Chapter 21: The Healer's Gamble
Harry peered into the cauldron and tried to look interested as the young man next to him stirred the simmering potion and explained the process he was using.
"You see, the standard instructions call for the potion to be stirred with continuous clockwise strokes. But I found that if I make every seventh stroke counterclockwise, like so, I can cut the brewing time by a third and the potion ends up being more potent."
"Really?" Harry said.
Snape looked sideways at Harry. "Your enthusiasm is overwhelming."
"Sorry. I've just never been much of a hand at Potions."
Snape turned down the heat under his cauldron and regarded Harry curiously. "If you're that bored why do you keep coming here?"
Harry had no answer for that. This was his fourth trip into Snape's mind and so far the experiences seemed to be a waste of time. Snape would talk of nothing but Potions and spent most of his time in this small, dingy building which must have once been a store, but which Snape now used as his lab.
The back room, which Harry had only glimpsed once, was dark and contained shelves of potions supplies and a sparse living area. The front room was nearly bare. There was a long counter which contained Snape's cauldron and an oil lamp. An old wooden stool sat in a corner and there were a couple of shelves that held bottles of some commonly used potions ingredients. Other than that, there was nothing. Harry found the place thoroughly depressing, all the more so because Snape didn't seem to notice its shabbiness.
Harry sighed. "I think I need to go for a walk."
Snape shrugged and turned back to his potion. "Suit yourself."
Harry left Snape and headed down the block, pulling up the hood of his sweatshirt as he went. Just as it was always a bright sunny morning in Dumbledore's garden, here it always seemed to be cold and threatening rain. Harry had been up and down every street in the neighborhood which had proved to be both depressing and unenlightening.
The neighborhood was roughly bordered on four sides. At one end was the Muggle factory, set off by a long, high barbed-wire fence. If the place was supposed to still be in use, Harry couldn't tell. He'd never seen anyone go in or out of it. At the opposite end wound a dirty river with rubbish-strewn banks where a clearly abandoned mill stood. Between these landmarks there were blocks of row houses and an occasional store or pub. On one side, the neighborhood ended at a steep embankment where train tracks ran and beyond which was nothing but open land. On the other side, the houses ended abruptly at a high brick wall.
Harry stopped on a corner and looked around at the familiar deserted buildings and felt a surge of frustration. He had to be missing something. There had to be more to Snape's mind than this. It was a conviction that had been eating at him for weeks now, but Harry had no idea how to get beneath the surface and find whatever he was meant to discover.
Harry sighed, closed his eyes, opened them again and found Snape studying him across the desk. Dumbledore had warned Harry not to tell Snape what he saw during these sessions. He'd apparently explained the necessity of this to Snape too, because the man had never asked Harry for any details. But Snape clearly considered it fair game to try to deduce what Harry had experienced and Harry had never been any good at hiding his emotions from the man.
"Frustrated again, Potter?" Snape asked with a smirk. "What exactly are you looking for?"
"I'll let you know when I find it." Harry said.
He left Snape's office and headed upstairs to see Dumbledore, as had become his custom, his frustration mounting with every step. Even Snape could tell that he was failing to make any progress.
Harry knocked at Dumbledore's office door and went in.
"Hello, Harry." Dumbledore smiled. "How was your evening with Professor Snape?"
"I'm useless at this!" Harry blurted out. "If I'm going to have to interpret Voldemort's mind in order to defeat him, we might as well forget it right now."
Harry flopped into a chair and glared sullenly at the old wizard, but Dumbledore only smiled.
"Harry, I doubt that there is any mind more difficult to penetrate than Severus Snape's – Lord Voldemort's included. That is precisely why you are working with him."
"But I'm not getting anywhere."
"That is because you are not looking at what you see. I admit that I have spoiled you by acting as guide through my own mind. Now you must examine Professor Snape's mind and analyze it for yourself."
"But there's almost nothing there."
"Which in itself should tell you a great deal. Why is he always alone? Why does he seem obsessed with brewing potions to the exclusion of any other activity? What makes that neighborhood so significant that it stands as the defining representation of his soul?"
Harry ran a hand through his perpetually messy hair. "I've tried to think about those questions; honestly I have. But I just don't know."
"Nor will you be able to know with certainty. You are engaged in a highly interpretive art. But surely, Harry, you can hazard a guess?"
Harry considered. "I know he's lonely. He seems to like having me around, even if I don't share his passion for Potions. There's no one else there."
Harry rolled his eyes. "I don't know?"
"Do you believe that no one else has ever touched his life, for good or ill?"
"Of course not. But he doesn't… he must not want anyone else around." Harry stood up and began to pace the room. "Which makes sense, I suppose. It's all just a parallel for his life. He spends all of his time in his dungeons which are every bit as dreary as that town. He keeps to himself and he spends all of his time brewing potions or marking homework."
