The Last Battlefield
Chapter 22 - The Magician's Circle
"Severus!" Molly waved her wand at the stack of mismatched dishes she'd sent flying when he barged through the door. They shot back together with an enormous CLINK. "You might have knocked! Harry's in--"
"I need to speak with your daughter. Now."
"What's all this about?"
"What d'you think?"
Molly paused. She stared at him, a glint of suspicion in her eyes. After a moment, her taut mouth relaxed. "All right, dear. Go on, have a sit-down. Harry's in the living room if you want to see him, I can talk to Ginny in here."
"Thank you." Severus swept through the kitchen and around to the living room. Harry was sitting on the couch, a book in his lap. His eyes flickered as they ran over the words; they darted up to Severus, away, and straight back.
"H-hi." He leaned forward with a look of awe. "Didn't... didn't expect to see you here."
"Hmm. I've got business." Only giving his maritus an apologetic glance, he perched in the horrible flowered chair.
"What sort of business?"
"The important sort."
"Oh." Harry hunched into himself, lifting his book so that he couldn't possibly read it, although it did an excellent job of hiding his face.
Severus reached into his pocket and fished out the watch. He reached over to nudge Harry's elbow with it; Harry jumped.
"What? Oh. Um, thanks." Taking the thing, a little bit flushed, he muttered, "Didn't know if you'd want to give it back."
Severus gritted his teeth. "Like a knife to the heart, you are."
"Hmm." Settling into his chair, making a steeple of his hands, Severus asked, "How has your week been?"
"You really don't want to know."
"Oh, I assure you, I do. Whether you wish to speak about it, however, is entirely your decision."
"Ah." Severus frowned. "You'll be glad to know your godfather and I have only succeeded in destroying part of the house thus far."
"It's almost been pleasant at times."
"Like when you're both asleep?"
A soft smile crossed Harry's face. Severus' breath hitched; he gripped the arms of his chair so hard his fingers stung, lest he lean forward and press his lips to Harry's.
"Glad you're getting on," Harry murmured. "Wouldn't want to have to fetch you from Saint Mungo's in the middle of the night 'cause you've hexed each other into slugs."
"Hmm. No, I don't believe that would be terribly ideal." Severus took a breath, trying to stifle a low sigh. "You look well."
"Do not. I look bloody awful." Harry tugged at a bit of his hair, which looked as though it could do with a wash. His skin was sallow, and black shadows marred the hollows beneath his cheekbones and eyes. The black of his robe only served to draw more of the colour and warmth from his skin. For a bare instant, Severus had the chilling, rotting feeling he'd looked into a mirror.
"Come home," he whispered.
Harry said nothing. His mouth twisted to hold in words Severus wasn't sure he wanted to hear. "I don't know if I can," Harry finally whispered back. "It's not you, only, the house..."
He sank into the couch, his weak words fading like evening twilight.
"Not your fault. You did what you thought was best." Harry pushed his glasses up his nose from where they'd slipped. "At least the Aurors won't find you."
Severus said nothing. Harry didn't seem to notice.
"Professor?" Ginny's voice called from outside. Severus shot to his feet, turning to face the doorway just as Ginny peered in with an odd scowl on her face. "Mum said you needed to talk to me."
"Yes," he breathed. "Sit down. This may take a few minutes." He glanced over. "Harry?"
"You may wish to..." Severus trailed off as Harry's expectant look melted.
"All right." Closing his book around his finger, Harry started to haul himself to his feet. Severus rubbed his eyes.
"I only said you may wish to leave. If you wish to stay, stay, but I cannot guarantee you shall be happy with what you hear."
"If I wasn't sure, I wouldn't have said it," Severus lied. The pulse in his throat fluttered in grim anticipation as Harry sat down again. "Miss Weasley?"
"Okay." Ginny took a hesitant step. "Um, you can have the couch if you want."
Severus started to open his mouth to inform her that he was quite comfortable where he'd been sitting. From the corner of his eye, he caught a glimpse of Harry gazing up at him in something like hope. "All right," he said. "Mister Potter, if you could? I shan't shout across your carcass just to be heard."
A minute or so later, after much shifting, shuffling, and one apologetic (and scarlet) Weasley tripping over her own feet and thumping against Severus' chest, they were more or less settled. Ginny leaned over the arm of the flowered chair. Harry huddled in the middle of the couch, so close to Severus' elbow his body heat pierced the thick, dark wool of Severus' robe. Ginny's eyes wandered over them for a moment before she asked, "What's going on?"
"How do you know Hieronymus Bauble?"
She blinked. "Why?"
Severus slipped his hand into his pocket and felt around until his fingers closed over the note. The map scroll fell out as well alongside his hip; he scowled, but, really, there didn't seem much point in picking it up when it would only get crushed in his robes. In silence, he handed the note over to her, watching as she unfolded it with a look of suspicion. Her eyes bugged.
"Fucking Hell," she whispered.
"What?" Harry leaned forward, reaching for the note.
"You wouldn't understand." Ginny handed it across anyway. Harry sat back, staring at it, a frown line forming between his brows.
"Why's it addressed to me?"
"You don't honestly think Sirius and Remus would have told him they know where Professor Snape is, do you?"
A smirk twitched on Severus' mouth. "Well done, Miss Weasley," he murmured. Ginny turned scarlet again.
"What's Mister Bauble got to do with America?"
"Um." Ginny rubbed the back of her neck. "That's where one of the ingredients for Immolatus Compound comes from. He must have gone there to fetch it."
Harry's lower lip fell open. "Oh, shit," he whispered. "When we were in Diagon Alley, that Fob bloke said he'd gone to a jeweller's convention there or something."
"Yeah! Yeah, he's friends with Mister Jigger, goes down the pub with him nearly every night. I heard him say something about that before. Only, it never..." Ginny trailed off, chewing her lip and looking pensive. "Um, Mister Jigger's been acting a little bit odd since, um, since a couple of weeks before you two were there. Forgetting people, that sort of thing. He's pretty old, so I didn't think it was anything serious, but, um, y'don't reckon...?"
"Memory Charms?" Severus murmured.
Ginny nodded, a fearful glaze in her eyes.
"It's possible. I wouldn't put it past Arsenius to let someone convince him to do something then wipe all trace. Gran certainly bullied him into doing her bidding enough times."
"Well, I know he makes potions for a lot of his friends--"
Severus snorted. "Please. Gran didn't need anyone to brew her potions for her. The man's been working with the Committee for Experimental Potions for longer than I've been alive. Got her more restricted ingredients than she could have used in a hundred years."
"What did she make?"
"Potions." Severus gave her a weary glare. He leaned back against the sofa, arms crossed over his chest. "He must have been the one to make it. I can only think of maybe five people in the entire country who could, and he and Acacia are certainly on the list."
"Oh." Ginny looked around. Reaching down to the floor, she hauled up a knitted blue-and-green afghan and wrapped it around her shoulders. "Um, I suppose I could always, um, quit then. Fred and George have still got their spare room."
"What are you on about?"
"Well, if they're doing things like that--"
"I neither want you to quit, nor do I wish to see another member of your family fall prey to those lunatics you call brothers. I'd like to see one of you put my classes to good use."
"If Arsenius did this against his will, then he did it against his will. For all I know, there was an Imperius Curse involved. There is no need for you to leave. Anyhow, what makes you think it wouldn't be useful to have someone to take notes from the inside?"
