The Last Battlefield
Chapter 11 - The Other Half of the Truth
"Are you ready?"
"Hmm." Severus blinked. "I don't like this." He leaned forward on the couch, his clasped hands pressed against his mouth.
"Neither do I, but we've only got the one cloak. Anyway, I might not even see anyone." Harry glanced around. He shifted from foot to foot, held out a hand. "Come on, get up. Sirius said Vector would--"
"Emily. If you are going to demand I call Miss Granger by her first name, I expect the same courtesy extended to my friends."
Harry sighed. "Fine. Sirius said Emily would be here in a few minutes to get the trunk. While she's getting it out, you can sneak off with the cloak, and I'll Floo into the entrance hall to meet Sirius. I don't think Remus knows much about the details. He knows V--Emily is getting the trunk, and I'm Flooing, and you'll have the cloak, but I think that's about it."
"I'd thought Lupin would be coming."
Harry shrugged. "He's supposed to be at the feast, isn't he? Sirius said he'll show him to the house probably tomorrow."
"Any problems so far?"
"None of that is the part with which I've got a problem."
"I know." Harry gave him a flat, hooded-eyed glare. "Believe me, I know." He glanced around. "Anything you need to do before we go?"
"No. Maybe." Severus pushed himself to his feet. Without looking at Harry, he strode to the bathroom and locked the door behind him.
It was with shaking hands that he grasped the sides of the basin. Severus fiddled with the plug until it slid into place, turned on the hot tap, and let it run until great, billowing clouds of steam rose up around his head. He dipped one hand into the scalding stream and lifted a leaking handful of water to his face. It did little to wash away the tension sitting beneath his skin.
Tapping the fingers of his right hand against the porcelain, he glanced around. A hairbrush, complete with a mat of dark corkscrews, sat on the narrow shelf running next to the sink. Various tubes and bottles littered the surface as well, potions and Muggle concoctions and coloured things that baffled him (especially given that he couldn't remember the last time he'd seen Emily wearing makeup). The tin of Grandpa Claudius' Salve sat among them. Its lid was crooked. With a soft growl, Severus picked it up.
"Cack," he muttered, wrenching free the lid and scooping up a finger's worth. His nose wrinkled at the soft, sweet scent of baby powder. He dabbed the pale pink goop along the equally pale crescents of teeth marks still gracing his face. "Utterly worthless cack."
The stuff soaked into his skin as soon as he started rubbing. It left the flesh numb, like a good potion oughtn't. He growled, and pinched an itch on his left earlobe until traces of the stuff made it vanish. Severus stopped. For an instant, he found his thoughts drifting to the earring - his spoil - sitting at the bottom of his pocket.
"You daft sod," he whispered to himself. "Don't even think it."
Closing the tin and scrubbing the last of the salve from his numbed fingers, Severus glanced in the mirror. He ran his dripping hands through the greasy, striped mess on his head, slicking it back more with the weight of the oil it bore than the water that gathered in tiny, shining beads. He picked at a lock of it, frowning. Absently, he stroked it against his face, still staring, still studying the familiar black eyes that bored into him like a drill. For a brief moment, he pondered whether Emily would mind if he borrowed some of her shampoo; his insides turned to ice.
"Leave us alone, Eversor," he hissed. "It's my house more than yours."
The face in the mirror remained the same. The eyes stayed as black as he'd ever known them. Severus dropped his head. He drained the sink and hurried out. A shiver went through his back as he pictured icy blue eyes staring from the glass behind him.
Emily was running a finger over one of the Arithmancy charts pinned to the wall when he came out. She glanced over. "Ready, hon?"
"Hush." Harry tossed a long, shimmering piece of silver fabric his way. "The elves have already gone ahead."
"Ah. Yes." Severus held up the Invisibility Cloak, inspecting it from every angle. "Dobby knows the way."
"Hmm. I reckon so." Harry folded his arms around his chest. His head was bowed; he fidgeted from foot to foot. "Who're we telling how to get there again? I know Sirius and Remus and V--Emily." His eyes darted towards her and dropped again. "Ron and Hermione?"
"So you said. What about Molly and Arthur?"
"I didn't think you were that keen on them."
Severus gave a lopsided shrug. "Neither am I keen on your damnable godfather, but I've agreed to show him the place, haven't I?"
"Yeah, but he's family."
"The Weasleys might as well be."
Harry gave him a curious look but said nothing.
"Hon, we really need to go," Emily said, fishing her wand from her pocket. She flicked it at the trunk in the middle of the floor; it jumped and hovered an inch off the ground. "It's almost a quarter to seven now. The feast won't last that long."
Severus grunted. He strode to the trunk. With a curl forming on his lip, he kicked it. "Should be more," he muttered.
"We'll get you anything else you need, hon--"
"That's not quite what I meant." He glanced up at Harry. "Have you got your Quidditch gear packed?"
"I didn't think I'd--"
"Harry, do as I say." Severus stared at him until Harry shrugged.
"I'll have to have Sirius send it. He took it back to his rooms while you were unconscious."
"Then do that. I shan't have you leave it behind."
"What about your chair?"
"I didn't mention my things, did I?" Severus shook out the cloak and tugged it over his head. The thing brushed the floor around his feet. "Emily?"
She sighed. "Coming. Could you at least take that thing off until we're out of the room?"
"No. That's what coming means. I shall see you presently, Harry?"
Harry shrugged. He nodded, his face still turned to the floor. "See you outside, then."
Severus frowned. Glancing back at Emily, he strode towards Harry and tossed one end of the cloak over him. Harry blinked up at him.
Lifting his maritus' chin on two fingers, Severus murmured, "This is still what you wish to do?"
Harry shook his head. "Haven't got a choice, though, have we?"
They were silent for a moment. Severus' fingers brushed the back of Harry's hand; Harry flinched.
"Sorry," he muttered.
"Nothing to apologise for." Severus blinked down at him. "If you would prefer to have Emily's protection rather than your incompetent godfather's, I'm certain you and I could manage quite well enough together under here--"
"No. No, that's all right. I'll... I'll try and lay low. I've got my story." Harry gave a crooked shrug. "Just hope I won't have to use it."
"As do I. However, if it would take attention from you..." Severus trailed off. He stopped his hand before it could lift to trace the curve of Harry's face.
Harry gave him a crooked smile. He rose on his toes and brushed his lips across Severus' cheek. "Thank you."
Severus said nothing. He ran his hand once over Harry's hair and tugged the cloak until it swung around him and only him. Harry still stood there, so close the silver fabric all but brushed against him. Severus turned and made for the door.
He tapped his foot until Emily opened it and dragged the trunk out. He ducked outside just behind her. The corridor was empty. Severus poked her in the back.
Without even the barest nod, she grabbed the door and locked it. Severus smirked when she added a clause to the incantation that would allow no-one but her to undo the charm. She grabbed the floating trunk and dragged it towards the stairs leading out of the dungeons, her shoes clacking on the stone floor.
Halfway down the staircase, a voice called behind them, "Professor Vector! Wait!"
Severus flinched. Emily stiffened. Turning, she grinned, sidestepping Severus so she came around him, pulling the trunk behind. "What are you doing here, Graham? I thought you were supposed to be at the feast."
"Had to go to the toilet."
Severus glanced back to find Graham Pritchard trotting up the steps. His prefect's badge shone in the torchlight, and his sandy hair looked like it had just been combed. He gave Emily a smile that would have put Gilderoy Lockhart to shame. Motioning to the trunk, he asked, "Would you like me to get that?"
"No, thank you. I've got it. You ought to hurry along back, you know. You don't want to be missed."
"Oh, nobody cares. I'm just a prefect." He pushed a bit of hair out of his eyes. "A bit of a shock about Professor Snape, wasn't it?"
"What do you mean?"
"You didn't read the paper this morning? He tried to kill Harry Potter. Turns out he's still loyal to You-Know-Who."
Severus ground his teeth. He fixed a lethal glare on the idiot child. Emily shifted from foot to foot.
