Disclaimer: I still own nothing.
AN: Well, I know I've made you all wait for this, and I really appreciate your patience and all of the reviews that you left me during this hiatus. I will try my utmost to make sure that you don't have to wait so long for Chapter 13, okay?
This chapter was really hard to write. Severus didn't like all of the sentimentality and sappiness that I was forcing him through, and he retaliated by poisoning my Muse. (Okay, not really. It was just really hard to write ... maybe because there's something that resembles a plot?) But seriously, I am fretting that he's slipped into OOCness here - so please please please leave me a review and let me know what you think of this chapter? I know that the shameless begging gets old after awhile ... but reviews feed my muse and concrit helps me write the next chapter better. :)
Severus straightened his spine, forcing it out of the painful curve it had adopted during the night. He curled in on himself for warmth, drawing his feet and hands away from the cold stone floor where he had collapsed and fallen into an exhausted sleep. The kink in his spine was the least of his aches this morning.
Grainy, rough nausea clutched at his guts, overriding his chills and aches. He stumbled to the toilet, but he'd eaten nothing yesterday and repeated heaves brought up only acid. He clutched the counter, holding himself upright, and wondered at the continued willingness of his bones to support him. Should his skeleton not have liquefied and left him in a motionless pile? Light assaulted his eyes and he blinked against the migraine that throbbed at the bridge of his nose.
"Severus?" Albus asked. "Are you ill? You've missed your morning classes."
Severus opened his eyes to look at the Headmaster, but the sight of the man's vivid magenta robes made his eyes water and his stomach lurch. His abused throat suffered another bout of retching, the acid eating at the delicate soft tissues.
Eyes closed, Severus felt hands encircle his forearms and Albus was supporting him, leading him out of the bathroom. It took a long, fuzzy-edged moment before Severus realized that the older man was touching him and then it took another long moment before Severus found the strength to pull away. With his poor coordination, Severus fell into an awkward sprawl on the floor and he curled in on himself, trying to pull himself away from Albus's hands.
"Don't," he said. "Don't, dirty," and the words felt heavy on his tongue. He wasn't sure if he'd made himself understood. The fog separating him from the world thickened and coiled through his mind.
Hands grasped his shoulders, pulling him up from the floor. Severus bit his lip, the pain cutting through the fog, and said, "Albus, you mustn't…"
"Hush," Albus said, putting his fingers against Severus's mouth. The wrinkled skin was dry and warm. Severus leaned into the touch even though it was wrong, even though he was unclean and unworthy of this gentle touch.
"Now, Severus," Albus said when he'd been settled into bed. Wrinkled hands drew the blankets up to Severus's neck and hovered there in a brief caress. "Do you need Poppy's help? Food or potions? What do you need?"
Shame cut through the fog blocking Severus from the rest of the world. Shaking Albus's hand off of his shoulder, Severus leaned over the side of the bed to retch again. With his weakness exposed and his filth revealed, Severus couldn't bear to look Albus in the eye. He hung half-way off the bed, his nose hovering near the floor and the small puddle of stomach acid and bile.
Albus banished the mess, helped Severus back into the bed, and propped him up on a stack of pillows. Albus smoothed Severus's hair on the pillow and let his wrist rest on Severus's forehead. "You're not feverish," he said.
Severus felt the pulse flutter in the wrist like a butterfly on his forehead, and he reached up to push Albus away. "You mustn't touch me," he said. His raw throat opened and closed in painful gasps around the words and his voice lacked its usual dark undertones. He sounded weak, unthreatening, pathetic, and he cringed away from Albus.
"Severus," Albus said, reaching for him. Severus backed away and nearly fell off the bed.
Albus withdrew his hand at once. "Calm yourself, I'm not going to hurt you."
"You mustn't touch me," Severus repeated.
"Whatever is the matter?" Albus sat on the edge of the bed farthest from Severus and made no move to touch him.
Severus wanted nothing more than to disappear, to be far from the pity he saw in the man's eyes. With his sweat-soaked skin shivering in the chilly air of the dungeons, he drew his arms and legs toward his body and hunched into himself, willing his disappearance.
When he felt a gentle tap against his shaky mental walls, Severus knew it was useless. Curling further in on himself, pulling his Occlumency shields in closer and tighter, he said in a soft, disgustingly breathy and weak voice, "I'm filthy, too dirty to touch. You'll be contaminated if you touch me."