"But... what if he didn't do it against his will? They might have only wanted to keep him from being able to say anything!"
Severus stared at her a moment. He licked his lips. "Are you certain you weren't in my House?"
Ginny turned purple. Her hands flew to her mouth, and she dropped her eyes. "Thank you," she mumbled.
"None needed. If you keep up with that, though, girl, I'm going to have to wonder if that blasted hat dropped you in the wrong place."
Nodding and swallowing hard, Ginny asked, "What are you going to do?"
"I don't know."
"Nothing rash," Harry said under his breath.
Severus looked at him. "I'll do whatever's necessary to keep us in one piece."
"You can't. What if the Aurors find you?"
Severus said nothing. His fingers closed over the map.
Harry cocked an eyebrow. "Well?"
Severus pursed his mouth. "Miss Weasley--?"
"It's all right. S'pect Mum'd like some help in the kitchen. Looks like someone's dropped the dishes again. They always need another wash when that happens." Her gaze fixed on Severus and Harry, Ginny got to her feet and hurried out of the sitting room. Severus turned his attention back to Harry; the bitter, brittle stare that met him very nearly made him flinch.
"Were there Aurors at the house?" Harry asked.
"There were Aurors at the house."
"You weren't going to tell me at all, were you?" Harry's voice trembled along with his body. Snatches of light flashed across the whites of his eyes.
"As long as you're here, it shan't--"
Harry's hand grabbed him by the chin and forced his head around so he had no choice but to stare into stark pupils contracted in fury. "Don't even try it, Severus. Do not fuck with me."
"I'm not fucking with you. This doesn't affect you at all so long as the Ministry thinks you're no longer a factor in my life."
"But I am!" An uncertain wince cut across Harry's face. "Aren't I?"
"Of course you are. What d'you think I've been doing for the past week, celebrating your departure?"
Harry's fingers loosened their hold on Severus' jaw. A cold, prickling sensation ran through Severus' skin as they fell away. He very nearly grabbed Harry's wrist to put them back.
Harry dropped his eyes, shifting deeper into the back of the couch. "Was that warrant a fake then? If they've... they've found the house... How did they find it in the first place?"
"They'd been monitoring it. They saw when the wards came down. Even if we'd had a Secret-Keeper they'd have known precisely where I was, at least at that time."
"I didn't think--"
"Mister Potter, do learn to add two and two to get four, would you?"
Harry fell quiet. A few seconds passed before he licked his lips and asked in a low voice, "So what about the warrant?"
"But you're not..."
Severus took a deep breath, folding and re-folding his hands in his lap. "Apparently, it came down through 'suspect channels', whatever those are. So long as I slavishly offer my assistance in locating Igor and anything else they should demand, I shall be allowed to keep my freedom, such as it is." He snorted. "Your godfather suggested I run."
"No. If we--if you ever want any peace..." Harry shook his head; he bent forward and clutched his hair in his hands. "Sons of bitches."
Severus closed his eyes. He laid a hand on Harry's leg, only for a moment. Harry flinched. Before Severus could pull back, though, a smaller, less sallow hand covered the back of his. Harry's fingertips slid into the spaces between his fingers and squeezed. Harry eased their hands onto the cushions but didn't let go.
"What are you going to do?" he asked.
"My best to locate Igor." Severus released a harsh breath through his nose. "I'd like your help, if you're willing to offer it."
"'Course I am. What can I do, though?"
Severus shrugged. "I don't know yet. I... I very much miss what you did first time I needed it."
"Y'mean shag you rotten when I was supposed to be doing my homework?"
A smile tugged at Severus' mouth. "I seem to recall insisting that your homework be finished before any clothing went the wayside."
"Yeah, well, you never exactly asked any of the other teachers if I'd actually done all of it."
Severus arched an eyebrow at Harry. Harry shrugged. "Thought you needed attention more. I got it all finished, just... might have done a little bit of a better job sometimes. Not much time between lessons."
"For that, Mister Potter, I ought to make you re-do every piece you claimed to have finished during that entire stretch."
"It wasn't that much. I mean, a lot of that time I only had N.E.W.T. prep, and I passed all of those, didn't I?"
Harry blew him a raspberry. "Hush."
"A week with the Weasleys seems to have done very little to improve your manners."
"Yeah, well, it's not as if I had very many in the first place, according to you. Greasy bastard."
For an instant, a smile obliterated all trace of strain and shadow from Harry's face. Severus stared; something in him screamed, screamed for more when the darkness and pain began to creep back in and the smile vanished like a phoenix into ash.
"What were you talking about, what I used to do?" Harry asked. "Besides... besides that."
"You distracted me from the reality at hand. I'd have lost my mind had you not done that. I fear I may do... be doing the same."
Harry's hand tightened. "Why?"
"Among other things, the house-elves we've been allotted are threatening to report back to Minerva that they aren't receiving enough 'paying' for what I've put them through in the past week."
"Are you cooking again or something?"
"It's less like cooking and more like an exercise in not putting a knife through anybody's head."
"Hmm. It does seem to have given your godfather ample reason to leave me be while I'm in the kitchen, at least."
They lapsed into silence. Severus squeezed his fingers, setting a gentle pulse against Harry's hand. The sudden, crippling urge to curl up on his side with his head in Harry's lap - just as he'd done with Narcissa and Lucius at one time - made a ball of pain wedge itself in his throat. He turned his head, gazing at his maritus, letting the cold reality of the world - if not vanish in whole - fade until it was little more than a vague haze on the edges of his perception. The light of the lamps and the crackling fire in the hearth reflected from Harry's owlish glasses and lit the edge of his face so it shone a soft gold.
"I can't do this without you," Severus murmured. "I'd rather lay down and let them find me than..." He trailed off, his mouth pinching itself around words he couldn't find the courage to give voice.
Harry's head turned by degrees. He wore no readable expression, only stared at Severus, eyes flickering as they darted over his face. Before Severus could comprehend what was happening, Harry leaned forward and touched his hand to greying hair, his lips to a thin, cold pair that went slack at the warm contact.
It lasted less than a second. Harry pulled back, his eyes downcast. "Semper fidelis, mi marite," he murmured, his fingertips tracing the side of Severus' neck and darting away.
A painful smile broke out across Severus' face. His own fingertips skittered across the outline of Harry's cheek, not quite touching except to brush the edges of hair as soft as rabbit's fur. "I love you."
"Etiam orbis terrarum mihi es."
Harry frowned and looked up. "Um, what? Why's there a 'yes' in there now?"
Severus chuckled, his smile growing to a thin grin. "In this case, my daft little urchin, it means 'still'."
"I thought that was, um... 'adhuc'? No, wait, 'tamen'."
"Only if you want me to sound as if I wonder why the case still stands."
Harry snorted. He settled back into the couch again, a wry half-smirk on his mouth. "Wouldn't blame you." He squeezed Severus' hand once more and pulled his fingers free. They closed over the scroll. "What's this?"
"A, ah, replacement for the tracking system I formerly bore. The Aurors seemed more than a bit annoyed that I was no longer so reliable. I'd rather not leave it out of my sight for long."
"Where'd you get it?"
"A pair of unfortunately experienced cartographers of my reluctant acquaintance. One of them more than the other, I suspect."
"How did you get him to do it again?" Harry unrolled the scroll, pulling out his wand. He tapped the map. "I solemnly swear I am up to no good. Hey, it worked! Not much for originality, are they?"
