Snarry-a-Thon19: FIC: The Only Crime Title: The Only Crime Author:deirdre_aithne Other pairings/threesome: None Rating: PG-13 Word count: 3,478 Content/Warning(s): Gen/pre-slash Prompt: 28. Familiar old trope: Snape is forced to serve several years in Azkaban for his role in the war. On his release, he struggles to care for himself on his own, partly out of pride but mostly because he has no choice. Finally, under an alias, he agrees to do something illegal for pay. The Aurors track him down, and the officer sent to arrest him (guess who) is confronted by a seriously ill, exhausted, furious and penniless Snape. Summary: The plan was supposed to be simple. Offer the deal, make the arrest, and get another villain off the streets. That's was Robards' plan, anyway. So, of course, when it all goes wrong, it's Harry's job to clean up the mess. A/N: Many thanks to P for the beta work on this, I appreciate it so much! Any remaining mistakes are entirely my own. The title is taken from the quote "All men make mistakes, but a good man yields when he knows his course is wrong, and repairs the evil. The only crime is pride." - Sophocles, Antigone
The plan was supposed to be simple. The department would set up a false offer in Knockturn Alley for a contract and see who took the bait. Part of some brilliant scheme of Robards' to 'clean up the streets'.
They'd used an informant, rather than one of their own, to make the deal – somebody no-one would suspect of working with the Aurors. Half the payment in advance, and half after was the deal. Let them take the gold, then spring the trap before they could get away. The hope had been they'd flush out one of the few remaining Death Eaters who'd escaped the trials.
Instead, a bedraggled old man calling himself Finley Harding had shambled up to their contact to make the deal. He'd made assurances and a small display of magic to prove he was capable, and the informant had hesitantly given over the satchel full of coins. Before anyone had been able to react, the sound of an explosion had gone off, complete with a thick cloud of smoke that filled the narrow alley, and Harding was gone.
No one injured, not even any damage to the surrounding buildings. Just a very well timed distraction, and the man had disappeared.
Robards scrapped the operation immediately, after that, but not before dropping the clean-up detail on Harry's desk. Harry still hadn't decided if that had been a display of trust that he could track the assassin down, or spite for having questioned the entire idea from the beginning. But he'd gone to work scouring the scene of the deal and questioning everyone who'd been there, in hopes he would find anything that might point him in the right direction.
Harry frowned at the building in front of him. As far as criminal hideouts went, it looked about how he'd expected. Old and rundown, with half its windows boarded over and an overgrown garden. There were no signs to suggest anyone had lived there in a while. Not uncommon, really, except for the fact he couldn't find even the faintest hint of wards around the place.
Which meant either he'd found himself in front of the wrong house, or the man he was tracking had been very confident in his ability to hide.
Moving slowly, Harry circled around the side of the house. A window with loose boards he could pry off would be a far safer entry point than the front door, at least. He still didn't know what he was likely to find once he got inside, the last thing he needed was a trip to St Mungo's because he went and barged into an ambush.
Much like the front, the garden behind the house was overgrown, tall grass rapidly being overtaken by weeds. There were no signs of loose boards on any of the windows, though the back door only had one long board nailed across it. He could duck beneath that easily enough, he was sure, but it didn't seem a much better option than the front door.
As he edged closer to try and get a better look, Harry paused. On the other side of the back steps, nearly hidden in the grass, was a cellar entrance. No boards secured the doors, though one of the iron rings that served as a handle had rusted through and broken off.
His gaze shifted from the cellar to the back door and back again before he took his decision and crept towards the cellar instead. It might not be an easier entrance, but it was most likely a better one. Less expected, surely.
Harry crouched down in the grass beside the doors and examined the ancient, rotten wood. There were gaps where planks had swelled and warped with the weather, which allowed him narrow glimpses into the darkened space below. No signs of light or movement – that was promising, at least – though he could see one old timber barring the doors on the inside.
It only took a moment for him to levitate the bar out of place and settle it carefully on the stairs beneath with a gentle thud. Not daring to chance the rusted handle that remained attached, lest it give way, he reached down and got his fingers into a gap between one door and the frame. Though heavy, it moved with relative ease, the rusted hinges not even squeaking in protest. He lifted it only high enough to step over the frame and descend the stairs, bringing the door down over his head as we went.
