The Last Battlefield
Chapter 12 - Cracks
Someone was shaking him.
"Go away," Severus growled. He yanked the covers over his head, trying to block the person as well as the light searing a lacy pattern of capillaries into the backs of his eyes. He heard a chuckle and felt the top two blankets being drawn back.
"What're you doing out here?"
"Hmph. Trying to get some rest." Severus pushed back the third blanket and cracked his eyes open. Harry's silhouette broke a hole through the blinding white light. There was something familiar about the light he couldn't place; a flicker of his dream from the night - something about a legend Gran had told him once - made sense of it. He groaned and crushed his face into the squashy Cushioning Charm balancing him above the soggy earth. "Go away. You're the one always on at me to sleep."
"Yeah, but not outside in a cemetery in November. Come on." Harry shook him again. "What're you doing out here, anyway?"
"Came to see Gran." Severus wriggled. A chilly draught slid into the blankets and down his neck. He shuddered. "What are you doing out here?"
"I was panicking. Woke up and you weren't there. Didn't know if you'd gone off and..." Harry trailed off. He shook his head. "Didn't know where you'd gone." He blinked. "Sleep well?"
Harry paused. In a hushed voice, he asked, "Nightmares again?"
"No, it's bloody freezing out here!" Severus yawned, and smacked his mouth a few times. "I dreamt I was in a cave. Something called the Rhombus. Some legend Gran told me ages ago."
"I've never heard it."
"I'm not surprised. The story died over a century ago."
"How'd she know?"
"How d'you think?" Severus jerked the covers back over his head. "She'd read about it. She thought the cave where the Brampton Scrolls had been found was where the legend had come from."
"Those were the ones with the Unicorn Blood, right?"
"That's an odd thing to be dreaming about."
"Would you rather I had the nightmares?"
Harry fell silent. He touched Severus on the shoulder, wrapping his fingers in the blankets. "Come back inside. Dobby and Sissy have breakfast ready, and we've got visitors."
"I don't want visitors."
"Well, you've got them anyway, and after the wards I'm not sure Molly and Arthur want to be kept waiting."
Severus stuck his head out of the blankets and frowned up at Harry. "What are they doing here?"
"Dunno, but they want to see you."
"What time is it?"
"How did they get here?"
"Sirius steered. He's got a lesson, or he'd be here, too."
Severus grunted. "I've no interest in seeing anybody."
He tossed off his conjured blankets anyway. They dissolved in the sunlight. Severus pushed himself to a sitting position with a great number of unhealthy cracking noises. He yawned.
Harry placed a small peck on his mouth. "Want me to talk to them while you have a bath?"
"I can have a bath later."
"It might wake you up."
Severus squinted at Harry. Shards of sunlight still cut into his vision. "Coffee shall do nicely, thank you. Have we at least got some of that?"
"Yeah, the elves brought enough stuff for a month. Once you've got the wards down, and Remus brings us some Muggle things, I'll go down the shops and see if there's a greengrocer."
"If you try to feed me spinach, I'll have your head on a pike. I don't care what the doctor says."
"I didn't make the rules."
"Hmph. Admit it, it gives you unparalleled joy to see me suffer."
"Call it revenge for seven years of Potions class."
Together, they wrestled Severus to his feet. The Cushioning Charm squashed beneath his shoes. It hovered on a mound of dead, bent grass surrounding headstones in various states of wear.
Severus laid his hand on the top of Gran's plain stone. He bent, kissed its lichen-covered surface, and staggered towards the house. Near the cemetery gate, he paused at another stone, a large one in the children's section. He drew back his foot and kicked it.
"Eversor?" Harry asked.
"Monster." Making a careful point of treading on the grave itself, Severus swept through the rusted gate and towards the promise of caffeine.
He stomped his shoes as clean as he could and left them sitting on the scullery floor. The moment he set foot in the kitchen, Molly swooped down upon him and grabbed him in a hug. "Where were you? You had us worried sick. Arthur and the elves and I have been searching high and low."
"And a good morning to you as well, Mistress Weasley." Severus shook himself loose, arched an eyebrow at her, and stormed towards the dining room. It was spotless but as drab as ever. The table was laid with eggs, thick rashers of bacon, fried tomatoes, toast, pumpkin juice, crumpets, butter, jam, a handful of satsumas already peeled and sectioned, and, at the head of the mess, a small mug of coffee with so much milk it was white and a large bowl of porridge topped with a crumbling lump of demerara sugar. He snarled, and fell into his chair to stab a spoon into the bowl. He left it there.
"That's it, dear," Molly said, brushing through and patting him on the shoulder. "Eat your breakfast. Arthur! Arthur, Harry's found him!" She bustled out. "Arthur!"
Severus blinked. There was nobody else in the room. The laden table stretched out before him. Glancing from side to side, he leaned forward. He'd just closed his fingers around a rasher when a sharp voice shouted, "Drop it!"
"Mister Potter, I shall eat what I want when I want!" His fingers came loose anyway, and he fell back in his seat, glaring. Staring straight at Harry, he lifted his fingers to his mouth and sucked the grease from each one in turn.