"He did? I'll have to check the staff room later and see if there's one about. Thank you."
"Only trying to take care of my favourite Head of House." Pritchard cast his eyes downward; he took a step forward. "You know, Professor, it's awfully dangerous for you to be going out with that nutter on the loose. I heard that someone saw him sneaking across the grounds this afternoon."
Severus cursed to himself. Bugger it! Why did you have to come back? Why did you have to leave in the first place?
"I'm sure I can take care of myself, Graham. I've been at this 'magic' business a long time."
"Can't have been that long."
Emily folded her arms. "Longer than you've been alive."
"Well, you know, there's something to be said for youth. It wouldn't hurt for you to have someone at your back."
"I'm sure one of the other professors will be happy to escort me if it comes to it."
Graham shrugged. "Why bother when I'm already here?" He took another step forward. Emily jumped back. Her heel landed on the edge of the cloak before Severus could get out of the way. He tugged on it as much as he dared, but she didn't move.
"Mister Pritchard, return to the feast," Emily snapped, a little out of breath.
"But I'm only trying to look out for you, Professor." His hand darted out to pluck a bit of lint from her sleeve. "He's dangerous."
"Mister Pritchard, return to the feast at once, or else I'll have to take points." Emily's hand moved for her wand. So did Severus'.
"Is everything all right?"
Severus released a breath as Emily whirled and Pritchard took a step back. He grabbed the cloak before Emily could wrench it loose.
"Thank you, Mister and Mrs. Lupin," he mouthed, as Pritchard said, "No, Professor. Only seeing if Professor Vector needed help."
"Ah, all right. I'll take over from here, then, if that's all right with you."
Pritchard's mouth twitched, but he swept on up the stairs. Severus watched him over his shoulder, noted Lupin doing the same. Only when the boy was out of sight did Lupin move - and move he did.
"Are you all right?" He stepped down so he was in front of Emily, a step up. He put his hands on her waist. The top of his head still came below hers.
"Fine. He couldn't have done anything to me."
"Doesn't matter." Lupin's gold-flecked eyes glanced up the stairs once more, pinched between his brows. "I'll be keeping an eye on that one," he said, his lip curling the slightest bit. He leaned close.
"Remus, what if somebody's watching?" Emily hissed. Her eyes darted towards Severus two or three times.
Lupin glanced over her shoulder, then back over his. "I don't see anyone." Before Emily could stop him, he pressed his mouth to hers. Severus shuddered.
"I'm standing right here," he muttered between his teeth. He yanked at the cloak once more.
Emily lifted her foot. Lupin's eyes flew wide. He pulled back. "Fuck," formed silently on his lips. "You didn't see that," he said under his breath.
"What are you doing down here, hon?" Emily asked. She still hadn't moved out of that bloody werewolf's grasp; Lupin didn't seem inclined to let go.
"I wanted to make sure you got out okay. Not that much of the feast left. Thought you might need some help."
"Well, now you know. You'd better get back. And I need to go if I'm going to be at my parents' house before they're in bed."
"All right." A smirk flickered on Lupin's mouth. "What time do you think that'll be?"
Lupin sighed. He stepped back, hands falling loose at his sides. "Could I at least get your trunk?"
The corner of Emily's mouth quirked up. "I suppose, if it'll make you feel better."
Lupin grinned. He arched an eyebrow at Severus before darting in to kiss Emily again. "You didn't see that, either," he muttered.
Emily rolled her eyes. "Start walking, fuzzbutt."
"Fuzzbutt?" Lupin shot her a surprised sneer but grabbed the trunk's handle and pulled it along. Severus trotted behind them, smirking and making mental notes regarding the tag on a certain werewolf's Christmas gift (if any).
"You're missing a brilliant feast, mind," Lupin said. "I'll see if the house-elves could save some for you if you want."
"I'm really not in much of a mood to eat, hon." Emily glanced around.
"Hmm. Can't blame you. I only picked, myself."
"You need to eat. There's hardly anything on you."
Lupin shook his head. "Won't help. I burn everything before it can stick. It's part of the curse."
Emily's eyes went wide. She bared an arm, held it out to him. "Bite me, right now."
Lupin laughed. "No."
"Yes. Do it. Otherwise, the moment I hit forty everything is going to go to my hips."
"Is this a bad thing?"
Emily swatted him on the arm. Her cheeks went pink, though, and she dropped her head, grinning. Severus' lip curled; he fought the urge to gag. Hiking up his robes, he gave her a swift, invisible kick in the ankle.
Emily growled. "Or maybe we just ought to shut up until we're behind a good, solid door."
Lupin looked at her. "Why?"
Severus kicked him, too.
"Oh. I see what you mean." Lupin glanced back in Severus' general direction and arched an eyebrow. "I'm going to get you for that," he muttered.
"Go ahead and try, fuzzbutt."
Emily laughed. Her hand flew to her mouth. A faint flush rose in Lupin's face.
Severus gave a silent sigh. Brilliant, all we need now is for him to start howling outside her window.
Much to the benefit of his pancreas, the pair of them did fall quiet. The pair of gargoyles guarding the last curve in the stairwell coughed. Lupin rubbed one on top of its granite head; the other whined until Emily did the same. Their stone wings perked up, and they grinned. Severus stifled a snort as they came up on the ground floor landing. A few voices echoed.
"Oh, fuck," Emily whispered.
"... Both of you, just stay quiet, all right?" Black's harsh whisper carried on the stones.
"This is a sensitive situation."
"We already told you," Harry said, much more quietly than his godfather, "I don't know where he is, and I don't want to know. You try having someone you thought you could trust try to kill you and see how much you want to see him."
"I don't believe that."
"I'll see you in my office, Mister Burton."
"Wylie, just believe me, okay? Please? All I want is to get out of here."
Lupin and Emily paused. They glanced at each other. Lupin's hand tightened on the trunk. Severus closed his eyes for a long moment until he heard their footsteps begin to move away. He caught up in a few quick steps. The words were an obvious lie, but they still ripped something loose from his chest.
Lupin and Emily stopped inside a doorway, peeking out. Severus leaned against the wall behind them, his head down and his arms wrapped around his chest. The coolness of the wall seeped through the cloak and into his forehead.
"Actually, I heard from Sally Silverman that she saw him sneaking across the grounds earlier," came a fourth voice.
"Shut up, Dennis."
"No, you shut up, Wylie. After what happened to my brother--"
"Mister Burton, Mister Creevey, I expect both of you to return to the feast right now," Black ordered. "If I find out either of you have spoken a word of this to anyone, I will personally see you both expelled."
"Yes, Professor," Creevey mumbled. Burton snorted.
"This is a load of bollocks."
"Fifty points from Gryffindor, Burton, and report to my office tomorrow after dinner for your detention."
"That's not fair."
"Care to make it a hundred points and a week's detention?"
"Wow, Harry, I can see why you hooked up with that psycho. He's just like your godfather."
There was a moment of silence. Black's voice came clipped and soft. "Go to the headmistress' office, Burton. Congratulations on losing two hundred points."
"Get out of here, Wylie, or I'll break your face." Harry's voice was just as soft, far more deep and silken than normal. He sounded more than a little bit like Severus.
"Come on," Creevey said. "Stop bothering him. He's got enough to worry about with Snape on the loose."
"Didn't stop him from--" A low slap cut Burton off, although the sentence continued, muffled. A moment later, Creevey marched him past the doorway and up the stairs, a hand over Burton's mouth.
"Oh, Hell," Lupin muttered.
"I'll see your 'oh, Hell', and raise you a 'shit'." Emily glanced around. She ducked out from behind Lupin. Lupin followed. Severus hung back a moment, trying to make the frigid stones draw enough heat from his body to leave him numb. He crossed his arms over his chest like a corpse and crept across the entrance hall with all the careful stealth of a cat in the snow.
"What are you two doing here?" Emily asked, a suitable note of surprise in her voice.