"And why is potion brewing in particular something that carries over into his subconscious?
"Because he's good at it. He's proud of his abilities as a potions maker."
Harry bit his lip and thought not only of the young man in Snape's mind, but of his teacher. And Harry remembered all the long days he'd spent with Snape brewing potions over summer. "It makes him feel confident and in control. And it gives him an excuse not to have to deal with anyone or anything he doesn't want to deal with."
"Very good, Harry. I would say that you are correct."
Harry shook his head. "But that doesn't make sense. I can understand him wanting to avoid people or situations in real life, but what's he hiding from in his own mind?"
"That, Harry, is what you must discover."
It was late when Harry returned to Gryffindor Tower. Even so, there were still dozens of students up studying in the common room and Harry immediately felt another weight settle on him. Exams were the following week and he wasn't prepared. He'd barely had a chance to revise at all, nor could he muster any enthusiasm for studying. The looming exams also reminded Harry of another problem which worried him far more than his marks in any of his subjects – he had nothing to give Ginny for Christmas.
Harry had already ordered a new broom-cleaning kit for Ron and an extra set of potions vials for Hermione, but he couldn't decide what to buy for Ginny. This was the first Christmas since they'd started dating and Harry wanted to give her something special. Unfortunately, he had no idea what that might be and no opportunity to go browsing in Hogsmeade thanks to the stupid DPS. He was beginning to feel desperate.
Harry looked around the room. Ginny was deep into a discussion with several of her classmates. They were obviously quizzing one another for an upcoming exam and Harry didn't want to intrude, so he headed to the opposite side of the room where Hermione was studying alone – Ron having predictably given up and gone to bed.
"There you are," Hermione said, shoving a stack of parchment across the table at him. "I've made copies of all of my notes for all of your subjects. If you learn those you ought to at least be able to pass your exams next week."
Harry picked up the papers and leafed through them. They contained neat outlines and succinct explanations of all of the material that had been covered in all of Harry's subjects over the entire term. He looked back at Hermione in amazement. "You didn't have to do this for me."
"Of course I did. I know you haven't studied. You've barely managed to get your homework done this term. It's all right," Hermione added at Harry's guilty expression. "You have a lot on your mind, Harry. We all know that."
"You're a life saver, Hermione," Harry said as he rolled up the stack of parchment and stuffed it in his pocket. He sat down, glanced across the room at Ginny once more and lowered his voice. "I need another favor, though."
"What sort of favor?"
"I don't know what to get Ginny for Christmas and I thought you might be able to give me some ideas."
"Do you have anything in mind at all?"
Harry shook his head. "Not really. I ordered some nice stationery for her birthday since she's always writing to someone in her family, but I can't keep giving her paper and envelopes. I want to give her something different. Something more…"
"Yes. But not, you know, too personal. I don't want to give her something stupid."
"Hmm." Hermione frowned slightly as she often did when puzzling over a sticky problem. "How about a nice pair of gloves?"
"That would work, I suppose," Harry agreed.
"What sort do you think?" Hermione asked. "Woolen, leather? And what color?"
"Er, what would you suggest?" Harry hedged.
Hermione gave Harry a pitying look. "I could pick something out when I'm in Hogsmeade this coming weekend."
"Would you? Hermione, that would be fantastic!"
A light snow was falling Saturday afternoon as the students left for Hogsmeade. Harry had decided to walk with Ginny, Ron and Hermione as far as the main gate. As they were passing the lake, however, Ginny stopped them and pointed out across the water.
"Look at that."
Draco Malfoy was creeping along the opposite bank, clearly trying to remain inconspicuous. He was staying close to the trees and glanced over his shoulder periodically as if to ensure that he wasn't being followed. At last he paused, looked furtively around once more then disappeared between two stands of trees.
"I wonder where he's off to alone," Ron said.
"There's one way to find out," Harry said. "Come on, let's follow him."
They struck off around the lake at a run but slowed as they reached the spot where Malfoy had disappeared. A narrow, winding path ran between the trees and up into the hills. Harry had never been this way before and had no idea where the path might lead, but he was determined to find out what Malfoy was up to. He led the way quickly but quietly up the path. As they walked, the trees thinned out and soon they were ducking from one rocky outcropping to another in an effort to stay hidden. At last, Harry peeked around a large boulder and spotted Malfoy standing in front of what appeared to be a small cave. The Slytherin seemed to be debating with himself. He looked around, wariness etched on his face. Then he appeared to come to decision. With one final glance over his shoulder, he stepped into the cave.
"Come on," Harry whispered, motioning his friends to follow as he hurried forward. He flattened himself against the rock next to the cave entrance and strained to hear any sound coming from within. There was none. He peered inside and could see that the cave was much larger than he had thought. Malfoy was standing only a couple of paces inside with his back to the entrance. But at that moment, Ron, Ginny and Hermione came up and a shadow fell across the cave's entrance.
