Story Notes: I do believe this is the longest chapter of this story I have ever written. Good news is, I'm not expecting this to "last" for a while...summer is almost here! And I shall be finishing this story over the next few months. :-)
Chapter 17: An Early Night
Harry stood in the middle of the Owlery floor, crunching bits of hay and bird droppings beneath his trainers, and absently stroking the soft spot between Hedwig's eyes.
The breeze was warm this afternoon, and it blew the hay and dust in a whirlwind around Harry's feet, sticking it to his jeans. It had been some time since Harry was able to visit Hedwig, so the dirt hardly mattered. He wasn't paying attention to the mess at his feet anyway.
Harry's tea-with-Dumbledore had been about as eventful as tea with one moody professor and a nearly-silent headmaster could get: the tea had tasted like toilet water, even with three lumps of sugar, Professor McGonagall, returning from her holiday, had bustled through the Great Hall, as tight-lipped as always (making Snape even moodier), and every time Harry had asked a question about Sirius Black or Azkaban or criminals in general, he'd gotten a sideways look from Snape that was somewhere between a squint and a glare. A look that told Harry that Neville Longbottom probably asked better questions.
Then again, Neville asked no questions.
Maybe that's what Snape wanted.
A breath of cool air drifted through the open door of the Owlery, rustling the downy feathers on Hedwig's back. Harry combed them back into place with his fingertips. Reaching into his jacket pocket, Harry broke off the corner of a scone and treated Hedwig, smiling a bit as she hooted softly into his palm.
The four-o'clock bell chimed in its tower.
From where Harry stood, he could just see the top of the Astronomy Tower through the gaping brick window. The sky was white-gray and overcast—still light—and Snape had said he would be back before it got dark.
It's hardly any of your concern, is it? Snape had replied woodenly when Harry had asked him where he was going.
You remember what I said.
Harry remembered. He thought it was right stupid—not asking questions—and he didn't like it, but he hadn't forgotten.
Snape had also told Harry he could visit the Owlery until half past four, as if the trek there and back acted as a sort of consolation for Snape's being a git. Or for making Harry drink toilet tea.
Either way, his professor wasn't so good at compensating.
But a tiny compartment of his heart told Harry that he probably deserved having to deal with Snape's silence; after all, he'd clammed up as well. Not to mention, ge had completely mucked up his lesson in stunning spells today.
Kicking bits of hay out of his way as he dragged his feet to the other wall, Harry leaned over the ledge of the opposite window—the one that faced the Forbidden Forest—and let the wind tousle his fringe.
He thought of Ron and wondered if the wind felt this good in Egypt. Probably loads hotter. And spicy-smelling, like cinnamon or hot peppers… or both.
A strong wind shook the distant leaves. It didn't smell spicy at all; it smelt of dirt. And rain.
Would a thunderstorm soak the forest floor, or would the leaves act as an umbrella? Harry had only been there once, not counting yesterday, and it hadn't been raining then.
In the midst of all his thinking, Harry realized that he'd been chewing on his fingernails. Snape hated that—said it made Harry look like a mangy cat, cleaning its paws. Or maybe it was a woodchuck. Harry glanced down at his shortened nails. He resumed his nibbling as his eyes scanned the forest. Glancing back at Hedwig (who, ironically, was pecking at one of her claws) kept Harry's eyes in check for a brief moment. But soon enough, his attention was drawn back to the corner of the forest near Hagrid's hut.
The one place Harry knew he shouldn't look.
His other hand remained in his jacket pocket, pressing scone crumbs between his fingers.
Harry wouldn't even have to go into the forest this time, he had decided: just toss the pastry in from the edge. If the dog was as clever as Harry thought, it would find the food in no time.
And then Harry would tell Hagrid about what he had seen, leaving out the part about the scone, of course. Hagrid would feed the black dog.
With all the raw steak Hagrid fed his bloodhound, Fang hardly touched his kibble anyway.
Thunder rumbled in the distance, drowning out the nerve-splitting tap of a thick yellow fingernail on a half-empty glass.
The tapping returned to Severus' ears, more insistent. He directed an unimpressed scowl across the table.
"Well?" The redheaded man slurped his ale, sloshed it around his teeth as he waited for Severus to speak. He swallowed noisily, choking a bit.
"Not a trace of it."
A phlegm-filled cough. "Not even a bit of a twinge?"
