A/N: Thank you, Team Wartime http://community.livejournal. com/soteamwartime/profile, Joan Wilder http://joanwilder.livejournal. com/profile, Txilar http://txilar.livejournal. com/profile, Netta http://naatz.livejournal. com/profile, and Morrighan http://morrighan-sai.livejournal. com/profile for the beta-reading, blasting away writers' block, comments, advice, and all your help. Thanks also to La Onza http://la-onza.livejournal. com/profile for posting her floor plans of Grimmauld Place. http://la-onza.livejournal. com/2654.html
Sinick and Acid
Wednesday's child is full of woe.
Thursday's child has far to go.
All the light in Grimmauld Place went where Harry went. As soon as he lit the candles and turned away, they hopped down from the mouths of their runespoor-shaped candlesticks, breaking their fall by landing in trampolines of cobwebs, and bouncing from there to the floor. They waddled after Harry in a row like ducklings, short and fluffy and dripping wax all over in their excitement at being alight and having company at last. Harry shrugged and let them trail along after him.
He headed downstairs for no other reason than because moving was more bearable than sitting still. Around the candles the darkness flickered; long shadows fled up the walls and faded into the gloom of the high ceilings. The shortest of the flock rushed after the others and nearly put out its flame on the breeze of its own haste. It paused to catch a breath, and after its flame blossomed back, picked up its wax drip skirt and toddled faster on legs of unwound two-strand wick.
When Harry arrived at the ground floor, he reached past the moth-eaten curtains of one particular portrait niche, and drew a tally mark on the dusty canvas by Walburga Black's snoring head. He only did it to see if he could get away with it without the portrait waking up and screaming the whole Place down. It wasn't as though he'd ever forget the count – four Horcruxes down, two to go – but it felt so good to test the house's patience the way Grimmauld sometimes tested his.
At the foot of the stairs, across from a hollowed-out troll leg with three umbrellas, Harry sat down and picked up his old Potions text. He'd left the dog-eared, scruffy book lying open on the bottom step when he'd started his restless wanderings after sunset.
Just before they closed Hogwarts down, he'd gone back to the Room of Requirement for the book. The Half-Blood Prince's half-readable scribbles filled the margins of practically every page. No, not the Prince's. They were Snape's, and his scrawl had no right to look that different when it wasn't red or scathing or all over Harry's Potions essays.
Harry had almost destroyed that sodding book so many times. He wanted to burn it or rip it to shreds or stab it with a basilisk's fang just to see if bled like Riddle's diary.
Once, he'd mounted the top of the ladder in the library like a broom, ripped a dozen pages out of the book, folded them into paper planes, and chucked them one by one at the vicious old writing desk in the corner. The desk had devoured the lot with loud snaps of its rolltop lid, and Harry'd thought they were gone for good, and good riddance to them! But the distant sound of a door slamming again and again in the drawing room had pulled Harry's attention away from tearing out any more pages, and he'd climbed down the ladder. He'd made it into the drawing room just in time to see the curio cabinet open its door and, with a disgusted 'ptui', spit out the last of his paper planes before slamming its door shut again. Two summers ago, the cabinet's shelves had been left bare after they'd cleared out all the Dark artefacts it'd held, but now as Harry peered in he could see a familiar spidery instrument on one shelf, crouched protectively over a silver snuffbox. Huh. It's as though the things are moving back in: Merlin only knows how they find their way. Oh well, they can stay there for all I care.
Apparently the curio cabinet was more hospitable toward cursed artefacts than paper planes. And it wasn't just Harry's planes it objected to, 'cause when he'd knelt down to pick them all up he'd found two more, buried in the dust under the cabinet: a yellowed swan, and a parchment swallow that Harry didn't even know how to fold. The swan had turned out to be a sheet of letterhead embossed with the Black coat of arms, addressed to Walburga, Kitchen: Found your ring in the library. Attached. No need to make any additions to your mother's head collection. The swan's elaborately hooked beak had held no ring. Bloody typical, Harry'd thought, Even the furniture in this Place is a bunch of crooks and thieves.
From one little king to another the swallow's wings had said, I'm so sorry, S. I had no choice. Look after yourself. Harry'd thought it was sad that Sirius never got the note, and sadder still that Sirius was gone, and would never be able to tell Harry who the note was from and what it meant. Harry had slipped the parchment swallow in among the pages of Snape's textbook, after he'd finished Reparoing all his ex-paper planes back into the binding. Then he'd taken the book into Sirius' old bedroom and had studied each stained, yellowed page from Levicorpus to Sectumsempra until the scrawled notes had blurred before his eyes: all those potions, all those poisons, all those curses. All that inventiveness, Harry'd thought sadly, as he'd tucked the swallow's delicate wingtip further between the pages, out of harm's way. Then he'd frowned, remembering a tower, a face twisted by loathing, a flash of green. All that bloody malice.