Malfoy whirled around, his wand at the ready. "Who's there?"
Harry drew his own wand and stepped into the cave. "I think you took a wrong turn on the way to Hogsmeade."
"Potter, get out of here! This is none of your business."
"Is that so? What are you doing out here? Are you meeting someone?" Harry advanced on Malfoy who backed further into the cave and raised his wand higher.
"I said it's none of your business, Potter. I'm warning you!"
But Harry was no longer paying attention to the Slytherin. Something was moving in the darkness at the back of the cave. It loomed up behind Malfoy.
"Look out!" Harry yelled. He shoved Malfoy aside and raised his wand just as a long whip lashed out of the darkness. It hit Harry's arm, knocking his wand out of his hand. Then a dozen more struck, flailing Harry across his chest and arms. The whips hit him with such force that they knocked Harry backwards and he fell to the ground, gasping in surprise.
"Luminosus!" Hermione cried out and suddenly the cave was filled with blinding light. Harry squinted and held up his hand to shield his eyes. Then two pairs of arms grabbed him and dragged him out of the cave. These turned out to belong to Ron and Ginny who both looked shaken. Malfoy who was standing nearby was white as a sheet. Harry sat on the ground, panting. Where the whips had hit him, his skin was tingling unpleasantly as though he'd been stung by a hundred microscopic bees.
"Harry, get up!" Hermione said, grasping Harry's arm.
"Get up!" she yelled when Harry failed to move. Her eyes were blazing with barely controlled panic. "Ron, help me get him up."
"Hermione, it's all right," Harry assured her as he got slowly to his feet. "I'm okay."
"No you're not!" Hermione's voice rose urgently and she grasped his arm again. "We have to get to Hogsmeade."
"Hogsmeade?" Harry repeated incredulously.
"Yes! We have to get help!"
Harry shook his head. "I just need to get back to Hogwarts."
"You'll be dead before you can get back to Hogwarts, Potter," Malfoy said in a dull voice completely devoid of his usual arrogance.
"He's right," Hermione said. "That was a Stinging Tentacula that attacked you, Harry. Now hold still."
Before Harry could register what either Malfoy or Hermione had just said, Hermione spun him around and they Disapparated. With a 'pop', they appeared in the crowded main street of Hogsmeade, in front of The Three Broomsticks. Groups of students shied out of their way in surprise, but Harry ignored them. Apparating had not improved his condition. His chest and arms had now begun to burn as well as sting. Hermione was craning her neck around looking for something.
"Professor!" she shouted, waving frantically at a figure that was approaching them through the crowd. It was Snape. He had obviously already noticed their arrival and was scowling murderously at them as he cut a path through the students who shrank out of his way. At Hermione's urgent call, however, his frown deepened to one of concern and he quickened his pace. Hermione set off to meet him, dragging Harry along.
Harry stumbled after her, but his mind was still reeling. Hermione had to be wrong. Stinging Tentaculas were incredibly rare. How could one have found its way into a cave just outside of school? It had to have been some other plant – probably a Venomous Tentacula.
"What happened?" Snape demanded, pushing his way past the last group of students separating them and pulling Harry out of his thoughts.
"Harry's been attacked by a Stinging Tentacula," Hermione blurted out at once.
Snape's eyes widened in surprise, but the tirade of angry questions and threats Harry was expecting from the man didn't come. Instead, Snape reached for his arm and spoke in a quiet, controlled voice. "Give him to me."
Hermione released her grip on Harry's arm and stepped back as Snape pulled Harry close to him. Harry glanced from Hermione's pale, frightened face to the grim set of Snape's jaw and felt a stab of fear. Then he was Apparating again. This time his knees nearly buckled as his feet hit the ground, but Snape had a firm grip on his arm and dragged him up the steps and through the door of the dingy row-house they'd appeared in front of.
"Where were you stung?" Snape asked curtly as he led Harry swiftly through a small, shabby living room, down a short, dark hallway and into a sparse, colorless bedroom.
"My arms and chest," Harry said, scratching the affected areas through his clothing. In addition to the burning and stinging sensations, it now felt as though a thousand ants were crawling over his skin. Snape shoved Harry down to sit on the bed then yanked his sweatshirt and tee shirt off in quick succession.
Snape let out a sharp hiss that sent another stab of fear through Harry. Dreading what he was going to see, Harry looked down at his bare chest. Where the vines had touched him his skin was covered in bright red blisters oozing green pus. But what made Harry freeze in horror was that beneath each of the dozens of oozing pustules something was moving.
"They grow quickly," Snape commented, grimly. "Lie down. This is going to hurt."