"Could've sworn the other day my whole forearm was burnin' right fiercely—"
"Nothing, Gibbon," Severus ground out between clenched teeth, his eyes reflecting the fire that flickered over both of their heads off the wick of a hanging candle. "Nothing."
The corner booth was murky, save for the square of daylight coming through the open window of the Hogshead Pub and the single-flame chandelier that swung between them whenever a breeze sliced a path through the sooty air of the pub. In the absence of light, Severus could hardly see the film of filth that covered the surface of the table he shared with the Irishman. He could feel it however.
Just as he could feel the silent anxiety that gripped the shoulders of Doherty Gibbon like a painful embrace—the same fear that had clouded the sharp blue eyes when Severus had come face-to-face with the man eleven years ago on a cobblestone street in the small Irish village that now held Hadrian's Elixirs. Nearly two years after the defeat of the Dark Lord. The apothecary… the alias—nothing but an escape plan for the man who taken the Mark on the same night as Severus had. But now, there was something beyond the apprehension that flashed in the blue eyes at the mention of his Dark Mark burning, something Severus hadn't seen on the afternoon he had demanded answers from Gibbon behind the curtain that concealed Hadrian's laboratory.
Something akin to hunger. Hope.
Severus pushed away his half-drunk tumbler of bourbon and forced his features slack. "You traveled here from Foreglen to tell me this…"
"Thought you, of all people, would like t' know, Sev'rus." Gibbon drank deeply from his glass of dark ale, his eyes darting toward the noises coming from behind the counter. Beads of perspiration stood out on his red forehead.
"And you, of all people, should realize that I require no telling of such things. I will always be the first to know."
Gibbon drained his glass, licked his lips. He blinked in flutters, tapping the sticky table with his thumbs. "Got your boy under lock and key now, have you?" Gibbon muttered, changing the subject. "Now that Black's been spotted round 'ere."
Severus blinked. "Another rumor," he returned, forcing his tone into one of dismissal. "The Daily Prophet reporters flock to those with little credibility: short-witted imbeciles who see what they wish to see. Never mind that," Severus scoffed. "Keep to your… personal inquiries, Gibbon, as those contacts are most important. I have spoken with Lucius Malfoy—he, too, has heard nothing."
Both pairs of eyes flicked toward the bartender, Aberforth, who looked no more interested in their conversation than in the dusty tumblers he was wiping.
Severus eyed Gibbon's flushed face with disdain. "Subtlety, you fool," he muttered through stiff lips. "Master it before you contact me again—next time with news worth hearing." He pressed a galleon onto the table, leaving Doherty Gibbon alone with his drink.
"You could always collect it if it's still there in a bit, you know—bring it back to me." Harry peered down at the pastry that sat at the edge of the forest, untouched. Rain spattered his arms and flecked his glasses, but he didn't quite care about that; he was waterproof, after all. Bread wasn't.
Harry's fringe danced around his forehead as much as the leaves shook on the trees. He pushed his hair back and held it there, safe from the wind. Hedwig swooped around trees and landed on Harry's forearm. "That way," he continued to talk to his owl, "I'd know the dog wasn't there anymore. Wouldn't have to carry on." Harry dragged his knuckles under Hedwig's chin. "You know?"
She blinked at him—once.
"You might eat it yourself, though," Harry said thoughtfully, still petting. "Be a bit pointless, then, wouldn't it—ouch!" Harry shifted Hedwig to his other arm and sucked on the side of his finger where he'd just been nipped.
Another wide-eyed blink.
Her claws dug in as she launched off of Harry's arm, arching gracefully through the branches despite the rain that was now dripping down Harry's cheeks. Diving low, Hedwig caught the scone in her feet and flew deeper into the blackness of the forest.
Harry took a step forward and then hesitated, his heart pounding in his ears with feverish thuds. He glanced back toward the castle; thick storm clouds hovered between the gables. The half-hour wouldn't chime for a long while, and when it did, Harry would be running through the Entrance Hall anyway.
Pushing his damp hair away from his eyes, Harry glanced over his shoulder at Hagrid's empty hut—and then once more toward the castle. Hedwig hooted from somewhere close by as Harry walked into the forest.
He had only gone a short way when he spotted Hedwig perched on a low branch, the captured food resting next to her. Harry held out his arm. "Just leave it there," he called, nodding toward the scone. "I was only joking. Come on."
A low hoot was the only response. Crumbs fell from the tree as Hedwig clutched the bread in her claws and flew in even deeper.
