The Last Battlefield
Chapter 28 - Faith
He was still blinking at the world when the twins pounded past him and down the stairs. "OI, WAKE UP, EVERYONE! PRESENTS!"
"Misters Weasley, may you fall down those stairs and break your necks!"
"Happy Christmas, Professor!" one called.
Severus sighed, rubbing the bridge of his nose. A low chuckle from the twins' room made him look up.
"They never change." Charlie grinned. He stretched, going up on his toes, showing off a rather muscular stomach coated in thick red hair and what looked like burn scars. His boxers hung low on his hips. Severus arched an eyebrow at them.
"Mister Weasley, put some clothes on."
"Why?" Charlie scratched the back of his shaggy head. "Only us lads on this floor."
Charlie rolled his eyes and muttered, "Mult zgomot pentru nimic."
"'Much cry and little wool.' Much ado about nothing, basically."
"What language was that?"
"Romanian." With a yawn, Charlie staggered towards the toilet. "I'll be out in a few minutes." He locked the door behind him. Severus gritted his teeth.
"No respect for one's elders anymore."
He hung there for a couple of minutes, shifting from foot to foot. Uther turned up in a bathrobe; he grunted. "You waiting for that?"
"Of course I am."
"Going to be long?"
"Ah. Right. Mind if I--?"
Uther arched an eyebrow. "No respect for anyone's elders anymore," he muttered under his breath.
"Oi," Harry said behind Severus. It broke in a gargantuan yawn. "Blocking the doorway, mate."
"Toilet's full, unless you want to try your luck with the girls upstairs," Uther called.
"Damn. Oi, you, out of the way." Harry poked a finger into Severus' shoulder blade. Severus stepped aside just as the toilet door flew open and Charlie staggered out in his same state of undress. Uther slipped in behind him.
"Hah! Age before rudeness!"
"Decrepit twat!" Severus shouted after him. Harry snickered. Severus glowered at him. "And what, might I ask, is so amusing?"
"Oh, nothing. Only, you're not very Slytherin this morning, are you?"
Severus snarled. He folded his arms around his chest and scowled at all and sundry.
"You having a bath, or are you only using the toilet?"
"I had planned to have a bath! Or am I forbidden from such pastimes now?"
"Just don't use all the hot water, all right? I want one, too. Feel like I've been rolled in the dirt."
Severus sniffed. "Filthy brat."
"Unwashed bastard." Harry ducked out into the hall. Turnip was asleep around his neck. He leaned against the wall, shifting from foot to foot, wearing only his T-shirt and pants. "Um, I... I know this isn't... um, just to save water, d'you want to--?"
"No." Severus swallowed. "Thank you."
"Right." Harry scratched the bridge of his nose. His eyes crossed a bit when he looked at Severus without his glasses. "Um, you had your hand on my side when I woke up."
"Ah. Did I?"
"Yeah. Um. Must have done it in your sleep."
"I'm afraid I don't remember."
A grin wrinkled Harry's nose. "You were asleep, you git. How are you supposed to remember anything then?"
"It's been known to happen! Insolent brat."
Harry's grin softened to a smile. He wrapped his arms around his midsection - the thin mat of black hair that had grown along the backs of his forearms had gotten thicker, Severus noted - and looked down at the floor. "Can I at least give you a good-morning kiss?"
"Why should you?"
"Because we both know this 'no touching' rule isn't going to last a day, y'git. You're just sore at me."
"I am not!"
"Yes, you are. This is harder on you than it is on me. Anyway, Turnip says you're too cold and you need to sit out in the sun for a while. Figure body heat would work just as well."
"Mister Potter, if either of us is cold, it shall be you." Severus glowered at Harry's bare, furry legs.
"I'm fine, actually." He stroked Turnip's back. She stirred, lifting her head and swaying it in sluggish circles before going limp again. Harry smirked. "She says I make a good warming rock."
"Hmm." Severus frowned. He shuffled his slippered feet, trying to ignore the cool draught darting up his robes. The chill of sleep still permeated his muscles, his bones. He pursed his lips.
Harry lifted his eyebrows. "All I want is a kiss, that's--"
The bathroom door opened. Uther trudged out, yawning. His pyjama legs flapped around his ankles, and his dressing gown was knotted around his jutting belly. He waved a thumb at the bathroom. "All yours, son."
"Not a morning person, are you?"
"Nope," Harry said with a smirk.
Severus growled at him. "Quiet, you."
Uther shook his head and disappeared into his crowded room once more. He poked his head out. "Your mate's still having a lie-in, by the way. Where'd his friend go?"
Harry pointed at his and Severus' room.
"Why'd he move in there? Charlie's snoring get to him?"
"It's a long story."
"Ah." Uther's eyes darted between them. "Well. I'll see you boys downstairs then? Better hurry, the twins don't wait long for their presents. Might need you to help keep an eye on them."
"I shall take as long as I need." Severus turned to sweep into the bathroom.
"Are you sure...?" Harry trailed off. Severus closed his eyes.
"Yes, Mister Potter," he whispered. He hurried inside and locked the door behind him before he could fracture his resolve.
By both his watches, it was a good twenty minutes before he emerged washed, dried, and ignoring the drops of water still finding their way down his neck. Harry was still leaning against the wall, half-naked; Black stood next to him. They both glanced up when Severus emerged. Harry smiled.
"Washed your hair again?"
"What's it to you?"
The smile widened. Harry hurried towards the toilet. He paused on the way, though, going up on his toes to plant a kiss on Severus' jaw. Severus growled. Harry only looked innocent.
