Snape staggered on arrival, but Harry grabbed his arm and steadied his professor before he could slip on the ice. For once Snape had the good grace not to shake off Harry's hand with the customary sneer -- in fact he put his own hand on Harry's shoulder for support. In the quick look Harry shot him it was clear from Snape's pinched expression that he was utterly drained by the transfer.
The Ice Dragon made a soft noise and reached out one claw to gently touch Snape's face -- or what was exposed of it between the folds of hood and cloak.
"I'm all right," said Snape, but the rasp to his voice gave him away. He looked around before Harry could comment on it and brushed irritably at a strand of newly-clean hair that blew into his eyes.
It was always day here, even if the time seemed to oscillate somewhere in the range of early to mid-morning. And that bloody wind never stopped. Harry shivered in his spelled blanket-parka and wished they'd gone further away from the coast. As he pulled the drawstring on the hood a little tighter, he silently complimented Snape on the attention to detail -- because out here in the frozen wilderness details counted, and the parka Charlie Weasley had lent him was back in Malfoy Manor with most of the back torn to shreds from what Harry guessed had been a spell from one of the warders before Snape had Disapparated them out of Antarctica.
And now they were back.
Snape had Apparated them as far as he dared. He'd explained to Harry (to save stupid questions in the future, he'd said in an abrupt tone which didn't make Harry any happier) that the magic carried in the Katabatic made it dangerous to Apparate much further inland when the starting point was so far away. Somehow the swirling waters of the Southern Ocean disrupted the edges of the magic just enough to leave a zone where a wizard could safely Apparate himself and his two passengers -- even if one of those passengers was an Ice Dragon. Once they reached the continent proper and dug down for a piece of dirt, Snape would be able to aim their Apparition trajectory with greater safety.
First they had to reach solid ground, of course. The ice shelf they were on curved around one arm of the bay to a beach where shingles winked flecks of light. Over on the far side of the bay was a shifting mass of black -- Harry squinted and thought he could make out individual penguins.
<sunonice> had his muzzle raised as he sniffed the breeze. He closed his eyes and ignored the startled barks of the seals thronging this ice shelf. One giant male reared up and roared at the interlopers, but when the Ice Dragon opened his eyes again in a cold glare and snapped his jaws at the seal, the giant animal heaved its bulk away as fast as it could.
Watching the fast-departing ripples of lard as the seal disappeared with a brief splash into a breathing hole in the ice reminded Harry of the last time he'd threatened Dudley with his wand.
Snape had managed to drop them into the middle of a seal colony, and was now looking around in distaste. The seals were less than impressed with their visitors and showed their displeasure in moans, groans and loud roars although none seemed keen to come close. That was good -- their teeth looked quite sharp, and some of them were quite formidably huge. The one <sunonice> had frightened off must have weighed over a ton. Harry had never given seals much thought beyond the times he'd had to clean the occasional garden ornament, but these ones weren't in the balancing-balls-on-noses category he'd always pictured them in.
One belched loudly.
"Whoo-arrrk!" Harry tried not to retch.
The Ice Dragon looked revolted, and even Snape, who'd had the most experience with foul Potions ingredients, turned a faint shade of green.
It was the nasty smell-thought the Ice Dragon had used when he was angry.
"Seal burp?" Harry said to the Ice Dragon. "That's your major swear-word?"
Snape grimaced. "It's an effective one. Now let's get off this piece of ice. I'm not sure how stable it is. Potter, make sure Draco knows to walk carefully and watch out for any cracks hidden in the snow. I may have the energy to heal another break but I don't care to find out."
Harry closed his eyes and concentrated on sending images of staying safe to Draco. He pictured the Ice Dragon walking carefully over the ice and watching out for any dangerous places, and received back an abstract but confident sense that <sunonice> would keep an eye out for anything that might threaten the three of them.
They walked slowly with their shadows stretching out huge before them.
The seals protested loudly, but faced with a large animal equipped with claws and teeth the seals decided that retreat was the safest option and cleared a path. Some dived down holes while others undulated away. Mother seals kept a careful eye on the strangers as they shepherded their soulful-eyed young to safety, but the Ice Dragon chose a path that wandered from a straight line so that he avoided getting too close to pups, for which Harry was grateful, and the odd trio went slowly enough so that no pup was in danger of being flattened by some startled adult.
Perhaps it was what they'd left behind them at Malfoy Manor, but Harry felt more than usually disinclined to cause harm.
