The Last Battlefield
Chapter 16 - When the Bough Breaks
The elves cowered in the corner. Their bulging eyes followed him, darting from side to side. Sissy gripped Dobby until her knuckles went white. "Please, s-sir," she whispered.
Severus arched an eyebrow at her. With a quick, easy flick of the wrist, he sent the top of a carrot skittering to the floor. Sissy yelped and buried her face in her hands.
"You could be putting the peelings in the sink!" she wailed.
"Master Severus, you is making things very difficult for us house-elves!" Dobby squeaked. (Severus supposed it was meant to be an indignant roar. Perhaps if the little beasts didn't sound as though they'd inhaled a lungful of helium he might be able to take them seriously.)
"Then go and bother somebody else. I'm perfectly capable of tidying up my own mess, you know."
Dobby made an indignant noise. He shook a finger at Severus. "At least Dobby is knowing why you is never having any house-elves of your own!"
"Quiet. You know perfectly well that wasn't my decision."
"It is not changing fact!"
"Dobby, take your cowering little friend and bother somebody else. I am attempting to make some sort of dinner--"
"That is our job, sir!" Sissy trembled, going quite purple in the face. "We is getting paying!"
"--And I would appreciate having some sort of priva--oh, bollocks."
A sharp knocking was coming from the general direction of the entryway. Dobby and Sissy very nearly tripped over each other, racing to get it. Severus, growling to himself, decapitated another carrot with a satisfying thwack.
He was just levitating the loose parings from the floor to the sink when a familiar odour met his nose. The carrot peels hit the floor as he groaned into his hand. "Lupin, I neither wanted nor requested the culinary mishaps of that deranged imbecile!"
"Well, too bad," came Black's voice. Black shouldered his way through the kitchen door, the elves on his heels. Their arms were full of bags, boxes, and other errata.
Severus bristled. His hand tightened around his knife. "Black, you have two seconds to leave my house, else I shall be testing certain theories regarding burial at sea."
"Can you at least wait until after dinner? I'd like to die on a full stomach if it's all the same." Black hugged a large bag from which wafted the distinctive smells of the Happy Dumpling. Fawkes sat on his shoulder; the moment he saw Severus, the phoenix trilled a happy note and flapped across the room.
"Hello, Fawkes." Severus smiled as he got his hair nibbled; he stifled it as soon as he could. "What are you doing here, Black?"
"Got an owl from Hermione this afternoon. She said you wanted some things. I don't know if I got it all, but I did my best."
"Hmm. You've done your job then. Leave."
"Hang on." Black hoisted the bag of food onto the counter and motioned for the elves to set the rest of the lot down. "She also said Harry's locked himself in your old room and refuses to come out. We both know that's not like him." Black shoved Severus' carrots and cauliflower onto the draining board; Severus snarled. "Between that and the little talk Emily and I had after lessons today, I want to know what's going on."
"Nothing of your concern."
"Look, Snape," Black snarled, slamming down a box of what smelled like crispy duck, "I ate rats for two years for that boy's sake. You're not getting rid of me that easily. Anyway." He looked Severus straight in the eye. "I know what happened in that Pensieve of yours."
"Don't see what that's got to do with--"
"Emily peeled him off the table, he called her Gran, and Hermione said one of the portraits at the top of the stairs looked like it had been done in with a battering ram. It said Eversor. Something is going on here, and it's got everything to do with the mess in your head."
Severus pursed his mouth. Picking up his knife again, he sent half a carrot flying across the room. Parings made wet crackling sounds under his feet. Fawkes rubbed the side of his face with his feathery head. "I hate you, Black."
"Whoop-de-fucking-shit. You know, it might make things just an infinitesimal bit easier if you'd grow the Hell up. Y'know, I'm starting to see what Harry saw in you."
Severus turned his head so fast his neck popped. "Tell me you didn't say that." His hand quivered, fingers turning white with his grip around the knife handle.
"I did. But, don't worry. I like my partners to have actually gotten past being teenagers."
"What in Hell do you mean by that?"
"You need to get over yourself and grow up." Black turned on his heel and marched out. "You can start getting things dished out if it's not too much bother," he called back. "Unless you don't want the chance to eat that white cack in front of me again."
"Eat it yourself!" Severus slammed down his knife. He leaned against the counter, eyes squeezed shut, panting until his lungs burned. Fawkes nipped at his ear. Severus lifted a hand to run it along the short, soft feathers covering the phoenix's neck.
"I want Albus back," he whispered. "He could have fixed this."
Fawkes said nothing, but he seemed to understand anyway.
Severus was still standing there, stroking the bird, when Black barged back in a few minutes later. Without a word, the cur started throwing open cabinets. He finally hauled down three plates, located two forks, and started fishing things out of the bag. "What d'you want to drink?"
Severus said nothing.
"I asked you a question, Snape. It's considered the grown-up thing to answer."
"I am forty-one years old, Black, and I daresay I've earned the right to keep my mouth shut more than you have."
"You haven't got the first clue what you're talking about." Black peeked into one of the white containers and shook a mess of Mushu pork onto one of the stark plates. "Harry's coming down in a minute, by the way. He's cleaning up a bit first."
"I'll be eating upstairs then."
"No, you'll be eating with us."
"I've no great desire to do anything with you, Black, short of perhaps sending you back to the Dementors."
The carton in Black's hand slipped and bounced. A few drops of dark brown liquid splattered on the stone counter. "For god's sake, Severus, I'm trying to help you here!"
"I never asked you to help me. Or Harry."
"Well, you're getting it, whether you want it or not. Or do you want me to take Harry away and tell the Ministry where you're hiding?"
The blood drained from Severus' skin. "You wouldn't dare."
"Certainly would. And I will if you don't make some effort to co-operate."
"You realise I could kill you without a second thought," Severus said in a soft voice. His hand moved for his wand. "I've done it before, more times than I care to count."
"And how would you explain it to Harry?"
"With the right spells, he'd never have to remember."
A visible shudder ran through Black's body. He turned his head to stare at Severus, mouth grim and eyes dark. "So you're just going to go ahead and do to his mind what your fucking Pensieve's done to the rest of him. Why don't you just slam him up against the wall and do it properly while you're at it?"
Severus gritted his teeth. "Get out."
"If I leave before I've seen you two sit down, have some dinner, and at least make some stab at sorting out whatever the Hell is going on, I'm taking Harry with me and making sure you never see him again."
"You wouldn't dare."
"If it means taking him to Saint Mungo's and sending you to Azkaban, I'll fucking do it."
"Not even you would stoop that low."
"I would. And I will. Somehow, I doubt the Dementors would let you keep brewing that little potion of yours. That eager to find out what it's like to have them breathing down your neck while you flash back to god-knows-what?"