"I'll be downstairs in a bit," he said, kicking the door shut.
"Dressed, I hope!" Severus snapped just before it closed. Harry's laugh was muffled by the wood.
"Happy Christmas," Black murmured.
Severus turned his head to glower at him. "Yes. It is."
Black shook his head. "Severus, I want to make sure we're clear on this: I never wanted to have to send Harry away. You've really got no idea how grateful I am I can't."
"I'm certain you could if you put your neuron to it."
Black winced. "Why would I want to?"
"That, I'm afraid, is up to you." Severus stormed down the stairs. Something acrid and scorched tickled his nose; he wrinkled it, muttering to himself about burning tea.
At the bottom, he was met by an Arthur-shaped flurry that grabbed his arm and dragged him into the kitchen. "Thank god you're awake! Ginny says you can cook."
"Can does not mean will."
"Oh, I think Molly'll change that. Remus just came through--"
"Oh, bloody Hell!" Severus pulled free and charged into the kitchen. A burning stench overlaid the scent of roasting turkey. Molly was waving smoke out the open door with a dishtowel. Percy was busy scraping something that might have once been eggs from a heavy iron skillet.
"Oh, thank god." Nan shoved a wad of fabric into his hands. "He nearly sent the whole house up in flames. I don't even know what he did."
"He didn't need to do anything. Where is that menace?"
"In the sitting room, keeping an eye on the twins. They've already got into three of their packages, no telling what'll happen if they're not watched."
Severus turned a glower on her. "And who, might I ask, was watching them when they got into those three?"
Nan looked innocent. She patted an enamelled green clip she'd stuck in her hair. "Uther's got a knack for finding the nicest things. Well, go on, put it on! Someone's got to help with this mess."
"Hmm. Thank you..." Severus pursed his mouth. "I refuse to call you 'Nan'."
"You're not my Nan."
She snorted. "Well, then," she said, plucking the fabric from his hands and turning him around. "It'll do your heart some good to know it's not only my title, it's my name. Nanette Matilda Griffiths, but I only answer to Nan."
Severus growled at her over his shoulder.
"Oh, hush. You'll get used to it. Arms out!"
"Why? What are you doing to me?"
"Trying to keep that nice robe of yours from being ruined." She shook out the fabric and, with a few swift manoeuvres Severus caught two steps after they happened, dragged over his arms the most horrible pinafore he'd ever seen and tied it around his back. The ruffled straps ran up over his shoulders, and another long ruffle went around the bottom of the skirt.
"Get this thing off me!" he roared.
Nan laughed. "Sorry, it's the only type we've got. See?"
She pointed at Percy, who was, indeed, wearing an identical one over his pyjamas. He shot Severus a mournful look and went back to scraping out the skillet.
"I am perfectly capable of--stop that!" Severus found himself with at least a dozen eggs and a pound of butter in his hands. Nan steered him to the front of the stove, where another enormous skillet more or less materialised before him.
"Crack to it!"
"What if I refuse?"
"Then Molly will toss your presents in the pond."
Molly looked up from the haze she was still ushering outside and grinned. "Thanks, Mum."
"Anytime, dear." Nan patted Severus on the back. "We'll have you on the bacon next."
"Why have I got to do everything?"
"Because, well, you don't put up much of a fight, dear." Nan patted him on the arm as his eye began to twitch. "Don't worry, someone else will get the rest."
"Yes, Lupin, if I've got any say in the matter."
Percy's skillet crashed into the sink. Molly yelped. Nan's hands flew to her mouth. "Oh, dear god, no."
Severus smirked. He set the eggs down. "Well, then. I believe negotiations are in order."
The smell of a breakfast he'd not been allowed to eat still hung heavy in his robe and hair. Severus grumbled, hugging himself and squirming deeper into the flowered chair. Scraps of paper flew through the air all around him. Ruby screamed as Ron pulled the wrapping off a small cauldron and handed it to her with a horrified look. She rolled it over and started smacking the bottom with a chubby hand. Hermione turned a glare on Severus and mouthed, "I hate you."
He snorted. Harry poked him in the shoulder with a box. "Oh, come on. Stop sulking. I let you have all those sausage rolls last night. D'you really think you're going to be allowed a fried breakfast after that?"
"I think as a grown man I ought to be allowed to eat whatever I deem fit."
"Hush. Open this." Harry dropped the box in his lap. He'd pulled a green jumper on over his robe. An enormous Snitch was knitted into the front. Severus stared at it.
"Where on Earth did you get that thing?"
"What, my jumper?" Harry tugged at it, looking down. Turnip's head popped out through the neck hole. "Mrs. Weasley. Everyone gets one every year."
"I should like to mention now that I am not 'everyone'." Severus slid his finger into the red-and-white paper's folded edge and popped the Spellotape free. A large, flat box sat within. He wrinkled his nose as he wrested it free and laid the paper at his feet. Harry rolled his eyes, grabbed it, and ripped the thing to shreds.
"Git," he muttered.
"I'll kick you."
"Mister Potter, should you ever begin to think that I shan't go through with such a promise--dear god, what is this thing!"
In the box sat a knitted contraption of black wool. Odd little boxy patterns ran around the neck, and two thick cables wound their way down the front of the chest. Between them sat an enormous silver S, staring out at him in blank identification. Ron leaned over to look.
"Oi, Mum's made you one, too! Put it on!"
Severus only stared at the thing.