Harry lay back on the bed without protest. He didn't care if whatever Snape was about to do hurt; he'd suffered plenty of pain in the past and was used to it. What he did care desperately about was being rid of the things that were writhing beneath his skin. Of all the horrors he'd faced in his life, nothing had ever terrified him the way this did. He remembered with brutal clarity the dead rat from their Herbology lesson and the thought of those parasitic vines growing inside of him was revolting.
Snape pulled his wand from his pocket and murmured, "Candeo." The tip of the wand glowed red then brightened and turned white. Harry could feel the heat from it and braced himself as Snape touched the wand to one of the moving pustules in the center of his chest, but it was no use. He screamed as the wand tip burned through his skin and into the flesh below. For a moment, the pain lessened as Snape removed his wand from the now cauterized wound, but the agony returned almost instantly as he attacked another pustule.
One after another Snape burned away the parasites that had infested Harry. He worked quickly, never pausing, but it seemed interminable to Harry. Snape hadn't been exaggerating when he said this would hurt: it rivaled the Cruciatus Curse. Harry wished that he would faint, but though he came close several times his mind stubbornly refused to give up consciousness. At last Snape laid aside his wand. Harry was exhausted from the ordeal. He was shaking all over and somewhere, dimly in the back of his mind, he realized that he must be in shock.
But Snape wasn't finished. He ran his fingers through Harry's hair, probing his scalp then rolled Harry onto his stomach. He felt the back of Harry's head then quickly examined Harry's back, shoulders and armpits. Apparently satisfied, he pulled Harry onto his back once more, unfastened Harry's jeans and unceremoniously yanked them off along with Harry's shoes and socks. A small voice in Harry's head cried out in protest at this violation, but Harry couldn't muster the outrage it demanded. The air felt icy cold against his newly exposed skin and he gritted his teeth to keep them from chattering as Snape examined his feet and legs in a brisk, professional manner. However, when Snape reached for the waistband of Harry's underwear, the voice in his head screamed so loudly that Harry couldn't ignore it.
"What are you doing?" Harry asked, sounding rather more panicked than he'd meant to do.
Snape looked up, met Harry's eyes, and for a moment, Harry was certain he saw a look of sympathy flicker across the man's features. In the next moment, however, it was gone.
"Potter, do you really want to risk missing any of these things?" Snape snapped impatiently. "Lie still!"
Harry did as he was told. He lay back and stared fixedly at the ceiling, studying the cracks in its old plaster as Snape pulled down his pants to inspect the one area he hadn't yet examined. Fortunately Snape was quick. His examination complete, he slipped Harry's underwear back in place then hurried out of the room.
Alone at last, Harry sighed, pulled the bed covers around him and curled up into a tight ball. The pain from his wounds had faded, but every muscle in his body seemed to ache now and he was shivering worse than ever despite the blankets. He could no longer keep his teeth from chattering and his stomach was beginning to cramp.
This can't be right, Harry thought groggily. This can't just be shock. He'd suffered worse pain in the past and he'd never had this sort of reaction. A particularly sharp pain shot through Harry's stomach and down into his groin, making him gasp just as Snape returned with a bottle of liquid and a glass.
"Professor, I think something's wrong," Harry said weakly, clutching his stomach. "I don't feel very well."
"No, I don't imagine you do," Snape replied, swirling the bottle's contents around three times then carefully filling the glass with the dark liquid. He stepped over to the bed and slipped an arm under Harry's shoulders to help him sit up. "Drink this,"
"What is it?"
"But that's poison."
"Very good, Potter. It's gratifying to know that you've retained something of what I've taught you. Now drink."
Harry kept his mouth firmly shut and Snape sighed.
"Potter, we have no time for a lecture on the myriad ways Tentaculas kill. Cauterization destroys the parasites, but it also produces a highly toxic poison, the only known antidote for which is this."
Harry frowned and eyed the glass skeptically. Through the fog in his mind he vaguely remembered Professor Sprout telling them about Belladonna as an antidote, but the glass contained an awful lot of the deadly liquid. Snape seemed to realize what he was thinking.
"The more toxin in your blood, the more of the antidote you must take. You have received a massive dose of toxin. Therefore you will need to take the largest possible non-lethal dose of Belladonna."
Snape held out the glass to Harry who still hesitated. "Potter, there isn't a great deal of time."
Harry nodded then let Snape lift the glass to his lips. He swallowed its contents then lay back down and curled up, still clutching his stomach against the pain. "How long will I have to wait before I know if this has worked?"
"Not long. If the toxin is neutralized, the cramps will subside almost immediately, though full recovery can take up to twenty-four hours."
Harry waited, but the cramps in his stomach didn't seem to be going away.
"Well?" Snape asked.
"I don't think there's any difference," Harry said.