"Nonsense," Albus said. He leaned closer to Severus and maintained unflinching eye contact. "You are not filthy, Severus. Actions do not physically taint a person, and even your worst activities when in Voldemort's service are not enough to contaminate you. There's something in your soul that has remained untouched by all evil, something bright and pure."
Albus leaned even closer to Severus. "You've hidden it all this while, behind your masks and all your unpleasantness, but it's there nonetheless. You are not dirty, Severus."
Severus inched further away from Albus. "Spare me the platitudes. No pretty philosophy can disguise filth."
"Oh, Severus," Albus said. He pushed through Severus's shaky Occlumency then, pushed through the shields as though they were made of mist. He went past the surface, past the migraine and the shaking and the sour taste of bile, and went deep into the shadowy, preying insecurities, the formless fears, the half-realized nightmares.
He went so deep that Severus began to tremble, but he stopped before breaching the inner sanctuary of his mind. He stopped there and enveloped Severus's mind with reassuring caresses, with touch untainted by fear or suspicion, and Severus wanted to sob with terror and joy and remorse.
This was the way Albus had restored him after the horrors of Azkaban, the way Albus had rejuvenated him after the horrors he'd seen as a Death Eater. This intimate, crystalline purity that Albus possessed and shared without question was a purity that was not diminished by the sharing and yet Severus felt a secret squiggle of shame eating at his heart, shame at requiring this comfort, shame that Albus saw all of his inner weaknesses and insecurities and soothed them with his own soul. Albus was clean, his mind vibrated with an uncomplicated joy that came from goodness and righteousness, and if Albus knew what he had done …
Severus broke away from the mental caresses, pulled away from Albus's comforting touch. Albus relinquished his mind with a final, soft fluttering touch, but retained the physical embrace, holding him close with bony strong arms.
They sat thus for long moments, Severus's spine pressed against Albus's chest, Severus's vertebrae resonating with Albus's heartbeat. Unworthy of the contact, feeling a residue of filth and contamination that still clung to him despite Albus's soothing mental balm, Severus could not bring himself to resist the embrace.
A shimmering, silvery form passed through the stone wall and then the Bloody Baron was standing before them. "Headmaster," he said. Drops of ghostly blood spattered the air when he nodded, dripping away into nothingness.
Safe in Albus's arms, Severus glared at the ghost that must have been spying on them. The Baron nodded at him, acknowledging his anger. "I must look after my Slytherins even now, Severus, you no less than the students. Headmaster, you are bound to guard them as well, and so I ask you to restrict Narcissa Malfoy's visits to the castle. You should have stopped them long ago."
Severus tried to pull away from Albus but was held fast by his arms. "Nonsense, she's needed here to help the boys."
Albus tangled his fingers in Severus's hair, smoothed the lines from Severus's forehead. "Tell me what has happened, both of you," he said.
Severus cringed away from Albus, pulling himself into a fetal ball, away from the man's disapproval. He couldn't bear to tell the man of his mistakes with Potter, his shame and weakness, his filth.
"She's been visiting every evening with Mr. Malfoy and Mr. Potter, preventing Severus Snape from seeing to them as their Head of House should, and she's the one that gave him the idea that he was too vile to be touched," the Baron said.
"Why do you want me to allow her visits?" Albus asked while he wrapped gentle arms around Severus's curled body.
Severus shivered away from his touch. "They trust her as they no longer trust me," he admitted.
Albus pressed reassuring strokes along his shoulders, against his mind. "You are their Head of House, Severus, and you must regain their trust. I cannot allow outsiders regular access to the school, especially not a woman with such connections."
Albus moved around the bed to face Severus and tilted his head up with a finger pressed under his chin. "I have faith in your ability to right your wrongs, Severus. Mrs. Malfoy will be removed from the wards and I expect that Mr. Potter will return to his classes by next week at the very latest."
"I know it is hard for you, Severus, dealing with young Harry given your relationship with his father, but I must ask you to remember the child's fate. He is the savior that I promised you so long ago and he must be made ready for Voldemort's return."
Severus drew away from Albus's touch and began to rebuild his mental shields, drawing in deep steady breaths of air and clearing his mind of all the disgusting insecurities and filth. "I know what my duty is," he said.
