The Last Battlefield
Chapter 21 - Forbidden Territory
For three days, Molly's owls had been arriving at nine, two, five, and nine again on the dot. Admittedly, the first had arrived at seventeen past eight, but by that time Severus and Black had just been glad to have something more substantial than nervous glances out at the North Sea. This afternoon's two o'clock letter sat in Severus' hand, filling his head with more impotent information as it sucked away a little more of his spirit.
Severus and Sirius,
We still can't get anything out of him. The poor dear's spoken maybe two words today, and that was only to say he didn't want lunch. (We managed to get a bit down him anyway. At least he's eating again. After these last couple of days, I was ready to take him to hospital.)
Once again, what happened? He's still insisting it's nothing anyone did, but he's just been sitting and staring at the floor again with a faraway look in his eyes. Ron and Hermione have come to visit, and they've brought Ruby. Harry barely responded when they got here; he's got Ruby under his chin like you do, Severus, just holding her for dear life, not making a peep. Hermione says the only time she's ever seen him anything like this was at the end of their fourth year when Amos Diggory's son was killed.
I asked him again today if he wanted you two to come and visit. Same as ever, shook his head and went back into his own little world. If he's not doing any better within a couple of days... Well, we'll deal with that if it comes, won't we?
"That from Molly?"
"Hmm." Severus didn't bother looking up, only stared at the words, waiting for them to change into something else.
Severus said nothing. After a long moment, Black's shoes shuffled towards the kitchen.
"I'll be back later," the cur said. "Sort of fancy a walk down the coast."
Again, Severus held his tongue. Only when the scullery door closed at the far end of the kitchen did he crumple the note in his hand. He sat there for several minutes, squeezing until his hand went numb. When he could no longer feel his fingers, he tucked the parchment into his pocket. Smoothing his robes, he stood and started for the stairs.
The kitchen door burst open. Severus froze as a voice shouted, "You just hold on there a minute, Snape. We've got business with you."
He spun, his wand pulled and aimed before he'd even stopped; someone in the doorway to the hall shouted, "Expelliarmus!" and it clattered against the wall.
Three black-robed figures hovered around him. They looked around, one muttering into his wrist. The ceiling creaked once. His eyes darted towards it for a bare instant. Before he could Disapparate, another of the Aurors pointed his wand and thin black ropes shot out. They bound him, not only limb to body but body to spot. He crashed to the floor with a choked whimper.
The clearing outside the House of Bad Faith seemed suddenly far, far closer than it ought to have been. He flinched away as somebody touched him, scooped him up like a doll. He fell into his seat again, his hands crushed beneath his insubstantial backside and twisted at painful angles. His breath came in a fast, coarse wheeze as one of the Aurors closed in and four more - two dressed in white from head to toe - came through the doors.
"Get out of here," he rasped. Something in the back of his mind screamed for Harry to hie him away; something else yowled for blood.
The Aurors said nothing. One flicked a pinprick red light into existence at the tip of her wand and grabbed his head. She jerked his lower eyelids down, shining the light into his pupils so his retinas screeched at the knifing pain. Tiny, dark spots still hovered in his vision as she barked, "Clean."
"What in god's name are you doing?" he hissed.
"New test, Snape," came a familiar, creaky voice. A pitted green cloak hung in the crook of Montague's arm as he stepped forward. "Ninety percent accurate for Imperius Curse within the last six months."
"What in Hell are you talking about? What are you doing here?" His heart thudded from belly to throat as Montague stepped forward, his grizzled grey hair falling over his glacial eyes.
"Question is, what are you doing here? We thought you'd have at least gone into hiding someplace... well, hidden."
Severus said nothing, only stared at Montague. His heart pounded harder as thoughts of forgery surfaced in his mind. Blaise, what's going on here? You were supposed to fix this!
Montague coughed into his gnarled fist. He made a quick motion in the air. Three of the black-robed Aurors nodded and filed out into the rest of the house. Severus stiffened, his eyes darting over the wands pointed at him, and flickering for an instant towards his own lying useless on the floor.
The icy glare fell on him again. "Where's Potter?"
"Why do you want to know?"
"That's our business."
"He's not here."
Three heads swiveled to look at him with black suspicion or quiet shock. Montague raised an eyebrow. "Where is he then?"
"Safe from you?"
"Safe from himself."
A little frown crossed Montague's face. He only pushed a thick section of hair out of his eyes, though, and cleared his throat. "Do you know anything about the events leading up to the situation that took place on the thirtieth of October?"
"You've already asked me this half a dozen times! How much Veritaserum does it take to convince you?"
Montague only grunted. "So you know nobody who's had call to visit America in the last four months."
"Why would I know anybody who would want to go to that Hellhole?"
"You know why."
"Just tell me what you want and drag me off to whatever cell you've got ready now. It's Azkaban this time, isn't it? Something about corrupting the young?"
"We're not taking you anywhere."
Severus pulled himself rigid. "Very well then. At least let me see my executioner."
"We're not going to kill you either. We need to talk to you. Seemed safer to drop in than try to drag you to the Ministry, what with everything going on there."
"You can't make me speak against my will."
The white, even teeth that showed when Montague cracked a nasty grin didn't match the weatherworn leather of his face. He leaned forward, gripping the chair on either side of Severus' head. "We can as long as nobody else has got you under the Imperius Curse already, and we've established they haven't."
"You can't do that."
"Got a badge that says differently. I'm willing to work with you on this, Snape. Doesn't mean I like you or that I trust you."
Severus swallowed. He found his head crushed hard against the back of the chair, trying to escape Montague's viper-like stare.
Montague leaned in closer and whispered, "You remember a student of yours named Poul? Quidditch captain, good in Transfiguration?"
"Of course I do!" Severus spat.
"If you'd really been on our side, you wouldn't have let him and his little friends run off with that snake-faced lunatic, would you?"
Severus turned his head by degrees. Montague's cold breath ran over his face, getting lost in his hair. "How dare you? I did everything I could. It's not my fault your son--"
"--Your grandson elected to do what he did. In case you hadn't noticed, I wasn't precisely in a position to denounce the Dark Lord to anyone's face."