Harry gave him a cool look. "Uh-huh, you'd better enjoy it 'cause that's all you're having. Did you wash your hands?"
"I want a sodding piece of bacon."
"You can have one when the doctor says it's all right. Go." Harry pointed to the kitchen. "There's soap on the draining board."
Severus thrust his chair back so hard it squealed. He stormed out, muttering, "Sod my hands, no point if I can't have enough to eat to keep a hummingbird alive."
"I heard that. And don't use that excuse on me, hummingbirds eat more than half their weight every day. I looked it up!"
"Congratulations! You've finally learned to use that lump in your skull! Now use it to get me a proper breakfast!" Severus swooped upon the sink; Harry's chuckles weren't quite lost in the sound of running water.
Severus scrubbed up as quickly as he could, rinsing his face as well and drying it on a tea towel hanging next to the window. He glanced around at the kitchen. It was larger than the one in Godric's Hollow, but where that one was warm and efficient, this monstrosity with its stone floor and cavernous pantries was a relic of ages past. Even the brick-topped stove had a hollow in the bottom to lay an open fire. Thank Merlin for Heating Charms.
Despite his hurry, by the time he returned, Harry, Molly, and Arthur were all seated around the table. Arthur was slathering a crumpet with butter. Molly had a mug of coffee to her lips and a forkful of scrambled eggs in the other hand. Harry had wrapped a bit of toast around a mess of eggs, bacon, and tomato, and had fitted half of it into his mouth. He glanced up at Severus and tried to smile around his mouthful.
Severus sniffed. He swept to his seat. Half a piece of bacon stuck from the porridge. Glancing about, he hunched over the bowl predatorily and scraped the porridge from the fried meat before stuffing it into his mouth. "Where's the rest?"
"Don't talk with your mouth full, dear," Molly said, and took a sip of proper coffee.
Severus crunched and swallowed about half. With the rest squirreled away in his cheeks, he snapped, "Where's the rest? I only saw half a rasher."
Harry lifted the remains of his sandwich. "Mmph." His jaw pulled the rest of his face taut as he chewed far, far too much at once.
"Very funny." Severus shot him a glare and necked back his coffee. He held out the mug. "Might I have enough to have some effect now, please?"
Molly took the mug from his hands and replaced it with a glass of pumpkin juice. "There you are."
Severus stared at it. His nose wrinkled. Grumbling, he dropped the glass next to his bowl and proceeded to drag his spoon through the wet lump of chaff in front of him. He leaned on his elbow, glancing up just long enough to see Arthur assemble a sandwich like Harry's and stick it in his mouth.
"Bugger this," he muttered.
Arthur choked on his sandwich. Harry pounded him on the back until he broke down in stifled laughter while Molly snapped, "Severus!"
"I want a decent meal, Molly."
"And when the doctor says it's all right, I'm sure Harry will let you stuff yourself until you pop. Until then... Well, we've all got to make sacrifices sometimes, haven't we?"
"Made plenty of bloody sacrifices already. Never stopped me from having a bit of bacon." Severus squashed the lumps of sugar into his porridge, picturing Doctor Westing's pudgy face on each one. "Why are you here?"
"We didn't want you and Harry to be alone your first day out in the world." Molly reached over to pat his hand. She stopped as his fingers clenched around his spoon. Clearing her throat, she added, "We brought you a few things as well."
"Do they include bacon?"
Arthur shook his head. He swallowed. "A bit more serious than that. A friend of mine sneaked me something this morning." He reached down to the floor. A moment later, a brown folder slid across the table towards Severus. Picking up his sandwich again, Arthur said, "You'll be wanting to read that now, I think."
"Arthur, let the man finish his breakfast--"
"I've already finished." Severus pushed his bowl away and grabbed the folder. He glanced up at Arthur. "Why aren't you at work?"
Arthur froze. He set down his sandwich and wiped his mouth on a napkin. "Oh, nothing serious. Um, a few people weren't too happy about me coming to fetch you. Apparently, there are regulations I was supposed to have followed. Never heard of any regulations like what they said on releasing unlawfully kept prisoners."
"Oh." Harry slid down in his chair. He wrapped his arms around himself, staring at nothing. "I'm so sorry."
"Don't worry, haven't been sacked yet, only suspended." Arthur picked up his sandwich again and looked at it. "We've been through lean times before, we'll manage. It was worth it."
Severus snorted. He made a mental note to have a thousand Galleons or so transferred anonymously into the Weasleys' Gringotts vault. He flipped open the folder. The top sheet's header read:
"What is it?" Harry crept around the table. He leaned against the back of Severus' chair, reading over his shoulder.
Subject: Uden, Irene Perdita
Date of birth: 12 November, 1959
Date of death: 21 September, 1999; 11:14 a.m.
Occupation: Auror, junior (second class); Special Task Forces (field inactive as of 30-04-99)
Cause of death: Accidental; Killing Curse, close-range.
