The Sugar Quill
Author: Igenlode Wordsmith (Professors' Bookshelf)  Story: Through Older Eyes  Chapter: Default
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Through Older Eyes

Apparition was never pleasant. With the familiar vice closing around him, Albus Dumbledore clung to that knowledge, taking strength from the spell's crushing grip. The sensation was almost welcome. There was no room left for the void of pain that gnawed at him from within.

The pressure relaxed, and with it came a moment's respite. For an instant, before the void could widen again, there was time to take in the faint halo that was a distant streetlamp, and above it dark roofs against the sky, as familiar to him as the strands of his own beard. Hogsmeade. Home. Harry had done it.

"We did it, Professor!"

The boy's arm was strong beneath his, vibrant with youth, but he was shivering. Belatedly Dumbledore too became aware of the cold that was striking through wet robes. Such a simple spell to banish it... a simple matter...

Then the pain came back twentyfold, in a wave that sapped his defences, and he staggered, colliding heavily with Harry before he could master himself.

"Sir, are you all right?"

From out of the dizzy whirl, his old sense of the ridiculous swam as ever to the rescue.

"I've been better." He tried for a smile as the spasm receded, leaving weakness in its wake. "That potion... was no health drink..."

It was taking everything he had just to stay on his feet. Waste of... effort. He let himself slide, barely noticing the jolt as the ground came up to meet him.

That was better. Harry's face, anxious in the streetlights' gleam, came back into focus. Dumbledore took a deep breath, gauging his own condition. Pain... was nothing. A warning signal, no more. Voldemort would not have wasted time on inflicting mere physical torment -- or perhaps, Dumbledore thought with a wince, remembering the tall, handsome boy he had once known, perhaps he would at that. But he would not have stopped there.

It was the tide of Dark magic now lapping at his vitals like a breath of foulness on the face of the moon that was Voldemort's gift. His final self-serving enchantment, for those insolent enough to follow in his footsteps. Without Harry, Dumbledore could never have survived. But dead or alive, the magic would have worked its will.

"Madam Pomfrey..." the boy's voice said from somewhere far away, and Dumbledore roused himself enough to forestall him. If he was right, this should not be brought to endanger Poppy's domain. And there was time, and to spare.

"No." He gathered his strength, thrusting human frailties back into their place. "It is... Professor Snape whom I need..."

Weak limbs betrayed him, threatening frustration. "...but I do not think... I can walk very far just yet..."

Severus. Severus would know what was to be done, as he had seized instantly upon the nature of that other curse, far fouler, that had guarded Marvolo's ring. Severus... had always had an affinity for Dark magic. A feeling for it that went beyond deduction into the lightning leap of instinct and eager embrace. It had drawn him, once, into Voldemort's orbit. Tonight -- and on other nights past and yet to come -- it would serve to undermine that same master.

"Severus. I need Severus." He interrupted Harry again, insistent, and the boy gave way.

"All right then, Snape -- but I'm going to have to leave you for a moment so I can --"

Footsteps. Instinct -- or foreknowledge -- sent adrenalin through his veins as Rosmerta came to a halt at Harry's side, breathless. There was shock in her face, and concern; but it was not for him. Not at the first.

"What has happened?" He cut across Harry's explanations with almost the old note of authority, urgency quelling the rising tide. "Rosmerta, what's wrong?"

Her face was white. "The -- the Dark Mark, Albus."

Harry turned, instinctively, blocking Dumbledore's view. Cold ground lurched beneath him -- it was a moment before he knew that it was the withered hand that had taken his weight as he clawed upwards, but he had one knee under him and then the other, his left hand clutching for the support of Harry's robes in a grip that must have hurt. Harry, frozen, never flinched.

The Dark Mark blazed green over Hogwarts in a nightmare of broken trust. Death Eaters, he thought; and only then, numbly, Draco.

* * *

I left them safe. The darkness was rising again, a ravening demon held in leash within, but it was almost welcome beneath the haste that drove him now.

'A counter-irritant is not an antidote, Albus.' He could hear Horace Slughorn's orotund reproof as clearly as if he were on the broomstick next to him -- the image of Horace on a broom brought a chuckle of acknowledgment deep within his chest that eased, for a moment, the tightness that was closing in.

He glanced across to the seemingly empty broom at his side, remembering Harry's face in the Hogsmeade street. The boy's mouth had been set, but there was desperation in the lines of his face -- the same desperation that threatened Dumbledore's own control. The Dark Mark might well lie... but if it did not, then death stalked the corridors of Hogwarts this night, death to those in his care. He would have given his life to hold it back. So, he thought, would Harry Potter.