Albus smiled at him, brushing his mind with a caress that spoke volumes of trust and reassurance and affection. "I know you do."
Just as Severus began to pull away – recovered enough now to regret his earlier display of weakness and to be disgusted by the sappy, sentimental scene – his portrait informed them that there was a disturbance in the corridor.
Severus straightened his back and squared his shoulders, casting a thorough cleaning spell to remove the wrinkles and sweat and smell of bile from his robes.
"I don't care what you say, Mother," Draco was saying as he tried to pull his arm from his mother's grasp. "We have to get Uncle Sev's help, we need him."
"Stop this infantile behavior at once, Draco Malfoy. I won't tolerate it for another instant. I don't want you talking to that man, I don't want you asking him for help, and I don't want you breathing the same air as him."
Albus pushed past Severus and stepped out through the portrait into the corridor. "I'm afraid that will not be possible, Mrs. Malfoy, as Professor Snape is your son's Head of House."
The struggle in the corridor ceased, Draco taking advantage of his mother's distraction to yank his arm free and inch away from her and toward Severus. Something had lodged in Severus's throat, he was certain, because he found it hard to breathe when he saw this sign of trust from Draco. He gave his godson a tentative half-smile and was rewarded when Draco inched closer yet.
"I've accorded you a great deal of liberties, allowing young Mr. Malfoy to visit you on the weekends," Albus said. "I cannot, however, permit you to visit Hogwarts in order to teach your son to fear and disrespect his Head of House, Mrs. Malfoy."
Narcissa, whose cheeks were tinged with the faintest hue of rose, raised her chin and looked down her nose at Albus. "My son needs me here," she said, "and you will not deny him the comfort that my presence brings."
Severus stepped out into the corridor to stand next to Draco. "It doesn't appear that your presence has brought much comfort to Mr. Malfoy today," he said, taking hold of Draco's forearm and turning it to show Narcissa the red imprints left there by her fingers.
"Do not touch my son, Severus Snape. For all your airs and affectations, you're still nothing more than a dirty half-blood and I won't let you sully him."
Albus moved between Narcissa and Severus, stopping her advance toward him. "I'm afraid that I can't allow that language in this school, Mrs. Malfoy. Let me escort you off the grounds."
Narcissa departed with an ugly scowl and poor grace, and Draco looked up at Severus after they had left, his eyelashes fluttering tremulously over his wide gray eyes. "Uncle Sev, will you help me?"
"Of course," Severus said, unwilling to disturb his newfound peace with Draco by uttering anything other than an absolute affirmative. "What do you need?"
"I have to find Harry. He's disappeared."
"What? What do you mean? What's happened?" Severus ushered Draco out of the public corridor, with its drafts and echoes and its rows of interested portraits, ushered Draco into his chambers. "Tell me everything."
Draco looked small and uncertain in the large armchair. "Mother got Harry to come out of the closet and sleep in his bed last night," he said. "She stayed the night and this morning, she … encouraged us to miss classes."
Draco hesitated and Severus urged him to continue. "Never mind, Draco, we'll fix that later."
"She kept pushing Harry to go outside, saying that he needed fresh air after being shut in for so long. I wouldn't have done it – anybody could see that he didn't want to go, but she didn't listen to me. We were having a picnic by the lake, and then Mother started asking Harry all sorts of strange questions."
"What sort of questions?" Severus asked.
Draco pushed his hair into his eyes, hesitating. "Questions about the Muggles he lives with. They – Her questions made Harry really nervous, and he kept stuttering, and I knew he was unhappy and scared, but she just kept pushing him. She asked one question too many and he just ran away from us and then he disappeared."
"Disappeared?" Severus asked. He rose and began to pace, the loud sound of his boot heels against the stone floor steadying his thoughts, slowing their frantic rhythm. "Disappeared as in he became invisible, or he hid behind something, or what?"
Draco shook his head. "He just disappeared."
Severus stopped pacing and cast a quick spell to locate Harry, but he found that the pull of the spell on his wand was too faint to follow.
"Stay here," he told Draco. "When the Headmaster returns, tell him what you told me. I'm going to find Harry – you last saw him by the lake?"
Severus hurried through the corridors, parting the throngs of inquisitive brats with a glare. Once out of the castle, he ran to the lake, ignoring the satisfactory billow of his robes in the wind. His attention was focused entirely on Harry.