"Wait," Harry groaned. "Hedwig…"
Rain smacked against the blanket of leaves overhead but Harry hardly felt a drop of it. Thunder surrounded him, as though he were in a drum. His eyes adjusted in the cool darkness as he kept moving.
A minute later, Harry spotted a blur of white zipping behind a large tree trunk in the distance. Something hit the ground and tumbled a few feet.
Relieved, Harry trotted forward, working up a few choice words for his owl.
Another blur of white flashed from behind the tree.
Harry's trainers skidded in the dirt, catching him just before he fell backwards. His entire body broke out in gooseflesh. He suddenly became very aware of the rain on his face, the water trickling down his glasses.
An arm had reached out—a torso hardly thicker than the arm. But that wasn't what had Harry's feet frozen to the ground. It was the face that followed.
The dark-ringed eyes—hollowed, but wide with shock—held his own. The black hair hung on the white shoulders like a soiled curtain.
Neither of them moved for a long moment. And then, without warning, the blood rushed back into Harry's legs, his arms, his fingertips—the sensation was almost painful. He heard himself making panicked noises that didn't sound like his voice as he jerked his shirt up and scrambled for his wand with wet, shaking fingers.
"Wait—" The voice was dusty; the words hardly croaked.
Harry saw the movement in his peripheral vision, heard the snapping of twigs, but he forced his mind and hands to focus on retrieving the wand from his front pocket.
He'd jerked too hard; the stick slipped from his cold fingers, rolling in the dirt. Harry lunged for it.
"Wait!" The voice rasped again. "Harry—"
A third flash of white, landing on the forest floor with a sickening thud.
Harry grasped his wand in a gray-knuckled fist, his whole arm trembling as he gaped in horror at Hedwig lying sprawled and petrified near Sirius Black's feet.
Another strange sound came from Harry's throat, somewhere between a dry sob and a laugh—a sound so stupid that Harry was almost certain he was in the midst of waking up from a nightmare. His hands were dead limbs again.
Black remained half-crouched, frozen in place, his arms outstretched, his fingers spread. His eyes dashed from Harry to the owl on the ground. "Is she yours?"
Harry clutched his fringe in a fist; he shook his head, afraid Hedwig might be finished off.
"No?" The voice was grainy, but the question was gentle, human.
Harry stared at Black, who hadn't moved from his position; he could feel his heart pounding in his forehead, his lips.
Black shifted his feet the tiniest bit, no more than a breath of a movement; his eyes followed Harry's wand. "I am completely unarmed," he croaked. "No wand—not even a pocket knife." Black lifted his hands higher as proof. The voice that drifted from the sunken face didn't seem to belong to it. "I'm not going to hurt you. I promise you that."
Harry's head spun. This man was a murderer. Had slaughtered a dozen people; wasn't that what the article said? Snape?
"How do you know my name?" Harry managed through a dry throat. "No—" His fingers twisted round the wand. "—don't move."
"Not a toe." Black promised, shaking his head. He wetted his lips, twitched his nose—more movements that didn't belong to such a face, somehow—such papery skin. "I knew your dad before he died," Black explained. "My best mate. Did you know that?"
Harry didn't say anything. His brain had gone numb.
The deadness lifted its veil from Black's eyes for a flicker of an instant. "You look like him. You always did."
Suddenly realizing his wand arm had gone slack, Harry shook the cobwebs out of his head and tightened his grip. He couldn't stop his trembling, however. Even his trousers were shaking.
"You know who I am, then?"
Harry opened his mouth to speak, but his tongue had become a dried prune. He felt his head jerk in a single nod.
"Your aunt and uncle told you?" Black continued. And then, almost to himself, he rationalized, "Or the papers? Both, probably. Yeah?"
Aunt and uncle? Papers?
Nothing was making sense. The leaves waving overhead, the rain soaking his hair—none of it seemed real. Colors were bursting in Harry's eyes. He felt his body squat down; his palms felt the sharpness of dried leaves and sticks. He couldn't remember a single spell.
Sirius Black isn't a game, Harry, Snape's voice rang out like a peculiar lullaby in Harry's ears, a hologram of his face swimming among the sparks and colors.
Harry blinked hard, but the colors only became worse. A voice floated overhead. Harry felt pressure on his neck… on his hands. Snape's hands?
He was in bed, then. It had to be a nightmare. It was a nightmare.