"Potter, the cramps are either going to lessen or grow worse. Which is it?"
"I can't tell."
"Are they spreading or staying localized?"
"I don't know."
"Can't you manage something as simple as reporting your own symptoms?" Snape said angrily.
"Maybe if you stopped nagging me, I'd be able to figure it out," Harry snapped back.
A sharp pain – the worst yet – shot through Harry's abdomen then seemed to wrap around to the small of his back. He grunted and gritted his teeth against the pain. After a moment the cramp subsided to a dull ache which radiated from his lower back through his hips and into his abdomen.
Harry looked up at Snape. "That definitely didn't work."
"Apparently not," Snape agreed.
They stared at one another in silence. Harry couldn't think of anything else to say. What more was there? He was dying and they both knew it. What were you supposed to say on your deathbed? Harry wasn't afraid and didn't feel as though he needed any sort of comfort – not that Snape was likely to provide any. Neither did Snape seem a probable choice to pass on any personal last words to his friends. In fact, the man already looked thoroughly put out. He turned away to pace the small room and when he looked back at Harry, his annoyance was obvious.
"Well, Potter, despite everyone's best efforts, you've finally managed to get yourself killed," Snape sneered. "As often as you've tried, I suppose I shouldn't be surprised, though I must say a Stinging Tentacula was a novel approach."
"You act as if I did this on purpose," Harry said indignantly, stung by the callousness of Snape's remark.
"On purpose? I wouldn't give you that much credit. You never give a thought to the consequences of your actions."
"That's not true!" Harry gasped through gritted teeth as his muscles clenched in another cramp.
"Isn't it? What was it today? What was so desperately important that lured you away from school when you have been told again and again to stay put? Do you know how much has been sacrificed for you? And it has all been for nothing simply because you can't help but wander into harm's way at every opportunity!"
Harry rolled over and squeezed his eyes shut, trying to block out Snape's ranting. He wondered if the man was going to stand over him, berating him until he died. It didn't help that Snape was right. He was supposed to fight Voldemort, not get killed by a stupid plant. Who was going to defeat Voldemort now?
"I didn't mean for this to happen," Harry said.
"That's rather a moot point, isn't it?"
Another spasm shot through Harry and he cried out in pain. "What do you want from me? I know I was supposed to kill him. I know I've ruined everything. I'm sorry!"
Harry buried his head in a pillow and groaned. The pain was becoming excruciating. If only he would just pass out. Then he wouldn't have to suffer it or listen to Snape yelling at him. Suddenly Harry felt strong hands dig into the tortured muscles of his back.
"Breathe, Potter," Snape said. "Short, rhythmic breaths through your mouth."
Harry panted as Snape continued massaging his back. To his surprise it actually helped. The spasm ended and Harry sagged back onto the bed, drenched in sweat. He looked up at Snape who was sitting next to him. The man no longer seemed angry. Instead, he looked utterly defeated which made Harry feel far worse than he had when Snape was shouting at him.
"I'm sorry, Professor."
"It's all right, Potter," Snape said wearily.
"But what about Voldemort?"
Snape shook his head. "Don't worry. It'll be all right." He reached out and carelessly brushed the fringe off of Harry's forehead.
Snape's fingertips felt cool against Harry's feverish skin. Then they were gone and Harry felt a pang of disappointment. The gesture had been so natural, so personal. No one but Mrs. Weasley had ever touched him like that before and suddenly, Harry desperately wanted to feel that touch again, the simple touch of another human being.
Without thinking he reached out and grasped Snape's hand. Snape flinched in surprise and looked down at Harry's hand clutching his. Then his eyes widened and he yanked his hand away, jumped up and ran from the room.
Harry watched Snape go. So much for a little human contact, he thought wryly as another wave of pain hit him. When it had passed he lay gasping for breath. It didn't really matter. This certainly wasn't the first time he'd faced death alone. He could already feel himself beginning to fade in and out of consciousness. If he could just pass out, he could die in peace. Harry closed his eyes willing himself to faint.
Harry opened his eyes in surprise. Snape was back. He had taken off his robes and unbuttoned his collar. His shirtsleeves were rolled up as well. He picked up the bottle of Belladonna, swirled it around three times then filled the glass to the brim.
"I thought I couldn't take any more of that," Harry said.
"You can't," Snape replied, swallowing the poison himself in one long gulp. Then he picked up a silver knife which he'd apparently retrieved from somewhere and turned towards Harry.
For a moment Harry wondered if Snape was going to kill him in order to put him out of his misery. But Snape merely climbed up onto the bed and knelt beside him. Another fierce cramp surged through Harry and he grunted.
"Hold on, Potter," Snape said. He reached for Harry's right hand and cut a deep gash across his palm. Harry didn't even feel it over the pain he was already suffering. Snape quickly slashed a similar wound in his own hand.