All findings within normal parameters for Killing Curse. No potions traces located in bloodstream. No evidence of other spells. No evidence of foul play; witnesses attest to training accident, Auror-in-training Sekhmet Al-Sharati not charged.
Extensive curse scarring on hands, upper extremities, most of lower body. Evidence of self-infliction. Holds with known facts about subject.
Dark Mark activated upon lower abdominal incision. Foetus calcified; self-immolated on removal. No signs of development past first trimester. Magical dating places age of foetus at roughly twenty-five years. Upon immolation, all visible traces of Dark Mark vanished. Attempts at re-ignition unsuccessful. (See attached photographs, 13C through 16F.)
Severus stared at the page. He flipped through the thin stack of parchments; there were no photographs present, although swathes of text had been blacked out. He slammed the folder shut and leaned forward. "Arthur, what is going on here?"
"I don't know," Arthur said, looking solemn. "That's not the full report, but it was all I could get to copy. I got to see some of the pictures, though, and she had the Mark clear as day, right there on her belly. The strange part is--"
"This is the strange part."
"No, Severus. The strange part is that there was a rash of deaths in Azkaban in the two weeks before and after this. Some virus got loose, killed something like twenty-seven prisoners. The odd thing is, there were only seventeen bearers of the Dark Mark left, and it killed eleven. Something like five more have died or been Kissed since then." Arthur tapped the folder. "I heard that three other witches were killed in the same time period as that virus. My friend says all of them had the Dark Mark, too, on their abdomens as well."
"I'm not really sure. Sounds like it might have been one of You-Know-Who's experiments. All the foetuses were supposedly calcified, but the Marks were still linked to them."
"Arthur, have you got to talk about this at the table?" Molly pushed her plate away.
"Sorry, dear." Arthur paused. "Severus, I don't suppose you know--?"
"Not a thing."
"All right." Arthur leaned back in his chair and pinched the bridge of his nose. "Don't say anything about any of this, especially the part about Azkaban. Oh, and speaking of prisons, I don't want you leaving the grounds. Where were you this morning? Anyone could have found you."
"He was in the cemetery," Harry said in a sullen voice. "It's on the property, don't worry."
"Why was he in the cemetery?"
"Where else am I supposed to get a decent night's rest in this place?" Severus pulled himself rigid. Underneath the table, he fingered the raised scars on his left forearm. Arthur gave him a very odd look; he felt Molly's eyes on him as well. Glaring at the bowl of eggs, he growled, "I'd rather sleep on a grave than in any bed in this house."
"It can't be as bad as all--"
"Molly, don't try to lecture me on things you don't understand."
She gave him a cool look. "You'll catch your death."
"It sounds as though there's someone who'd be very pleased with that." Severus picked up a satsuma slice and stuffed it in his mouth. "Blasted Aurors."
"Ah, Severus, I hate to tell you this," Arthur scratched his nose and looked like he was trying to hide behind his hand, "but the friend who gave me this is an Auror. He works closely with the Department of Mysteries."
"Ah." Severus pushed the folder away. "In that case, I think it would be for the best if I were to disregard this," he said with a faint sneer. "Is there anything else you need?"
Arthur slid the folder back towards him. "No, listen to me. This fellow's trustworthy. I've got Percy trying to look into it as well, but I don't expect much from him. Not every Auror is out to get you."
"Could have fooled me." Severus pushed his chair back and rose to his feet. "I'll let you three have some time alone. Good day."
With a curt nod each to Molly and Arthur, he swept out of the room. Harry called after him, but Severus only scurried up the stairs as fast as he could and down the hall to lock himself in the master bath.
As soon as he flung open the bedroom door, one of the house-elves squeaked. "Master Severus! Where is you being all night? Harry Potter is being crazed, looking for you, sir!" Dobby stood at the head of the bed, a stunned look on his mournful, misshapen face.
"I was minding my own business, Dobby. I advise you to do the same." He shot the elf a look as he knelt to rummage through the trunk.
Dobby tugged at the bedspread, tucking it beneath the pillows and smoothing it with a small palm. He kept watching Severus. Severus, pulling out robes, ignored him.
"Bollocks," he muttered, yanking out the screaming red robe and tossing it back over his shoulder. The deeper red followed, then the velvet, then the green. "Haven't I got any real clothes?"
"Sir, I is thinking your father is having some--"
Dobby squeaked and shrank into himself at the glower Severus gave him.
With a final snort, Severus grabbed a pair of boxers and the velvet robe and stormed towards the bath. "Unpack that thing."
"Yes, sir." Dobby paused. Just as Severus opened the door, he asked, "Master Severus?"
Severus glanced back over his shoulder. "What?"
"Sir, we is not being able to get into Master Perditus' study. We is wanting to know what you is wanting us to do."
"Break down the door, burn everything." Severus stopped. "No, don't touch it. You can't get in without me anyway. And I want to keep the honours for myself."
"Yes, sir. Is you wanting us to tidy it first?"
"Why should I? I've got hands." Severus kicked the door shut behind him and dropped his armful of clothing on a chair in the corner.