"Come on," Harry tugged at the fabric on his elbow, "everybody else has got theirs on."
"Do you like it?" Molly called. "I wasn't sure it would fit. It's not too big, is it?"
Still, Severus stared. He pinched the thing with both hands and lifted it from the box. The sleeves dangled like tentacles. He opened his mouth to shout but found himself dumb. After a moment he licked his lips and croaked, "I... don't believe I've ever received anything like it, Molly."
She smiled at him. "Good. Although, I wish I'd known to make it red. Really, that robe is lovely on you."
Ten seconds later, Severus leaned back in his chair again, scowling, the enormous silver letter in the middle of his chest. The black sleeves covered his hands to the first knuckle. The body fell loose around his rib cage.
Harry chuckled. "Vain git."
"Open your presents."
As the sea of loose wrapping deepened and the shouts all around him grew more and more hoarse, Severus managed to settle into a sort of mild contentment. A self-stirring cauldron from Emily sat on the table in front of him, filled with his various pieces of the haul: several boxes of chocolates, a most sadistic choice considering he wouldn't be allowed to eat them; a bottle of firewhisky Minerva had sent and at which both Molly and Arthur kept shooting interested looks; three of Gran's books, from Ginny, who had turned crimson while he unwrapped them ("Sorry, wasn't sure if you'd have them. Reckon you, um, do."); My First Pop-Up Book Of Potions, which that idiot Sheng had sent and which received rather a few laughs, as Severus had opened his at the same time Ruby did hers; a very dry-looking book about the history of the Committee for Experimental Potions; and a large stack of drawings from Ruby. He'd laid the drawings on top where they wouldn't be crushed.
"Haven't seen anything from you," he muttered to Harry. "Really, give you everything I own, and this is the thanks I get?"
Harry blew a raspberry at him. "Hush, y'git. You've still got more."
"Ah-ha, yes, speaking of more." Hermione laid down the book of textile-care spells Severus had gotten her and reached into the pocket of her robe. She fished out a thick brown envelope, which she tossed to Harry with a vicious little grin. "Happy Christmas."
"What's this?" He popped open the seal and tipped it over. A stack of photographs fell out. His hand clapped over his mouth. "You didn't."
Harry's hand fell away to reveal a wicked grin. "Hermione, have I ever told you I love you?"
Severus snorted. "Happy Christmas to you as well, Mister Potter."
Hermione laughed. "I got hold of Colin, and I managed to convince him I was doing an article on Harry while he was at Hogwarts. You've got copies of every picture he gave me, including a few of the two of you." She smirked. "Not to mention about twenty with Rita Skeeter in Animagus form, one of which has got Ron holding a dated copy of the Prophet. I feel a little bad about it, but--"
"You do not!" Ron said. "You were grinning like a loon for days after you got those."
"I can grin and still feel bad about it."
"Ron!" Hermione scooped up Ruby, who'd found a chocolate someplace and was smearing it in her hair. "You're only making it worse!"
Ron shrugged. "Fine by me. You're the one with the problem."
Hermione shot him a look. "We'll talk about it later."
"Um, Severus? Harry?" Arthur nudged Severus from behind. "This is from Molly and I," he said, passing over a large, flat package. "I'd promised you a copy of it and then it slipped my mind, so it's not a very good present, but--"
"Arthur, let them open it." Molly flashed them a bewildered smile and set back to dragging the remaning packages out from under the tree.
"Um, right. Sorry." Arthur tiptoed back through the mess, stepping over William as he leaned forward to set down a Sneakoscope. Severus shot the harlot a glare, which Bill returned, and turned his attention to the package.
Harry held out his hands. "Gimme."
"Why should I?"
"I want to open it."
"You only want another excuse to mangle perfectly serviceable--give that back!"
"Nope." Harry grinned and ripped a swatch straight down the middle of the wrapping. Two moving figures in the photo beneath blocked their eyes against the light. "Oh, wow."
"What is that?" Severus leaned over the arm of his chair to peer at it. Harry shoved the paper off the corners of the frame. Within it sat the photograph Arthur had taken of Harry, Ruby, and Severus the day Ruby was born. Severus scowled up at himself, clutching Ruby closer. She waved a purple fist in the air. Harry, sitting at his knee, said something that made the photo Severus smirk.
"It's beautiful, isn't it?" Molly called. One of the twins - Fred, according to the letter on his jumper - launched a wad of paper. Molly's wand shot out and it landed on the floor in a mound of smoking ash.
"How many times have I got to tell you, don't throw--CHARLIE!" Her wand shot out again. A flurry of ash rained down over the middle of the room.
"Oi, Charlie, mate! Cheers!" Fred gave him a thumbs-up. Charlie returned it with a grin and went back to leafing through Which Broomstick?: A Century In Retrospect.
"Yeah, it's really great!" Harry called back. "Thanks so much!"
Severus snorted. His picture self arched an eyebrow at him. He arched one back. "Haven't got anyplace to put it."
A vicious smirk crossed Harry's mouth. "Actually, I know exactly where to put it."
Severus drew back. "Mister Potter, I forbid it."
"Too bad. You signed over the whole estate to me, remember?"
"Yes, but as long as I'm alive I still have final say."
"Nope. You're not head of the house anymore."
"I beg your pardon?"
"You're not. You're my wife."
Severus' jaw dropped. Lupin snorted. Ginny squashed both hands over her mouth and giggled until she went red in the face. Black bit his lip. Fred and George doubled over. "Nice dress, Professor!" George yelled.
"I'm only joking! Geez, Percy!"
