The Last Battlefield
Chapter 25 - Flight
"We wondered when you'd get back." Montague scratched the tip of his nose. "From what our people in Holme told us, we were ready to check the alleys. Not that I want to see you with your trousers down again, Snape."
Severus' fingers dug into Harry's shoulders. "Get out of my house. I've already done everything you wanted."
"What are you talking about?" Harry hissed.
"Yeah, we got your owl. We got Karkaroff's body, too, only that was all we got. No papers, no evidence of the Dark Mark on the second body, nothing. Best we had was a stack of parchment that read like a demented fairy tale."
"You wanted Karkaroff."
Montague cocked his head. He studied Severus; there was something innocent in his stare, innocent in the same way a kestrel would watch its prey. "I thought our point was that we wanted whoever was behind this mess. Karkaroff was dead when we found him and had been for a couple of days. Found evidence of Unicorn Blood in his toxicology report. You wouldn't know anything about that, would you?"
"Why would I?"
"Because the Committee for Experimental Potions ordered up four vials of something called Snape's Serum from Saint Mungo's, and according to them it's a treatment for Unicorn Blood Poisoning." Montague slunk across the entryway and reached out to pick at Severus' widow's peak; Severus jerked back before he could touch it. Montague gave him a cold smile. "Yeah, I thought you might have given up your soul for something else."
"I haven't given up anything. It's a side effect of extreme magical duress, you ought to know that. What are you doing here? Our business is finished."
"Quid accidit?" Harry whispered.
Montague's lips curled back. "What are you two talking about?"
"Nothing," Harry hissed. "Get out of here. If he says your business is finished, it's finished." He pulled out of Severus' grasp and fixed a murderous glare on the Auror, fishing his wand from his trousers.
One of the other Aurors at the back wall yelped, "Expelliarmus!", and it flew from Harry's fingers before he'd even drawn it fully. Harry lunged and caught it in midair. He crashed to the floor. Before he or Severus could move, though, Severus found two wands pressing into the flesh beneath his chin. From the corner of his eye, he saw Harry with at least three more trained on him.
"Bind them, and get their wands!" Montague barked. "Get them someplace with better lighting! I want Potter tested for Imperius immediately."
"I'm not under the Imperius Curse, you idiot! Let go of me!" Harry thrashed as thin, dark ropes flew from a wand and wrapped him like an insect in a spider's web. A fraction of a second later, the same happened to Severus. Another Disarming Charm whispered through the air, and he felt his wand jerk from his sleeve.
"Let him go!" he roared. "Don't lay a finger on him!"
A hand cracked him across the jaw. Harry snarled - almost a screech - from the floor, still writhing against his binds. Two of the Aurors picked him up; Harry gave a strangled yell. Beads of sweat broke out on his forehead. "Stop it, stop it, stop it..." His hiss trailed off, though his lips still ran.
"Put. Him. Down," Severus growled.
"You heard the order," one of the Aurors said. He shifted Harry in his grasp. Harry tried to curl up on himself.
"I will do anything you fucking well want if you will put him down and take those ropes off him."
"You'll do anything we want whether we put him down or not." Montague motioned for the other three Aurors to pick Severus up. One hovered next to the wall as the others did what they were told.
"Mallory, I gave you an order."
"And I'm disobeying it. Sir."
"Mallory," Montague took a step towards her, "you'll do what I tell you to do unless you want to find yourself written up."
"With all due respect, sir, I don't care. You're treating human beings like cattle, and I don't approve, fugitives or not. It's not as if you can replace me, now is it?" The corner of her mouth flickered in a self-assured smirk.
"Mallory, you're dismissed."
"I don't believe I am, sir. Might I remind you, I am the only Arithmancer in the Auror division currently certificated for field service?"
Montague whirled, a quivering finger stabbed in her direction. "Then I'll get another one certificated! I want you back at headquarters, and your identification on my desk, this instant!"
Mallory took a step back. "Sir, you haven't got the authority--"
"Go and read your manual again, Mallory. We're in the field, and right now I have. Get out of my sight!"
Mallory jumped. Her pale eyes went wide. Before Montague could shout at her again, though, she glanced at Severus. "I'm sorry," she murmured before she vanished with an echoing pop.
For a long moment, Montague stood there, his shoulders heaving with every breath. He glanced back. "Well? Has anyone else got anything to say about my orders?"
Not a word was spoken. Severus found himself being hoisted into the air. He bared his teeth at Montague as he was carried past. Montague didn't seem to notice.
Harry was already slumped in one of the dining room chairs. He quivered, biting his lip until the skin around his teeth turned white. "Paenitet sum," Severus whispered.
Harry twitched, but he opened his bleary eyes and stared at Severus. "Iuvas me," he whispered back. One of the Aurors grabbed him by the shoulder and shone her wand in his eyes. Harry whimpered and curled back into himself.
"He's clean," she grumped. She turned a vicious sneer on Harry. "You killed You-Know-Who?"
"Shut up!" Harry snapped.
The woman snorted and took a step back. She stood with her hands behind her back, her pale green eyes glittering. For a spiteful moment, Severus had the impression of Uden returned from the crypt.
When Montague stormed into the room, he looked more like a starved wolf than a man. He paced, his eyes shining in a hunger Severus didn't want to ponder. "What happened to Karkaroff?" he barked.
Severus said nothing.
Montague's hand cracked across his cheek. Harry shouted, "Don't touch him!"
"When he answers, I'll stop."
"I'll answer when you've untied Harry. He hasn't got anything to do with this. He barely knows what's going on."
"Oh. So you're trying to tell me, Snape, that your goddamned catamite--"
"Don't call him that, Montague! This is his home, and you will treat him with respect!"
Montague's lips pulled back in a rictal grimace. "Maybe he ought to have thought of that before he tried to pull a wand on us."
"It was self-defence," Harry snapped. "Let us go."
"Not until we've got what we came for."
Montague said nothing, only narrowed his eyes and set back to pacing. "The Committee for Experimental Potions received four vials of Snape's Serum and the formula on which the potion was based. However, traces of this substance were found on and around Igor Karkaroff's remains. I think you made it."
Severus snorted. "Why in god's name would I do that?"
"Why wouldn't you?"
"Because I had no idea the bastard had even been in Azkaban until after he'd escaped!"
"Yet you still led us to him, even with an altered Dark Mark."
Severus bit his tongue before he could tell Montague what he thought of him.
"I think you're hiding something from us. I want to see where you made that potion."
"I didn't make it."
"Ah. Well. In that case." Montague reached into his cloak and withdrew a roll of parchment, which he unrolled with a smirk. "By the power invested in me by the Ministry of Magic, Magical Law Enforcement Decree number eighty-one, I, Yves Aloysius Montague, do hereby place you, Severus Perditus Snape, under arrest for the willful coercion and deceit of Harry James Potter regarding the nuptial contract of Registered Magical Object number two-nine-eight-four. You will be transferred to Azkaban fortress immediately to await the terms of your trial. Have you got any questions?"
Air wheezed through Severus' open mouth. Harry made a small, choked sound. "You can't do that!" he yelled.
"I've got four Aurors with me who say I can, Potter."
"Stop," Severus rasped. "What do you want?"
Montague crouched. He still held the warrant, letting it fall so Severus could read every upside-down word. "I want to know how you found Karkaroff, and I want you to convince me that you had nothing to do with that potion. Do you understand?"
"I want to speak with a lawyer," Harry growled.
"Quiet!" Severus shot him a glare before turning back to Montague. "Untie Harry, allow no harm to come to him, and I'll show you everything I've got."