"No, they are monsters. I'm giving you a reasonable choice. Either you go out there and have a proper dinner with your husband and your godfather - because no matter how much you hate it, I am - or I take Harry away for his own good and let you rot inside a seven foot cell." Black's back rose and fell too sharply, and air hissed through his nose. He stared at Severus with a cold glint in his eye. Severus stared back.
With a snarl, Severus grabbed his wand. Black flinched; a moment later, the carrot peelings landed in the sink. Pointing the wand at his godforsaken godfather, Severus growled, "If you dare try to betray me by this, I will kill you."
"That's fine by me. Get Harry some milk. He looks like he hasn't had a proper meal in days."
It was a matter of several terse minutes to get the table more or less set: three laden plates, two forks, one set of chopsticks, one glass of milk, and two doses of the stiffest stuff Black could transfigure. Harry was nowhere to be seen as Severus took his seat. Black slid into his a moment later, already gnawing on one of the dozen or so almond biscuits. Severus shot him a murderous glare. "Those were meant for everyone."
"I'm only having one before you eat them all. I've seen you with sweets. God knows why you don't weigh thirty stone."
"God knows why your mother didn't strangle you at birth."
"Funny story, that. Apparently, she'd talked to your mum and decided I wasn't half bad." Crumbs collected at the corners of Black's mouth. He took another bite and wiped them away with his fingertips.
"Yes, I suppose a puppy is easier to care for. The best part is you can have it put down."
"You're even crankier than usual tonight." Black craned his neck to glance through the dining room door. "Wonder where Harry's got to?"
"Probably avoiding you, as most intelligent creatures do."
"Would explain what you're doing here."
Severus shoved his chair back. Black clamped a hand down on his wrist before he could get any further. "You walk out of here, Severus, and I swear to god it'll be the last you see of either of us."
"Then I suggest you stop encouraging me to leave!"
"Look at it this way: the more you take, the more you might convince me that in some small way you deserve to have Harry around."
"That is the most ridiculous, unfair, degrading, puerile--"
Severus jerked his head up just as Harry huddled into his seat across the table. He didn't look up; his wet hair fell over his glasses. At a casual glance, he might have been mistaken for as young as eleven. A longer one would have put him closer to thirty.
"Feeling any better?" Black pushed Harry's plate a bit closer and offered him his fork. Harry shook his head.
"Not really hungry, thanks."
"You've got your pancakes."
For a fleeting moment, Harry looked up. The grey strain around his eyes and mouth wrenched something in the middle of Severus' chest. "Sorry," Harry whispered. "Not really in the mood for them."
"Okay. Sorry. I thought you liked them."
"Want to trade?"
Harry shrugged again.
With a little frown, Black traded out their plates. He gave Severus a worried look. Harry picked up his fork and dragged bits of crispy duck around his plate. He took a tiny nibble and went back to picking.
Scraping a bit of sauce and a lump of pork onto one of the little pancakes, Black said in a no-nonsense tone, "Both of you, spill it."
"There's nothing to spill." Harry laid down his fork and hugged himself. One of his knees came up, and he rested his chin on it.
"Don't lie to me, Harry. I'm not a fool, and I don't appreciate being treated like one."
"Ha!" Severus shot Black an indignant sneer. "You're as great a fool as I've ever seen."
"You barge into someone else's home, attempt to force them to kiss and make up with no knowledge of the situation at hand, if any--"
"I've got enough." Black glanced between them. His eyes fixed on Severus. "All right. If Harry doesn't want to say anything, you start."
"There's nowhere to start. Simply because you received a second-hand account of the contents of my skull does not give you omniscience in the matter of our private life."
"I brought my things, you know, and Minerva's willing to take my lessons for as long as I need her to."
Severus' jaw dropped. "You contemptuous--"
"You don't need to do that, Sirius." Harry didn't move, barely whispered.
"But I'm going to."
"This is coercion." Severus crossed his arms and turned his back to Black. "This is... It's blackmail."
"What's going on that you don't want me to see?"
From the corner of his eye, Severus caught Black leaning back in his chair.
"Nothing happened," Harry whispered.
"And the truth?"
"Severus hasn't done anything to me." In a voice so low Severus almost missed it, he added, "That I didn't do to him."
Black stared at Harry for a moment. "What's going on here, Snape?"
"That's not what Harry just said."
"But it's what I say." Severus glanced sidelong at his maritus. "Perhaps nothing would happen again if certain persons would tell the truth once in a while."
"I told you the truth."
"Oh? Would this be the truth you kept to yourself for the better part of a year or the one you said was none of my business?"
"Does it matter?" Harry's eyes were glittering in a most threatening sort of way, but his voice was steady, and he still hugged his knee to his chest.
"Given what you did--"
"What I did? You had me..." Harry pursed his mouth and shot a glower straight at Severus.
"Which does not change the fact that your sense of vengeance, Mister Potter, is singularly twisted."
"Look, I'm sorry. All right?"
"Oh, no, as you put it, 'sorry isn't going to cut it'. I ought to toss you out on your ear for what you did."
"Well, why don't you, then? 'Least in that case I wouldn't have to worry about you getting any twisted revenge."
With a snarl, Severus was on his feet and leaning over the table. "Is your opinion of me really that low?"
"Certainly hasn't gone up lately!"
Under his breath, Black muttered, "Uh-oh." He looked a bit gobsmacked.
"You stay out of this," Severus snarled at him. He leaned over further. "You are an immature, ungrateful, selfish--"
"I'm selfish? This from the man who didn't bother to tell me he had Unicorn Blood poisoning until he'd tried to choke me in his sleep?"
Black's head whipped around. "He did what?"
"Ah, yes, admonitions from the boy who broke every rule at Hogwarts so he could fuck his Potions master."
Harry slammed a fist down on the table. "Why don't you just go and re-ink that thing on your arm if you're so unhappy about it? I'm sure I could figure out some way to bring Voldemort back!"
"Whoa, Harry, rewind a little. What do you mean he tried to choke--?"
"Stay out of it, Sirius." Harry's fingers curled into the table. "I'm warning you."
"Harry, settle down or you're going to--"
"SIRIUS, SIT DOWN AND SHUT UP OR I AM FORCE-FEEDING YOU TOFU!"
Black fell straight back into his chair. His eyes were far too wide, and somewhat glazed. "All right," he squeaked.
Harry got to his feet, leaning over the table far enough that his breath brushed over Severus' face. "You think I've got a twisted sense of vengeance?" he hissed. "I never laid a fucking finger on you, Snape. S'a lot more than I can say you did."
"Oh? Then what was that fist to the jaw you gave me?"
"That's not what I meant, and you know it!"
"You'd have laid far more than a finger on me if you could get it through your thick head, Potter, that some things don't only happen to other people."
"Stop trying to change the subject, you son of a bitch!"
"This is the subject!"
