The Last Battlefield
Chapter 18 - The Heart of the Family
Severus stared back, although even he was starting to admit (to himself, very quietly, in the back of his mind where he could ignore it) that the combined attention of seven sets of eyes was perhaps more than he could counter.
Clearing his throat and settling deeper into his pillows, he arched an eyebrow at the lowest set. "You might have at least bothered to wash my nightshirt."
Dobby stabbed a finger at him. "You is lucky, Master Severus, that Dobby does not paddle you!"
"That's quite enough!"
"Oh, I think he's got a point." Emily cracked her knuckles. "That was not kosher, hon."
"Fortunately, neither am I." Severus sneered at her. "Weren't you the one who told me human flesh isn't kosher?"
Emily went pale. "You asked!"
"Down, girl." Lupin put a hand on Emily's shoulder and turned a cool look on Severus. "You know, if he's so set on risking his life for fun, I could always set him loose in the Erumpent paddock."
Emily looked at him. "You haven't got any--"
"He didn't know that."
"Oh." Emily went a bit pink. "Sorry."
Severus snorted. He folded his arms across his chest, glowering at nothing in particular. "If you're all quite finished treating me like a child, might I have a shred of privacy?"
He recoiled at the combined shout of seven furious individuals. Before he could shout anything back, Black jumped up on the bed, shoes and all, and crouched down over Severus' stomach. He leaned forward until they were all but eyeball to eyeball.
"I think you'll be lucky if we give you five seconds alone for the rest of your life after the stunt you pulled. You scared us all half to death, nearly killed yourself, came back with lager on your breath like a common drunk--"
"It's not as if I had any choice, is it? I daresay I'd have been kicked out of the pub if I'd sat down without buying anything!"
"What in Hell were you doing down the pub, anyway?"
"Having a drink."
Black stabbed a finger behind him. "Was it worth putting Harry in tears for your precious drink?"
"Sirius..." Harry ground through his teeth.
"I'll deal with you later," Black growled back over his shoulder. He turned back to Severus, hair falling in his face. He stuck a blunt finger in the middle of Severus' sore chest. "I ought to turn you over right now and give you the spanking you deserve."
"Never knew you were into that sort of thing, Black."
"I'll show you what I'm into."
"Rolanda, if I recall."
Black's face scrunched into a red ball. "Y'know, if I didn't think Harry deserved first shot, I'd give you a clip 'round the ear right now. Have you got any idea what we went through to find you? And just so you know, I'm leaving that Location Charm on the house. I want to know where you are. Got it?"
"No, I didn't quite hear you. Perhaps if you shouted straight in my ear I might."
Black started to growl. Molly bustled up to the bed and knocked him over. "Leave this to me."
"I was just going to say, dear, keep in mind he's not in the best of health. It wouldn't be good to--"
"Oh, no, be my guest." Severus lifted his eyebrows and gave Molly a cool look. "It's not as if I've anything to fear."
The room went silent. Something churned in Severus' stomach as it struck him what he'd said and to whom he'd said it; the churning only grew worse at Harry's whispered, "Oh, bloody Hell."
A cruel smirk grew on Molly's mouth. "Is that so?" She patted him on the head, adjusted the blankets tucked up underneath his arms, pulled out one of his pillows to fluff it. The smirk melted to a warm, sweet smile that somehow reminded Severus of the cruelty and cunning of nature. "Are you comfortable, dear?"
"Because it'll be that much more satisfying if you are when I do this." The pillow came down square on his head. Severus gasped as it went back up, only to cringe as he took another padded blow to the skull. He put his arms up over his face just in time to stop the third.
"HOW DARE YOU DISAPPEAR LIKE THAT? WE WERE WORRIED SICK! DO YOU WANT TO MAKE HARRY THINK YOU'VE BEEN ARRESTED? DO YOU WANT TO MAKE HIM THINK YOU'RE DEAD? COMBING HOGWARTS, ARTHUR FRANTIC, PULLING EVERY STRING HE HAD TO SEE IF YOU WERE A BLOODY SMEAR, HARRY IN TEARS...!"
"Bloody Hell, woman!" Severus roared. "Lay off me! I'm not one of your lunatic offspring!"
"SOMETIMES I WISH YOU WERE! HOW ON EARTH DID SOMEONE AS IMMATURE AS YOU EVER, EVER GET TO BE A PROFESSOR--?"
"Whoa, there." Sirius snatched the pillow out of her hands mid-swing. He brushed a couple of loose feathers off the case. "Waste of a perfectly good pillow." He glanced at Severus, who still hid behind his crossed arms, panting and more terrified of Molly Weasley than he'd ever expected he could be in his life.
"Good lord, woman! You're worse than Gran! At least she only ever tried to poison me!"
"DON'T TEMPT ME!"
"Uh, Molly?" Black eased her aside. "Maybe you ought to go and sit down. Quite frankly, you're scaring the living shit out of me."
"I'm sorry, dear. I didn't mean to do that." She turned back to Severus. Poking a finger into his forehead, she growled, "If you ever, ever do anything like that again, I'll have your hide for a blanket!"
"And don't you forget it!" Turning on her heel, Molly stormed to the foot of the bed where she stood with her arms folded, glaring down her stubby little nose. Emily sidled away and hid behind Lupin.
Harry, who had spent most of the debacle standing apart from the rest of them and looking at the floor, glanced up. His eyes were ringed in stronger shadows than Severus had ever seen there, but what hung behind the shadows wasn't fury, or loathing, or annoyance. It was only pain. It slashed and burned its way through Severus in a way Molly couldn't have with all the pillows and screaming in the world.
"Paenitet sum," Severus whispered.
Harry's mouth puckered. "I just want to know why you did it."
"I didn't have any choice."
"That's not what I asked, and you know it."