Severus glanced at it. A crisp outline of Britain and Ireland, complete with islands north to the Shetlands, sat on the map. Several green dots marred the otherwise blank inner land mass: four in Britain, one in Ireland. Tiny names in Lupin's meticulous handwriting hovered over each. Another dot, a red one, sat next to the one labeled "Igor Karkaroff".
Severus frowned over it. The names "Sheila Murphy" and "Lord Voldemort" kept flickering back and forth. He pointed to them. "He's outside Scarborough."
"What's outside Scarborough?"
"Several wizards of which I know, and a village called Ravenscar. Hasn't been a wizard there since the sixteen hundreds. Seem to recall they dropped the last one off a cliff."
"Tell me, Mister Potter, do you think we can fly? Brooms were invented for a reason beyond Quidditch, you know."
Harry's nose wrinkled. "Ew."
"I would bet my last Knut he's holed up there," Severus muttered. Tapping his lips with a single finger, he got to his feet and set to pacing. Something else tickled at the back of his mind. He snorted. "Do you remember the dream I was telling you about? The one about the Rhombus?"
"According to one version of the legend, it was outside Ravenscar."
"I thought Philia said it was in Brampton?"
"She thought it was in Brampton. Even my Gran could be wrong." He paused, and added almost as an afterthought, "Not that it happened very often."
"Hmm." Harry frowned. "You can't think...?"
"Mister Potter, for all I know the place is still being used. Simply because a legend dies does not mean it's been forgotten."
"Hmm. I still think it's barmy." Harry folded his arms. "Should you contact the Aurors?"
Severus shook his head. "After their behaviour last time they dropped in, I expect I'd hear, 'brilliant job, go and fetch him'." He sneered. "Wonder how they'd take to the cliffs down Hunstanton?"
"Can I help you find out?"
Severus smirked despite himself. "Only as long as I get to take care of Montague myself."
"Okay." Harry looked down at the map again. He caught his lower lip between his teeth; the habit was still enough to make Severus take pause to gaze at him for a moment.
"I wish I'd brought my cloak now," Severus murmured. "Bound to be chilly that far north."
Harry's head snapped up. "Tell me you didn't just say that."
"Of course I did. I'd like to end my indenture as quickly as possible."
"Oi!" Dropping the map, Harry lunged to his feet. "You are not going after Karkaroff on your own!"
"I don't believe he shall be in any condition to harm me, if what I saw last time was any indication."
"I don't care! What if he was lying?"
"A man does not spit up god-knows-what for the sake of lying." Severus' stomach turned over anyway. He fingered the sapphire stud still in his ear. "Perhaps it would be best if--"
"P'raps it'd be best if you stayed where you are and let someone without a bloody time bomb in his chest go! I am not going to let you die for the sake of Igor fucking Karkaroff or any of the goddamned Aurors!"
"Harry!" came Molly's voice. "Language!"
"Tell him not to go running across half the country, trying to catch Karkaroff then!"
Hurried footsteps pounded on the floor. Molly loomed in the doorway. "Severus!"
"It has to be done!"
"Yes, by somebody else! Arthur! Arthur, owl Blaise and tell him to come over right now! It's important! I saw that flicker, Severus, don't you dare Disapparate while I'm tal--"
He reappeared in the middle of a rocky field. Through the darkness, he heard the sea pounding against distant rocks somewhere far below. In the distance lay what looked like a village. Rubbing his arms against the damp, icy wind howling in from the sea, he pulled out his wand and murmured, "Lumos!"
The yellow light flared, throwing shadows across the ground from every pebble in the dead earth at his feet. Not far away sat a decrepit barn, mouldering near the cliffs. A faint trail in the dirt led towards it barn. Frowning to himself and still huddling against the cold, he followed the path if only to gather his bearings and get out of the wind.
There was no stench of animals when he came near, only that of rotting timber and the frigid, smoky smell of snow lurking on the horizon. Dark, flat pebbles littered the polished dirt just outside; on second glance, though, they were wet. Severus crouched and rubbed one between his fingers. Any smell of blood was lost to the winds, but his nose wrinkled as his fingers turned a gritty red.
Wiping his hand on his robe, he followed the drops inside. At the back of the barn sat a crumbling stone well. A rusty, pitted iron cap sat atop it. He pursed his mouth, cursing himself for not bringing the map - had Igor Disapparated from here or Apparated to the well and wandered off, he had no hope of finding him without an active Mark to serve as guide.
Growling to himself, he leaned against the rusted lid. His yelp echoed through the barn's timbers groaning in the wind as his hand went through; he caught himself on the stone edge of the well just before he could plunge headlong into its depths. He clung to it a moment, panting, gripping his wand in a sweat-soaked hand until his nails cut into the hilt. Stepping back, he waved the wand at the well. "Finite Incantatem!"
The illusion shimmered, vanished for an instant, and re-cemented itself in place. As it sputtered, though, he saw the top rung of a ladder just inside the lip. He snorted to himself. "How stupid do you think I am, Igor?"
Sure enough, when he slipped his free hand inside, he felt only chill, damp air where the rung had been. Pulling himself straight, he glanced around the barn, wondering in the back of his mind where the Weasley Reconnaissance Brigade was. Before the question could answer itself, though, he swallowed hard and turned the wand on himself, muttering.
His feet shot off the ground, leaving him hovering a few inches above the dirt and the crumbling stone that had fallen from the edge of the well. Gritting his teeth, silently asking any powers he might or might not believe in to please take care of Harry, he stepped onto the stone ring and then down.
His robe flew up to his chest. The sides of the well shot past too fast for him to see them. He looked down just in time to see muddy water shimmering in the light of his wand. The Levitation Charm didn't stop him, though; he went through the illusion just as he'd gone through the false cap. His left elbow slammed into stone; he pulled his wand to his chest as the impact sent him tumbling, scraping down the slimy sides of the well.
Suddenly, his entire body jerked to a halt. The air was knocked from his lungs, the blood from his heart; the back of his skull slammed back against a jutting stone. Severus croaked as pain ricocheted through his head and the dank world below swam before his fading eyes. He dropped to all fours, panting, the spongy charm leaving him to wobble inches above a cluster of stone spikes. He stared at a moss-covered skull leering up at him. More bones littered the water-filled spaces between them.
"Bloody Hell," he whispered. His own voice bounced through the stone tunnel above him. He glanced up. Before dizziness and pain made him drop his head again, he saw a dim grey ring hovering high above him. It sent a cold shiver through his bones. Squinting at the shadows still wavering before his eyes at the bottom of the well, he made out a heavy, asymmetrical hole just to his left. Frowning at it, he managed to make out clumsy words carved along the perimeter of the mouth: Stulte dum ubi nihil habeas inire rhombus.
He stared. "Oh, bloody Hell," he whispered.
Once again, he read the inscription: 'Fool, only when you have nothing, enter the magician's circle.' His mouth fell slack; he snapped it shut. "Only when I've got nothing," he said under his breath. "Haven't got any choice. Does that count?"
Only the filth running down the walls and dripping into the pool below answered him.
Cursing himself, cursing Montague, cursing Voldemort and Lucius and Perditus and the entire company of Aurors, he flicked his wand at his elbow and his skull. The pain in each lessened, although his muddied head still throbbed. He wiped a bit of slime from his face and dragged himself to his feet, lurching towards the tunnel with wand at the ready.