Montague started to say something. With a disgusted sneer, he pulled back and hooked a chair with his foot. The other three Aurors changed their positions slightly as he sat down and scooted his chair until his knees brushed Severus' robe. "We've known you were here for a while. Moment those perimeter wards dropped we had you."
"So why are you only here now? Surely you're not so disorganised you require two months to take in one stationary man. Although, it would explain rather a lot."
Montague's eyes flashed, but he only cleared his throat again. "On the tenth of September, Igor Karkaroff vanished from Azkaban fortress following a routine inspection of the facility. His disappearance was not discovered for several hours, and he is believed to have been removed by Portkey. Eight days later, the first death from acute invasive aspergillosis took place. By the time it was discovered there was an epidemic, it was too late for significant treatment to prove effective."
Severus frowned. "Aspergillosis isn't contagious."
"That what's our people said, too." Montague looked at him, his eyes hard and glittering, before he went on. "We have been unable to locate Karkaroff despite our best efforts. We think he might have had something to do with several assassinations in the last few months."
"Yes, several. Do you need a dictionary, Snape?" Before Severus could snarl, Montague went on. "The most recent was the widow of a Death Eater. The others have primarily been spouses or ex-spouses of your lot. One daughter. This has been happening all over Europe. There were three, however, that worry us most, and a fourth case of a disappearance."
Montague paused, apparently waiting for comment. Severus sat in grim silence. Volunteering information could wait, if that time ever came.
With a hint of a snarl, Montague went on. "We knew of four women, and suspected at least three more, who had been impregnated only to have the foetuses cease development at the end of the first trimester. Paternity tests on the three we've gotten proved the father to all be the same man - I think you of all people ought to know who I'm talking about. We think something went wrong, though, because all three of the foetuses we've gotten access to had calcified."
Again, Montague paused, and again, Severus said nothing. Montague's mouth went very thin in the silence.
"Aren't you going to tell us what's going on, Snape? You were one of them. If you help us, we might be willing to offer some sort of clemency on that," Montague grimaced, "warrant."
"You act as though you don't agree with it."
"Believe me, Snape, nothing would make me happier than to see you locked up for the rest of your worthless life. Frankly, though, it came down through," he cleared his throat once more, "suspect channels."
"Somebody is deliberately trying to remove you from the picture, but thanks to Potter you're too well-known to kill out of nowhere."
"What channels are suspect?"
"Never you mind." Montague glanced around. Severus arched an eyebrow.
"You don't know, do you?"
"Of course we know."
"No, you don't. Otherwise, you wouldn't be here bothering me. What is it, a Secret-Keeper?"
"Mister Snape, I suggest you let us do our job--"
"If you could do your job, you wouldn't be begging me to do it for you."
Montague and one of the other Aurors stiffened. The other two, the ones dressed in white, simply watched him with no flicker of upset. One looked around at the room.
"Sir, if I might suggest--"
"Be quiet, Mallory."
She raised an offended eyebrow. "Sir, perhaps you ought to mention the bill?"
Montague's fingers curled around the shaft of his wand. They twitched as his lips peeled back from his teeth. "Fine. The bill. On the twenty-ninth of October, a bill was put forth to the Marriage Office and the British contingent of the International Confederation of Wizards to declare... you lot... legal to wed. It's been stalled there ever since. Some people think this is more than a coincidence."
He shot Mallory a harsh scowl; Mallory only looked bored.
"What's that got to do with me?" Severus asked.
The look he received nearly made him smile in malicious glee. Montague's face turned the colour of an apple, and his eyes turned to glass. "You started it."
"How did I start it?"
"You know how."
Severus allowed his smirk to twitch. "Really, I don't know what you're talking about." He sniffed. "Are you here for any purpose, or do you just wish to insult me?"
Montague sneered. "We need your arm."
"Why not the rest of me as well?"
"Three weeks ago, before we could touch him, the final captive bearer of a true Dark Mark died in Azkaban. We had been hoping to use him to attempt to track Igor Karkaroff, but he succumbed to infection before we could arrange his help."
"So now you've come crawling to me."
"We aren't crawling to you." Montague glowered at him. "We simply need to try to locate him."
Severus licked his lips. "Even assuming I did trust any of you enough to allow you access to my person, I'm afraid I wouldn't be of any help."
Montague's fingers curled into his cloak. "Explain yourself."
"I'm afraid my Mark is no longer connected to the others. Karkaroff would appear to be somewhere in orbit, possibly around Mars."
"Are you telling me," Montague growled, leaning forward, "that you know how to break a Dark Mark?"
"Then who does?"
Severus arched an eyebrow, glaring down his nose. "Albus Dumbledore. He altered it well over a year ago, after Lord Voldemort fell and my tenure as a spy ended."
"Funny." Montague rubbed his chin. "I heard you were still going after the Death Eaters after that, pretending to be one of them."
"They tried to kill me. When they failed, Albus felt it best not to give them a map to my exact location."
"How'd he do it then?"
"I'm afraid you'd have to ask him. It was somewhat painful, and I fear I might have passed out."
For a long, long moment, Montague only stared at him, ugly worn face turning a shade of plum. Suddenly, he made another sharp motion in the air. The remaining black-robed Auror flicked his wand; Severus' binds disappeared. A fraction of a second later, both the Auror and the second one in white had him pinned in his chair, his left arm wrenched taut from his body and crushed against the table. The sleeve was shoved back until it bit into his flesh. He yelled; Montague flicked his wand and something solid wedged itself in Severus' mouth. A moment later, he ceased to move entirely.
Mallory, looking not entirely happy with the situation, shuffled forward. She cast Severus an almost apologetic glance and drew her wand along the edges of his scar, muttering. A tight pinch of pain shot through his nerves, but no blood flowed. Just as the pinch began to grow to a burn, a translucent wall of blue flame roared up from the edges of the Mark. They fell away, leaving a small series of numbers and symbols hovering for a few scant seconds. Mallory's eyes went wide.