"I've got to take Harry someplace safe. He's afraid that so-called 'husband' of his is going to try to finish the job."
Severus gritted his teeth. He glanced up to find Black gripping Harry by the shoulders. Harry's skin was grey, his arms wrapped around himself, his impertinent hair falling over his glasses. His eyes had sunk into the shadows beneath them; they darted up for a moment to scan the hall.
"Want a couple of escorts out?" Lupin asked. "I was just helping Emily with her trunk. We have to go to the gates anyway."
"All right." Black glanced around.
"Have you seen him?" Harry asked in a soft voice.
"No." Lupin shook his head. From the corner of his eye, Severus saw him mouth, "He's here."
Harry's eyes closed in what looked like relief. "Good." A long breath escaped his mouth in a shuddering go. "Can we get out of here? Only, I don't much want to hang around. You know, just in case."
"Sounds like a good idea to me." Black pursed his mouth. He motioned towards the door with his head. "I've got a carriage waiting if you two want to come with. There ought to be room for everything."
It took a few moments to choreograph the lot of them outside. Severus ducked through the door after Harry and before Emily. He leaned against the wall of the granite enclave. His hand crept towards a tense spot in the middle of his chest.
Black opened the door to the horseless carriage sitting just at the bottom of the steps. "Get in, Harry. I'll get this trunk sorted."
"All right." Harry glanced around before he climbed in. Severus followed. He crouched, his head still brushing the ceiling, as close to Harry as he dared get. Harry huddled in his seat, staring out the window through Severus' chest.
"I'm here," Severus murmured. A loud scraping noise came from the ceiling; the carriage rocked.
A soft, sweet smile quirked across Harry's lips. He said nothing, but the smile didn't fade. Severus slid down to the floor, muttering to himself in his head about the last time the carriages had been swept. He rubbed his hand over his chest, took a deep breath, and closed his eyes to try to ignore the inevitable.
Somebody trod on his foot. "Sorry," Lupin muttered. A moment later, his knees pressed up against Severus' left arm. Severus glanced up in time to see Emily fold herself into the seat next to Lupin. They sat a few inches apart. He arched an eyebrow, though, at the way their hands fell on the padded leather surface, almost touching yet never quite doing so. He frowned; through the cloak he could feel the warmth of Harry's body, but not the solidness of his flesh.
The carriage rocked when Black fell into his seat next to Harry. He slammed the door, banged on the ceiling, and shouted, "Gates!"
Severus' stomach lurched with the rest of the contraption when it jerked to a plodding start. He shivered.
"You're going to be fine, you know," Black said in a soft voice. He laid a hand on Harry's shoulder. Harry flinched. To his credit, though, he sat in a quivering ball for several seconds before he pulled away.
"I know." He pushed his glasses up his nose. "Only, it's a little bit scary, you know?"
"Yeah, my brother was scared when he moved out of the house, too." Emily tugged at a bit of her robe. "Well, my parents kicked him out, actually. Caught him and his boyfriend, erm, well, it took a while before they'd sit on the couch again." The corner of her mouth twitched.
"Somehow I don't think too much of that's going to happen where we're going," Harry said in a weak, low voice. Black's brow knit, and he dropped his head. His shovel-like hands fell in his lap, useless.
Lupin glanced between the two of them. "Is there something I ought to know here?"
"No," Severus said as Harry shook his head and Black grunted.
For a long, silent moment, Lupin's gold-flecked eyes focused on Harry. "All right," he murmured. "Are you sure?"
"Positive," Severus snapped.
Harry shrugged. "It's nothing. I'm tired, that's all."
Lupin said nothing, but he gazed at Harry anyway, his brow a bit puckered and his mouth set. Emily glanced back and forth between Harry and Black and where Severus sat. Her eyes had gone round; she looked a bit hurt.
The carriage creaked and rocked all the way to the gates. Nobody spoke much. Lupin kept staring at Harry in worried suspicion, his eyes flickering now and then to Black. One of his hands dropped until it found Severus' shoulder. He squeezed once and let go before Severus could shake him off. Emily and Black stared out the window. Harry did the same, the other way. In the shadows, Severus slipped a hand from beneath the cloak. He nudged Harry's knee; a bit of the tension in his chest relaxed when Harry brushed three fingers across the back of his sallow knuckles.
"Put that up," Black snapped. "We're almost there."
With a soft snarl, Severus yanked his hand back under the cloak. "Am I not allowed the slightest modicum of comfort before walking into the mouth of Hell?"
"Not if it's only going to get you locked up."
"I'd have thought you'd want to see me locked up."
"That's because you don't know me half as well as you think you do," Black muttered under his breath.
"Both of you hush." Emily plucked off her hat and scratched the back of her head. She tugged a tangle of dark brown corkscrews in front of her face, stared at them with her nose wrinkled, and stuffed her hat back over the helter-skelter mess. "Is there anything I can do for you two?"
"No, thanks," Harry mumbled.
"I shall let you know if I think of anything. Thank you." Severus shifted again. He turned his head to the floor so the cloak fell away from his nostrils. A thin, lingering scent of potions - sharp and biting - saturated the air around him, meshed with the oily smell of the carriage and the traces of Harry in the cloak itself. He closed his eyes. The space behind his eyelids was mercifully black.
Beyond the carriage, the squeal of the gates broke the silence. Severus heard the winged boars perched on top of the side pillars coughing and snorting. One flapped its wings and gave a rusty grunt. Severus gritted his teeth. He gripped his bent knees as the carriage jerked to a halt. The door swung open with a weak whine. Severus dug his nails in as the whole thing shook and Black's shoes landed on the gravel path.
"Staying in here, Moony?"
"No, I don't think so."
"Fuzzbutt," Severus muttered out the side of his mouth.
Lupin kicked him. "Oops! Sorry about that, Severus. Didn't see you there."
"I'll hurt you." For the second time that day, Severus pondered the likelihood of finding a jar of fleas in the near future.
"Quiet, both of you." The carriage rocked again, albeit not as much, as Emily hopped out. "At least it's a nice night."
"I heard it's raining in Nor--where Harry's going," Black said. Something grated across the roof. Severus looked up just in time to see Harry's trunk land outside the door. Emily hovered next to it.
"That's all right," Harry said, his voice distant. "I like the rain."
Black grunted. "Just hope the roof's in order, what?"
"It ought to be," Severus said. "Those spells had held up for nearly a century before I left."
Silence. After a long moment, Black muttered, "Brilliant, that's two roofs gone. Should I check the Malfoy house?"
"Sirius, don't." Harry slid across his seat, arms around himself. "I just want to go home."
"I know. I'm sorry. Moony and I'll get it sorted as soon as we can."
"But what about--"
"Harry, we'll... get it sorted." An unsteady note hung in Black's voice. He fished in his pocket and pulled out a small cocktail umbrella.
Snape snorted. "Been celebrating my departure?" he muttered under his breath.
Black only flashed him a brief glower while he waved his wand over the tiny paper parasol. "Here," he said, handing Harry a closed black umbrella nearly as tall as Harry himself. "You might want this when we get there."
"Oh. Thanks." Harry took it and wrung it between his hands. "Um, what about you?"
Fishing in his pocket again, Black pulled out an entire handful of multi-coloured parasols. "I'm set."
The corner of Harry's mouth twitched in a weak smile for a moment. He opened the umbrella, held it high over his head. It spread out a good four feet or more on either side. "Um, are... is there anything else?"
Lupin shook his head, as did Emily. "Don't think so," Black said. He glanced in Severus' general direction. "Are you coming?"
"Have I got to answer that?"
"You're the only one who knows how to get there."
"Um," Harry said in a meek voice, "I reckon I could find it. If I had to, I mean. Should... should I steer?"
"No." Swallowing, trying to ignore the hollow sensation building in his chest and the desperate screams trying to fill that void, Severus pushed himself out of the carriage. He adjusted the cloak. "Under that blasted thing, I suppose." His voice held the faintest of tremors.