He sneered at the stark room with its bluish lighting. By comparison, it made the Hogwarts bathrooms look stylish and modern. Gaslights glowed with perpetual magical flames, the sink stood on a pedestal and had separate taps for hot and cold (as did the claw-footed bathtub), and the toilet even boasted a chain. Like some mutant swan, the bathtub's plumbing rose into a long freestanding pipe from which hung a flat brass showerhead. A large radiator stood against one wall. Harry's clothes from the day before had been draped across it for some reason. Severus folded them and set them by the door while the bath ran.
Leaving his own robes in a heap, he tested the water. A scalding shiver ran up his leg, but he slipped in anyway, biting back a gasp as the water engulfed him. A shudder went through his back as a red patina rose on his skin. Pulling his legs and arms to his chest, he slid down until the water covered his upper lip. Steam rose up into his nostrils and clouded his eyes. He took a deep, humid breath and waited for the heat to stop coursing through his bloodstream like needles.
The breath was running from his nose in a series of tiny bubbles before it struck him that he'd slipped beneath the surface. The water scorched his eyelids. Severus ducked down far enough to soak his hair. He slid up, water slopping on the floor and running into his eyes until he shoved his thick, oily hair off his forehead. He sighed. His head dropped back against the edge of the bath, gaze focusing somewhere short of the ceiling.
He was exactly the last place he wanted to be, he realised: in his father's house, naked and alone. Glancing around, he pulled himself out of the bath to fetch his wand and wedge it into the tangle of pipes leading to the taps, where he could grab it should the need arise. Air that had felt warm to start with sent a chilly crawling sensation across his scalded flesh.
A slight breeze tickled his backside; he jumped into the water with a hearty splash, peeking out over the ceramic rim and ignoring the pool spreading on the floor. Several seconds passed before he loosened his fingers from the wand where they'd clamped down. Not quite able to stop his eyes from darting towards the door, he groped around the front edge of the bath until his fingers closed around the soap and very nearly shot it across the floor.
He sat, clutching it. Through the heavy door he heard the muffled sounds of the wardrobe swinging open and banging shut, the trunk falling closed and scraping across the floor, the bedroom door's hinges as they gave a soft moan. Silence fell. Severus thrust his hands into the water and tried to cover it with splashing.
The soap was a slimy mess in his fist when another low moan carried through the door. Severus stiffened. His eyes fixed on the doorknob and air caught in his throat at a muffled shuffle of feet coming closer and closer to the bathroom. The knob turned.
"Who's there?" he barked.
"It's only me." Harry poked his head inside. "Are you all right?"
"Fine." Severus hunched down, letting the thin, iridescent layer of soap floating on the water dance and swirl around him as he hid as much of himself as he could. He looked away. "Shouldn't you be tending to your guests?"
"They've left. They're worried sick about you, thought it'd be better if I looked after you." With one green trainer, Harry dabbed at a puddle that had spread to the door. "Frankly, so do I."
"Sev, you slept in a cemetery last night!" Harry kicked the door shut behind him. He toed out of his shoes and socks, hiked up his robes, and sat on his knees next to the bath. "Look, I know you're not happy about being here--"
"Your talent for understatement astounds me."
"--But this was your decision. I know it's not as if we've got a lot of choices, though." He paused. "I don't know how good of an idea it'd be, but if you'd be happier there, Mister Weasley says we're welcome to come to the Burrow."
"I haven't any desire to live with the Weasleys." Severus' voice felt coarse, but the words were soft and insubstantial beneath the squish of Harry's knees on the wet tile.
"You don't want to be here either."
"I've already told them that if we come, we're paying our own way."
"Just like you, Potter, assuming everyone else's burden." Severus didn't bother to bite his tongue, only stared at the wall away from Harry. He crushed the soap. Finger-shaped ruts swelled in the surface. Despite the steaming water, he shivered in the seconds of silence that followed.
"Yeah, well," Harry mumbled, "maybe that's all I'm really good for. I mean, it's all I've ever done, isn't it? First Voldemort, now that mess you've got in your head. Might as well help out Mister and Mrs. Weasley too. Not as if I'm exactly short on cash."
Severus grunted. Mainly to avoid answering, he ground the ruined soap against his chest in crooked circles. From the corner of his eye he caught a glimpse of Harry fiddling with the buttons at his neck.
"Want me to get your back?"
"Not especially," Severus lied. He lifted a handful of cloudy water to wash away the sticky foam.
"Oh." One of Harry's hands slipped and came to rest curled against the side of his neck. He dropped his gaze, let his hands fall into his lap. "You usually do. Did, I mean."
"I'm usually elsewhere."
"And you've usually not just informed me that you expect me to break my word." Severus stared sidelong. A touch of dizziness played in his temples; it felt at once both soft and icy, like he'd held his breath too long. It was the same liberating damnation he'd suffered telling Albus why the Death Eaters had been such an attractive prospect. "It seems you don't know me as well as I had believed," he said, his mouth driven by the ominous elation swelling in his skull.