The next time I cast these curses, or anything else, I won't fail.
Now he was sitting on the main staircase, the same textbook open in his lap. Still studying. Still haunted by the memory of Dumbledore's murderer swatting Harry's curses like flies. Harry's mouth twisted, bitter with the taste of hatred and aborted Cruciatus. I won't fail. I promise you that.
Harry hoped Voldemort still had enough humanity left to feel pain. I want that bastard to suffer! That's what he deserves, him and the whole damn lot of them, and Snape more than anyone! Harry lived for that moment. The trouble was, living for that felt empty: as if the flat of a silver dagger of revenge had pressed down on him for so long it'd crushed the last drop of joy out of him and left him dry. These days he only had one constant companion left, his never-ending mantra: the diary… the ring…the key… the wand… the cup… the locket…
It wasn't that no one wanted to be with him: beyond those heavy doors the whole wizarding world still wanted their hero. But Dumbledore's gone and I can't be what they want. Ridding the world of a madman isn't noble or heroic. People do it because they're furious, grieving, and bitter, and they want it all to end
On Bill and Fleur's wedding day Ron had twirled a grinning Hermione around in the Burrow's sitting room, to riotous applause from Ginny and the Twins. But even on that golden day of peace, Harry had watched their joy from the sidelines, planning, worrying, waiting. How good it would've been to forget – Horcruxes, Voldemort, Snape – and join the celebration just for once. But he knew there'd be no rest for him, not until Voldemort was gone. All the while, as he watched and clapped and smiled, all he could think was Who'll be next? Ginny? Hermione? Ron? I can't lose them. I have to end this, once and for all. Alone.
At first he wasn't alone. Ron and Hermione made it easier: facing the Dursleys and the unknown. They'd found the key to Godric's Hollow together, and no one got hurt when that Horcrux was broken. But then… He was so drunk on that first victory; he should've thought it through! He could've done it all differently – waited or called the Aurors – before looking for Ollivander at the Wandwood Glade. He could still see the pale agony on Ron's and Hermione's faces as their shaking hands joined on the handle of the Ravenclaw wand, their magic unwittingly drained just to destroy Riddle's relic.
At least they were alive. Hermione still sent letters and photographs – the unmoving kind – and they looked happy in them. Those last few days when Harry'd said it wasn't safe to stay, they'd been determined to act as if they were going away on a holiday, but even then the permanence of it all was too much to bear. Ron had joked at first that the burn scar on his palm in the shape of a reverse R – where he'd grasped the Horcrux – really stood for 'Ron' and not some old Ravenclaw initial. But as Harry called the Knight Bus for them, out of the corner of his eye he noticed Ron staring at his upraised wand the way he used to stare at Harry's Firebolt: with the same terrible, longing envy. Then Ron gripped Hermione's hand, as tight as a drowning man clutching his only lifeline.
It's done, and I can't fix it now. Harry knew that breaking the wand mattered more to the outcome of the war than the magic of any two people. Even if they're my two best friends.
Harry frowned down at the ink-scrawled pages in his lap. Curses – the freshly-learned and the as-yet-unfamiliar – swam and blurred before his eyes. The candles had arranged themselves on the steps in a half-circle, looking up at him raptly for hours as he read. Now, their flames flickered out one by one, settling with tiny sighs of fragrant smoke into blankets of fluffy melted wax. Harry took it as a sign to get some rest as well.
A carved golden badger snarled at Harry's finger and started racing round the rim of the cup, so fast it tickled to hold onto it. Harry clutched the cup to his chest and could feel the curse already, that faint magical burn that made his skin crawl. Is this what Ron and Hermione felt? It'll only get worse. I've got to get away before the Lestranges find me, get back to the library at Grimmauld and find out how to break the damn thing! First Malfoy, then Ollivander, now this: is that what Riddle did with all his Horcruxes, gave them away as gifts? 'Here, have a piece of my soul for years of faithful service. Oh, and do watch out for the dark curse.' Sodding bastard. Pity I can't just stab this one with a basilisk fang and be done with it!
He Apparated to an alley off Mornington Crescent: the closest deserted location to Grimmauld Place. If I'm not bloody lucky this time, I'll end up with more than a blackened hand. If Dumbledore got himself cursed like that trying to break just one Horcrux, how the hell did he expect me to get rid of all the rest? Harry peered cautiously out of the mouth of the alley.
Hang on, is someone there? What's that sound? A car? …A door?