There were a few moments of shifting and shuffling. The umbrella spread easily over Emily and the trunk, and Black, and Harry, although Harry handed it to his godfather and shuffled towards the edge. Severus glanced over in time to see Emily and Lupin exchange small, uncertain smiles. He snorted and swept in.
"I should warn you," he murmured, "that there are wards set up around the property's perimeter. We won't Apparate on the grounds themselves."
"Brilliant," Black muttered. "How long's the walk?"
"Not as long as it shall seem."
"Er," Emily looked up in his direction. "What's that mean?"
Severus said nothing. He glanced around, tugged the cloak until his face was exposed. "Emily, Black, get hold of the trunk." He grasped the umbrella's handle. A bit of sweat broke out on his palm. "Come on, we haven't got all night, here."
"Good luck," Lupin murmured.
Severus grunted. Harry shifted from foot to foot. Black muttered, "Thanks, we'll need it."
There were a few moments of shuffling and scuttling. Emily and Black hoisted the trunk between them. Each of them got hold of the umbrella. Severus bit his lip, willing, begging himself to wake up before he could speak. "On three. One. Two."
"Three," Harry whispered with him.
Rain erupted down on them, clawing at the umbrella with a million tiny fingers. The earth squelched around Severus' feet. "Shite," he hissed. He wrenched one foot, then the other, out of the mud. Wind bit through the Invisibility Cloak. Glancing down, he saw Harry looking around, the same cold wind tugging at his stubborn cowlicks. Severus nudged his hand. "Are you all right?"
"Do I have to answer that?"
"Christ!" Black pulled out his wand. A moment later, another enormous umbrella shielded them from some of the battering wind. It was still too late to stop enough rain from driving through to soak the lot of them to the bone. "Which way?"
"Into the trees. Don't stop, no matter what you may think is happening."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"It means, Black--" Severus' voice was lost for a moment to thunder. "It means that when a Death Eater wishes for something to be warded, those wards shall be the stuff of nightmares."
"You don't have to brag about your work, Snape. Let's go!"
"I'm not bragging." Severus put a foot forward. "And some of these belonged to my grandfather. He wasn't as pleasant as I am."
"What the Hell are you talking about, Severus? Your grandfather wasn't a D--" Emily's voice was lost to the wind and rain.
Severus glanced about, shed the Invisibility Cloak, and threw it over his shoulder as he took his second half-blind step towards the wall of trees. Behind him, he heard rain pounding across the surface of Broad Water, the long lake where he'd swum naked before his brother and the threat of Muggle birdwatchers taught him better.
The first fingers of the wards crept over his skin. Something tried to tickle his brain, make him remember some urgent appointment he'd never made. Just behind him came Harry's footsteps, shuffling through the dead grass and rotting leaves and sucking mud. Behind Harry, Black grunted, and Emily snapped, "Jesus Christ, Sirius! Hold on while I cast a spell!"
"Keep moving!" Severus shouted. Keep walking, mate. One foot in front of the other. That's it. Just keep moving. The monsters can't eat you as long as you don't stop to let them.
"Sev, slow down," Harry called. "You'll hurt yourself."
Severus said nothing, only stared straight ahead. Icy mud soaked through his socks, clung to the bare skin above them. A burst of yellow lightning ripped through the sky; he could have sworn he heard a long-forgotten cry in its echo.
Harry's hand closed around his. Harry tugged, hissing, "Slow down! Your heart!"
"Damn my heart, Mister Potter. Or would you rather return to Hogwarts?" Severus had hardly spoken when the second wave of wards sliced through his mind. His ankles wobbled. A slow, icy edge of irrational fear began to slide across his neck like a razor. Invisible eyes watched him from the woods, pointed teeth gleaming where he couldn't see them. Harry gasped.
"Sev, are you sure...?"
"Positive." In a louder voice, he called, "It's only the wards! Anything you may suffer is deliberate! Keep moving!"
"You say!" Black shouted something at Emily.
"I'm fine!" she called back.
Between the trees, the rain and wind whipped with an intensity that Severus knew wasn't found in nature. He blinked, narrowing his eyes against the needles of water driving into his face. Memories of balmy summer days made arctic between the trees flashed through his head. Damn you, Curtus. Weren't satisfied with controlling humanity, were you?
Before the third line could roll over him like a thousand tons of crushing water, Severus reached back and grabbed Harry's wrist. Harry flinched, tried to yank away. Severus squeezed tighter.
"Sev--ow, ow, Sev, let go of me, please."
"No." Severus closed his eyes. His chest throbbed; it flared as the third wall crushed him. Behind his closed eyes, images swarmed and swamped his brain: lightning blazing from the sky to pierce his Harry, Ruby falling over the Weasley landing and hitting the stairs with a wet thud, Emily being torn to ribbons by an enraged werewolf. He faltered. Trembling down to his fingertips, Severus crushed Harry's wrist in his hand and pressed on.
"Stop," Harry croaked. "Sev, stop, please. Your heart--"
"Sev!" Harry yanked, dug his heels in. Severus pulled; Harry fell to his knees, the mud making a sodden sucking sound around his legs. Harry screamed, "If you keep going, you're going to die!"
"I am not!" Severus wrenched Harry again, dragged him across the slick mud. Air raked at his throat, caught in the burning spot in the centre of his chest. "Get up and walk! All of you, keep walking!" The wind howled around him. Severus jerked Harry once more. His feet lost traction and he toppled into the muck. Pushing himself up, he shrieked, "Keep moving!"
"Remus!" Emily screamed. The sound of footsteps tearing through the mud carried behind them. A low, canine growl cut beneath a roll of thunder. A few moments later, something wet and squelching slogged towards them. "Let go of me, you stupid mutt! He's gotten into Corbin's silver nitrate!"
Severus said nothing, only grunted as he dragged Harry through the mud. The air was thick in his nose, drawing tight the contents of his rib cage. He gulped for oxygen. "Harry, get up and walk."
"If you don't, then we will have to worry about my fucking heart! Up! Move! We're almost through!"
Harry shook in Severus' grip. His heavy, wet snorts didn't quite get lost in the yowling winds. However, with a great lurch he got more or less to his feet. He slogged through, sinking to the ankle in Severus' footprints. Emily's screams had died to a low, steady sob, barely audible over the storm. Severus panted, eyes narrowed in cold determination. He stared straight ahead. Only a few steps away spread a wide swathe of thick, dead grass. His nails dug into the flesh of Harry's wrist.
A last, razor-thin line of wards bore down on him and drove the oxygen from his blood. The unseen eyes stared out at him once again, every last one of them ice and indigo. He whimpered, shouldered forward. Harry made a choking sound. He fell to his knees. Sucking sounds came from the ground as he dragged himself through.
Severus' own legs faltered. He took another step, another, tried to move his feet one last time. They wouldn't budge. He wavered, teetering at the grass line. All around, the eyes stared, the perfect, shining smiles glittered at him. Something cold and tickling started inching its way up his leg. A long tremble started in his knees and shot upwards. He started to turn, to run away, to try to find someplace to hide from the Destroyer.
Something the size of a small bear knocked him down. He landed on his belly. The earth went squish as he hit, the soft whisper of rain on waist-high grass meshing with Harry's low sobs next to him. Before Severus could move, Harry scurried to hide under his arm.
"Mum..." he whimpered. "Dad..."
The bear-like beast backed out of the trees, dragging Emily. Her hat was gone, and her hair was plastered to her head. She sobbed into her arms crossed over her face. Black dropped her and sprang into human form once again. He pulled his wand. A few low murmurs and the trunk, Emily's hat, and the Invisibility Cloak (which Severus didn't remember losing) slithered out of the woods. The umbrellas rolled out a few seconds later, one filled with thin mud.
Staring down at Severus with wild eyes, Black growled, "There had fucking well better be another way out."
Severus didn't answer. He panted, shaking. One long arm came to rest around Harry's lurching shoulders.