Harry, to his credit, didn't wince. A bit of colour drained from his face, though. "Yeah, well." He shrugged. "Hadn't known you needed sex to live."
"I do not 'need sex to live'. I am simply less well equipped than some to tolerate indefinite celibacy."
Severus cocked an eyebrow. "That's a rather personal question."
Harry gave a crooked shrug. "Can't be worse than what I've seen already."
"You heartless little wretch."
Harry's eyes caught his. There was something hard, like broken glass, in them. "I learned from the best."
"Mister Potter," Severus said in a low, silken voice, "I suggest you find some other way to amuse yourself. Otherwise, I can't guarantee what my reaction shall be."
"Gonna hit me again?"
"Then what are you going to do?"
Severus looked at him. It took less time than he's wanted to find a suitably vicious answer. He forced himself to spit, "Take you up on your offer."
The rest of the colour fled from Harry's skin. He stared. A tiny twitch formed in one of his hands. A startling tongue darted out to moisten his white lips. "I was upset when I said that."
"I know. You still said it."
"Yeah, but..." Harry's jaw worked at nothing for a moment. "You can't hold me to that! We were having a row!"
"As, I believe, we are now. That doesn't make you think I'm any less serious, does it?"
"I'm within my rights."
"But what about the watch?"
"What about the watch?" The same swelling elation in Severus' skull threatened to rupture something and leave him choking on blood or tears.
Harry's shoulders slid forward by degrees. He finally sat, slumped, leaning on his elbows with his robe wicking water from the floor. "I love you," he said in a reedy voice.
"Yes, Mister Potter, but you of all people ought to understand that love and sex are not necessarily related. I believe you repeatedly told me how much you hated me the night you lost your virginity."
"You bastard." Harry's fingers curled into the cloth covering his thigh. He trembled, head down. "If you want me to go, just tell me. I can be out of your hair in an hour."
Severus flinched. "How dare you? After everything I've done for you, Mister Potter--"
"Like what? Lying to me for months? Or how about trying to strangle me in my sleep? Or kicking me out with a bruise the size of a swede on my face? There's that whole Pensieve thing as well. Y'know, you'd probably still be getting some if you'd just told me everything like you promised Albus you would. I shouldn't even still be here."
"Where should you be?" Severus asked while his belly twitched from what felt like an invisible fist.
"Hogwarts, maybe? I didn't have to leave. Could have sent you off to Saint Mungo's or someplace and gotten Remus to let me be his teaching assistant. Or Madam Hooch, or Sirius, or Professor Arcadia, or I could have stayed in the library. Hell, I could have helped Professor Hornsby. Not as if I haven't got any experience with Muggles."
"What about your legions of adoring fans?" The soap slipped from Severus' quaking fingers, beneath the surface of the water.
"What about them? As soon as Helen's back, I'll be dropped back to second string anyway."
"You're better than she is."
"Yeah, and she's got a better contract."
"Contracts can be renegotiated."
Harry snorted. "Yeah, but it still doesn't change the fact that right now hers is for five years and mine is for one. They won't want me back after this." He pushed himself to his feet. "Why am I still here, anyway? After what the Prophet said this morning, I could go anywhere I want."
Severus said nothing. He watched the cloudy layer on top of the water break and swirl like so many icebergs.
"It's on the table if you want to read it. Something about poor Harry Potter on the run from the monster who tried to kill him. Congratulations, you're the most hated man in the wizarding world. I'm going to look around outside. Might actually be something to do in this place." He stopped long enough to pick up his shoes and socks. He glanced back. His mouth formed a hard line.
"Can you wash your hair for once? It's disgusting." The door shook behind him.
Severus slid down into the water. He stayed there until his eyes burned and his lungs threatened to burst. Without lifting his head any longer than it took to draw the occasional breath, he more or less scrubbed himself off. Sitting up, he hesitated for a few moments over whether he ought to rub the soap through his hair as well.
As he started to lift a handful of goop to scrub through the mess, a cool draught brushed the nape of his neck. He froze. Outside a crow laughed. Severus splashed away the last of the foam. He hurried out of the water and into his clothes.
His velvet robe still clung to his damp back. He ignored it, gripping his wand and a small handful of dustrags he'd nicked from the elves. Chewing his lip, he stared at the blank door.
Severus whirled. "Don't do that!"
Harry shrugged. "Sorry. You were just standing there. Thought you heard me."
"Why would I want to hear anything from you?"
"I was only asking. I tried to go in there when we were looking for you but it's locked."
"Yes, and as you can probably gather there's a very good reason for that."
"What was it? Voldemort's room or something?"
"My father's study," Severus snarled, turning back to the door. "If you wish to see Lord Voldemort's room, I suggest you crawl into the attic."
"Curtus wanted him to have his privacy to study. Frankly, I've wondered if my grandfather wasn't simply boffing the little shite."
"That doesn't sound like you."
"Very well. I've occasionally suspected my grandfather preceded me in seeking a carnal relationship with his student. I wouldn't put a great deal of stock into the concept, though, as this is only morbid fantasy. Does that sound more like me?"