He'd nearly got it settled into the frame above him when a faint rustling in the darkness drew his attention and Harry turned, his grip on the door slipping just before everything went black.
The first thing Harry became aware of was the ache in his shoulders. He made an effort to roll them slightly to alleviate the discomfort, only to find his arms bound tight. It took him another moment to fully assess his position, shifting in the chair he was tied to in an effort to test his restraints.
"Do give me more credit than that, Mr Potter, I would hardly make it that easy."
Harry's eyes snapped open. The low lights in the room left him blinded for an instant and he blinked through the glare until a figure began to come into focus a few feet in front of him. He hadn't seen Snape since the last hearing nearly three years ago, when he'd finally been released from Azkaban.
Snape had spent five years in the prison, despite what evidence Harry, and others, had provided in his favour. The war had taken its toll, and the populace had needed people to blame – even if they weren't entirely deserving. Harry had provided the Wizengamot with the same Pensieve memories Snape had given to him in the Shack, which had helped to shorten his sentence, at least. But as soon as he'd been released, Snape had disappeared, so far as Harry had been able to tell.
Looking at him in the dim glow of a lamp now, it was hard to believe it was even him. Snape's lean frame seemed to have withered over the past years into a gaunt, half-starved figure. As a rattling cough racked his body, Snape turned towards him and Harry took in the paleness of his skin with a sharp intake of breath.
If Snape hadn't been standing, Harry might well have thought he was looking at the man's corpse.
"Snape? The bloody hell happened to you?"
"Life happened to me, Potter."
Despite the changes in his appearance, Snape's glare was as effective as ever. Until another coughing fit overtook him. It was several long seconds before the fit passed, leaving Snape trembling faintly even as he fixed Harry with a renewed scowl.
"Why are the Aurors tracking me?"
"Tracking you...?" Harry blinked in confusion. No one was tracking Snape, not as far as he knew, anyway. He hadn't been put on parole, like the Malfoys, and had been free to go about his life since his release. The only reason Harry had even stumbled into him now was...
He groaned. "Don't tell me you're Finley Harding." A flicker of surprise from Snape was all Harry needed to see, and he let out another groan as he slumped in the chair. "Fucking hell, Snape, do you want to go back to Azkaban?"
Snape glowered at him. "I have done nothing wrong-"
"You accepted a contract to murder someone!"
"No, I accepted half of the payment for a contract to murder someone. I did not, however, follow through with the task. Nor did I intend to."
"Why would you do that?"
"I needed funds. I hardly expected them to be stupid enough to contact the DMLE," Snape snapped.
"Making an enemy of someone willing to hire a contract killer is an obviously stupid idea!" Harry slumped in the chair with an exasperated groan.
It had taken more than a week for him to finally get a lead on the case. Trace elements on a small scrap of fabric that had been half-melted onto the flagstones in the alley. The best the department's Potions Master had been able to offer was that it had something to do with the distraction, though exactly what it had been, he couldn't say. A short list of ingredients that matched his tests was the best he could provide.
Harry had to grease more than one palm to get answers on who might have purchased them from the apothecary in Knockturn Alley. Which had led him to the owlery where Harding had leased a perch for his owl. Apparently he was housing it there regularly, with a schedule arranged with the owners to send it back to his home at least once per week so he might send any outgoing requests he had. Otherwise, it stayed in the owlery unless it had mail to deliver for him.
Which only ever seemed to be parcels from the apothecary.
So Harry had set a trace on the owl and waited. It had been hard to sit on his hands that long, with the means to find the man so close. Especially with Robards breathing down his neck and demanding progress reports at every turn. But Harry hadn't wanted to arouse any suspicion, since it would take him time to follow the trace, and the last thing he needed was Harding to see him coming and make a run for it. Or ambush him at the door, which is precisely what Snape had managed to do.
"All right," Harry said at last, sitting straighter in the chair once more and fixing his gaze on Snape. The other man had moved across the room while he'd been lost in thought, and was busying himself over a cauldron at a narrow workstation. "So you are Finley Harding, right?"