The path ran level, although the chalk inches beneath his feet was rough-hewn and still gritty, as though not enough feet had passed over it to clear the chippings knocked from the walls. A thick, stagnant smell, water that had seen a thousand years without the sun, logged the air and weighted it down in the bottom of his lungs. Pressing a filthy, scraped hand to his nose, Severus murmured a Navigational Charm and felt no pang of surprise to see he was heading north. Along the coast, perhaps?
He paused to listen. There was no sound of waves or wind or vibration through heavy rock. Far away, though, he heard the echo of heavy, wet breathing, and what might have been a choked sob. Something lurched in his belly. Severus took a deep breath and pressed on.
The shadows cast by his wand grew dimmer closer to the soft sounds; they warred with meek ones thrown by some sliver of grey light seeping down the tunnel. With a murmured, "Nox," he extinguished his own light.
For a moment he stood, blinking, letting his eyes adjust to the darkness. Far ahead, he saw the reflection of a sharp white light bouncing off the stones. The only part of it to reach him from so far away were weak and watery like a moonless night. He set off again towards the source.
Just as the light grew bright enough to turn truly white, the tunnel took a sharp curve to the left. Severus paused and listened. The echoing sounds, the coarse, wet breathing, bounced and carried so that every one was met by a shadow of itself. The stagnant stench grew thick; here it held a black, musty scent like grave earth and the brittle, metallic smell of drying blood. For an instant, Severus considered a Bubble-Head Charm. Yes, and how about a nice set of blinders as well?
Lips curling back in a sneer more out of fear than anything else, he rapped himself on the head with his wand. He hissed at the impact. The icy fingers of the Disillusionment Charm slid down his face and the back of his neck. As he watched, his body vanished against the glowing chalk. Squeezing his eyes shut, hoping that Harry might somehow hear his silent apology, he hesitated only a moment as he stepped around the curve in the rock.
Limestone spikes - stalactites - dripped from the high ceiling. Several had been sawn off; Severus winced at the thought of the stone spikes under the mouth of the well. Every surface of the room was lit, the angled walls running out from the small entrance, reaching a peak, and pulling back together at least fifty feet away. The entire cave was a perfect diamond, a rhombus. It glowed like ice, like snow, in the light that seemed to come from the stone itself. Some part of Severus wished Gran were there with him to see one of her legends come to life. He shook his head, forcing himself to focus on the issue at hand. His breath hung in wet clouds; his bare fingers curled into his palms, screaming for warmth.
In one of the corners at the sides of the rhombus sat a heavy limestone slab. Around it were a bed with matted, crumpled blankets, what looked like a desk, and piles upon piles of wadded parchment. The slab was covered by a shimmering dome that shrouded whatever else it might contain - Sheila Murphy, he suspected. There was a pile of old robes wadded on the desk chair and falling over the desk. A gagging sound echoed through the chamber; the pile lunged backwards, dragging in a great, wheezing breath.
A glut of blood flew from Igor's mouth. It splattered back across his face. Igor gave a weak sob, dragged his sleeve through the thick, dark mess, and succeeded more at smearing it than at wiping it away. Dropping his head with a whimper, he picked up a quill that quivered in his hand and drew a single line across the parchment in front of him. He glanced towards the door, his eyes nearly as red as his bloodied face, but turned back to his work.
Severus took a few slow steps. The Levitation Charm stifled any noise his shoes might have made; however, as he was reminded as he slid into a wall, the lack of traction and the abundance of inertia left him in a somewhat helpless position. The next time Igor coughed, he broke the spell and the sound of his feet hitting the floor vanished in the echo. At least, Igor didn't react.
As he came closer, he started to make out a dark-skinned woman lying naked within the shimmering dome. When he finally reached it he saw that her clawed hands were drawn to her chest, and her dead face was forever twisted into a cloudy-eyed rictus of terror. The dome itself curved in, leaving a smooth hole around her pelvis. In the middle, just above a tangled triangle of black hair, lay the Dark Mark. It burned black, pulsing as Severus came near. He winced as his own tried to respond, but the magic that raced up and down his arm felt lost, like it was groping in the dark for someone in the next house over.
He took a step; something snapped beneath his foot. Igor jumped.
"Who's there?" he rasped. His neck twisted from side to side, bruises and bits of peeling flesh peeking through the tangled collar of his cloak. "I can hear you! You shouldn't have come!"
Severus stood rigid. His stomach rose into his throat as Igor turned and stared at the clouds forming in front of his mouth.
Igor's wand whistled through the air. It stopped, pointing straight at Severus. "Show yourself, or I'll kill you!"
"I'm just as capable of killing you as you are me, Igor."
The wand aimed at Severus' heart slipped from Igor's grip. It clattered on the limestone floor, its ghost doing so a thousand times again. "Severus?" Igor whispered.
"Na khuya?" Igor slipped from his chair. He caught the edge of his desk, hauled himself up. There was something greenish and fetid about his skin, and his eyes took a moment longer than they should have to focus on the spot where Severus stood. "You shouldn't have come here. They'll find you. They want to kill you."
Igor opened his mouth. His throat gave a lurch, but nothing came forth. "I can't say."
"Why are you helping them?"
"Sevochka, please, please, I never wanted to hurt you. I liked you. I never..." He shuddered, pulling close his woollen cloak. "I never approved of the way the rest of us treated you. You were better than that. You were brilliant. Brilliant men shouldn't be whores. Please, let me see you."
"Why should I?"
"Because I haven't been allowed to see the true face of any wizard since... god-knows-when. If you really are Severus." He winced, sneezed a mist of blood all over the floor. "Ebat'," he whimpered as a burgundy drop rolled down his upper lip.
"Show me your face, and I'll tell you."
Severus paused. Igor stood, trembling, his thin hands wringing at his cloak. The unctuous note that had flowed with his soft, rolling accent since time immemorial was gone; its void had been overtaken by fear. His pale irises, lost within sclera as red as sunset, glittered as his eyes twitched. When he swallowed, the yellow-green skin on his neck peeled a little more.
Frowning, Severus rapped himself on the head again. He aimed his wand again as the warmth of the fading Disillusionment broke the chill of the cavern for a brief moment. Igor's head turned. He stared, air bubbling deep within his lungs. He took a step forward; his leg buckled, but he caught himself.
He dragged himself over to Severus with an expression of awe. Severus tried not to pull back as two shaking, ink-stained hands rose to cup his cheeks. Papery, bloodless scabs littered the backs and disappeared into his sleeves. His skin might as well have been made of ice.
"So beautiful," Igor whispered. A rusty tear welled in his eye and fell. He traced the planes and angles of Severus' face - cheeks, brow, forbidding nose - with shaking fingers. "My angel. My dark angel. You've grown up, Sevochka. I wish I could have stayed and seen you grow up." Tears running down his face in red-tinged rivulets, he drew Severus' head down, pressed a bloody kiss to each of his filthy cheeks.
Severus pulled away and drew himself taut. "Tell me what happened."
"No, no, don't make me." Igor shook his head, his eyes unfocused. "Sevochka, you don't know what they've done to me. They've given me Unicorn Blood. They didn't tell me what it was." His teeth dug into his lips, his slight body wracking with hoarse sobs. The thin, scarlet tears poured from his eyes, dripping from his jaw to leave wet spots down the front of his cloak. "They said it wasn't blood. They told me it was medicine. I only wanted to be free again. Look. Look what else they gave me." His hand darted into a hidden pocket. He shook loose a crystal phial of cyan liquid.
