The Last Battlefield
Chapter 7 - Ouroboros
He paced, his hands clasped behind him. Seven steps one way, stop in front of the clammy granite wall, turn, seven steps the other way, turn, repeat. He had no parchment, no quills, only a couple of bloodless Ministry-approved books he'd already read to death out of sheer boredom.
Where are you, Dumbledore? he mulled. Are you late on purpose, or have you finally forgotten about me? Severus hugged himself against the cold, sneering at the Auror ignoring him in favour of a comic book and trying to forget the events of yet another day in Hell.
The Auror glanced up. "Are you just going to keep pacing like that? Merlin, Snape, you're giving me the creeps."
"Funny, I could say the same about you lot."
The Auror - he could barely tell them apart anymore; they were all the same with their black hoods and stony, mask-like faces, much like another bloodthirsty pack he could name - glowered and slapped the comic against his desk. "Why don't you just sit down and wait for once? It's not as if this is a conjugal visit."
Severus stopped. Swaggering as close to the Auror as he could, he grabbed two of the thick iron bars at the front of his cage. He stuck his face between them and waggled his tongue at the goddamned guard. "Are you offering?"
The Auror shuddered. "No, thank you." He hid his look of disgust behind his comic book again, icy blue eyes darting to the side where Severus had begun pacing once again.
A hearty jangle of keys from beyond the outer door snapped Severus out of his contemplation. He grabbed his bars and stuck his face between them again, this time straining to see who would come through before the door had even opened. Dumbledore was scant comfort, but given the choice between Aurors and the insane headmaster, he would take Dumbledore without a thought.
The steel door swung open. Three black-clad Aurors stepped inside, along with a man in a pinstriped suit - Crouch, if he recalled correctly, Head of Magical Law Enforcement - and, like some mad phoenix, Albus Dumbledore, wearing the most outlandish red and gold robes Severus had seen on the man yet.
Severus wrinkled his nose. For fuck's sake, if you're going to dress like some sort of queen you could at least have the decency to be one.
"... I'm telling you, Albus, it's a dangerous idea. I don't even like the idea of letting him out, much less finding him a position in the private sector. He's certainly not going to find anything here."
"Barty, he can hear you. You could at least have the courtesy to speak to Severus rather than pretend he isn't here."
Crouch went chalk white. His dark hair, turning grey at the temples and parted so precisely Severus wondered if he'd used a ruler, quivered. He cleared his throat. "Yes. Well. We'll finish this discussion later then?"
Dumbledore nodded. Sweeping past the Aurors, he gave Severus a warm smile and Summoned a chair. "Good evening, Severus. How are you?"
Severus gave him a look of disbelief. Flickering his eyes between Dumbledore and the pack of Aurors at the door, he all but shouted, "Fucking horrible."
Dumbledore's warm smile faded. He dropped his head. "I'm so sorry about that, my dear boy," he murmured. "I'm doing everything I can to get you out of here."
Dumbledore turned to the pack hovering in the doorway like wolves. "I'd like to have a chat with Severus if you don't mind," he said with a small, pleasant smile. The Aurors shifted and exchanged glances but filed out when the pleasant smile stayed fixed on them.
"I'll say goodbye when I'm finished here, Barty. I assure you I'll be fine."
"Detained and unarmed, and there is a guard here to prevent anything happening to me."
"Thank you, Bartemius," Dumbledore said in a final tone. Crouch opened his mouth but only blinked and skulked out, pulling the door to behind him.
When the echo had died, Dumbledore turned back to Severus. Glancing at the guard, he shifted his chair to hide his motions. Reaching into his robe, he withdrew perhaps the most precious thing on Earth: a tiny jar of maraschino cherries. Their blinding red was a shard of life in the gloomy holding cell, much like Dumbledore himself. The headmaster slipped it between the bars. Severus very nearly dropped it in his desperate scrabbling with the lid.
"How have you been?" Dumbledore asked loudly to cover the sound of the breaking vacuum. "Are you getting everything you need?"
Severus grunted. Air rushing between his teeth, he plunged his fingertips into the jar and fished out a cherry. He stuffed it into his mouth, sucking the juice from his fingers, shielding the jar with his body. The sweetness flowed over his tongue. It wasn't his sweet of choice, not by any reach, but they had been in Dumbledore's office when he'd arrived after Eversor's death, and the man kept bringing them to him. He was starting to associate the tangy sweetness with... well, something that wasn't terror or apathy or disgust or shame or any of a million other things to which he was subjected on a daily basis now. "When can I leave?" he asked, the cherry hidden in his cheek.
Dumbledore reached through the bars and patted his knee. "Soon, I promise."
Severus snorted and stuffed another cherry in his mouth. "You said that a month ago," he grumbled, chewing.
"I know, I know, and I cannot express how angry I am that you're still here."
Severus shrugged. "Not as angry as I am." Not quite able to look Dumbledore in the eye, he added, "After today, I never want to see another woman as long as I live."
Dumbledore blinked. "I'm sorry?"
"Severus, what happened today?"
"Nothing, I told you." He shook his head and tucked a bit of lank black hair behind an ear. He'd been forced to wash it every single day, showering in full view of at least two armed guards. Not that Dumbledore knew, not that anyone would ever know. Every morning left him squirming and wishing he could gouge their eyes out before they could hex him, but all things told it was - or had been, at least - his duty to leave his lower regions open for the amusement of anyone interested.
"Have you still got my watch?" he asked before Dumbledore could push the issue.
"Of course I have. I know how much it means to you. Severus, what happened today?"
He shook his head, giving an irritable shrug to hide his face. "Nothing. Interrogation proceedings, that's all."
An arched eyebrow was Dumbledore's only response.