The memory of Snape's expression still put knots in his chest...
"What are you doing?"
Snape had just made sure that Harry would be warm where they were going, and had spelled his own robes for extra warmth. He'd also told Harry to make sure Draco understood that these spells were not for eating. Now, instead of Disapparating them from Malfoy Manor like Harry had been expecting, he was crouching over the prone Aurors.
"Don't worry, Potter," Snape replied. "I'm not about to offend your delicate beliefs by committing murder." Holding a bottle poised in one hand, he allowed six drops of the greenish-grey liquid to fall into Auror Gordon's mouth.
Snape might have a different view on murder to the rest of the world. "You promised Helen..."
Snape's sideways glare could have soldered steel. "I promised Helen not to kill anyone. Don't you dare imply I would lie to my wife!"
"Sorry." And Harry was sorry. "I didn't think..."
"You Gryffindors never do," grumbled Snape, turning his attention back to the Auror.
Harry was reminded of a vulture perched waiting over a dying wildebeest. "It's just he looks frightened... like he knows something special about what you gave him...?"
With that impervious expression Snape could have played poker for England.
Harry tried not to show his frustration, aware as he was that <sunonice> was behind him monitoring every move for a sign that an Auror could be eaten. That would not help the cause. "So what did you give him, sir?"
Snape looked up, a smile that never showed on his lips still managing to crease lines around his dead black eyes.
"About three years in St Mungo's."
"Huh -- I mean, sorry? I don't understand."
Gordon's eyes were wide now and fixed on some point behind Snape's head as he stared at something only he could see. Sweat made his face shine with a green pallor in the thin evening sunlight. The sheer terror there made Harry's gut clench -- he was sure that if Gordon hadn't been under a binding spell the Auror would have been screaming.
"Understand this, Mr Potter... these men attacked my wife. Had they been brought to task by their superiors they might have received a slap on the wrist in the form of a small fine on a par with what might be demanded from a petty vandal."
Snape's voice turned dreamy as he watched Gordon's mind slip into the horror of what only the Auror could see.
"There would have been no imprisonment. Probably there would not even have been a trial," Snape continued in that dreamy voice, but then he looked up at Harry again and Harry flinched as he saw the knives in those fathomless eyes -- it was like looking over the edge of sanity, and it made him shiver.
"Killing them is no revenge -- it lacks subtlety. But to imprison them in their own minds... ahh," breathed Snape, "now that is punishment. Besides," he added, "this bottle was one of those Helen found in their pockets." He held it up so that the last of the evening sun diffusing through the curtains caught it and turned the bottle to a fiery green jewel swirling with brown mist. "This is Opalmind and was developed by Iago of Venice over four hundred years ago. I, personally, would put it on a Potions list on a par with the Unforgivable Curses, but of course the Ministry must know better than my humble self if they are issuing it to Aurors... and it is in a bottle with a Ministry seal on the cap. If it's considered appropriate for know-nothing lackeys like them to be using something like this, it must certainly be on the side of Good despite my thoughts to the contrary. So I suppose if they are allowed it, then if someone like me >o?uses it -- someone like me who knows exactly what this is and what it involves -- then it must be even more moral."
Harry swallowed. His throat had suddenly become very dry -- it must have been because the room was so cold or something. And the way Snape said moral like it was some sort of mental disease was a bit scary. Earlier on he'd implied Harry's father hadn't known the difference between morals and ethics -- what, Harry wondered, was the difference? Better not to ask about that... Snape already seemed a bit unhinged and Harry didn't want another rant of the "Your Father was a Shit to Me at School" variety. "Why three years?" Harry queried instead.
With a small grimace that could have been a smile with a strong following wind, Snape said, "Professor Dumbledore has... enlisted my services as a teacher for another year and a half. After that I may need time to tidy up loose ends, and as these two will not be your most ardent supporters it might be best if they are... temporarily removed from that delicate period between your leaving school and your enrolment in Auror training. Minerva," Snape added, still with that little almost-grin, "has been quite vocal about your golden future -- if you'll pardon the pun -- as an Auror. She wants you to have every opportunity, up to and including preferential treatment in my Potions classes."
The cold glare must have been meant to indicate that demons would be strapping on ice-skates in the netherworld before Harry would get preferential treatment in any class Snape taught.
Harry managed to ignore it. He'd seen quite a range of Snape glares and this one was mild.
"So... you're bound to Hogwarts for another year and a half... Is that meant to be coincidental with my finishing year?"