He recast the locator spell at intervals as he went, and again when he reached the lake, but Harry was too far away for the spell to guide him. Breathless, Severus surveyed the lake and saw the remains of Narcissa's picnic. When he had a word with her about her treatment of Harry, pushing the boy to talk before he was ready, forcing him outside when he didn't want to go … Severus took a deep breath and halted that train of thought.
He walked over to the picnic blanket, searching for any tell-tale residue left by Harry's magic. If the boy had cast any spells while he sat there, it was recent enough that Severus should be able to sense them. He found nothing and he stared down at the plates of untouched chocolate éclairs and lemon meringue tartlets, tempted to pitch them into the lake. Harry would have never eaten those sweets.
Making concentric circles around the blanket, he continued to scan for traces of Harry's magic. "Harry?" he called, keeping his voice soft and unthreatening. "Harry, are you there? Please come out if you are, I won't hurt you." He restrained himself from loudly cursing Narcissa and her idiotic scheme, not wanting to frighten the boy further if he was hidden somewhere in hearing range. Narcissa Malfoy, with all those years of experience of dealing with Draco, should have damn well known better than to spook an abused child. Bloody, interfering, useless woman, didn't she have a shred of common sense between those pretty ears?
He ignored the stiffness that his muscles felt after a night spent sleeping in an awkward position on the dungeon stones and pushed his legs to move regardless of the pain. He needed to find Harry.
A tingle of magic passed across his skin and he froze, groping for the distinctive feeling of Harry's magic. All the air rushed out of his lungs when he realized that it was not Harry's magic, that he'd crossed the Hogwarts wards. Harry could be anywhere.
Harry could have wandered into the Forbidden Forest in his attempt to escape Narcissa's prying questions, could have wandered outside of the wards and been abducted by Dark wizards, could have wandered too far and lost sight of the castle or other landmarks to guide his return.
Severus forced himself to stop, forced himself to slow his breathing and clear his mind. He'd be of no use to the boy if he couldn't focus. He used his Occlumency training, used every last erg of his skill and struggled to clear his mind, to restore his still shaky barriers.
"Harry?" he called. "Are you there? Can you hear me?" He cast his magic out like a net, searching for any hint of the boy's presence. There was no vibration caught by the strands of magic, no echo of the boy's presence, and despite his clear mind, despite his strengthened shields, Severus felt his shoulders slump, felt his heart pause with shock, felt the blood freeze in his veins.
"Severus, where is he? Have you found him?" Albus hurried across the grass, his fists clenched in his robes, his face drawn and pale.
Severus turned away from him, not wanting to see the expression on Albus's face. "He's nowhere in range of a locator spell."
"Would I say such an idiotic, ill-considered, and irresponsible thing if I wasn't entirely certain?"
Albus brushed Severus's mind with Legilimency for a brief second, giving him a set of Apparation coordinates. "His relatives' house is Number Four, Privet Drive. I can only hope that he's somehow panicked and Apparated himself there by accident. If he isn't there, ask his relatives if they can think of anywhere else he may have felt comfortable enough to hide."
The Apparation coordinates lodged in Severus's mind like a grain of sand in the tender flesh of an oyster, and even in his distraction he knew that he'd spend long nights brooding over the location of the wretched Muggles that had dared to abuse his Slytherin student, his Potter.
"You're certain, Albus? You don't find it rather inconceivable that an untrained first-year boy would be capable of a successful Apparation?"
"If your locator spell cannot find him, he isn't here at Hogwarts, is he? Go quickly, look for him at the Dursleys, Severus, we can't afford to lose the boy. I'll gather the other professors for the search, and ask Flitwick if he knows any stronger tracking spells. Report back to my office as soon as you have news."
Watching Albus depart, magenta robes bright even in the filtered late autumn sunshine, Severus shook his head at Albus's insane idea. A first year, little Harry who'd never heard of Apparation or seen it before, doing it correctly without splinching? Severus cast the locator spell once more, taking deep breaths to fortify himself against the disappointment that washed over him when the spell failed again.
A first year student couldn't Apparate. Harry couldn't have Apparated away, couldn't be anywhere in the damned sprawling world, couldn't be splinched, couldn't be lost. It simply wasn't possible.