With a sigh, Severus reached up to his left ear. The sapphire stud still lay entrenched within his earlobe. Fiddling with it, he asked, "May I have my wand for a moment?"
Harry shook his head. He pulled out his own. "What d'you need done?"
"Something you don't know how to do."
"What is it?" Black fished his own wand out of his belt. "And this had better be good."
Severus glanced up at him with a growl. "Nothing you haven't done before."
"Just tell me, or I'll set Molly on you again."
"Set amplified playback for an Audiare Charm."
Black chuckled. "First time I've ever heard a straight answer out of you." He leaned over and tapped the earring with his wand, muttering under his breath. He added a quick, "Sonorus!" to the spell.
"Look a right poof in this, I do."
Severus groaned and clutched his face at his own voice. "Run it forward, you idiot!" Unfortunately, his voice was lost in Black's roar.
"What?" Black shouted over his own recording.
"I said, 'run it forward'."
A minute or so later, after blessing the room with the joyful sounds of Millie and Lester arguing over shandy, Severus collapsing in the woods, and a Muggle wetting himself, they got the recording to the correct point. Severus sat, staring at his lap, with the voices running in his ear. The rest of his audience stood silent. Arthur winced every time Igor spoke. Severus let it run until the pair of them stepped out.
By the time Severus wrenched Black's wand from the limp fist that trapped it and shut off the playback, Harry had gone the colour of cement.
"That was Voldemort's voice," he whispered. "When he was my age."
"That was what Millie said. Apparently, he used to frequent the pub."
"Why in Hell would he go to a Muggle pub?" Black sneered.
"The same reason anyone would, I should say."
"Severus?" Arthur asked. "How did you know they were going to be there?"
"I heard them last week as well. Damned near got found out."
"Will they be there next week as well?"
"You know as much as I do. I'd doubt it."
"Was that the same person who met him last time?"
"I suspect so. A different voice, though, so I would assume whoever it is has acquired some--"
"Polyjuice Potion," Molly murmured.
"Which still doesn't answer the question of how he got hold of pieces of Lord Voldemort." Lupin set to pacing, one finger crooked and resting against his chin. "I know the Malfoy home was searched. Could there have been anything there?"
"The Ministry confiscated everything they could." Severus pursed his mouth. "I wouldn't even know where to start."
"The Ministry," Arthur, Lupin, Black, and Molly said at the same time. Severus shot them a glower.
"I know that."
Arthur tapped his mouth with one finger. "Blaise. I'll have a talk with Blaise."
"I'd rather you didn't." Severus gave him a hard, cold look.
"Because he's an Auror." Harry wrapped his arms more tightly around his chest. "Can't you talk to Percy instead?"
"Hold on." Emily put up a hand. "You're not talking about Blaise Zabini, are you?"
Arthur looked a bit stunned. "You know him?"
"I'd better. He wrote his final honours essay on Pebble's Theorem. We both thought he'd solved the bloody thing until I found a variable he'd miscalculated for. Took an hour and two pots of tea to get him settled down." She rolled her eyes and added under her breath, "And half a bottle of Ogden's to get me sorted once he'd left."
"No shock there," Severus muttered.
"Could that have been him? At the pub?" Harry asked, eyes narrowed in suspicion.
"Oh, no." Emily plucked her hat out of her mess of hair and fidgeted with the tip. "Blaise wouldn't have needed anyone to help him sort out most of what Severus gave me--um..." She tried to look innocent as most of the room's denizens turned to gape at her. "I mean, from--from what I can guess, I... I'm..."
"Digging yourself a nice, deep grave." Lupin clutched his face.
"Yeah, thanks. Sort of noticed that myself."
Dobby hid his face in his hands and moaned. Arthur turned by degrees, his eyes glassy, fixing them on Severus. "Severus, what am I missing here?"
"Um," Emily pushed a clump of tangled curls out of her face, only to have them bounce straight back, "The Dark Mark. As in, all of it. The Arithmantic code. I'm still getting it sorted, but I've calculated all the proofs I've got so far and..." She swallowed.
"What?" Arthur whispered. "And it... You've tested...?"
"Only on paper." Emily shifted her weight. "At this level of Arithmancy, that's all you really need to do."
Arthur shook his head; he put an arm around Molly. "My god," he said, his eyes glassy and horrified. "I never dreamed..."
"Actually," Emily's eyes darted towards Severus, "there's more. I haven't even had time to have a proper look at half of what's there, but I found what looks like... Well, it's a sigil summons, modified charm with a gaseous matter transfiguration modifier..." She trailed off, biting her lip.
"Morsmordre." Harry pursed his mouth, staring at nothing with glassy eyes. "I won't ask why I haven't heard of any of this."
"Primarily because you weren't speaking to me."
"Knock it off, both of you." Black, glancing back and forth between them, his dark eyes glittering, started pacing again. "Severus, what did you give Emily?"
"Nothing of any importance, or so I thought."
Severus sighed. "If you're only going to be like that, I allowed her to study some of my father's work. Wasn't as if I knew what it was."
Black froze. Slowly, he turned his head until his white-ringed eyes were fixed on Severus. "What the Hell did you just say?"
"Didn't you know? Lord Voldemort was a family project. Three generations worked to build him up and tear him back down."
Only Black and Harry didn't look at him as though he'd just admitted to killing and eating his students. Black looked away, arms folded over his chest, eyes fixed on something beyond the dark, empty windows. Harry gave him an ironic sort of smirk that didn't touch his ringed eyes.
"But... but, Master Severus, sir..." Dobby swallowed hard. "Master Perditus was never being... He... Sir, Dobby was never seeing anything like..."
"That, Dobby, is because you - like everyone else in this room - are too young to have known my grandfather." With a sigh, Severus let himself go limp against his pillows. "I don't wish to speak about this."
