The Last Battlefield
Chapter 17 - Friends Among Foes
Arthur's sixth urgent letter lay in a crumpled heap on the countertop. Severus doused it with a fair amount of Mrs. Skower's and aimed his wand. A quick word, and the parchment went up in a roar of white flame.
He snapped his head up from the disintegrating wad of grey ash. "Not throwing sticks for your dog, Potter?"
Harry shrugged and slunk down the stairs. "Got another owl for you. Why're you so popular all of a sudden?"
"Thousands of lustful women can't all be wrong." Severus snatched the scroll from Harry's fingers; Harry looked away.
"That mean you fancy women now?" he asked in a flat voice.
"Yes, along with your godfather, Gilderoy Lockhart, and Dementors." The parchment crackled as it unrolled. Severus set his mouth, squinting at Arthur's blocky printing.
Look, I understood by nine o'clock last night that you weren't going to show. You don't comprehend how serious this is, though. There's no telling what Karkaroff could be up to. It wouldn't surprise me if he were the one who sent that hex. I've already asked my friend to come back Friday night - yes, this Friday, the twelfth - because he desperately needs to speak to you. I won't tell him where you are or what pub you saw Karkaroff at, but you're going to have to give him a little information. I'm begging you. Trust me. I give you my word. Nobody will hurt you or Harry. I'll ward the house so only the two of you can Apparate and Disapparate from it if you want.
Please respond, for both your sakes. The owl's from the local Post Office. Just send it with him and nobody will be the wiser.
PS, I've got a list of wizards and witches in the Lancashire area. I'm keeping it here, though, so if you want to have a look at it you'll just have to drop by. Remember, Friday. Eight in the evening. I swear on Merlin's good name, nothing will harm you.
Sneering, Severus crumpled the page and smashed it on the counter. He started to pick up the bottle of Mrs. Skower's again.
The letter shot towards Harry's hands. Severus grabbed his own wand and aimed. "That is private! Accio parchment!"
It flew out of Harry's grasp. He dived, though, and caught it in midair. "Not a Seeker for nothing," he growled, smoothing the page so hard it ripped down the middle.
"Mister Potter, give that back this instant."
"Expelliarmus!" Harry caught Severus' wand. His eyes ran over the page, a red tinge rising in his face. Severus stormed around the counter and wrenched the letter away.
Narrowed green eyes turned to meet his. "What's going on here?"
"Then what's this about you seeing Karkaroff down the pub?"
"As I just said, nothing. Get out of my laboratory this instant."
Harry looked around. "Doesn't look much like a laboratory to me. Looks more like the inside of someone's Floo grate."
"I find that comment in rather poor taste, Mister Potter."
"Yeah, well, it's not much compared to this thing." Harry grabbed at the letter again. Severus caught him by the wrist. Harry dug his nails into Severus' forearm.
"Mister Potter," Severus hissed, "let me g--"
Fire. White-hot flames ripped through his bones, under his skin, shrieking outward from the scar beneath Harry's fingers. Severus fell to his knees with a cry. It built, boiling away his marrow, his brain. The stench of blood and wetter things saturated the air; the smell lingered like bile on the back of his tongue. Cracks began to form in his rib cage, in the screaming muscle of his heart. The last thing he heard was a siren or something enormous shrieking as beasts ripped the flesh from its bones--
There were blankets tucked in underneath his chin. A few seemed to have been piled on his head as well, worming their way inside. Puzzled, Severus tried to push them back. His arms wouldn't move. The left one throbbed as though the flesh had been cut away and tamped back into place. He tried to lift his head to shake the suffocating weight away.
"Shh. Don't move."
Severus frowned. "Molly?" he mumbled, although it sounded more like, "Mah?"
"That's right. Lay still." Something cool dabbed at his forehead.
There was a moment of silence. The cloth - or whatever it was - kept running over his face, down his cheeks, over his eyes. "Just be quiet. You've had another spot of heart trouble. We're doing all we can."
Scowling, Severus let his head roll to the left. His eyes didn't want to open, but after a few seconds he managed to force a crack between his eyelids. A Harry-sized blur in dark blue robes hunched at the far side of the bed. He seemed to be glowing; it took Severus a moment to realise it was only the gaslight dispersed by his lashes.
Harry shook his head and glanced away. "We'll tell you later."
"You need to rest, Sev."
"What in fuck is going on?" he tried to snarl. It came out a moan.
"Be quiet, dear." Molly's pudgy, strong hands pressed into his shoulders. Severus caught a glimpse of a few red curls coming loose from the knot at the back of her head. She brushed something from his eyelid. There was something drawn in the skin around her eyes, as though she'd been awake for too long.
"Time'zit?" he slurred.
"About nine. You've been out for a few hours."
"Hmm." Blinking, Severus tried to sit up and push back the covers. Molly's weight held him down.
"Don't you even think about getting out of bed, Severus Snape. You're going to stay here and rest. Do you understand?"
He couldn't even find the strength to glare.
Her plump fingers carded through his hair. "Poor thing," she murmured. "It'd almost be worth it to contact someone. At least he'd be able to see a proper doctor."
"No," Harry hissed. "I won't let anyone take him away."
"I know, dear. Don't worry. Arthur'll get to the bottom of it. If this hadn't happened, too--"
Severus frowned. "Wha...?"
"Shh. It's not important right now." Molly glanced up at Harry, turned her attention back to Severus. "Go to sleep."
The suffocating softness in his head spread out again as Molly adjusted the blankets over him. From a very long way off, he heard Harry say, "They're wrong, you know. I knew what I was getting into."
"I know, dear. We'll get this sorted. Don't you worry."
"I hope so." The covers dipped as though someone were leaning against the mattress. A faint touch, little more than a swirl of air beneath his eye, brushed across his skin and disappeared. From his faraway place, growing more distant, Severus heard Harry murmur, "Eyelash, Sev. Make a wish?"
He didn't have time before the darkness washed over him once more.
"Severus, dear? Wake up."