"He's not orbiting Mars, but I don't think he's doing much better at the bottom of the Indian Ocean." She sighed and smacked the other white-robed Auror on the shoulder. "Let go of him."
"I give the orders, Mallory," Montague growled.
"Yes, sir." Mallory stepped back, a little scowl only lingering for a moment between her brows.
"Smith, Kingsman, let him go." Montague, who looked as though Christmas had been cancelled, threw his cloak around his shoulders. Almost as an afterthought he flicked his wand again and both Severus' immobility and the gag on his tongue vanished.
Severus lunged at him. "How dare you!"
Montague flicked his wand again, and Severus crashed back into his chair. "If you learn anything, let us know. Otherwise, I'll call you on that warrant." He narrowed his glacial eyes at Severus. "We'll know if you're hiding anything from us."
Montague Disapparated. The black-robed Auror muttered into his wrist. Severus heard three low pops from upstairs, and two more as Smith and Kingsman vanished as well. Mallory lingered for a second. She shrugged and followed after them.
Severus fetched his wand, glancing around as he went, ears straining to hear the slightest sound. For a long, long time he stood in the corner, still listening, still watching, trying to ignore the acid welling in his throat. For an instant, he considered going to Molly and telling her to keep Harry for his own safety.
The sky beyond the windows had turned steely blue by the time the scullery door slammed shut and Black's heavy footsteps clomped across the kitchen. They stopped. A moment later, when the door into the dining room opened, he had an unconscious house-elf in each arm.
"I'm right here."
Black stiffened. He arched an eyebrow at Severus. "Wh... what have you done?"
"They know where I am."
"Who, Severus? Not the..." Black trailed off, his eyes drifting to Severus' left arm.
"Oh, Jesus H. Christ." Black laid the elves on the table and leaned against it. The hair falling in his eyes left the pallid, suddenly sickly skin below in stark contrast. "We've got to get you out of here."
"Are you really that stupid, Black?"
Black jerked. He turned angry, burning eyes up at Severus. "Have you lost the rest of your mind?"
"Tell me, what will happen to me the moment the Aurors realise I've left? Given that, for the moment, they are actively not pursuing a certain warrant on my head."
"If they can't find you--"
"Did you learn nothing from two years of running? Keeping in mind, of course, that I have neither a convenient method of camouflage, nor the physical stamina to gain one."
For a moment, Black almost seemed to have listened to him. His eyes glittered in a pensive sort of way. "So you're just going to give up and let them win, is that it?"
"Nothing of the sort. I don't consider an undoubtedly short, miserable lifespan running from every law enforcement agency on Earth to be 'winning'."
"So what are you going to do?"
Severus shrugged. He sat down, glancing from side to side first as though there were more Aurors ready to come out of the walls. He stared at the table. "Everything happened so suddenly, I hadn't even thought about a Secret-Keeper. Until now, I'd wondered if we ought to have had one."
"What d'you mean, until now?"
"According to them, this house has been under surveillance since before we even arrived. They detected us when the wards came down. Stupid of me." Severus closed his eyes. "Utterly, utterly stupid."
"That makes absolutely no sense." Black pulled out a chair as well and fell into it, one forearm curled on the table. "What've the wards got to do with a Secret-Keeper?"
"Simply because you have no concept of logical extrapolation--"
"Oi, I'm just as good as the next wizard!"
"Which is entirely my point! Irrational idiots like you make up the majority of the wizarding world. There are certain of us, however, who understand that simply because one has a Secret-Keeper does not mean that it will be effective."
"Oh, come on! You can trust us more than that!"
"This is not a matter of trust," Severus forced through his teeth. "It's a matter of logic."
"If a location is being watched for any signs of obvious change that may only take place in the presence of a particular person, then in the event of said change said person is present. If my wards fall, then I am here."
"How do they know they're your wards?"
"Who but a member of my family is going to have wards on this place? I rather suspect they might have made notes of what had been placed over the years, and given that when I erected them I was the only surviving member of the family I must have been the one to do it. I suspect one or more of them gave their miserable lives to try them down."
"But what's that got to do with a Secret-Keeper? Shouldn't that have stopped them?"
Severus sighed, letting his head fall back against the chair. "You have all the wit and intelligence of a slug, Black. I am ashamed to call you my godfather. If they know where I am, or even suspect it, they can search the premises. If they search the premises, it's not going to stop them from being able to see me three inches in front of their faces, is it? It's moot now, anyway, so I'd rather not slit my wrists over the fact."
Black stared at him. A look of half-stunned disbelief hung on his face. "You, mate, are barking."
"I am not your 'mate', Black, and I suggest you remember that!"
"Shut up, Severus. And how come everything I've ever read says the Secret-Keeper charm is foolproof?"
"Everything you've ever read was wrong."
"Black, my father dissected charms for a living. As much as I tried to ignore the bastard's existence, I was still forced to tolerate what he did. One of the things he made certain to force into my head is that any spell, no matter how carefully cast and maintained, can fail."
"Only if someone talks."
"Or if somebody's smarter than the magic involved."
"You're talking out your arse. You can't be smarter than magic. That's like saying somebody can be... rounder than a goat! There's no comparison!"
"There is! It's all a matter of finding the limitations of the spell's effects and--"
"Have you told Harry yet?"
"--Working around them--what do you mean, have I told Harry yet?"
"About the Aurors."
"Of course I haven't! How do I know they're not waiting to intercept the next owl that comes through the air?"
"They won't do anything to him."
"You don't know that, do you?"
"Severus, he's Harry Potter. I don't think they'd dare."
Pushing himself to his feet, Severus leaned over the table. "I, however, have seen them nowhere as they left a handful of teachers and a hundred schoolchildren to do battle with the Dark Lord. In case you've forgotten, your precious godson was the one they let do their filthy work."
Black's jaw tightened. He dropped his eyes and said nothing.
Slowly, Severus sat back down. He arched an eyebrow at the unconscious elves still spread-eagled on the table. "You might wish to revive them."