"The subject is that you don't trust me as far as you could throw Finland!"
"That is because you are a vicious, spiteful, lying little harlot!"
A finger very nearly took out Severus' eye. "Say that again."
Harry's fist blurred through the air. Severus caught it just short of losing his nose; a rending pain shot up his arm. He gritted his teeth, squeezing until his fingers felt like they were starting to crack.
"Let go of me," Harry hissed through his teeth.
"No." Bone shifted beneath Severus' fingers. Harry gave a choked cry and tried to wrench his hand away. Severus tried to dig his fingernails in as well.
Next thing he knew, a thick, wide hand had closed around his arm and was jerking them apart. It bent his hand back, thumb digging into the tender spot in the middle of his wrist. "When my godson tells you to take your hands off him, Snape, you take your hands off him."
"Tell him to keep his fists to himself!"
"I was just about to!" Black's head turned. "You, young man, will not punch anybody unless they punch you first. Do you understand?"
"That mean I can...?" Harry trailed off, eyes narrowed, shifting from foot to foot. His wrist was in Black's grip as well, Severus noticed.
"That mean you can what?"
Harry grunted. "Nothing."
"Oh, brilliant. Back to this again, are we?" Black shoved Harry into his chair. A moment later, Severus' backside struck his own with more force than it appreciated. "The two of you will sort this out like decent, civil human beings, or else I'm taking Harry back to Hogwarts this minute."
Severus, who had opened his mouth to protest being manhandled, closed it with a snap. Harry did much the same, hiding his face again. He refused to look at Severus.
"That's better." Black shot a cold, dark look at Severus. "Now, what the Hell gives you the right to call my godson a harlot?"
"The fact that he is one."
Black snorted. He started to say something just as Harry snarled, "I apologised, didn't I?"
Somehow, that didn't seem to be what Black expected to hear. His cold sneer melted into a stunned, open-mouthed look. "Er..."
"You heard me," Harry said.
Black blinked a couple of times. He leaned over on his forearm and muttered to Harry, "Um, you know, I can't really blame you, but this sort of throws a kink into my argument."
"At least I stopped." Harry's cheeks started to turn a nasty shade of plum. "And I don't go around picking up strange wizards in Torquay."
"Yes, and it would have been so much better for me to simply take you roughly from behind when you were twelve. And seven. And three. And one. I'm sure that would have simply been smashing. Oh, and let's not forget before you were bloody born."
"Hang on." Black held up one hand, clutching his face in the other. "I'm confused. This has got something to do with Severus sleeping with someone else before you two got together, and Harry doing something he oughtn't have."
"I already apologised--"
"I heard you the first time." Black took a deep breath. "Merlin, you two are fucked-up."
"There hasn't been any of that in quite some time, actually." Severus' lip curled, baring his teeth.
Harry sneered back. "Oh? What about at Hogwarts?"
"Oh, yes, that. Shall we discuss the afterglow? I dearly love being woken at two in the morning with your teeth clamped around my eye."
"That wasn't my fucking fault! It was your Pensieve! And at least I haven't had my hands all over you whether you wanted them there or not!"
Black sat up straight. "What?"
"So as soon as I attempt to give you an apology you return the favour. How fitting."
"Hang on here. I'm confused again--"
"Stay out of it, Sirius!" Harry slammed his fork into the table less than an inch from Black's hand. Black wrenched away, staring in open-mouthed shock.
"Harry! What's gotten into you?"
"Certainly not me," Severus muttered, glaring so hard his eyes hurt.
"Neither has anyone else," Harry hissed. "Not that this nutter believes a word I say anymore."
"YOU USED TO!" Harry backhanded his glass across the table. It left a wide, white lake before shattering on the far wall. "I make one mistake - one fucking tiny mistake - and suddenly I'm a slut."
"Perhaps if you'd told me the whole truth at once instead of feeding me lies for months it might not have happened!"
"Or maybe if you could just take me at my word--"
"Two days after you let your intentions slip? I think not!"
"At least I didn't have you pinned to the table!"
"No, you simply chose to treat me like my fucking brother did!"
"Whoa! Time out!" Black shoved his hands forward, making ridiculous Quidditch signs.
Harry backhanded him in the wrist. Black hissed and pulled his hands to his chest. "Merlin's teeth, Harry! You're acting like you've gone mental!"
"Maybe I have." Shoving his hair out of his face, he stalked around the table the long way, hunched, gripping the edge of the wood until his knuckles turned white, looking more like a hyena than a man. Broken glass crunched under his shoes.
"I haven't done a single thing to you that you haven't done to me, Snape," he growled. "I have been patient, honest, and a Hell of a lot more faithful than you ever deserved. Thanks to you, I can't even have a fucking hug without having flashbacks to your nightmares! You are the cruelest, most sadistic, most venomous, vengeful monstrosity ever to hover over a cauldron, and if you ever lay another finger on me I'm going to tear it off." He stopped just short of Severus, crimson in the face, flecks of white foam clinging to the corners of his mouth. "Got it?"
"Harry, sit down," Severus snapped. "You're acting like a--"
Harry's hand shot out. He grabbed a handful of Severus' robe and one of his testicles and squeezed. Severus yelped.
"I asked you a question, Snape!"
Severus could only grit his teeth as it felt like a thousand tiny splinters of glass were driven in his groin. A hard jerk made the world at the edges of his vision go blurry. He leaned forward on his elbows, unable and unwilling to move, as Black dragged Harry away.
"What has gotten into you? You're barking!"
"He's the one who's barking!"
"No, you are! You... You're foaming at the mouth!" Black reached up to wipe away the white flecks; Harry slapped him away. Black pointed a blunt finger at his face. "Don't you raise a finger to me, young man, or you'll be back at Hogwarts before you can blink."
"Whatever. See if I care." Harry wrenched himself free of his godfather's grasp and slunk out of the room. He didn't even look back. A moment later the house shook as he stormed up the stairs.
"Godric and Merlin," Black muttered, sinking into his chair. "I want a fucking cigarette." He laid a hand on Severus' shoulder. "Are you all right?"
"Certainly. I enjoy watching my husband lose his mind just before he tries to rip my tackle off. Great fun. You ought to try it sometime."
Black grunted. "Thanks anyway. Think I'll let you keep it." He glanced at the door. "I'm not going anywhere tonight."
"I don't need a bodyguard, Black."
"Not for you, you narcissistic git." Black chewed his bottom lip. "I really don't like saying this, but..." He trailed off.
"Let me guess. You think Harry ought to be in Saint Mungo's."
"You agree with me then."
"Beyond the general need to eat and breathe, I agree with you on very little, Black. This is only what I've heard from outside sources."
"Fuck." The cur's eyes went round. "How long has he been like this?"
"This is the first I've seen, and I expect it shall be the last."