Severus glared for as long as he could. The stern blue gaze, tempered with what he almost thought might be concern, broke him, though. Looking away, trying to deny the heat rising in his face, he said, "That little Uden cow had me today." He glanced at the guard, back at Dumbledore. His voice dropped to a hiss. "I don't want," he motioned with his head at the guard, "to hear this."
Dumbledore nodded. Turning to face the Auror, he said, "Excuse me."
The Auror glanced over top of his comic. "Yes, sir?"
"Could Severus and I have a few minutes, please?"
"Sorry, sir, not supposed to leave the prisoner until my relief shows up."
"Yes, that's all fine and good, but he won't exactly be alone, now will he?"
"Sir, he's a dangerous criminal. If anything happened to you--"
"I've got my wand, and as far as I'm aware he's unarmed. I shan't think we'll have a problem."
"Young man, I bested Grindelwald. Unless Severus turns out to be Lord Voldemort himself under Polyjuice, I think I should have minimal difficulty subduing him. Now, may we have a few minutes alone?"
The Auror narrowed his eyes. He turned another page in his comic. "If anyone sees me, you'll swear I was ordered to wait outside?"
"You have my word."
Like a sluggish snake moving in the shade, the Auror removed his feet from the desk, tucked the comic into his hand, and shuffled towards the door. He pulled a set of magical keys from his pocket and shoved one into the lock. "You'll say if you need anything, won't you?"
"The very instant."
"All right." He glanced back. "I'll be right outside if you need me."
Dumbledore smiled. "Thank you, Mister..."
"Montague. Yves Montague."
"Thank you, Yves."
The Auror nodded tersely and swept out. The door echoed once again as it slid shut.
Dumbledore turned his attention back to Severus. "Now tell me what happened."
"Nothing. Nothing important anyway. Only she..." And Severus found himself spilling the whole sordid, senseless tale, from the scant red fabric she'd worn beneath her robes to the way she'd leaned, panting, against the chair only to mumble yet another fucking question in what he supposed was her afterglow. After what felt like years the last word rang into silence. Severus brought the jar of cherries to his mouth and let the entire contents tumble in.
Dumbledore sat, silent. The warm, gentle light in his eyes was gone; forge-hot fury held its place. Severus turned his face away. He steeled himself for the imminent berating. After all, he was only a toy. There was no reason to take it as anything but what he was due.
"Severus," Dumbledore snapped.
A wizened hand shot through the bars and grabbed the back of his neck. It yanked him forward. The jar flew from his fingers and shattered on the granite floor. He found Dumbledore's forehead grinding against his own.
"I'm sorry!" Severus whimpered, bracing himself.
"No," Dumbledore hissed. "You have no reason whatsoever to apologise to me or anyone else. I will not stand calmly by and allow you to be violated by anyone for any reason. I am going to speak to Miss Uden's superiors, and I am going to make sure you are never left alone with that woman again. From now on, I am going to see to it that you are under my personal protection."
Severus could only blink. He did so several times. In a shaky voice, he mumbled, "She didn't violate me, sir--"
"She as good as raped you, and that is one thing for which I will not stand. Has anyone else done anything like that to you?"
Severus tried to shake his head. He couldn't move.
He pursed his mouth. "Yes, sir?"
"Has anyone else hurt you like that?"
Once again, he tried to shake his head. His neck seemed to have frozen. He managed the barest of shrugs.
"Will you at least tell me if it was an Auror?"
A small cataclysm beneath his breastbone left a deep, crumbled chasm in his chest. You sodding idiot! Go on, tell him everything, why don't you? See how long they lock you away! Severus shook his head. A piece of hair slid from behind his ear and fell against his face.
Gentle fingers pushed it away. "All right," Dumbledore murmured. "I won't press then. I can only hope that someday you'll trust me enough to tell me what happened."
The gentle fingers kept stroking his hair, stroking, stroking. Only Lucius had ever stroked his hair this way, and Gran, although that was a bit different. This was definitely more like Lucius. The soothing sensation loosened knots in his spine and made a larger one rise in his throat. After that afternoon, the thought of any deeper touch nearly sent him screaming, but the reactions he'd suffered for too long - overwhelming gratitude, a touch of dizziness, a need to trust - held sway. He lifted his eyes to peer into blue ones full of concern.
"You're worth more than that," Dumbledore whispered. "Never forget it."
Severus was about to argue when soft lips and a scratchy beard pressed against his cheek. He was left with his jaw hanging slack. He leaned into the retreating touch; a weak, stifled whimper escaped him, and he felt the lightest serpentine sway of his spine.
One finger traced the side of his face. Dumbledore looked at him with something he might have mistaken for tenderness had he not known better. "You may be the most spectacular young man I will ever meet in my life. I only hope I can live up to your expectations."
Severus hunched into himself. Please don't, sir, he thought with an edge of dread.
Dumbledore squeezed Severus' hand once more and fished out his wand to repair the smashed jar. When it stood whole outside the bars again, Severus handed back the lid. His fingers brushed Dumbledore's; a strange rush of warmth rang through them. He smiled without really meaning to. Dumbledore smiled back.
"If you'll excuse me, Severus, I'd like to get this matter sorted."
"Should you ever have anything you'd like to tell me - anything at all - I'll be ready to listen."
Severus nodded. A bit of dizziness had formed in the middle of his head. Some part of him screamed that he'd told Dumbledore too much already; another begged to spill the whole vicious story. Then again, so long as he was in a Ministry holding cell, it would probably not be in his best interest to utter the phrase, "I'm glad my brother's dead."
Dumbledore grabbed his hand and squeezed. "I will get you out of here."
"Thank you, sir," Severus mumbled. The hair had fallen in his face again. He pushed it back. It really was too slick for words when it was clean.
Dumbledore stowed the jar in his robes again and went to knock on the door. It opened before he'd even finished. He cast a last concerned look back at Severus, who only stared, an odd, grateful sensation swelling beneath his breastbone--
The cannons from the 1812 Overture ripped him from sleep. Beside him, Harry groaned. From the corner of his crusty eye, Severus had the impression of elbows rising into the air and Harry rubbing his face.