"Y'know, I'd think you'd have a little more sympathy for them, seeing that you grew up with them." Black fished out his wand and poised it to cast.
Severus stood up too quickly to see him complete the charm. "I'll be upstairs," he snapped.
"So you're just going to leave me to get these poor little fellows sorted?"
Black snorted and muttered something under his breath. "Fine. Go and hide."
"I shall." Severus swept out of the room, watching for any hint of movement around him. He hurried up the stairs fast enough to leave him a bit out of breath by the time he reached the top (not as fast as he once had, admittedly).
If for no better reason than a lack of anywhere else to go, he trudged to the master bedroom. The hallway felt long, too long, had ever since Harry walked out. He kicked Eversor's door on the way past; another white crescent in the dark wood did nothing to lighten his mood.
Settling on the bed, punching at his mountain of pillows, he pulled his glasses from his pocket at the same time he dragged open his bedside table drawer to retrieve the copy of The Magician's Nephew he'd found buried on a shelf downstairs. As he pulled it out, a bit of crumpled parchment got stuck between his fingers.
Frowning, he glanced down. The old envelope with his father's handwriting sat there, still waiting to be read after god-knew-how-long.
For a moment that seemed to stretch back to fifteen and forward to the rest of his life, Severus stared at it. His hand tightened around his wand; "Incendio" formed in his throat, ready to burst forth in a short, vengeful bark. Another part of him, though, wondered what parting words Perditus might have left after a lifetime of snapped insults and cruel indifference.
He thrust a finger into the corner of the envelope. Acid bubbled in his belly. Severus drew his knees up to his chest, hunching over the letter like it would crumble to ashes should he move too far away. The old parchment ripped, its edges dry and thin, flaking away on his knuckle.
Inside he felt a bit of the same heavy rag parchment he'd received on his eighteenth birthday along with a certain watch. That one had only been a terse, formal declaration of Severus as heir. He couldn't quite convince himself this one would hold anything more.
Sliding his glasses onto his nose, he plucked out the letter and, forcing himself to keep his eyes open, to leave the parchment whole until he'd finished, unfolded the thing.
8 July, 1973
I received an owl from your cousin last night. He made some rather startling accusations regarding your brother. While my first thought was to write it off to your melodramatic nature, as I hold Lucius in the highest regard I decided to ask Eversor for his side of the matter.
His reaction was most unexpected. I will admit, I had encouraged him to perhaps treat you somewhat roughly in hopes you might become a stronger wizard for it. I never sanctioned certain actions, however. Had I known he would... touch you and violate you like you claim (and he confirms), I would have had rather sharp words with him before the situation could develop.
You must understand, your brother is in a rather painful position himself. His... madness, I suppose, has been born of frustration. He sounded so innocent and caring - for you as much as anyone else - when I questioned him, I'm sure even you would have seen his perspective. Had he been able to achieve his full potential, I am sure things would have been very different. As they stand, I can only say that I never intended the event of certain happenstances.
I hope it shan't be too much to wish you might forgive me in your lifetime. As I've said, had I any idea what was going on I would have had some rather harsh words for your brother. He loves you a great deal; I suspect... this... was in part his own way of showing it.
As I expect you're rather upset right now, given the state of your grandmother's workroom, I shall give this letter some time. I am still of two minds as to whether or not I ought to send it, as Lucius made it perfectly clear that if I tried to call you back home he would have every authority he knows down on my head. If nothing else, should I leave it in my desk I'm certain you shall come across it in due time. Perhaps then you shall be in a better frame of mind to appreciate my position.
Perditus C. Snape
He tasted blood. A single, shining drop of it fell to the parchment, spreading out through the grid of fibres. Another drop rolled down his chin. It splashed against his trembling thumb and out across the page. It seemed to fill his mouth, his lungs, rushing away from his heart and skin and brain and more parts than he'd known he had. He opened his mouth to gulp for oxygen; his teeth slid from the flesh of his lower lip, clearing the way for a narrow, steady trickle that splattered down the front of his robe.
The parchment crumpled in his hand as he jerked himself to his feet. His skull seemed to have filled with blood as well now, sloshing and making great popping sounds as he staggered along the hallway. One leg crumpled as he missed the top step and slid into the wall.
He pushed himself up. Nearly losing his footing again, he leaned his face against the stark white plaster. A trail of red trickled down it. "Perditus," he rasped.
There was no answer. Slamming a hand against the wall, stumbling backwards, he managed to steady himself on the step just in front of his parents' portrait. Eversor still stood there. He beamed and pointed to his own lip. Severus barely noticed.
He wrenched his arm into the air, jerking the parchment smooth in front of Perditus' face. "Was this all I ever was to you?"
Perditus' suspicious eyes moved over the words. His mouth hardened, but he gave no other indication that any of it might affect him. Arian glanced over, straining; Perditus held her off.
"No, Father. Let her look." Severus shifted the letter in the air so his mother could read it. "Did he tell you he cornered me in the kitchen when I was eight? Or was I supposed to defend myself against my brother's tongue in my throat?"
Arian jerked her head up. She stared at him, her blue eyes wide and ringed. Turning to Perditus, she asked him something Severus couldn't hear. Perditus only shook his head and gave Severus a look that promised pain beyond pain beyond pain.
"Don't even deny it," Severus spat. "You created him. You told him to do whatever he fucking well wanted to me. You goddamned bastard, you sent me to this!" He jerked back his sleeve, thrusting the pale scar forward. Perditus sneered and took a step back.
"You recognise it, don't you? You know precisely what it means. And it's all your fucking fault I've got it in the first place."
Perditus shouted something, stabbing a finger at the canvas. Arian grabbed his hand and wrenched it downward. Eversor put a hand on her shoulder; she went stiff and shoved him away. Perditus' hand flew back, and, for a split second, something beyond devotion and edging into lunacy flashed in his eyes.
Severus smacked the frame. "Look at me! Not them, me! I'm still alive! I'm your heir! Whether you like it or not, I was the wizard, and I've become more powerful than you could dream! I won! Do you hear me, Perditus? I beat you!"