Montague pursed his thin mouth. Harry let his head drop, his shoulders twitching against his bonds.
"Let him go," Harry growled.
"Harry James Potter, close your mouth!" Severus slid in his seat as he jerked around to face Harry. "This has nothing to do with you!"
"Let me handle this!" The ropes around Severus' body bit into his flesh with every harsh pant. Several strands of hair had fallen in his face. "If you trust me at all, you will shut up and let me get both of us out of this in as few pieces as possible!"
Harry's mouth snapped shut. He stared for a moment before he nodded and looked away. His lower lip was caught between his teeth again. The green-eyed Auror brushed him with her cloak as she shifted her weight; he squeezed his eyes shut and whimpered.
The sound went through Severus' insides like a sliver of ice. He set his jaw, glaring up at Montague. "Have we got a deal?"
"No. I could get just as much information out of you with Veritaserum."
"But you wouldn't be able to get the evidence. That's what you want, isn't it?"
Montague arched an eyebrow. "What are you talking about?"
"The evidence is locked in a room that only the head of the household or his heir can open. You could knock down a wall and you'd only succeed in destroying everything."
"Oh, fuck," one of the Aurors muttered. "Goddamned Dark wizards."
"Be quiet, Chang." Montague fixed Severus with an acid stare. "If I find out you're lying to me..." He waved the warrant. "Got no qualms, Snape. I'll hand you to the Dementors myself, you useless son of a bitch."
"Don't call him that," Harry whispered.
"You sad little man." Severus lifted his chin. "Untie Harry, then me, and I'll show you."
"If you're lying..."
"We've already been over this. Really, Montague, what makes you think I want to go to Azkaban?"
"I don't trust you."
"Nor I you. Answer the fucking question."
"I will ask the questions." With a snort, Montague turned on his heel. "Untie Potter. Drop an Anti-Disapparation Jinx on him."
"Don't touch him," Severus added.
"It's okay, Sev. I'll..." Harry trailed off in silence. Severus couldn't bring himself to look as Chang descended upon Harry; Harry's leashed grunts still stole the warmth from his flesh.
"All right," Harry said after too many seconds, a wheeze underlying his voice, "him now."
"Not yet." Chang muttered something. "Let's see where your Death Eater can get you now, Potter."
"Chang, were you one of Professor Snape's students?" Harry asked.
"Not that it's any of your business, but yes."
"You wouldn't happen to have a sister named Cho, would you? Ravenclaw, left about three years ago?"
"Just thought you ought to know your old Potions professor is a better piece of arse than she'll ever be."
"Harry!" Severus jerked in his chair again. He shot a glower at Harry that made the idiot boy take a step backwards. "Keep your mouth - shut!"
"Don't you talk about my sister that way, you fucking bender!" Chang thrust his wand at Harry. "Cru--"
Montague knocked it out of his hand. "This is going in your report, Chang! I don't give a fuck what you do to Snape, but you lay a finger on Potter and I'll have your head." He rounded on Harry. "Another comment like that out of your mouth, boy, and I'll take your precious fucktoy to Azkaban tonight."
Harry took a step backwards. His face was twisted in a loathsome sneer. "Sorry," he growled.
"You'd better be." Chang crouched to pick up his wand. "You little bitch."
Montague kicked him in the ankle. "Enough." He motioned his chin at Severus. "His turn."
One of the other Aurors hurried up to drag her wand along the front of Severus' binds. They split; Severus shook them away, wincing inside at the stabs of pain where they'd bitten into muscle. The woman muttered her jinx and stepped back before Severus could stand up. He didn't take his eyes off either Montague or Chang as he laid a hand on Harry's shoulder. Harry winced, but didn't pull away.
"Mister Potter is under my protection," Severus said. "If a single spell comes his way, I will show you what a Death Eater is trained to do, and I promise you it is beyond your wildest nightmares."
"You haven't even got a wand." Chang half grinned, half sneered, shaking his head.
"Who ever said I needed a wand?"
The amusement drained from Chang's face. He took half a step behind Montague. His own wand quivered in his white-knuckled grip.
Severus snorted. "I thought you lot were supposed to be able to think like Dark wizards."
"Wrong division." Montague swept towards the door. "Lead the way."
Montague pivoted on his heel. He fixed Severus with an icy stare. "No?"
"I said I would show you the evidence. I want the rest of your thugs off my property."
"If I go to Azkaban, you'll never have what you're looking for."
Montague went stiff. "Stop talking shit, Snape."
"I assure you, it's perfectly true."
"If we kill you, Potter can get in." Montague's voice trembled. He swallowed hard and snapped, "We can kill you."
"Montague, have you actually read the grounds of that warrant you've got? I haven't got a husband anymore. I am the sole heir. Your Ministerial morons nullified the contract and the magic."
"I want proof."
Severus folded his arms and lifted his eyebrows. "Very well. Kill me."
"Sev, don't," Harry whispered.
"I can't stop them if they're planning to."
"I can." Harry moved in front of Severus. "Try it, and you'll have to kill me first."
With a sigh, Montague rubbed his eyes. "Back off, Potter. Nobody's killing anyone here." He shot Severus a warning look. "Are they?"
"Send your thugs away, and ensure they'll never cross my threshold again."
"Fine." Montague waved a hand. "All of you, dismissed."
"I said dismissed, Chang! All of you, back to Hunstanton."
"Hunstanton?" Harry asked. "I thought you were--oh, no. No, no, you are not spying on us."
"We're not spying on you, Potter. We're setting up a sting."
"I don't care."
"Harry, keep quiet." Severus took a breath. "Let me guess: my purpose is bait."
"Not too slow on the uptake, are you, Snape?"
"So why are you still so worried about a dead man?"
"Because," Montague growled, turning to wave his inferiors away once more. "If what you said in that letter was true, someone is trying to recreate a Dark Mark, and I'd really rather not get into the repercussions there. Well?" Montague looked around. "What are you lot waiting for, an engraved invitation? Dismissed!"
"Sir," the green-eyed woman drawled, "I don't think you've given this enough thought. You are putting yourself into a situation where one or both of them could overpower you in a heartbeat--"
"Ipield, you are dismissed. Neither of them can Disapparate, you know precisely where I am, and I think you've forgotten that I have their wands, whether certain parties need them or not. Given his medical state, I don't think Snape is going to be running anywhere." A nasty smile grew on Montague's face. Severus caught Harry's shoulder before he could do anything characteristically stupid.
Ipield's mouth pinched into a disagreeable little knot. She pulled her cloak tight around her chest. "Yes, sir." Without another word, she disappeared with a loud pop.
The other three followed in staggered succession. Chang went last, glowering at Harry. Harry stiffened beneath Severus' hand and only relaxed a little bit when the Auror vanished.
"We ready?" Montague growled.
"Harry comes with us."
Montague paused. After a long moment, he said, "All right. I don't trust you either."
Severus nodded to him and swept out of the room. Just behind him he heard Montague's panther-like footsteps and beside them Harry's heavier ones. Outside Perditus' study, he grasped the knob and muttered the incantation. It hesitated a moment, but the latch slid back with a soft click. Severus grunted. "Touch nothing."
"I'll touch whatever I fucking well please."
"You will when you've shown me your search warrant."
Montague said nothing audible, but Severus thought he heard a few muttered insults. He grinned to himself when the fucking Auror jumped at the popping gaslights.
"Anything wrong, Montague?"