"I'm killing Sirius," Harry muttered. "I want a normal alarm clock, I don't care what it sounds like. I just don't want any more fucking cannons."
"Then I suggest you turn the bollocking thing off so I might get some more sleep."
"Don't think so, mate. Whole team's been asking after you. I think Doyle's bird's going to plan an invasion if you're not there today. All right, all right, we're getting up!"
"Good morning!" the alarm clock sang. It fired one more round of cannons and fell silent.
With a groan, Harry rolled to face Severus. He pushed himself up on his hands, leaned over for a sleepy kiss, and more or less fell off the bed a few moments later. The duvet went with him, leaving Severus with the unenviable choice between going back to sleep in only his nightshirt and quite possibly freezing to death, or following Harry's lead and attempting to covet all the hot water for the bathtub before Harry stole it with the shower.
After a few moments' deliberation and a chilly draught running up his legs, he rolled to the side. His joints expressed their displeasure by first going solid, then only agreeing to move with a series of small crunching sounds. Severus groaned, but managed to fight his body into a sitting position. His mouth felt sticky and horrible, and he'd only given it a couple of satisfying, bleary smacks when the whole effort was ruined by a yawn. Without even opening his eyes, he shoved his feet into his slippers and shuffled half-asleep towards the bath.
The shower was already running when he got there. Great billowing clouds of steam flooded over the top of the glass door. Severus blinked at it, unimpressed, and stumbled through the inner door to the toilet.
A minute later, when he stumbled back out into the main bath (silently - very silently - thanking Remus Lupin and all his ancestors for having the sense to separate the one room into two), the shower was still running. He stuck one bare foot in the tub, wriggled around with his toes until he managed to get the stopper in the drain, and got a grip with them on the old-fashioned faucet handles while he turned on the sink tap with his hands. A short yelp came from the shower.
"Warn me first!" Harry shrieked. "That's fucking freezing!"
"You're awake, aren't you?" Severus found a bottle of bubble bath and dumped far too much into the running bathwater. Black had spent three days giving him utter Hell about his little "vice" until the idiot cur forgot to lock the door and Severus caught him nicking some. (Severus had also learned in the last way he could ever want that a certain Animagus did not, in fact, own a dressing gown. That part of his Christmas list had been made since August.)
"I was awake to start with! Don't you dare turn those off without telling me, I'll boil alive!"
"I shan't. You haven't fixed breakfast yet."
The door swung open, and Harry's foam-caked head popped out. He narrowed his eyes, rubbed shampoo out of one of them, and vanished once again. Grumbling came from beyond the frosted glass door.
With an annoyed little sigh, Severus brushed his teeth, squinting at the red and yellow tiles lining the walls. Black had done that on purpose. The bastard had never said so, but he didn't need to. Finishing up with a basin full of warm water and a soapy facecloth, Severus reached for the tub's faucet handles. "You may wish to brace yourself."
There was a moment of hurried squeaks and shuffling, and the sound of the showerhead being aimed at the floor. "Okay."
Severus shook his head, frowning, as he shut off the water. "I suspect your godfather included that little feature deliberately in order to remove me from the equation."
"Look, he's explained it a hundred times, Remus did the pipes. You'll have to take it up with him."
"He denies all knowledge of why it happened, thus leaving the obvious theory that it was sabotage on Black's part."
"So explain why Sirius only ever did it on purpose to Remus." Hence the dripping, towel-clad, snarling and enraged werewolf storming down the stairs and out the back door to drag a giggling Black out of a clump of gnarled pear trees by the ear. While Severus had certainly seen more of his unfortunate freeloaders than he'd ever wished, he couldn't complain about the entertainment.
"It's obvious. Incrimination."
There was a pause, during which Harry most likely engaged in a bout of eye rolling. "You can't be that paranoid."
"No, but it gives me something to do in my dotage." Severus dragged his nightshirt over his head and hung it on a hook in the wall before sliding into the bathtub. Hot water seared the chill of sleep from his muscles, and he settled into it until only his head remained above the concealing foam. Not for the first time since moving into the house, he gave silent thanks that Black was over six feet tall and thus less inclined to install a Harry- or Lupin-sized bath.
"Greasy bastard, you're barely forty."
"I'm forty-one, in case you've forgotten. If you have I may have to take you over my knee."
A spark of... something (hormones, perhaps) tempted Severus to climb out of the bath and oblige. An unbidden image of being pressed against the wall of the shower, Harry driving slow and hard, Severus trying to brace himself in the tiny space while rivulets ran over his skin like a thousand tiny fingers, left him dizzy. Dropping his head against the rim of the bath, he breathed hard for a moment, grateful for the heavy layer of foam hiding the beginnings of his all-too-obvious reaction. "Not if you're only going to enjoy it," he snapped.
A snort came over the rush of the shower. "Go on, spoil all my fun."
"I intend to."
"Yeah, I believe it. Grumpy git."
Severus only growled.
He devoted the next few minutes to scrubbing himself, paying careful attention to avoid certain areas lest he lose track of what he ought to be doing. A sinking ball of shame had swelled in his chest and begun migrating further down his body. It wasn't as though he'd never before been in such a state in front of his maritus, but it had been such a long time and, given Harry's reluctance to reciprocate, the last thing he wanted was to look like a randy teenager. Not that it would be the first time. Part of him wondered if he might be able to claim 'morning glory' again.
The shower cut off, snapping him out of it. A flushed arm snaked out, snatched a towel from the bar cutting across the door at waist height, and slithered back in with its prize. Several moments later, the door flew open and the most god-awful racket echoed off the tiles.