"…you hear me?"
The voice was an echo. Harry's brain grasped at the sound like a rope pulling him out of the ocean. A lifeline.
No, Harry thought. I'm not. You were right again.
The thunder had stopped, but the wind still howled.
The soles of Harry's shoes slapped against the sodden grass; his jeans were soaked. All of him was soaked. The castle loomed up ahead; it seemed an hour before Harry would get there. The sky was deep gray and purple now, muddy from the storm clouds—Snape would most definitely be back by now.
Harry's brain was still spinning, his thoughts so jumbled that he nearly bumped his nose into the door of the Entrance Hall; he had made it to the castle without realizing it. Harry leaned against the handle and caught his breath for a moment, pushing his hands into his wet pockets to stop them from trembling. Ever since his dizzy spell had passed, Harry hadn't been able to stop shivering.
A minute passed.
Still, his brain couldn't seem to piece together the dream-like bits of the last half-hour. Surely, he was hallucinating. Had fallen down the Owlery steps and bumped his head.
Maybe the afternoon tea really had come from the toilet…and now, Harry was reaping its effect.
He pulled off his glasses and screwed his knuckles against his eyes. He blinked and looked around once he could see again.
Yes, he was definitely still outside of the castle.
I haven't stepped foot in there for over a decade, Sirius had said, gazing out between the trees as if he could see the castle in the darkness.
Sirius. Harry was supposed to call him that.
Your dad called me Padfoot—sometimes, anyway.
It wasn't yet seven o'clock, but the lanterns mounted on either side of the staircase leading down to the Dungeons were fully lit. One by one, the people in each portrait turned their heads, like falling dominoes, to watch Harry tiptoe down the stairs, his trainers squeaking on every step; a trail of wet footprints glittered in the lantern light behind him.
This is your friend in the picture? Sirius had inquired of Harry with genuine astonishment as he'd held the crumpled bit of newspaper under a giant leaf so he could show it to Harry without getting the ink wet. You can see how the rat is missing a toe, can't you…
An identical, smoother picture of Ron and his family in Egypt still hung on the wall behind Harry's bed.
His bed which was only a few sharp turns and a long corridor trek away.
Harry's skin broke out in a fresh layer of goosebumps—usually the tell-tale sign that he was walking through the Dungeons. But this time, the prickly feeling in his arms and legs had nothing to do with the cold.
The door to Snape's chambers was locked, as it always was. Peeling his shirt away from his skin, Harry reached for his wand to tap the incantation, but before he could even slip it out of his waistband, the door clicked open.
Harry whipped around; beads of rain trickled from his hair down the back of his neck as he gaped up at someone three heads taller and equally as storm-soaked.
If it weren't for the dots of illumination on the wall, Harry might have been staring up at a stack of man-sized seaweed. Black hair sticking to his pale face... Black smart shirt clinging like an extra skin... Snape looked positively horrid when caught in the rain.
Horrid and very unhappy.
Unconsciously, Harry began smoothing the hair way from his own face, as if Snape might not notice. His efforts were futile, however, as a tiny puddle of water was already forming around his trainers. If Harry's thoughts were disconnected before, it didn't compare to the way they were overlapping each other at that very moment—piled onto one another, fighting for breath. Harry wasn't sure which condition was worse.
Snape stared at him, unblinking, for a moment longer.
Harry tugged at his t-shirt.
"Where have you been?" The words came out slowly, deliberately stretched as if they were thrown into a taffy pull.
Harry left his shirt alone, choosing to study Snape's shoes instead. "I got caught in the rain," Harry half-fibbed. "I didn't mean to."
I didn't mean to frighten you, Sirius had promised, once Harry had felt well enough to stand again. I look an awful sight, I'm sure. I haven't seen my reflection in years.
Harry found himself blinking centimeters away from Snape's nose, his chin held up by three long fingers.
"You spent over two hours visiting your owl?"
Harry opened his mouth to speak but ended up closing it just as quickly, swallowing deeply instead.
"I asked you a question," Snape said in a voice of deceptive calm—one Harry recognized all-too well. "Where have you been?"
Attempting to wet his lips, Harry shifted his chin against Snape's grasp.
"Hm?" Snape's nostrils flared to a dangerous circumference.
"No, sir," Harry said more clearly.
"The Quidditch pitch, then?"
You play Quidditch like your dad did? He was better than I was.
Snape added a thumb to his chin-hold.