"No! Fucking Dark wizards, keeping psychological weapons scattered about your own homes."
"Actually, they're a Muggle thing," Harry said in a mild tone. Severus glanced back; they shared a nasty grin for a moment before Montague glowered.
"I've still got the warrant, you know."
"Should I ever forget, Montague, you have standing permission to remind me." Severus swept across the room to the desk. He yanked open a drawer and pawed through for the cracked vial; his spine bristled when Montague's shadow fell over the blotter.
"Don't try anything funny."
"I assure you, I have no sense of humour of which I am aware."
"Stop taking the piss!"
"Shut up, Montague." Harry sighed. "And get your hands off the desk. It's not polite."
"Potter, have I ever told you about the time your pet offered to suck my cock?"
Severus' fingers jerked. He dropped the vial with aclink. "You son of a bitch," he hissed.
"First time I was on watch over him. Had to keep an eye on him in the shower, not that there was very much to keep an eye on." Montague caught Severus' glare and returned it. "Little slag came crawling up to me in nothing but a towel and offered to do it right there if I'd take a message to Albus Dumbledore."
"You wretch," Severus breathed.
Montague's mouth twitched in a cruel smirk. "Suppose that's why he's such a nice piece of arse, isn't it? He's had enough practise."
Severus' hand shot out just as Harry's arm wrapped itself around Montague's neck. "Listen to me, you lying piece of shit," Harry hissed into Montague's ear. "Severus wouldn't touch you if you made him Minister of fucking Magic. If I hear one more word like that out of your mouth, I'll break your neck. D'you understand?"
"Harry, let him go."
Harry shook his head. "I've had enough."
"Potter, take your--"
Harry jerked his arm. Montague made a gagging sound. "I'm only going to say this once," Harry whispered. "Nobody at the Ministry gives a flying damn what happens to you. Even your inferiors give you orders. The only reason you've got your job is you're expendable. Now, what makes you think a worthless little arsehole like you is going to survive me when Lord fucking Voldemort went down like a stone?"
Montague opened his mouth to take a loud, gulping breath. "Let go of me, Potter!"
"Let him go, Harry."
"Not until you stop insulting Severus. He's a better man than you'll ever be."
Harry squeezed his arm tighter against Montague's throat.
With a gasping little cry, Montague slapped at Harry's elbow. "Let me go! I take it back!"
Montague crashed to the rug when Harry let go and stepped back. His grey hair had fallen over his glacial eyes when he dragged himself back up by the edge of the desk. He grunted. "Get on with it!"
Fixing him with a cool glare, Severus picked up the vial once again. "I found this on Igor Karkaroff's person. I wouldn't recommend holding it by anything other than the cap. Were you to cut yourself, I fear the world would never recover from the loss."
Montague snatched it from his hand. "Keep your opinions to yourself, Snape." He peered at the label, frowning. "Is this your handwriting?"
"Are you sure?"
"If you're uncertain, I seem to recall your lot demanding a written account of the events at the Quidditch stadium. You might simply compare the two."
Montague snarled at him, but went back to the vial. "Where's number five?"
"I don't know."
"Are you sure?"
Montague stuffed the phial into his pocket. "There are only four testing groups within the Committee for Experimental Potions. Yet, this is number six. Saint Mungo's only sent down four samples."
"Perhaps whoever did this skipped number five. Might I suggest that, rather than interrogate me, you ask the Committee members? Surely at least one of them is capable of making this, given that you've already said they were sent the formula."
"I've said it before, Snape, and I'll say it again. Why go to that trouble when you can just go to the source?"
"Maybe you ought to ask Hieronymus Bauble." Severus dived back into his desk. "He was in America not long ago. Perhaps he helped proffer ingredients for this formula as well? Ah." With a flourish, he plucked out the map. "Might I have my wand, please? This won't be terribly effective without it."
"Harry, why do you insist on interrupting? Am I not allowed to show my handiwork?"
Montague frowned. "What are you talking about?"
"My father was an Arithmancer. Do you honestly believe he allowed me to reach adulthood without working knowledge of the subject? My wand?"
"Tell me how to do it."
Severus snorted. He gave the parchment a sharp crease and dropped it back into his drawer. "Why on Earth would I create something this sensitive and allow anyone else to be able to activate it? Or have I learned nothing of being a Dark wizard in my life?"
"Prove it. Give it here." Montague held out his hand, waggling his fingers.
Severus arched an eyebrow. "Very well." He unfolded the map and slid it across the desk. "The password is, 'I solemnly swear I'm up to no good'."
Montague sneered at him. "You're right, you haven't got a sense of humour."
Still sneering, he smacked the map with his wand. Severus held his breath as the Auror muttered at it. A knot in his stomach unraveled when words formed across the front of the page:
To Whom It May Concern,
Be it known that you have attempted to access a forbidden document. Whether this is due to your inordinately small cranial capacity or the fact that you are a large, ambulatory pile of thestral dung, it must be stated that you are unworthy of the secrets within. They would likely make your head explode in a font of superheated air and send you crying for your mummy like the little girl you are.
Somebody Better Than You
Montague crushed the parchment in his fist. The crumpling sound was lost in Harry's wicked laughter and the snorts Severus couldn't suppress. Barely a second later, both parchment and Severus' wand fell to the desk.
"Well?" Montague flung his arms wide. "Are you going to do it or not?"
Still smirking, Severus picked up his wand and tapped it to the parchment. He cleared his throat and announced, "I solemnly swear I am up to no good," slurring the "I" and the "am" just enough that he couldn't quite tell which it was.
"Hang on, did you say 'I'm' or 'I am'?"
"You sure about that, Snape?" Montague narrowed his eyes.
"Quite. Perhaps it's the accent? You have got a terribly western one."
Montague frowned but motioned to the parchment. "Give that here."
Severus held it out. "As the map will fail to work--" Montague snatched it away, leaving Severus to arch an eyebrow. "--If removed from my presence, I suggest you leave it here. I don't care what you do with the vial. Terrible manners you've got, Montague."
Montague only grunted, holding the parchment to his face. "Where're you?"
"Somewhere at the bottom of the Indian Ocean, according to your woman."
Montague's glacial eyes darted up from the parchment. "Very funny, Snape. What's this red fla--?"
He dropped the parchment and jumped back. His mouth was open to allow a vicious rush of air. "You had better have a fucking good explanation, Snape! This thing says Lord Voldemort is in London!"
Severus held out his hand. "Give it here. What other name did it say?"
"Oi, settle down!" Harry held up his hands. "You're foaming at the mouth."
Montague wheeled on him. "This doesn't concern you!"
"Montague, you will speak to Mister Potter with respect, or I will remove you from my property. Give me the map and I will attempt to clarify."
Montague didn't move, only stared at Severus, his teeth bared and his eyes ringed in white. Harry bent and picked it up. Montague snatched it from his hand.
"Look at this!" he roared, shaking it in Severus' face. Severus caught the corner between two fingertips. It took him a moment to get a strong enough hold to hold it steady. Indeed, for a bare instant, a red dot flickered over the middle of London. An illegible name barely fluttered, only to be replaced with "Lord Voldemort". The dot sputtered and died.
"Someone's creating a Master." Severus' insides contracted, trying to squeeze their way out of his mouth. His right hand drifted to his forearm, traced the scar, traced it again. Deep in his mind he imagined he felt it tingle.
"Give this to me." Montague tugged at the parchment.
"This is evidence!"
"Montague, I refuse to let this map out of my house! You shall have to arrest me to pry it from my hands, and then where would you be?"