"Those fingers through my hair, that sly come-hither stare, that strips my conscience bare, it's wiiiiiiiitch-craaaaaaft! Duhn duh-duh dun..." Harry, clutching the filched Hogwarts towel around his hips, slunk out, hair dripping wet and pushed back from his face. He stepped in time to the caterwaul Severus supposed might have been interpreted as singing.
"What in Merlin's good name are you doing?" Severus roared.
Harry took a couple more steps, did a little spin, and thrust one arm wide. (The other, most fortunately or unfortunately - Severus couldn't decide - held firm to the towel.) He grinned like a pithed lab rat. "The gals on the team were singing it at the rest of us yesterday. Some Muggle song, I think."
He bent down, gave Severus a soggy smooch, and made for the door. Wiggling his arse, he picked up at, "'Cause it's... wiiiiiiiiiiitch-craaaaaaaft! Wicked wiiiiiiiitch-craaaaaaft! And although I know it's strictly tabooooooooo...!" His voice echoed scandalously down the hall.
Severus stared at the closed door. He wasn't sure whether he ought to be horrified at the graphically limited extent of Harry's vocal talents or enthralled by the slinky, if amateur, way he'd pranced about the room. His baser instincts seemed to make the decision for him, filling his brain with images of the light glinting from drops rolling down Harry's slender body, the smooth, sculpted ridges of muscle honed fifty feet above a pitch, the coy shimmer of moisture on his lower lip as he'd given Severus his own sly, come-hither stare. Severus didn't realise how potent the effect was until he felt a hand close around his cock; it took a moment to realise it was his own.
He very nearly jerked it away. A small twitch in his fingers made him bite his lower lip. The whimper that escaped was barely audible, but it rang across the tiles to his sharp ears. Don't do this, Severus, he told himself. You haven't got time, and you certainly haven't got any good reason to. A searing burst of sensation in his pelvis seemed to disagree.
"Stop this," he whispered. "You haven't needed anything in ten months now, and today is no different."
But, the annoying tiny voice in the back of his mind said, today is different. Otherwise, we wouldn't be having this discussion, now would we? How many nights have you lain awake to watch him?
"Shut up, shut up," he told himself. Another whimper escaped his throat as his hand twitched.
Admit it, Severus, you wish he were here watching you, don't you? You want him to see how much you want him. It might be the impetus he needs to join you. That's what you want, isn't it? Harry, overwhelmed by the moment, climbing into the bath, his hands trailing down your body, his mouth on your throat...
"Stop it--oh, god." He swallowed hard as his other hand snaked beneath his bent leg to prod at the long-neglected pucker of flesh. A fingertip brushed over its crinkled surface. It triggered a burst of fireworks rushing up his nerves and into his blood. "Oh, my god. Stop this..." He trailed off in a hiss as his body slumped against his fingertip, the nail catching on a tiny ridge of tissue.
... His weight pressing you against the ceramic, rubbing himself against you as he hardens, his fingers tensing against your chest, hot breath running over your face, his tongue sliding out to meet yours, those little squeaks coming with every ragged breath...
"I command you to--oh, god, oh, fucking god, please... stop this! You're making an utter fool of yours--" He gave a choked cry as his fingertip pushed through the taut ring of flesh. Muscle convulsed, devouring it further, and Severus whimpered as he bucked against himself. His other hand drew back the crown of delicate foreskin to expose aching, sensitive tissues to the sultry water; he moaned. "S... stop... thisss... you don't... oh, god, yes... don't deserve it..."
I think you do. You know he wants you, he said as much in Diagon Alley last week. You've seen the way he looks at you, that starved little glint in his eyes? He's forgiven you, Severus. He wants you. He wants to run his lips over your cock until you scream, then slide into you and make you scream again. Just imagine how hungry he would look if he were watching you.
"No," he moaned, sliding his finger deeper. It slid out again to a mournful, elated cry of nerves, only to slam in hard enough to make his entire body jerk. One leg was bent, his knee emerging from the breaking crust of foam, the other straight and set and barely propping him with his head out of the water. The dryness of his tissues only increased the slow, red burn immolating his sense of righteous shame. Rivulets of steaming water ran into the corners of his mouth. He spat them out, whimpering to himself, "Please don't... please don't... oh, god, mi Harry, please!"
He drove his own finger into his body. It brushed against a particular delicate spot, and he had to wrench his other hand from his cock, driving his teeth into the flesh of his forearm to keep from shrieking. Faster, harder, his insides burning as though the flesh had been rasped, he thrust against his own hand until the back of his skull cracked against the bath. He pictured Harry sliding his hand there to protect it, Harry removing the finger and replacing it with his own body, Harry taking him with hard, deliberate thrusts, green eyes staring down at him with all the seriousness of desire. Severus felt his own eyes close, his insides squeeze together, straining to draw his flesh in every little bit deeper and in the wicked touch find Harry.
He bit down hard enough to taste blood as his muscles clamped tight. They jerked. The swelling rush hit a fraction of a second later, and he drove it into the water, bucking and writhing, his nostrils flaring and the froth that built with every animalistic breath tasting of iron. He didn't know if he felt sweat or tears pouring with the blood, and he didn't care. He stayed there for a long, long minute, smelling the earthy stench of blood and feeling the tissues twitch a few last times against his hand.
With a low sob, he dropped his arm from his mouth and winced as sultry water pricked the wound. His heart slammed against his straining lungs. A shudder ran through his body as he realised he'd bitten himself until he bled. The only others to do that had been Death Eaters, whether Lucius or those who came later.
Still panting, Severus rinsed his mouth with bathwater, doing his best to ignore the reality of that situation, and tried to clean himself up. It was several minutes before he was able to get out of the water, and it took several more with Lupin's forgotten tin of Grandpa Claudius' Purposeless Salve to make himself presentable. Shaking, he wrapped a towel twice around his waist and went in search of clothes. The mocking voice in the back of his mind still insisted that he'd deserved his selfish bit of fantasy; Severus shivered when he realised he almost agreed.