"You bastard," Emily gasped. "You utter bastard, Severus Snape. Why didn't you fucking tell me that was going to happen?"
"It wouldn't have helped."
"Yes, it would have! My god." She huddled in on herself, arms over her head and face buried in her knees. "I hate you!"
"Don't say that, Emily." Severus closed his eyes, felt the rain dotting his face, felt Harry sobbing into his side. "I'm sorry."
"He's right, it wouldn't have helped." Black sat down hard. "He tried to run, too." He narrowed his eyes at Severus. "Thanks for reminding me what Azkaban's like, you son of a bitch."
"You're fucking welcome." Severus shot Black his own glare, moved a hand to stroke Harry's sodden, mud-caked hair. "Shh, it's not real," he murmured. "You're all right."
"I heard my mum," Harry whispered.
"I'm sorry." Severus laced his fingers through Harry's hair, pressed a soft kiss to his forehead. "There wasn't any other way."
"You could have--"
"I know, I could have told you. Believe me, foreknowledge of horrors to come only makes them worse when they arrive."
Harry's rimmed green eyes lifted, stared at him, almost invisible in the night. A shard of lightning crackled across the sky, lit every tiny line and every speck of mud on his drawn face. Severus stared back, mouth pursed, chest caving in with strain and guilt. He let go and pushed himself to his feet.
"Start moving. We'll catch our deaths out here."
"Can we leave you then?" Emily snapped. She stared up at him, brows pinched. Another crack of lightning revealed the rings of white around her irises.
"I said I was sorry. Or would you have rather lost your room another three days while I took down the wards?"
"Actually, I would have." She got up, wrenching her hands away when Black tried to help her up. She stood, shivering, arms wrapped around her chest, glowering at Severus like he'd tried to put a knife through her back.
Severus stared at her a moment longer. He turned on his heel, facing the house but refusing to look up. He'd just taken a step when Black said, "Oh, Hell."
"I know." Severus took another step, glanced up. His stomach turned, and he had to swallow hard at the house that sat before him: its roof had caved in, the remaining edges of thatch scorched and blackened. Most of the wall on the upper story had collapsed. Great swathes of black marred the white plaster covering the thing. A gigantic limb of the oak tree towering over the house had crushed the side facing away from the sea. "It's only an illusion."
"Now, wait just a fucking minute, Snape--"
"Black, for once in your life, shut up and listen." Severus strained for air, strained to keep his fingers from puncturing the skin beneath his crossed arms. "I had no intentions, before this afternoon, of ever setting foot on this property again. Likewise, I had no desire to see anyone else do the same. I hate this place. Whatever you might have suffered back there, believe me, I have experienced a thousand times worse every night for twenty years. Every single speck of that goes back to this house, and, yet, here I am." He glanced back. "I believe it was you who said you would happily go back to Azkaban for Harry's good?"
"You can hardly call that," Black stabbed a finger at the woods, "The same thing! You know what I meant, you son of a bitch."
"You're welcome to go back to Hogwarts if you wish."
Black growled. "Not fucking likely. I want to make sure my godson's not going to be ripped to shreds the moment he sets foot in there." He grabbed the trunk. "Emily? You coming?"
"I don't know." Her eyes narrowed, fixed on the house. She shivered.
"Emily, come inside," Severus said in a soft voice. "You'll only make yourself sick out here."
"Tell me how to get out of here first."
"So I can leave if I want to. If I have to go back through that mess, I'll wait until you've got the wards down. Then I'll never speak to you again."
They stared at each other. Severus pursed his mouth, dropped his head. "You can Disapparate."
He hit the mud a half a second later. His hands flew to his face, shielding it from the fists raining down.
"YOU BASTARD! YOU FUCKING SON OF A BITCH! YOU MADE ME WALK THROUGH THAT? WAS THAT FUNNY? WAS IT? TELL ME BEFORE I RIP YOUR GODDAMNED EYES OUT!"
Black wrenched her away, hoisting her into the air. Emily thrashed, clawing for him, flecks of mud flying from her robe. "Stop it!" Black hissed.
"Shut up!" She elbowed him in the gut. Black grunted, but didn't drop her. "Let go of me, Sirius. I'm going to get an answer out of him if it's the last thing he does!"
"Stop it!" Harry scrabbled between the two of them. He crouched, arms flung wide. "He didn't say you could Apparate in, did he? I wouldn't want to have to walk out through those things. Just because nobody can get in doesn't mean you can't get out!"
Severus grunted. He pushed himself up, staring at Emily still straining in Black's grasp. "Thank you, Mister Potter. That does seem to be the case."
"I hate you," Emily growled.
"No, you're not! Let go of me, Sirius!" She tipped forward, squirming and trying to hook a foot behind his ankle. Black only wound her arms behind her back, shifting until she hung limp in his grasp.
"Can one of you get the trunk?" he asked.
"I can walk."
"Are you going to try to attack Severus again?" Black didn't loosen his grasp.
Emily said nothing. After a long moment, she shook her head. She dragged her muddy sleeve across her nose.
Giving Emily a wary glance, Harry grabbed the trunk. It hovered in the grass. He muttered another spell over it and the water sluicing across the lid ran off, new drops bouncing against an invisible dome covering the whole thing. He glanced at Severus, motioned towards the house with his head; a moment later, his footsteps squelched across the sodden ground.
Severus gathered up the Invisibility Cloak and Emily's hat. He set off just behind Harry. Two more sets of footsteps followed him. Severus gazed out towards the wall of brambles that had grown up between the house and the sea. He shivered as freezing wind swept into his face and bit through his clothing. He stepped up his pace.
"D'you think the elves got through all right?" Harry asked.
"They ought to have. They were under orders."
"Dobby doesn't always take orders like the other elves, though. He even gets paid."
"Dobby has faced two layers of those wards before. I expect he had some idea of what was to come."
"You just said that wouldn't help," Harry said quietly.
"Hmm." Severus slogged on through the grass. "We shall see, then, shan't we?"
The red door, blistered by a fire that had never happened, stood before him sooner than he'd have liked. He stood there, staring at it. Somewhere in his head, he counted the blisters. A fire of a different sort started behind his eyes. Only Harry's fleeting touch on his elbow stopped him from turning and bolting to the comfort of the wards.
"Go on," Harry said. "It's freezing."
Severus ground his teeth. A solid lump formed halfway down his oesophagus. Another burst of lightning skittering through the clouds lit Harry's chattering teeth and blue lips. Severus grasped the doorknob.
"I hope you appreciate what I've done here, Mister Potter." Before Harry could answer, he tapped the knob with his wand and gave it a sharp turn to the left. The door squeaked. A wall of stale, stuffy, warm air flooded out over his face.
It took a moment for Severus' eyes to focus. They did so first on the grandfather clock. It stood silent, set just before half four. A crust of dust lay on most of its cobwebbed frame. His eyes fell to the floor. Its wood was dull but clean. He grunted. "Your elves managed then?"
"Shut up, Snape," Black growled from behind. "I'm freezing my arse off out here."
"You're welcome to step inside then. God knows I'd rather you than me."
"Fine." Black shouldered him out of the way with more gentleness than Severus was willing to admit and barged inside. Emily tailed him, rubbing her arms. Their robes were plastered to their skins, sopping and coated with mud. Black's in particular outlined certain features Severus might have given notice had they been on anyone else and in any other setting. Severus arched an eyebrow and gave a small snort of disgust.
"I've seen enough of your physique to last me the rest of my life, Black."
Black growled, but flicked his wand. The mud and rain vanished. A moment later, Emily was in a similar state; her hair stood up like a poodle's. She still cast him cold, sullen glances.
"Is there anything else you need me for?" she muttered.
Severus set his jaw. Moral support, perhaps? "Can you think of anything?"
Slowly, Emily shook her head. She shuffled out the door. A hand grabbed the front of Severus' robes and jerked him close. She hissed in his ear, "What else haven't you told me?"