Going rigid, Perditus turned his head by degrees to stare at Severus. His black eyes were shrouded, shadowed, his sallow skin gaudy and waxen. Slowly, oh, so slowly, he shook his head not in disagreement but disappointment.
An alien screech, like a train ripped from its tracks, echoed through the stairwell. Severus' nails dug into the canvas, followed by his fist, then more nails as they ripped from their beds. Blood smeared the thing as his teeth scrabbled over the surface. The screech went on and on; in it, he heard the edges of words, "I'll kill you! I'll kill you, you son of a bastard! This is all your fault! I'll rip you from the ground and piss on your bones! You did it! You did all of it! I hate you! I HATE YOU!"
"Severus!" Two thick arms wrapped around his chest. Severus felt himself being lifted, hauled backwards. His nails still dug at the portrait where Perditus hid in the corner with his wife and son. Severus kicked out to shatter the thing where it hung.
"LET GO OF ME! I'M GOING TO KILL HIM! I HATE YOU, PERDITUS! I HATE YOU!"
A heavy, shovel-like hand clamped down over his mouth. Severus tried to sink his teeth into one of the square fingers. They shifted, and suddenly the thumb beneath his chin and the fingers around the bridge of his nose left him unable to even shift his jaw. He spat a spray of blood past the straining thumb webbing, through his teeth. The red mist fell short as he was dragged up to the landing.
"Settle down! You're going to give yourself another heart attack!"
Severus tried to shake his head free; the hand on his face crushed him against a burly shoulder. Still kicking at the portrait, still held tight and fighting to rend his father to dust, he was hauled backwards, a red, metallic stench lingering on the air.
He found himself being dragged into the nearest room. It hadn't changed: white walls glowing like ghosts, the red carpet and blue curtains too calm and cheerful for the events that had taken place within the spectral walls. Black threw him on the bed and swooped on top of him before he could run.
"Let go of me!" he screeched.
"No! You'll only hurt yourself. What happened?"
"No! Tell me!"
Severus drew in a deep breath and screamed, "NO!"
Black's hand slammed down over his mouth again. Breathing so hard his voice shook, all but spread out on top of Severus, he growled, "You are going to shut up, Severus. You are forty-one years old. I'm sick of you acting like some spoiled three-year-old. Either you grow up, or I'm taking you over my knee like someone should have a long time ago!"
Severus' eyes twitched as he stared at his godforsaken godfather. Black licked his lips and opened his mouth again. "Are you going to behave enough for me to let go of you, so you can tell me what in bloody Hell is going on, or do I sit you in the corner until you learn to act like an adult?"
Severus said nothing. He resisted a sharp urge to bite the hand that silenced him.
Slowly, with more than a hint of suspicion on his face, Black removed his hand and shifted so he hovered over Severus, balancing himself on an arm planted next to Severus' hip. Severus sat up as much as he could with the mongrel fencing him. He lifted his hand to wipe at his sticky, throbbing bottom lip.
"I'll kill him," he hissed.
"He's already dead."
"Then I'll kill him again."
"Why? What's he done now?"
Severus closed his eyes. "Why don't you go and find the letter he wrote to me when I was fifteen and conveniently neglected to send?"
"Where is it?"
"Wherever I dropped it."
Getting to his feet, Black pointed a finger at Severus. "Don't you move."
"Or I'll do what your father should have done and drill some manners into your thick skull."
Severus snorted. He fell back on his old bed, glowering up with his lip stuck out and stinging. It did a fair job of covering up the odd spot of protected warmth threatening to coalesce somewhere deep within him. Don't even think it, old boy. The moment you're that desperate for love you can just take a header off a broomstick and get it over with in one.
He lay there, staring at the ceiling as Black stormed out. Heavy footsteps pounded down the first handful of steps. There was a long minute of silence. Suddenly, a sound like a hundred wands being snapped ripped through the air. Severus jerked upright. A second later, Black strolled through the door, wiping his hands on his robe and looking as calm as Severus had ever seen him.
"Portrait's down," he said.
"What are you doing to my house?"
"Something that should have been done a long time ago."
Severus' jaw fell open. It worked once or twice before he managed to make any sound at all. "What did you do?"
"Have a look if you want." Black backed against the doorjamb far enough to let Severus stagger through.
The portraits were staring in horror - most of them, anyway - and shuffling around to make room for three suddenly displaced members of the family. Chlamydia in particular was staring at the twisted mound of shredded canvas and sharp splinters as though she expected to be, so to speak, the next against the wall. She staggered against her frame as Grandfather Eversor was shoved to one side by the sudden inclusion of half of his namesake.
The other half was squashed next to Curtus and Perditus. There was a moment of confused tripping and silent banging as the three of them managed to find room with each other. Arian, a cool look on her face, sat primly in the chair Grandmother Viatrix had occupied; Viatrix now stood behind her, laughing for all she was worth into a smirking Dominus' shoulder.
"My god," Severus whispered. He stared at the wreckage and the chaos laid out before him.
"Happy Christmas, I suppose."
"You've... This is..."
"Y'know what, Severus? You've already done a pretty thorough job of fucking your family in the arse. That whole thing about liking boys sort of sealed it, I think. Pretty hard to get an heir that way. I just put it in terms they could understand."
Several heads snapped up. A few looked puzzled. At the bottom of the stairs, Magnus turned plum beneath his powdered wig; he waved his fist in the air, shouting in mute impotence. Grandmother Anne stuck her fingers in her ears.
"This... you..." Severus' eyes darted around the remaining portraits. He froze. "Where's Gran?"
"Gran? Where've you gone?" Splinters crunched beneath Severus' shoes as he rushed down the steps, peering into the background of the painting that once held her and Curtus. Curtus and Perditus cleaved together, folding their arms and sneering down at him. Eversor only grinned.
"Uh, Severus?" Black called. "I think your mum wants you."
"What?" He spun on his heel. Arian was waving a hand at him. She pointed towards the top of the stairs.