"Right, and Azkaban is a brilliant place to go on holiday."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"That there is something seriously wrong with Harry."
"I thought we'd already discussed this. Post-Traumatic Stress, I believe?"
"Something like that."
"So you wish to send him someplace where he shall be treated as both an oddity and an animal--"
"I don't wish to send him anywhere! I want to see him happy again! However," Black leaned close, "I also want to know what you did to him."
Severus snorted. "Oh, no more than throw him across the table and attempt to have my wicked way with him. I can promise you, he more than took adequate revenge." He closed his eyes, waiting for the burst of green light to rend him from the acid-filled pit where his heart ought to have been.
"So you tried to rape each other."
"More or less."
Black grunted. Severus heard a rustle of robes, the creak of a chair as it was pushed back. He readied himself for the inevitable oblivion.
It took him a moment to realise that the pain shooting through his skull from the cheekbone out had come from a well-aimed set of knuckles. His eyes flew open, and he sucked in a hard, wet lungful of air.
"If you ever, ever lay a fucking finger on him again, Snape, I'll do one Hell of a lot more than rip it off!"
Severus tried to open his mouth. He felt tiny fragments of bone slipping around where his cheek ought to have been. Blood dripped from his mouth and nose. He tried to shout; it came out a garbled whimper.
"Ossis Regeneratis Maxilla Dexter!" Black's wand touched the side of his face. Severus felt fragments of bone slide back together with a wet crunching sensation. He shuddered. Black lifted his wand again and started, "Diluo--"
"Zygomatic!" Severus gasped.
Black frowned. "What?"
With a suspicious look, Black lifted his wand again. Ossis Regeneratis Zygomatic Dexter!"
The crushed point of Severus' cheekbone oozed back into place. He leaned back in his chair, trying not to choke on the blood dribbling down his throat. "Never, ever," he panted, "dissolve the fragments before you've repaired everything!"
"Because you'll dissolve the whole bloody bone! Gran had to invent that wretched Skele-Gro cack because I broke my wrist when I was eight and thought I'd fix it myself! Why d'you think it tastes so foul?"
"Why doesn't it surprise me that stuff's your fault?" Black fell into his chair with a growl. "At least I understand now why I had so much trouble with my leg."
"Yes, because I've only studied human physiology."
"Shut up, Snape." Black snorted. "If you're so good, why didn't you fix your nose last year?"
"One, your idiot godson insisted on dragging me to the hospital wing whether I wanted to go or not. Two, it would have been unfeasibly stupid of me to repair my own nasal arch given its proximity to the brain and the likelihood of causing bone fragments to migrate. Three, have you ever tried to cast a proper Healing Charm with a broken nose?"
"Ah. Good point." With a neutral scowl, Black asked, "Any others I ought to fix this go?"
Severus directed him through sphenoid, ethnoid, and mandible (just to be certain). A thin trickle of blood still ran in the back of his mouth by the time the last of the damage was corrected, but it was steady, not pulsing. Severus grunted and took a mouthful of alcohol to clean it.
"You ought to have killed me," he muttered.
"Yeah, I really ought. Sounds like Harry did one better already, though."
Severus shuddered and took another drink. "Please don't say that," he whispered.
"It's true. Reckon you'll keep your filthy hands to yourself now."
"I would have been perfectly content to keep my hands to myself had he not wandered in four hours late from doing the marketing, claimed he'd met some fellow down the pub, and refused to tell me a single word of what went on!"
"That doesn't give you the right to--"
"I know, Black. Let's leave it at that, shall we? As I've already said, he more than took his revenge."
With a sigh, Black got to his feet. "Let's get you upstairs so you can wash that blood off. Can you walk?"
"Of course I can walk!" Severus tried to storm to his feet. About halfway up, he experienced a singular Hell not unlike a battering ram to the crotch. He clutched the edge of the table with a groan.
Approximately two seconds later, an arm wrapped around his midsection and Black hoisted him up on his shoulder. "Come on, into the bath with you."
"Put me down!"
"Not a bloody chance."
Despite Severus pounding him between the shoulder blades, Black's grip didn't even slip. Growling, Severus went limp as he was hauled up the stairs. "I'll get you for this."
Black grunted. Severus could hear his smirk.
"Fucking Incendius Solution," Severus growled between his teeth. He doused the counter once more with Mrs. Skower's cleanser and rubbed it with a coarse brush and extreme prejudice. In the back of his mind, he whinged about the impossibility of finding undiluted bundimun extract. Would take care of this mess a treat. And the floor, and the counters, and my flesh...
"My god, Snape, have you been down here all night?"
Grinding his teeth, Severus snapped, "Only since four. What are you still doing here? Looking for more bones to break?"
"Actually, I've been kipping on Harry's floor. Spent some time talking with him. He settled down maybe an hour after I dropped you in the bath."
"I thought I'd told you to get the Hell out of my house."
"I'm not going to leave my godson to fend for himself right now." The cur staggered down the steps and yawned. "He's absolutely terrified of himself. Although, he seems to be in a bit of shock over grabbing you by the tackle like that."
"Can't say I was terribly pleased myself." Severus leaned on the brush and ground it in tiny circles.
"He says he didn't have any flashbacks from it."
A tiny flutter went through Severus' chest. He snarled, though, and only tried to scrub harder. "At least one of us enjoyed it."
"Oi!" Black stormed down the steps and slammed a hand over the brush so hard Severus could barely budge it. "Don't talk about it like that. He's gone to blaming himself for the whole mess, says if he could get over himself none of it would have happened."
"And it wouldn't have. Unless he'd lied to me about it."
The air whistled around Black's fist as it flew back. "Get over it, Snape, or I'll make you get over it."
"I can't trust a word out of his--"
"Oh, I think you can. Or should I--?"
"Severus? Paddy?" A silver head poked through the doorway. "Severus, I need to talk to you."
"It's seven in the bloody morning, Lupin!" Severus shouted. "What's going on here, a canid convention?"
"Trust me, you'll want to see this." Lupin's voice was grim and far more lucid than it ought to have been at such an hour. "Come upstairs?"
"Severus, please, I need to talk to you. Now. This... Just trust me."
"Give me one good reason."
"I think I've got the formula for Immolatus Compound."
Severus sent the brush skittering across the counter. "What in Hell are you talking about? How would you even know what you're looking at?" He took the steps two at a time and caught up with Lupin in the kitchen. "Show me."
With a grim look, Lupin handed over a roll of parchment. He'd gone grey, and heavy, dark circles ringed his eyes. In the gaslight of the kitchen, he looked half-dead.
Severus snatched the scroll from his hand. As he unrolled it, Lupin muttered, "I got an owl from Sheng at the crack of six. Xien got home around two this morning from visiting his girlfriend, and she had this. According to him, she'd found it in her employer's things and got scared, so Xien nicked it to show his dad. Sheng didn't want to do anything until he was sure, but..."