"Only things I've seldom had a desire to tell anyone else."
"Oh, so now I'm lumped with everyone you can't stand? Sirius knows what's going on, and I haven't got the first clue."
"Emily, I haven't even told Harry what's going on."
"Then how does he know?"
Severus suppressed a shudder. "He saw it first-hand."
Emily paused. "I have no idea what you're talking about."
"Ask Irma for a book on Pensieves and Unicorn Blood poisoning. Keep in mind that the effects of the one in question were somewhat enhanced."
Emily gave him a very odd look. "I thought we were better friends than that." She dropped him and stormed out onto the unkempt lawn. The rain matted down her hair once more. Without even stopping to grab her hat, she Disapparated.
Severus rubbed the bridge of his nose. Something in his belly turned to ice. Without looking up, without looking where he was going, he stepped inside and let murky rain pool at his feet. Somehow, as long as he kept his eyes focused just above the floor, only the immediate facts at hand bothered him.
A second later, the mud sticking to his skin disappeared. He looked up at Black, who was flicking his wand at Harry, and glared. A dry, crusty feeling still clung to his skin. "I'm quite capable of casting a charm myself."
Black shrugged. "Thought you might want a little help."
"Too late." Black looked around. "Nice house," he muttered. "Could use some tidying up."
"Hmm." Severus folded his arms. He glanced around the entryway: at the collection of tiny still life paintings signed "Ch. Malfoy", at the stark white walls going brown with age. "You're welcome to it if you wish."
Black arched an eyebrow and closed the door. "Might have to take you up on that."
Harry shivered. "Wonder where Dobby is?" he whispered.
"Probably in the kitchen." Black looked around. "Wherever that is. You two haven't eaten, have you?"
Harry shook his head. "Not really hungry."
Severus only glared. His fingers tensed and curled. It took a bit of effort not to wrap them around the mongrel's throat.
Black cleared his throat. He grabbed the trunk's handle. "Um, where should I put this?"
"How in Hell should I know? Not a bedroom in this place I'd set foot in if I had the choice."
Harry stiffened. He stared at Severus. "I... all...?"
Severus folded his arms. He said nothing.
A soft squeak just below waist level made him glance down. Dobby, who hadn't changed to any noticeable degree in twenty years (apart from the addition of jumper, shorts, and a stocking cap on each ear), peeked around the doorway at the end of the hall. He smiled at Harry, a shaky smile, before looking at Severus. "M-Master Severus, sir?"
"S-sir, Dobby and Sissy are making up your father's room. Is this being all right?"
Severus' eye twitched. He swept past the damnable elf and made a sharp right turn out of the entryway. "Are you coming or not?" he snapped from the stairs.
Black's heavy footsteps and Harry's shuffling ones followed. Harry caught up with him on the stairs. He did a fair job of tucking himself under Severus' arm without actually making contact.
All the way up the staircase, the eyes of Snapes long dead followed them: grand wedding portraits surrounded by tiny satellites of each couple's children. Each bore a tiny brass plaque at the bottom of the frame. They stuck out on the dull plaster walls, carved and gilded frames growing plainer and plainer the higher they went. Near the top the last paintings were only framed in simple wood or, from Gran and Curtus on, black enamelled slats. Severus glanced at each of the silent pictures. He nodded to Gran, ignoring Curtus' cold, mismatched stare. Eversor's photograph smiled at him; Severus all but ran for the landing.
Harry glanced back. He still hung at Severus' side. His eyes darted down the rows, though. "Wow," he muttered.
"Did any of you not get the nose?"
Severus shot him a look. "Only the ones that were disowned."
"Oh." Harry hunched. "That's right. Canonicus' brother, right?"
"Hmm. So glad to see you've paid me some attention in the last year and a half." Severus swept down the corridor. Oak doors stood within the pallid walls. They waited, silent predators waiting to gape and devour him. Severus closed his eyes for a moment, telling himself the only predators they might hide were long dead.
At the far end, he laid his hand on a brass knob. Its patina of dust had been cleared away. Harry came up behind him, resting a hand on his elbow.
"Go on. I won't let anything happen to you."
A smile twitched at the corner of Severus' mouth. He stopped himself before he could dive to kiss his Harry. "This is one of the few rooms in which Eversor didn't catch me."
Harry cocked his head. "Why don't you want to go in, then?"
"Because this was Perditus' room. I don't expect I need to say more."
"Oh. Not really, no." Harry scratched his nose. He looked around. Severus glanced back at where Black was lurking in the shadows, apparently trying to pretend he didn't exist.
"You're still here, as much as the fact pains both of us."
Black shrugged. "Want me to leave?"
Severus snorted. He pushed the door open; in his head, he snarled at the little voice saying he'd rather not be alone in any way, shape, or form, even at the expense of dealing with his damnable godfather-in-law.
Very little in the room had changed. The bed was the same hulking cedar monstrosity in which Snape had begat Snape since time began. The thought sent a shiver up his spine. He took a hesitant step inside. The lamps had been lit, giving the deep green walls a warm cast. A few paintings hung here and there. Most were the work of great-grandmother Chlamydia. A portrait of a sandy-haired young woman with more than a passing resemblance to Lucius and Draco lifted her head and blinked at them. Her silvery eyes fixed on Severus. She raised a pale eyebrow.
Severus nodded. "Grandmother."
She nodded back, her mouth set and eyes wary. They darted towards Harry, then set on Black. Her lips twitched.
Severus sighed. "Leave him alone, Grandmother. You're dead." He pinched the bridge of his nose. "Ruddy self-portraits."
"What?" Harry looked around. His eyes went wide when he saw where Chlamydia was staring. "Uh, Sirius?"
"What?" Black looked around. His brows lifted when he saw the painting staring at him with a lascivious smirk. "Who in Hell is that?"
Black grimaced. "The Malfoy?"
"What would ever give you that impression?" Severus sneered, wrenching a folded blue blanket from the foot of the white bedspread that was turning yellow with time. He shook it out, gave his great-grandmother a last glower, and hung the blanket over the top of the frame. "She was terribly impressed with herself, like the rest of that fucking line. This was painted when my grandfather was four years old."
"Won't she get upset?" Harry asked. "I mean, being covered up like that."
Severus shrugged. "It doesn't matter to me. None of the portraits can speak, but they seem to hear well enough. If she wants to get angry with me, there's not a great deal she can do about it."
"Why can't they talk?"
Severus turned. He stared at his maritus for a long, silent moment. "Mister Potter," he said in a soft voice, "given the things that have gone on within these walls, would it be prudent for them to talk?"
Harry pursed his mouth. He looked away, shaking his head; a moment later he was on his knees in front of the trunk, picking through robes, shirts, the rest of the salvaged pieces of their life. Of all things, he pulled out the vial of Pepperup Potion that Nadja had sent Severus that spring. With a dejected look, he tossed it between his hands.
They fell silent. Harry sat back and inspected the vial. Severus stared at the floor. After a long minute, Black cleared his throat.
"You two want me to stay tonight? I can find somewhere to kip."
"I'd rather you didn't." Part of Severus argued that not even Eversor would want to tangle with an Azkaban escapee, especially one with a vested interest in Harry (and, if he admitted it to himself - which he didn't - Severus as well). He glanced at his maritus. "Harry? Would you like a guard dog for the night?"
Harry's head snapped up. His eyes flew wide. After a moment he shook his head, still staring at Severus. "No, that's all right. It's, um, it's not as if anyone else is going to walk in, is it?"
"I should certainly hope not."
"I think we'll be okay, Sirius. Thanks anyway. Um, if something happens we can send one of the elves to get you. Don't think Dobby'd mind too much."
"All right." Black shifted from foot to foot. It went well with the note of uncertainty in his voice. He crept over to Severus and leaned in close.
Severus jerked his head away. "What do you want?"
"I just wanted to say," Black muttered, rubbing his swollen nose, "take care of yourselves, all right? I know there's nothing left here that can hurt you, but..."