Severus craned his neck. He had to squint, but in the small picture of him hanging beneath the pale outline of the ruined canvas he saw his thirteen-year-old self hugging Gran, hiding his face in her neck. Gran hugged him back. She glanced up and gave Severus a wry, wicked little smile.
He couldn't help a small smile back. It faded, though, the moment she went back to his photograph. He wrapped his arms around himself; despite the outraged chaos reigning all around him, his chosen family was most undeniably absent.
"Black," he said softly.
"I haven't got much choice if I don't want to be put into Azkaban, have I?"
"I thought not."
"I've already told you, I can't run."
"I know as well as you do. Or better." Severus glanced back over his shoulder.
Black's eyes narrowed for a bare instant. "Why would you want to help them? Is saving your own hide worth your soul?"
"No, but I'd quite like to be allowed to spend my life in peace. I'm sure Harry would appreciate it as well." I hope.
Black said nothing. The reluctant twist his mouth took, however, spoke for him.
Severus turned away from him. "If you would be so kind, might you owl that damnable werewolf of yours and ask him to draw up a modified version of that map you had? I'm sure you understand what I mean. Britain ought to do. I shan't tell the Aurors anything about it."
There was another moment of ringing silence. Black sighed. "I still think you've lost your mind. Are you sure this is worth the risk?"
"Hmm. I can hope." Folding his hands behind his back and pulling his bloody lip into his mouth, Severus wandered down the stairs. "And that, Black," he muttered under his breath, "is precisely why you shall never have an heir either."
The mug shattered just above the house-elf's head as the thing scampered back into the kitchen as fast as it could. Severus ignored its wails as he dug his nails into his palms, closing his eyes and taking a long, deep breath.
A minute later, the ever-present mongrel poked his head into the dining room. "What is it this time?"
"Why should you care?"
"Was there too much tea in your milk?" Black tromped in and fell into the chair across from Severus, glowering. "He'll be back when he's ready."
"It's been a fucking week! What's he doing there?"
"Whatever he needs t--"
A loud, incessant pounding from the entryway interrupted him, booming through the house. A fraction of a second later, one of the house-elves scurried out of the kitchen to get the door. Severus stabbed a finger at it. "GET BACK IN THERE!"
The thing stiffened. Another deafening wail rose up from its throat as it ran back the way it had come. The other one, with the curly nose, peeked out.
"You is not being nice! We is talking to Mistress McGonagall about this!"
"Be my guest!"
"Severus, settle down." Black got to his feet. "What do you want me to do if it's Aurors?"
"Do you honestly think they'd bother to knock?" Snarling at the kitchen door, Severus added, "It's Emily. What she's doing here, I haven't a fucking clue."
"What are you, precognitive?"
"No, I simply know how to pay attention to detail! Are you going to answer it, or are you going to leave her to freeze to death?"
"Fine, fine, I'll get it. Sorry git..." Black trailed off, muttering, as he dragged his overgrown carcass out of the room.
Severus sighed and let his head droop, eyes closed and arms folded around his chest, in what he suspected would be his last moment of relative peace for the day. Somehow, it didn't help when his theory was confirmed by Emily storming into the dining room and standing in front of him, one hand on her hip, glowering down on him.
"I'm feeding you to the squid."
"And a good evening to you, too. Won't you have a seat?" Severus waved a hand at the table.
"Where do you get off fucking about with your life like that? Do you have any idea how... pissed off some of us would be if you keeled over?"
"Starting to." Severus glanced up at her with a bored scowl. "Are you going to sit down, or do I need to prove that I'm still taller than you?"
"Hmph!" Emily hooked a chair with her ankle. A squeal echoed through the room as she dragged it close and plopped down, leaning forward with her hands on her knees. "You could have died! Again!"
"If this is about my will, as soon as I'm able I'll have a word with my solicitor and have you written in."
"This hasn't got anything to do with that, and you know it."
"Oh? Am I to presume the name 'Malfoy' rings no bells?" Severus arched an eyebrow; it fell as Emily bit her lip and turned her head away. Lupin and Black came through the door. Lupin was rubbing at his ear. There was a clump of white just off-centre in the hair along his forehead.
"Don't give me that dreck, Severus." Emily's eyes flickered towards the pair of canines. "Both of you, get out of here."
"I needed to give Severus the--"
"Get out of here, and let me talk, Remus, or I'm going to strangle you!"
Lupin jumped but looked as unabashed as ever. "Can I keep my ears on at least?"
Perhaps most wisely, he scampered out when Emily started to growl.
"I'll just... erm..." Black swallowed as she turned her glare on him. "Right. We'll, um, be outside. Or something. Might take that watch down Hogsmeade."
Severus jerked. "What do you mean, you might take it down Hogsmeade?"
"You think I was going to leave you alone after what that lot did?"
"What lot?" Emily asked; Severus ignored her.
"I think you ought to have taken it when I asked first time!"
"Oh, right, I wasn't upset at all then, was I? Look." Black glanced at his watch. "The shops won't be closing for another hour. That ought to give you two plenty of time to talk."
"Or kill each other," Emily muttered.
"You wouldn't stand a chance." Severus pulled himself as tall as he could. "Well? Are you going, or do I have to take it myself?"
Black growled. "Thought you'd never ask," he ground through his teeth and swaggered out after Lupin.
With a harsh sigh, Severus dropped his head back against the chair. "How is it that lunatics of that caliber are allowed to shape the minds and abilities of those who will take care of us in our dotage?"
Emily didn't answer. When Severus opened one eye and focused it on her, she was scrubbing at her cheek.
"How many pounds of my flesh would you like now?"
"All of them," she said in a soft voice. "Alive, preferably. Jesus, Severus, how is it that someone as intelligent as you can be so unbelievably stupid?"
"I'm afraid I don't follow."
"You re-cast the Dark fucking Mark! From what Remus told me, it's a wonder you didn't die! Have you even looked at that thing?"
"Yes. Every day for twenty-three years."