"I didn't go there," Harry mumbled, finding it just as difficult to look at the specks of rain on Snape's nose as it was to stare straight into those black pits Snape claimed as eyes.
"Look at me."
Black pits it was.
The creases in Snape's face stood out in an almost bewildered way; his frown scanned Harry from glasses to trainers, and back to the glasses. "What's happened?"
What's happened can't be changed, Sirius had explained sadly. And I'll more than understand if you'd rather not help me.
"Huh?" Harry blinked his eyes at an even closer view of Snape's nose. Part of him wished to tell Snape so badly that his throat ached. Another part of him realized how bizarre his story sounded—finding Sirius Black in the Forbidden Forest instead of the dog he had been feeding; a Sirius Black who hadn't killed him on the spot. But a larger part of Harry—the brightest part—understood that if he were having a hard time believing what had just happened, Snape certainly wouldn't.
Snape straightened slowly from his crouch like an old man with a bad back. He lifted his wand to dry Harry's clothes.
Harry hadn't even realized he was clenching his teeth against the cold until he felt his jaw relax.
"Go inside and take a hot shower," Snape ordered, still frowning down at Harry as though he were the one with seaweed for hair. "Get into your pajamas and then come into my chambers. We are far overdue for a very long discussion, young man."
"I'm—I'm warm," Harry heard himself mutter, "now that you dried me."
Using one arm to push open the door and the other to steer Harry, Snape leaned down again and nodded toward the room. "Immediately," he enunciated so proficiently that Harry could see Snape's molars.
Which was never a good thing.
Harry slipped through the crack in the door, silently toed off his muddy trainers by the hearth, and even began pulling off his t-shirt as he made his way toward the bathroom. He could feel Snape watching him all the way through the common room, even though he knew Snape couldn't see him.
It wasn't until Harry was standing under the hot water that the fuzziness in his head was replaced with the heaviness of his heart. He felt like crying, but he knew he wouldn't. People don't just sneak around, telling horrible lies, and then go off and cry about it.
But it was more than just the lying. Harry had spent nearly two hours getting drenched by the rain alongside the very man he was supposed to be avoiding at all costs.
If only Harry had been accurate with his Stunning spell, then he wouldn't have known that a man like Sirius Black was capable of showing Harry how to reverse the spell to save his owl.
But what if he hadn't missed.
The water had turned cooler, and Harry had forgotten to use shampoo, but he stepped out of the shower anyway, his stomach lurching the whole time he toweled off.
As he wandered back into the darkness of his dormitory, Harry waited for a stroke of brilliance to come crashing over him while he climbed into his pajama bottoms and pulled on a fresh t-shirt and a pair of socks.
The sitting room of Snape's chambers glowed in the distance.
Shuffling his feet through the common room, Harry took an extra few seconds to clean his glasses on his t-shirt before entering.
Snape was sitting straight as a clothespin in his favorite armchair; his eyes dragged over from the fire and settled on Harry. Something in his face had changed, something Harry hadn't seen in a long time.
Harry no longer felt like crying; he felt like running.
A single nod toward the sofa.
The sound of Harry's socks swishing against the rug was abnormally loud, as was the creaking of the leather cushion as he sat, watching Snape as carefully as his professor had been watching him earlier.
Snape continued to stare at him.
Harry's toes didn't hang above the carpet now; he could almost rest them flat—strange time to notice that. Couldn't look at much else.
"Anything you wish to tell me?"
More creaking of the sofa.
"Get those away from your mouth; you look like an animal."
Harry sat on his hands.
No, not nothing, Harry's brain screamed at him. Everything. Anything and everything.
He shook his head.
A long moment passed, and then Snape stood, his own chair creaking louder than Harry's cushion. Harry dug his toes into the carpet, eyeing Snape warily, knowing exactly where he was heading. Snape's discussions usually involved nothing but discussing—arguing, sometimes—but with the way Snape's eyes were narrowed…
Snape was in his office, moving toward his desk.
The drawer that held…
The bookshelf? Not the drawer.
Snape closed his office door, carrying a thick volume underneath his arm. Did he keep a spare one inside?
Harry flinched as the book landed on the table in front of his kneecaps, instantly flipping through about a third of the pages. He looked up at Snape in confusion.
"Entry number six on page 274," Snape said thinly. "Read it."
