Harry gazed up at iron-wrought gate which bore the large initials SM. Through the ironwork, he could see the drive winding up to Snapdragon Manor.
The last time he had been here, it was January and the frigid air felt crisp in the gray gloom. Now, the warmth of August and the moisture of the foliage made his glasses fog slightly.
The gates swung open, and Gringwad grabbed Harry's arm and began striding up the drive.
In the months on the beach, Harry had spent many evenings planned his return to the manor. Sometimes he pictured himself marching up the front steps and blowing up the door. He might shout at Snape, threaten him, challenge him to a duel. (Not sure what they would duel about, but that was a trifle to sort out later.) Sometimes he imagined himself sneaking in and living at the manor, hidden and unknown. He might spring out at any time and mock Snape for his inattention at having someone hide in his house for so long. He had practiced speeches, had imaginary fights in his head, even acted out the stance that annoyed Snape the most – shoulders slumped and body jutted to one side in lazy disregard.
Not once had he imagined that Gringwad would drag him back like a bounty prize.
He didn't even fight the man, just let himself be pulled over the stones of the drive and up to the closed front door.
Gringwad reached for the knocker, but the door swung open before he could touch it. Gringwad strode in, pulling Harry behind him, and the door swung shut with an ominous thud.
Outside, the bright light and the fog of his glasses had made him squint, but inside he blinked rapidly to adjust to the change. The marble felt cool to his bare feet, and he glanced around the room, noticing things he had forgotten: the curved top of the windows, the pictures on the wall, the paint behind the stairs and the balcony which was slightly different from the other paint where he and Draco had played their trick last summer.
"No one here," Gringwad scoffed. "Wants to make an entrance I suppose. Ah, here it is."
At the top of stairs, Snape stepped out. Narcissa came beside him and draped her hand around Snape's crooked elbow.
An entrance was the correct term as Harry felt slightly awed at how polished and grand they looked. Snape wore a dark suit with a white collar and sleeves peeping out, his hair pulled back into a short tail. He looked healthier than Harry had ever seen him: less sallow, cheeks fuller and full of color, eyes keen and vibrant.
As for Narcissa – well, Lady of the Manor sprung to mind. A mix of old-world beauty with new-world money, in a dark blue dress that drew out the curve and strength of her form, radiating confidence and power.
Another motion at the top – Draco was there, less formally dressed, but with the same ease and steadfastness as he followed Snape and his mother.
And then there was Miriam behind Draco.
Was he about to be taken back to St. Mango's? She was here wearing her nurse uniform and that meant Snape was in league with St. Mungo's.
A split second later, he realized she wasn't wearing a nurse's uniform, not exactly. She had a light blue dress on with a white apron over it, but she was different, missing the head cap.
He noticed this in mere seconds, and then Snape and Narcissa were mere feet away. Everyone had a blank face, and Snape simply lifted his eyebrows.
"How may I help you?" the question directed to Gringwad.
"I'm here to collect the reward," Gringwad's voice has a smirk though Harry didn't dare look at him. In fact, Harry couldn't really look at anyone. He dropped his gaze to the floor and wished for the hundredth time that he would just wake up from this nightmare.
"I see you found him," Snape's voice was cold and removed. "May I ask where?"
"He was in a fishing village in Ghana. I've had a tracker on him since Azkaban."
"You visited him there," Snape said, more of a statement than a question. "You were in disguise?"
"No, I find I get more truth from people when I show up as myself."
"You want the money for him? I can have the gold transferred from Gringotts as soon as I test that he's really him and not under Polyjuice or an enchantment spell."
"Perfectly fair. But I'm leaving with him as well. He signed the contract."
"No," Harry's head shot up, "I didn't! He found the one from January. And he used these," Harry lifted his arms to show the manacles, "to capture me. I did not sign anything."
"I have the contract," Gringwad pulled out the parchment. "We can spend a year arguing over the legality of it at Ministry, but then everyone will know that Harry Potter is back and that will be . . . awkward. I'm guessing Azkaban won't have him back, so he'll have to be put to sleep until we can decide who has rightful ownership of him."
Harry glanced at Snape, but the man wasn't showing anything. Draco and Miriam wore blank expressions as well.
"These conversations are always so uncomfortable," Narcissa spoke for the first time. "But I insist we all remain civil. Nanny," this over her shoulder to Miriam, "will you arrange for tea in the drawing room?"
Miriam stepped away, but Narcissa smiled calmly.