"Y'don't have to snap."
"Why are you bothering me? I thought you said you were leaving."
"That mean you want me to?"
Severus paused as a bit more emptiness grew around his heart. "Not especially."
Harry shifted from one foot to the other, his arms folded across his chest. He motioned at the door with an elbow. "Well, go on. Figured you could get it open."
"Who ever said I wanted you in there?"
"You haven't told me to go away." Harry shook his head. "Anyway, I'd sort of like to stay with you."
"Really," Severus drawled. He put his wand to the doorknob, anyway, and murmured, "Admissit me." It turned of its own accord and the door inched open with a creak.
"'Let me in'?" There was an edge of a sneer in Harry's voice. "That's all you had to say? Even I could have figured that out!"
"Yes, but you aren't the family heir. You ought to have figured out by now that magic is more than funny words and foolish wand-waving."
Harry muttered something Severus couldn't make out. He hung back until Severus had taken an uneasy step inside. As soon as he did, the gaslights popped to life.
"What was that?" Harry asked.
"Why'd they sound like that?"
"Great-great-grandmother Viatrix had an interesting sense of humour, especially where Muggle devices were concerned. The story goes that she visited a Muggle friend in King's Lynn and spat her tea all over the rug when a lamp was lit because she thought they were being attacked. The daft woman then had them installed in every room in the house. These are the only ones left that pop."
"Your family's really weird, you know that?"
"I hadn't noticed." Severus ignored the shoulder pressing into his back as Harry glanced inside. A solid inch of dust covered the floor and the desk. Thinner layers stood where angles and curves made thickness impossible. The light was grey and sordid, every glass globe coated with sixteen years' worth of grime. At least, he assumed it was sixteen years' worth. For all he knew, Perditus hadn't set foot inside for ten years after Severus left. He pulled a globe from the lamp nearest the door, the white flame sputtering as he did, and dragged one of the dustrags over its frosted surface.
"Can I help?" Harry asked.
"You mean, 'may I help', don't you?"
Harry sighed. "Yeah, whatever." He snatched one of the rags from Severus' hand and had to go up on his toes to get to the next lampshade. "Stupid tall people," he muttered.
"Viatrix was only five feet nine," Severus said, replacing the globe. "Very short as my family went."
"Like I said."
They finished the globes in silence. With the shadows from the grime gone, the lights warmed the room somewhat and cast sharp shadows in their dark footsteps. Severus looked around, his stomach clenching at the collection of books filling the looming case behind the desk. The spines were more or less a uniform grey, here and there a faint red or blue or green tint signaling a new collection. He dragged a finger through the dust on the surface of the desk and inspected it, frowning. A bit of movement caught the corner of his eye and he glanced up in time to see Harry pick up a picture frame and touch the glass with his rag.
"Put that back."
"Why?" Harry wiped it anyway. A clear swathe cut through the middle of the picture.
"It's not yours to touch."
"Sorry. Thought you'd want some help." Harry inspected the photo. "Who's she?"
"I told you to leave it alone." Severus swept over and snatched the picture from the desk. He flicked away the grime with a few curt sweeps of his cloth, dragged it around the edge of the narrow wooden frame.
Two pairs of light blue eyes, ringed with indigo, glanced up at him. A third, too black for a newborn's, opened for a moment, focused, crossed again, and closed. He watched with acid rising in his throat as he squirmed deeper into Eversor's lap, three fingers in his mouth. His mother smiled down at her sons, then looked up as if to ask, "Haven't I got a fine couple of boys?"
His fingers curled into the picture until the backing threatened to warp. He felt a warm body behind him.
"That's your mother, isn't it?"
"I told you to leave things alone!"
"She was pretty."
Severus glanced back over his shoulder, narrowing his eyes. "This isn't any of your concern, Mister Potter."
Harry looked up at him. Without turning away, he reached out and worked the picture from Severus' hands. Before Severus could stop him, he'd pressed the bottom edge of the frame against his chest. A soft, crooked smile played on his mouth as he looked at it. Two short fingers traced the wispy tuft of black hair on Baby Severus' head. "Nice Mohawk."
"Harry, put that down."
"I'm only looking. And it's as much my business as yours." Harry's smile faltered a little as Eversor - not even ten years old - shifted his baby brother in his arms and laid a kiss on his forehead. Arian beamed and hugged her elder son close. She looked tired in her dressing gown, her stomach still distended from pregnancy. She shifted under the blankets; Eversor leaned Severus against his chest and helped her adjust them, knocking his brother's head at a funny angle. A murmured word from Arian corrected the issue.
"Put it down," Severus said. He worked the photograph from Harry's hands and set it back in place, facing away. In silence, he wiped most of the surface of the desk, ignoring the rest of the pictures.
Harry watched him for a moment before starting on the books. He dragged the cloth down the spines, leaving mounds of dust on the shelf in front of them. "Lots of spellbooks."
"This is a pure-blooded house. What else would you expect?"
"The Weasleys are pure-bloods, too, and they haven't got nearly this many."