Scooting forward, Harry scanned the page; a slow flush crept up Harry's body, starting with his toes. "It's a di—"
"Dictionary," Snape supplied. "Standard Oxford. You've seen it before in primary school. And you certainly know how to read, so do just that. Now."
Harry stared at the words, his pride wounded. "I get it," he croaked. "I don't have to read it."
"Oh, you do," Snape said sternly, jerking the chair closer to the backs of his knees and sitting so that he was eye level with Harry. "I am not asking you to dazzle us with your recitation skills. I am telling you." He pointed directly to the text he wished for Harry to read.
"I won't," Harry said shakily. He gritted his teeth and stared straight into Snape's eyes; the black pits could swallow him up for all he cared. He could feel tears of frustration and embarrassment gathering at the corners of his own eyes, but Harry didn't care. He could stare, too—just as long as Snape.
Snape closed the book. A vein pulsed in his throat.
"While you were showering, Argus Filch entertained me with a shocking report of your whereabouts this afternoon," Snape said quietly. "He saw you enter, saw you leave. Where, do you suppose?"
Harry swallowed several times. It was useless to lie anymore. Snape knew. Harry lost the staring contest. "The forest."
"The Forbidden Forest."
More swallows. "Yes, sir."
"You knew what that word indicated when you were eleven, even when you were twelve," Snape continued more severely. "Are you exempt from the rules of this school now that you are thirteen?"
Harry shook his head.
"You're not denying where you have been, then."
Harry forced himself to look up; he swiped angrily at the tears that escaped down his cheeks. "No, sir."
Scraping his chair even closer, so that his knees almost bumped into Harry's, Snape gripped Harry around the shoulders. "Why?" he growled, giving Harry a little shake. "Why would you do such a thing?"
Harry shook his head miserably. "I'm sorry."
"I do not care." Two more shakes. "Not this time. Now, why did you go into that forest?"
Two more tears raced down his cheeks and into his ear canals; Harry glared at Snape, feeling anger he couldn't explain. He wanted the black pits to read his mind, not to look heavy and disappointed.
"Why can't you tell me truth?"
Once the Ministry knows the truth, they will go searching for the real murderer—I just know it.
Harry tried his own pleading look.
It didn't work. Snape's lips went gray again.
He kept his grip on Harry's shoulders, depositing him over his knee. "This has been long overdue as well."
Harry's toes skimmed the ground now, and he vaguely realized that it had been three-quarters of a year since he had found himself in this position. That, alone, hurt.
"You may be thirteen, Harry, but you do not get to decide what puts you in danger," Snape lectured as he cleared away all obstructions protecting the target of his rage. "I will not have it. I never have. And the sooner you learn this, the sooner this stops."
Neither of them made a sound for the first half-minute's worth of bare-handed smacks, but, just as the last time, Harry was the first to crack.
"You are never exempt. Never. Do you understand?"
Harry choked out a jumbled apology. Whenever he thought back to the memory of this, he always swore that the humiliation—the degradation—was the worst part. Nothing so ridiculous and babyish could hurt this much, could slice into his soul and make him sorry for every wrongdoing he had ever committed. But just like over half a year ago, it did.
And Snape was still going strong. "Forbidden means forbidden."
"Is that clear?"
The blood had rushed to Harry's head, but he tried to nod all the same. Soon after, Harry was back on his feet, standing on shaky legs with his pajama trousers twisted round his waist, but returned to him, at least. He felt himself guided to his recovery place—the sofa—but Harry shook his head, still hiccoughing through his tears, and walked toward the common room, back to his dormitory.
Snape didn't follow him, and Harry was glad. The spanking hadn't eased any of his guilt in the least; he felt even more wretched than before. He didn't want to see anybody ever again.
Nothing ever went the way Harry wished it would, however.
An hour later, or maybe two—Harry was hardly keeping track—he heard the knock. The tears had gone, along with most of the stinging, but Harry wasn't getting out of bed for anything. Tough luck he hadn't accidentally Stunned himself this afternoon. That would have solved everyone's problems.
The door opened without his permission; Harry knew it would.
The lanterns on the walls seemed far too cheerful as they came to life, even though the room remained mostly dim.
Harry felt the mattress dip. He moved his legs over to the far side of the bed, but otherwise, he didn't acknowledge the second body in the room.
"You should know by now that silence only breeds something much worse."
There was no anger in the words this time—not even a hint of warning—but Harry didn't know what to say, so he settled for studying the numbers on his bedside clock instead.