"I don't think you've got much choice in the matter." Arthur cleared his throat a couple of times. "I'd, um, like to speak with Severus alone," he murmured.
"That won't be necessary. It's not as if I know a great deal myself. It's one thing to know one's father is an Arithmancer and quite another to learn what he did with it." Severus took a deep breath. It stretched his lungs until they felt as though great iron bands had been strapped around them.
A little snort came from Harry's direction. Severus cracked open one eye at him. "Yes?"
"Don't even try, Mister Potter. You're an atrocious liar."
"No, really, it's nothing." Harry shuffled over to the bed and perched at the foot of it. "Go on. I wouldn't mind learning all of this, too."
"This isn't a lecture. I'm not going to ramble on like... like Voldemort always did."
Uneasy silence filled the room. Black and Lupin stood steady, neither looking at him. Emily shifted from foot to foot, staring at the floor, glancing up at him every second or so as though he were a stranger. Molly, Arthur, and Dobby all watched him; Molly looked suspicious, Arthur worried, Dobby scared out of his wits.
Arthur coughed into his hands. "Um, was your father a Death Eater?"
"Are you sure?"
"If I wasn't sure I wouldn't have said it. Lucius wouldn't have stood for it."
"And your father wouldn't have allowed..." Molly trailed off.
Severus snorted. An image of his brother, tied and battered, flashed through his head. "No. He wouldn't have. He'd have sent me instead."
"Sent you to do what?"
Severus lifted his chin in Emily's direction. "I don't see how that's any of your business."
Her wide mouth narrowed to an ugly pucker. "So they get to find out, and you won't tell your supposed best friend about any of it."
"He didn't tell me either until I didn't give him a choice," Harry said. "At least you've never seen the inside of his head."
Emily blinked. After a moment, though, her eyes went wide and her chin wrinkled. "I gave you that Pens--"
"This isn't the time." Arthur shot her a look. "You two can fight it out when we've got this sorted, but until then I want both of you to act your age."
"I am acting my age." Stuffing her hat back on her head, Emily glowered at Arthur, then Severus. "I'll see you later. If I'm important enough to bother with." Without another word, she Disapparated.
"Oh, Hell." Severus rolled his eyes. With a harsh sigh, he snarled, "Well? Isn't one of you going to make sure she doesn't get too drunk to find her way back to the school?"
Black shrugged. Lupin shook his head. "She'll cool down. Miriam can fetch her if she needs to."
Severus arched an eyebrow at him. "Suddenly, I'm glad you weren't the one left to find me, Lupin. I'd be feeding the worms in the forest if you were!"
"Sev, shut up." Harry glanced up at him. The shadowed planes of his cheeks were pulled taut and trembling, and his hands twitched in his lap.
"All of you, shut up." Black's dark eyes flitted over them. They came to rest on Severus. "What was that you were saying? Your father wasn't a Death Eater, but he created the Dark Mark?"
"That makes no sense."
"Quite." Severus shifted, pulling himself to a better sitting position. "Might I at least have my dressing gown?"
Harry's hand planted itself in the middle of his chest. "If you try to get out of this bed before morning, I'll have your head."
"I wasn't going anywhere." Severus squirmed away from Harry's hand and folded his arms. "I'm cold."
"Fine." Harry pulled out his wand and cast a quick Heating Charm on the bed. "Now get back to the subject. Spill it, right now."
"Everything you know."
They stared at each other. Harry's eyes glittered in a way that made Severus wonder if he were going to attack. Severus licked his lips.
"I don't abide threats, Potter."
"This isn't a threat."
"What is it, then, a promise?"
"That you'll hurt me? I assure you, I'm in a poor enough state already."
"That I'll leave."
Severus found himself cringing back into his pillows. His teeth went on edge, and the beat his heart skipped had nothing to do with the damage already done to the overwrought muscle. "You little wretch."
"Are you going to talk, or am I going to pack?"
"I don't take ultimatums, especially on my deathbed."
Harry winced. He slid to his feet, though. "Fine. Sirius, could you help me with my trunk?"
"All right," Severus hissed. He squeezed his eyes shut, far too aware of the Weasleys staring at the scene, Arthur shifting from foot to foot. "What do you want to know?"
"Everything you do." Harry's weight dipped the foot of the bed once more. Severus flinched away from it. "Start with Perditus."
"Very well. He was the most despicable parent ever to grace the Earth, he was on the Committee for Experimental Charms, and his field, as you might have gathered, was Arithmancy. He was never brought up on charges as a Death Eater, and when I was a boy, he would not allow Voldemort's existence to be mentioned in his hearing."
"I thought they were friends."
"Situations can change, Mister Potter. As you have so aptly demonstrated."
Harry snorted. "Son of a bitch," he muttered under his breath.
"What do you mean, they were friends?" Arthur asked with a note of shock.
"I mean, from the time a certain Tom Marvolo Riddle came to live in this house to the time my grandfather died, they were friends. I assume, anyway. Tom Riddle was my brother's godfather."
"Oh, Hell." Arthur pulled his glasses off and rubbed his eyes. "What was he doing here in the first place?"
"What d'you think, Arthur? Flower arranging?"
"Your father taught him?"
Severus snorted. "My father couldn't have taught a cockroach to scurry. My grandfather, on the other hand, was significantly skilled in the Dark Arts. As I understand it, he taught my father Arithmancy until Perditus started his third year at Hogwarts and, if what my Gran told me about Curtus is any indication, gave him rather heavy tutelage in the Dark Arts as well. It seems he took to them rather well, don't you think?"
The last words trickled forth with a weak wheeze. Severus stifled a yawn with the back of his wrist and shifted further beneath the warm, heavy blankets. Faint flutters rose up every moment or so beneath his breastbone. "Is that enough information for now, or do I need to damn myself to death?"