"Perhaps because they have never been as concerned with the development and usage of magic as my family has."
"What's that mean?"
"It means," Severus growled, shaking out his charmed cloth so a thick mound of dust formed at his feet, "that there is more science to magic than most wizards could ever hope to understand. Potions isn't the only field where a bit of logic can be useful. Everything has a predictable cause and effect if you know what to look for."
"Y'mean like physics for magic?"
"Muggle physics is to magic as sand is to a beach. If their scientists would stop arguing amongst themselves they'd have the basic tenets of magic worked out in a hundred years or less." Severus shot Harry a cool look. "Why else do you think any sensible, educated wizard is wary of them?"
"I thought magic was something you had or you didn't have." Harry pulled a thick, brown book from a shelf and flipped through. "Pictures."
"Put that back. And magic is far, far more complicated than even most wizards comprehend. The technicalities don't affect the practical aspects, though, so most of us are content to live in blissful ignorance." Severus' lip curled. "Voldemort understood. How else do you think he became so powerful?"
"You mean he was clever and he read a lot."
"No, I mean he was clever and he had a teacher who taught him things he shouldn't have known. Would you put that back?"
"Hmm." Harry opened the cover. "Picture of Philia and that bloke with one blue eye and one brown here. Is that Curtus?"
"Yes. Put it back, Mister Potter, or else I'll have to take it away."
"What's so wrong with me looking at--oi!"
The photo album shot from Harry's hands. Severus caught it by the thick spine and tucked it into the crook of his arm, sneering. "This is not your property. Should I die, you shall have full rights to peruse anything you wish. Until then, I'd appreciate it if you would respect my wishes."
They stared at each other. Harry's mouth was a thin, taut line, his eyes flashing. Severus gave him a cool glare.
"I only wanted to look," Harry said in far too steady a voice.
"I, on the other hand, would rather forget that any of these people ever existed."
"They're my family, too."
Severus laughed. "You're welcome to them."
"Fine. Give it back."
"I said, 'give it back,' Sev."
"Awfully demanding, aren't we, Potter?"
"Why shouldn't I be? I mean, what happened last time you refused to tell me anything?" Harry leaned against the edge of the desk. His fingers left dark smudges in a remaining patch of dust.
Severus' hands twitched around the book. "Mister Potter, please find something better to do."
"Don't make me repeat myself."
"Too late. I want to see what's so scary about those pictures."
"What makes you think I've ever seen them?"
"It's your house."
"And my father's study." One of Severus' nails dug into the album's leather cover.
Harry still stared at him, mouth growing harder. His hand went for his wand. "It's your study now. I want to see that book."
"Enough to defy me?"
"After what happened last time, I don't think I've got much of a choice."
Severus pursed his mouth. He threw the book onto the desk. "Very well. It's not painful enough to simply be here. Let's dredge up some memories." He flipped open the cover as Harry's glare faltered. "Ah, yes, my grandmother when she could use her legs."
"Sev, if it's that bad--"
"Quiet. You wanted this."
"After what happened last time, you haven't got much of a choice, have you?"
"Silence." Severus threw back another stiff page. "Ah, yes, and here's Gran holding her son. She certainly looks overjoyed, doesn't she?" His finger twitched on the edge of the page as Gran frowned at the bundle in her arms as though it were an ingredient she wasn't sure what to do with. Curtus hovered next to her, staring down, his mouth pinched into a disagreeable frown. Severus turned a chunk of pages before either of them could look up.
"Oh, yes, Mister Potter, you'll certainly want to see this one. Wasn't your nemesis a handsome fellow?" In the middle of the picture, its colours muted and watery, a dark-haired young man sat under the old oak. His sleeves were pushed up, his robes hiked halfway up his skinny legs. He had a book in his lap and a jug of iced lemon squash on the grass next to him. He glanced up and smiled, a warm, self-assured smile that, from Harry, would have turned Severus to putty. A brown-haired boy of perhaps fifteen suddenly dangled upside-down from the top of the frame. He handed down an empty glass.
Severus turned the book towards Harry. "What do you think of your father-in-law?"
"Voldemort wasn't my father-in-law." Harry refused to look at the picture, his arms around himself. He fidgeted from foot to foot. "Come on, Sev, you can stop now."
"You've already said you needed to see this. And I was referring to Perditus. That certainly wasn't Curtus hanging by his knees."
"Sev, stop. Please. I'm sorry."
"It's too late for that." Severus' chest constricted as he wrenched the book closer and turned another handful of pages. He looked down and tensed.
On the Malfoys' white couch sat three men. Curtus, on the left, was looking at Severus in a way that seemed to bore into his skull. Next to him was Voldemort, barely older than he'd been under the tree and still perfectly human. There was a thin streak of white running through his hair at his temple. He held a blue-eyed infant in his lap; Eversor drooled on his fingers, pudgy arms bare and a dazed look on his face. Perditus gazed at his son, beaming. He threw an arm around Voldemort's shoulders and reached around to tickle Eversor's ear. Eversor turned to stare at his father's hand. At the bottom of the page was written, Eversor Perditus' First Christmas, L'Maison du Mal Foi. Aged two months, with Grandfather Curtus, Godfather Tom, and Daddy.