Someone was shaking him. Severus wrenched away with a growl. Or, at least, he tried to. He squinted against the fire searing through his eyelids, flinching back from the glowing squares of light set into the far wall.
"G'way," he muttered.
"You've got a visitor." Molly leaned over him and shook someone else. "Harry, wake up."
"Hn?" Harry shifted, disturbing the mattress but not the blankets. Severus caught a glimpse of blue robe and heard the soft creak of the bedframe as Harry moved.
"Wake up, dear. You and Severus have got someone to see you."
"What ti--" Harry broke off with a yawn. "--Ime is it?"
"Not quite half nine. Hurry up, dear. He's waiting." Molly paused. "I don't think Sirius is too fond of him, so you'd best get ready quickly."
"What?" Harry groaned. Severus rolled his head just in time to see him swing his legs over the edge of the bed. "Who's here?"
"You'll see in a minute. Go on. Get changed. I'll sit with Severus while you do."
"Tell me who's here first."
Silence. After a long moment, Molly murmured, "Nobody who'd want to hurt either of you. He's a friend. He wants to help."
"Harry, go on. Please. You'll see." She dropped her voice. "I don't want Severus to get any more upset than he's going to."
"I can hear you," Severus managed to enunciate. His eyes fell closed again. Deep in his chest, his heart fluttered, skipping over this beat or that. His lungs strained for air, aching, desperate for energy they didn't have.
Molly patted his hand. "It'll be over soon, dear. Just rest for now. I'm not going anywhere."
"Mrs. Weasley, I--"
"Harry, I promise you, nothing is going to happen. Go and get yourself changed. Brush your teeth, too. You didn't last night."
"Harry, please. Hurry."
The mattress shifted, tipping upwards as Harry slid to the floor. "All right." He still sounded suspicious. "I'll be back in a few minutes, Sev."
Severus said nothing, only tried to calm the fluttering and stuttering of his heart.
He must have dozed off, because the next thing he knew he was being lifted up just enough for a few pillows to be squashed underneath him. "I had to steal a few from the other rooms," Molly murmured. "I don't think you'll mind much if the sheets don't match."
With a little frown, Severus turned his head to find a pillow with pink roses on the case just beneath his cheek. A faint smile twitched on his mouth. He lifted an arm to wrap around it; his muscles didn't have the strength to make it move. Closing his eyes, he strained to drag his limp limb up from under the blankets. Tension ran from muscle to muscle, hurting his ear and bursting in his chest. He shuddered. Molly put a hand to his cheek.
Severus swallowed. It drove needles into his throat. "Pillow," he rasped.
"Are you uncomfortable?"
"No." Letting his head loll to the side again, he burrowed his cheek against one of the roses.
Molly gave him an odd little smile. "You never struck me as a pink person."
"Gran?" Her eyes went huge. "Oh. Gran." Her hands fluttered over the pink cotton lace at the edge of the pillowcase, straightening it with little tugs and pats. "Oh, my."
"Hmm." Severus did his best to rub his cheek against the roses again.
"Do you need one under your arms? You can't be comfortable sitting up with them loose."
"Hmm." Mustering all his energy, he nodded once. A bit of the tension under his breastbone lessened when Molly lifted him again and replaced the rose-printed one with another white one. She tugged and propped a few moments more, until he was more or less upright. Gran's pillow fit across his chest as well as it ever had. He let his chin fall forward on one corner and smiled at the faint, bitter smell of years of potions that still lingered beneath the mustiness of time.
The bathroom door gave a slight creak. Harry's shoes squeaked across the floor. "How's he doing?"
"He's got his security pillow. I think he's happy."
Severus snorted. The faint smile curving his lips didn't waver, though. The bed dipped once more, and Harry crawled across, stopping too many inches away. "That came from Philia's room, didn't it?"
"I think so. There was an awful lot of pink."
"That was hers, yeah."
"If I'd have known, I wouldn't have left the bed in quite such a shambles." Molly glanced towards the door. "No time to fix it now, I'm afraid. Severus?"
"You may have to speak a little bit, but Arthur and I'll do as much of it as we can. Rest, I'll be right back."
"Wait," Harry said. "You're not going to tell us who it is first?"
"Trust me, dear. This is someone you need to see. I don't think names would be any help to you."
"I'll be right back, Harry. I promise this is for the best. We may even be able to get Severus a bit of proper medical care."
But she'd already bustled towards the door. "Fuck," Harry hissed under his breath.
"Hmm." Despite the situation, Severus couldn't muster the energy to panic. He heard Harry's robes rustle, though, and the soft sound of his wand being fished from a pocket. Only Harry's breathing broke the silence.
The door cracked open without a knock. Black barged in, wand raised, looking as though he was ready to hex somebody into ashes. He blocked the doorway. "Arthur, keep him out of here."
"I'm not going to hurt him," came a soft, familiar voice. "Or anyone else."
"Mister Black, please. I'm trying to do my job."
"That's what I'm afraid of!"
"Sirius, settle down," Arthur said. "Go on in."
"You'll have to get through me first."
There was a soft thud, and an "oof," and Black found himself the victim of a Molly Weasley-sized hole. A black-robed figure stepped in. His cloak clung to his frame in a way that still made Severus' heart clamp down on itself. He opened his mouth to shout; it came out a wheeze. The Auror stepped forward, came closer, closer. Severus' eyes were fixed on the sharp lines of the uniform, the wand case and rank insignia on the thick leather belt. Somehow, he managed to inch closer to Harry, his heart squeezing on itself like a vice--
Harry's voice made his jump. It held surprise, though, where it ought to have held fury, and confusion rather than hatred.
"Potter," Blaise Zabini's soft voice responded. Severus felt a hand on his. "It's good to see you again, Professor."
Severus stared up at a good-natured smile. "Blaise?" he rasped.
Blaise nodded. His smile spread, touching his eyes, crinkling the skin at the corners. "You've had us all worried. Mum's been asking every day if I've heard anything about you."