"Can... can I ask you one more thing?" Molly asked in a reedy voice.
"Make it short."
"Your... Gran. She didn't...?"
"Apart from teaching me enough to survive the family tradition, she hadn't a thing to do with any of it. She hated my grandfather."
Molly released a breath, her hand fluttering to her chest. "Thank god. I... I mean..."
She gave him a small, warm smile that faded like sparks in a hearth. With nervous little motions, she started pinching and tugging the blankets at the foot of the bed. "Well. That's more than enough excitement for one day, wouldn't all of you say?"
"Tomorrow, Arthur. It's not as if we'll be leaving him alone, now, is it?"
"Are you staying again?" Harry asked without looking up.
"Of course, dear. If you want me - or us - that is."
"That'd be nice, thanks."
"Don't worry yourself. Everything's sorted."
"Is there anything I can do?" Lupin glanced around the room. "I could always try and nick those books back--"
"I'd rather you made sure Emily gets back to the school in one piece. Some of us give a damn about her well-being." Severus cemented it with a glower that, satisfyingly, made Lupin wince.
"All right. Broomsticks or Hog's Head?"
"Tonight try the Hog's Head first. If she's not in Hogsmeade, check the Leaky Cauldron. I doubt she'll have gone to London, though, unless she wants to moan at that brother of hers all night."
"All right." Lupin shifted from foot to foot. "Is there anything you'd like me to do before I go?"
"I think we can handle everything, Remus. Thank you." Molly patted his hand and gave him a shy smile. He smiled back, which made her cheeks go ever so slightly red. Arthur and Remus both arched an eyebrow, although Remus' was closer to amusement.
"All right. Goodnight." He nodded to everyone. Severus snorted; Harry, Molly, Arthur, and Dobby murmured their own goodnights.
"Hold up a moment, Moony," Black muttered. "I just need to talk to you for a minute. Outside."
"Come on then. Emily's already had time to finish two daiquiris. Maybe three."
Black grunted and followed Lupin out the door. He glanced back before it closed; for an instant, the shadows and tension in his face almost made him look as though he wanted to cry.
"Seems our little party is breaking up." Molly looked around the room, picking at a curl of hair that had come loose from the rest.
"It was only a figure of speech, Severus." Rubbing her hands together, she asked, "Well, who's up for a spot of tea?"
"Not you, Severus. Wouldn't do your heart any good, now, would it? You can have a bit of milk, if you'd like."
Severus made a noise of disgust.
"I'd like some," Harry said in a soft voice. "And maybe some biscuits?"
"Dobby can get them!" Dobby darted towards the door.
"Whoa, whoa, whoa!" Arthur held up his hands. He pointed at Harry. "Harry, I assume you're staying in here?"
"All right. In that case, I'd say the rest of us should go downstairs and, well, try to work out a few things. Dobby, would you care to join us? I've got a few questions I want to ask you."
Dobby looked stunned. He stared up at Arthur as though he were some sort of living god. "You is asking Dobby to...? Dobby is only a house-elf, sir. 'Tisn't a house-elf's place to--"
"It is now and no arguments." Arthur glanced at Harry once more. "Is there anything else either of you'd like?"
"No, thanks." Harry still kept his eyes on the floor, his trainers dangling above the woven blue-and-green rug.
"All right, dear," Molly murmured. "Won't be a moment."
She bustled out, Arthur and a very excited Dobby on her heels. As soon as the door latched, Severus' eyes slipped closed. He let go of a breath that he hadn't realised was making his chest ache. "Why is it that everyone on Earth is determined to give me the third degree when I'm only trying to help?"
"Maybe it's got something to do with your methods."
"My methods are perfectly effective."
Silence. A moment later, Severus heard the thump of Harry's trainers bouncing on the floor one at a time. His weight shifted the mattress until he was on his side of the bed. "Why didn't you tell me?" he asked.
"Given the circumstances of the past week, I didn't think you'd want to be bothered."
"Well, I do. And I'm still angry with you for... What did you do? Hide under my cloak until I was out of the way, and get your clothes?"
Harry snorted. "Fucking Slytherin," he muttered.
With a peevish little sigh, Severus worked one arm out of the knot he'd made of them and let it slide across the bed towards Harry. "Had I thought there were any feasible alternative, I would have taken it. You of all people ought to understand why I might be less than inclined to trust anyone else."
"Or risk anyone else."
"Quite. At least I know how to survive in a delicate situation."
Harry snorted. "No shit. I swear, you bastard, you're going to find some way to outlive all of us."
"And miss the chance to have Sirius Black sobbing at my grave?"
"Wouldn't bet too much on that." His fingers twitching, Harry laid a skittish hand over the back of Severus'. After a long, uncertain moment it closed. Severus squeezed back as hard as he dared.
"Last week wouldn't have happened if I'd just put out," Harry murmured.
"Don't say that."
"But it's true."
"If I had the strength, I'd clip you 'round the ear for that."
Harry gave a halfhearted shrug. He pushed up his glasses, looking around. "S'true. You know it as well as I do."
"I have already told you--"
"Yeah, and you're wrong. It was my fault, plain and simple. A lot of things are my fault." He dropped his head. "'Least now they're happening to me instead of whoever just happens to get in the way."
"That is a load of utter shite."
"Oh? Then what would you call it when someone has a little problem in a Pensieve and loses his mind over it?"
"Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder."
Harry squinted at him. "What?"
"It's considered a Muggle condition. Not many mediwizards give it a second thought."
"How d'you know about it, then? And I say you're talking bollocks."
"I'm not talking bollocks, Mister Potter. That right is reserved for you. And I know about it because Gran told me."
"How'd she know about it? I thought she was as much a pureblood as Malfoy."