They'd descended upon him like hyenas on a kill. Severus had simply stood there, taking it, lest they fuss more. Ellen Doyle crushed him in yet another hug; in the back of his mind, he wondered when he'd become irresistible to women and how he could make it stop.
"We've been so worried!" she cried. "Harry said you needed rest so we didn't try to visit, but, oh, sit down! You're going to wear yourself out."
"It is ten-fifteen in the morning, Mistress Doyle. I think I'll be fine on my own two feet."
She steered him into a chair in the arena's green room anyway. Aloysius McMartin, who for once was not attached at the lips to Chaser Serena Simon, offered him a mug of coffee. Severus arched an eyebrow, took it with the barest hint of a nod, and looked around until Aloysius handed over the sugar cubes. Severus dropped seven into the bitter liquid, along with a good deal of milk, and stirred the ambrosia until it cooled enough for him to take a sip. He winced. "This has been decaffeinated."
"Harry said you're not allowed any." Ellen plopped down on the ottoman in front of him. Her round, genial face glowed with a grin. "So, what's it like to come back from the dead?"
He gave her a look. "What on Earth gives you the impression I have ever come back from the dead?"
"Oh, for..." He rolled his eyes and took half his coffee in one scalding go. "To which time are you referring?" Severus snapped.
Her eyes went wide. "What are you, immortal?"
She started to open her mouth. Suddenly she gave him a disparaging look and smacked his knee. "Silly bugger."
"I'll bugger however I bloody well please." He took another mouthful of coffee as it sank in. Most of the women in the room broke down; most of the men turned red.
Ellen squashed her hand up against her mouth, giggling and snorting. "Hush," she said. "You're a bad influence, you know that? Now I'm going to have to call Harry that just to see what he says."
Severus snorted. "If he's just taken a Bludger, you'll be lucky to get a, 'what?'" He did his best exaggeration of a vacuous, Bludger-beaten stare.
She shook her head and stuffed a copy of that morning's Prophet into his hands. "Hush. Read. He told us to make sure you don't strain yourself. Should I take out the political section?"
He shot her a glower and buried his nose in the paper.
Through some miracle, Harry had allowed him to stay home an extra two hours. Severus had taken advantage of the time to break down another batch of Unicorn Blood for later preparation. The whole mess currently sat under a stasis spell, in case of invasion, explosion, or act of God. Now and then, he considered skiving off altogether and taking the consequences, but part of him had missed watching Harry on the pitch. It was a childish, silly thing, but he did suffer a smug swell of pride at the "... aaaaaand Potter!" whenever the Cannons swooped out of their box. The fact that the crowd turned into screaming berserkers when it happened had even been known to make him crack a smile.
He stayed in his chair, reading the paper and catching snatches of conversation around him, until fifteen minutes before the match. One of the arena lackeys stuck his head in and mentioned the time. The Cannons' wives and husbands and other relations said goodbye to those of the Wigtown Wanderers as each headed to their respective sides of the pitch.
Severus dragged himself from his chair, trying not to wince. He'd done his best not to think about his bout of indiscretion in the bath, but a dull ache in his hindquarters left a reminder of why it was not a good idea to break celibacy - alone or with help - without proper use of lubrication. He squirmed, adjusted his thick woollen robe, and followed Ellen Doyle with an air of detached superiority.
It was a crisp day at the far end of October. The next day being Halloween, Cannons fans had made the most of it by decking out in orange and black. Flags waved everywhere, and more than a handful of carved, glowing jack-o-lanterns hovered above the mass of people despite the lack of clouds. Severus blinked up at the flax-field of blue above him. The late autumn sky was the same colour Albus' eyes had been. The corner of Severus' mouth quirked up at the thought of Albus watching the world through the endless window above him.
He perched in the front row of the family section. Ellen settled in next to him - Severus had the nagging feeling Harry had asked her to keep an eye out for him - and plucked a small book from her bag. The cover read, Great Wizards and Witches Through The Ages: Giving Your Baby A Name To Be Proud Of. He arched an eyebrow, glancing at her.
She looked up at him, and hid her bashful grin in the book. "We only found out two weeks ago."
Severus sniffed. "Have you considered Severus?"
She laughed. "I don't think we want a daughter named Severus. We're actually talking about Philia."
He blinked. "Oh?" A small, excited throb started in his belly.
"After Philia MacLeary. You know Erronius, always on about Quidditch. He wants seven, says he wants to raise the next National Squad."
"Ah." His immediate interest stifled, he left her to flick through the book, picking out names of Quidditch twits through the ages.
Fortunately, the match began only a few minutes later. He shifted in his seat one last time as the Wanderers took their positions. Their Seeker, Adrienne Wilburne, a bland-looking young woman with a notorious temper, hovered, crouching over her broom like a predator. Severus recalled her from Hogwarts; she'd been a dangerous thing then, as well, too unpredictable to be any use over a cauldron but a force to be reckoned with on a broom. With an ironic smirk, he remembered that she'd been the Seeker to leave school to make way for Harry.
Moments later, the announcer's voice boomed out over the stadium, "And with the Chudley Cannons we have Burns! Simon! Keebler! Naipul! Jenkins! Doyle! Aaaaaaaaaaand Potter!" Seven orange streaks swept over the pitch to a thunder of screams and catcalls.
"Marry me, Harry!" shrieked a young woman sitting just in front of the family section. Severus cleared his throat. She turned, squeaked when she saw him, and hunched down in her seat as far as she could.
Doyle took his place near the goalposts while the Beaters and Chasers settled on the grass in formation. Harry swept upwards, taking his place opposite Wilburne. He nodded to her; she didn't react (although Severus pictured her eyes narrowing in spite). Harry glanced around to the Cannons family section. Severus knew he smiled and for an instant did so in return.