"You... know each other?" Molly asked in a stunned voice.
"You didn't tell them?" Arthur asked.
"Well, no. I thought... I mean, an Auror..."
"Zabini was in Slytherin, Mrs. Weasley," Harry said. "Same year as me and Ron."
Molly's hands flew to her mouth. "Oh, my goodness! I'm so sorry! I didn't realise--I mean, I ought to have, I suppose, but it never occurred to me--"
"It's all right." Blaise gathered up his cloak and perched himself on Molly's chair. "I'm sorry to drop out of the blue like this. I'd hoped to see you a few nights ago, but you never showed."
Severus did his best to shrug. He tried to look Blaise in the eye; for a moment his gaze dropped lower, and a font of nausea tried to well in his throat. He closed his eyes.
"Why...?" he wheezed.
"Shh, Sev," Harry murmured. In a louder, sharper voice, he asked, "What are you doing here?"
"I wanted to ask Professor Snape about Karkaroff."
"Karkaroff?" Black barked.
"Settle down, Sirius."
"Let them talk. Blaise has to be back at the Ministry soon."
"I'm sorry, Mister Black, but I really do. I've almost been gone too long already." Blaise's hand came to rest on Severus' again. Severus flinched, and it pulled away. "Are you all right?"
"You're an Auror," Harry snapped. "Of course he's not all right."
"I'm... sorry. Professor, I swear, I only want to help you. I sent... a while ago, Arthur asked me about Lucius Malfoy. I'm so sorry, Professor, I ought to have sent a card or something--"
"Get to the fucking point," Harry growled.
"All right. I brought Arthur those files. I don't know precisely how many you saw, but I know he thought you'd want to see Uden's." There was a pause. "Mister Black, I may have to ask you to--"
"I'm Harry's next of kin, and I might as well be that greasy git's. I'm not going anywhere."
Severus cracked an eye open. "What?" he whispered.
"This is classified information, I'm afraid--"
"If you're talking about that little bitch kicking the bucket, I already know. I'm. Not. Leaving."
Silence rang for a long, uncomfortable moment. Severus tried to ask what in Hell Black meant about being Harry's next of kin. The words wouldn't form on his heavy tongue.
Blaise finally murmured, "All right. If you don't mind, I'll have to ask you not to say anything to anyone."
"I won't but not for you."
"All right." Blaise cleared his throat. "Professor, I need to know anything you can tell me about Karkaroff."
"He can't talk, Zabini. He's just had a heart attack."
"Potter, I'm sorry, but I really haven't got much choice here." Blaise's voice had taken a thin, reedy edge. "As fragile as this situation is, if anything were to... to happen..." Blaise trailed off. The soft sound of a clearing throat broke the silence. "I'm sorry. This... I can't tell you much, but it seems as though there may be something very wrong going on at the Ministry. I've been trying to follow... It's complicated."
"You think there's some type of plot to bring it down from the inside?" Harry asked in a bored voice.
"No, not quite. But, something is going on. I don't know if it's a simple plot to wipe the record of the Death Eaters and what they did, or if it's more sinister than that, but I have reason to believe that both your lives are in danger."
Harry snorted. "No shit. Y'know, Zabini, if you're only going to tell us crap we already know--"
"Potter, I'm trying to be helpful here. I've actually got my own vested interest in this."
"Yeah, I heard something about an Arkady Zabini. Anyone you know?"
"Yes," Blaise said softly. "He was my father. We didn't agree on very much, including certain loyalties. I... My fiancée is Muggle-born. If my father hadn't died in the Hogwarts Siege, he'd have killed her. Even my mother's not very happy, but at least she's making an effort. Whoever's after the two of you... Potter, the fact that attempts are being made on your life means that it's not safe for the rest of us, either. Any connection with the Dark Mark right now is dangerous, whether you've got it or not. Um, I don't know if you remember Marcus Flint, but his sister never agreed with his allegiance, and she's... Well, we'll say she's someplace safe for now. I hope. It's... The world's going mad, and Professor Snape may have the information we need to put it right again."
"Tell me one thing," Harry said in a voice so calm it made Severus wince inside.
"Was your father one of them last spring?"
"Potter, my father had been a Death Eater for more than twenty years when he was killed. He died at Hogwarts."
Harry's weight shifted as he took in a sharp breath. One of his hands fluttered over Severus' for a bare instant. From the doorway, Black growled, "I think you'd better leave."
"Mister Black, I need to--"
"Stay," Severus murmured.
"Sev," Harry whispered, "he just said--"
Severus cracked open an eye at Harry. "Per--" He had to breathe a moment before he could finish. "--Ditus."
Harry's mouth went hard. "I still don't trust him."
Blaise gave a harsh sigh. "Potter, I swear to you--"
"Yeah, yeah. You're still one of that lot that left him to die."
"I had nothing to do with that. That was a Special Task Forces detail. Had I been there, I can assure you nothing of the sort would have occurred."
"So what are you?"
"What's the difference?"
"The difference between a ground-storming moron with a death wish, and a Slytherin."
"Oh. I didn't know you had a death wish."
Severus felt Blaise stiffen more than saw it. "At least I've got the sense to remain at headquarters enough to understand what's really going on."
"Then maybe you ought to go back there."
There was a rustling of robes as Blaise got to his feet. "Very well. I'm sorry, Professor. I'd hoped this would be more civilised. I hope you won't think less of me if I simply mark it down to stress given the situation." He squeezed Severus' hand; Severus did his best not to flinch. "I'll see to it that you get proper medication, at the very least. When you're feeling a bit better, I'd appreciate it if you'd contact me again."
Severus gave the barest hint of a nod. He forced himself to look at Blaise, not the uniform, only the soft-spoken student he'd known. A smile brushed across his mouth.
Blaise smiled back. With a parting squeeze of his hand, he murmured, "Take care of yourself." He nodded to Harry. "Potter."
Harry said nothing as Blaise swept out. Arthur mumbled something about being right back and followed. As soon as the door closed, Black growled.