As if to illustrate his fear, a tall, dark figure materialised out of thin air next to his hiding place. The stranger was cloaked, but the hood was lowered. Bellatrix Lestrange's heavy-lidded eyes gleamed darkly as she stared down at him. Harry drew breath to curse her, but a sudden, sickening wave of disorientation burst from the cup, pouring through him from the hand that gripped it. His mind blurred and slowed, his body reeled, his eyes unfocused, and even his tongue was thick and imprecise: he'd barely managed to slur out the first syllable before Bellatrix' "Petrificus Totalus" hit him and he fell, his entire body locked rigid.
A slighter figure appeared at Bellatrix' side. Her face was hidden, but the long blonde hair spilling from the mouth of the hood left her identity in no doubt.
"At last," said Narcissa Malfoy. "The Dark Lord will be pleased." There was a triumphant smirk on Bellatrix' sinister face as she stepped aside to let her sister pass. Mrs. Malfoy raised a long, dark wand, too large for her slender fingers. When she spoke the Killing Curse, the burst of poisonous green blinded Harry into oblivion.
Harry woke with a dim sense of surprise. If this is the afterlife, then I'm in hell; it hurts too much to be anything else! Maybe I'm still alive. Did she miss? Harry stared at the tiny pits and flaws in the concrete he was lying on – I'm still out on the street – then managed to turn his head with an effort and a groan of pain. Someone must've lifted the Petrificus.
He blinked in disbelief. Bellatrix' body lay sprawled a few inches away, an indistinct dark lump on the footpath.
Mrs. Malfoy crouched next to her sister, picking up her fallen wand and pulling the sleeve up Bellatrix' limp arm to bare the Mark, dark against her pallid skin. She muttered something long and complicated under her breath, touching the tip of Bellatrix' wand to it. The Mark flared bright green, but then the green died, swallowed by a burst of blue flame. The flame surged suddenly higher, devouring the body down to a pile of grey ash in mere seconds. Harry closed his eyes against the grisly sight; even as close as he was, he felt no heat from the unnatural blaze.
He didn't get a chance to wonder what would happen to him: at once Mrs. Malfoy marched over to him, seized his limp arm in two sharp-nailed hands, and hauled him to his feet.
Harry's breath went out of his lungs in a moan. His mind was too full of pain and disorientation to let a single thought form; his body felt as unresponsive as Bellatrix' corpse. He sagged helplessly against Mrs. Malfoy, stumbling as she pulled him toward Grimmauld Place. Dizzy, he collapsed against her shoulder as she halted by the overflowing rubbish bins of Number 11. Shabby Number 13 followed next.
"Fuck," she snarled under her breath.
Harry was too dazed to care. The world spun as if everything was already going down the drain. Failed, he forced the thought past the dizziness. Least when I'm dead the pain'll stop.
She seized his shoulder and shook him hard, sending his head lolling back and forth: the added dizziness was too much and he vomited abruptly, spraying both of them with bile. "Wake up!" she cried fiercely, "Where is it?"
"There," Harry's arm jerked up and waved, imprecise as a marionette in the hands of a child; he slurred with a tongue that felt as thick as a sponge, "NmbrTwelv." Don'care. FUCKitHURTS! C'n have th'dump. Sirius! Mum'n'Dad! dawned dimly in Harry's addled mind; he clung to the idea. If I let 'er in, I'll see 'em sooner. He leaned weakly against the scratched, shabby door, and fell over the threshold into darkness, as limp as a corpse falling into an open grave. Good.
Another painful prod sent hot pokers through his mind. Stop bloody prodding me! …Huh? Mrs. Malfoy?
His head was lifted and Harry choked on something cool and tasteless. Poison? he wondered for one brief, terrifying second. No, only water. He managed three gulps and pushed away the glass.
"Who else can get in here?" a voice murmured near his ear.
"Just me. Even the Floo's blocked." With a sick pang he realised what he'd just given away, and who he'd given it away to. No escape now. Even the Order members hadn't been able to enter Grimmauld ever since Sirius' will was read to him. Urgh, still feels like I'm drunk. Was that Veritaserum? But it doesn't work that fast. Does it? With a frantic effort, he forced his drooping eyelids open. He couldn't make out much in the dim light, but he could just see the corners of Mrs. Malfoy's lips curling in a very unpleasant smirk.
"Lie still," she ordered. Then his glasses were dropped unceremoniously on his chest.
Harry fumbled them on and squinted, trying to make sense of his surroundings as his vision cleared.
