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Chapter Forty-Eight—In the Forest
Daphne copies the letters carefully, glancing at the parchment each time she casts the spell to make sure that every flourish and curlicue of the words transfers. Then she leans back against the library shelf and breathes.
No one around her is paying attention. Probably they think that she's copying notes for one of her classes.
Daphne gathers up the letters and walks calmly out of the library, aiming for the dungeons at first before turning towards the Owlery. No one seems interested in watching her here, either, but her parents have taught her caution. They have enemies in the Ministry, ones who would have loved to find, or fake evidence of, a Dark Mark on her mother's arm. Some of those enemies might try to do her and Astoria harm at Hogwarts.
But she reaches the Owlery without incident, and calls the proper number of school owls over softly. They all settle on perches in front of her and stare at her expectantly.
"Take this to Augusta Longbottom," she tells the first one, and watches the bird soar out the window before she begins to distribute the others.
In the end, all six are gone, to the Longbottom, Abbott, Macmillan, Fawley, Shacklebolt, and Slughorn families. Out of the pure-blood families Daphne knows, they are the ones most strongly allied both to the Light and to power. Slughorn might be a bit doubtful, but even though he was in Slytherin, he never fought for the Dark in the last war, and Mother says that he was always too cautious to practice the Dark Arts.
Daphne marches away from the Owlery, and heads back down to the common room. She has an essay for Charms to write.
And other plans to set in motion.
Severus watches Harry the next few days in class. Harry avoids his eyes and produces substandard potions. Severus doesn't assign detentions even though he nearly chokes with frustration. They would do no good.
Harry has taken to either staying silent around him or only uttering "Yes, sir," and "No, sir," as appropriate. When he does meet Severus's eyes from time to time, his own flare with hostility. He won't let Severus do as he thinks best, won't move an inch from his own appointed position as the godson of Sirius Black.
And Severus needs his cooperation. If he does not have it, the boy will simply run away from any guardian he is placed with. Severus understands his stubbornness that well. But nothing he can think of will win Harry's consent.
He sits in his office supervising detentions at night, marking essays and feeling as though he could revolve plans in his head until Muggle doomsday and nothing would change. He could apologize to Black, but Black is likely only to jeer at him. And it would make Harry believe that he thinks well of Black, which is counter to his purpose.
The stalemate continues until one night in March.
"I have something new for us to try tonight."
Harry can't help the way his eyes widen or his heartbeat picks up. The times when Sirius says that are always the most interesting ones. And there's a twitch in the back of his mind where he remembers that he's out in the Forbidden Forest after curfew, but so what? It's not like that's anything new.
Sirius leads him deep into the Forest, sometimes as a dog, sometimes as a man, dodging the centaurs when they appear. Harry swallows deep lungfuls of air and tilts his head back to look up at the moon. Not full yet. Sirius will need to be with Remus tomorrow, though.
Harry lowers his gaze from the moon. They're on the edge of a large clearing that looks as if someone made it, maybe the centaurs. There's a pole in the middle of it. Harry stares at it. For whatever reason, he can feel magic radiating from that pole. It appears to be made of iron, but he doesn't think it is.
"What does that thing do?"
"Watch!" Sirius is grinning. He jumps into the clearing and taps the pole with his wand. In a second, it starts vibrating. And then a huge clump of air turns red and whirling and edged with blades, and the whole thing attacks Sirius.
Harry shouts in panic, but Sirius is already dancing around it, and spells that Harry has never seen before are dancing with him. They're shields, Harry realizes after a second, and he stops shouting. He watches in wonder as Sirius conjures them and then dismisses them. Every time the red cloud tries to stab him with something, he's right there, holding them away.
The cloud fades out. Sirius turns around and bows. Harry begins to applaud frantically, grinning at Sirius. Sirius nods back, his face bright and shining.
"Now you try it, pup."
Harry blinks a little and lets his mouth fall open. He doesn't know any spells that do what Sirius does. "I don't think I can—"
"Nonsense! I know that you have to be great in Defense to survive the basilisk and going after the Philosopher's Stone. I'll just set the pole at a lower level." Sirius taps his wand against the pole, and it hums. The humming grows less while Sirius whispers a spell to it. "Come on, Harry. You can do it."
"I don't think I can," Harry says truthfully. His back prickles with the way Sirius looks at him, but he really is telling the truth.
"You're not scared, are you?"
Harry grits his teeth, because he knows that Sirius hates no one more than he hates cowards. Harry will have to move forwards now, even if he hates it, even if it feels wrong to him, because that's the way it is.