But that thought brought a fresh concern, wiping out even the question of what waited ahead. Whatever happened, Harry must be shielded at the last.

The wind of their passing whipped the words from his lips as he stripped enchantments recklessly away before their path, trusting to Hogwarts' ancient protections. The boundary wall flashed beneath the tail of their brooms and was gone, and above the Astronomy Tower the Dark Mark burned vast before them, enveloping the sky. Unconsciously Dumbledore bent low, urging his broom to yet greater speed in the final instants of its flight, though he knew almost before he reached the battlements what he would find. Call it instinct... call it sixth sense... call it divination, if you will.

It was a trap. The empty tower mocked him under the green light, a sudden upsurge of exhaustion sapping his strength. Somewhere down below him, in the deceptive tranquillity of the night, Death Eaters crept and waited. He had little doubt as to their target.

Tendrils of pain within him blossomed, clutching for his heart. His blackened hand was drawn upwards, Dark calling to Dark, clawing...

"Professor?" Harry's questioning voice had sharpened into concern, and Dumbledore pulled himself back with a jerk, mind racing. Above all, Harry must be got away. And there was still a chance.

"Go and wake Severus. Tell him what has happened and bring him to me. Do nothing else, speak to nobody else, and do not remove your Cloak. I shall wait here." He overrode Harry's protest. "You swore to obey me, Harry -- go!"

And then it was too late. Before either of them could open the turret door, footsteps pelted hard towards it from within, eager for triumph. Dumbledore gestured for Harry to get back even as his eyes fell for a moment on the betraying second broom; but a broom could be explained. Resigned affection told him that if he was right, no amount of obedience would enable even an invisible Harry to contain himself. That would be impossible to explain away.

In the instant that he moved, the door burst open and Draco's eyes met his own, feverish with excitement and fear. The boy's lips quivered on a spell, and Dumbledore made a choice of his own.

Petrificus Totalis !

His spell hit Harry in the moment before his own wand was blasted back from his hand, Draco's gaze following it greedily, and the tiny sound as Harry's frozen body slid against the Tower wall was lost in the falling arc of the wand and the Malfoy boy's long, indrawn breath.

Safe. Dumbledore allowed himself a single sidelong glance. Forgive me, Harry. But you will be needed in the time to come.

The Dark taint washed within him like a shattered flask, and he battened it down, feeling the reassuring bite of the rough stonework at his back. Draco was not lost, not yet. And if he could just reach Severus with the boys' aid...

His voice as steady as if this were a meeting in his office, he looked back at his disarmer and said calmly, Headmaster to pupil, "Good evening, Draco."

* * *

It was easy enough to distract the boy's attention from the question of the second broom; harder to bring him to face the truth that must have haunted him in the guise of cowardice for many months. Quietly, patiently, Dumbledore spun his web, trusting in the untried heart beneath the bravado, the instinctive shrinking before the finality of death. It was one thing to brag of murder. It was another to witness life in the eyes of another and then by your own hand snuff it out.

Not by a movement or by a word did he betray urgency as time ticked away, drop by drop, while still Draco hesitated, neither acting nor admitting inability to act, and the coldness wound its way closer and closer around Dumbledore's breast. The pain was ebbing with his body's resistance. He clutched it to him, fighting it like a friend, stirring up tortures to stave off the growing Dark allure, as the stone behind him yielded its grip and he slipped slowly and inexorably downwards, into the embrace of a weakness from which he would not rise.

It was hard to believe there had ever been anything other than this wall, this tower, this boy with the pinched face and the trembling wand, and the unspoken battle for a soul; but below them both there were sounds of struggle that spelt out Death Eaters in Hogwarts and a last-ditch running fight. His pupils -- the memory of Cedric tore at him -- his friends.

"Someone's dead." Draco's voice cracked, betraying his youth. "One of your people... I don't know who, it was dark... I stepped over the body..."

Even through the pang of loss and dread, Dumbledore could not withhold pity for that glimpse of the frightened child. Oh Draco, Draco, do you not know yourself yet?

"I was supposed to be waiting up here when you got back --" sullen, almost bewildered -- "only your Phoenix lot got in the way..."

"Yes, they do that," Dumbledore agreed softly. The world was surging in and out, and he had slipped so far that Draco's pale face seemed to swim above him; but it would not be his bodily weakness that decided the end. Help was coming, there down below, help for one of them or the other, and Draco must act in the moments that remained. To allow him to do nothing would be to yield him up to Voldemort now and for all time.

The bloated black taint fought within for command of his body, and Dumbledore held it back, piling calm discipline on calm. This was not the moment. Severus would know what to do. And his voice, at least, was still his own.