"Mister Potter, I certainly hope you are joking as well."
Harry sniggered. "Git. 'Course I am."
"Dare I ask what I am?"
"Hmm." Harry smiled. "Mi marite."
The corner of Severus' mouth twitched. He caught himself just before he could lean down for a kiss. "Your grammar is appalling," he murmured.
"Quite. You've confused your vocative with your nominative."
"Well, excuse me, Mister Fluency."
"You should have said, 'meus maritus,' mi obnoxie pusie."
"Adipate nothe," Harry murmured back. He rose up on his knees and pressed a kiss to Severus' mouth. Warmth flowed down Severus' throat from their lips. He started to try to pull away but simply gave up a moment later.
"So no more keeping my hands off you?" Harry whispered too low for anyone else to hear.
"We shall see."
"I'm going to touch you again, you know. Can't stop me."
"I know." Severus' resolve whinged as he lifted a hand and carded his fingers through Harry's hair. It seemed very weak compared to the fluttering of his heart and Harry's words ringing in his brain. "But not yet."
"'Course not. Everyone's watching."
Severus arched an eyebrow. "Your sense of humour continues to underwhelm me."
"You know you love it."
"Hmm." Severus stroked Harry's temple with his thumb and let go. He glanced down at the photograph still sitting propped against Harry's knees. The figures were looking at them. Photo Severus kept glancing down at photo Harry with an odd, longing look in his eyes. His Harry smiled up at him as if to say, 'we'll get there.'
Severus felt a smile twitching on the corners of his mouth. He leaned over, letting his cheek brush Harry's hair. "That was five and a half months ago?"
"Bit more than that, yeah. You know that."
"It seems like longer."
"Yeah." Harry rubbed the back of his neck. Turnip slid over his fingers. Harry hissed something to her. He sighed.
"Amazing the difference a few months can make."
"Yeah." Harry's fingers traced the surface of the photograph, traced the line of Severus' hair. "You were a skeleton." Harry frowned and picked up one of the photos Hermione had given him. His brows drew together as he looked at it. "You'd gotten better here," he said, nudging the framed one.
"May I see?"
Harry shrugged and handed over the smaller photograph. He and Harry were trudging across the grounds - shuffling, really. If Severus' missing eyebrows were any indication, it had been taken that April, or possibly at the end of March - odd, that, given that Mister Creevey had already suffered his 'accident'. The edges of Severus' molars were visible in his sunken cheeks, and when a wind blew across the grounds and swept back his cloak and robe around the outline of his body, the lines of his bones were visible beneath the fabric. Severus shuddered.
"Why didn't you leave?" he asked with a note of awe. The Harry in the photograph glanced up at him and smiled.
"You needed me." Harry's voice dropped to a hush so soft Severus could barely hear it. "And I wanted to stay. Just because you got sick doesn't mean I stopped wanting to be with you."
"You didn't know I would wake up in the morning." Severus lowered the photo and frowned, his eyes focused on nothing. "I didn't know."
"Why should that have mattered?" Harry shrugged and laid his hand on Severus' wrist. "Anyway, I've got faith in you."
A painful smile broke out on Severus' face. He wrapped his hand around the back of Harry's neck and drew him close, pressed a hard kiss to the top of his maritus' head. The hair beneath his nose and lips and chin and fingers felt like the softest fur and smelled of life that had never wavered. Harry's fingers wrapped around his hand still pressed against the back of the brat's neck. Severus stroked the tip of one with his thumb, the calluses and chewed hangnails rough to the touch.
"I think they like the picture, Arthur," Uther said in a dry tone.
"Yeah, um, the bedroom's upstairs, you two," one of the twins added.
"Wasn't me, Mum!"
"Wasn't me either!"
"You're both doing the washing up after lunch!"
"Oh, thanks a lot, George," Fred grumbled.
"What? She never said we have to do a good job."
Severus glanced up, his face still pressed against Harry's hair. He arched an eyebrow at the twins. "No, but I shall."
Fred rolled his eyes. "You're supposed to be on our side, Professor! She made you cook breakfast!"
"Yes, but I didn't have to do the washing up, now, did I?"
"No, I did," Percy grumbled. Miss Clearwater patted him on the head.
"Settle down, dear. You'll have some slave labour to do it for you in a few years."
"Penny!" Percy turned to gape at her. "How can you talk about our children like that?"
She gaped at him. "You mean that's not all they're good for?"
"Of course not! I thought you wanted a family--why are all of you laughing?" He looked around, hair flying, at the sniggering crowd around him.
"You're too uptight, sweetheart," Miss Clearwater chuckled. "I'm only joking."
"I should certainly--Zabini??"
Molly gasped and hurried to her feet. "Blaise! We didn't expect you here until lunch!"
She wove her way through the mounds of presents and paper and people. Severus turned to see Blaise standing in the doorway, looking a bit nervous. His eyes darted over the room. They stopped on Severus, and his brows seemed to rise in a hesitant question.
"Good morning, Blaise," Severus murmured with a thin smile. Blaise relaxed just as Molly grabbed him in a hug. His eyes bugged, but after a stunned moment he patted her on the back.
"Sorry I'm early," he said in his soft voice, perhaps a bit breathless. "Sekhmet's still having a lie-in and I got a bit antsy. Um, nobody answered when I knocked, and the door was open, so I let myself in. I hope that was all right."
"Of course it was. We can't have you standing out in the cold." Molly let him go, and he gave her a sort of panicked grin.