"I don't care!" Montague got the map in both hands and jerked. A ripping sound filled the air, and Severus found himself with a corner of blank parchment in his fist.
"How dare you?" he whispered.
Montague took a step back. "You ought to have relinquished it on my order, then! Fix it."
"You made it! You can fix it!" Montague shook the rest of the blank sheet in his face. Severus wrenched it from his grasp.
"I can't! I destroyed the originals! I haven't got anything to reference!" He slammed a fist into the desk and wrapped his fingers around the hilt of his wand. "Give Mister Potter his wand, and get out of my house."
"Not until you--"
Severus thrust his wand at Montague's chest. "I can make you wish you had never been born! Get. The fuck. Out. Of my. House!"
Green sparks crackled at the tip of his wand. Montague stared at them. He put his shaking hands in the air.
"Give Mister Potter his wand."
Without a word, Montague reached into his pocket. Harry's wand clattered to the floor.
"If I find you've mentioned a word of this to anybody, I'll take you apart. Do you understand?"
Montague licked his lips with a thick, pink tongue. "Yes."
"Get out of here."
"Leave the immediate vicinity of the property before this operation is over, and I'll have you in Azkaban before sunset." Montague vanished. The walls echoed with the pop for a moment; his parting glower continued to burn its way into Severus' brain.
Severus slumped. He leaned on his hands, closing his eyes. "Forgive me, mi marite."
"What for?" Harry's voice trembled. Severus heard the soft scrape of his wand across the carpet as he knelt to pick it up.
"I may have damned us both."
"At least you didn't threaten to break his neck."
Severus glanced up to see Harry wrapping his arms around himself. He buried his face in the cross of his forearms. "I'm sorry, Sev. Only... god. Iknow you wouldn't have done that. Not to him."
Severus said nothing.
Harry lifted his head. His eyes narrowed for a moment. He shuddered. "I'm sorry. I didn't know it was that bad."
"It's in the past."
Harry stood there in silence for a handful of seconds. He swallowed. "I'm not going to let them take you away again."
"It's not as if you could stop them."
"It's not as if they could stop me, either."
A smile flitted over Severus' mouth. "You seem to be getting back to your Gryffindor self."
"A little bit, yeah." Harry shook his head. "Would you mind if I went and had a bath? Only, after..." He pursed his mouth, rubbing the back of his neck.
"Would it bother you too much if I came upstairs to read?"
"Why would it bother me?"
"I didn't know if you wanted to be entirely alone."
Harry shook his head. "Don't want to be alone at all. If someone's making a Master, I want to know you're all right."
"I was thinking the same thing of you."
"Hmm." Harry strode over to one of the gaslights. He dragged his finger over the surface of the globe. "No heat?"
"Nice." With a glance back, he murmured, "Are you coming?"
The entire company of Aurors couldn't have stopped him.
In the final few days leading to the edge of Christmas, two things had happened: Harry had affixed an easel into the snow-dusted ground outside the house, and the temperature had gone through the floor. Still, Severus had allowed himself to be coerced outside, along with his watercolour block, his brushes, and his paints.
He frowned. Pursing his mouth, he dabbled the brush in his puddle of Prussian blue and had it to the page in front of him before he realised the paint had frozen. "Bollocks."
"Yeah, well, that's what happens when you decide to try painting outside on Christmas Eve."
Severus arched an eyebrow with a low snort. "Might I remind you that this was your idea?"
"I thought you were supposed to be in the air."
"Was until an owl nearly crashed into me. Poor thing dropped its letter and flew off."
"Ah." Severus laid down his frozen brush and turned in the chair Harry had dragged outside. He squinted up at a very windblown Harry. "Well? I assume this is important, else you wouldn't have bothered me."
Harry rolled his eyes. "Git," he muttered, grabbing Severus' wrist and slapping a scroll into his palm. Wrapping his arms around himself, he added in a dark tone, "It's from Sirius."
"Ah. And what did the mutt have to say?"
"Dunno yet, haven't read it. Would have ripped it up, but I figured you might want to see it."
"Why on Earth would I want to do that?" Severus asked, unfurling the scroll with a snap. He fished his glasses from the pile of crumpled tea towels on his small table and slid them on his nose. Harry hovered over his shoulder as he read.
Dear Harry and Severus,
Molly's told us that you wouldn't be able to make it tomorrow. Well, she told us a few days ago. I suppose I'm not as brave as I thought I was if I can't even write a letter to my godsons. Times like this I think the Sorting Hat ought to have put me in Hufflepuff, what?
I'd like to see you. Both of you. I know things haven't been easy for either of you and they're worse than ever now, but I'd still like to try to make Christmas as nice as possible. (Yes, I'm aware of the irony. Bear with me, all right?)
Moony and I are still going to the Burrow tonight, although we'll have to leave before lunch because Minerva expects us. After that, though, we haven't got anything else to do except drop in on Moony's folks for a few minutes, and we'd like to come and visit.
I'd like you both to know that I've seriously given some thought to my decision. I haven't changed my mind, and that fact is tearing me apart, but I can't stand to watch Harry suffering with no end in sight and this is the best I can think of. If I see any real improvement - I can't really say what yet, but I'll know it when I see it - I'll scrap the whole idea. Please, in the name of God, be better, Harry.
We'll be bringing presents and dinner, and quite possibly a tree, as Filius seems determined to send one. Don't ask me how we're going to get all of that there, but we'll manage. Hermione's been talking about a Portkey so she and Ron can bring Ruby for a visit as well. I thought I'd owl you first to see what you say.
Because I'm persistent, if you don't reply to this I'll assume you want me to come. If you do owl back, I'm coming anyway.
Miss you both.
Harry was leaning against his shoulder by the time Severus finished. Severus paused for a few moments, holding the parchment still, so Harry could finish as well.
"Hmm." Harry pressed his mouth against Severus' shoulder. "Could have done without that," he muttered.
"Yes, I'd rather not have to deal with him myself."
"Not what I meant. God." Harry pulled off his glasses and rubbed his eyes. "Wonder if I can fake it long enough to make him give up?"
"Perhaps you won't need to," Severus murmured.
"Oh." Slumping against his maritus once more, Harry said, "Times like this I wish I could just go up in the air and stay there forever."
"You practically do anyway."
"Hush, y'git." Harry pulled himself up and clapped a hand on Severus' shoulder. "Come on. I'm taking you up."
"I think not. Can throw myself from the roof if I'm that desperate to break my neck."
"You're not going to break your neck."
Severus snorted. "No, I'll simply be crushed to a bloody pulp when I hit the ground. I've seen the way you fly, Mister Potter. Rather feed my tackle to a starved tiger than let you take my carcass a mile into the clouds."
"Well, too bad for the tiger." Harry wrapped both hands around Severus' upper arm and pulled until Severus fell onto the frozen ground.
"Will you stop that?" he roared.
"Nope. Haven't taken you up since you gave me my broom, and I'd sort of like to do it before a year hits."
"We'll be seen."
Harry fished out his wand and thumped Severus over the head. Chilly liquid seemed to pour over his head and neck and down his entire body, making him shiver within his cloak and Muggle coat.
"Stubborn bastard." Harry thumped himself over the head and, a moment later, had more or less vanished against the trees. Severus could still make out a thin outline, like spun glass, along the edges of his body and around his features. He shuddered as, for a moment, Harry didn't seem to have any face at all.
"You realise, of course, how disconcerting you look."
"Yep. Come on, up."