"Obviously, Severus will need to test the boy alone. We will give them some privacy. Surely you will escort me to have tea, Mr. -?"
"Pardon my flighty memory. We will have tea, and Draco and Nanny can join us as chaperons. I'm no longer married, you see."
"Impossible," Gringwad smiled just cunningly. "A woman such as yourself is never unattached."
Narcissa laughed. "I never said I was unattached. Shall we?"
To Harry's surprise, Gringwad offered his arm and she went off with him, Draco following them.
Snape moved in the other direction, and Harry instinctively followed. They went into the dining room, and Snape shut the door behind them.
"I can explain," Harry rushed out.
"I don't want to hear your explanation," Snape walked towards the table. "These are all your problems now. He'll get his money, and you can be his apprentice."
"I don't want to be his apprentice. I don't want any of this. I was just sitting there in my hut and he burst in on birthday and he paralyzed me and he put me in these chain things and if I don't listen to him or if I use magic at all, they're going to cut my hands off."
Snape had stopped, but he turned back, arms crossed. "I don't see how any of this is my problem. The money is regretful, but I've petitioned Gringotts for control of your parents' account as you've been listed as a criminal, a fugitive, and a lunatic. I consider 50,000 galleons as a reasonable payment to be done with this headache."
That hurt, but Harry swallowed and didn't say anything.
"You have a few belongings here that you're welcomed to, and as soon as you leave, I have every obligation to contact the Ministry as to your whereabouts. After that, I will consider the last fourteen months as a necessary trial to get rid of Voldemort and start a new chapter of my life. If you like, we can shake on it so you'll be free to start your apprenticeship. He's already done an exemplary job taking care of you."
Snape waved a dismissive hand at him, and Harry almost stopped breathing.
He was standing there, barefoot and in tatters, smelling so bad he almost gagged, hungry, thirsty, and with the beginnings of a horrible headache.
"It's – it's not fair," the words hurt to say.
"Adulthood is not fair."
"You – you won't even let me explain."
"Why do I want an explanation from you? This is over, and I can rip up the adoption papers, too. I don't consider you to be my -"
"No! Don't say it. I'm not listening to you say it. You say it, and I'll – I'll tear this room apart like I did in January. I would have escaped from Gringwad days ago, but he trapped me. And he only trapped me because you left me."
Snape pressed his lips together as if to stop himself from speaking before Harry was finished.
"You left me in Azkaban. And before that, you died and left me alone. You did all that, and now you're mad because Gringwad found me and trapped me, something you could never do. He's trapped my magic, and – and now I have to do whatever he wants, which means he wins. He wins, and you can't bear that!"
Snape didn't move. And then, he lunged at the table, grabbed a knife, and flung it at Harry.
Harry didn't even realize he moved. He flung his hands up to protect his face.
The magic that ripped through the room was so powerful it cracked two windows, shook the pictures on the wall, and knocked over four chairs. Snape was thrown against a wall. The metal manacles crumbled from Harry's wrists, twisting into pieces of small metal and raining down on the wooden floor.
Harry brought his arms down, staring at his free wrists.
"What? What . . . happened? I can use magic? These things . . . they didn't work?"
Snape stood up. "You stupid boy. You stupid, gullible, believe-anything-you're-told boy!"
Harry dashed around the fallen chairs, placing himself on the opposite side of the table. Snape stalked towards him, but Harry countered the movement so that he still had the table between him and Snape.
"I am going to flay you alive," Snape said.
So many feelings hit Harry at that moment. Relief – he wasn't under Gringwad's control anymore. Comfort – Snape was talking to him. Fear – Snape had that look and tone that meant he was about to deliver something awful. Confusion – how had he gotten here in trouble yet again?
"All right, all right, wait! I don't understand. The manacles hurt when I tried to use magic."
"Were you near him when you tried? He probably charmed them to give off sparks when he controlled them. Did you ever use magic when he wasn't there?"
"No, I was too scared. But – but," he hurried to get the words out before Snape could react, "I didn't want my hands cut off. Without hands, I'm useless."
"You have Voldemort's power, and you think some dinky bracelets are going to stop you?"
"My magic didn't react to protect me like it just did now!"
"Were you actually in danger?"
"Yes," Harry edged to the right side of the table when it looked like Snape might make a break to rush around it. "I had to scrub his ship, and he barely let me have any food or sleep and he wouldn't me wash up and -"
"I didn't ask if you were uncomfortable," Snape was scathing. "He knew to keep you from real injury because your magic isn't going to let you get seriously hurt."