"...Now at last we can speak plainly," he told Draco, offering mercy and hope where Voldemort had nothing to give but fear, and saw the boy trembling on the brink of return.

"You're in my power..." The protest came blindly. "I'm the one with the wand... you're at my mercy..."

But he had never looked less in control.

"No, Draco," Dumbledore said softly, watching the wand hand on the verge of surrender. "It is my mercy, and not yours, that matters now."

The choice had been made. He was certain of it, in that instant before the Death Eaters came -- and then it was too late for Draco, and for himself, and for any of them at all.

* * *

Alecto and Amycus. Fenrir Greyback, from whom Draco shrank, and brutal-faced Vodric. The blood on the werewolf's breath was thick and foul, and Alecto's titter was wheezing with pleasure. From the detachment of his weakness, Dumbledore observed them all -- Voldemort's finest, as ever, more befuddled by courtesy than by a slap to the face -- and waited for the end.

Not Draco... He could see the terror in the boy's eyes, and his heart twisted for the fate for Malfoy that must follow. That fragile flame of hope would be snuffed out, twisted to slake Voldemort's need. So near and yet so far-- Please, let it not be Draco.

For his own part, he was no longer certain he could have lifted his wand even if he had retained it. The slow stain of Voldemort's power was seeping down his limbs even as the leaden weight deepened on his breath. Soon, if nothing occurred, he would be cold and pale, an unliving puppet to another master's will. Voldemort would not be pleased, he thought with the old absurd lift of humour, when he learned of this opportunity his death sentence had forestalled. The knowledge of Harry's interference would be nothing compared to the gall of his own Death Eaters' depriving him of such a gift...

Amycus was leering again. "Look at him -- what's happened to you, then, Dumby?"

"Oh, weaker resistance, slower reflexes, Amycus." The thread of his voice held all its old calm amusement. "Old age, in short... one day, perhaps, it will happen to you... if you are lucky..."

The Death Eater struggled almost visibly with the inference, suspecting insult but unable to see it, and then erupted. "What's that mean, then, what's that mean--"

Dumbledore wondered for an instant if the man would actually foam at the mouth; but the goad failed. Panting with fury and excitement, Amycus still showed no signs of using a Killing Curse. Instead, he had rounded on the unhappy Draco, urging the Dark Lord's orders.

A shout of pain from below, and a flurry of muffled hexes. "They've blocked the stairs--" Rescue, then, would come too late. But despite everything, Dumbledore felt a fresh leap of pride, and of relief. The Order were not defeated; not yet dead. The school would be safe, and Harry --

The memory of Harry came back with a jolt, all grief and fury after Sirius' loss. Odds of one against five would not stop him, and a Body-Bind Curse would not hold him back after the caster's -- after his own; Dumbledore faced it openly -- death.

Vodric's wand let out a flash that hurled Greyback sidelong against the wall as the Death Eaters snarled at each other, fighting to force Draco to the kill, and anguish shot through Dumbledore like a knife. Physical pain was gone now -- along with all sensation in the body that held him trapped and slumped, already pallid white -- but it could not dull the pangs of fear. Draco -- Harry, no... oh no.

*Crash*.

The door to the staircase slammed back on its hinges one last time; but only one man stood there, breathing hard, as if headlong on the heels of need from the cellars to the topmost tower. The moment seemed to stretch out; even Greyback was frozen. Then Snape's gaze swept round the ramparts, taking in the odds, Malfoy's helpless wand, the werewolf's fury -- an imperceptible flicker -- the extra broom.

Amycus took a breath. "We've got a problem, Snape--"

"Severus..." Dumbledore strained every nerve in that plea, cutting through Amycus' complaint. Their eyes met, desperation trying to convey all that he could not say.

Do it. Set me free of this. Save Draco. Get them out of here.

Snape said nothing, but he came forward, thrusting Draco roughly aside. His own wand was in his hand and his face was harsh.

The Death Eaters gave way before him, and even Greyback, still half-crouched against the rampart, made no sound. Harry's broom lay mutely in the corner. Snape's eyes did not for a single instant flicker to it again, but a spasm of revulsion and fury crossed his face.

For his sake -- and for mine. Dumbledore tried to pull himself forward; every muscle strained. He could not move.

If there had been enough breath left in him, it would have come out as a sob. "Severus... please..."

The wand came up, pointing directly at him. He read consent in the other man's eyes and let himself go, sprawled against the welcoming wall. No more struggle. The relief of it was almost a sigh.

I'm sorry, Harry. But you will not be alone. He did not dare, even now, to spare him a glance.

Severus' gaze held his own. He broke the contact in a motionless nod.

Do it now.

...Release.

* * * * * * *

//
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