The two captains - both Beaters, Siddhartha Naipul and a wicked Scotsman named Tony Weir - shook hands before taking their places again. The crowd roared like an enormous lion when the Bludgers went up, followed by the Quaffle and the Snitch.
"And they're off!" the announcer shouted. "The Wanderers seem to think they've got this one in the bag already, folks, what with the way they're handling that Quaffle. It goes from York to Feaney to York to Michaelson and back to Feaney. Simon attempts an intercept--oh, and that's got to hurt! Weir is wicked with those Bludgers! Doyle steels himself for the Quaffle. They're almost at the goal, Hawkshead Formation with the Beaters making it near impossible to get anything past them. The Quaffle's off, and--OH, MY GOD! WHAT'S HAPPENED TO POTTER?"
Harry hung in the middle of the pitch, writhing and thrashing, clutching at his broom with one hand. Severus shot to his feet. He found he could do little more than stand there, staring, his insides turning cold and black, as Harry tried to fight his way back onto the broom. Out of sheer instinct Severus muttered a counter-hex; it made no difference whatsoever. Jenkins and Keebler swept towards him, Keebler trying to nudge him back onto his broom and Jenkins keeping away a bloodthirsty Bludger. Naipul followed, nudging Keebler out of the way and sorting out the other Bludger as it came for Harry's skull. Wilburne swooped away to hunt for the Snitch.
Harry, still thrashing, managed to hook one leg over his broom and drag it to solid ground in a starfish-with-stick manoeuvre. Naipul and Jenkins started pounding on his back. Harry jerked away. Writhing, twitching, he thrust an arm down the back of his robe, clutching towards his shoulder blades with desperate gropes, spinning in place. He clutched the small of his back with his other hand, forcing his clawing fingers upwards. Suddenly, he yanked his fist from his clothing and held it up.
"I DON'T BELIEVE IT! HE'S GOT THE SNITCH! HE'S GOT THE BLOODY SNITCH!" the announcer shrieked as the crowd stormed to its feet. Severus let go a breath and collapsed in his seat. Swallowing hard, he simply breathed until his lungs burned.
A soft patting motion on his leg brought him out of it. "It's all right," Ellen murmured. "He's fine, got the Snitch caught in his robe, that's all. He's harder to hurt than that."
Severus shook his head, shrugged, blinked hard only to open his eyes and see Harry looking around in a daze. Wilburne hovered above him, pointing and shouting something Severus couldn't hear over the crowd. Weir flew up to her, leaned in close, and she swept off the pitch in a huff. The final score flashed on the board, CANNONS 150, WANDERERS 10.
Both teams left the pitch. Over several minutes, the crowd dispersed, some laughing, a few grumbling about the shortness of the match. Most seemed pleased, however. Severus hung back until the family section had cleared save him and Ellen. She stood, holding out her hand. "Come on, you, he'll be wanting to see you after that."
Severus grunted. He gave no fight, though, and allowed himself to be led down to where a virtual sea of fans and reporters had gathered around the Cannons' changing rooms. At the front of the pack stood Rita Skeeter, all but glowing in fuchsia robes. The same photographer that had tailed her around Hogwarts stood at her left elbow, tapping a fresh magnum of flash potion into his camera. Rita herself was digging in her handbag for a quill. She glanced up, and beamed in a most disgusting way.
"Mister Snape!" she called. "Mister Snape, a few questions for Witch Weekly!"
He ignored her, taking his spot next to the changing room door. Rita didn't seem impressed. That damned quill of hers scratched across a pad of parchment; he shuddered to think what sorts of lies it was concocting about him.
The door finally swung open, and the Cannons exited en masse. They formed a protective phalanx around Harry, Jenkins and Naipul on either side of him. Harry looked ashen; what faint trace of colour remained in his face when he walked out vanished as soon as he saw the opposing phalanx in front of him. Naipul murmured something and touched his shoulder, but Harry flinched and pulled away.
Severus swept in, pushing through the team. "Are you all right?" he asked under his breath.
Harry nodded and buried himself in Severus' side. He was almost childlike, wiggling his way beneath the worn black cloak and wrapping it around his shoulder. A low, affectionate "aww" rose up in the crowd; Harry burrowed closer. Even through layers of clothing, Severus could feel his heart pounding in his heaving chest.
"Mister Potter, can you tell us what happened?" Skeeter asked.
"The Snitch just flew up his robe," Simon said. "Was the damnedest thing. It took off and the next thing he knew it was caught against his back."
"Yes, well, I'm sure that's all fine and good," Skeeter snapped, "but I think our readers would like to hear Mister Potter's take on the issue."
"That is Mister Potter's take on the issue," Naipul said. "If you'll excuse him, he's just nearly fallen seventy feet onto a rock-hard pitch, and he's a bit shaken. We're all a bit shaken, frankly. Don't push him. He's only a kid."
Severus cocked an eyebrow at Naipul. Naipul cocked one back. "Thanks, Sid," Harry mumbled too softly for the reporters to hear.
"Don't mention it." Naipul's steely eyes were fixed on Skeeter, staring her down. She looked most disgruntled. "If any of you have any questions, the rest of us would be more than happy to answer them."
While the Cannons fielded questions, Severus whispered into Harry's ear, "What happened?"
Harry shook his head. "You saw."
"Potter, I've seen you plummet from your broom half a dozen times, and you've told me about at least twenty more. This has nothing to do with that."
Harry shrugged. "Don't want to talk about it."
He clung to Severus like lichen for the entire five minutes or so Skeeter and her colleagues bombarded the team. His heart never stopped pounding, and the only colour to develop in his face was an unsettling magenta flush that somehow left the surface of his skin waxy and pale. Severus let him cling as tightly as he needed to, shooting protective glares at the cameras as they flashed. Finally, the Cannons' manager, Eliza Croix, announced that she needed to speak with the team and led the lot of them through a labyrinthine passage and into their box just next to the pitch.