The hint of a grin became a fully fledged smirk. "I should take points off for you thinking the world revolves around you, but... five points to Gryffindor for demonstrating thought process. Yes, I am..." Snape paused as he stood up slowly with his knees creaking and looked down at Harry "... I am bound, I suppose, by a promise I made to Dumbledore when you first came here, the promise that I would protect you through your school years."
A shrug. "The Dark Lord is gone, but Albus never forgets a promise made when one thought it would never be fulfilled."
"You thought Voldemort wouldn't rise until after I'd finished school?" hazarded Harry.
"No," said Snape, and his face darkened. "Not necessarily. I merely thought..."
He didn't bother finishing the sentence, to Harry's relief.
I merely thought I would be dead by then.
The link between man, boy and Ice Dragon left the thought hanging almost palpable in the air.
Harry was glad Snape didn't say it, though, and -- weirdly -- things became more comfortable when Snape crouched to administer a dose from the sinister little bottle to the second Auror. Even the Ice Dragon was relieved, and shook his head with a rattle of spines.
Well, more comfortable for Harry and Draco, that was.
Jasper tried to fight against Snape's administration and gained enough muscular control to try and bite Snape. He was rewarded with a grim smile and a sharp knuckle in just the right place to pop his mouth open.
In went the six drops of mind-poison.
And it would be a long time before Harry forgot that look of terrible satisfaction on Snape's face.
They had left immediately after Snape was sure that the Opalmind had taken effect, and the biting cold of the Antarctic Katabatic wind with its stinging needles of ice was sheer clean relief after the boxed-in malice permeating Malfoy Manor.
Draco especially seemed pleased to be gone. There was a jaunty set to his wingtips as he scanned the ice in front of them for crevices which might harm one of his human companions. Right behind the twitching tip of his tail trudged Harry and Snape. Harry kept his hand under Snape's elbow to steady his professor, and Snape was weary enough to permit help. It was needed. Snape had a tendency to stumble on the ice. If it hadn't already been worn down by the constant to'ing and fro'ing of the seals things could have been a lot worse, but Harry still wished with every slow, crunching footstep that they'd reached the beach instead of this wretched shelf of ice that stretched out over the blank unwelcoming waters of the bay.
It must have been the noise and the constant movement of the seals that stopped anyone from noticing when the two warders showed up. The first sign that they weren't alone was when Snape grunted and pitched forward onto his face and his wand spun away into the shifting mass of seals.
<sunonice> whirled in a shower of ice crystals to stand over the fallen wizard. Harry crouched down under the ortho's wing next to Snape.
"Are you okay?"
Snape propped himself up on his elbows and shook his head dizzily. "Got hit by expelliarmis," he panted. "Defend yourself."
"Protego!" Harry threw up a shield just in time. A spell bounced off, to be snapped up by <sunonice>, who growled eagerly at the prospect of a magical battle.
<thistimeIwillwin!> he sneered, calling the two wizards who had attacked them <sealburps!>. <sealburps... hurtSilkthatcuts.GRRRR!KILL+EATsealburps!> and he roared a challenge.
The seals scattered, hurtling as fast as they could undulate across the ice towards the two newcomers, who threw up sparks from their wands to frighten away the stampeding seals.
Snape lunged for his wand.
He almost made it.
A hastily-aimed fireball hit him between the shoulders and sent him flying.
"STOP!" bellowed Harry, as the Ice Dragon roared again, and he threw Impedimenta hexes at the wizards. It was impossible to tell who they were, but from their fur-lined parkas they were probably warders. From this distance the little badges on their chests didn't look like Auror badges -- and who else was out here?
Some days it seemed the whole world wanted to get in Harry's way.
He threw some more curses, not caring how nasty they were, only caring that the two warders were quick enough to dodge them. One threw a curse that looked like a fizzing purple ball of light -- Harry had never seen one like it before -- and it arced towards the defenceless Snape.
Harry's intercept spell wasn't aimed right, and a second spell twitched his wand out of his hand. The Ice Dragon leaped to try and catch the spell, but he was too slow.
Snape was too far from his wand.
Helpless, Harry could only watch as the spell landed in front of Snape. Snape's face was a mask of horror, and Harry thought he heard the Potions master say something that would have got any Hogwarts student a month's detention with Filch plus a soap mouthwash. He saw the purple light split into blue and red lines -- the blue lines dug tendrils into the ice and burrowed deep. Then the red light shot down and steam erupted from the ice.