A shudder ran through Severus' spine. "I should have guessed, I suppose." Quietly, he closed the book and shoved it towards Harry. "Put this up."
"What was it?" Harry took the album and slid it back into place.
"Nothing I shouldn't have expected. It seems you're not the only person I've ever known with a lunatic for a godfather."
"What are you talking about?"
Severus ignored him. He dropped his rag on the desk and started for the door. "Close up behind you. The room will lock on its own."
"Sev, what is it?" Harry's footsteps came fast behind him. He squeezed past Severus and grabbed both sides of the doorjamb, blocking the way. "Tell me."
"It's nothing important."
"If it wasn't important, you wouldn't be acting like this." He scowled for a moment. "Voldemort was Eversor's godfather, wasn't he?"
"Absurd, isn't it?" Severus stooped and eased his way out from beneath Harry's arm. "No matter where I go or what I do, he's already been there." A fragment of that damned book he'd read at the Malfoy house swept through his mind and he snorted. "The father, the son, and the Unholy Ghost."
"Sev, settle down!" The door clicked shut behind him, and Harry caught up. "Look, he wasn't yours too or anything, right?" For a moment, Harry looked uncertain.
"No. My godfather was Gaius Malfoy. He died when I was twelve."
"People in your family die awfully young, don't they?"
"Hmm." Severus glanced down at Harry's worried look. "If it's any consolation, most of them deserved it."
Harry's small, warm hand slipped around Severus' and squeezed. "I'm sorry about what I said earlier," he said softly. "You've done more for me than anyone else, except maybe Hagrid and... well, that's Hagrid."
"Hmm." Severus squeezed back.
"Your hair's still disgusting."
"I know this."
"D'you want me to wash it for you?"
Severus started to say no. He paused. The warm hand in his drove out some of the ghosts that seemed to have taken up residence in his heart since the night before.
"It's been, what, three weeks? Not since you left hospital, anyway," Harry prompted.
"Something like that." Severus glanced down. "If I do, will you keep to yourself for the rest of the day?"
Harry blinked. "Why?"
"So I can take down some of the wards. If you were to try, you'd be burnt to a cinder. All told, I've had enough of that particular horror to last quite a while."
"Oh." A bit of the colour drained from Harry's skin. "But what about--?"
"They're my wards. I designed them that way, just as my grandfather designed his that way."
"Y'mean you can't take all of them down."
"I'm afraid not. Unless you're that eager to be rid of me."
"Don't even joke." Harry stopped and pulled Severus' head down. Harry's eyes darted over his face for a moment before he leaned in. Their lips touched, lingered, Harry's drawing one of Severus' between his own.
Severus found himself pressed against the wall. Harry leaned up on his toes, most of his weight against his maritus. It displaced demons both ancient and new. Opening his mouth with Harry's, Severus let his trembling hands come to rest at the slight curve of Harry's hips. Harry made a soft sound into his mouth, leaned in closer, forced Severus to slide down so their bellies pressed together. A small hand inched up Severus' chest and, gingerly, behind his neck; Severus whimpered, squeezed Harry's hips as he pushed forward with his mouth, letting his tongue dart forth.
Harry yanked his head back. He panted, eyes just a bit too wild. He stepped back, shaking off Severus' hands. "Sorry," he whispered. His eyes ran over Severus. "God, what I'd give to just rip your robe off and shag you rotten right here."
"I take it this means you're less than eager for me to shuffle off this mortal coil today." Severus was still pressed against the wall, knees bent, legs spread wide like a wanton trollop's, hands desperate to clutch at Harry again. He forced them to his sides, palms flat against the wall. The velvet robe draped him in a way neither wool nor linen could. If the way Harry was staring at his stomach was any indication, it was a pleasant change.
"You could say that." Harry stared a moment longer, glanced around. "Um, did you want me to wash your hair for you?"
"Would it be a terrible bother if I asked you to do it from where I can see you?"
Harry shook his head. "I can do that." His hand darted forward, rubbed a piece of greasy hair, let it go. His fingers brushed Severus' cheek as he drew them back. He wiped them on his robe. "You're still the sexiest thing I've ever seen in my life."
A smile twitched on the corner of Severus' mouth. "And I thought I was an ugly git."
Harry stepped back while Severus reluctantly pulled himself upright. They didn't touch as Severus led Harry up the stairs. He glanced back once; Harry's eyes darted up from where they'd fallen, in the vicinity of Severus' backside, and a faint, embarrassed flush rose in his face and throat. Severus turned away before he could give the brat a come-hither smirk. He forced away the mental image of Harry pressing him into the wall and buggering him senseless to the shock of several paintings.
Halfway down the long hallway, the oddest thought struck him: with Harry there, perhaps the place was only a house. Severus shook it off and carried on, hushing a little voice in his head that, given the setting, seemed a bit too eager to allow the filth to be washed from his hair.
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