With a growl, Severus staggered to his feet. The frigid wind was little improvement over the frozen, snow-dusted ground. He huddled into himself, trying to make his icy bones regain some modicum of warmth.
"You've got your trousers on underneath, right?" Harry asked, eyeing Severus' legs.
"You saw me put them on, didn't you? Abominable things."
"Good. Don't fancy you getting frostbite up there. I don't even want to think about what Doc Westing would say if he saw me doing this."
"Perhaps that ought to be a clue."
Harry snorted. He grabbed Severus' hand. "Come on. You'll want to hold tight; we're going through the wards."
"Why in god's name are we doing that?"
"Because I can't stand just getting a nice bit of height and finding myself stuck in them. Now shut up, get on the broom, and hold on to me."
With a put-upon sigh, Severus hoisted himself onto the most expensive stick he'd ever bought in his life. Granted, the handle didn't cut into his backside like most brooms had. A thick, bouncy Cushioning Charm made it more like sitting on a pillow - a nice pillow at that. And, really, when Harry slid on in front of him the thing didn't bob like a bath toy, which was an improvement over most he'd experienced.
"Are you certain this contraption can hold two people?" he grumped.
"Yep. Held Sid, and he's got six stone on you. All muscle, too."
"And how would you know this?"
"Same way I know Ron's got a birthmark the shape of Cornwall on his bum." Harry slid back so he nestled against Severus' chest. Warmth spread through his robes and into Severus' body. Severus put his arms around him, partially for warmth, partially for the assurance of Harry's familiar form cradled against him and partially to ensure that there might be at least one small barrier between him and the inevitable ground.
"And how would this be?"
"By having to change with him every day for longer than I want to think about." Harry paused. "Sid's actually not bad. He's got a birthmark that looks like Devon."
"It's on his arm! Ask him sometime. He'll show it to you. Barely seen him in less than a towel. Think he's afraid he'll corrupt me. Ready?"
"What? No! What on Earth are you doing looking at him in any state of--?"
Severus' stomach dropped into his feet. He yelped and buried his face in Harry's neck. "Put me back down!"
"Sorry, Sev." Harry was all but laughing. "And you try wandering around the changing room without getting an eyeful. Would have to be blind not to."
"Then take your fucking glasses off!"
Harry sniggered and pivoted the broom around, still gaining altitude, so they faced the sea. Severus' stomach (still in his feet) turned over.
"You wouldn't dare."
"Why not? I do it all the time. S'nice, a flight up the coast. Nearly made it to Hunstanton once."
"There are Muggles there!"
"And none of them could see me! Honestly, Sev, I'm not that daft! Hold on, all right?" Harry leaned forward, taking Severus with him. Severus whimpered and squeezed tight just as the Firebolt shot through the air.
Air squealing in his ears left him deaf. Wind that must have come off a glacier ran up his robe, up the legs of his trousers, bit through his socks and the woolly hat Harry had insisted he wear. He squirmed, insinuating his naked fingers into Harry's cloak. A sudden wash of icy dread drove the breath from his lungs, but barely two seconds passed before they were through, free, the wards falling behind as Harry took them up, up, up, higher and higher until not even the merciless sea could find them.
With a gasp, Severus opened his eyes. He stared down at the crumbling thatch of the house's illusion, at the enormous old oak, at the wide semicircle of trees around the house and the tiny cemetery just inside them. Near the brambles he could barely make out the shadow of the excavation pit he and Gran had dug when he was eight - the one Eversor flooded - and the smaller one he'd started but never gotten to complete. Laying his cheek against Harry's shoulder, he gazed at the spot.
"Are you all right?" Harry asked.
"What is it?"
Severus sighed. "Do you see the pit near the brambles, behind the house?"
"When I was a boy, Gran helped me dig that. It was an archaeological pit. She even made me tag the layers of soil. About five feet down, we found a Viking garbage mound."
"No, nothing of the sort." Severus shook his head, closing his eyes. He took a deep breath of the warm air surrounding Harry's back; it had the same earthy, soft scent as his skin. A smile flickered on Severus' mouth.
"We found all sorts of things. There was a stone axe head that looked like it had gotten cracked, and animal bones, and smashed pots, and a few bits of rusty metal that she couldn't quite work out, so we sent them to a colleague of hers. They were wizard-made amulets. The magic had faded, but the iron couldn't be melted down anymore, so they threw them on the mound."
"Wow. Is any of it still there?"
"It should be. We never made it to the bottom because Gran got sick and Eversor flooded the pit." A small, sad smile tugged at Severus' face. "I hadn't thought about it in years."
"We could try to dig it out again, if you want. Y'know, when the weather warms up."
Severus started to shake his head. The pit's shadow sat there beneath its thin white blanket, waiting as it had for thirty years. "Yes, please," he whispered.
"All right. Soon as it's warm enough, I'll have Ron or someone bring us some trowels. Do we need anything else?"
"We can have a look in Gran's room and the attic. She had some very nice tools. I doubt Perditus ever got rid of them. He very seldom got rid of anything useful." Except me.
"Good. Saves me the trouble of figuring out what you want." Harry wriggled backwards so he fitted against Severus. "I'm finding you a hat. Don't want you getting sunburned."
"I can make sunblock."
"I'm still finding you a hat." Harry adjusted the broom a couple of degrees, away from the sea. "Do you want to go back down?"
Severus shook his head. His fingers clutched at the front of Harry's robes, drawing warmth and something he didn't have the courage to give a name.
"All right. Want to go up the coast?"
"Don't tell me you just want to hover."
Yes, yes, yes, a thousand times, yes, Severus' mind screamed. His heart fluttered - whether in panic or elation he couldn't decide. He hugged Harry tighter, wrapping one arm up around his maritus' shoulder and locking the other around his waist. "What do you want to do?"
Harry shifted. "I don't want to tell you. You'll be upset with me."
Severus arched an eyebrow. He lifted his head and whispered into Harry's ear, "What might this be, Mister Potter?"
"Um." Harry swallowed. "Free fall?"
"Oh, go up half a mile or so, face downwards, and just... sort of... fall?" Harry swallowed hard enough for Severus to hear it. "The idea is to pull out right before you hit the ground. Always done it so far."
"Mister Potter, you are a menace to those around you and to yourself."
"That mean you want to try it?" Harry glanced back, giving Severus what looked like a hopeful grin.
"No! I don't relish the thought of blacking out and finding myself splattered across half the coast!"
"Come on, I won't go up very high. Maybe a few hundred feet?"
"Just a little bit. You'll enjoy it, really. It's a brilliant rush!"
"Harry, I forbid you to--why are we going up?" Severus looked around at the ground, which was getting further and further away. "Oh, sweet Merlin, you're taking us out to sea!"
"I won't go high, I promise."
"Take me back down this instant!"
"It's fun, I promise! Look, this is as high as we're going. Maybe a couple of hundred feet."
"More like five."
"Nowhere near it! Anyway, my altimeter says we're at two hundred and forty-seven feet, three inches. Two inches. Nine inches. Well, we're over the sea, so it's going to change."
"I want to be on solid earth right now!"
"Sev, trust me, you'll love it. Nothing like it in the world."
"Harry James Potter, if you so much as dare face this broom down--stop that this ins--!"