"It says it's yours. Severus, you have to help me. I don't know what to do. I take it, and I fill up with blood again. I stop, and I... I lose my mind. I see things. I'm never alone. Everyone I ever knew, they're here. Please, please, pleasepleasepleasepleaseplease, Severus, help me."
Severus could only stare. His breath rang among the stalactites. The phial pinched between Igor's fingers shook so hard he couldn't read the label. "Igor, let me go."
"No. You have to help me."
"You can. You made it!"
"I didn't make what's in that phial." He reached up to untangle Igor's hand from his face. As soon as he did, the brittle fingers clamped down over his wrist, digging in nails that flaked away as they bent. Severus hissed between his teeth.
"Don't lie to me!" Igor cried. "You can do anything. I've seen you do things that made the Dark Lord tremble in fear. Fix me!"
"I can't!" Igor's nails ripped free of their beds as Severus wrenched loose. Igor staggered; Severus jumped back. "For god's sake, man, if I could fix it I'd have fixed myself!"
Igor froze. A look of confusion washed over his face and curled his lip. A few flakes of blood fell from his filthy white hair, now almost brown. The stench of death hung heavy all around him.
"What do you mean?"
"I can no more fix you than I can fix myself. Why d'you think my name's on that stuff in the first place?"
Igor's eyelids fluttered. "Sevochka? You...?"
Severus nodded. His fist around the hilt of his wand sweated even in the cold.
Igor shook his head. "Impossible. Impossible! You can't be... You were... you were brilliant!"
"Brilliance won't stop our kind from doing whatever we wish."
Igor stared at him. Something sharp flickered behind his eyes; his expression shifted. "I heard in Azkaban, they... took you, like your brother. I never helped with that. I did with him, but he was only a Squib. I never would have touched you like that. Just like Lucius never would have touched you like that. He loved you. He cried out for you in his sleep."
Severus said nothing. He gripped his wand harder.
Igor pushed a mat of unkempt hair behind his ear. His eyes darted to the block of limestone. "Have I introduced you to my friend?" He motioned to the slab. "Her name is Sheila, but she lets me call her Manya. It was my mother's name. She's going to have a baby," he added with a note of hope. "The Dark Lord. He's coming back for us. He'll save us from them. He loves us. He loves us." His whisper sounded like razors on skin.
"He's dead, Igor. The foetus is calcified."
"No! No, Manya's is alive! Come." Igor grabbed Severus' hand. "Feel her belly. You can feel him inside." His ruined face split in a wide, ecstatic grin. "He kicks!"
"You feel the Mark."
"No, it's Him. I feel him there. Oh!" Rolling his head, rolling his eyes, forcing the grin so it looked like pain, Igor opened his mouth for a long moment, though nothing came out. He squeezed his eyes shut. "Our Lord will live again! I'll be free!"
"Why don't you run?" Severus hissed.
Igor cocked his head. "Why should I run? Manya needs me. Our Lord needs me. Feel!" He yanked Severus' hand.
Severus recoiled. "Don't touch me!"
"He. Is. Not. Coming. Back!"
Igor's lip fell. He tipped his head back, staring, staring, half-accusing and half-crazed. "Sevochka."
Igor licked his lips, leaving them red. "So this is what happens when you fuck Harry Potter."
"The blood's driven you mad, Igor. There's nothing anyone can do to help you."
"Yesss. Yes, there is." Igor swooped for his wand. With more speed than he had any right to, he darted to Sheila's - Manya's - side. His fingers glanced off the field, but he stroked the Mark on her belly. His eyes closed and his lips pulled back. He gave a low moan that filled the world too many times.
Severus stepped back. "Igor--"
"My Lord will help me. He wants me to punish you for what you've done, you traitor. TRAITOR!"
Severus reached out a hand. "Igor--"
Before he could move, Igor's wand came down in the middle of the Mark. A tingle ran through Severus' arm just as Igor screamed. Igor crumpled, writhing and foaming, blood pouring from his mouth and eyes and nose and ears and then spreading out on the floor beneath his buttocks. It went on and on, the tingle in Severus' arm searching for his nerves but finding nothing, nothing, no way to latch onto the signal. Far above, the stalactites started to ring with the sound of the scream as it bounced back and forth, back and forth, building in resonance with every exchange. One quivered and shattered across the floor.
"Fuck," Severus hissed. Slipping on Igor's thick, sluggish blood, he raced to the slab while the shrieks tried to crush his lungs and heart. Thrusting his wand into the gap, he shouted the first spell to come to mind: "Incendio!"
A fireball erupted from the hole. In the smoke and madness of the flames, he saw the outline of a skull, heard the hiss and spit of a trapped serpent. It rose, hung in the air for the barest moment, and faded to slivers of ash. A charred hole stood where Sheila Murphy's pelvis had once been. The tingle faded, and soon after so did the last echo of Igor's screams.
Stiff and shaking, Severus turned to stare down at the wreckage that had once been Igor Karkaroff. Igor's mouth gaped; beneath an armour of blood his lips were the same white as the cavern. He choked once, and a clot the size of a man's fist slid down his cheek. Severus held his breath, lest the stench of death, of blood, of shit and piss and corruption make him vomit.
Igor turned his eyes up to him. "Cut me, Sevochka," he whispered. "I don't bleed anym..."
For a long, long time, or what felt like it anyway, Severus only held his breath and stared. Dizziness knocked him back against the slab. He muttered a quick Bubble-Head Charm and took a deep breath of clean, bland air as the world twisted out of perspective at the edges. Swallowing, he knelt and worked the cracked and draining phial from Igor's fist. He squinted at the label: Snape's Serum, unit #6, E.P. 84791-D - HIGHLY VOLATILE, DO NOT HANDLE.
A cold shiver ran through his innards. He slipped the phial into his pocket and glanced around. The desk was piled thick with parchment. Pushing himself to his feet, he scurried over and scooped them up. Closing his eyes, he tried to Disapparate back to the Burrow; nothing happened. "Shite."
Biting his lip, he hurried towards the tunnel. He remembered little of the darkness, only ran until his heart shrieked as loudly as Igor had and he was reined to a mere totter. Only when he reached the pit of spikes was he able to Disapparate.
Seconds after he reappeared in the Weasleys' excuse for a drawing room, Molly's hands wrapped around his wrists.
"Where have you been? You're a sight! No, don't worry about those." She dragged him out of the room as the armload of parchments fell to the floor. "Harry's had a fit. He's resting, but... if I didn't know better, I'd say he was hit by a..." She trailed off in grim silence.
"A Cruciatus Curse?"
Still pulling him, she glanced back. "Oh, dear. What happened? Tell me everything. No, wait, I need to fetch Ginny and Arthur back, they've gone to find you, checked in not two minutes ago."
A loud rapping sounded at the back door. "Oh! And that'll be Blaise." She tugged at the ginger curls that had come loose from her knot of hair. "Now, don't panic, dear, we'll have everything sorted." She ushered him to a closed door at the bottom of the stairs. "He's just in here, it's our room - mine and Arthur's, I mean, it was the closest one. Just you go inside, and I'll fetch Blaise. You poor, poor dears."
Molly bustled off, still tugging at her hair. Severus paused with his hand on the knob, letting his forehead rest against the door. You've seen death again, old boy. It's nothing you're not used to. Harry might have only had a flashback. There's no proof it was the Mark. Just keep telling yourself that, and you might get through the night without screaming.