Severus pinched his nose to stave off the migraine that inevitably followed Albus's hare-brained ideas, and he Apparated to the coordinates he'd been given.
It was a relatively normal, albeit unusually clean, Muggle alley where he found himself after Apparating. He took note of his surroundings and with a listless flick of his wand, repeated the locator spell – and his breath caught in his throat. Harry was here.
He followed the spell, heedless of the Muggles on the street who cast sidelong looks at his robes and wand, ignoring the prim and pristine Muggle houses. Harry was here and he had to be found.
The spell led him to a Muggle house and through the front door. Severus glanced at the address to check that it was the home of Harry's relatives before he walked in without knocking. The pull of the spell was stronger here, it had taken root in his bones and was dragging him toward Harry with every fiber of his being part of the spell, part of the need to find the boy.
Unpleasant thoughts flickered across the surface of his mind, the glistening of a dark rainbow of oil on water, and he was not surprised when the pull of the spell led him to the door of a cupboard under the stairs.
Severus pressed his palm against the wooden door and felt the hum of Harry's magic, the electric brush of it against his skin, the sparkle and the snap of it, the unique sound that it made, and he breathed a sigh of relief.
"Harry?" he said in a careful, quiet voice. "Harry, it's Professor Snape. Are you there?"
The hum of the magic intensified to an almost-painful level, prickled against the palm of his hand.
"I've come to bring you back to Hogwarts now that Mrs. Malfoy is gone. Do you understand? She won't be there to frighten you any longer. No one will hurt you, you're safe now."
There was no response, and Severus pulled together strings of his own magic, infused them with comfort and reassurance, wove them together into a net, a blanket, and pressed it against the door. "Do you feel that? I'm not going to hurt you, Harry. I'm here to help you. It will be all right. You're safe and no one is going to hurt you now."
Severus grimaced at the sappiness, the well-worn platitudes, but let no hint of his dislike of the soppy sentimentality creep into his voice. He traced the grain of the wood with one finger, felt the roughness, followed the natural patterns, traced the whorls of Harry's magic. The silence from the cupboard was unnerving but he could feel the hum of Harry's magic, knew that Harry was there.
"I've been worried about you ever since I said those wretched things to you, Harry. We'll talk about that when we're back at Hogwarts and I'll explain it to you then, but for now you need to know that I didn't mean any of them. You belong at Hogwarts and you need to come back there, you know. Draco's very worried about you."
There was a dent in the wooden door, a rough ovoid, shaped as though a fist had made an imprint there. Severus traced it with his finger, smoothed away all of the splinters with a stray wisp of magic.
"I won't do anything that you don't want me to do, Harry. This door will stay closed until you're ready to open it and I won't take you back to Hogwarts until you're ready to go, all right?" The silence from the cupboard was wearing at Severus's last nerve, was wearing a sore track into his heart, and he tried to fill the silence with reassuring words, tried to coax an answer from Harry, anything other than this dreadful silence.
Footsteps sounded on the stairs and Severus froze as a skinny, bony Muggle woman peered down at him from the landing. "What are you doing here, trespassing in my home?"
She came down the rest of the stairs and shook a finger at him. "You're one of them, just like my wretched sister. There's no welcome for people like you in this home."
"Mrs. Dursley, I presume," Severus said, trying to forestall her rant. "Forgive the intrusion, but I am here to retrieve your nephew and return him to Hogwarts. I won't disturb you or your family while I am here."
"The boy isn't here so you may as well get out," she said, her mouth pursed as though a lemon had been forced down her throat. "Your very presence disturbs me, you and your … your abnormality. Get out of my house."
"I'm afraid I can't oblige you. I'm not leaving without Harry." Severus drew himself up to his full height and made an obvious and threatening gesture towards his wand.
"Make sure that you're gone before Vernon returns from work," she said, and she scowled at him before stalking out of the room.
Severus turned back to the cupboard door and his breath caught in his throat when he saw that it had opened a centimeter or so. The line between the door and the wall was dark and it was impossible to see inside the cupboard, impossible to see Harry, but it gave Severus hope for the first time.
"Harry, you needn't worry about your relatives disturbing us, I won't let them come near you. We'll wait to go back to Hogwarts until you're ready to do so, you needn't rush anything. Nobody likes to be rushed, do they?"