The cramping subsided again and Harry looked up at his teacher. "What are you doing?"
"Saving your life, I hope." Snape gripped Harry's hand tightly in his, pressing their bleeding palms together. "We are of one blood, bound together in life or in death."
Another surge of pain coursed through Harry. He cried out and this time Snape gasped in pain as well. Snape collapsed on the bed next to Harry, still clutching his hand. But Harry's own pain had finally become unbearable and he at last slipped into welcome unconsciousness.
Harry was lying on the soft warm grass beside the lake at Hogwarts, the sun shining through the trees to warm him. A slight squeeze of his hand made him turn towards Ginny who was lying beside him in the grass, smiling at him. He clasped her hand tightly in return, running his thumb gently over the back of her hand in a caress then he closed his eyes contentedly.
The sun shining through the gap in the curtains was quite warm and Harry, hovering on the cusp between sleep and wakefulness, pushed the blankets away then frowned slightly, realizing that he wasn't lying on grass as he had supposed, but in bed. Drowsily, he reached up to straighten his glasses then opened his eyes which widened in shock as he came fully awake.
Strictly speaking, Severus Snape might not have been the last person Harry would have wanted to wake up next to, but he was certainly the last person Harry wanted to wake up holding hands with, particularly wearing nothing but his underwear. Yet this was precisely the predicament Harry found himself in. He was lying amidst a cozy disarray of blankets on a bed in a small, nondescript bedroom that seemed somehow familiar, although Harry had no idea where he was and knew he'd never been there before. Snape was sleeping peacefully next to him, but nevertheless had an almost vice-like grip on his right hand as Harry discovered when he tried to gently pull it free. Harry tugged harder, but Snape shifted uneasily in his sleep and gripped Harry's hand even tighter.
Harry took a deep breath and fought down an irrational panic. He had no memory of how he'd come to be in these circumstances, but there had to be a reasonable explanation for the fact that he seemed to have spent the night holding hands in bed with his teacher. Unfortunately, no matter how hard he tried, Harry couldn't think of one. Panic was beginning to gnaw at him again and Harry desperately tried to wriggle his hand free of Snape's once more. The last thing he wanted – the one thing that could make this mortifying situation even worse – would be for Snape to wake up holding his hand.
The moment Harry imagined the scene, he felt himself flush in embarrassment. Unfortunately, fate seemed to have just been waiting for the dread thought to enter his mind, because no sooner had it done so, than Snape heaved a deep sigh, opened his eyes and looked straight into Harry's. Harry froze. For a moment they stared at one another in silence then an unpleasant smirk crept onto Snape's face which made Harry feel rather queasy.
"Well, Mr. Potter, we seem to have survived your latest adventure," Snape drawled. "I do hope you enjoyed it as much as I did."
Harry felt the heat of his embarrassment drain away. Since he couldn't remember what had happened the night before and was fairly sure he didn't want to know, he couldn't think of any reply, but Snape didn't seem to expect one. He let go of Harry's hand and sat up. Harry sat up, too and would have leapt off the bed entirely, but Snape grabbed his arm.
"Not so fast, Potter." Snape gave Harry's pale, bare chest a long, appraising look that did nothing for Harry's peace of mind. Then he reached out and ran one long finger across Harry's shoulder. Harry jerked away.
"What are you doing?"
"Inspecting my handiwork," Snape replied.
"What's that supposed to mean?" Harry growled.
Snape shrugged. "Exactly what I said. I've never done this before, you know."
"Nice to know I was the first," Harry said through clenched teeth, trying to keep his voice steady as he pulled the covers closer around him and edged further away from Snape. "Just where are we, anyway?"
Harry hit the dusty, wood floor with a thud along with a tangle of blankets. He rolled over, trying to kick free of the covers and found Snape peering down at him in bewilderment over the edge of the bed.
"Potter, what the devil are you doing?"
Harry fought free of the last of the blankets and scrambled to his feet, clutching a sheet around his waist protectively.
"Your home?" Harry's voice sounded an octave too high to his ears, but he didn't care. "What are we doing in your home?"
"It was the only place available," Snape said, standing up as well. "Hogwarts was out of the question."
Harry stared at Snape, feeling truly sick. "Yeah, I reckon it was," he finally managed to choke out.
"Ah, I thought I heard voices." Harry and Snape both turned to see Albus Dumbledore standing in the doorway smiling pleasantly. "I hope you don't mind, Severus. I took the liberty of letting myself in. I must say it is a relief to see you both finally up and about."
Harry gaped at Dumbledore who obviously wasn't the least bit shocked that one of his staff and one of his students had spent the night together. In fact, he looked positively happy.