He turned the knob. The door fell away from his forehead. He stared at the floor for a moment before lifting his eyes to the cluttered room, and the small, still lump buried under a patchwork quilt on a battered double bed.
"Hmm?" The lump stirred. A mess of black hair popped out from the edge of the quilt, and a pair of bleary eyes blinked back at him. Harry's forehead was puffy, his scar redder than normal. "Sev?"
"Yes." He swept towards the bed, hands trembling. Perching on the edge, he let his fingers brush over the edges of the scar. Harry flinched away.
"Sorry." He settled on the pillows. "S'a little sore."
Harry frowned up at him, squinting without his glasses. "What happened to you? Is that blood?"
Severus waved a hand. "It's not mine."
"Did you kill him?"
Severus had to look away. A cold shiver ran through his spine at both the ease with which Harry had asked the question and the ease with which he, Severus, could have answered. "No. He was nearly dead when I got there. There was... an accident."
"What sort of accident?"
"Involving his Mark."
"Oh." Harry's eyes went wide. "Um..."
"I destroyed the Master. You shouldn't have any more difficulty." Severus' fingers traced the outline of Harry's shoulder through the blankets. Harry stared straight ahead, his fingers curled on the pillow next to his cheek.
A soft knock at the door made them both jump. "Professor?"
"Good evening, Blaise."
Blaise poked his dark head in and cast them a soft smile. "How are you feeling, Potter? Molly says you're a bit off."
Harry snorted. "Yeah, just a bit."
"Is there anything I can do?"
"I dunno, have you got a retrograde counter-curse for the Cruciatus?"
"Shh." Severus rubbed Harry's arm. "Settle down, Mister Potter, or I'll have to take points."
A weak smile flickered across Harry's face. "You wish."
"Um." Blaise cleared his throat. "Is there anything I ought... ought to know about?" He looked more than a bit perturbed. He stepped into the room, although he didn't close the door.
Severus arched an eyebrow. Rather than robes, Blaise was wearing a Muggle shirt and jeans. "Are we undercover?"
A crimson flush burned in Blaise's olive cheeks. "S'posed to be having dinner with Sekhmet's parents," he mumbled.
"So yes then. And, no, I believe the situation is as in-hand as it can be. But thank you."
"I thought you said it was a Cruciatus Curse?"
"Not precisely. I don't believe this falls strictly into the Unforgivable category." Severus pushed a bit of hair out of Harry's eyes.
"Sure felt like it did," Harry muttered.
"Shh. Settle down, you'll make yourself worse." In a louder voice, Severus said, "I fear he was not the only one to suffer punishment tonight."
Harry's eyes widened. They darted towards Severus. Severus mouthed, "Igor."
"What happened?" Blaise asked.
"I suspect Arthur will give you the whole story once he and his daughter return from my attempted rescue."
"You'll find out." Severus glanced back. "Blaise, would you mind terribly if Mister Potter and I had a moment alone?"
"What? Oh! Oh, no, of course not. Um, I'll be in the kitchen with Molly if you need me. Or someplace."
Blaise tiptoed out and closed the door behind him. As soon as he had, Harry looked up at Severus.
"You're sure nothing happened to you."
"Swear on Philia's grave?"
Harry nodded. He shifted under the covers so he came to rest curled around Severus' hip. Severus laid a trembling hand on his shoulder; it took a moment to realise that Harry was trembling as well.
"Are you cold?" he asked.
Harry shook his head. "Um, just a little upset, that's all." He unwound an arm from the quilt and tried to rest it across Severus' lap; at the last second, he flinched away. He took a short breath and, a moment later, his arm fell across Severus' thigh and lay quivering. "I'm, um, I'm doing better."
"Yeah. Um, reckon I might be able to get up in a minute."
"You need to rest."
"I can rest at home."
"You need--" Severus stopped. Turning his head to stare Harry in the eye, he asked, "Home?"
"Yeah. With you."
"What happened to your issues with the house?"
Harry shrugged and turned to bury his face in the pillow. "Wouldn't be much of a Gryffindor if I let a house scare me, would I?"
Severus' mouth felt very dry. "I suppose not. You lot certainly aren't known for backing out of a situation."
"Yeah. Anyway." Harry shrugged again, this one more like a huddle. "If you're a Slytherin and you can keep risking your life like an idiot, wouldn't make me look very good to be afraid of--of a house."
"If you don't--"
"I want to." Harry's fingers dug into Severus' wrist. He stared up at him with glassy eyes. "I want to stay with you. Please."
"You don't have to ask," Severus whispered. His fingers tangled in Harry's hair; before he could swoop down to kiss his maritus, though, Harry flinched - not quite away, but the quivering tension in the muscles beneath Severus' hand doubled. With a pang of something sharp and familiar, Severus loosened his fingers and let them slip away.
"Would you like anything?" he asked.
Harry shook his head and rolled away. Fighting the covers, he crawled out and plucked his glasses from the bedside table. His oily hair was matted down on the back and side. Robe sliding up to his bum, he scooted down to the foot of the bed and sat there a moment, legs swinging ever so slightly, elbows resting on his naked thighs. Heat rose in Severus' face. Harry glanced back.
"I'm not blushing. It's warm in here."
A small smile tilted Harry's mouth. "You're blushing." He got to his feet as Severus growled. The wrinkled robe fell around his legs. Severus didn't catch himself before his growl ran louder.
Harry held out a hand. "Coming?"
"Why would I be coming? Haven't even got my kit off, have I?"
Harry gave him a look.
Severus sniffed. "If that's how you're going to be, then I shan't bother to stay in here." He pulled himself to his feet and folded his hands in front of his chest. "If you insist, I suppose you're welcome to join me."
Harry only rolled his eyes and followed him out, for once moving at the same pace as Severus without looking as though the drop in velocity was about to make him split in two.
Molly was in the kitchen, fumbling over the teapot. "Oh, goodness, Harry! You shouldn't be up--"
"I'm all right, Mrs. Weasley, thanks."
"Where's Blaise?" Severus asked, glancing around.
"In the living room. He said he wanted a few minutes to think. You can go in there if you'd like. I'm just putting some tea together. Arthur's out looking for Ginny, they'll be here any minute."
"Where's she gone?"
"Still looking for you. He thought he saw her going towards the village. Says they turned up outside a horrible old barn, but there was nothing in it."
"Ah." Severus bit his tongue. "He may wish to hurry. It felt as though there might have been a storm coming in off the sea."
Molly gave him a small smile. "You'd know what they feel like, wouldn't you, dear? Growing up at the seaside and all."
"Go on, go on." Molly shooed them out with a tea towel, which she used to grab the handle of the kettle as a piercing whistle filled the room. "Don't keep Blaise waiting. Poor thing, was all ready for a nice night out. If I'd have known--"
"I'm sure he'll have plenty of time to return to his dinner." Severus nodded to her and swept out, Harry on his heels.
"I don't trust him," Harry said under his breath.
Harry shrugged. "I don't know. Only, something about him. I don't know, might just be that he's an Auror. We never really had much to do with each other at school."
"This wouldn't have to do with a certain mote of parental affection you witnessed, would it?"
"No! I mean, I don't think so." Harry fell silent, chewing on his lower lip in thought. A bit of sadness flickered in his eyes.