Severus barely heard him. A sickening lump, like pus, formed in his stomach as he recognised his own handwriting. Every detail, every step and procedure, including the notes the fucking Aurors had made in the margins, lay there on the page. Even the scratch marks from the quill were there; he couldn't even tell if it was the original or a copy. It fluttered and crackled. It took a moment for him to realise the tremble was coming from his hands. The parchment slipped from his grasp.
Numb, stiff, he staggered out of the kitchen and collapsed in a dining room chair. "Lupin?" he whispered.
"I'd very much appreciate it if you would kill me now before anybody finds me. I'd... be in your debt."
"I'm not going to kill you, Severus." Lupin laid a hand on his shoulder. It squeezed as Black's yelp echoed from the kitchen. "It's proof that you didn't try to kill Harry."
"It's evidence, Lupin, not--"
The kitchen door flew open again. Black hung there, panting, the scroll crushed in his fist. "Merlin's fucking arse, Moony! What is this stuff?"
"My death warrant," Severus said in a soft voice.
"It's Immolatus Compound, Paddy. It's the potion that nearly killed Harry."
"I know what Immolatus Compound is, Remus! What the Hell is the formula doing here?"
"Sheng's son got hold of it through his girlfriend."
Black snorted. "Sounds like a delinquent bitch if you ask me."
Severus growled under his breath. "Don't talk about her like that, Black," he muttered too low for them to hear.
"Hmm." Lupin shot him a suspicious look anyway and set to pacing in a way that made Severus' teeth go on edge. "You said the only people besides you who had access to this were Aurors, right?"
"So she's probably an Auror or works with them."
"Hold on, Moony. It could have been smuggled out."
"But this would have been kept under lock and key. Who's got enough influence among the Aurors to even get to it?"
"Moody," Severus muttered.
"I really don't think..." Lupin trailed off. His eyes went wide. "Yes, yes, I see what you mean, Severus. The Prophet had an interview with him the other day and he only said that things were well in hand and for everyone to leave the Aurors alone so they could investigate."
Black snorted. "Oh, no, that couldn't be construed as a 'mind your own damn business'."
"Actually, that's how he put it. I was only trying to be polite."
"Lupin, this is neither the time nor the place for manners." Severus rubbed his eyes. The air caught in his chest with every stilted breath.
"Sorry." With a little shrug, Lupin went back to pacing. "Are there any female Aurors close enough to Moody to get this sort of thing?"
Lupin went stiff at Severus' words. A bit of green glinted behind his pupils. "Oh," he drawled, teeth bared and eyes hooded. "I didn't even know they were friends."
"Very much so. She was his shadow. On the other hand, she's dead."
"You mean something managed to kill the little bitch?" Black barked.
"What? You can't exactly be upset by the fact."
"Well, I'm not, but--"
"Supposedly, it was a training accident," Severus said in far too calm a voice. "In any case, neither of you is to repeat that piece of information."
"All right." Lupin swallowed. He looked as though he was fighting a nasty smirk. "I suppose that leaves other Aurors or possibly Potions experts with Ministry connections if this thing was smuggled out. I doubt there are too many people in the country who can make the stuff who aren't researchers. I think..." He trailed off, tapping his mouth with his finger. "There's a research firm in Hunstanton, isn't there?"
"Yes." Severus rested his chin on his fingertips. "You won't have to go that route, though. It's got to be either Arsenius Jigger or Acacia Slug."
"How d'you know?"
"Because Ginny Weasley's got drawings of her idiot boyfriend pinned up all over her flat, and they're all of that insufferable fool's son. Not to mention she's told me who he is outright more than once."
Lupin's silence was enough to bring a weak, wavering smirk to Severus' mouth. "What?" Lupin asked in a faint voice.
"She won't talk to you. As far as I'm aware, she hasn't even told her family she's seeing the wretch. I'll have to sort it." Severus hugged himself. "Of course, the knowledge that my Gran's old friends are apparently trying to do me in is so unthinkably heartwarming."
"Your Gran was an apothecary?"
Severus shot Lupin a look as sharp and dangerous as ground glass. "My Gran was the greatest potions expert of the last ten centuries."
"Right, Snape." Black waved a hand. "Runs in the family, does it?"
"Paddy, stop making jokes. This is serious. Harry ought to hear about this, too."
"Uh, Moony, I don't think Harry's--"
"I ought to hear what?" Harry padded into the dining room, circles under his eyes and an oversized green dressing gown tied around his waist. It hung on him like a circus tent. He'd have looked like a child, were it not for the lines around his mouth. Severus said nothing, only scowled, pulling back in his chair as Harry fell into one two seats over.
"Ah, Harry," Lupin began, folding his arms. "This morning we, ah..."
"As of this morning, at least six people who oughtn't have ever seen the formula for Immolatus Compound have done so." Severus licked his lips. "I'm beginning to see where your idiot godfather might have gotten the notion that there is a conspiracy in the works."
"Oh." Harry shivered a little. His eyes were fixed on the table. He swallowed. "Can I see it?"
"I don't think that's such a good--"
"Let him, Paddy." Lupin plucked the scroll from Black's hand and passed it to Harry. He stood behind the chair, a hand hovering over one hunched shoulder, as Harry unrolled it. The green of Harry's eyes almost seemed to wash out along with his skin as they ran over the text.
"This is what your journal entries looked like when I was born," he said in a soft voice. "Handwriting's the same. You had sort of a stutter at the ends of words."
Severus peered at him. "What on Earth are you talking about?"
"You used to have a little flourish. Then it got sort of shaky and stuttery, and now you haven't got any at all. It's all just angles anymore." Harry blinked. He laid the scroll down, staring at nothing, clutching the parchment, the nails of one hand digging into the table near the fork holes he'd left the night before.
Lupin nudged him with the side of his hand. "Are you all right?"
"Fine." Harry's voice was thin and a little bit dry. He'd not even finished speaking before Black was shaking his head, looking as though someone had killed his best friend all over again. Lupin lifted his eyebrows; Black shook his head again, as Harry glanced over.
"I saw that, Sirius. I'm not losing my mind." Harry pushed his chair back and padded towards the kitchen. "Stop treating me like I am." The door swung shut before Black could answer.
"But you are," he said anyway, too quietly for Harry to hear. He rubbed his arms and lurched over to take the chair Harry had vacated. He put his chin on his folded hands. "What do we do about this scroll so I can get back to watching my godson go insane?"
Lupin looked utterly confused. "Er..."
"I'll explain later."
"Okay." Lupin scratched the back of his head, frowning. "Well, first thing would probably be for Severus to talk to Ginny and see where she found it."
"Second would be to put it back." Severus scowled at his lap.