Mrs. Malfoy sat at his bedside, like a hospital visitor instead of a Death Eater. Though she looked cross, she wasn't acting much like the woman who'd stormed out of Madam Malkin's rather than spend a few minutes in the same shop as him. Questions crowded his mind; he summoned his strength to croak out the most pressing. "Why'd you kill your sister?"
"I'm not Narcissa, you cretin," she hissed before snatching up a bowl of foul-smelling yellow goo from the bedside table and dipping his hand into it. It felt slimy and cold and horrible but at least it didn't hurt, so he let it be for the moment. "Should've let you lie there and be dragged off to the Dark Lord. My life would've been much simpler for it."
When she'd picked up the bowl, she'd knocked over a hipflask that was also sitting on the table; its cork had been dislodged and as Harry watched, a grey, muddy substance oozed out.
Harry hadn't seen the yellow goo before, but he knew that grey sludge. It was the same stuff Hermione made, the same potion Slughorn showed them on the first day of term: Polyjuice.
As if echoing his thoughts, Mrs. Malfoy's body wavered like a mirage. Her hair and eyes darkened as tremors ran over her face, turning her delicate features harsh and ugly. Black eyes glared hatefully down a hooked nose. Greasy hair hung like limp curtains around a cruel face: the face of a traitor, a murderer.
Harry screamed, incoherent with fury as he lunged. His hands curved into strangling claws around Snape's throat.
They fell, grappling – Harry forwards, Snape backwards – hitting the wall with a sharp crack. Panelling, Harry wondered, or the bastard's spine? He wrenched himself free and backed away, yelling "Accio wand!" without much hope. But a dresser drawer flew open at once and his wand zipped through the air toward him; he snatched it out of thin air like a snitch and turned it on Snape. Snape's eyes had a sinister, dangerous glint to them. His long body coiled on the floor like a cornered serpent, readying for the final, maybe lethal, strike.
"Bravo!" Snape's mouth twisted in a smug smirk, and then the git declared in his classroom voice, "You've finally managed the basics of wandless casting. Now you might last, ohh, a whole ten seconds against the Dark Lord!"
"Yeah, you sadistic shit." Playing the teacher won't save you anymore. "Wanna bet it'll only take me five to send you to hell?"
"I see you still haven't learned anything else," Snape sneered, "Not even how to tell your allies from your foes. And here I thought Dumbledore taught you better than that."
The Headmaster's name felt like fuel thrown on the fire. "Don't you dare say his name! He trusted you, traitor!"
The accusation rang out like a death knell. In the choking silence afterwards, Snape's wand hand moved snake-fast and SECTUMSEMPRA! Harry didn't even have time to say the curse; it resonated through his mind and into his wand which was good 'cause that prick deserves to be cursed with his own invention and holy shit!
Snape was flung backward by the sheer force of impact as Harry's spell hit him with a sickening wet crunch. Like a rag doll he sprawled, amid the ruins of the nightstand and a clattering hail of small round phials of Mrs Black's perfumes-potions-poisons. Down the right side of his chest a gash gaped, as deep as an axe-blow.
He looks disappointed. In me? What's he got to be disappointed about? He always expected me to fail…
Blood already soaked the entire front of Snape's robes, saturating the dull wool, black on black. Harry was only sure he wasn't bleeding darkness because of the spray of red dripping down the side of his face and off the point of his nose. He slid his hands around Snape's shoulders and lifted him a little, to try and keep him from drowning in his own blood. Snape's eyes had rolled up in their sockets; his head lolled almost as if his neck was broken. The rusty reek of gore washed over Harry, heavy and hot, and his throat closed in a wave of nausea. He fought it down and tried to sing the healing chant, tried his best to imitate the tune he remembered Snape singing over Malfoy's body. He thought at first that it wasn't working, but then the sickening bleeding was stopping, and Snape's lips moved.
"Why did he trust you?" Harry cried, wanting to shake Snape, but not quite daring to do so.
Instead of answering, Snape rasped feebly, "Y'can't carry a tune in a bucket." Harry had to lean down to catch the next words: "Listen. Follow…" and a faint humming: the melody.
The tune sounded simple. Harry tried it. There was a wet, suctioning sound and Snape winced and choked, coughing up blood. Harry rubbed at Snape's rough-stubbled jaw to clear away the spray of gore. There was a much smaller gash on one side, as if his jaw had caught the upper edge of the same axe-swing that had split his chest. It's nearly closed. So the chant's working.
Snape's head still lolled limply. Looks like he's too weak to even hold it up. Harry slapped him, even if it was with much less strength than he'd meant to use. That made Snape look up and Oh, shit, Occlumens! Harry thought. Snape didn't even blink. Too late! An image was pushed into Harry's mind – a green bottle, in some dark and narrow cupboard – along with the wordless knowledge that the bottle held a healing potion.