His insides remained at two hundred and forty-seven feet. Severus screamed as the air was crushed from his lungs, his hands clawing at Harry's chest, the hungry sea hurtling up at them faster and faster with every passing moment. The hammering against his breastbone was either his heart or Harry's - at this point, Severus didn't care which, only that the damned thing was going just as fast as they were. White wave tips licked upwards, welcoming the oncoming feast with greedy, wet tongues. He thought he heard them laughing. Severus just managed to crush his face between Harry's shoulder blades before--
The broom zoomed into a ninety-degree turn. Severus gasped as the hungry waves licked at his toes and the hem of his cloak. A larger one reached out and lost itself around his ankles, frigid saltwater soaking up his trouser legs and into his robes. Harry whooped.
"Set me down this instant! I am never coming near you again, you mad, deceitful, delinquent wretch!"
Harry looked back. The broom bobbed a little, soaking Severus to the knee. There was a look of puzzlement crossing Harry's spun-glass face.
"Sev, how can you not enjoy that?"
"By the same merit I don't enjoy being strangled!"
"But it's amazing!"
"To you, maybe!" Between the water inching up his clothing, the nausea inching up his oesophagus, and the tremble turning his limbs into useless sticks, Severus wasn't sure when he'd felt worse in years. The moment they were over sand - wet sand, but sand - he rolled off the broom and landed with a thud.
"Don't speak to me!" Severus pushed himself to his feet and stormed up the sand towards the house. Harry looped around and came to a glide beside him.
Severus shouldered him hard in the side. He heard a thump, and an, "Ow!" but kept on walking. He bit his lip until the metallic taste of blood washed over his tongue.
He didn't stop until he was through the brambles, through the wards, in the house, and up the stairs with his cloak and coat strewn on the floor behind him. The Disillusionment melted away with a rap of his wand. He threw the stopper into the bath and wrenched both handles so the tub lurched as water began to roar into its porcelain depths. He slid to his knees, folding his arms against the lip of the bath and resting his forehead against them. The pounding in his chest expanded to shake every corner of his body.
Small hands came to rest on his back. "Are you all right?"
"No, I'm bloody well not all right! I told you, I didn't want to do that!"
"Sorry! I thought you'd enjoy it once you actually did it!"
"No." Harry pulled Severus' hat from his head. "I'm sorry. I thought you'd have fun. I really did."
"Mister Potter, perhaps someday you will learn that some of us exist outside that thick skull of yours! Did you ever stop to think what that might have done to my heart?"
"Oh, god." Harry pulled away. "Are you...?"
"At this moment, I believe you are in greater mortal danger than I."
"I'm sorry." Harry took a few shuffling steps backwards. "I really thought you'd... I'm sorry. I didn't mean to... Are you sure you're all right?"
"No, I'm bloody well not! I have just been taken to a lethal height, thrown to the whims of physics, and expected to be happy! The very fact that I told you repeatedly that I did not want to do that only leads me to believe that you do not, in fact, give a damn about anyone but yourself!"
Harry's lower lip fell. His hand flew to his mouth. "Oh, fucking Christ, Sev, I'm so sorry." He swallowed. A bit of the flush in his cheeks drained away with it. "I didn't even think about it that way. Only, you were enjoying yourself once we finally got in the air, so I thought..."
"You thought wrong."
"I'm sorry. It's something I love, and so I thought you might, too, and... Haven't you got something that just makes you feel alive?"
Severus pursed his mouth. He stared at Harry. A bitter taste welled in the back of his throat. "Have I, Mister Potter?"
Harry blinked. "Um, there's potions, I suppose, and drawing, and Ruby."
They stared at each other. Harry's brow furrowed. Severus glared over the bridge of his nose. His mouth twitched, and the vein in his temple began to flutter. Harry's eyes flew wide.
"But I can't..."
"As I said, 'have I, Mister Potter?' Especially after this?"
Harry closed his eyes. "What can I do to prove it to you?"
"For a start, promise you will never, ever put me in a position like that again."
"You promise what?"
"That I'll never make you free-fall again."
"Only, you did like it on the broom, right?"
"I got on, didn't I?"
"That doesn't mean you liked it!"
"I have flown a broom before, Mister Potter! I have even deigned to play that idiot game with you, as far below your standards as my skills might be! You know for a fact that I enjoy flying. That does not mean I am comfortable in my current state sharing a broom designed for one flyer. Similarly, I do not want to find myself hurtling towards the ground in said circumstances! You had no proof you could have pulled out of such a dive whilst carrying nearly double the usual weight."
"Does not weigh twenty stone."
"But I've done it with Ron a million times!"
"On your current broom?"
"Well... no." Harry bunched his face in a sour frown. "But this one's better and--"
"Thus, you do not know the handling capacity of this particular model in relation to excess weight. Additionally, when have you ever mentioned to me that you had done that with another person?"
"D'you really think I'd have tried it if I hadn't?"
"For fuck's sake, Sev! What d'you think I am, some sort of psychopath? That all I'm out to do is hurt you?"
"I've seen very little evidence to the contrary in recent months."
Harry's eyes narrowed. He crouched down, balancing on the balls of his feet. "What have I got to do to prove that I'm not?"
"I have already told you where you can begin. Beyond that, I shall leave the decision to you."
"Oh, thanks." Harry let his hand drop to the cool tile floor. "Big help you are. I'm trying to..." He trailed off. His brow furrowed.
Severus arched an eyebrow. "Planning my funeral?"
Harry shook his head. He got to his feet. A bare instant later, he swooped down upon Severus, planting a kiss atop his head, wrapping both arms around his neck and shoulders. "I'm sorry," he whispered.
A bit of the ice in Severus' belly melted. Before he could reach up to lay gentle fingertips on Harry's elbow, his maritus let go and slunk out of the bathroom without a glance back. Severus fell back on his behind and drew his knees to his chest. He hugged them, the crash of the water still filling the bath drowning out his low, murmured word: "Scio."
"What do you mean?" Severus bent low so his nose almost got tangled in the house-elf's. "The rest are in the wash?"
The elf - Minky? - gulped and stared up at Severus with enormous, terrified eyes. "We is sorry, sir! We is not knowing you is going to be getting sand on your other one! We is doing the washing so you is having your robes for Christmas!"
"Finish doing the washing then!"
"Sir!" Minky's strangled voice somehow rose another octave. "We is only starting before sir is coming back! It is taking time!"
"Then I suggest you hurry up!"
"Sir, please, sir, we is trying. They is almost finished in the wash, but they is taking time to dry. Please, sir! If we is using magic, it is making them fade!"
With a snarl, Severus swiped at the insipid little creature with the cinnabar red robe. The elf had already scurried, though, leaving the fabric to snap at the air. Shoving a cluster of damp hair from his face, Severus shouted down the corridor, "I'm speaking with Minerva about this!"
Cool air nipped at his bare chest. Muttering to himself, Severus pulled a thick black shirt over his head, tugging it down over his boxers as far as he could. "Useless beasts," he muttered, sneering at the robe. "Only thing Curtus did right, getting rid of them before they burned the sodding house down."
From somewhere below - it sounded like the front door - came a muffled knocking. Severus hid his face in his hands with a low groan. "Not the mutt," he muttered. "Not the fucking mutt."
Muffled voices came from downstairs. Severus closed his eyes, holding his breath to listen, but nothing was audible. Even the squeaks of the house-elves got lost in the soft creaks and groans of the stairs as quick footsteps pounded their way up.
Severus shoved the red robe under his dressing gown seconds before Harry pushed the cracked door the rest of the way open. "Sev?"
"Um, Zabini's here. Said he wanted to see you." Harry frowned. "Going to put some clothes on?"
"If I find any," Severus replied in his silkiest voice.
"Need me to see if I can dig up something for you?"
"No. Thank you."