Dumbledore smiled at Harry's dumbfounded expression. "It is obvious, Harry, that you have no memory of yesterday, but let me assure you that nothing inappropriate has occurred here."
Snape frowned and glanced suspiciously between Harry and Dumbledore. "What do you mean, 'inappropriate'?"
Dumbledore looked at Snape and Harry was certain that the old man was trying very hard not to laugh. "I believe that Harry is under the mistaken impression that you have been caught in flagrante delicto."
Harry had never heard that phrase before, but it was clear that Snape had and from the look on the man's face, Harry could guess what it meant. It occurred to him that he had made a horrible mistake just as Snape rounded on him, white with outrage.
"WHAT? I saved your life and you think –"
Snape broke off, a tinge of pink coloring his pale cheeks. Dumbledore stepped forward to lay a hand on his arm.
"Severus, Harry doesn't remember and he is naturally disoriented. Come. Let's you and I make us all some tea while Harry gets dressed. Harry, the bathroom is just across the hall. If you'll come into the kitchen when you're ready, I will explain everything to you. Come, Severus."
Snape cast a final, resentful glare at Harry then stalked out of the room. Dumbledore gave Harry a much more encouraging look then left as well. Alone, Harry sat down on the edge of the bed and tried to make sense of the bizarre situation, but it was no use. Whatever explanation Dumbledore planned to give him, Harry couldn't begin to guess at it and after a few moments he decided that sitting here wasn't going to do him any good.
He stood up and discarded the sheet he was still holding around him then retrieved his clothes which were folded neatly on a nearby chair. He dressed quickly, shoved his wand into his pocket, then crept to the door and peeked out. There was no one in sight so he quickly crossed the hall to a dingy bathroom. He stepped up to the sink and looked at his reflection. The young man staring back at him was a wreck; pale and gaunt with dark circles under his eyes.
Harry ran a hand through the hopeless disarray of his hair. What happened to me? He wondered. He turned on the tap, removed his glasses and splashed water on his face. Then he ran his wet hands through his hair to slick it back. Having completed these minimal ablutions and having no further excuse to delay, Harry stepped back out into the hall and followed the sound of voices to a cramped kitchen. He paused just outside the doorway.
Snape was slouched in a chair at the small table, his arms folded tightly across his chest, scowling resentfully. Dumbledore was looking through the cupboards and both men had their backs turned.
"Really, Severus, there is no reason for you to take such offense," Dumbledore said, opening a tin to peer inside. "He's seventeen and such thoughts are seldom far from one's mind at that age. Besides, it isn't every day that a young man wakes up half naked in bed with one of his teachers and with no memory of how he came to be in such circumstances. Surely you can appreciate how that would be disconcerting."
Snape glared indignantly at Dumbledore, but said nothing.
"I must say, Severus, that your cupboards are distressingly bare. You might at least keep a few biscuits on hand."
"I wasn't planning on entertaining," Snape said, sourly.
"Quite so." Dumbledore waved his wand and three teacups appeared on the table. He retrieved a teakettle from the stove and began to fill the cups. "Still, it was a rather long and fraught night to endure on an empty stomach."
"If Mr. Potter would refrain from trying to get himself killed, the contents of my cupboards would not be an issue," Snape replied irritably.
"Also quite true," Dumbledore said with a sympathetic smile as he sat down next to Snape. "Ah, Harry, there you are. Come and have some tea. It will do you good."
Harry left off hovering in the doorway to come and sit down next to Dumbledore and as far away from Snape as the small table would allow. Snape didn't look at him.
"Would one of you mind telling me what's going on?" Harry asked, directing the question to Dumbledore.
"Do you remember anything of yesterday's events, Harry?" Dumbledore asked.
"No," Harry admitted.
"Then allow me to jog your memory. According to Miss Granger, you and she, along with Ginny and Ron Weasley were walking down to the main gate yesterday when you saw Draco Malfoy slinking rather guiltily – Ron supplied that detail – along a path on the opposite side of the lake. Naturally, the four of you felt compelled to follow him. The path led up into the hills above Hogsmeade where Draco eventually stopped at the entrance to a cave. When he entered it, you went in after him and in the ensuing argument no one noticed the Stinging Tentacula until it attacked. You shoved Draco out of the way – a detail that he, interestingly enough, confirms – and took the full brunt of the attack, yourself. Miss Granger, realizing that they would never get you back to Hogwarts in time, made the first wise decision of the day and Apparated to Hogsmeade to find help."
Harry said nothing for a moment. He remembered following Malfoy, but the attack itself was still fuzzy. It had all happened so fast. "How did I get here?"
"I brought you here immediately after Miss Granger dragged you up to me in front of the Three Broomsticks," Snape replied indignantly.
"Why here? Why not back to Hogwarts?"
"For the same reason that Miss Granger decided against it. Because you would have been dead before I could have got you to the hospital wing. As it was you very nearly died."