"You say that as though it's a bad thing."
"You never had to put up with Malfoy calling one of your best friends a Mudblood every chance he got."
Severus set his jaw. "There is a difference between being a devout pureblood and being a raging bigot. I wouldn't have children with a witch of mixed blood, and yet I've bound myself to you."
"Yeah, but if you were any gayer you'd burst into flames." Harry shivered a little but said nothing more.
Severus snorted. "No more than you."
A faint smile flickered across Harry's mouth; it faded. "Um, is that why you don't... don't want kids? With me? Because of my mum?"
"No." Severus' voice dropped to little more than a whisper. "If I thought it were at all... advisable, I would gladly subject you to the daily marathon of raising a family."
The smile that crossed Harry's mouth this time stayed, bright and beautiful. He squeezed Severus' hand tighter. "You still haven't told me how Philia knew about it. The Post-Trauma-Whatever-Thingy."
"Because of her field, of course. Are you really that much of a dunderhead you'd forget?"
"But I thought she did neuro... neuro method bollocks, whatever it was."
"Tell me, Mister Potter, in what way would the metabolic physiology of the human body with relation to the central nervous system not be related to a severe, chronic anxiety disorder?"
"Maybe if you asked me the question in English I could tell you."
With a growl, Severus rolled on his side. He planted a finger in the middle of Harry's scar. "How is it that two things going on in here aren't connected?"
"I'm mental, not dying." Harry jerked his head away, casting him a sullen look.
"Are you really that thick?"
For a long, silent moment, Harry stared at him, his mouth drawn taut. He shifted a fraction of an inch away. "Look, I just have to get over myself--"
"So what was the trigger event?"
"Who are we now, Sigmund Freud?"
"Philia Westin's grandson. Answer the fucking question."
"What would your Gran say about you talking like that?"
"She'd be proud of me. Taught me the fucking word the day I turned four. In two languages, I might add. Now answer the fucking, goddamned question or else I shall Disapparate and you shall simply have to go through today's chaos again."
Harry's eye twitched. "You haven't got the strength."
"Just so you know, I've managed Apparation less than an hour after an extended Cruciatus Curse. I doubt a comparatively minor cardiac condition shall prove much of a hindrance."
"You son of a bitch."
"I suggest you answer the question, then." Taking a sharp breath, Severus closed his eyes and prepared to vanish to god-knew-where.
"Your Pensieve. As if you didn't already know that."
The breath burst forth in an explosive hiss. "Better. What, precisely, happened in said Pensieve?"
"You mean before or after I watched your brother wipe your own blood down your face?"
The words made a glut of nausea well in Severus' throat as though Harry had dragged his nails down a blackboard. He wrenched his hand free of Harry's and rolled on his other side. "You little wretch."
"You know that's not what I meant."
"Then maybe you ought to have been more careful with what you asked."
"Leave me alone."
"Fine." There was a creak of bedsprings, and the groan of a drawer as Harry fished in his bedside table. A moment later, the pages of some book or other rustled in the silence. "Want me to have Sirius stay with you tonight?"
"I thought I told you to leave me alone."
Harry grunted. He rustled the pages once more and set into a long, slow pattern of turning one every minute or so. Severus simply lay on his side, trying not to curl into a foetal ball before sleep could drop him headlong into the nightmares he'd tried so very hard to forget.
"That's it. Easy, easy. I said easy, Severus!"
"Take your hands off me, you infidel!"
"Well, fine then." Black wrenched his hands away from Severus' waist. Severus took one shaky step, and suddenly was more grateful than he'd admit when those meaty hands caught him just before his legs turned to jelly. "I told you, go easy."
"Black, I have been confined to that bloody room for over a week--"
"Which is all the more reason I ought to be carrying you."
A low growl formed in Severus' throat. "I don't need you to haul me about like some sort of invalid."
"Uh, Severus? I hate to tell you this, but..."
"Spare me the wry observations, Black. Are you going to help me downstairs or not?"
"Y'know, you were a lot more agreeable when you were almost dead. 'Least then you only cuddled up and shut your mouth."
"I did what?" Severus spun so quickly his foot went out from under him. Black held him upright; a smirk formed on the lunatic's obnoxious, oversized mouth.
"Nothing. Come on."
Severus yelped as he was hoisted off his feet and into the air. "Put me down!" He pounded a fist into Black's shoulder, kicking at the air. "This instant!"
"Wow, you've gotten even lighter since I dragged you out of the woods. Can't weigh nine stone."
"Don't worry, everyone's expecting it."
"I'll bite you."
"I'll have Remus bite you back."
"This is an insult! How dare you manhandle me this way?"
"Call it payback for the time you switched my bluebottles with greenbottles and I had wings for a week." Grinning at the raging indignity of Severus' state, Black carried him past the staring portraits and down the stairs. Perhaps halfway down, Severus gave up on brute force and settled for chilly annoyance. He folded his arms and bunched his face up, much to the apparent amusement of some of the portraits.
"I saw that, Zenith Macnair!" He stabbed a finger at the laughing painting of a dark-haired woman burying her face in many-times-great-grandfather Obscurus' shoulder. It did nothing to stop her. In fact, if he wasn't mistaken, a few more of his long-dead ancestors joined in.
He was grumbling about disrespect for the living when Black deposited him on the floor at the foot of the stairs. "I'm not going to let go of you until you've got your balance, Severus."
"I've got my balance!" Severus wrenched himself free of the mongrel's grip and ploughed face-first into the wall.
"Say nothing," he growled.
Black snorted into his hand. "I don't think I need to."
"What on Earth was that--oh! Severus! Are you all right?" Molly pulled him away from the wall and more or less steered him into a balanced position. "Sirius, what are you doing letting him walk down the stairs all by himself?"