"Severus, I don't think that--"
"If it's missed, Miss Weasley could be put into a very difficult position."
"But what about you?"
"What about me? My death warrant's already been signed. The scroll is in my handwriting or what used to serve as my handwriting as Harry pointed out. The scratchings of a few faceless Aurors can be erased easily enough. Given my reputation, that ought to be enough to send me to Azkaban for the rest of my very short life."
"Don't look at me that way, Lupin. You look like you've swallowed a bottle of Skele-Gro."
"You're just going to sit back and die?"
"No, I'm going to do whatever I can to sort this mess, you idiot. However, I'm not stupid enough to think that this shall all blow over within a few weeks, and I shan't have an innocent young woman be killed or worse to give me a bit more time."
"You're all chivalry," Black muttered. Severus kicked him under the table. "Oi!"
"Serves you right."
"What did I do?"
"Paddy, settle down." Lupin put a hand on Black's shoulder. "Is there anything I can do?"
"You've done quite enough already, Lupin."
"All right." He glanced at his watch. "Are you staying or going, Paddy?"
"I'll let Minerva know."
"Leaving so soon, Lupin? Have you got something to get back to?" Severus arched an eyebrow, his mouth pinched into a knot.
"As a matter of fact, I have. I've got an exam to give in less than two hours and I've got to let Grendel out long enough ahead of time that he doesn't panic and refuse to show himself."
"Oh. The horse-thing."
"Yes, the 'horse-thing'. He saved Harry's life, you know. Thought you'd be a little more charitable towards him than that."
"Moony, this really isn't the time," Black said. "Go on. I'll see you in a couple of days."
A prodigious frown formed on Lupin's face. "All right." He didn't sound convinced. "Is there anything I ought to bring back?"
"I don't think so, thanks."
"Okay." Lupin ruffled Black's hair and stepped back. "I'll... see you lot later, then?"
Severus grunted. Black nodded.
"Tell Harry I said goodbye, would you?" Still frowning, Lupin Disapparated on the spot.
Black slumped forward on the table. "Are you going to the Burrow?" he asked, his voice muffled by his folded arms.
"Would you rather I went straight to Diagon Alley?"
Two pained eyes peeked over top of Black's forearm. "You know that's not what I meant."
Severus pursed his mouth. "Of course I'm going to the Burrow. I assume you'll stay here with Harry?"
"Couldn't beat me out of it." With a sharp sigh, Black buried his face again. "Christmas. I'll give him until Christmas, and if he hasn't shown any signs of improving by then I'll have to..." He lapsed into a very deliberate silence.
"Might I remind you, Black, that I am Harry's next of kin? I am the only one legally able to make that decision."
"I don't care. After last night, I can't sit by anymore and watch him suffer. Can't believe you'd want him to either."
"What makes you think freakish serums and padded walls are going to help anything?"
"Nothing else has."
A lump of acidic agreement formed in Severus' throat. He looked away. "Perhaps he simply hasn't tried the right things."
"Oh? What would you suggest?"
Severus opened his mouth. Nothing came out. However, half a second later the kitchen door swung open, and Harry shuffled out, a glass of milk in one hand and a stack of toast in the other. "Elves've got breakfast cooking. Think there's bacon."
Severus arched an eyebrow. "I thought I wasn't allowed."
Harry shrugged and took a sip of his milk. Without a word, he walked out the door.
Severus stared after him. "I believe," he murmured, "that was meant as an apology."
"Wouldn't surprise me."
"He's blaming himself."
"You mean he's still blaming himself, don't you?" Severus got to his feet and swept towards the kitchen. "I shall leave after I've had a bite to eat and gotten a fresh robe. Is there anything you need?"
"My godson to come to his senses?"
Severus grunted. He turned away, ignoring the thick note in Black's voice, and went in search of bacon he didn't want.
Chickens were pecking at his shoes. Chickens.
"Fuck off!" Severus hissed, kicking at one of the feathered monstrosities. It flew into the air with a deafening cluck and lighted on a fencepost. The blasted thing gave an almighty cackle and waggled its tail feathers in his direction. Severus could have sworn it was mocking him.
He was just about to plant his foot in another feathery backside when the door opened. The chickens scattered. "Good lord, Severus! What are you doing here?"
"Good morning, Molly." He stepped inside, trying not to wrinkle his nose too much at the dishes washing themselves or the basket of kittens asleep next to Arthur's plate of eggs and sausages.
"My, aren't we dapper today?" She grinned, plucking at the sleeve of his deep green robe. Severus growled low in his throat; she looked angelic and ushered him to the table. "Have a seat. Have you eaten?"
"I need to see your daughter. This isn't a social call."
Arthur glanced up from his paper. "What's this about?"
"This." Severus fished the scroll from his pocket and slid it across the table. Arthur unrolled it with a frown and, adjusting his glasses, peered at the page.
"Oh, dear, potions. Molly? Could you have a look at this? I can't make heads or tails of it."
"All right, all right. Silly man, couldn't get a Deflating Draught to work on a balloon if you pricked it with a pin." Molly bustled over and took the parchment from his hands. Half a second later, she dropped it.
"BLOODY FUCKING HELL!" she roared.
"Molly!" Arthur and Severus snapped in unison.
Approximately two seconds later, she had Severus' ears in a death grip. "All right, Severus, you tell me right now what my Ginny's got to do with... with that, or so help me, I'll..."
"If you would kindly remove your nails from out my flesh, perhaps I could."
She let go. Severus gritted his teeth, squeezing his eyes shut as white-hot pain lanced through delicate cartilage. Rubbing one ear, he glowered up at her; she glowered back.
"Well?" she growled.
"Molly, sit down. You're doing a remarkable impression of a sabre-toothed tiger."
Her hand moved for the wand in her apron pocket. "Severus..."
"She found it. Through a convoluted series of twists and turns it found its way to me, and I am returning it to her on the chance that its absence might cause grief on her part."
"Uh-huh. How did it get to you? And don't give me any nonsense. I want names."
Severus pursed his mouth. "She is the friend of the son of an... associate of mine--"
"The grouchy fellow at the Happy Dumpling?"
With a scowl, Molly folded her arms. "And you got it from him?"
"Let me get this straight. Rather than bring it straight to you, she sent it across half the country and back for half a dozen people to see." Her fingers curled into claws. Severus winced inside at the shade of red her round face was turning.
"On the contrary, I believe she had a guest last evening, and he may have taken it without her knowledge."
"Oh, did she?" Molly stormed off, muttering something about taking better care of volatile things and late-night visitations.
"Oh, dear," Arthur whispered. Severus was just about to ask when the barrage came from the living room.
"VIRGINIA MATILDA WEASLEY, I WANT A WORD WITH YOU THIS INSTANT!!"
There was a long moment of silence and finally a drowsy, "Bloo--for Merlin's sake, Mum, it's half seven."