"Happy Christmas, Molly."
"Happy Christmas to you, too. Come in, come in, you've got presents."
"What? Why have I got presents?" he asked as he was dragged in.
"Zabini?" Ron asked in a stunned voice. "What're you doing here?"
"Weasley. Your parents invited me. I hope that's all right with you."
"I... suppose so?"
"Ron, be nice." Hermione rolled her eyes. "Hi, Blaise. Haven't seen you in a while."
"Granger." He gave her a warm smile.
"Actually, it's Granger-Weasley now." She bounced Ruby on her lap. Ruby shrieked and stuck both chocolatey hands in her mouth. Hermione gave Blaise a sheepish smile. "This is Ruby. I'm afraid she's had a few too many sweets this morning."
Blaise laughed. "That's all right. Um." He looked around. "I'm not sure..."
"Have a seat anywhere," Arthur said. Lupin motioned Blaise closer, shoving aside some stray paper. A few murmured greetings, some more hesitant than others, rose up around the room.
"Hi," Blaise replied, smiling without really looking at anyone. He sat down cross-legged and tried to vanish in the depths of his crisp black robe. A bit of silver writing Severus barely recognised as Arabic was embroidered around the collar.
William smiled at him. "Nice robe."
Blaise flushed and looked away. "Thanks."
Severus arched an eyebrow. William noticed and slid behind Bill. "Um, some more presents back here," he called, looking at the tree.
"Oh, yes!" Molly hurried back over to the tree. "Sirius? Would you like to help? There aren't very many left."
"Sure." Grinning at her, he stretched out and fished a thick stack out from under the tree. "This one is for..." He blinked hard, lifting the tag to his face. "It's all smudged."
Lupin leaned over. "You need glasses, Paddy. It's Ginny's, from Percy and Penny."
Black growled. "I knew that."
Smirking to himself, Severus reached into his pocket and fished out his glasses. He leaned over as far as he could, held them out, and cleared his throat.
Black looked up. He eyed the spectacles with a grimace of distaste. "Why would I need those, Snape?"
"Because you're as decrepit as the rest of us and can't see three inches in front of your nose."
"Better than you. Nobody can see three inches in front of your nose."
Lupin smacked him on the arm. "Sirius!"
"Well, you know what they say about men with big noses," Harry said with a wry grin.
Black stiffened. It vanished in a shudder. "Harry, I didn't need to hear that," he said over a roar of laughter.
"It's true." Harry folded his hands in his lap, looking innocent.
Ron choked. "All right, I didn't need to hear that."
"Nobody needed to hear that." Lupin took the spectacles from Severus' outstretched fingers and slid them onto Black's face. "You look a tit."
"Oh, thanks a lot, Moony!" Black started to rip them from his face. Lupin swept up Ginny's package and held it under Black's nose. Black stared. He looked over the tops of the things, then through the lenses again. With a snort and a mutter he grabbed another one from under the tree. "Lucky guess."
A couple of minutes later, when Blaise had been situated with a small handful of packages, including an everlasting journal from Severus, Black leaned over with a tall stack balanced in the palm of his hand. He held it out to Severus with a glower.
"Ah, brilliant!" Harry grabbed it out of his hand and dropped it in Severus' lap. He beamed. "Go on, I want you to open this one on time."
Severus cast him a look, but pulled the shiny green ribbon anyway. The tape on the silver-and-green striped paper popped with little effort when he slid his fingers through the seams, unlike good Spellotape. He snorted. "More Muggle things?"
"Just hush and open it, you git. Come on, you're allowed to rip it, y'know."
Severus arched an eyebrow down at Harry. If only to spite, he grabbed a folded corner and ripped. Harry thrust his arms into the air. "Score!"
"I'll hit you."
The sudden hush all around him indicated that that might not have been the best thing to say. Harry glanced around. He looked up at Severus. "Not until you've got that open, mate."
Severus rolled his eyes. "Insolent brat."
"Exaggerative bastard. Hop to it."
Muttering under his breath, Severus tore back another sheaf of the paper. The sounds around him rose again. Harry reached up and took his elbow resting on the arm of the chair.
"Hurry up?" he whispered. "I want to see what you think."
"I'm getting there." The final layer went back with a hiss. Severus was met with a row of black spines printed with red. He frowned at them. "Who or what on Earth is a Lovecraft?"
"He's a writer. I think you'll like him. He wrote some really weird stuff."
"Old gods rising from the depths of the ocean to devour mankind?"
Severus drew back. "Are you certain you've read this?"
"Yeah, borrowed Dean's. Brilliant stuff."
"You never cease to amaze me, Mister Potter."
Harry grinned. "I got it right with the Bradbury, didn't I?"
A time later, when Ruby was dozing in Ron's lap and smearing his robe with chocolate and various Weasleys lay curled on the floor reading or playing or, in Percy's case, napping against Miss Clearwater's knee, Severus found Ginny tugging on his sleeve. "Can I talk to you about something, Professor?"
He glanced up at her. Harry was reading one of the Lovecraft paperbacks and ignoring Blaise, who was stretched out next to him. Blaise had taken up with one of Gran's books; he looked up for a moment, then went back to reading.
"What might this be about, Miss Weasley?" Severus asked. "I thought your mother had requested your presence in the kitchen."
She shrugged. "Smell's making me a bit poorly." A flicker ran through her eyes. "Just want to ask you something about a potion."
"Ah." Severus blinked. "Perhaps in another room? I doubt anyone else will want to be bored by such a dreadfully tedious subject."