"Is he going to be okay?" she asked Severus, blonde brows pinched in the middle and a confused scowl twisting her mouth. The stadium had cleared, leaving the nine of them alone in the cold, crisp air. Small clouds hung in front of their mouths as they breathed.
"Yes," Severus said. He pushed a bit of hair out of Harry's face. Harry glanced up at him. His expression very clearly said, "I want to go home."
Severus nodded. He looked up to tell Eliza they were leaving when a nerve-grating voice said, "Victory get-together?"
Rita Skeeter swept in with her photographer. She ignored eight collective glares as she set her pad and quill on a bench. The quill continued to write. She turned her attention on Harry. With the nastiest smile Severus had ever seen on anyone but Narcissa Malfoy herself, she said, "That's better, away from the teeming crowd. How about a Cannons exclusive for Witch Weekly then?"
"Miss Skeeter, this is a restricted area," Croix growled. "I'm going to have to ask you to leave."
"Press pass." Skeeter waved a bit of parchment with a flippant air; an instant later, it had vanished into her pocket. A camera flashed behind her. Severus blinked as spots of light flashed in front of his eyes. Harry, who had loosened his grip when the crowd was out of sight and the rest of his team had given him some room, flinched. He, too, was glaring with the rest of them.
"So," Skeeter said brightly, "what really happened out there? Adrienne Wilburne is demanding a rematch, you know. She claims it was an unfair catch and should have been stricken. Have you got anything to say on the matter, Harry?"
"What?" Skeeter looked around, surprised. "Oh, owl."
The damnable bird all but cuffed Severus in the head. It dropped an envelope on the ground in front of him. "Mr. Severus Snape and Mr. Harry Potter", it read. Harry blinked at it.
"Wonder what's so urgent?" he muttered, picking it up. He glanced over the envelope; it bore a small red stamp, stating that it had been cleared for enclosed hexes. Skeeter bounded over and hovered above his shoulder.
"What's that? From an admirer, maybe?"
"None of your damned business, that's what it is," Harry snapped. "Get away from me."
Skeeter turned an unattractive shade of red. Croix cleared her throat and asked, "Would you please leave, Miss Skeeter? Otherwise, I'll have to call security."
Skeeter narrowed her eyes. She gave them a tense, brief smile, though, and gathered up her quill and pad. "Next time then."
"Sorry, no," Harry said.
The moment Skeeter vanished back down the winding passage, Naipul dug his nails into his palms and growled. "Bitch," he muttered under his breath.
"Damn right," Erronius said. Most of the team murmured agreement.
They stood about, talking about more or less nothing for a few minutes before Croix ducked out to check the labyrinth. She stuck her head back in to give them the all clear. Severus swept Harry out ahead of the rest of the team. They re-entered the main part of the arena near the changing rooms once more. Severus glanced at the envelope in Harry's hands. "Dare we?"
Harry shrugged. "How bad can it be?" Digging one finger into the top of the envelope, he ripped in. (Severus noted he opened it away from his face.) It seemed harmless enough. Harry peered inside. "Weird envelope, looks like it's waxed or something." He plucked the letter from inside. "Ugh!" He dropped it. "It's all sticky!"
Severus glanced at him. In the back of his brain, something unwanted and subconscious began counting, One, two...
"Ooh, a love letter from an admirer?" Skeeter swooped down out of nowhere. Her photographer did the same; he knelt to pick up the letter.
"Ugh, it is." Wrinkling his nose, the man dropped it again. "Feels like it's got glue on or something."
"Leave us alone," Severus spat. "Go find someone else to hound, you manipulative cow."
"Sev, let's get out of here," Harry muttered. Footsteps were coming up fast behind them. With any luck, the team's combined presence would scare the pair of them away.
"Is there any particular reason you don't want to speak to our readers, Mister Snape? I've only got a few questions," Skeeter nattered while her cameraman fished a handkerchief from his pocket and spat on the corner. Severus felt a sudden urge to shout at the man to stop. Bollocks. Not possible.
"No comment," he snapped.
"Don't you think it's strange that an accused Death Eater would pair up with The Boy Who Lived? Not to mention your age difference. In fact, rumours have been circulating that you in fact began your relationship when he was your student. Have you anything to say in response?"
Severus started to tell her to mind her own business. He was most rudely interrupted by a horrified shriek as the cameraman's hand burst into flames. The flames rampaged, running up his arm as he howled. Skeeter cursed and waved her wand at him, throwing Extinguishing Charm after Extinguishing Charm his way. She was joined the barest moment later by the majority of the Cannons. It had no effect.
The man ran, hitting walls, trying to smother the flames against the stones. The air grew hazy and dark. Fire swelled from his body, crackling the skin and only silencing his screams a quarter minute later when he tumbled down in a twitching pile. The fire ran for a few seconds more, snapping and fighting until nothing remained but a heap of blackened bone. The air was thick with the stench of burnt flesh. Harry stared. Against Severus, he began to tremble.
Harry fell to his knees. "Sev... S-S-Sev-erus..."
"Merlin," Skeeter keened. She stumbled back against the wall. "What in... what in god's name was that?"
"Harry, you're going to be fine," Severus said, kneeling. "Stay calm, don't touch anything that might have water in. Try not to sweat." More loudly, he called, "Somebody get the purest alcohol in the arena, now."
Naipul, Simon, and Doyle vanished, the rest of the team staring in shock. A blue-robed security wizard appeared, swore, and Disapparated.
"Wh... at is that?"
"It's called Immolatus Compound. It reacts with water. Don't worry, I can neutralise it."
"Stay calm, don't close your fist. Are your fingers burning?"
Harry nodded. He was white as the moon.