Black shrugged. "I worry about you two."
"Your concern is sickening, Black."
A dark eyebrow arched. "You know, Severus, after everything you and Harry have told me, I'd have thought you'd be glad someone gives a damn about you without any strings attached."
"Ah, but there are strings, aren't there?"
"Like the ones that restrict my actions around my husband?"
Black looked confused. "What? That's Harry, not me! How's that a string?"
"Ah. Then you'd be happy should I decide to take some burst of anger out on Harry's tender flesh?"
A long, low shudder ran through Black's body. He scowled, his eyes flashing. "Listen, Snape, you can do anything you want to me as long as it means you don't lay a hand on him. At least I can fight back."
"Harry outweighs me by the better part of a stone, Black, and I can tell you that none of it is soft."
Black's cheeks flushed. He swallowed, though, glaring. "Yeah, but I'm not afraid to break your face if I have to."
Severus stared down at his godfather. He licked his dry lips. "I give you my word, I would sooner face my brother again than hurt Harry. Would you like me to write it out for you in blood?"
"Yours or mine?"
"Yours for preference."
They stared at each other. Finally, Black grunted. "Should have gotten me before Sheng patched me up. He says he'll give you another chance, by the way."
"Says he wants to see how many of his cauldrons you blow to bits."
"It all depends. Are there any he can fit inside?"
A smirk twitched at the corner of Black's mouth. "I'll tell him you said that." He held out a hand. "Take good care of my godson."
Severus' lip curled. He stared at the hand given him, lifted his own with a lump of nausea building in his gut. He squeezed as hard as he could, savouring the sensation of phalange and metacarpal sliding beneath the skin. He yelped when Black jerked his arm and hugged him, broad hands beating against his back.
"Let go of me," Severus snarled. He glanced up, saw Harry staring at them in shock.
"No. Sure you're going to be okay tonight?"
"I said, let go of me, Black."
Black pounded him on the back once more. A light chuckle met Severus' ears. He growled.
"I warned you." Before Black could move or Severus could gag, Severus pulled back, grabbed Black by the underside of the chin, and smashed their mouths together. He squeezed his eyes shut. Black gave a choking roar and wrenched away.
"UGH!" he yelled, dragging his sleeve across his open mouth. "You sick son of a bitch!"
"I told you, if you insisted on leaving your body strewn across mine I would kiss you." Severus' face stretched in a cold, nasty smile. He glanced at Harry, who looked like a stunned cat. "I assure you, he means nothing to me."
"Uh-huh," Harry squeaked.
Black dragged his sleeve across his tongue once more. He'd gone purple, and his shoulders rose and fell with every hard breath. "Oh, god. I think I'm going to be sick." He staggered towards the door. "Harry, I want to talk to you. Out in the hall?"
"Um, all right." Harry cast Severus one more short, slack-jawed look and followed his cur out the door. It closed behind them.
Severus smirked. He glanced around, alone in his father's room; the smirk faded. He took a deep breath, tried to let it out without choking. Wrapping his arms around himself, he hurried towards the bed and sat down before his jumping heart could stop him.
He sat in silence. The muffled, unintelligible voices from the other side of the door more or less took the place of active thought. A few more of Chlamydia's paintings hung on the walls. They were mainly still life pieces, but the rest of the portraits - relatives long dead and friends he wouldn't have liked - watched him with curious eyes. Severus hugged himself under their scrutiny; he leaned forward and rested his forehead on his knees.
The door opened with only a tiny squeak. Harry crept in, his shoes making a muffled sound on the woven rugs. Severus didn't glance up, not even when the bed dipped next to him.
"Are you all right?"
"Perfectly. I relish the prospect of sleeping in my father's bed."
Gentle fingers touched the ridge of spine between his shoulder blades. "Take your robe off?"
Severus' head snapped up. "Why in god's name would I do that?"
Harry shrugged. He didn't quite look up, shaking his head. "Thought I might give you a backrub, that's all. Try, anyway."
Severus blinked at him. Without taking his eyes off Harry, he got to his feet and reached back to fiddle with the damnable buttons along the back of his neck. "I'm sorry I kissed your godfather. I expect we're even now."
Harry shook his head. "Actually, I thought it was pretty funny. Wasn't really the same thing."
"Indeed, it wasn't." The buttons fell free of their holes. Severus tugged the robe over his head, dropped it to the floor at his feet. Cool air tickled his legs and tried to trickle its way into his shorts. "I take it you shan't be offended if I don't strip entirely."
"No, that's all right. Only going to do your back right now."
Severus grunted. He wrenched off the "Head of Slytherin, 1999-2000" shirt he'd nicked from Emily's drawers and dropped it as well. Miniscule draughts kissed his naked chest, his back, the tops of his shoulders. A light shudder went through him. He twitched, starting for his robe to yank it back where it ought to be. A glimpse of Harry's eyes darting over his torso stopped him.
"You might want to take your shoes off," Harry said softly.
"Hmm." Without bothering to untie them, Severus squirmed his ankles and stepped on his heels until the things lay tangled with the robe and shirt. His socks followed in a similar fashion. Harry's eyes stayed on him every moment. Severus snorted. "One might almost think you enjoyed the view."
"Then you need to have your eyes checked. Or your sense of aesthetics." Severus slid onto the bed, trying not to touch it even when his naked chest came to rest on the cotton spread. He rested his chin on his folded hands, glanced back to find Harry still staring at him through his fringe. "Yes?"
"Hmm." Severus set his mouth in a frown. From behind him came the sound of worn green trainers hitting the floor. "As I've said before, I'm old and ugly and not worth your time."
"I think you are. Worth my time, I mean."
"Which doesn't change the rest."
Harry scooted across the bed. He came to rest cross-legged at Severus' side, just short of touching him. His hand fell between Severus' shoulder blades; Severus arched into the touch.
"You're only forty-one," Harry said.
"And you're nineteen."
"When I'm twenty-two, you'll only be twice my age."
"Yes, only. If either of us lives that long."
The hand stroking his spine faltered. "Don't say that."
"Tonight, Mister Potter, I'll say anything I damned well please."
"Because." Harry gave a lopsided shrug. "I want us to live forever. I know it sounds stupid, but I don't want to be away from you again. Ever."
"'Brevis tui tempus est,' Mister Potter."
"I know." Harry ran his hand along Severus' shoulder blade. "Sev?"
"Um, shouldn't that be, 'Brevis tuus tempus est'?"
The corner of Severus' mouth twitched before he could stop it. He barely caught himself before he could sit up and crush his mouth to his maritus'. "Quite. Unfortunately, some of my ancestors were less adept at Latin than, say, the average flobberworm."
Harry giggled. His free hand flew to his mouth to block the sound. "Greasy bastard."
"And you're not ugly. Not really."
Severus arched an eyebrow. "Elaborate on this?"
Harry shrugged. His fingers moved from rubbing to scratching. "Well, you're no oil painting. Unless you maybe mean one of those weird modern ones--"
Harry blinked. "I know you're ugly. I mean..." His finger traced the bridge of Severus' nose. "You've got this, and you don't weigh nearly enough, and you don't match. Nobody's supposed to have black eyes and be as pale as you, right? But I think you're lovely." A small smile crossed his mouth. "Completely lovely."
Severus stared up at him for a long moment. He snorted. "And you, Mister Potter, are a hopeless romantic in dire need of corrective eye surgery."
"No, I've just seen more of you than most people have." Harry's brows drew together in the middle and he grinned a wicked little grin. "I mean how many people in the last twenty years have even seen you without a shirt on?"
Severus pursed his mouth. He stared at the headboard. "Nine of which I know, not counting various medical personnel."
"Who were they?"
"You, of course. That sodding werewolf of yours. He walked in on me one morning while I was brushing my teeth."
Harry chuckled. "What about Sirius?"
"Thankfully, no. Albus did once."