"He paralyzed me with a dart the night of my birthday. He hit me with his cane, and then kidnapped me, and then made me work for hours. It was terrible."
"Was it? Or was it the kind of dramatic suffering you always seek out?"
"I do not seek out dramatic suffering."
"You and your magic love this sort of thing," Snape was relentless. "A demented man from your past shows up to take you prisoner and enslave you and spent – what? Three days on a boat working?"
"It was four!"
"You don't look sunburnt or starving so I'm guessing he amused himself by seeing how long he could humiliate and discomfort you in little ways before you broke free. I know exactly how you looked then – the poor Harry Potter whom everyone mistreats and orders about, so he shuffles off to pity himself, all crouching and head-hung."
"I don't do that!"
"You're doing it now. You're almost as tall as I am, you have more physical strength than anyone in this house, not to mention magic, and you try to make yourself small and inconspicuous like you're that skinny eleven-year-old again."
It was so terrible to spoke to that way, mocked and ridiculed. Insufferable and it made absolutely no sense that Harry wanted to smile and bask in the warmth that filled his entire self. It was a sense of relief he hadn't felt in months.
"I don't crouch. This is how I stand," Harry tried to remain combative.
"You need a small amount of misery to keep you focused. When life is too ordinary or easy, you chase after a new challenge that is sure to make all of us miserable with you. There is no waiting or patience from your part. You weren't even in Azkaban a week before you destroyed half of it."
"I – I – no, it had to be more than a week. And you left me there to rot."
"That's not what my message said."
Harry paused. This was new information and he must proceed slowly. "Yes, your message. Your message said you were leaving me."
"No, my note in the box with the pocketwatch. My note said something along the lines that I was sorry I couldn't keep you out of Azkaban -"
"And you were sending someone to watch over me who was Ginny."
"Yes, but the important part was Just take every day one at a time."
Harry said nothing.
"It was so obvious that I was sure someone would catch you and then realize what I meant."
Harry scrambled to think, but he tried to keep his face neutral.
"One at a time?" Snape lifted an eyebrow. "I send it with the pocketwatch? The message was in the pocketwatch?"
"Oh, the pocketwatch," Harry nodded. "Of course, I saw the message in the pocketwatch. That's so obvious – I mean, I expected more from a spy, but . . . you were pressured and time constraints and other stuff."
Snape looked squarely at him. "What did the message in the pocketwatch say?"
"It said," Harry winced at how loud and deliberate his own voice sounded, "that I should trust you. And I did. And that's why I'm here. To forgive and forget."
"What was the message?" icy and low.
"Uh, so I didn't actually see a message. The pocketwatch got dropped and crushed by, uh, things."
"You smashed the pocketwatch that I gave you for your birthday and that I send to you with an encrypted note and a message inside?"
"See," Harry leaned forward, "I've never been very good with hidden meanings and all that. Next time, hand me the box and say, 'There's a message in the pocketwatch.' I'll probably get it then."
Snape withdrew his wand and made a downward motion with his hands. The table broke in half. Snape moved his hands to his side and the table parts toppled to opposite sides of the room. He stepped towards Harry.
"No, wait a minute," Harry backed up slowly. "Let's just react calmly here. If I think I'm in danger, I'm going to use my magic against you."
"If I so much as feel the air moving around you, I'm kicking you and that blackguard out so fast you'll think I Apparated you away," Snape kept coming for him.
"Fair, fair," Harry stepped back as the distance between them closed. "I misjudged things. I didn't think, and I should have trusted you, but you should have let me know more things. If you had laid out a plan and gotten it to me -"
"As a hidden message?" Snape's eyes gleamed with fury.
Harry's back hit the wall. "I – I smell awful and I'm so dirty and filthy. You don't want to mess up your hands. Everything looks so nice here and I'm probably getting mud all over this wall."
"I'll have it cleaned." Snape unbuttoned his coat and took it off. His white shirt had a small cravat around the throat, and a red ruby with the letters SM in gold pinned it in the center. He unbuttoned one sleeve and then the other, rolling up his cuffs to his elbows.
"Roughing me up won't help," Harry tried one last plea. "We still have to deal with Gringwad and the apprenticeship thing. I can use magic, but the contract and he said . . ."
"Gringwad is here because you brought him here. The only reason he is in our lives is because you found him and involved him. I could have gone the rest of my life without knowing such a despicable creature."