Severus fought himself not to bite his lower lip. He forced himself to breathe. Burning sensation begins within two minutes, ignition within three and a half. Can be neutralised with wood or grain alcohols until ignition takes place. Upon ignition, chain reaction will not stop until sufficient available moisture is depleted. Do not use under humid conditions. He'd written those notes nearly a quarter of a century earlier. Until now, they'd seldom been more than clinical.
The tips of Harry's fingers were turning red. Severus waved air over them to evaporate any moisture developing on his palm. A bare second later, Doyle appeared next to him, juggling dozens of sealed alcohol pads.
"Broke into the field doctor's unit," he panted.
"Is that the best you could do?" Severus hissed. "We haven't exactly got all day, here." He ripped open one of the packets anyway, plucking out the alcohol pad and swiping it over one of Harry's fingers. He immediately dropped it. Doyle copied him. Naipul appeared with more of the things a moment later. He joined in, but his thick fingers were slower than Severus' or Erronius' and after a few moments he shrugged and fell back.
The timer ran in Severus' head. Two minutes thirty, thirty-five, forty, forty-five, and on up. "Is it still burning?"
Harry nodded, gritting his teeth. "My other hand, too, now."
"Fuck." Severus grabbed it, dragging more of the alcohol over the reddening tips of Harry's fingers. Fifty-five, three minutes, three and five...
Suddenly, Simon Apparated in the middle of them. In one hand she held a large bottle bearing price stickers from a Chudley off-license. "Ogden's Brutal," she panted. "Had it... at home for... punch."
"Open the damned bottle, you daft cow!" Severus shouted. She did, dumping the stuff in a messy stream over Harry's hands, splashing it down his robes, Severus' robes, Doyle's, the floor. The sharpness of almost-pure alcohol saturated the air. Severus grabbed Harry's wrists and rubbed his hands together under the clear stream.
"Keep pouring," he said between his teeth when she started to lift the half-empty bottle. Three and twenty, twenty-five...
"I will buy you every fucking bottle of that cack in the country. If you dare stop pouring now I shall make you wish you'd died at the hands of Lord Voldemort when you had the chance!"
She shuddered. "I was going to say, but his hands look normal."
"I know that. Keep - fucking - pouring."
She did. A few seconds later when the bottle finally emptied, she set it down. It refilled, although much more slowly than the cheap stuff. Harry was still waxen, still pale. He stared at the blackened remains of the photographer, which had at some point been surrounded by security wizards.
A black-cloaked figure popped into existence, then another, then another. Aurors swarmed around the body. They kept looking at Severus. He hunched, turning back to Harry, his breath quick in his throat.
"Is it still burning? At all?"
Harry paused a moment. Slowly, he shook his head. Severus picked up the quarter-full bottle of Brutal anyway and flooded Harry's hands once more from the wrists out. Once he'd done that to his relative satisfaction, he shifted a little to face the envelope and letter lying on the ground and flooded them as well. The blank parchment gave a little fizzle and disintegrated.
"Harry?" he murmured.
Harry nodded, more like a mechanical reflex than a voluntary response. He was taut, too taut, staring at nothing. His elbows were pressed into his sides, and his hands had twisted in some vicious rictus. Severus put his arms around him and pulled him against his chest. Harry gave a weak, stifled sob and simply shook.
A hand clamped down on Severus' shoulder. "I'm afraid we're going to have to take you in for questioning, Mister Snape."
"Why?" he snarled.
"He didn't do anything," Naipul cut in. "Hell, he saved Harry's life!"
The Auror waved a thumb back at the pile of charred bones behind them. "What about that bloke?"
"Sev didn't touch him," Harry croaked. "He didn't do anything."
"That's right, he knew what to do, but he didn't."
"Come off it," Doyle snapped. "Severus, did you know what that stuff was before that fellow...?"
Severus shook his head. After all, a paranoid suspicion was very different from concrete proof.
"I find that hard to believe," came a second voice. Severus glanced over. Yves Montague, who'd come up in the ranks over the years, nudged the corpse with his toe. He said something to the other Aurors. One conjured a stretcher, levitated the body onto it, and led it towards the arena Floo connection. "I mean, it's not as if you've never seen it before."
"Montague, I will come willingly if you will kindly allow me to take Harry someplace safe and if you fucking shut up."
Montague snorted. Severus heard Skeeter's quill scratching in the background. "You know, we've been studying that little potion for years now. I know one person with the Ministry can make it, but as far as I'm aware the only others who ever had the formula were Death Eaters."
"So why don't you talk to them?"
Montague knelt down. He patted Severus on the back; Severus flinched. "Because," the goddamned Auror said, "when it all comes down to it, it's best just to look to the source."
Harry stirred. He looked up at Severus with red-eyed puzzlement. Severus gazed back at him, silent and tight-lipped. He felt the eyes of the Cannons, of Rita Skeeter on him. That damnable quill still scratched away in the background.
In silence, he got to his feet. Harry clung to him. Severus kissed him and pushed him out at arm's length. "I'd like to see Mister Potter to Hogwarts before I go with you anywhere."
"I'll come with you." Montague took him by the elbow. "This isn't an arrest, Skeeter, we're only taking him for questioning."
"Of course," she said. She sounded shaken but malicious as ever.
The Cannons stood by, stunned. Naipul finally spoke up. "Is there anything we need to do?"
Severus started to shake his head. He stopped. "Feed my phoenix. Or at least contact Remus Lupin or Sirius Black at Hogwarts and make sure they've done it."
"All right." Naipul's sharp, dark eyes were fixed on Severus, torn between awe, curiosity, and fear.
"And contact Arthur Weasley with the Ministry, make sure he knows what's going on."
Severus drew Harry close for a moment. He looked at Montague. "We shall meet you just outside the Hogwarts gates."
"I want to stay with you," Harry whispered.
Severus started to say, "I know." Instead, he only hugged Harry closer. Really, it didn't need to be said. It wouldn't change fact, and it couldn't make the fact any easier.
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