"Molly, what in Hell were you thinking?"
"What do you think I was thinking? Blaise is in the same boat as Harry and Severus--"
"He's a fucking Auror! He could have the lot of them down on this place in a heartbeat, and Severus can't do a goddamned thing to defend himself against them. Do you want him to die?"
"No, and that's precisely why we brought him out here!"
"There is a warrant out for Severus' arrest--"
"And Blaise won't breathe a word. Anyway, Severus needs more than I can do for him, and unless you want to take him back to Hogwarts--"
"You know we can't do that. I've already spoken to Poppy, and she said herself she's not trained to handle this sort of thing again. How do you think he got into this mess in the first place?"
"All I know is that he's had two heart attacks in--"
"Why do you think he had them?"
"I don't know. They wouldn't have anything to do with Unicorn Blood, would they?"
"Yes, Unicorn Blood that Poppy gave to him because she didn't have the proper training or supplies to keep him alive in a situation far too much like this one."
"So she's not even going to have a look?"
"It would mean yet another person who'd know where he is and how to get here. We've got too many as it stands, and now that you've brought that goddamned Auror out here--"
"What would you rather we'd done, leave him to die?"
"Be quiet," Harry whispered too low for them to hear.
"Please. That sorry git's died so many times I'm starting to think it's a hobby. Harry asked you to come because you are the most trustworthy person we know--"
"And what makes you think I know anything about taking care of someone in this sort of state?"
"Stop it," Harry growled, a little louder than before.
"You know as much as any of us. He made it through the night, didn't he?"
"And I'll be damned if I know how--"
"Because he's a stubborn bastard who doesn't know how to just give it up."
"But how do you know he's going to be able to do it again? Blaise can get--"
"For fuck's sake, Molly! If he lives just to be dragged to Azkaban over a contract Harry would have signed anyway--"
Harry slammed his fist into the bed. "SHUT UP!"
His voice seemed to ring through the air several seconds longer than it should have. Severus turned his head enough to see him panting, back heaving, face red and fingers clawing at the bed. "Wh...?"
"They annulled it, all right?" Harry's head snapped around; he stared at Severus, his pupils so small they were little more than pinpricks. "Ministry issued the warrant yesterday evening. There's a whole goddamned waiting room full of people who can testify that I had no fucking idea what I was signing. Evening Prophet's got the whole story. Even my watch has got a line through my name. Congratulations." He snorted. "You're officially wanted for fraud and coercion of The Boy Who Fucking Lived."
Severus stared at him. His bottom lip dropped open. Harry breathed too hard, his nostrils flaring and his dry eyes a violent battle of green and red. Severus' eyes darted towards Black. "You bastard," he croaked. "Don't you dare."
"This isn't the time for that, Snape."
"The time for what?" Harry looked back and forth between them. He stopped on Severus. "What else haven't you told me?"
"Harry, leave him alone." Molly hurried across the room, tugging Severus' blankets up his body and tucking them around his shoulders. She stroked his hair. Her hands were cool where they brushed his temples. Severus went limp as it drove the last of the energy from his body. "He's had too much excitement as it stands."
"I want to know what nobody's bothered to tell me." Harry looked at Black. "Well?"
"It's nothing important."
"If it wasn't important, Sev wouldn't have mentioned it, now would he?"
"We'll talk about it later."
"I want to talk about it now."
"Harry," Molly reached over and patted his knee too quickly for him to flinch away, "why don't you come with me and have a bite to eat?"
"I'm not going anywhere."
"Are you sure? I'm sure Sirius would--"
"I'm not. Going. Anywhere."
"All right. I'll bring you a tray, then. Would you like Sirius to--?"
"No. I want to be alone with my... with Sev." There was something glassy about his eyes as he finished. For the first time in too many days, Severus felt the pulling, twisting urge to touch him, to try to make the demons go away. His fingers twitched, but as his left arm shifted on the pillow, a jolt of fire burst in his chest and ran up his throat. He whimpered.
"Settle down, dear." Molly pulled back the blankets just long enough to readjust his weak arms on Gran's pillow. "Get some rest."
"Should I try to mix up some Digitalis Potion?" Black murmured.
"Maybe. I can do it easily enough, I think." Molly fussed with Severus' hair some more. "I'll need to check my books. Or there's always Ginny."
"Is she any good?"
"Very," Severus croaked.
The corner of Harry's mouth twitched. He pulled his knees up and leaned forward on them. "Ask her?"
"I'll see what I can do." Molly tucked in the covers once more and gave Severus a look. "You rest. We'll have something sorted as soon as we can."
"Can I have some time alone with him?" Harry glanced up at Black. "But we are having a talk later."
Black grunted. A moment later his footsteps shuffled out into the hall. Severus snorted, more a wheeze than a proper snort. Molly patted him on the chest.
"I said rest. You too, Harry."
Molly said nothing, but her mouth twisted in a helpless little curve. She patted Severus once more, much to his annoyance, and hurried out. The door closed with a click.
Harry turned his head and rested his cheek on his knees, staring at Severus. Between the shadows under his eyes and the black of the fresh robe Molly had made him change into, he looked as though he was being swallowed up from the inside by some ethereal nightmare creature.
"I thought I told you never to do that again."
Severus closed his eyes and gave another little snort. Getting them open again proved to be rather more difficult.
"I hate you sometimes. You know that, don't you?"
Severus said nothing. The tension began to grow in his chest again.
"Especially now. After... that, and now this..." Harry trailed off.
Severus rolled his head to face away. The November sunlight tearing through the windows seared the backs of his closed eyes. The odd thought that if he fell asleep he didn't have to wake up flitted through his brain.
"I still can't believe you made me do it to you back. You really are a son of a bitch sometimes."
I know. He couldn't fight his own apathy enough to say it.
"Even if it was my fault."
Severus frowned. His dry lips parted, and he managed to force out a coarse, "No."
"It was, and you know it. If I'd gotten over myself enough to put out, it wouldn't have happened."