"Of course I'm not," he says, and he strides over and stands in front of the pole. Sirius nods at him and then moves back and whispers another spell that Harry thinks is meant to start the pole working.
"Okay!" Sirius bounces to the side and waves his arms around. "Let's see what you can do."
Harry faces the pole, wondering if he needs to tap it or something. But it turns out that he doesn't.
He very much doesn't need to.
A boiling yellow cloud comes out of the pole this time, and heads straight for him. Harry sees that it has no blades, but he can feel the heat from here. He saw steam like that in the Dursleys' kitchen more than once. It might scald him.
Harry ducks and rolls. The cloud shoots by above him and then turns back around. Harry calls on the Shield Charm that he and the others have been practicing in their study group. "Protego!"
The cloud hits the shield and seeps around it. Harry rolls again, and hears Sirius say something that sounds like a complaint from behind him.
And then he doesn't have the chance to move, since the cloud divides into two, and one of the tendrils comes at him from the front while the other almost stabs him in the back. Harry pushes raw magic at the one in front of him, trying to shove it back out of the way while—
The steam catches him across the shoulders, and Harry screams. He recoils into more steam, and barely manages to turn his head and protect his eyes. He can feel his skin blistering the way it did when Dudley made him grab a hot pan one time, and Sirius is almost shouting himself hoarse.
Harry manages to concentrate. This is the kind of thing he'll have to face in battle, and he can't run around hiding his face and yelling pathetically then. He gasps, "Finite Incantatem!"
That takes care of some of the steam, but not all of it. In the end, Sirius is the one who has to banish it while Harry lies shivering on the ground, his teeth clamped on his tongue so that he won't cry out.
"Harry, what were you doing? What happened?"
Sirius tries to pick him up, but Harry jerks away. He's burned all across his shoulders, he can tell, and some on his face and neck. He manages to speak, even though it hurts, it hurts, it hurts. "I need to go to Madam Pomfrey."
"No! We can't! I'm not supposed to have this kind of magic device, and if they find out that I have it—"
Harry looks up, blinking. And his heart sinks more than it did when he saw the steam cloud as Snape steps out of the trees. He looks at Harry with furiously glittering eyes, then turns and Summons Sirius's wand when he tries to cast something with it.
"Since you cannot take care of your godson, I will," he says, in a voice as soft as pine needles.
Then he picks up Harry with one spell and starts a continuously flowing stream of lukewarm water with the other, while Harry floats and shivers and tries to turn his head back in order to see Sirius. But Snape gets in the way, and after a moment, mutters a spell that Harry recognizes.
"I don't want to go to sleep!"
"What you want, right now, is of no importance to me."
And Snape says the spell again, and Harry forcibly has to leave all his dread and worry behind and embrace the blackness of sleep.
Severus looks up from Harry's bed only when he sees movement near the door of the hospital wing. Madam Pomfrey has gone to contact an expert at St. Mungo's and make sure that no one needs to be summoned, because Severus made a fuss until she did. Frankly, Harry's fame should have earned at least the level of treatment other students would receive long ago.
Black stands there, staring at Harry.
"How is he?"
"Second-degree burns." They're the only words that Severus intends to utter, despite knowing that his spell and Pomfrey's potions will keep him from waking.
"How—the spell wasn't that harsh!"
And something within Severus rips free. It's not unlike the rage that sometimes blurred his sight when he was still a willing Death Eater. He moves towards Black, who steps away and reaches for his wand before clenching his fist at his side when he doesn't find it.
"You exposed a thirteen-year-old child to the defenses of a weapon used to train Aurors," Severus hisses. He's shaking. His hand trembles on his wand, and his tongue curls around a curse he would love to hurl. He only manages to restrain himself because he knows that Harry would never forgive him. "And you dare to stand here and look at me and pretend that it isn't your fault."
"It wasn't! I never meant for this to happen!"
"The last defense of the thoughtless." Severus discovers he is holding his wand pointed at Black's chest. He manages to lower it, but only because he knows what distressed noises Harry would make if he was awake. "You didn't mean for it to happen, so obviously that heals all wounds and pain."
"Harry's not really a child, though," Black says, and he sounds as though he's convinced himself. "He's training with that little study group of his and he's told me all about the spells he's learned. He's not just a thirteen-year-old. He's special."
"He is a child who would do anything to please you," Severus whispers. "Who would fly a thestral to his death if he had to. Who would agree with any assertions you made. Because he thinks that you are the only one who cares for him as he is. But you do not, do you? You see a trained Auror." He pauses. "You see his father."