"Hmm?" Harry asked. He licked his finger and turned the page.
"It's all right, Mister Potter." Severus stroked his hair. "We're only discussing intelligent things."
Harry glanced up at him. "Git."
"Brat. Go back to your gods from the deep."
"Feed you to a god from the deep, y'..." Harry went back to his book, holding it far too close to be good for his eyes.
Ginny tugged at Severus' arm. "Upstairs, maybe?"
"Very well. Mister Potter, I shall be in our room should you need anything."
Severus leaned down to kiss the top of his unruly head and got up. Ginny led him upstairs in silence.
Once inside the room, she closed the door. Her wand flickered as she locked it. She leaned against it, her mouth wide and drawn. Severus perched on the foot of the unmade bed. "Is everything all right, Miss Weasley?"
She looked at him. "Have you really got Unicorn Blood poisoning?"
"Oh, god." She slid down the door until her legs bent and her lanky arms splayed on the floor. "Oh, fucking god."
"Miss Weasley!" Severus bolted to his feet. He took several quick steps towards the door and knelt. He grabbed her by the shoulders. "How dare you sit like that? Have you any idea what that sort of thing can do to--"
"You've got Unicorn Blood poisoning."
He pulled back. "I don't see what this has got to do with the wellfare of your child."
"Don't you?" Her wide, ringed eyes lifted to meet his. "Professor, I know all about it. Your Gran's books had all sorts of chapters on it. You're dying."
"Miss Weasley, I am not dying. I--" Severus paused as footsteps padded along the floor outside the door. The toilet door squeaked and closed. In a softer, no less urgent voice, he went on. "I am not dying. I've got it under control."
He caught the side of her face in his palm. "Gran invented a treatment - an effective one - a few years before she died. Through necessity, I've become the first human test subject."
"How come I've never heard of it?"
"Eversor burned her laboratory and all her notes. That's what finally drove me to live with my cousin."
She blinked at him, her brow furrowing in confusion. "What?"
"I lived with the Malfoys for six years. Even after that, I cared for their son like he was my own."
"But he was a prat!"
"I know. I know." He pushed a loose curl out of her face. "I... wasn't allowed to care for him for very long. He very quickly learned to take after his parents."
Ginny's hand went to her belly. She squeezed. "God. That's why you want him, isn't it?"
"Because--" He took a deep breath. Tilting his head down, he muttered, "Because I want a family of my own, and I want to make sure at least one child never has to hide in fear of his brother."
"Oh. All right. That makes sense, I suppose." She swallowed hard enough Severus could hear it. "S-so the stuff's working?"
"Christ." Her chest rose and fell far too hard. "I don't know, Professor..."
Severus lifted his chin. "What are you talking about?"
"Nothing. Only... I mean, my god. What if it stops working?"
"It shan't stop working. My Gran created it."
"But you don't know. And if all her notes were destroyed, how do you know how to make it?"
"I've got an exceptionally long memory. Miss Weasley, I promise you, nothing will happen. Your child shall have the best home any child could ever hope for." He licked his lips and whispered, "Please."
She bit her lip. "God." A thin tear trickled down her cheek and splattered on her robe. "You want him so much, don't you?"
She paused to rub her nose with her sleeve. "I don't know..." She trailed off, her voice breaking. Her eyes squeezed shut; glistening tears clung to her red lashes. "You should have told me."
"Yes, I should have."
"But you didn't! You bastard! You got my hopes up and then you did this!" Her fists pounded against his chest, knocking him back. The hollow sound echoed through his body. Ginny launched herself on him and knocked him to the floor, leaning against his shoulders, pinning him with her knees. "I wanted you to have him! I'd have done anything if it meant you could have him, you son of a bitch!"
"Miss Weasley, unhand me!" A single tear splashed from Ginny's lashes onto Severus' cheek. He held her back with an arm across the top of her chest. "It shan't make any difference!"
"But what if it does? I don't want him to have to go to just one daddy! Oh, god, if I gave him to you, Mum and Dad would kill me!"
"Miss Weasley, settle down!" Severus tried to shove her away. A bolt of pain shot through his chest. He arched up, hissing.
"What is it?"
"Get off me, please. Or do you wish to break my heart in every sense?"
"Don't say that." She got to her knees, tears streaming down her face, staring at him with a bitter grimace. "I already know it. I don't have to hear it as well."
"Why is this such an issue?"
"Because it is. Nobody in their right mind would let you raise a baby! You..." She gripped her hair. Clear liquid dribbled out her nose. "What if you had one of those fits I've read about? Harry can defend himself, but..." She shivered. "You'd kill a baby."
"I would not," Severus hissed, but he couldn't look her in the eye as he said it. He crossed his arms over his chest, gripping his shoulders. "Miss Weasley, you have no idea how much I want this child."
"I know." She snorted into her sleeve. "And you have no idea how much I don't want to tell you you can't have him. But I have to." She squeezed her eyes shut again. "Anyway, if I told Mum and Dad it'd break their hearts."
"So you'd rather simply break mine."
Biting her lip, Ginny nodded. "I'm sorry."
Severus said nothing. His sternum seemed to have caved in, taking a long, narrow chasm of his belly with it. He let his arms slip away and come to splayed rest on the floor at his sides.
"Miss Weasley, I promise you nothing would happen." Even as he spoke, he knew it wouldn't make a difference. "I haven't had an attack of any degree in months."
"That doesn't mean you won't."
"I want this child."
"I want to give him to you, but I can't. Mum would have my head."