Why did he trust you, you murdering fucker? Harry flung at the invader.
Mental fingers riffled swiftly through Harry's memories, just like he'd paged through the Half-Blood Prince's notes, and stopped on one particular scene: himself, standing in the Hospital Wing, telling Professor Lupin and the others that Dumbledore had trusted Snape because he'd expressed remorse. The last image – Lupin's disbelieving expression – lingered in Harry's mind's eye. Over it he heard the merest whisper of thought, threaded through with a tang of irony. Do you really think Grindelwald's killer trusted me just because I asked him to?
THEN WHY? roared Harry. But perhaps he'd used a little too much force. Or maybe Snape was underhanded even in the mental realm: whatever the reason, the contact was broken as Snape slumped against Harry, out cold.
Prick! Just had to have the last word, and without actually saying anything! What do I do now? Focus! I've got to make sure the wound's closed. Got to keep him alive. The potion in the cupboard! He must've wanted me to get it. Either that or he's completely delirious.
If I splinch trying to Apparate to somewhere that doesn't exist, I'll kill him! Harry gripped Snape's shoulders to him. Which won't be hard: all I'll have to do is sit back and let him die. At least he's lighter than I thought. Hell, he's skin and bone under this lot. Harry winced at the clammy feel of Snape's robes, heavy and sodden with blood. He cleaned the worst of the blood with a quick "Tergeo", then he concentrated on that cupboard in his memory. Hope it's real!
The memory was of a real place, after all: not quite the Potions storeroom Harry had expected, though it was almost as dark and cramped. Actually, it was a kitchen, and not even a wizarding one, judging by the battered old gas stove. The warped wooden cupboards lining the walls looked like they'd survived a fire and a flood. A rickety old table took up most of the middle of the room, leaving only a narrow path around it.
Harry dumped Snape in the only chair. Snape slumped over the table, lifeless, like the rest of the place.
The cupboards were dark, filled with cobwebs and a jumble of dusty jars and boxes. Harry dropped a few of them before he found the bottle that looked the most like the one he saw. Is it? Doesn't matter! Harry hauled on a handful of greasy hair until Snape's head tipped back, then poured the bottle down Snape's throat. The potion stank of iodine, and Snape spluttered and coughed. Harry shrugged inwardly. If this bottle doesn't work, I can always try some more. If the miserable shit lives.
He should do, Harry told himself after a pause. Unless I accidentally poisoned him. But who keeps poison in their kitchen? Still, Harry argued with himself, I suppose Aunt Petunia kept rat poison in hers, but… OWfuck! Harry banged his hip on the edge of the table for the umpteenth time. "Th'hell is this shitheap?"
"Snape Manor," a faint, mocking voice rasped behind Harry. "What'd y'expect?"
Harry jumped and whirled, banging against the damn table again. Manor? If this dump's a manor, then Grimmauld Place is a castle! Huh, looks like I found the right bottle after all. He grabbed Snape by the shoulders and shook him roughly. "Look at me!"
Instead of obeying, the git actually had the nerve to close his eyes, shutting out any attempts to penetrate his thoughts. "If even I couldn't train you to Legilimens your way out of a wet paper bag," Snape husked, "what makes you think you'll see the truth, when Voldemort himself failed?"
Harry jabbed his wand against Snape's neck. "For two cents I'll finish you off, you bastard!"
"If you kill me," Snape whispered, "you'll never find out why."
Yeah. The arsehole's right, damn him!
"If only he could see you now: the one he loved above all others," Snape's voice was still dry and weak, a far cry from the insinuating satin Harry remembered, "about to commit murder."
Harry felt Snape swallow, the Adam's apple shifting his wandtip; by way of reply, he dug it a bit further into the soft skin of Snape's throat.
"One student-turned-murderer was quite enough to serve his purposes," Snape croaked. "He wanted me to save Draco from sharing my fate; do you think he would've wanted less for you?" Snape opened his eyes at last, and looked up at Harry, but there was no hint of Legilimency in his weary gaze.
"Why would you even care?" Harry cried.
"Care?" Snape gave a dry, sardonic huff. "Good question. No one else does. Or did the Order never bother to tell you about the phoenix Patronus that's been relaying intelligence to them for months?"
Just when I think I've figured him out, he throws something like this at me, and it doesn't make any sense! He's a bloody traitor! He's not supposed to say things like this! Harry's eyes narrowed in mistrust. I shouldn't believe a word of it! But his wand hand wavered, just a bit. He knew Snape felt it through the tip still pressed to his throat, though the sod was careful to stay still.