Severus said nothing, only tried to ignore something that almost felt like guilt winding its way up through his bloodstream. He hurried into the living room. As soon as he set foot inside, though, he froze.
Blaise was hunched forward on the couch. The table in front of him was littered with the papers Severus had stolen from Igor. Blaise was staring at them, his mouth set and his eyes wide. He picked one up. "My god."
Blaise jumped, sending the parchment flying. He was on his feet before it had landed. "I'm sorry, sir! I didn't know what they were! I only wanted to have a look!" His shoulders shook as he panted, and all of the colour had drained from his face. "Didn't realise what it was!"
"So you know now?"
Blaise swallowed. He turned his head away. Harry came up behind Severus and poked his head through.
"Not... entirely, sir. I..." Blaise waved a hand, as if trying to find a word. "I can see what it is, but I don't know what it is. That didn't make any sense, did it?"
"Enough." Taking deliberate, almost predatory steps, never taking his eyes off Blaise, Severus made his way to the horrible flowered chair and sank into it. He motioned for Blaise to sit as well. "Tell me what you've discovered."
"Sit down, Mister Zabini, and tell me."
"Um." Blaise fell back onto the couch and folded his hands in his lap. "Someone's convinced Lord Voldemort's going to come back and save him from something. And, um, there's some Arithmancy here..." He trailed off.
"I don't want to, sir." Severus had to strain to hear Blaise's whisper. "It scared me."
"What could scare an Auror?"
Blaise said nothing.
"Sorry, sir. Only," he took a deep breath, "don't want to think about what would happen if the, um, the wrong person got hold of these."
"Um." Blaise licked his lips. "It's got information on... I--I think it's a way to broadcast a Killing Curse via, um, curse scars."
Harry's footsteps pounded out of the room. Blaise's head jerked up, his eyes following. "Oh, no. No, no, no, not that sort of scar. I'd better go and--"
Severus held out a hand. He bit back an ironic sneer. "Sit down. I'll speak with him later. He won't take it well from you."
"Um, all right. Thank you. Sir."
"I have a name, you know."
"Sir?" Blaise glanced up, looking a bit stunned. "Um, th-thank you, sir--Prof--S-S-Severus?"
"You're quite welcome."
Blaise fingered one of the parchments sitting in front of him. He took a deep breath. "Si--Severus?"
"Um, these were yours? Molly said you'd dropped a load of parchments when you Apparated."
"What were you going to do with them?"
"Keep them. Do you honestly expect I'd want anyone else to get hold of them? Unless Arthur and Molly decide to be overly Gryffindorish and insist on stashing them about the house."
"Could I take them? Please."
Severus drew back in his chair. "Why?"
"Um." Blaise scratched his nose. "I don't want to see you get into trouble. I mean, if you think about it--"
"Get on with it."
Blaise took a long breath and let it out in a burst. "What would happen if you were caught with these? I mean, I don't think you've got a Secret-Keeper, else Arthur wouldn't have been able to take me--unless, um, I mean, unless Arthur's your Secret-Keeper--"
"Ah." Severus rested his chin on his clasped hands. "I see your point. I suppose I shall simply have to leave them here. Or burn them."
"If you burn them... These are evidence against someone. Something's going on here. Might even be, um, might have something to do with whoever killed Mum." Blaise's lips pressed together in a hard, cruel line; Severus shuddered at the boy's sudden resemblance to his father. "And I don't think it would look good for a suspended Ministry employee to be found in possession of something like this. Looks, um, looks a bit suspicious, doesn't it?"
"Then I'll take them to Hog--"
"Sir--Severus, these wouldn't... If anybody asked, I could say I'd found them at the Ministry and was only looking through. The rest of it, um, the bits about Lord V-Voldemort, I can... They're not so important, but, um, I can... can do something with them."
"Please, sir. I know it's probably stupid of me, but I want to help you. And I don't want to see anything happen to Arthur. You've both been so good to me, and if this is what I think it is... I've got just as much reason to want to find out what's going on as anyone, haven't I?"
He fell silent. Severus only stared at him. After a long, long moment, Blaise whispered, "Please, sir?"
"You make a convincing argument. What happens when the Department of Mysteries denies all knowledge of the pages, though?"
"Um." Blaise flushed. "I don't know. They, um, they've got loads of parchments nobody's ever really looked at, and every once in a while they'll find another cabinet they didn't know existed and they'll find something from the sixteenth century. Could say it was in one of those and... and I just sort of forgot to ask."
"You'd be sacked."
"I'll think of something. Only... If I'm sacked, I can get another job. If you or Arthur or... or someone like that Lupin fellow, he's a werewolf, isn't he? I... I know they have a hard time getting positions, and..."
"I know more than one person at Hogwarts. I did teach there for nearly twenty years."
"But do you really want anything to happen to them? They haven't got the Ministry connections I have. Minister Fudge likes me. I can skive off a punishment."
"I can't let you--"
"Please, Severus." Blaise bit his lip. "I don't think I could bear to see anything happen to you, too."
Severus opened his mouth to say no. The image of Igor writhing on the floor, bleeding his life away flashed through his head, though, and for an instant it wasn't Igor, but Harry. He screwed his mouth shut against a croak burrowing up from his belly.
"All right." His fingers clenched around the arm of the chair, nails digging into the lumpy stuffing beneath the worn fabric. "Take them. Don't ever let me see them again."
"All right. All right. Thank you, sir. I'll... I'll make sure they're safe, I swear."
"Just take them and go."
"Yes, sir. Thank you." Blaise leaned forward and scooped up the parchments. Clutching them to his chest, he cast Severus a weak smile. "I'll take good care of them."
"Hmm." Severus closed his eyes, trying to ignore the pit forming in his chest as Blaise scurried out of the room. From the kitchen, he heard Blaise tell Molly he had to dash and to tell Arthur hello. The door slammed. Severus glanced up.
"Hi," Harry said, his eyes cast to the floor. He stood just in front of Severus' knees. A moment of silence passed between them. Harry's reddened scar lay visible between two locks of his fringe. He looked like the frightened child who had come to Severus' office one afternoon, seeking comfort.
Severus grabbed him in a hug. Harry's arms went around him, twitching but tight. Chest to chest, jaw to jaw, Severus hissed into his ear, "I shan't let anything happen to you."
Harry said nothing, only clutched at the back of Severus' robe until his fingers trembled too much for him to hold on.
"For god's sake, Severus, you're filthy!"
"Take your hands off me, you lunatic cur!" He smacked at Black's hands as he was steered into a chair. "Why are you bothering with me when you ought to be paying attention to your godson?"
"But you're right--"
Harry popped into existence in the middle of the room, clutching an armload of cakes and meat pies Molly had sent along for them. Black yelled; the box of pies crashed to the floor. A moment later, Harry was clamped in Black's arms.
"Don't you ever, ever run off like that again!" Black buried his face in Harry's hair. "You had us worried to death!"
"Y'knew where I was," Harry muttered. His voice was muffled by Black's chest.
"Harry, the first night we were ready to drag the sea! We thought you were dead!"
Black squashed a fat kiss on top of Harry's head and pushed him out at arm's length. Wiping one eye on his shoulder, he snapped, "I ought to put you over my knee for that!"
"I said I was sorry! I didn't know what else to do!" Harry jerked, trying to twist out of Black's grip. Black wouldn't let him go.