"But what about you? Think for yourself, not your mother!"
She blinked at him, sending another fat tear to splatter on his robe. "What would your Gran say if she knew?"
Severus opened his mouth. In the back of his mind, he heard Gran's voice: "I raised you to be more intelligent than that, Nepos! What do you think you're playing at, calling yourself cured less than a year out from start of treatment? It's bad enough you've put yourself at risk, but I won't have you harming anyone else through your own arrogance!"
He licked his lips and once more tried to open his mouth to speak. Nothing came out. He shuddered and turned his head away. "Leave me alone."
Ginny's hand cupped his cheek, guiding him to face her. She leaned forward and, her tears still spattering his face, pressed her wet, salty lips to his. He returned it, if only to try to keep some shred of himself, some last thread of his dubious humanity despite the toxin still gripping his brain. The two of them lingered for a long time.
Ginny finally pulled back. Their lips made a soft, moist sound. "I really would have done anything, Professor," she whispered.
Severus opened his mouth to respond. No sound escaped. Ginny brushed her lips against his once more and got to her feet. "I'll ask Madam Slug if she's got a good formula. Or Mister Jigger, he doesn't shout so much. I'll let you know how it goes."
Severus said nothing. He stared at the white plaster ceiling as Ginny removed the locking charms and slipped out. Twin tears tickled his temples and vanished into his hair before his eyes went dry. Only blank numbness filled his brain and trickled down to the rest of his body via his nerves. He lay there for what might have been seconds or minutes or cold, dark years.
Somewhere, on the edges of his perception, he heard a soft voice ask, "Prof--Severus?"
Severus' tongue was so dry it felt cracked. He flexed it before he managed to croak, "Go away, Blaise."
"No." The door closed. There was a long moment of low muttering, and then Blaise's footsteps came near. He knelt. His long, thin fingers pushed a bit of hair off Severus' forehead. "I, um, heard everything. Enough to get the gist, anyway. It wasn't your...?"
"It would have been."
Blaise paused. "Biologically?"
"Oh, thank god." Blaise slumped. "I don't think I could have lived with that. It's not fair, punishing a child for what his father's done."
Severus rolled his head just enough to see Blaise kneeling over him with a look he'd only ever seen given to the dying. "What are you doing up here?"
Blaise shrugged. "Someone was in the toilet downstairs. Molly told me I could use this one."
Strong, slender hands slipped beneath Severus' shoulders. "Sit up?"
Severus allowed himself to be hauled to a slouched sitting position. Blaise hugged him close, letting Severus' head fall so a quick heart beat in his right ear. A gentle hand smoothed his hair over and over again in a slow rhythm.
"Blaise?" Severus whispered.
"You're the closest thing I'll ever have to a son."
Blaise fell quiet. His hand kept stroking, kept stroking. He swallowed. "I know." He took a deep, painful-sounding breath. "That's more or less what Mum said to me the day before she died. That I was the only son she'd ever have and how proud of me she was that I never took after my father."
"I'm proud of you, too."
"No." Blaise's hand slipped over Severus' mouth. "Don't say that. Please. You'll only make it harder, and I can barely bear to do this again."
Severus blinked. "Blaise?"
"Shh." Blaise kissed the top of his head. "It'll all be over with quickly. I've got a better way to do it now. You won't feel a thing."
Severus frowned; he tried to inch away. Blaise held him firm, though.
"Cornelius said it wouldn't work, but he's in a holding cell this morning. He's served his purpose, no better than a go-between and someone to shoulder the fallout. He only ever helped that monster along, ignoring him like he did. And you know what?" Blaise's voice dropped to an awed whisper. "They'll never know. A Secret-Keeper will never betray himself."
"Why did you have to be one of them, sir?" Blaise laid his cheek in Severus' hair. "I don't want anything to happen to you, but I really haven't got any choice."
Swallowing, his breathing running just a little too quick, Severus snaked his shaky hand towards his sleeve. Blaise caught his wrist.
"I'm sorry, I can't let you do that, sir. God." Something wet and warm landed on Severus' forehead. "I don't want to do this. You're not like my father. But you've got the Mark. I can't let that keep ruining my life. As long as it's on your arm..." Blaise trailed off in a choked whimper.
"I'll scream," Severus croaked.
"It won't matter. Nobody can hear us. We can hear them, but they won't hear a word." Blaise's hand moved from Severus' wrist. A fraction of a second later, the tip of his wand pressed into the soft place beneath Severus' chin. "God. I should have just let you die when your heart gave out. But, when I saw you lying there and you were barely a shell of... of the man I wished had been my father, I couldn't." His voice cracked on the last word, then dropped to a hush. "I couldn't. It would have been cruel. I wouldn't have been any better than one of them."
"If you kill me, you certainly won't be."
"But I haven't got a choice, now, have I?"
Severus closed his eyes. "Blaise, let me go."
"No." Never quite removing the tip of the wand from Severus' throat, he shifted until he could tug up his left sleeve. Severus' hand twitched. Blaise kissed his temple. "I wouldn't try to draw your wand if I were you. I'm faster."
"Mine's already drawn, and I'm an Auror. We've got to be the best."
"Why are you doing this?"
"Because if I want any sort of life out of my father's godforsaken shadow, I've got to obliterate every trace of the monster he worshipped. I got an Arithmancer out of Azkaban, I had the place wiped clean of the rest of those wretches, I found your potion, I made sure the Dark Lord's seed died, and I razed from the face of the Earth those foolish enough to wed his slaves. With one exception, but I don't think he'll take long. From all accounts, he's gone mad."