"I certainly don't like to be rushed, and I expect that you're the same way, aren't you?" Severus spoke to fill the silence, let meaningless words fall from his mouth, kept his voice soft and soothing. The cupboard door was open and Harry's magic was leaking out of it in irregular pulses, skittering across Severus's skin like so much static electricity.
"S-Sir?" Severus didn't hear Harry's quiet question at first, and the boy repeated it. "Sir, what will happen when we go back to Hogwarts?"
There was an unpleasant thrill in Severus's heart at the sound of Harry's voice. It began at the top of his breastbone and worked its way down his ribcage and none of his students should have been able to make him feel so much. Severus closed his eyes at the terrible, trembling sensation, half-joy and half-pain.
"Well, first I'll bring you to Draco and let him take you to the kitchens to eat something while I report to the Headmaster. Albus is worried about you as well, you know."
There was a pause and then Harry spoke again. "And th-then?"
"Well, then I expect that Draco can help you catch up on your homework. You've missed several classes but I imagine you'll have no difficulty in making up the work. Both Miss Granger and Draco took notes for you while you were gone."
There was another pause and an impatient frisson of Harry's magic brushed against Severus. "You're to return to classes by next week, on the Headmaster's orders, so you'll have plenty of time to do the homework and the readings. Other than that, everything should be just as it normally is, Harry. You've nothing to fear at Hogwarts."
"I-I won't be in trouble?"
"Of course not, but we will have a talk when you're settled back into things, all right?" Severus kept his emotions from his voice, kept himself calm and steady, kept his mental shields strong and imperturbable.
The cupboard door opened another few centimeters and Severus could see a dim outline in the cupboard, a shape that must have been Harry. "Wh-What kind of talk?"
Severus gathered together more strings of his magic, suffused them with all of the reassurance that he had, all of the strength that had ever been given to him, all of the comfort and kindness that a broken man had to offer, and pressed them into the cupboard. The ache in his chest had returned at the tremble, the hesitation, the fear in Harry's voice and he wanted to erase them, wanted to ease the boy's worries.
The Slytherin in him jeered and mocked his weakness, but another voice – the Bloody Baron – whispered underneath the mocking, I've watched Slytherins grow into the knowledge of what being a Slytherin means and somehow, without quite knowing why, he felt that the Baron would have approved.
"Nothing for you to worry about, Harry, but I need to talk to you about some things. The way you came here from Hogwarts was very dangerous and I want to make sure you understand that so you won't try it again until you're older, all right?"
The dark Harry-sized shape in the shadowy cupboard made a jerky motion that was probably a nod.
"There's nothing for you to be afraid of, Harry. Draco's mother won't be at Hogwarts anymore, if you were worried about that, and you won't be in any trouble for leaving the school. We all understand that these accidents happen sometimes and I'll work with you to make sure that it doesn't happen again, okay?"
"You – you would do that for me?"
"Of course I would." Severus sent another wave of reassurance at the boy. Enough repetition, enough comfort and encouragement, and perhaps the boy would relax enough to emerge from his cupboard.
"B-but you said …"
"I told you already, Harry, I didn't mean anything of what I said to you that day. It was wrong of me to speak to you the way that I did. Do you understand me?"
"I – I think so, sir." The boy moved closer to Severus, until he could see the blurry outlines of his features and the reflection of light from his glasses. Harry was close enough for him to touch, and Severus held himself still, held himself breathless, not wanting to frighten him.
Now he felt the dance of Harry's magic across his skin, through his veins, and it was flaring and sparking with the boy's fear, but it was warm and welcome nonetheless. The frequency of the flares increased and Severus suppressed a gasp at the boy's strength, at his lack of control.
He did gasp, then, as the last and largest surge of magic raced through the air between them, but the almost-pain of it was forgotten when Harry stepped out of the cupboard.
"I – I'm ready to go back, then, sir." The boy gave a nervous glance at the door. The demons induced by his Muggle relatives plagued him still, made him want to leave before his uncle could return, Severus realized, but he had no inclination to bring up another emotionally charged topic now.
He held his hand out to the boy, keeping his motions slow and predictable. "You'll need to hold my hand and I'll Apparate us back to Hogwarts," he said, and something painful and irrevocable changed in his heart when Harry placed his hand in Severus's hand.