"I know what I'm saying, Sev. You... deserve better than me. At least someone else could..." Harry trailed off. His hand touched Severus' cheek.
Severus started to open his mouth to offer another weak protest when Harry closed his over it. His tongue darted inside, touched tip to soft tip with Severus'. Severus could only hold his breath, heart skipping another two beats. With far, far more effort than it should have taken, he pressed into it. Harry trembled. He grabbed Severus' face with the other shaking hand, his breathing quick and panicked through his nose. Still, he let his tongue dart over the surface of Severus', moisture forming between their mouths in a sticky, warm layer.
He wrenched away. His skin was flushed, eyes wide and wild, shoulders heaving as he fought for breath. A harsh quake coursed through him. "Fuck," he wheezed, and fell back, panting, on his knees. "Fuck, fuckfuckfuckfuck..." The words faded to a snarl.
Severus stared at him, the saliva on his lips cooling and leaving a sticky sensation on the thin skin. His heart screamed as he worked an arm free of the blankets and let it collapse on the bedspread in pathetic offering. Harry glanced at it and inched away. His balled fists shook, one crushed against his eye, knocking his glasses askew, the other's wrist grinding against its twin.
"Told you," he hissed.
"I am trying. What d'you think I've been doing for the last nine months?"
Taking the deepest breath he could, Severus ground out, "Denying."
A sneer curled Harry's upper lip. "You bastard."
Severus said nothing, only stared at his maritus - always his maritus, Ministry be damned - as the vengeful, animal glare pointed at him went straight to the middle of his chest. He closed his eyes before he could let himself slip away, if only so Harry might never look at him that way again. The air ran from his lungs and stopped.
"Sev?" Harry slapped him on the cheek. "Wake up."
Severus lay still. His lungs began to sting, then burn, his stuttering heart giving a sharp jerk as fresh oxygen failed to course through it.
"Sev? Severus?" Harry shook him hard. Severus gasped as a jolt ran through his throbbing left arm. Something seemed to detonate in his bronchial tubes as the harsh molecules ripped their way into his body.
"Oh, god, don't do that! You son of a bitch!" Harry smacked the side of Severus' head hard enough to send it lolling against his shoulder. Severus gave a little cry as pain like bone being filed away shot through his skull. Harry cried out as well.
"I'm sorry. I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to. I'm sorry." His head came to rest in the crook of Severus' neck. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry..." His words were lost, but his lips still ran fast and penitent against Severus' skin.
"Shh." The muscles in his neck still howling in chagrin, Severus fought until his cheek came to rest in Harry's hair. He strained until his fingers closed over a bit of black robe.
"I didn't mean to." Harry swallowed hard enough that Severus felt his head jerk. "You greasy, broken bastard."
"Ob... obnox... ie... p... usie."
Harry shuddered. "Don't. Not after what..." He curled up on himself.
"Ob... noxie... pusie."
"Adipate nothe," Harry whispered. He wrinkled his nose and sniffed hard. "Don't keep dying on me, you son of a bitch. If you ever try that again, I'll bring you back and kill you myself."
A weak smile quirked the corner of Severus' mouth. He simply lay there, letting Harry's head rest against his shoulder for a long minute until Harry pulled away. The brat sat up, peeling off his glasses to wipe them on a bit of the bedspread. No tears marred his face, but the muscles all the way down into his collar had gone taut.
"Get some rest," he whispered.
"Hmm." Much to Severus' annoyance, his eyes fell closed. The soft sound of Harry's breathing broke through the thud of his heart echoing through his bones; if he wasn't mistaken, it calmed the splintered muscle some as well. He didn't remember anything else before sleep overwhelmed him.
"I said 'no'. Will you shut up about it?"
"No." Severus folded his arms across his chest and gave Harry a haughty look. "I haven't been allowed to so much as go to the toilet by myself in three days, and I want a shred of privacy."
"That's because you've just had another fucking heart attack, you twit. Look, I'll wash your back for you. You know how much you like that."
Any other day, Severus might have taken pause. Instead, he glowered down his nose. "I can wash my own back, thank you very much."
"Can wash that too."
Harry rolled his eyes. "Do I have to get Molly to guard you at wandpoint again? Wish Zabini had never sent you those bloody potions. You're almost agreeable when you're at death's door."
With a snort, Severus threw back the covers and slid his legs over the edge of the bed. His nightshirt clung to his back, a testament to far too many days in one spot. He lifted a bit of the fabric to his nose and winced at the sour smell of used potions. "Could you at least do the washing once in a blue moon?"
"It got washed two days ago! Not my fault those potions come out through your skin. And don't blame the poor house-elves either. Dobby's been in tears almost every night since you tried to drop dead again, and if you make him cry one more time--"
"Then I'll consider the day well spent!" Severus staggered to his feet. His knees went rubbery; one buckled. Harry caught him before he could hit the floor.
"Now d'you see why I don't want you running off on your own?"
"I'm fine." Severus shook himself free. A burning tingle rushed through his chest as he stumbled across the room. His hand tried to move to rub it, but he made it hang at his side in an annoyed fist. "You've packed my wand, haven't you?"
"Sev, if you've got your wand you'll only get into trouble."
"Or, perhaps, if something were to happen to me, I could use it to signal someone. Have you thought of that?" He knelt before Harry's ancient trunk and, panting a little, wrested the lid open.
"I'll kick you."
"I'll tell Molly."
Harry shuddered. "Bastard."
"Brat. Might I have a bit of room?" Severus hunched over the trunk. His hand closed over his wand wrapped in a jumper about half a second in, but he kept rooting. Blocking the view from Harry (whom he felt hovering over him like a bloody parent), he managed to find the silvery Invisibility Cloak near the middle.
"Do you need me to--?"
"God, you're a grouch." Harry muttered to himself and went to slump on the edge of the bed. His eyes never left Severus; fortunately, they were in no position to catch the slight burst of blue light that accompanied a Shrinking Charm.