"He's the one who said he'd bite me."
"He threatened to sic that bloody werewolf of his on me!"
"Sirius!" Molly slapped him on the ear. "Behave!"
With a smirk he didn't even try to hide, Severus leaned against the wall and dragged himself down the short corridor and into the dining room. It was lit with soft yellow light. A chessboard with a half-played game sat on the table, along with the Daily Prophet, a few mugs containing various levels of tea, a plate with a few Ginger Newt crumbs, and what looked like a half-written shopping list. He frowned over the chessboard as he fell into a chair.
"Arthur and I were having a bit of a go," Molly said behind him. "Sorry about that. Ron and Charlie seem to have gotten most of the talent in the family, comes from my father." She cleared her throat; a pawn jumped up from where he was snoozing and waddled to the middle of his square.
"I see." Frowning, Severus fished his glasses out of his dressing gown pocket and picked up the Prophet. The front page was going on about something or other involving the French Ministère de Magie. With a disinterested grunt, he flipped through to the business page to see what Potions ingredient prices were doing.
"Would you like anything to drink?" Molly asked, plucking at his hair.
"All right. A glass of milk it is."
Severus looked up long enough to glower at her flower-printed back as she vanished into the kitchen. While scanning the Potions report - Horseweed and American Goldenrod prices had reached utterly scandalous proportions - a small article in the lower right-hand corner caught his eye.
Yesterday, 14 November, a tragic accident brought the life of long-time Diagon Alley resident Ezekiel Fob to an untimely close. Fob, jeweler and co-owner of Bauble and Fob, was killed when an Ignition Charm went awry. The resulting accident caused a heavy crucible of molten metal to shatter. Fob was rushed to Saint Mungo's Hospital for Magical Maladies. He was pronounced dead on arrival. No foul play is suspected.
Fob is survived by a sister, Josephine; two nieces; and his spouse, Hieronymus Bauble. He and Bauble were among the five sets of partners who first petitioned the Ministry of Magic for the Spousal Certificate programme in the early 1960s and were the recipients of the second certificate ever issued. Previous to 1967, the pair had been informally partnered starting in 1921.
In light of the situation, Bauble and Fob will be closed until further notice.
Pursing his mouth, Severus read the article twice. Bollocks. Now I can't even hate the bastard with a clear conscience.
Something was tugging at his dressing gown. Tipping his head down to peer over his glasses (which nearly slid off his nose), Severus found one of the house-elves - Sissy, the female one - peeking up at him. She held a small bowl of cherries.
"Sissy is glad you is feeling better, sir," she whispered, offering the bowl with both hands.
"Eh?" Severus took the bowl, frowning in slight confusion. "You haven't slipped me anything in here, have you? It's not another one of that woman's attempts to feed me too many potions?"
"No, sir. Sissy is only remembering that you is liking them. We kitchen elves would give you cherries, and you would stop threatening to perform experiments on us."
"Those weren't threats." Severus stuffed a cherry in his mouth, letting the stem hang out from the corner. "Would have gone through with it first toe you lot set out of line."
"We is knowing, sir. That is why we is not pushing things."
"Hmm." Severus set the bowl on the table, popping another cherry into his mouth. Almost as an afterthought, he grumbled, "Thank you."
"You is welcome, sir. Is you needing anything else?"
Sissy squeaked. "Sir, Sissy would like to be getting you tea, but..." She trailed off with a gulp, her bulging eyes darting towards the kitchen door.
"Ah. I understand completely. Woman tried to beat me to death with a pillow."
"Sissy knows, sir. Dobby is telling her."
"Why doesn't that surprise me?" Severus grumbled. "Go on. Haven't you lot got anything better to do?"
"Yes, sir. Please stay well, sir. Sissy is not liking to see Mister Harry Potter upset."
"Hmm." Severus picked up another cherry and caught the juice dripping from it with his tongue as Sissy scampered off. He scanned the paper, oblivious to the rest of the world until a worn white towel was wrapped around his shoulders.
"Don't mind me, dear." Under Molly's voice came the snik, snik of extremely sharp scissors being tested.
"Molly, what in Hell is going on here?"
"Don't mind me. Goodness, I'm glad we got you to wash your hair this morning! This would have been impossible!"
Severus clamped both hands over his head. "I forbid you to come anywhere near me with that instrument!"
"I'm afraid it needs to be done, dear. Go on and drink your milk. It'll settle you down." She motioned to a glass sitting next to him on the table.
"You will not cut my hair!"
"I'm only going to give it a bit of a trim. It's all the way past your shoulders. Not fitting for a man your age."
"Albus' hair was past his knees, thank you very much."
"Yes, but that was Albus, wasn't it? My lord, have you been cutting this yourself?"
"Have you got a problem with it?"
"Well, Severus, you know I've only got the highest opinion of you, but..."
"Have you been letting a rat chew on it?"
With an almighty snarl, Severus scooted his chair forward and (hopefully) out of her reach. Unfortunately, this meant she simply had to take half a step closer. "Settle down. This should only take a minute."
"I don't want my hair cut!"
"Only the ends. No more than half an inch."
"I can do it myself."
"Do I need to Body Bind you?"
"You're not cutting my bloody hair! You left me in bed for a week on purpose, didn't you? Wanted me too weak to fight!"
"Well." Molly cleared her throat. "It did seem like the easiest time to do it."
"I hate you."
Molly patted him on the head. Severus growled. He clamped his hands down harder, only to have Black wriggle them free one at a time.
"Do I need to sit on your lap and hold you down?"
"I'll kiss you again."
"Didn't kill me last time."
"Don't tempt me!"
"Severus!" Molly swatted him on the arm. "Sirius, maybe you had better hold his hands while I do this."
"I ruddy well think not!"