Severus twitched. "Don't you lay a finger on my Harry."
"But I have to. He took you, Mark and all. And that scar... Severus, please, as long as anyone can see that scar, they'll remember. I placed my own fiancée, the love of my life, under an Unforgivable Curse just to make a better life for the two of us. I can't betray her by leaving the job half-finished."
"Don't touch my Harry."
"Shh. I shouldn't have to come near him at all. I get the feeling he's not very fond of me."
"And rightly so!" Severus tried to jerk out of Blaise's grasp; the arm around him tightened, and the wand at his throat dug deeper.
"Stop that, please. This is difficult enough without you struggling. Look." Blaise shifted his left arm so his bared forearm was just in Severus' line of view. "Igor called it a Master. I arranged for Cornelius to act as my liaison with him. Under Polyjuice, anyway. I thought of you whenever it came up, knew you'd be proud. I even had him use some hairs we found in a locket at your cousin's house."
A soft sigh escaped Blaise's lips. "I could never have done this without you. You brought me the information I needed before anyone else could nick it, and I am so grateful." He smiled a painful smile. "I love you so much. I can hardly bear to do this."
"Stop this! You're mad!"
"No, I'm really not. But I'm Slytherin, and we always do what we need to survive, don't we?" Blaise laid his cheek in Severus' hair. "I'll send Harry your way as soon as I can. You'll never be apart again."
"Stop this, Blaise, please."
"Shh. I love you, sir." Blaise moved his fingers to the Mark hanging pale on his skin.
A low tingle ran through Severus' arm. From somewhere a floor below he heard a screech. It ran on and on, growing louder even over footsteps running from all corners of the house and shouts he couldn't make out. Blaise flinched.
"What on...?" He looked at Severus still trembling in his arms. The skin around his eyes puckered. "Why aren't you dead?" When Severus said nothing, Blaise grabbed him by the throat with both hands and thrust him out at arm's length, shaking him like a doll. "Why aren't you dead? What happened? Answer me!"
"If you touch me, they'll know it was you."
Blaise's dark eyes narrowed. He brushed the tip of his wand over the Mark, then placed it once more beneath Severus' chin. "They might not. Igor was testing the Cruciatus Mechanism in his Slave the same day your heart went. Enough pain ought to trigger something, and how is it my fault your heart doesn't work?"
Footsteps pounded up the stairs. "Severus!" Arthur shouted. "Sever--Ginny, where's Severus?"
"He was in the guest room last I saw him. What's going on?"
"Harry's scar." The footsteps - several sets of them - rushed towards the door. The thing shook, but didn't budge. From outside, Severus heard, "Alohomora!"
"What did he mean, 'Harry's scar'?" Blaise's voice shook. An ugly red patch had formed on each of his cheeks.
"Didn't you know? It's connected to the Masters. Had you done your research properly, you'd have found that out or figured it out at least. I doubt you could kill him, but he'll certainly know when it's been activated." Severus prayed to anything that might listen that that was the truth. The image of Igor, bleeding and mad, swam through his brain.
Popping sounds echoed through the door, drowning out half a dozen voices muttering counter-charms. Blaise's lips went thin. His eyes shimmered with tears as he hissed, "I trusted you."
"Then we're even."
The wand pressed deeper into Severus' throat. "Cruc--"
The door burst open. Blaise flinched. A surprised second later, a burst of red light shot through the air and caught him in the side. He yelped as he was thrown into the wall. His head left a dent in the plaster. His shuddering body slumped to the floor.
"Bill!" Arthur shouted. He ran across the room, sliding up to Blaise on his knees. "Blaise?" he murmured, slapping both of Blaise's cheeks. "Can you hear me? Blaise, wake up!"
"He had a wand trained, Dad! What was I supposed to do, let him commit murder in our own house?"
"He couldn't have done. He's the sweetest, gentlest--"
"Lunatic ever to walk the face of the Earth." Severus clutched himself. He staggered to his feet and lurched towards the door. Lupin darted in and caught him before he could hit the floor.
"Easy, now, Severus. Hold on to me. That's it." Lupin dragged him up by one arm. "Merlin's teeth, you hardly weigh a thing!"
"Is he bleeding? Anywhere?"
"I don't know. I rushed straight up here with the others." Staggering a little under Severus' pulling weight, Lupin half-carried him downstairs. Nan and one of the twins followed; the rest of the pack stayed behind.
In the sitting room, Severus found Harry curled in a ball at the end of the sofa. Black was kneeling in front of him, clutching his hand and pressing it to his, Black's, forehead. He glanced up.
"Are you all right?" the mongrel choked.
"Fuck me, how's Harry?"
Harry lifted his head. "Sev?"
"Yes." Severus tugged at Lupin until they were in front of the sofa. Black scurried to the side. Severus collapsed to his knees. He reached up and took Harry's face between two shaking hands.
"Are you bleeding?" he asked.
Harry blinked at him. "I... think I bit my tongue."
"That's not what I meant." He brushed a bit of soft hair away from Harry's swollen, purplish scar.
Harry shook his head. Severus closed his eyes and drew Harry close. He pressed his lips to the fuzzy skin just between the brat's brows. "Don't start. Don't you dare start."
Severus grunted. He pressed his face into his maritus' shoulder. Only when Harry's arms were wrapped around his neck and his cheek was draped with the warmth of Harry's hair did he allow his tears for his husband and his children to fall like bitter rain.
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