"Did you think the Headmaster could still cast a Patronus?" Snape returned Harry's jabs, with words instead of a wand.
The bastard's probably playing me. Just trying to make me doubt his guilt, to distract me and… But what if he's telling the truth?
"Right," Harry spat abruptly, "Prove it!" I'm probably going to regret this, knowing that prick. He tossed the wand he'd confiscated from Snape onto the table, and backed away, watching him and keeping him at wand point all the while. "Cast." Harry gripped his own wand tighter, and stepped out of Snape's line of fire, just in case he tried a nonverbal spell.
Snape scooped the wand off the table as slowly as if it weighed a great deal. For a long moment he just sat there, with his head lowered and the wand cradled loosely in his lap. Clearly Harry'd given him too much credit. Snape's face was drawn and pallid, his head still down when at last he raised the wand. When he spoke, it sounded more like a plea than anything Harry'd ever heard him say.
The sallow light that followed was bright enough to fall harshly on the dark circles under Snape's eyes. Then the phoenix – a copy of Fawkes, in ghostly gold flame – settled on Harry's shoulder, just like the living bird used to do with Dumbledore.
Harry gaped at it; in his shock he forgot all about Snape. Impossible!
It crooned once, low and mournful, and dimmed in a wash of warmth. With Snape's Patronus gone, the drab, unlit kitchen only seemed even more dreary and Muggle. In the gloom, Snape slumped even lower in his seat, wand lax in his fingers. His head was bowed almost to his chest, and his hair had fallen forward, shrouding his face. He whispered, in tones as dry as dust, "Satisfied?"
Am I? Harry lowered his wand and crouched in front of Snape. "Are you all right?"
Snape's lips curled back like a cornered dog's, baring teeth as yellowed as any cur's. The dry, recurrent jag in his breathing that shook the bony shoulders was a pretty strong contender for Humourless Laugh of the Hour. Harry remembered quite a few of these coming from his own throat.
"Unless this is the antechamber to hell, then I'm alive. I suppose that qualifies as 'all right'." Snape husked. "It's a damn sight better than I expected to be, two seconds after you summoned your wand."
Harry spared a brief glance at the wreck of the kitchen; he had to admit that most of the wreckage had been caused by his own rapid search. Back in the Potions classroom, just one dropped phial would've made him go completely spare. Now, it's like none of this mess even exists. Is he out of it that badly? "This place doesn't quite look like hell," Harry said finally, "but you do. Is there an actual bed in this 'Manor' of yours?" he tried his best to impersonate Snape's mocking delivery of the word.
"Upstairs." Snape braced himself with a hand against the table and gathered himself for an attempt to stand. As he began to move, he bared his teeth in a silent snarl. Harry watched him, wondering if the freshly-sealed wound and the still-knitting bones would come undone with the effort, and Snape would fall apart right there, his chest hacked open like a carcass in a butcher shop.
Is he even going to make it? Should I get out of his way or… or maybe even help? I'd rather pat a cobra! But he looks like he hasn't got a single drop of blood left. All thanks to that curse. The one I cast. Shit! If Ron or anyone normal'd just been carved up like that, they'd be whimpering with pain or passed out by now, and I'd be taking them to St. Mungo's. I don't reckon that healing spell worked perfectly: I'm no mediwizard. I'm just lucky it worked at all.
Hesitantly, Harry offered an arm. "I can… maybe, er – if you want."
"Gnngh." An irritable shard of sound forced past clenched teeth.
"What?" Harry asked, but Snape apparently ran out of the energy to clarify and folded sideways, strengthless as a scarecrow. Harry took it as a 'yes'.
"Sitting room." Snape's jaw clenched as if choking down cries. His greasy head lolled against Harry's shoulder. His pallid skin was sheened with sweat; his breathing was shallow and rasping. He's worse off than I thought. If only the bull-headed bugger'd said something, instead of waiting till the last second to collapse!
"Bookcase," Snape gritted out.
Harry nearly dropped him. Bookcase? He's half dead and he wants books? He's bloody mental, worse than Hermione! Harry slung an arm around Snape's scrawny body and held him up. "Hang on. I'll… we'll get you there." Somehow.
The sitting room was even darker than the kitchen, like a large cupboard with a sofa and a table, and a cobweb-shrouded lamp empty of candles. Floor-to-ceiling bookcases lined all four of the bloody walls. "Which bookcase?"
Snape reached for one, his pale hand as bony as a Dementor's claw. At first Harry thought he was getting a book, but then one of the bookcases swung open with a creak, and behind it was a staircase, narrow and steep. Oh, brilliant. How am I supposed to get him up all those stairs?