"You were scattered?" Harry eyed the distance to the door.
"Move an inch and you will be very, very sorry."
Harry took a deep breath and lowered his head.
Snape grabbed him by the collar and smacked him on the head with his wand. Harry flinched away reflectively, trying to protect his head, but Snape smacked him on the arm, the shoulder, the hip, before landing heavier whacks on his rear.
"You are unbelievably stupid. Stupid, thoughtless, careless, inept. I consider the universe beastly unfair for letting you get away with the nonsense you pull unscathed. And since the universe and the higher powers and any other magic floating about see fit to let you survive and think you've outwitted the fates, I will be the one to correct that illusion. I will be the one standing here to set your back on the straight and narrow course. You hid from me for seven months? You are getting punished for every month you were gone, added to the punishments you've already tallied up. That's right – the desk is still in the center of the family room."
Snape's wand was thwacking him solidly, and Harry tried to keep still.
"It isn't fair," he finally wailed. "I'm always working from - from limited information."
"That's right," Snape had a hand on his shoulder and pressed down. Harry bend to accommodate, knowing that only made his rear a more-accessible target. "You only get limited information"-WHACK, WHACK, WHACK -"when you leave for seven months."
"But," Harry breathed out a long breath as the sting mounted, "I had limited information before that."
"That's what happens when you're sixteen and still learning!"
Snape's wand had a bite to it, and Harry wished it might snap in two, just so Snape could see how harsh he was being.
"I can feel your magic," Snape's voice warned above him.
Harry grabbed the top of his knees for support as he retorted, "I'm trying to stay still. It isn't easy to do this when I just got back, I'm so confused over everything, new people are here, and I don't know what's happened in the Wizarding World since I left -"
"This is why you don't leave," Snape undercut each word with a smack.
"Agh!" Harry leaned his weight from one foot to another. "You could at least put the table back together and let me lean over it."
"I'm not giving you an inch," this statement only had one whack at the end, but Harry hardly felt grateful.
"This better count as one of the months," he muttered.
Snape pulled him up to stand straight.
Snape had been right: they were about the same height. And he probably was stronger than Snape, maybe faster, too.
Those thoughts just made him pout and reach back to rub the smart out. Somehow, it was better when he thought Snape could overpower him at any time and that he had to accept to accept punishment because the man could outfight him. Now, it meant he went along with punishment because – well, just because! There was not the smallest chance in the world that he needed punishment, or appreciated it, or recognized how it helped him.
"I'm still angry at you," Snape pointed a finger at him. "I'm furious with the decisions you've made. Absolutely furious."
Harry just nodded, trying his best not to crouch or hang his head.
"Now, the next step."
Snape made for the door, and Harry followed.
They went into the drawing room where Narcissa and Draco were on the sofa while Miriam and Gringwad had their own chairs. Everyone held a teacup and saucer; on the table were trays and tiers of petite fours, triangle sandwiches, and other nibbles.
Harry held up his bare wrists defiantly. "So those were a prank?"
Gringwad let out a burst of laughter. "Oh, you figure them out? You should have seen him," this to Narcissa and Draco. "He thought I controlled his magic. He was all scared and nervous because he thought they – oh, this is marvelous – he thought they would cut off his hands."
"There have been other cursed pieces of jewelry," Harry said to the room at large. "How was I supposed to know those things weren't real?"
"The best part," Gringwad went on, "was when he ate out of a bucket on the floor. It was like something out of Oliver Twist. Look at him. He's as strong as an ox, the most powerful wizard ever lived, and he was all, "Please, sir, may I have some food?"
"If anyone laughs, I'm going to blow up this room," Harry threatened.
"All right, I had my joke," Gringwad set his cup aside. "He didn't grow up with magic and apparently he can't be bothered to learn like that one over did."
Gringwad motioned to the corner. Harry realized with a start that Hermione was sitting in a seat with a cup and saucer balanced on a book. She gave him a small smile.
"Hi, Harry. Welcome home."
He hadn't seen Hermione since the trial, and he stammered,
"But – but I thought you were – I mean . . ."
"It's really too embarrassing to watch," Gringwad said. "Nanny, if you would be so good to take him upstairs and scrub him while we have a talk here. The sight and smell are really intolerable."
Snape nodded, and Miriam stood up.
"A haircut, too," Narcissa suggested. She raised her teacup with her left hand, and then Harry saw it.
A ring. With a bright red ruby. The letters SM. On the ring finger of her left hand.