"At your age, I expect your pride is smarting a good deal more than your backside," Snape went on in the same even tone, as though he had expected Harry to ignore him. "But your earlier silence had nothing to do with your pride."
Snape let the words hover for a while. Harry's back heaved with a sigh, even though he didn't want it to.
"I am not sorry for punishing you," Snape said resolutely. "You know very well you had that coming. However…"
The numbers on the clock blurred out of focus as Harry turned his chin slightly. He was listening now.
"I find your behavior this afternoon out of character, even for you. Sneaking out-of-bounds… you know far better than that."
Harry felt himself flush all over again.
"And then the lying…" Snape must have felt Harry shift, because he continued, "Oh, yes, Harry. Silence of that sort is akin to bold-faced lying. And, again, you know better. But your silence doesn't anger me; it concerns me."
Harry eased onto his back to find Snape perched on the end of his bed; he had discarded his smart shirt for a more casual one; he hadn't bothered to tuck in the tails. Snape wasn't joking—his eyes had lost their angry gleam; he just looked very tired…and much less like his professor self.
"I hate lying," Harry finally mumbled; his voice sounded deep and gravelly from all the choking he'd done, on his own tears. He focused hard on the maroon canopy hanging over his bed, but he could still sense Snape's nod.
"I know you do."
Harry propped his head up with a forearm behind it; he swallowed, praying to every god he'd ever known existed that he wouldn't go all watery again.
"You are, without a doubt, the worst liar I have ever come across, Potter."
The familiar line was strangely comforting.
"One of your better attributes…"
Harry's chest heaved with a sigh this time. Harry felt Snape's hand squeeze his kneecap.
"You have taken your medicine." Snape kept his gaze straight ahead, but his hand remained on Harry's knee. "It's time to tell me, Harry."
Harry pushed himself up, his face very close to Snape's shoulder. He sat quietly for a moment, working up the nerve for what he said next: "You have to let me tell you, though. You can't go mental, okay?"
"You're going to anyway, but please don't," Harry begged.
Shifting back towards his pile of pillows, Harry sat on his hands to keep from chewing his nails.
"Swear it," Harry prompted.
"I swear nothing."
Harry took out his animalistic instincts on his bottom lip instead. And then he told Snape everything—the black dog (what Sirius called an Ani-something) and how Harry thought he had been feeding that instead of a convicted criminal, the picture of the rat, Stunning (an un-Stunning) Hedwig, the promise Harry had made…
By the end of it, Harry was sitting cross-legged and clutching a pillow to his stomach.
Snape appeared as placid as Albus Dumbledore on a summer picnic, except for the slow, deep breaths that lifted his shoulders and dropped them, lifted and dropped…
"I wanted to tell you," Harry said after a bit of silence passed. He wasn't sure if he felt better or not. "I just… I dunno… I didn't know how to explain it." And I thought you would hate me.
"Where is he now?" Snape's shoulders picked up speed.
"Er… still there, I guess," Harry mumbled. "But you aren't—"
"An early night for you," Snape cut in, tugging the corner of the blankets out from under Harry's bottom and holding them back. "In."
Harry felt sick all over again. "Professor, you promised! You said you believed me!"
Dropping the blankets, Snape leaned forward and cupped Harry's face in his hands—something he'd never done before. "Look at me."
Harry looked; it was much harder to look worried with Snape's palms smashing his cheeks together.
"You must trust me."
"You must obey. You must not ask questions. I heard every word you said." Snape gave him a gentle shake. "Every word."
Harry found it easier to look him in the eye this time. He nodded.
"An early night for you," Snape repeated. "Is that understood?"
Snape kept his hands on Harry's face for an instant longer. Nodding tightly, he pulled back the covers and waited silently for Harry to lie back. He tucked the blankets under Harry's armpits: the way he always slept. The room went dark again. Harry felt his glasses slipped from his nose, felt a warm hand on his forehead.
And then he was alone.
End Notes: Thanks for all of your continued support as I trudge my way through the end of this school year (it's been a doozy)...knowing that people are still reading and enjoying really helps me keep up with this story, so thanks for your reviews.
A special thanks to Tabitha (ObsidianEmbrace) for putting aside her own writing (and probably using toothpicks to keep her eyes open) just to beta this chapter... Her newest story Our Very Own Sirius Black is breathtaking and involves a lot of young Sirius/James' father mentoring/parenting action. Be sure to check it out!