By the time Harry did, he was cursing his own curiosity more than ever. Life would've been so much easier if I never wondered why Dumbledore trusted the sod. Ironically, he was no closer to an answer.
Harry watched Snape until his breathing evened out. Then he stumbled back down to the room filled with books. Snape's 'Manor' felt even more Muggle than the Dursleys' house, but it was far more cramped and squalid and shabby: a mere two-up-two-down row house by the looks of it, with enough dust and cobwebs to give Grimmauld Place a run for its Galleons. If not for the odd book out of place on the bookshelves and the half-finished bottle of elf-made wine in a corner of the sitting room, it would've looked unlived in: if anywhere as old and rundown as this dump really qualified as living space. Harry looked around for clues, in futile hopes of solving Snape's riddle, but the house revealed no more about its owner than the owner himself had.
He poked his head into the kitchen, picked the scattered potion bottles up off the floor and put them back in the cupboards.
The cupboard he'd used as Apparation coordinates was wide open and nearly empty, apart from a pencil drawing thumbtacked to the back of one door. He hadn't noticed it before, in his frantic search for the right potion, because its paper was so yellowed it blended into the cupboard's bare wood.
Strong, caricature lines showed a stern-faced woman in a hastily-sketched Muggle jumper with a toddler sitting in her lap. The toddler stared at the locket around her neck, fascinated by its shine, and his hands tugged at the locket's chain, twisting it round tiny fingers and tangling the chain into a knot. Harry blinked. A knot like that should've been impossible to make on a chain without a clasp.
The woman stared sternly down her sizeable nose. Her lips moved. Harry had to lean closer just to hear the words: a whisper barely louder than the crackle of paper. "Tsk! Put tha' back th' way t' was."
The infant stared up at her, his dark eyes wide. Defiantly, he tugged on the knot – just the right size for a small hand to hold – and used it to wiggle the chain up and down. "P'itty!"
The woman hmphed. "Aye, s'a 'pity' yeh've already got a mind o' yer own, innit, our Sev'rus?"
The mother and child in the sketch traded proud grins. But besides that yellowed old scrap of paper, Snape's kitchen seemed just as unlit and unlived in as the sitting room.
I haven't had anything to eat in ages. I don't suppose Snape'd mind too much, under the circumstances. Not that I'm about to ask; that'll just give the mingy bugger a chance to say no. A few more cupboards later, Harry realised that the kitchen contained far more potions than food. They seemed organised, but in a way that would've driven his house-proud Aunt Petunia mental. Maybe some of those bottles and jars had something edible in them, but Harry couldn't tell by looking whether that white powder was sugar or poison and come to think of it, Snape'd be just the type to keep a thousand different poisons at hand, so Harry wasn't about to risk taking a sniff of the stuff, much less a taste. He saw tea earlier in a bag next to the stove and the kettle was sitting on one of the burners. He had to pour out its contents first and Scourgify everything twice, including the teapot, before he felt game to make himself a cuppa.
As he drank, he wondered. Should I check on him? Make sure he's not dead? Or leave him be and get out? Has he got any more healing potions around here? He searched through his memory for the bits and pieces of mediwizardry he'd picked up from his frequent visits to Madam Pomfrey. I probably should go up at least once before I leave.
In the next hour Harry re-measured the sitting room one bookcase at a time, looking for a book that might contain healing spells. The dingy Muggle surroundings seemed to sap the magic from the very air, like a Dementor. Nothing. Dammit! He kicked the bottom shelf and jumped back immediately.
Did that book just growl at me? First sign of magic round here since Snape's Patronus. He bent down and there was just the sort of book he'd been looking for: The Healer's Helpmate, tucked in between Magick Moste Evile and Antient Bewychements et Charmes. Harry smiled at the familiar cover, just like the one he remembered seeing in the Burrow. He found a spot on the couch where the dislocated springs seemed less bumpy, and started reading. After a fair attempt to learn more about healing than what he knew from his past trips to the Hospital Wing, he closed it and headed for the stairs.
They were rickety enough to give a catburglar nightmares; the last one creaked so loudly in the silence that Harry jumped and nearly tumbled all the way back down.
He peeked through the open door at the bed. Its occupant was so silent and still Harry began to worry he might've died. But after a while Harry picked up the sound of faint breathing. He couldn't quite help a bit of a relieved sigh of his own. He stared for a while longer, trying to decide whether it was safe to leave Snape alone, and then took a step closer.
Now that he could see Snape's face, he could tell Snape was awake after all, watching Harry like a hawk through distrustfully narrowed eyes. He didn't speak, so Harry didn't either. There were no chairs, so Harry gathered his courage and sat on the foot of the bed, opening The Healer's Helpmate. "This says I" – he glanced down at the page and quoted – "'have to check if the bones knitted properly'…" He glanced up, cautiously gauging Snape's reaction.