"You come through that Floo this instant, young lady."
"Why? What've I done?"
"Does a certain potion formula ring a bell? A very volatile one?"
"What? Mum, what are you--oh, shit." A soft pop filled the air, presumably from a certain Weasley's head being pulled back out the Floo. The silence stretched for long, painful seconds.
Arthur pursed his mouth. "I'm sorry you had to be here for this, Severus."
"I never intended anything like it to happen." An odd little curl of guilt started forming in the middle of Severus' belly. "Dare I ask?"
"Molly's a bit... conservative. With Ginny, anyway." Arthur looked a bit ashen himself, a sad furrow forming on his brow. "She's our little girl. What do you expect?"
"If it's any consolation," Severus lied, "I asked her about her association with the Yao boy once, and she swore to me it was perfectly innocent."
"I hope you're right." With less than blazing enthusiasm, Arthur scraped a bit of egg onto his toast and stuck it in his mouth. One of the kittens yawned, stretched, and fell out of the basket to drag off one of the sausages. It lapped away at the greasy skin, pointed tail held high; Arthur didn't make a move to stop it.
It was perhaps a terse minute later that Severus heard the distinct thump of a bad Floo landing. He closed his eyes as Molly shrieked, "You had better have a good explanation, young lady, or it's straight back home!"
"I only showed it to one person, and that's only because he found it in my bag! He must have nicked it."
"What were you doing with it in the first place?"
"I found it in the shop. I was going to have Professor Snape look at it--"
"Who did you show it to?"
Pause. "He's only a friend, Mum."
"A friend visiting you at all hours of the night?"
"Don't 'Mum' me! You are in very deep trouble--"
"Just--how do you know about it in the first place?"
"Severus is sitting in the kitchen right now. After everything he's done for you, and you do something like this--"
"MUM!" A moment later, Ginny burst into the room. Her face was crimson, and her hands beneath the sleeves of her unbuttoned robe trembled. She snatched the scroll from the table and stuffed it in her pocket. Lip trembling, she gave Severus a sidelong glower. "Happy now?"
"Not especially. I merely wanted to ask in whose things you found that formula."
Ginny shrugged. "In the workroom at the shop. It was sort of stuffed in a cabinet. I don't even know what it is." She scrubbed at her cheek; the neck of her robe inched down, revealing a frilly nightgown. "I didn't mean for anyone to nick it."
"If you don't know what it is, why did it scare you so much?"
"Because that thing's vile. Half those ingredients aren't even legal, and one's not supposed to leave North America." She snorted into her sleeve. "It looked like... like..."
"Is that what it is?"
Severus nodded. He didn't look at her.
"I thought the handwriting looked familiar." A pause. "That was one of the horrible things you meant when you and Harry were in Diagon Alley, wasn't it?"
"One among many." Severus glanced up just in time to see Ginny go porcelain white.
"How did you... know... what it did?" Her breathing had gone reedy, air whistling deep in her chest.
Severus only stared at her. Ginny went grey and looked away.
"God," she whispered. "You murdered people."
"I'm not proud of it, if that's what you're implying."
"Does Harry know?"
"Did Professor Dumbledore?"
"Very much so."
"And he still let you teach?"
Ginny gave a brittle laugh. She glanced back at her father, then at her mother still glaring from the doorway. "Have... Have you...?"
"Not in longer than you've been alive."
Ginny pursed her mouth into a small, pink pucker. "Who was the last one?" she asked in a soft voice.
"We haven't got time for that." Molly swept into the room. She stopped in front of Ginny, arms folded, glaring down her nose. "You know perfectly well, young lady, that one of the conditions on letting you move out was that you behave yourself."
"I am very, very disappointed in you, Ginny."
"I told you, he's only a friend!"
"Visiting at all hours of the night?"
"Be quiet, Arthur."
"I was only going to say that Severus told me Ginny swore there was nothing going on."
Molly peered at him. She turned her cold eyes on Severus. "Is that true?"
"Yes." He had, after all, told Arthur that very thing.
Molly, however, studied him for a long moment more. Her squinted brown eyes ran up and down, from his feet resting on the floor to the disaffected stare he gave her in return. She poked a finger in his chest. "If I find out you're lying to me, Severus Snape, I'll set you out in the garden for a scarecrow."
"If you find out I'm lying, you're listening to very different people than I am."
She grunted. Still casting him a suspicious look, she turned back to her daughter. "So what do you plan to do about this formula, young lady? You can't keep hold of it."
"I was going to put it back." Ginny didn't quite look at her mother. "I don't want anything to do with it." Her eyes flickered towards Severus. She whispered, "Sorry."
"What makes you think I want anything to do with it, either, Miss Weasley?"
She blinked at him a couple of times. "But, you made it."
"And, as I said, what makes you think I want anything to do with it? Contrary to popular belief, I am neither a lunatic nor a sadist."
"Then why'd you invent it in the first place?"
"Ginny!" Molly swatted her daughter on the shoulder.
"It's a perfectly good question, Mum! Only, it doesn't make any sense."
"It's none of your business."
Severus cleared his throat. All three Weasleys turned to look at him. He shot them all a collective cool look before focusing on Ginny. "I had my reasons."
"So what were they?"
"None of your bloody business!" Severus' fingers curled into his robe until they went numb. "Haven't you got something better to do?"
The hurt look Ginny shot him made him wince inside. For an instant, with her disheveled red curls and clear brown eyes, she looked like a much older version of her niece. "Probably." She turned away. "I'll see you later, Professor."
Severus said nothing as she hurried out of the room. He folded his arms across his chest and tried to ignore the most uncomfortable sense of guilt making his breakfast go sour. He met Arthur's stare from across the table. Arching an eyebrow, he growled, "Yes?"
"You could stand to be a little nicer, Severus."
"I'm not a nice man."
"Believe me, I know." Pulling off his glasses, Arthur rubbed his eyes. He stopped, eyes fixed on the small herd of kittens stealing his breakfast. "Shoo, all of you." A ball of fur mewed in sharp protest as it was lifted from its pilfered lump of egg.
"Arthur, don't press him." Molly settled into a chair and poured herself a mug of coffee. Her mouth was still a hard line. "Lord knows things aren't easy right now." Her eyes darted sidelong towards Severus. "Speaking of easy, you wouldn't know anything about fifteen-hundred Galleons mysteriously appearing in our bank vault, would you?"
"I fear not."
"Codswallop." Molly took a sip. "We appreciate the thought, Severus, but we can't accept it."
"I'm afraid I still haven't the foggiest what you're talking about."
"Yes, you have."
"You're the only person we know with that sort of money to toss around," Arthur supplied. "Lucius Malfoy wasn't exactly in the poorhouse, and I doubt you are on your own, either, if that broom of Harry's says anything."