For a moment, she only gazed at him, a frown on her wide mouth. She snorted hard into her sleeve. "I love you, you know that, don't you? Like a brother, almost. I hate it when you start doing stupid things with your life when I know you're better than that. Or you would be if you had an ounce of sense."
"I'm not better than anything. If you knew what my life..." He trailed off, pursing his mouth. "I'm not better than anything."
Her cool, dull grey eyes met his, wide and serious. "If I knew what your life, what?"
"I've been your friend for twenty years, Severus. I think I deserve to know a little bit about you by now."
"Has it never occurred to you that I don't wish to tell anyone about it?"
Severus drew back in his chair. "Oh, he told you that, did he?"
"He let it slip by accident. So far, your two worst living enemies and the son of another one know all about you, and I don't even know what your parents' names were. Doesn't seem very fair, does it?"
"Perditus and Arian. Satisfied?"
"No." She crossed one leg, kicking her foot at the air. "Keep going."
She stared. Something in her unremarkable eyes cut through him like steel. For a moment, he almost wilted.
"There's nothing of any real note to tell you."
"Tell me anyway."
"I don't want to."
"Oh." Biting her lip, Emily uncrossed her legs in a slow, jerky movement. "I... suppose that's it then." She got to her feet. "Tell Remus I've gone back to Hogwarts. I'll... I'll see you. I suppose."
An icy stone lodged in Severus' chest as she turned away. Before he could even think about stopping himself, he grabbed her wrist. She looked back in hurt silence.
"Sit back down," he said.
"Because I want you to."
Closing his eyes, leaning back with his arms wrapped over his chest like a corpse, he growled, "What do you want to know?"
Her chair skidded on the floor as she sat down again. "What've you got?"
The sky beyond the window had faded from the pale blue of flax blossoms to a clear, cold indigo by the time he finished. Emily's rasping breaths rang through the room. Severus only stared at the floor.
"Well?" he asked after a long minute.
Emily made a croaking sound. She started muttering something that sounded very much like what Severus had heard all around him when Gran took him to visit the Prado.
He glanced up at her, at her face hidden behind her hands. "I don't actually speak Spanish, you know. You could at least be polite."
"It's not Spanish! It's Ladino!" Her hands flew to her sides, baring her stark, vicious glare; it melted. For a moment she looked stunned with herself then slumped back into her chair, huddling behind her crossed arms. "Sorry. A little upset right now."
"Hmm. I can tell."
"Well, what do you expect me to do? Dance around because your brother did... did that? Or do you want me to be happy that you didn't trust me enough to tell me?"
"It was never a matter of trust!"
"Oh?" Her eyelids fell so she stared at him through lazy slits. "What would you call it then?"
"Can't be that private if half the known world knows about it."
"No. I'm not finished with you yet." Emily's mouth twisted, and she took a deep, hard breath. "You are one fucked-up man, Severus Snape. I'm surprised you've gotten this far without ending up in Saint Mungo's."
"Your confidence in me is truly overwhelming."
She glowered. "That's not what I meant, and you know it." Rubbing at her eyes, she muttered, "Not that you're exactly stable as things are."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"You know perfectly well what I mean. I'm not complaining, only, you've got a bit of a temper when you want."
She shrugged. "Sorry."
They sat for a long, quiet moment. Emily's eyes had dropped to focus somewhere a few inches above the floor. Her skin had taken a greyish cast, although it might have only been the darkness outside. She licked her thin lips. "I watched my grandfather die."
Severus scowled. "What's that got to do with anything?"
"Well, you've just told me all about your childhood traumas. Figured it was only fair I told you about mine. When I was fifteen, we went into London to do some shopping, and I stayed in the car while he popped into the off-license for a minute. Next thing I knew..." She waved her hands, taut lines forming around her mouth. "Boom. Place went sky-high, IRA bomber. Papu was right in the middle of it."
"Ah." Severus shifted in his chair. "Why had you never mentioned it before?"
She shrugged. "Never came up, I suppose."
"I miss him. Nona's still alive. She misses him too."
"My grandmother. It's Ladino. Papu was teaching me a little, but I don't remember very much except for a few prayers and how to swear."
"Prayers? Don't tell me you put any stock in that Muggle pile of--"
"You stop right there, Severus! Just because you're some high-minded pureblood who can't figure out why some of us would go to temple every Saturday--"
"I thought you were supposed to go on Sunday."
"Not everyone!" Emily's eyes were wide, hard, her mouth pinched into a tiny knot. She crushed a bit of her robe beneath her nails. Slowly, her fingers loosened.
"Actually, when I was a kid I had to go on both. Really killed the weekends." She snorted. "You have no idea how boring it was to have to hang out with these Sephardic old biddies all day Saturday while all my friends got to play, then turn right around and march into the C of E next morning and listen to everyone talk about what they'd done the day before. I don't even want to think about what my parents are going to want me to do if I ever get married."
"Why on Earth would you go to both?"
"Because Mum's Jewish and Dad's Christian and they decided they were going to be 'supportive' of each other or something. Nearly drove them nuts, what with Keith and I complaining all the time. I haven't set foot in either church or synagogue in years, and I don't think Keith has either."
"Hmm." Severus lifted his eyebrows. He leaned against his elbows, his clasped hands pressed against his mouth. "What have your parents got to say about this?"
"You'd have to ask them. I mean, Christ, I think Dad still thinks I'm a virgin."
"You're joking. You're nearly thirty-eight!"
Emily groaned and hid her face in her palm. "Don't remind me. I'm counting the days until I hit forty. As soon as that happens, everything I eat is going to go straight to my hips. Happens to every woman in my family. Last summer I had to listen to three aunts and my mother moaning about it. It's their favourite horror story."
"Which only serves as a reminder of why I refuse to meet your family."
"Well, you're going to have to one of these days."
"And what Unforgivable Curse are you going to employ to make this happen?"
"None, I hope! I mean, what would happen if I got married? You wouldn't expect me to tell my family they can't come, would you?"
A tiny smirk fluttered across Severus' mouth. "You seem to be bringing marriage up rather a lot tonight. This wouldn't have anything to do with a certain werewolf of our mutual acquaintance, would it?"