It was only the work of a moment to tuck the now-handkerchief-sized cloak into his sleeve. Wand in hand, he threw the trunk shut, shot Harry a superior glower, and managed to get to his feet and across the room with no major accidents. "I am going to the toilet. If you wish to come in once I've finished, that's your decision."
"Don't you dare lock that door."
"I'll do whatever I bloody well want!" Slipping inside, Severus slammed the door. He leaned against it for a moment, rubbing his aching chest. "Bollocks," he muttered.
Glancing back and forth between the door and the window, he fished the cloak from his sleeve. It was only a short, silent movement of lips to return it to its normal size. He slung it over his shoulder as he picked up a tube of Magident (peppermint flavour) and, looking at the door once more, unscrewed the cap.
He'd gotten more than half the message written on the mirror when Harry pounded on the door. "Aren't you finished yet?"
"I shall tell you when I am."
"What's taking so long?"
"If you have to ask, perhaps you ought to offer to change your goddaughter's nappy once in a while."
Severus could hear Harry's shudder. "That's gross, Sev."
"That's human physiology."
"Well, physiology faster."
"It shall take as long as it takes."
With his tongue sticking from the corner of his mouth, he set back to the message. A couple of the thicker white smears had started oozing down the mirror's face, but there was nothing to really be done about it. He had to pause for a moment before the last word, leaning on the sink and panting. He made the quick decision to Apparate to Holme rather than to just outside the property if he wished to complete his plan with body and soul in one cohesive unit.
When the last letter was more or less smudged into place and a hint of minty freshness filled the air, he stepped back and smirked at the block letters that spelled out:
Only a pang of guilt flickered through him as he pulled the cloak over his head and went to kneel in the corner.
It was barely ten seconds later that Harry pounded on the door again. "Sev, you had better finish up whatever the Hell you're doing because I'm coming in."
Severus said nothing.
A few seconds passed. "Sev?" Harry called.
Severus bit his lip and told himself that what he was doing would be better for Harry in the long run.
The door burst open. Harry tripped over a rug and caught himself on the wall, eyes frantic, panting so hard his teeth lay bared. He looked around, glasses barely hanging onto his face, and did a double take at the mirror.
"Oh, my..." He trailed off as his jaw dropped. Pursing his mouth, he shrieked, "SIRIUS! MRS. WEASLEY! HE'S DONE A RUNNER!"
Harry barged out of the toilet. His footsteps echoed through the bedroom and down the hall, pounding down the stairs so fast the floor beneath Severus shook. He sat there for a couple of minutes. Somewhat to his surprise, nobody came running to double check. Severus smirked to himself. Gryffindorks. If it weren't so easy, old boy, you'd almost have to be ashamed of yourself.
Telling himself that he wasn't, in fact, ashamed of himself, Severus leaned against the wall and dragged himself to his feet. Taking slow, unsteady steps, he tiptoed out into the bedroom. The door was open, but the house seemed silent on the whole.
It took only a matter of seconds to gather a set of Muggle clothing. He pulled them on under the cloak, still keeping an eye on the door. More than once, he had to sit on the edge of the trunk. He took a deep breath, hauled himself up on the footboard of the bed, and fished through a drawer for one last detail.
It lay at the bottom, glittering. Severus picked it up with a sneer. Trying not to think about where the earring had been, he shuffled into the bathroom again. It struck him that he cast no reflection. However, on the off chance somebody had stayed behind to catch him - unlikely, given that the whole lot were house-elves or Gryffindors - he swallowed his pride and made the tooth-grinding decision to work blind.
Grumbling to himself, he cast a couple of brief Sterilisation Charms and transfigured the business end of the stud into a vicious point. Licking his lips, he pointed the wand once more. "Audio et Memento."
He squeezed his eyes shut as he picked up the thing by its stone. He hissed as it slid through his left earlobe; every micron of the stinging path seemed to register in his nerves. With a final shudder, he forced the damnable thing through and blunted the tip again, growling under his breath as he affixed the tiny gold nut.
Tugging the cloak down off his head for a moment, he squinted at the mirror. "Look a right poof in this, I do."
"THERE YOU ARE!"
Black's roar echoed off the tiles. Severus cursed under his breath as he Disapparated. He could have sworn he felt the mongrel's arms go through him just as he did.
He crashed nearly on top of a middle-aged Muggle using the alley next to the pub in place of the facilities. Severus shuddered and got to his feet, sneering. He still clutched the cloak around his neck; only a moment later, when the Muggle's jaw had dropped and he had managed to piss all over his own shoes, did it occur to Severus that it might be somewhat difficult to explain the abrupt appearance of a floating head in the middle of a grungy alleyway. He gripped his wand, readying a Memory Charm.
"Fuckin' Hell," the Muggle muttered. "Last time I come down the pub on a Sunday." He staggered off, shaking his head and muttering something about having a talk with the vicar.
Severus watched him, jaw slack and one eye squinted. "I don't believe it," he said under his breath. "They actually get thicker."
Quickly, he tugged off the Invisibility Cloak and muttered another Shrinking Charm over it. Stuffing it in his pocket and leaning against the wall a moment to catch his breath, he shuffled up the alley and around the corner.
The Goat and Barrel might as well have been caught in a time capsule. Small men still kicked a white ball about on the glowing box. The barmaid still stood there, staring at it, pint glass and rag in hand. Lester still sat on his stool, pipe smoke turning the air around his head blue. He nodded as Severus walked in. Severus gave him a terse nod back and tried to look casual rather than pained as he stumbled across to the bar. Leaning on it, he heard the barmaid's shoes thumping towards him.
"Oi, mate, you look a right sight." She lifted his chin on a stubby finger. "You need to see the doctor?"
"Haven't slept well." He reached into his pocket and fished out a bill. This one had twenties on the front, and another picture. He started to order a whiskey again; the edge of guilt at the back of his mind caught his mouth. "Shandy."
"Shandy?" The barmaid sneered, recoiling. "That's a pooftah's drink. What you want next, a half pint?"