"And why…" Harry hesitated. He hated to ask this, but he had to know the answer. "Why were you holding my hand?"
Snape's eyes flashed in anger, but it was Dumbledore who answered. "That, Harry, is the trademark of the Healer's Gamble."
"The Healer's Gamble," Snape repeated impatiently. "It is the last means of saving the life of a poisoning victim. Most poisons, as you should know by now, can be counteracted with a bezoar. However, those that can't often require antidotes that are nearly as deadly as the poisons they are designed to neutralize. Stinging Tentacula toxin is one of them. You received a massive dose of it, but because its antidote is poisonous in itself, I couldn't give you enough of it to save your life. You would have died, but the Healer's Gamble provided a chance for a different outcome."
"It is an ancient spell," Dumbledore said, picking up the narrative from Snape. "It is based on blood and is very powerful as is all blood magic. The concept though is quite straightforward. The idea is to double the volume of blood in order to dilute the poison and allow a second dose of antidote to be given. To do this, the healer takes it upon himself to mingle his blood with that of the victim. Typically he ingests the second dose of antidote and then makes a deep incision on both his own and the victim's right palms. He then recites the spell's incantation and they join hands.
"One blood, bound together in life or in death," Harry whispered. He glanced down at his palm where a long thin scar marked all that remained of the deep gash Snape had cut. It was all coming back to him now: the agony as Snape had burned away the parasites that had infested him; the fever and cramps that had followed; the terrible realization that he was going to die. And he remembered Snape sitting beside him.
"Why is it called a 'gamble'?"
"Because if even a double dose of the antidote cannot counteract the poison then both the victim and the healer will die," Dumbledore said. "Happily, that was not the case this time – though it was rather a near thing."
Dumbledore drank the last of his tea, set down the cup and stood up. "Well, I must be off now."
Snape and Harry gave the old wizard identical looks of startled dismay.
"What?" Snape said sharply.
"You can't leave," Harry said.
"I'm afraid I must. I have a rather urgent meeting in London that I cannot afford to delay any longer."
"Albus, you've been here nearly a full day as it is. Surely any meeting can wait long enough for you to escort Potter back to Hogwarts."
"I'm ready to go right now," Harry added helpfully, jumping to his feet.
"Madam Pomfrey will wish to see you both as soon as you return to school, so it is only sensible for the two of you to arrive together."
"I should think that I would be entitled to a little respite given what I have already been through on Potter's behalf," Snape insisted.
"Of course," Dumbledore said reassuringly. "There is no hurry, Severus. By all means the two of you may take all the time you need."
Dumbledore headed out of the kitchen and Harry hurried after the old wizard. Snape was right behind him.
"Albus, you can't leave Potter here!"
"Professor, please," Harry said. "It won't take any time to Apparate back to Hogwarts."
Dumbledore turned to look at both of them in exasperation. "I have spent the better part of the last twenty-four hours alternately sitting at your bedside and pacing the floor. And during most of that time I was quite convinced that I was going to lose you both. So forgive me if I don't see the tragedy in the current situation. Daunting as the task may seem to you both, I have every confidence that the two of you can manage to find your way back to school without my assistance. Now, I am leaving and I will see both of you at Hogwarts."
With that, Dumbledore opened the front door, stepped out into morning air and shut the door behind him with a sharp click. Absolute silence descended on the room as both Harry and Snape continued to stare at the door.
At last Snape sighed. "Wait here." He turned and strode out of the room without looking at Harry.
Harry was relieved to be alone. He sat down on the threadbare sofa and looked around. The room was a small, shabby affair, made to feel even smaller by the fact that every wall was covered with books. Harry had had occasion to search through several different collections of books in recent months and couldn't resist the temptation to examine Snape's. With a furtive glance at the doorway, he rose and began to walk slowly around the room.
Despite the obvious poverty of the house, Snape had an impressive library. There were books on every branch of magic and these weren't just for show. The books, though clearly well cared for, were just as clearly well used and Harry had a sudden vision of Snape sitting on his sofa reading.
As Harry continued around the room, a familiar book suddenly caught his eye and he reached out and plucked it from the shelf. It was his advanced potions text, or rather a very old copy of it. Harry opened it and was shocked to discover that nearly every page had been written on. Whole sets of potions instructions had been scratched out and rewritten and there were all sorts of notes scribbled in the margins. Some were potions notes, but others seemed to be spells.
Harry jumped and slammed the book shut. Snape came and snatched it out of his hands.
"Can't I ever leave you alone for five minutes without you invading my privacy? Did I tell you that you could search through my things?"
Snape shoved the book back on the shelf then strode over and yanked the front door open. "Let's go."
Harry didn't need to be told twice. He hurried past the man and out of the house.