"Hmm." Severus' mouth twisted. "I got drunk one night the summer before my second year teaching, and he had to put me to bed. I don't remember much of it, but I apparently told him I was in love with him and tried to kiss him."
"Oh." Harry's hand twitched. He started scratching harder. "You'd have been, what, twenty-three?"
"And he was...?"
"Around a hundred and forty." Severus shot Harry a look. "Don't even say it. That was a completely different situation."
"Uh-huh. I don't think you can use that 'I'm too old' excuse on me anymore, you know."
"Hmph. Didn't shag Albus into the floor. You're allowed to flay more than one spot, you know."
"Sorry." Harry didn't bother to hide the smile in his voice as he dragged his nails over the majority of Severus' back. Severus' eyes closed; he snapped them open.
"Who were the others?" Harry asked.
"Lucius and Narcissa Malfoy."
Harry faltered. "S-sorry?"
"You remember the day you came to my office to tell me you wouldn't be in and proceeded to spend most of the night in my bed?"
"The night before, they'd taken me to their home after I was subjected to the Cruciatus Curse. I woke up in their bed. I'll admit, it was one of the more distinctly miserable experiences of my adult life."
"Oh. Um, I didn't know. I thought you'd...you'd gone back to Hogwarts. It's... They didn't...?"
"I don't believe so, no. Narcissa wouldn't lay a finger on me. She left that to other people. Lucius, despite his flaws, seemed to hold some degree of respect for me throughout his life. In his own special way."
"Why? Unless you forced them to take me in that night."
"Hush." Harry's hand came to rest, flat against Severus' skin. "What d'you mean, she left that to other people?"
"She..." Severus trailed off. He paused a long moment before saying, "Narcissa's ideas were few and far between but when they struck they were brutal. She masterminded my brother's fate and mine as well. The woman was every bit as dangerous as that Skeeter cow is trying to paint me."
"That bitch." Harry slipped an arm around him. "She knew, didn't she?"
"It was why she chose that particular torture for Eversor." Severus opened his mouth with a small smack. "She later proceeded to hold it against me for the rest of her life. I don't know why, and I doubt I ever will, but I suspect it had to do with the fact that I killed the monster before she'd finished having her fun. Although, for all I know, if I hadn't stormed out when I did she might have let them turn to me next."
"I wish I'd been the one to kill her."
Turning his head, Severus looked up at Harry with a faint scowl. "She's dead, Mister Potter. That fact alone is enough for me."
Harry frowned. He went back to stroking Severus' back, though. "What about the rest? Or do I want to know?"
Severus shifted, settled with his mouth behind his hands. "Random wizards. I met them in pubs, one in a shop, used them exactly as they used me, and never saw them again. I don't even recall always knowing their names."
"You didn't think I was completely celibate between the Death Eaters and you, did you?"
"Hadn't really thought about it," Harry muttered. He squirmed, tucking his legs underneath himself. "Wh-when...?"
"Five years before you. It was over Christmas holidays, and the bastard made me pay for the room. Wouldn't even bother with a sheath until I threatened to hex him."
Harry swallowed. A dull glaze took his eyes. "You never made me..."
"Yes, but you weren't an untraceable, anonymous frog I picked up in Torquay, were you?" Severus glanced up at him. "Beginning to understand a bit more why you deserve better?"
Harry shook his head. It was stilted, slow and jerky but it never faltered. "I just don't understand why. I mean, you should have had someone who at least liked you."
"Who would you have suggested, then? That intolerable fop of a Defence Against the Dark Arts instructor? He's part veela, you know. That alone would have been enough to make me lose interest."
"No," Harry whispered. He drew his hand back, cradled it in his lap. "Only, you could have found someone..."
"Someone who would have kept my bed warm until you emerged from the far side of puberty?"
Harry blushed. He looked away.
"I did what I felt was necessary." Severus snorted and buried his face in his folded hands. "You aren't old enough to understand what it's like, Harry. For three years, I barely went even two weeks without sneaking off school grounds to meet Lucius or... somebody else. After I finished school, it was seldom more than a night." He licked his lips. "I have always been open for anyone who wanted me enough to ask. I'm not strong enough to face life without another man's touch."
Air rasped in Harry's throat. Every quick, sharp sound drew a narrow blade across the flesh below Severus' shoulder blades. It only broke for Harry to swallow, hard. "So what does that mean?"
"It means you've married a whore."
"Don't say that."
"But I am."
"Don't say that, Severus!"
Flecks of spittle cooled on Severus' back. He glanced sidelong. Harry had dug his fingers into his knees. White foam hung at the corners of his mouth. Even his eyes twitched, flashes of white and impossible green in the dim, warm light of the room. "I'm sorry," he spat. "I don't know what's wrong with me, but if I could fix it I would have by now. Do you think I'm happy like this?"
Severus pressed his face against his hands once more and shook his head.
"Last night was because you couldn't take it anymore, wasn't it?"
After a long moment, Severus nodded.
"Did it help?"
"Less than I would have liked."
"Fine." Harry slid further away. The bed dipped perpendicular to Severus, leaving Harry's head on a pillow. "If you need to find someone, go ahead. Only, don't tell me when you do."
"I just said don't tell me."
"I have already told you I would no more cheat on you than you would on me, no matter the situation between us."
"But I did." The mattress rocked, and Severus felt hot breath on his ear. "If he hadn't stopped me, I would have buggered William into the wall."
Severus stiffened. A heavy chill began to sink into his muscles. "I thought you said you kissed him because he gave you a packet of Floo powder."
"Well, I'd have done a Hell of a lot more than kiss him. At least I would have had one last round before I saw what was in your head!"
Severus said nothing. His fingers curled into the bedcovers as a bubble of acid rose in his throat.
"Well? Aren't you going to say anything?"
Severus licked his lips. "What is there to say?"
"Do you even care?"
"That you lied to me? Yes."
"So why don't you punish me for it? If I'm just going to run off and shag someone because I feel like it--"
"Doesn't mean I have either the right or the inclination to do the same. I have suffered celibacy before--"
"Goddammit, Severus! I'm not going to make you suffer because I've lost my mind." Harry gave a bitter snort. "That's a lie, isn't it?"
"I would suffer anything--"
"Don't give me that. You've just all but said you need sex to survive. I'm sure as Hell not giving you any."
"You just said it wasn't good enough."
Severus glanced up. "I said it helped less than I would have liked. That is not the same as a disappointment."
"I tried to rip your face off."
"I'd rather have my face ripped off than resort to anyone else."
"Oh, so I'm a resort now?" Harry gave a harsh sigh and gripped his face. "I'm sorry. That's not what I meant. I'm... God, Sev, I love you. Do you honestly think I want to torture you just so I can say you're mine and mine alone? I'm trying. I don't know if I can ever get over this, though."
"It's not your fault you were raped," Severus said in a small voice. He tensed at the hitch in Harry's breathing.
"Not this again. I've told you, I wasn't raped. A Pensieve can't rape you."
"A corrupted one can."
"That... I didn't read anything about that in all the books I found. I got caught in a bad Pensieve, and I can't fucking cope. End of story. Where's the toilet?"
Without looking, Severus pointed to a dark door in the corner.
"Right. Thanks. I'm going to put my pyjamas on and try to get some sleep, all right? If you're not here when I get back," he shrugged. "Just don't tell me, all right?"
Severus winced. "I don't want anyone else."
"You didn't much want that bloke in Torquay either, but you still shagged him." The bed rocked as Harry rolled off. A minute later, the door to the bath squeaked open and slammed shut.
Severus buried himself under the covers. It was a long time before the bathroom door opened, and Harry slid beneath the blankets on the other side of the bed. Severus only trembled in his chilly little pocket.
It was a long time before he poked his head out and looked to find Harry asleep. He slid over a few scant inches, gave his maritus a kiss, and whispered, "Paenitet sum."
Harry only scowled in his sleep.
Severus tucked the covers around Harry's shoulders. He crawled out of bed, dressed, and carried his shoes down the stairs so as not to wake the paintings.
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