"Then what would you suggest that won't get me too soused to see?" Severus gulped at the air, trying to loosen his chest without it being obvious. The barmaid squinted at him.
"You sure you're all right?"
"Not had a few already, have you?"
"No," he growled.
"Millie, let the man have his shandy." Lester pulled the pipe out of his mouth and waved it about. "One less drunk to throw out come locking up time, what?"
"Hush, you old coot." Millie gave Severus one last suspicious look. "You look like death warmed over and gone stone cold again."
"Thank you. It's an effect for which I strive."
"Hmph!" She grabbed the twenty from his hand and stormed off, muttering, "Look a right pooftah in that earring as well, no question."
Casting a terse glare at her back, Severus scanned the pub once more. His booth was clear. Without waiting for Millie to return, he shambled over, now and then using the back of a chair for support when his legs threatened to turn to jelly.
The hard wood, after days spent in a more or less soft bed, bit into his backside as he sat down. He leaned on his elbows, clutching his hair and panting. For a bare instant, he considered simply Disapparating straight back to bed. A swatch of light cut across the floor, though, and a few moments later someone sat down hard in the booth just behind Severus.
He glanced up as a pint and a handful of notes and coins were set down in front of him. "That mate of your old boss is back," Millie said under her breath.
Severus nodded and pressed a finger to his lips. Millie nodded and slipped around the corner. "What'll it be this time, mate?" she asked as though nothing were out of the ordinary.
"Whatever will put me out of my misery quickest," came Igor's voice. It was cracked and tired, as though he was fighting crushing pain and losing.
"You need to see a doctor?"
"No," Igor rasped. "No. Here." There came a rustling of paper. "Bring the bottle."
"Rrright." Millie's footsteps shuffled backwards. "Got anyone joining you? Could get him something while I'm at it, leave you two to chat."
"Nothing. Whatever he had last week. Gin and tonic, I think it was."
"Right, heavy on the gin. I'll have that out in a moment, what?"
Millie bustled back to the bar. From behind him, Severus heard the wet, coarse sounds of breathing gone wrong. Igor choked, hacking on something. As Millie came back, he made a sudden glottal sound and muttered, "Ebat' ."
"You all right, mate? What's that in your hankie?" There were three glassy thumps, one much heavier than the others.
"You sure? You seem awfully excited. Give us a--oh, Jesus Christ! Mate, you need to get to hospital--"
"Leave me alone."
"No. Look, you sit tight. I'm going to go and ring for an ambulance--"
"It's under control."
"Leave me alone!" Igor gasped, coughing and choking again. "There's nothing to be... to be done. Let a man die in peace."
"All right, mate, all right. Settle down. Don't want you making yourself worse on my account. Only, if you change your mind... And don't you go dying in my pub, mind, no telling what sort of trouble--"
"I'll have two nines pressed and be ready for a third." Millie backed off. Her eyes flickered towards Severus as she did, her thin mouth pulled taut.
Severus only snorted and reached for his drink. He took a long sip, grimacing into the glass. Shandy, all right. Like week-old piss.
Smacking his mouth quietly, nose wrinkling at the lingering taste of lager and whatever that fizzy cack was, he leaned back with glass in hand. From the corner of his eye he saw Millie snatch Lester's pipe from his mouth and crack it in two over her knee (much to Lester's apparent shock). Severus smirked when Millie pointed at Igor's booth. Igor either didn't notice or didn't care; the only sound to join his breathing was the rapid glug, glug, glug of liquid running from a bottle in great measure.
The door opened again, and another shaft of white light cut through the room. Severus curled into his glass as footsteps came nearer, nearer, lighter than they ought to have been. A high, cold voice asked, "Good god, Mosevich, what's happened to you?"
"Yes, I know. You've no idea what I had to go through for this."
"I know. I thought it might give you a bit of incentive. You certainly look like you need it!"
"Yes, sir." Igor coughed again, the sound muffled. A few seconds later came the sounds of glass clinking and more liquid pouring from the bottle.
"I know, sir."
"Tell me what you've found so I don't have to look at you anymore."
Igor's weak laugh was wet, rusty, bitter as smoke. "Strange you should say that, sir."
"I've found the self-destruct mechanism."
"Oh? Do tell?"
"Sir, it... I tested it on mine, so I wouldn't harm the... the... other one, and I--" He broke off in a fit of coughing.
"I see," said the other man with obvious disgust. "I assume there's a way to make it work instantaneously."
"I don't know, sir."
"How long have you got?"
"Please, sir. I--"
"Yes, yes, we'll get it sorted. If nothing else we'll find you a unicorn."
"Would you rather die?"
There was a long pause and finally a short, sullen, "No, sir."
"Very good. Now, have you found anything actually useful?"
"A... a torture equation. Sir. I'd rather leave that be, though. Please."
There was a rending snigger, followed by a choke and a grunt. "Because it works. It's as bad as five of the Cruciatus Curse. I... I think it broadcasted."
"How d'you know?"
"Because I felt it go out. I felt the other Marks screaming."
"That's ridiculous." There was a pause, followed by a loud swallow. "What else have you got?"
"Sir, one of the variables... The only parts that didn't work were the send and receive. I... my subject... the woman..."
"Get on with it."
"I think I've nearly turned her Mark into the Master unit."
There was a short wheeze. "It means her Mark fulfills the same basic function as... as You-Know-Who's. It's the Master, and so I... I think it's possible to reactivate the Slaves." He gave a wet bark of a laugh. "I won't test it. All I've got are numbers."
"What about your documentation, have you got that? Not that anyone but you understands a word of it."
"Sir, I don't think I want to be part of this anymore."
There was a pause. "I'm sorry, Pyotr. I thought I just heard you say--"
"I want out."
"Back to Azkaban."
"Yes, sir." Igor's thick voice had taken on a tremor.
"You wish to return to having your soul drained drop by drop, listening to the screams of your fellows day in and day out, knowing that every speck of pain you suffer fills the soulless monsters that watch over you with a pleasure unlike anything you could ever know."