"All right." Harry leaned his head against the doorjamb. His eyes drifted over Severus' chest, down his body, settling to flit over his naked, pallid legs scattered with curling black hairs.
"Hoping for a show, Potter?"
"What?" Harry jumped, knocking his glasses askew on the edge of the door. "No, no. I'm tired, that's all." He readjusted his glasses, his eyes darting once more over Severus' legs. "Just tired."
"Then be tired in someone else's presence. Go and entertain Blaise, at least. He's come all this way. Just like you to leave him hovering in the hall."
"Um, for how long?"
"Until I come downstairs. Shouldn't be long."
"All right." Still, Harry shifted from foot to foot. His hand squeezed over his pocket; a faint crumpling sound came from within. "Anything you need?"
"A bit of privacy?"
"Okay. Um, I'll see you again in a minute, then. Don't forget your shoes."
Severus snorted and rolled his eyes. "If I wanted a mother, Potter, I'd hire Molly Weasley to do the job. Get out of here, and let me get dressed."
Harry opened his mouth as though to say something. He paused, though, and a moment later the door latched shut behind him. "Hmph," Severus muttered. "Shoes, indeed."
Swallowing at the acid trying to crawl up his throat, he fished out the cinnabar robe and shook it. Most of the wrinkles fell away. He grunted in incomplete satisfaction. Squeezing his eyes shut, he started to drag the spiteful thing over his head.
Perhaps five minutes later, he gave the robe a last tug and frowned at his reflection. Granted, he looked a touch less sallow than usual, but on the whole his stomach still kept trying to crawl out through his mouth. "Fucking warning light," he growled. "Six and a half feet of fucking warning light. I'll have your hide, Potter."
He glowered at his reflection once more, and turned on his heel, his slippers shuffling across the wood floor. At the end of the hall, something shiny caught the corner of his eye. He glanced up, and started when he saw garlands of tinsel scalloping through several of the portraits.
Grandfather Eversor was poking bits of holly into place where the tinsel was attached within his frame. (Grandmother Chlamydia glared at each piece as though it were poison - which, technically speaking, was not an inaccurate assessment.) Grandfather Obscurus and Grandmother Zenith were tugging at the other end of the piece and waving their fists at Magnus, who'd barged into the frame next to theirs and stood there with his arms crossed. In the middle of the mess sat Viatrix and Dominus' frame; a large group of people were huddled around something Severus couldn't see. Gran, dwarfed by people more than a foot taller than her, glanced back over her shoulder; she arched an eyebrow, then gave him a knowing smirk.
"What's going on in there?" he demanded. "You haven't got a tree, have you?"
Gran tossed her head back, teeth white and brilliant in the middle of her laugh. She motioned to the others with her finger. Arian peeked through the pack, her eyes sparkling. Viatrix giggled into her hand. Gran clapped her hands and the cramped circle of grandmothers, grandfathers, aunts, and uncles (some of whom he couldn't have named without help) shuffled around to make a gap. Severus' jaw fell.
He dripped with tinsel - his thirteen-year-old self did, anyway. His arms stuck out at odd angles, draped with shining gold and silver, satin-strung baubles hooked to his robe. Clumps of holly were stuck in his hair so they poked out in every direction. A fat necklace of strung popcorn and berries was looped and braided around his neck at least half a dozen times. What looked like a partridge had roosted amidst the holly branches. Yet despite the pose, despite the tinsel and the branches and the lunatic bird, despite the utter idiocy of the situation, he was beaming. His younger self said something to Gran, who murmured back, her lips barely moving. Young Severus blinked a couple of times; his grin returned wider than before, and he waved.
Severus found himself waving back. He staggered onto the first step. "What on Earth...?"
A couple of his grandmothers and someone who might have been an uncle cocked their heads at him. Somebody else hung a cracker on his younger self's arm, turning him a few degrees at a time to reach the few remaining patches of black visible beneath the chaos. Gran beckoned Severus closer with a crooked finger.
"What's going on?" he asked, stumbling down the steps. He caught himself on the wall next to the frame. He swallowed hard, still staring. Warmth diffused through his body, warring with an odd, stony sensation that only made itself clear as, Why not me? Why only now?
"Nepos," Gran's lips formed.
With a sad smile, she pointed down the stairs. He could hear her words in his head, despite the eternal silence of the portraits. "Tibi expectans est."
Severus took a step back. "At... Avia..."
"Nepos, hic veni." She beckoned with her finger once more. Severus' feet felt heavy as he shuffled closer. Gran pressed her hand flat against the canvas. Severus spread his over it; he thought he could feel the smooth surface bowing out against his palm.
Gran glanced back at the Severus-tree behind her, who had twisted his arms into an Egyptian pose much to Viatrix's amusement. One of the crackers fell off; Arian scooped it up and fitted it under his chin so he couldn't move his head. Severus bit his lip.
"Me quid ni?"
Gran's eyes darted towards the frame she had inhabited with Curtus. She said nothing for a moment, her upper lip caught between her teeth. "Paenitet sum, Nepos. Temptbam."
"Tua culpa non erat."
"Etiam, erat. Et Curti, et Perditi, et Eversorum."
"Et Lucii," Severus added in a voice he could barely hear himself.
Gran gave him a pained, strained smile. Her fingertips traced where his still rested against the canvas. "Te amo, semper."
"Te redamo, Avia."
Gran's mouth moved for a moment, hesitating before a word could form fully on her lips. She broke off with a sad smile. "Abi."
"Non egeo deserere te."
With a little start, Severus turned to find Harry looking up at him from the bottom of the stairs.
"Do you need something, Mister Potter?"
"Heard you talking, wanted to make sure you were all right." Harry shrugged. As he turned, he mumbled, "I'll tell Zabini you'll be a few more minutes."
"Harry--Potter." Severus' slippers made a shuffling noise as he hurried down the steps. Harry glanced back.
"Sorry, thought you were talking with Philia."
"I am." The air beneath Severus' hand was cold; he balled his fingers into a fist as he looked back.
Gran arched an eyebrow at him again, and once again mouthed, "Abi, Nepos." She smiled a pained smile, and turned back to the Severus-tree, who was laughing as Arian tried to affix a cracker hat to the partridge's head.
Severus' hands fell limp. "Gran?"
She didn't respond.
The air was suddenly too thick to breathe. He took a step towards the portrait. A warm hand on his elbow held him back.
"She's only a painting, Sev."
"No, she's not." Something hot and liquid tried to well behind his nose, flooding up into the corners of his eyes. "Gran--"
"Sev, stop it." Harry scurried to the step above him. "You told me yourself that portraits aren't the same as real people."
"But it's Gran. She--"
Harry's hands closed over his cheeks. He fell silent to a soft kiss, a thin, salty trickle spilling down his face and getting lost between their lips. Severus closed his eyes as he wrapped his arms around his maritus, his very real, solid, and living maritus, burying his face in warm skin that smelled of clean air from a quarter mile above the Earth. Harry's fingers laced through his hair, and Harry shifted his chin so Severus was tucked like a child beneath his cheek.
"Come on," Harry whispered. "Downstairs."
"Don't leave me."
Severus clung to Harry a moment longer before pulling back and snorting into his sleeve. He pursed his mouth. "Look like a fucking warning light, I do."
"I still like it."
"Hmph." Severus reached for the hand dangling at Harry's side and wrapped his fingers around it. The skin was warm, with a faint pulse beating at the base of Harry's thumb. "You understand you've got all the good taste of a flobberworm."