"I can do that." Black gave him a wicked sliver of a grin. Before Severus could wrench away, he caught both thin wrists between his hands. Severus kicked him. "Ow!"
"Serves you right."
"Severus, dear, do I need to put you in the corner?"
Jaw slack, he turned his head to stare at her. "I certainly hope you're joking!"
"It worked for the twins." She paused. "Well, at the time it did."
"That's all right, dear. Everyone's expecting it."
Before he could bellow at her to get out of his house, she took up a hairbrush and ran it back from his hairline. The bellow melted to an impotent grunt as the skin-liquefying, tingling sensation of thousands of tiny bristles ran through his scalp and melted down through his body like warm chocolate.
Black snorted. "Talk about soothing the savage beast."
All too soon, a steady snik, snik filled the air. Severus squeezed his eyes shut as the subtle ripping sounds of hair rent by steel echoed in his ears. After several snips, he opened one eye to peer at the motley strands falling in his lap. "Those are longer than half an inch."
"Well, yes. But you've got some nasty damage here. It's only a little more."
"Those are at least an inch and a half." He squinted. "Closer to two."
"Just be glad it isn't six."
Severus snapped his mouth shut. All things told, after a week of Molly Weasley treating him like one of her herd of lunatic offspring, he was starting to understand why the Weasleys had been such hellions at school. At least there the worst she could have done was send a Howler.
The scullery door at the far end of the kitchen made a muffled bang against the wall. A few moments later, the kitchen door swung open and spat both Harry and Arthur into the room. Harry was wearing his Quidditch gear, broom in hand and a wide grin on his face. The hood of his flying robe was pulled over his head in an uncharacteristically sensible move. Arthur's nose was red, and he'd pulled a woollen cap down over his ears, but he seemed to be in fair spirits as well.
"Oh," Harry said. "You've got him settled down then. How much of a fuss did he kick up?"
"You knew about this?"
"He's not so bad. We ran a brush through his hair--"
"And threatened him a few times."
"Hush, Sirius. Ran a brush through and he settled down like a pup with a full belly."
"There is only one dog in this room, and it is most decidedly not me!"
"Hush." Harry leaned his broom against the wall and started tugging off his gloves. "How're you feeling?"
"I was fine."
"He went nose-first into the wall." Black grinned. Severus kicked him again. "Ow! Would you stop that?"
"Oh, lord." Arthur rolled his eyes, grinning wider. "Just like having the boys back home, what, Molly?"
"Hmm. Remember when I'd have to cut Bill's hair and he'd scream and scream until Charlie and the twins sat on him?"
"I. Am not. Your bloody. Son."
"Just keep telling yourself that, dear." Molly patted his head again and went back to cutting.
As Black wouldn't even allow him the satisfaction of folding his arms for a good snarl, Severus had to sit there, gritting his teeth, being held down like a child. "Are you sure you've done this before?" he asked, eyeing the snipped strands littering his lap.
"More times than you could count. Seven children need a lot of haircuts."
"She's cut mine a few times, too," Harry added. "Got me this morning with the wand, even. See?" He tossed back the hood of his Quidditch robes. Rather than falling over his glasses in a way that let his eyes peek coyly through, his fringe lay in a short, Roman line at the top of his forehead, leaving his scar naked for all to see. Most of the cowlicks were gone as well. The mess still stuck out in every direction, but only by an inch or so rather than three or four. Much to Severus' unexpected disappointment, it almost made him look, well, not so much like Harry.
"Why in god's name did you allow her to do that?"
"What's wrong with it?" Harry rubbed his gloved hand through the mess. "I like it. Can see a lot better and it doesn't get caught in my glasses anymore."
"Looks horrible. You might as well shave it off if you're going to go that far. I should certainly hope you'd have more sense than that."
"Since when have you cared what my hair looks like?"
"Since when have you taken to having it lopped off without telling me?"
"Boys, settle down," Molly said.
"If you hadn't been having a lie-in, I might have gotten to mention it, you lazy git."
"You could have woken me up!"
"Oh, right. You'd bite my head clean off my shoulders if I did that."
"And rightfully so! It--"
"Hold still." Molly shoved his head forward so his chin was squashed against his chest. Severus growled.
"I thought you said this was only going to take a minute."
"It's a very long minute."
"You, madam, are worse than Gran." Severus narrowed his eyes in Harry's general direction. "You look as though you've been attacked by starved rabbits."
Harry snorted. "Y'know, if I didn't know better, I'd say you were sulking."
"I am not sulking. I simply see no reason to change something that's perfectly functional as it stands." His last words held a bit of a growl, and his gaze shifted back towards Molly.
Black snorted. Under his breath, he sang, "Someone fancies Harry, someone fancies Harry."
Severus kicked him. Again. "Do not."
"Oh, thanks, Sev." Harry shot him a look too bemused to be insulted. "What's next, going to run off with Ron?"
Harry sniggered and fell into one of the empty chairs with a hint of a grin. He reached across and nicked one of Severus' cherries.
"Put that back!"
"You're the one who ate all my Ginger Newts, mate. This is payback. Anyway, it's not as if you've licked them all or anything."
"What if I have?"
Harry shrugged and stuffed the cherry in his mouth. "S'no worse than anything else I've had in my mouth."
"Harry!" Molly snapped as Arthur turned pink and Black made a noise of disgust.
"What?" Harry looked up at her, chewing. "You try drinking Skele-Gro and tell me it's better than someone else's spit."
"Both of you are as bad as the other." Molly's scissors made four more determined snips and she pulled the towel out from around Severus' neck. "There. Now at least you're presentable."
"You've got hair all down my neck. It itches."