There was a long moment of heavy, sodden breathing. "No, sir," Igor whispered. "Please. No."
"Then I think you ought to hand me that documentation you've got."
From the corner of his eye, Severus saw Millie staring at Igor's booth, her jaw slack and eyes glazed. He frowned. Lester nudged her and muttered something. She only shook her head and started polishing a pint glass. Her eyes drifted back towards the booth anyway.
"We're being watched," the high, cold voice murmured. "Perhaps we ought to finish this outside?"
"Yes, sir." There was a scraping of glass, and the sounds of thick, wet, fast swallowing.
"Get on with it, Mosevich! You don't need to finish the whole damned bottle!"
The gulping sounds didn't stop, though. They came harder and harder, until finally there was only a slurp and the clink of an empty bottle coming to rest on the time-polished wood.
Igor grunted. He shuffled towards the door, his footsteps followed by a lighter pair. As soon as the door closed again, dropping the pub once more into its dim haze, Millie scurried over to Severus' table.
"What's going on?" she asked as she slid into the seat across from him. "Only, I don't want any trouble 'round here."
"I wish I knew." Severus took another sip of his shandy, shuddered, and set it on the table.
"You know those blokes?"
"One of them."
"Your old boss wasn't here this time."
Severus nodded. "I know."
Millie pursed her lips. She leaned across the table and murmured, "I know that second fellow."
The knot in Severus' chest tightened further. "Oh?"
She nodded. There was something very much like fear in her eyes. "When I was a girl and my grandfather ran this place, that fellow would come in maybe three times a week. He couldn't have been twenty-five, and I'll be buggered if he's a day over that now."
"What does he look like?"
A bit of a flush ran up Millie's cheeks. She covered her mouth with her hand. "Pale. Dark hair, green eyes. Tall bloke." She dropped her voice. "I was half in love with him from the moment I set eyes on him. Name was Tom, that's all I ever knew. I couldn't forget his face if I tried."
Severus had to stop himself from staring, from lunging to his feet and running out as fast as his legs could take him. "Perhaps it was his grandson?" he asked in a tremulous voice.
Millie shook her head. "No, there could never be another one like him." Glancing around, she slid to her feet. The fear in her eyes had spread; it made her look even smaller than Hermione. "May have to mark it down to senility getting to me, what?"
A bitter smirk twisted Severus' mouth. "Perhaps."
"'Least it wasn't your old boss again."
Severus had to bite his lip to keep from laughing. He only shook his head.
"Oi, you get out of here and hope they don't come back. Whatever's going on, I don't want that lot in my pub anymore."
Severus gave a slight nod and pushed himself to his feet. He staggered; a small explosion seemed to have detonated in his rib cage.
"Whoa, there!" Millie's hands closed around his upper arms. "You, mate, need to see a doctor."
"I'm fine. I need to get home. I've got medicine there."
"Give us a sec, I'll have Lester give you a lift."
"No, it's all right. I've got... I'm meeting someone. I'll find him."
"You're not going--"
"I'll be fine. It's not far."
"I won't have one of my good, paying customers--"
"I. Am. Fine."
Millie flinched. Severus gave her one of his stronger glares - one of the strongest he could manage, in any case - until she backed away enough to let him past. He stumbled towards the door.
"Wait," she said. "I'll stick my head out first, make sure those two are--are gone."
"Thank you." He waited with his eyes closed, trying not to breathe too hard, as she looked out.
"It's clear. Now, you're sure--"
"Positive. Thank you."
"Hmm." Millie held the door for him, and leaned out to watch. Severus turned into the alleyway. "Oi! That's only the--"
He Disapparated before he could hear the last of it. Just outside the ring of forest, he took a step and fell to his knees. The air ran fast and hard through his throat, heart trying to break out through his chest and sweat beading on his face in tiny droplets. Leaning hard on his knee, he dragged himself up and into the trees.
A frigid breeze whistled between them. It tickled his face with icy fingers and pinched through his clothes, seeking out his ribs one by one until they felt as though they were going to crack. For the only time in his life, the black sense of urgency pressing down around him only made him want to push through, get to the house. A thick root twisting up from the ground caught his foot; Severus crumpled. Panting, eyes wide, forehead digging into the soil, he steadied himself on another root, pulling, wresting his body up, up, up.
It never came. The dim edges of his perception were spiked with fine black needles. Every time his heart screamed through another beat they darted forward, digging into his brain and leaving him blind. On hands and knees, Severus started to drag his way forward, the arctic wind laughing in his ears.
The second wave of wards rolled over him so hard it left him flat against the earth. He whimpered. The cackling wind was drowning in the pounding echo of his heart. A thin, insidious serpent of pain began to slither up his arm, wrapping around his throat before flicking its tongue towards the middle of his chest. The panic crushing his mind rushed with his blood, infecting every capillary, every cell. A sharp tremble ran through the three fingers he shoved in his mouth, curling into a ball and keening as his skeleton seemed to turn itself inside out--
"Where the fuck have you been?" Thick, strong arms slid underneath him. Severus found himself cradled like a child against a heavy, warm chest. His head fell against a wide shoulder. "Godric and Merlin."
As his eyes slid closed, he was carried out, out of the trees, out of the wind, out of the grip of the senseless panic crushing him from the inside out. It slipped away; for the briefest instant, he wondered, Am I finally dead?
"Best get you to bed," the man cradling him murmured. Severus cuddled into him as best he could. He heard a snort. "If James could see us now, what?"
"Hmm." Severus slurped his fingers. He burrowed his cheek into the man's hard, comforting chest. The serpent started to unwind itself from his neck, crawling back to where it came from. "Wan' see Harry," he mumbled.
"Oh, don't worry. I reckon Harry'll want to see you, too. Might have to stop him from killing you, though."
"Hmm." Severus rubbed the side of his face against the man's chest once more. There was a sharp sting in his earlobe. He whimpered and tried to jerk his head away.
"Settle down. Get some rest."
Much to his surprise, he did.
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