Snape looked about as happy as a Bowtruckle faced by a lumberjack. He tensed and glared as Harry tried to pull his ripped robes apart to check for injuries. It's a wonder he's not snapping at my hand like one of Hagrid's pets. Through the gashes in fabric, the uneven scar looked swollen and sore.
"I wasn't quick enough to heal it." Harry winced. "It'll probably stay that way."
Snape stared at him in disbelief. His hands moved abruptly, shoving Harry's away from his chest, before gingerly peeling back the cut halves of his shirt. There was a net of old scratches and scars on his chest: some were almost as wide as the raw slice of Harry's
Snape stared warily. There was a flicker of something almost like hunger in his expression, but he hid it at once behind a scowl. "I 'want' you," he quoted derisively, "to piss off! Now that you've salved your precious Gryffindor conscience by patching up what you broke, I refuse to be your pet project any longer!"
"Fine!" Not without satisfaction, Harry slammed the door on his way out. The bastard's obviously better: he's already back to his usual shitty self. Slimy sods like him would probably survive the world's end. Stuff this for a lark, I'm off! With that, Harry Apparated back to the quiet alley off Mornington Crescent, and walked to Grimmauld Place. The shabby black door of Number Twelve had already become familiar to him over recent months. As he opened the door, the serpent knocker twisted itself briefly into a new shape: a silver heart.
After the Muggle drabness of Snape's dwelling, even the dark, sinister magic of Number Twelve Grimmauld Place felt refreshing. The candelabra in the front hall hissed its joint welcome: silver runespoors twined in pairs in their cobwebby nests. The portraits along the wall gave quiet snores. The shrunken elf heads along the stairway seemed to have waited for him to return: some ogling him, some frowning, and others sticking long tongues out and blowing raspberries. One disgruntled troll head in the middle – half the size of the house elves surrounding it but with a snout just as large – sniffed disdainfully. Perhaps the troll was small-headed to begin with, or its head had been over-shrunk. It always sniffed, and Harry didn't know if the troll didn't like the view of its hollowed-out leg being used for an umbrella stand, or if the sobby elf head above it – bawling and leaking tears – gave it a permanent cold.
I should probably clean Snape's blood off the floor, before the rugs develop a taste for human blood. Bad enough they chewed through my boots. But he didn't have enough energy left for a single spell much less a long trip up the stairs, so he didn't go further than the front hall. Serpent-shaped door handles gleamed and flicked their silver tongues, hissing: pick me, pick me! Curtains lifted from their portrait niches and windows as if borne on unfelt breezes, to flutter and brush against his robes. Grimmauld Place welcomed him with creaking floorboards, swirling dust motes, and probably many more bloodstains in its upstairs rooms, Evanesco-ed or covered up with thick Persian rugs. The persistent silvery mould in the hall blended in with the constantly swirling dust motes. The mould had its own favourite spots: lightly framing the frayed curtains, climbing up the carved legs of the tables, filling in damp niches in wallpapered halls that hadn't seen light in decades.
The mould never touched the library books. When Harry entered the library and drew a deep breath of that still air, he noticed it smelled different from the rest of Grimmauld Place. It wasn't any fresher, but it was drier; it had its own exotic scents of papyrus and parchment, ink and leather. The book covers gleamed as if late at night all the grimoires gathered in pairs and threes, and lovingly groomed each others' spines like cats with their tongue-bookmarks.
Here, the world made sense, even if everything that'd happened outside in the past twenty-four hours – his Sectumsempra, Snape's disappointed glare, Snape's Patronus, Snape's shabby little row-house with its crooked kitchen cupboards and wall-to-wall bookcases – was a complete mess. Here, Harry could forget that he'd almost become as much of a monster as Voldemort, that he'd come far too close to killing someone, without remorse. Even if that someone was Snape, even if he deserved it. That's what Voldemort does. I never want to hurt someone like that again, and not feel a thing.
When Harry sat with a book on his lap, thinking of what all these page-rustling volumes got up to when no one was watching, he smiled, careless and genuine.
"M'sorry," he told the books as they glided off the shelves to his feet, as light as paper planes. "When I tried to give you away to Mrs. Malfoy. I mean, not her: Snape. The Snape Mrs Malfoy. Or maybe the Mrs. Malfoy Snape." He thought about it for a while. "Mrs. Snape-Malfoy? Oh bloody hell! S'just. I didn't mean it, all right?" The books rustled agreeably and nudged at his ankles like affectionate cats.
It felt like coming home after a long day.