"Harry, listen to me!" Black squeezed Harry's shoulders; Harry went stiff. "You can't wander off like that anymore! Neither of you can. You don't know--"
"I know about Bauble. And Sev said Igor Karkaroff's dead."
Black looked up. "Severus?"
"Let Harry go, or I shan't speak a word."
Black frowned. He ducked down to look Harry in the eye. "I don't want you wandering off by yourself ever again. I swore to your parents I'd take care of you, and I'll be damned if I let you get killed like that. I know I haven't done a very good job of it, but if anything happened to you I could never forgive myself."
Harry jerked away. "Is that all I am to you, a promise?"
"No, Harry, listen--"
"I can take care of myself just fine!"
"No, you can't!" Black reached out to Harry, almost pleading. "You can't even stand to have anyone touch you. I don't know what I can do--"
"Oh, I think you've already decided what you can do, Black." Severus leaned back in his chair, resting his mouth on his fingertips.
"Shut up, Severus! That's not what I meant, and you know it!"
"What's not what you meant?" Harry glanced between them, backing towards the doorway.
Black glowered at Severus down his blunt nose. He didn't quite look at Harry as he said, "Harry, you have to understand that I'm worried about you--"
"What are you planning to do?"
Black released a sharp breath. Folding his arms around his chest, he muttered, "If you're no better by... by Christmas, I'm... I don't want to do it--"
"You're locking me up."
"It's not like that."
"You son of a bitch!" Harry kicked one of the chairs so hard it toppled over. "Just because you can't handle it, you're shipping me off to--"
"Saint Mungo's," Severus supplied.
Harry stabbed a finger at him. "I'll deal with you later!"
"Shut up, Sirius!" Harry stalked towards him. He circled, glaring, his fingers flicking at the air. "What makes you think I'm just going to sit back and let you lock me up like some sort of nutter? I'm not insane!"
"I'm not! And I can too touch anyone I want. See?" He swooped down on Severus and crushed their mouths together. Severus made a choked noise low in his throat as Harry's tongue forced its way in. Their teeth scraped. Harry's fingers, twisting into Severus' hair, shook and clawed and started to dig their way into his scalp. Severus jerked back. He stared up at Harry, who stared back, his pupils pinpricks and the saliva on his reddened lips glistening like blood.
"Let go of me," Severus whispered.
"No. I have to prove that I can touch you."
"You're scaring me."
"Harry, let him go." Black laid his hand on Harry's shoulder. Harry jerked away, taking several strands of Severus' hair with him.
"Don't touch me!"
"Harry, sit down and--"
"You're locking me up!"
"I am not locking you up!" Black slammed his hand down on the back of Severus' chair. "I am worried about you! Sit down. I didn't want to mention this to you because I knew it would upset you!"
"So what were you going to do, pack me off to Saint Mungo's on Boxing Day? Or was it supposed to be my Christmas present?"
"It'll happen tonight if you don't sit down and act like a rational human being!"
Harry and Severus both went rigid. Severus' stomach turned over. "Black, get out of my house."
"No." Harry stared at his godfather, eyes narrowed and gleaming. "No, I want to hear what he's got to say. Go on, tell me how you were planning to break this to me."
Black swallowed. Glancing from Harry to Severus, he hooked a chair with his foot and dragged it away from the table. He fell into it a bit too hard. "I was... actually hoping it wouldn't come up."
"That's not what I asked."
"I was planning to tell you... Well, I'd hoped Severus would tell you because you'd take it better from him."
"How dare you bring my name--!"
"Shut up, Severus," Harry spat. "Sirius, tell me: when were you going to mention it?"
Black opened his mouth. It fell closed and his head drooped. "I don't know. I don't like to think about it, only, you haven't exactly given me much choice. You broke Severus' wrist!"
"I apologised! It was an accident! And it's fixed, isn't it?"
"Only because he's cleverer than both of us! What if we hadn't been able to fix it, though? What then? We can't exactly rush him to casualty, you know!"
"What about Poppy?"
"What if his heart went again from the shock? What should she give him, more Unicorn Blood?"
Severus and Harry both winced. "Black, hold your tongue!"
"Don't even say that, Sirius!"
"Fine, then. I suppose we can always just leave him to die."
"Get out of here!" Harry pointed to the door. "Don't tell me you want him to die!"
"I didn't say I wanted it. I only said that your behaviour is a threat to both of you. Frankly, I'd rather have a few more decades to torture the git." Black shot Severus what was probably meant to be a vicious look but seemed more sad than anything.
"I don't believe you." Harry's voice cracked in the middle of the sentence. "Get out of here. I don't want you under the same roof as me tonight."
Black frowned but got to his feet. "All right. If you change your mind--"
"All right. Just remember, it's going to kill me to do it."
Harry said nothing, only glowered at Black until he and Severus were alone in the room. Black's footsteps echoed up the stairs and down the upstairs hall.
Harry slumped in his chair. His eyes and mouth were squeezed shut. "You weren't going to mention it to me either, were you?"
"I would have, given time."
"Why didn't you say anything?"
"As he said, you would have gotten upset."
Harry's mouth twisted at the corner. "Yeah. Upset." He stood up, arms folded in front of him. "I'm going to bed."
"Would you care for anything first?"
Harry shook his head. "Only, I... don't want to be alone tonight."
Severus' heart jumped. "Oh?"
"Had nightmares all week. Had to put up a Silencing Charm to stop Molly from rushing in. She kept worrying someone had got me."
The pit in Severus' chest formed once more. "Ah."
Harry stood there a moment longer. He looked up at the ceiling. "He's right, you know. I've lost my mind. Really doesn't help that I've been thinking the same thing for ages now."
Before Severus could respond, Harry turned and shuffled out the door.
Harry turned over in his sleep, shifting and muttering until he faced Severus' side of the bed. Severus reached out and tucked the blankets around his shoulders. He watched for a moment until he was sure Harry wouldn't start screaming.
With a little sigh, he got to his feet, dragging the vanity stool back across the room. He paused by the bed on his way into the bathroom and placed a small kiss on Harry's temple.
"You're not mad," he murmured.
Harry didn't respond. It was likely for the best.
Severus tried very hard to think about nothing as he filled the bathtub, peeling his filthy robe from his body. It had crusted in place with muck from the well. He snorted to himself when he realised he hadn't even bothered with a simple Cleaning Charm. Then, it hadn't seemed terribly important at the time.
The hot water turned his sickly, grimy flesh crimson. Severus drew his knees to his chest and hugged them, hiding his face in his arms so the tip of his nose brushed the water. Images from the night - Igor, Blaise, the look on Harry's face as he turned away to shuffle up the stairs - got tangled in his brain with memories of decades long dead. For a time they danced there, taunting him with atrocities he could not change.
Still thinking back to the way Lucius would beam at him whenever his marks came back after end of term, he reached over the side of the bath and groped until his hand closed over a bottle. He'd got it open and ready to dump a handful of goo into his palm before he realised what it was.
With a frown, he drew his fingers through his hair. It was as thick as ever, wiry and stubborn and caked with dried sludge. A thin layer of oil clung to his skin when he shook his hand free. He wrinkled his nose, wondering in the back of his mind how Harry had ever tolerated it.
But, little brother, it's too slick to hold.
Screwing up his face, Severus ducked under the water. He came back up, pushing the dripping hair off his face. "Fuck you, Eversor," he muttered under his breath as he poured a glob of shampoo into his palm.
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