"I will not incriminate myself-"
"Work with me, Snape," Harry snapped. He jerked in the chair in frustration, making it rock slightly off two feet and bang back down onto the stone floor, the sharp sound punctuating his words. "If you think they were out for blood after the war, how much more so do you think they will be now for a former Death Eater who just took a killing contract and kidnapped an Auror?"
Snape's back stiffened, and Harry could see him gripping the edge of the table he worked at.
"If you don't let me go, then they'll assume the worst and send someone else. So if you actually do want to avoid Azkaban, you need to work with me."
Harry allowed silence to stretch between them, rather than pressure Snape further. The tension in his posture was evident, even in the dim lighting of the room, and he'd no doubt the man was weighing his choices carefully. Harry certainly was.
He might be able to break free of the bonds around him, but doing so would cause Snape to panic, and either flee, or engage him. Neither of which was ideal. If Harry wanted answers, he needed Snape to provide them willingly. And then he could figure out how to proceed.
The sound of coughing broke the quiet, and Harry's gaze fixed on Snape as he gripped his work table harder with one hand. His knuckles were white, and it seemed as though every vein and muscle in his hand was bulging with the strain to keep himself upright. Snape's other hand held a kerchief to his mouth. As the fit subsided, Harry caught a glimpse of crimson flecks against the crisp white fabric before Snape managed to pocket the kerchief and turn towards him.
"What do you want?"
Stamping down on the flicker of concern he felt, Harry relaxed slightly in the chair. "Just answer my questions. Tell me what's going on."
"Why should you listen?" Snape retorted, the sharpness of his tone undermined by the rasp in his throat. "What reason do you have to hear me out?"
Harry didn't answer immediately. Instead, he held Snape's gaze as they considered each other across the room. There was a faint nudge of magic at the back of his mind, Snape trying to get in and read his motives. With a sigh, Harry gave in and let his defences down just enough for him to see.
"Because I learned my lesson about trusting you a long time ago," Harry said at last. "I'd like to give you the benefit of the doubt, this time."
Despite Harry's assurances, Snape refused to release him from the chair. With his story told, Snape had retired with a scowl to another area of the house, and left Harry alone in the cellar to ruminate on the new information. While he didn't agree with Snape's choices, there was a strange sort of logic to his decisions.
Snape had been dying by slow degrees since his release from Azkaban. What resources remained in Spinner's End were quickly depleted in the early months as he struggled to find work. And by the time he was able to build any suitable reputation under the table, it had been all but too late. The funds he was able to bring in were barely enough to cover the ingredients he required.
As he had poured his every waking moment into the work, the house around him had begun to deteriorate. When he'd first fallen ill, it had been the beginning of the end.
The healer at St Mungo's had turned him out with a sneer, and despite his best attempts, Snape had been unable to treat himself. Half starved, and struggling against a perpetually draughty house, his condition had deteriorated steadily for months before he reached his breaking point. Out of both food and potions, and with his Gringotts vaults empty, Snape had no other choice.
He'd assumed the glamour he had been using for business, and taken to one of the darker corners of Knockturn Alley to find some job that could fill his vault and his stomach in one fell swoop. The contract had been a stroke of luck, so far as he could see. All but untraceable, and so long as he did not follow through, unlikely to cause him any real legal trouble. He could buy food, and maybe find someone willing to take a bribe at St Mungo's to give him treatment.
Snape didn't expect the DMLE to be watching. And the moment he got wind of an Auror tracking him, he went to ground and holed up at an old safe house he had used during the first war, trusting he had thoroughly covered his tracks. All the while, the illness continued to take its toll.
A loud racking cough from the floor overhead startled Harry from his thoughts. He tipped his head back as though he could track Snape's position by the sound.
"Snape?" he called out when the sound subsided briefly, only for another coughing fit to begin. With a sigh, Harry slumped in the chair, and then straightened again immediately as his shoulders protested the new position. Before he could try again, a heavy thump above him gave him pause and Harry stilled, straining his ears to listen.