Emily flushed crimson. She slapped her hands over her mouth, staring at him with her eyes bulging out of her head. "Severus!"
"Well? Am I going to have to put up with herds of children shedding on my robes every full moon?"
"No! It's nothing like that! Anyway, you know as well as I do werewolves can't have kids."
"There have been six who did."
"Yeah, in a thousand years. Somehow, I don't think Remus is number seven."
Severus snorted. He shifted back in his chair, muttering, "Famous last words."
"Shan't. And how on Earth did the two of you wind up in each other's pants in the first place?"
"If you must know, it's all your fault."
"My fault? How dare you blame me for an atrocity of this degree?"
"Well, if you hadn't been so particular about who baby-sat you while Harry was at his match--"
"Please. That is the most absurd thing I've ever heard in my life."
"It's true! He took me to dinner to thank me for watching you for him, and we got joined up talking, and..." She trailed off, a tiny smile forming on her mouth. "I could fall in love with him, Severus, I really could."
"It sounds to me as though you already have."
She gave him a cool look. "Not quite."
"Do I need to make some Veritaserum to test this theory?"
She slapped him on the knee. "Hush." Glancing around, she asked, "Speaking of Remus, wonder where they've got to?"
"Hogsmeade, allegedly. I daresay they're following in your well-worn footsteps and filling Rosmerta's coffers."
"I don't drink that much."
"Yes, you do. Or have you forgotten that I've been the one to drag your carcass up the road more times than I can count? Honestly, woman, it's a miracle of nature you've still got a functioning liver."
"I resent that! After what you and Minerva got up to--"
"That was purely research."
"Yeah, and I'm Minister of Magic. I've seen you drunk. You turn into the nastiest, chattiest, most opinionated--"
"Um." The door opened and Lupin's silver head poked in. "Is it safe to come in yet?"
"Certainly." Severus lifted his brows. "The Minister and I were just having a--"
"Severus!" Emily smacked him on the arm.
Perhaps a bit hesitantly, Lupin stepped in. A small smile hung on his lips; when he glanced at Emily, it flickered with an edge of affection Severus had seen on Harry's face many a time. He made a mental note to have a little talk with the werewolf sometime regarding the proper care and feeding of one Emily Vector.
"Here." Lupin fished in his pocket and pulled out a scroll, which he handed to Severus. "Just tap it with your wand and say, 'I solemnly swear I am up to no good'."
Severus gave him a weary glower. "You couldn't be original, could you?"
"You know about that?"
"I've spent nearly twenty months of my life with James Potter's lunatic son. Of course I know about that." Severus unrolled it. It was blank. Shooting Lupin a glare as Black sidled into the room, he plucked out his wand and tapped the map. "I... solemnly swear... Lupin, I can't say that."
"Why not? It's the truth, isn't it?"
"Told you, Moony." Black pulled a small paper parcel from his pocket and slid it across the table. The front of the purple wrappings read, Bauble and Fob, Fine Jewellery and Watches since 1729.
Severus dropped the map and snatched the watch. "How dare you!" he shouted, ripping at the purple parchment. "I told you to take this to Hogsmeade--"
"We did. They haven't got anyone who can fix watches, said Bauble and Fob was the only place in the country they'd trust with something like this."
"Then you should have taken it out of the country!" The last scrap of parchment fell away, and the chain ran between his fingers, the watch itself cool and heavy and familiar in his palm. Severus stroked the front of it, squinting at the crest for any signs of damage.
"Look, if you'd outright wanted us not to take it there, you ought to have said so! Personally, I don't see what your problem is! Bauble--"
"It's his fucking fault all those owls started arriving at the house in the first place. Or have you forgotten what happened to your leg?"
Black pursed his mouth. He took a deep breath, though, and said in a calm voice, "Somehow, I doubt it was him who sent the hex. The shop's still closed, but we ran into Ginny, and she knows him a little bit so she took us 'round. He fixed it on the spot for us, didn't charge a Knut. I'd call that being a fair bloke, myself."
"And I'd call it the barest beginnings of his penance." With a growl, Severus pressed the fob to check the crystal. The face sprang open; a folded scrap of parchment fell out. "What in Hell...?"
Scowling, perfectly aware of three other sets of eyes staring at him, he crouched to pick it up. Watch still in hand, he unfolded it.
Dear Mr. Potter,
Ezekiel spoke very highly of you. He said you're a charming young man who only deserves the best in life, and I oughtn't have been so jealous of you when you've had so much hardship in your life already. Given the situation, I thought you ought to know his death was an accident. Perhaps in the long run, it won't have been for nothing.
I'm sorry I went to America. I can't say anything more. Please forgive me.
Severus' eyes ran over it again, again, even as he got to his feet. A sickened feeling started to rise in his dry throat. Emily peered around his arm.
"What's America got to do with anything?"
Lupin, however, had gone pale as stone. "Oh, Merlin," he whispered. "Merlin, god, goddammit, GODDAMMIT, FUCKING GOD!" He kicked the table hard enough that the whole heavy thing shook. "DAMMIT, DAMMIT, DAMMIT!" he yelled, still kicking the thing, leaving dents in the dark wood.
"Moony!" Black grabbed him by the arm (Emily had the other one) and dragged him back. Lupin hung in their grip, panting and livid. His lips had curled back from his teeth, and he stared at Severus in a way that was more wolf than man.
"You get this sorted," he growled, "else next full moon I'm going to rip that little bastard to shreds."
"Remus!" Emily's head turned from Black to Severus, her eyes wide and scared. "What's going on?"
"Bauble's been fetching ingredients for Immolatus Compound, that's what." Lupin dropped his head. His entire upper body rose and fell with every breath. "Sheng told me one of them you can only get in America, and it's not supposed to leave the continent."
"Oh, my god." For a moment, Black looked as though he was about to fall over.
Severus closed the watch and tucked it in his pocket, along with the note and map. "I'll be at the Burrow."
Before any of the others even had time to respond, he'd Disapparated.
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