"Like you don't, Snivellus! I heard all about how horribly you treated him until he got into Slytherin! You just saw James and you were upset that you didn't get a chance to punish the father, so you went after the son!"
"That is true."
"What?" Black halts and blinks at him.
"I did treat him horribly. I am still trying to make up for that, and I don't think I have done a good job. But I am trying to make up for it. What apologies have you made for rushing off after Pettigrew and leaving him with his Muggle relatives for twelve years?"
Black dashes at him. Severus merely watches as the shields that Madam Pomfrey long ago installed in the floor of the hospital wing rise and protect him. Black won't be able to make any offensive moves without hitting one of them.
Severus thinks that she might have got the idea from his own frequent feuds with the "Marauders."
"You're going to pay for this, Snivellus. I promise."
"Not as much as you are, Black. There's no way that I'll let him live with you now."
"Why don't you ask Harry what he wants?" Black steps back, probably because he's looking so smug now that he thinks he's won. "He wants to live with me, and you can't deny him."
"He is still a minor child," Severus says. "And your legal guardianship is only going to be reinstated pending a clean bill of health from the Mind-Healer."
"As if there'll be any doubt on that matter, with the one Albus found for me."
"You don't care about him at all, do you? You only care about his father."
"Right back at you, Snivellus."
Severus shakes his head. Honestly, arguing with Black accomplishes nothing. And he can't tell whether the man is simply oblivious to the damage that Harry sustained or caught up in using Harry as a pawn to score points off Severus, or something else.
Just in case, though, to show that he gave Black the benefit of every doubt he could, Severus pulls the blankets back. Black can still see well enough through the shields.
Black starts to say something, but his breath snags in his throat.
Severus turns towards him, and nods. He knows what Black will see: the blisters, the weeping red skin, the way that Harry shivers with the pain even in sleep. "He will heal, but it will take days, and some potions to regrow the skin."
"It's not like I knew that would happen!"
Severus shakes his head again and pulls the sheet back up. In the end, nothing is Black's fault in his own mind. He is either thoughtless and thinks that is enough to excuse himself, or he does things out of malice and insists that the targets deserve them, as with his pranks on Severus. "As you wish, Black. I'm sure it will make a grand comfort to Harry, to hear you say that."
"He's going to live with me!"
Severus makes no response. He can hear Madam Pomfrey's footsteps coming back, and it seems Black can, too, and does not want to face her. He slips out of the hospital wing with one more flash of teeth at Severus that, fittingly, precedes his transformation into a black dog.
Madam Pomfrey steps inside and nods to him. "There's a Healer coming through with some of the potions that I don't have on hand." She hesitates.
"What is it?"
"I wondered if Mr. Potter would prefer privacy. I didn't tell the Healer who the patient was. Do you think we should hide his face?"
"Some of the burns are on his face," Severus says harshly, staring down at the edge of a blister that he can see on the edge of Harry's nose. The steam came close to taking his eyes. Severus is never going to forget this, is never going to forgive Black.
"That's true. I suppose we had better tell her, then."
Severus doesn't reply, but he's in intense, almost insane agreement. They will tell the world. Harry won't be able to hide this. Severus is going to scream far and wide until he sparks public outrage that can counter Dumbledore's intention to hand the boy over to a frothing ex-convict.
Harry has to live to live with someone who can love him. Severus will not give up now, will force the boy to talk if he must. Better that Harry hate him and live than die of Black's carelessness.
Daphne smiles and steps away from the door of the hospital wing. She saw Professor Snape stalking through the corridors with Harry hovering behind him, and of course she followed. And she cast the charms that proved so useful before in avoiding detection, even by an Animagus's nose.
She listened long enough to learn all the particulars, and hear Professor Snape's and Black's conversation, and to determine why the protections that she knows Harry has on him failed. This wasn't the direct effect of a spell, but a side-effect, burns from a cloud of steam, like being hit by a stone uprooted by a Mudslide Curse. No protection can stop everything that magic can hurl at you.
Daphne treads softly away. She intends to send updated letters to the Light-oriented pure-blood families that she already told about Harry's plight. She agrees with Professor Snape. Everyone is going to know soon that Harry Potter was burned while under the care of his insane godfather.
Daphne feels her smile fall. That happened. That nearly ended Harry's life. It could have. Or it could have crippled him if the steam had hit his eyes.
She has a vendetta against Black now. She will wait for the proper moment, and he'll never notice her coming.