The sudden silence in the house was unsettling, after the steady sound of Snape's hacking and wheezing over the past hour. He'd grown strangely accustomed to the coughing fits while Snape had explained himself, and even the sound of them from upstairs had been an odd comfort in the darkened cellar. The absence of the noise left him uncomfortable. And as that thought crossed his mind, a chill rippled down Harry's spine.
Snape wasn't coughing. From the sound of it, he wasn't even moving, upstairs.
"Snape?" Harry tried, louder than the last time, in case Snape had moved further into the house than he'd realized. Still, only silence answered him, and that cold chill to settled deeper into his skin. "Snape?!"
He was dead, Severus was certain of that. He had died alone in that filthy kitchen, with Potter yelling his name through the floorboards, and that was finally the end of it. There was no other explanation for the room he found himself in when he awoke. It was too clean, too bright to be his bedroom. The boards over the windows had never afforded him that much light.
A soft knock on the door drew his attention away from the window as a young woman entered the room with a clipboard in hand. "Mr Snape, good, you're awake." She offered him a brief smile before she drew a quill from the bun of her hair and tapped it to the sheet on her board.
"You've had quite the ordeal, it seems. Can you tell me how you're feeling?"
"Ill," Severus answered with a scowl. And wasn't that resolutely unfair, that he should be dead and still feel as though he was dying. Placing his hands on either side of himself, he began to push himself upright. "Where am I?"
Startled into action, the woman set her board down and reached behind him to adjust the pillows, allowing Severus to settle back against them. "You're in St Mungo's. You were brought in three days ago."
"By whom? And why?"
Potter had warned him the Aurors would come if he wasn't released, Severus could just imagine them storming into the house and finding his body on the floor. They couldn't have left him there for dead, was he now to be healed only to be shoved into a cell in Azkaban to die there instead?
Rather than answer, she avoided his gaze as she picked up the clipboard again. "If you could answer a few questions for me-"
"Why am I here?" Severus demanded, only to succumb to a fit of coughing. His body shook with the force of it and his breath wheezed, the sound punctuated by the staccato scratching of the woman's quill against her clipboard. When the fit had subsided, the woman offered him a kerchief in silence and studiously ignored the blood on Severus' hand when he took it.
"You're here because you're ill, Mr Snape. Very ill. Had Mr Potter not-"
"Had Mr Potter not brought you here-" the woman continued over him, shooting him a sharp glare. "-you would very likely be dead."
"When am I to be taken to Azkaban?" Severus asked when Potter appeared in the doorway of his room. The mediwitch had only been gone for a few minutes, after lecturing him at length about his health and 'self medication'.
"Hello to you, too." Potter pulled a chair up beside the bed and sat, flashing Severus a grin. "Glad to see you're awake."
Severus glared, but Potter seemed unbothered, settling further into his chair and tipping it back onto its rear legs.
"Gave me quite the fright, you know. When I found you on the floor, I was sure you'd died."
"How did you find me? You were tied to a chair."
Potter had the audacity to laugh, though he made some effort to disguise the sound with a cough. "Yes, well, wandless magic in times of great stress, you know how it is... The point is, you're here and you're alive. And I've opened an inquiry as to who turned you away when you came in for treatment. I have it as a personal assurance from the director of staff that they'll be fired, for what it's worth."
"And Azkaban?" Severus asked again with a growl.
Meeting his gaze, Potter shook his head. "You aren't being arrested. I closed the Harding case," he continued, when Severus only stared at him. "The fact that you had the unfortunate luck to have moved into his former hideout is hardly your fault, I can't arrest you for that. And we never had much hope of recovering the galleons; considering the circumstances, the department has agreed to let you keep what you found."
Severus set his jaw, considering Potter for a long moment. It was too much to hope that it was true, and that he wasn't going to be thrust back into a cell in Azkaban once he was released. Let alone that he would be set free with some measure of money in his vault to live on while he resettled.
Potter shrugged and stood. "What happened to you was never really fair," he said quietly. "And you're clearly too damned proud to ask for help, so what else was I supposed to do?"
Severus watched as Potter made his way back towards the door, swallowing the lump that rose up in his throat. "Potter..." He waited for the other man to turn, Potter framed in the doorway with his hand on the doorknob as their eyes met.