Draco tried to pounce on them before they could reach Snape, not realising that the red and blue lights weren't aimed directly at the wizard.
Maybe if the Ice Dragon hadn't landed so close things would have been different.
The ice juddered.
"HOLD ON, PROFESSOR!" bellowed Harry, and Snape clung to the ice with all the strength in his gloved fingers. Over his shoulder, Harry called out, "Don't throw any hexes unless you really want to kill someone!"
One of the warders had his wand raised, but the other pulled his arm down before he could cast any spells. There seemed to be an argument going on, but Harry couldn't spare them any attention, nor could he hear over the noise of the seals.
<sunonice> was standing stock still with his legs splayed and his eyes wide and fixed on Snape, who was just out of reach of the ortho's forefeet and jaws. Snape's face was pale as the ice beneath him shifted. A large crack had opened right in front of him and the water was as black as his eyes.
"Stay back, Potter."
Harry ignored him and shuffled forward on his belly, trying to keep his weight spread out as much as he could. Beneath him were small creaks and groans, and the occasional sharp crack! could be felt through his parka. He'd thought the ice shelf thicker than this, especially if seals as big as that one-ton monster could lumber about on it, but the spell cast by the warder must have melted it.
"Damn you, boy, don't you ever listen? I told you to stay back! That was a direct order from one of your teachers!"
"With all due respect sir, get stuffed." Harry continued his slow crawl, altering direction after one heart-stopping moment when the ice under his forward-questing hand broke away with a flicker of purple light.
"It is not safe and I am quite capable of taking care of myself."
Harry concentrated on the ice. "Funny, it looks like you need my help to me."
Snape's face contorted in a snarl. "Stupid child. Is this some attempt to live up to your father's memory? Are you hoping for the headline 'Plucky Gryffindor Saves the Day'? How about 'Harry Potter is a Hero -- Again.'"
"Nope." Harry grimly reminded himself that he was trying to save Snape, not push him into the water. "And stop trying to bring my father into this."
Harry kept his tone level. He didn't want to upset the Ice Dragon further -- if it suddenly decided to move the whole patch of ice could break up and tip them into the sea. Even if he still had his wand, Harry didn't know any spells to save him from water so cold that it could kill him in thirty seconds.
"Oh? Why not? All this seems quite familiar to me -- mortal danger in combination with a Potter."
"I'm trying to help you, you git."
"The trick to offering help, Potter, is to know when it is not wanted. Ten points from Gryffindor for insulting a professor. Now piss off. You're destabilising the ice."
"It already seems pretty unstable to me. And you're not going to get rid of me just by telling me I'm like my father. Just reach out -- I can take your hand from here. Please."
Snape tossed something into the air.
It was the pink shell and it landed in front of Harry's nose. He went cross-eyed staring at it, realising...
Harry looked up from it, wide-eyed. "You can't... I can't --"
Impulse made Harry grab the shell before it went into the sea. There was a cry from the Ice Dragon, a shout from one of the warders, and the ice in front of Harry split apart.
Snape made a frantic grab as the slab of ice he was lying on tilted, scrabbling madly, and only just managed to hang on to the edge. Water gurgled and Snape gasped with the shock of the cold as he began sliding into the sea.
"NO!" Harry managed to grab Snape's fingers. "You'll die if you fall in there!"
"Let go, idiot child, or you'll be dragged in with me."
"I'm not letting go! Don't you dare die! Don't... just don't! And you -- don't you move!" Harry called over his shoulder to Draco, who was trembling in eagerness to rush forward.
For a moment Harry thought he had a chance. He muttered the levitation charm, and despite his chattering teeth and lack of wand a fraction of the spell held and Snape's dead weight lightened.
But the frigid water was taking its toll on Snape. Those inky eyes were losing focus and the sallow face was now ashen. "Get him home, Potter," Snape said. "Go behind the wind. You'll find them there. The shell... the shell has the last of the spells..."
"You're coming with us," Harry growled.
"Shut up. Sir."
Snape didn't take any points, which frightened Harry.
Then there was another burst of purple light that shattered into blue and red, and another of those sharp crack's, and Snape was sliding into the water. Harry's cold hands could no more have stopped the tide.
For a moment Snape's fading gaze refocussed on Harry.
"I don't see your father any more, Harry," he whispered.
And then he was gone.
The ice slid back over the dark waters.
Harry lay there with Snape's glove in his hand and tears freezing on his face while behind him the Ice Dragon screamed.
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