"Yep." Harry leaned up to kiss him on the cheek. They took the rest of the stairs in silence, hands clutching until the skin cleaved together and even the blood in their veins seemed to flow between them.
Blaise jumped to his feet as soon as they set foot in the dining room. He smiled, a wide, soft smile. "Hello, Professor."
Severus arched an eyebrow at him, then at Harry. "Why did you not show him to the sitting room?"
Harry shrugged. "It's creepy in there."
"Hmm." No need to agree to Harry's face - as far as Severus was aware, nobody but the house-elves had set foot in the dark-walled, cramped sitting room for more than a moment in decades. He turned back to Blaise with a nod. "Good afternoon, Blaise. What brings you here?"
"Oh, um, I just wanted to see you. Since you're not allowed to go anywhere. I mean, it's Christmas. I, uh." He fished in his cloak, only to draw out a slim, wide package wrapped in shiny green foil. "I brought you something."
A small smile flickered on Severus' mouth. "Wholly unnecessary, I assure you."
Blaise shrugged and held it out. "I can't stay much longer. I'm supposed to be on call in Hunstanton."
"Hunstanton?" Harry asked. "What're you doing there? I thought you weren't allowed out of the Ministry."
A small, wry smile curled the corners of Blaise's mouth. "They lost their Arithmancer. Somebody pulled some strings and got me field certificated." The smile faded a little. "Until this mess is sorted anyway. It's not permanent."
"Hmm." Severus swept into a chair, Harry close behind him. "Would you like me to have a talk with Arthur? Perhaps some of his contacts might be able to do something about it."
Blaise shook his head. "No, but thank you. I've already thought of that. I really don't think it would help any." He held out the package. "Go on. Please? I need to get back to Hunstanton before they miss me."
"Please?" Blaise's mouth twitched. He pressed the gift into Severus' hands. "Let me give you something for all you've done."
"Please, sir!" A short, desperate spark leapt in Blaise's eyes. "Just take it."
"Settle down, Zabini!" Harry put a hand on Severus' shoulder. "What's wrong with you?"
Blaise sagged in his chair. "Sorry," he whispered. "Just haven't got a lot of time."
"Don't have a stroke about it."
Blaise shrugged. He gave Severus an apologetic look. "Go on?" he asked in a low, calm voice.
"All right. Thank you." Laying the package in his lap and, Severus thrust his index finger between two pieces of Spellotape along the seam. Harry leaned forward against his shoulder. Severus turned his head to frown at the brat. "Yes?"
"I only want to see."
"You can see in a moment." The tape ripped under Severus' finger even as he glowered back at Harry. He bent his knuckle to lift a bit of the paper. Blaise started to say something--
The bones shattered. Severus went stiff as the prickle of fragmentation took two of his fingers, then blind as his nerves screamed with the impact of a thousand shards like glass lacing his flesh. His yelp was lost in the thunder of pieces of ceiling and upstairs hallway crashing down in front of him. Harry yelled. Severus only caught a flash of red light from Harry's wand as Blaise shouted something and collapsed in the pile of plaster.
"JESUS CHRIST!" Harry roared. His hand fell on Severus' shoulder, then his wrist. "Oh, my god."
"Hmm?" Severus' head tipped downward by degrees. He had the vague impression of his robe darkening to the colour of blood, and the last two segments of his index finger hanging in ribbons. There was a soft squeak from the kitchen door, followed by two louder ones.
"Get out of here!" Harry shouted. "Go back to Hogwarts, tell McGonagall that we've been attacked!"
"We is going, Mister Harry Potter, sir!"
Severus gripped the middle of his hand, which was already banded with more shades of black than he could name. The bones shifted against each other. The world went even waterier as the pain shot up his arm.
"Mister Harry Potter, we is not able to be going anywhere!"
"Then run!" Harry kicked Blaise over and knelt to fiddle with the heavy uniform belt. When he stood a few seconds later, he wrapped the leather strap around Severus' forearm and jerked it tight. "Fawkes!"
There was a faint scuffling sound coming from the entryway, and another from the kitchen. One of the elves shrieked. The doors burst open just as a mass of scarlet feathers dropped through the hole in the ceiling.
Severus had a vague impression of black and white, of people swarming into the room. He let his heavy head drop back so he could stare from between his lashes. Harry grabbed him by the wrist.
"Hold on, Sev," Harry whispered. "I saw Albus do this once. Um."
Severus felt long feathers slip into his hand. He frowned. Shaking his head once, he managed to recognise the uniforms around him, the lifting wands, Montague's twisted face staring from the back; he saw his and Harry's hands around Fawkes' tail. A vague memory of Albus being there one moment but not the next flickered through his head.
His stomach seemed to have jumped up and wrapped around his head. He had the vague impression of a flash of light, and a deafening bang, and then he'd simply been turned inside out from the atoms up. He collapsed onto a mound of dry, brown grass, where he let his stomach empty itself of what little he'd had to eat that day. Harry, sprawled out next to him with Fawkes moulting on his chest, groaned.
"Oh, god, now I know why he only ever did it the once."
Severus said nothing, only retched again. A cold wind cut through his robe, pasting the wet fabric to his skin until it peeled away, a few square inches at a time. The frayed tip of his finger dangled from his hand.
Harry's warm fingers slipped around his wrist. Harry nudged Severus over onto his back, pulling the damaged hand close to his owlish glasses to peer at it. "I'm going to kill Zabini," Harry muttered, a line forming between his drawn brows.
A shudder went through Severus' body. He let himself go limp, staring up at the bright grey sky that sent needle stabs of pain into the backs of his eyes. Harry murmured something he couldn't understand, and Fawkes hopped over to perch on Severus' chest.
The phoenix sang a single high-pitched note. Some of the chill clinging to Severus' flesh evaporated, as did most of the heavy weight sinking into his breastbone. Something dripped onto the ragged flesh of his right index finger. He glanced over, and a weary smile crossed his mouth when he saw Harry directing Fawkes, and smearing stray tears with gentle fingers. Even as he watched, the skin and connective tissues closed around their boneless hollow.
"You'll still need to patch the bones." Harry rubbed his nose on his sleeve. "Feel up to helping me with that?"
"Might there be someplace warmer to do it?"
"Um." Harry looked around. "Could always go to Hogwarts, I suppose, although they might--the Burrow. Mister and Mrs. Weasley will get everything sorted."
"Very well." With a groan, Severus pushed himself to a sitting position. Harry took his left hand and manoeuvred him to his feet. Fawkes lighted on Severus' shoulder. He picked at his hair. Severus rubbed his cheek against the warm crimson feathers.
"Will you be all right if I send you to Minerva for now?" he murmured.
Fawkes blinked at him and sang another soft note that filled Severus' belly like a swallow of hot cocoa. A few more feathers drifted down from Fawkes' wings.
"Nearly ready to burn again, are you?"
Fawkes cocked his head.
"Let me know when you do. I'd like to keep the excess ashes on hand. Ingredients, you know."
Fawkes warbled and flapped his wings. He lifted off with a heavy clench of talons on Severus' thin shoulder. A few feet into the air, he vanished with a burst of light and a pop.
"Might we go now?" Severus asked Harry.
"Just a second." Harry fished his wand from his pocket and waved it at Severus, muttering. The blood pasting his robe to his body vanished, as did the traces of soil and sick. He took Severus' left hand. "Need me to steer?"
"If you wouldn't mind."
The last thoughts to run through his mind before they Disapparated were how very close to him Harry was standing, and how welcome the warmth was, rising from his skin.
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