"Well, excuse me, Mister Can't-Sit-Still. It's your own fault." She wadded up the towel, though, and wiped it across the back of his neck a few times before touching his collar with her wand and muttering something. The itching sensation vanished, leaving Severus with only the odd feeling of his hair's ends brushing the side of his neck just below his ear. "Better?"
"No." He wrenched a hand free of Black's grip and reached up to finger the remnants of his poor hair. The wiry strands slid through his grasp; they were too short to wrap around his hand and certainly too slick to keep hold of. Glancing around, the oddest pang of relief rushed down his oesophagus when he only saw his... well, his adoptive family, for lack of a better term. "It's too short."
"Then you'll just have to wait for it to grow back out, won't you?"
"Hmm." With one last suspicious glance 'round, he grabbed the cherries before Harry could steal anymore. (Black took one, earning a parting kick to the shin.) He once more buried his nose in the paper.
Arthur sat down next to him. "Spoke with Blaise again this morning. He still hasn't found a thing about anyone named Mosevich."
"Arthur, I have told you a hundred times: I don't want any Aurors involved in this, no matter how much of your misguided trust you might have put in them."
"And I've told you a hundred times that right now we need someone on the inside and Blaise is in the best possible position."
"I'm overwhelmed with confidence," Severus drawled.
"You trusted him when he was a student, didn't you?"
"Of course I did. Boy might as well have had a standing invitation to my office after Voldemort returned."
Harry scowled at him. "I never knew that."
"It wasn't any of your business."
"Would you have liked me to tell Mister Zabini aboutyour office visitations? I assure you, he'd have been most curious to hear, as would the rest of my House."
Much to his satisfaction, Harry winced. "Didn't stop Draco," the brat muttered into a cold mug of tea.
"Draco inherited his father's ability to control his tongue."
"Yeah, I could tell." Harry looked away, reaching up to scratch the back of his head. The hair there had been nearly shorn, still sticking this way and that in a rowdy pattern of bulls-eyes and whorls. Severus felt his mouth going very thin and tight.
"For god's sake, Potter, you look like a sheep in shearing season."
"So you oughtn't have done it without consulting me first!"
"Oh?" The look Harry gave him was significantly less penitent than was warranted. "What's it matter to you how long my hair is?"
Because how in Hell am I supposed to look at you and think about playing with all those soft, lovely strands if they're fucking well not there? Severus started to open his mouth to say - more or less - just that. He was suddenly very aware, however, of three extra sets of eyes on him. Black in particular looked to be walking a fine line between smug satisfaction and bone-crunching protectiveness.
Licking his lips, Severus said in the calmest, silkiest voice he could, "It's simply common courtesy."
His eardrums nearly shattered at Black's braying laugh. "Courtesy? For god's sake, Snape, you can't even 'fess up to scaring us half to death without trying to blame us first!"
"Black, you will kindly remove yourself from this conversation, or I shall be forced to use you as a demonstration subject for cruel and unusual hexes."
"I didn't get upset over you having yours cut." Harry's scowl deepened, and he filched another cherry.
"Yes, but I--" Severus caught himself just before he could say, "liked yours."
"But you what?"
Closing his eyes and turning away, Severus used the table to lever himself to his feet. "Would like to go back to bed," he lied. "I fear I've had enough excitement for the day."
Molly's pudgy hand settled, comforting and warm, on the tense spot between his shoulder blades. "All right, dear. Sirius? Could you...?"
"Is he going to kick me again?" Black asked, his chair squealing on the wooden floor as he stood up.
Severus shrugged in a dismissive sort of way, looking around at the room. The occupied clutter was something he had never seen in the house before; something cold and liquid-feeling rolled down his spine at the memory of Perditus' militaristic daily chore lists, the ones that ensured not a speck of filth survived within the walls for more than a few hours. For a moment, it actually... hurt... to leave the newfound warmth and chaos of what had seemed to become his makeshift family. Before he could give into temptation and fall back into his chair, he folded his arms and shuffled towards the stairs as fast as his slippers would take him.
A soft cry jerked him from sleep. Blinking up at the blue moonlit shadows spreading across the ceiling, he rubbed a bit of crust from his eye. A muffled whimper made him turn his head.
"No," Harry moaned. "Stop, all of you, stop. S-Sev..." He trailed off in a soft keen, his hair falling over his glasses and parting around his scar.
For a moment, all Severus could do was stare. He rubbed his eyes, looked again. Harry jerked on top of the covers, his knees drawn tight to his chest. His owlish glasses were caught on a silky black lock. Severus reached out; before he could stop himself, he'd carded his fingers through the unruly fall.
"It's all right, Harry," he whispered. "It's only a nightmare. Wake up, you haven't even got a blanket."
A sliver of sclera, the same colour as the moonlight cutting across the room, appeared behind Harry's glasses. A drowsy moment passed before he squirmed away from Severus' touch. "Whazzit?"
"Take off your dressing gown, get under the covers. You'll catch your death if you don't."
"Hmm." Harry yawned so his tonsils momentarily glistened in the dimness. Severus couldn't quite suppress a small smile. "Time'zit?"
"Time that you ought to be properly asleep."
"Hn." Reaching up to pull off his glasses, Harry's hand paused. Frowning, he groped the top of his head. "Oh, bugger," he muttered. "Not again."
Harry shook his head. "S'nothing. Stupid magic."
Harry finally wriggled beneath the covers, divested of all but his deep green pyjamas, which turned a comforting sort of grey in the moonlight. He settled well on his side of the bed, but as his breathing grew steady, turning into the soft whistle of sleep, he inched closer until Severus could let his hand get tangled in the warm, wild mess once more.
"You know this only happens if you want it to," Severus whispered.
Harry said nothing. His head tipped ever so slightly into Severus' touch.
If Severus had to put a name to the blinding, rending, brilliant rush of unstoppable heat cutting its way through his belly, it would have had to be hope.
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