"What on Earth makes you think I'm eager to part with anything of mine?"
"After what you said about your family, what would make us think you want to keep it?" Molly took another sip, set down her mug, and tipped in a fat dollop of cream. She poured a scant second mug, added a sickly white liquid too thin to be proper cream and half the sugar bowl, and pushed it across the table to him.
Severus glowered at it. "That was milk." He peered closer. "And it's skimmed!"
"Don't change the subject."
"This is an outrage!"
"It's what you're supposed to have." Molly's eyes flitted over his wrist where it emerged from his sleeve. Bones stuck out in a lumpy pattern. With a little frown she took back the mug and added some cream. "Well. Maybe just a little."
Severus grunted. He snatched the lukewarm almost-coffee from her hand and downed it in one go. It barely stung the roof of his mouth. Glowering, he slumped in his seat, still clutching the ceramic handle.
Arthur cleared his throat. "We'll have the money straight back to you--"
"I don't want it. You can pay me back if you wish, but I'd hand over the entire bloody estate if I thought you'd take it."
"You don't... want any of it?" Arthur stared at him, lip curling in confusion.
"Why should I? Money isn't everything, you know." Severus glanced around at the scruffy, ragtag house, at the bookcases alternately crammed with cookbooks and household manuals. An ancient cathedral-style radio sat on a shelf that looked ready to topple. One of the kittens was fighting its way up the drapes. He sneered; some part of him, however, kept making insistent noises that he was more than content in such a scandal of a household.
"We'll see to it that you get every Knut," Molly said. "With interest."
"If you're so desperate to see it go to someone else, make a fund for your granddaughter. Or your daughter, find her an apprenticeship somewhere. She's certainly not lacking the talent."
"If I find a fraction of a Knut of that money back in my account - any of my accounts, or Harry's - I'll give the whole sum back at a factor of ten. Each time."
Molly went white. Arthur dropped the kitten he was fighting for control of his breakfast. (The kitten mewed in triumph and dragged the last untouched sausage to the floor.) "Good lord, Severus," he said under his breath. "You're mad."
"Only when provoked."
With a dazed look, Arthur pulled his glasses off and wiped them on his robe. "There's got to be something we can do in return."
"Call it my thanks for taking care of Harry last year."
Molly's lips went thin. "You don't need to pay us for that."
"Then call it the fee for helping me sort out what in bloody Hell is going on right now. Between being incriminated with potions I haven't touched in twenty years, lethal hexes arriving at my home, and coming a hair's breadth from meeting Igor Karkaroff down the pub, I--"
"Karkaroff's on the mainland?" Arthur was staring at him with a glassy, unfathomable expression.
"He was two days ago."
Arthur pursed his mouth. He leaned back in his chair, arms folded, ignoring the kittens diving into the last of his eggs. "This is going to sound strange, but I need you to do something."
"I need you - and Harry - to come back tonight. I'll owl you when I get everything sorted. I'll have... a friend here. Nobody who would incriminate you."
Severus pulled away from the table. He started to stand. "Arthur, I don't know what you're playing at--"
"Igor Karkaroff was captured in May. Until you said any different, as far as I knew he was in Azkaban."
Severus stared. He sat down again, by inches, his palms flat on the table. "Why haven't I heard anything about this?"
"Because it was hushed up. The word has always been that the Ministry was trying to put as little light on the Death Eaters as possible. After this, I'm not so sure." Arthur went quiet. His mouth was a grim line, and his eyes smouldered with something between fury and determination.
"He's not an Animagus, is he, Severus?" Molly looked at him with a frustrated little twist to her mouth.
"Not as far as I'm aware. Igor's skills were always in the Dark Arts and Arithmancy." Part of him tried to mention what he'd heard and what Emily had discovered; the rest, however, wanted to find out more about Arthur's so-called "friend" first.
"Brilliant," Arthur muttered under his breath. "There are only three groups at the Ministry who could even get close enough to talk to him, much less get him out, and frankly I'd rather not annoy any of them."
"What groups?" Severus asked in a silken voice.
"The upper Cabinet, the Unspeakables, and Auror division sub-directors and higher."
A shudder went through Severus' back. "Ah."
"That's one reason Rookwood was so dangerous back in--"
"I gathered," Severus snapped. He dug his nails into his palms, forcing himself to take deep, steady breaths. With a curt motion, he pushed himself to his feet. "I'd best be going."
Arthur wiped his mouth on his napkin even as he got up. "You're coming tonight, aren't you?"
Severus said nothing, only swept towards the door.
"I shall think about it." He cast a sharp glance back at Molly and Arthur. "I promise nothing more."
"For Harry's sake, at least," Molly murmured.
Severus turned on his heel. He took three terse steps and stopped, towering over her. Arthur made a move to stop him; Molly shot her husband a look, and he froze. Severus arched an eyebrow.
In a voice like scales sliding over silk, he hissed, "And how, precisely, do you think exposing him to strangers - who for all I know want his head - is going to help him?"
"It's better than leaving him in the dark." She glared up at him, challenging him with every speck of will in her dumpy body.
"We shall see about that." Severus swept for the door again. The moment he set foot outside, he Disapparated.
He found Harry and Black perched at the dining room table, staring at a chessboard. Black picked up his pawn just as Severus leaned over his shoulder.
Black bristled. "What?"
"Oh, nothing, nothing. Simply watching."
With a grunt, Black slammed the piece into the board. A moment later, Harry's knight galloped over it, horse rearing, rider waving his sword in triumph as the black pawn fell over with a little "urk". Severus smirked.
"They're finally having a taste of victory then?"
Harry shrugged, never lifting his eyes. "S'pose."
"Did you find out anything about that formula?" Black interrupted, inspecting the board.
"Learn anything else?"
For a moment, Severus paused. "No." He started for the kitchen and Gran's laboratory. He glanced back just as he reached the door. "Harry?"
"Would you care to play someone with a modicum of skill once you've finished trouncing your dogfather?"
Harry shook his head and reached out to nudge a rook closer to Black's side of the board. A pained look flashed across his face and was gone.
Something went cold in Severus' belly. "Very well. Should you change your mind, I'll be downstairs."
Harry's eyes flickered towards him. Severus almost thought he was going to ask him to stay. He took a hesitant half-step towards the table. Harry looked away.
"Hmm. Obnoxious brat," Severus muttered.
Harry shrugged again and put his chin on his folded hands. "You probably ought to get to work," he said in a soft voice.
"Ah. Quite. I'll leave you to it, then." Before Harry or Black could say a word, Severus shouldered his way into the kitchen. Sissy jumped out of his way.
"Be quiet, elf."
She was. A few moments later, in the dimness of the laboratory, the only things he allowed himself to hear were the scratch of the brush over another charred surface and what might have been the slow shattering of his own damaged heart.
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