, and James made sure the smile reached his eyes, his hands in his lap, subservient and appropriately dominated. Snape's sullen expression sharpened. "Talk."
It must have gone very badly, James supposed, if Snape was reduced to single syllable sentences. "I think Harry failed. I think he wasn't marked, and he lost his status as a pureblood, and I think He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named is punishing you because you're the one who up and had a kid with a Muggleborn."
Severus's face gave nothing away. It never did anymore. James remembered the way when they were in school, his face would flush and pale at the slightest provocation, how, with a few words, James had been able to make his eyes narrow and jaw clench, the muscles of his face twitch with rage or fear. It was the same knowledge of this man that he had once used to wield so much power, both terrifying and stupid power over him that James still kept, and still used when he had to, which was daily. It was the same knowledge that told James that Severus would never be able to keep quiet when James was wrong, because it wasn't enough for him to be right, to know more than everybody else, he had to prove it by telling the person who was wrong just how wrong they were. And James was an old enemy, whom Snape felt the need to prove himself against most of all. So when Severus opened his mouth, James listened without speaking. "He tried to trick the Dark Lord."
James felt his own indrawn breath. "Oh no."
Severus closed his eyes and began the story.
"He had the incantation memorized." Snape told him, masking the defeat in his voice behind irritability. "This was not his first time making one."
"No, of course not," James said, and he could hear his own voice rising high and wild with anxiety. "That would be too easy! Just kill your own kid and there you go! Is it even possible for him to have more than one?"
"Obviously," Severus snapped back with a cold sneer.
James let it pass. He opened his mouth to ask another question, but before he could speak, the thump of Harry's door opening and closing sounded hallway outside the parlor door sent him springing to his feet as Severus struggled with the blanket on top of him. James glanced back at him. "I'll take care of it."
Severus scowled at him. Opening the door, James leaned out into the hall where Harry was walking down the stairs. Harry pulled his shoulders up. "I was just getting a glass of water."
James waved him off, into the kitchen. He leaned against the doorway until Harry came out of the kitchen with his glass.
Harry had started his way up the staircase again, when Severus's voice came from the parlor. "Harry, wait," he rasped. "We need to talk."
Harry shuffled in past James, mouth twisting. Underneath the potion that disguised his features, James remembered the echoes of his own mouth and cheeks. Lily's eyes and her smaller, softer nose were the only thing the two faces shared. The gradual shifting from Snape's features to Harry's real ones had blended so well into the natural changes that came as he had grown. Looking back at it, it was so strange to think he hadn't noticed. The sharp demarcation between those features, almost his own features, and the ones the potion gave his son left James almost unable to process that it really happened, that Harry really was his, and it wasn't some desperate delusion of his. Nothing had changed. Severus got to be his father, and James was still a slave.
"Dad?" Harry mumbled.
James slipped out of the room.