Chapter 18: What is Owed
The crackling was everywhere. It came from the mist that had frozen into veins along the tree bark. The crackling was in the cold air—clammy, white, fish belly air that stuck to faces, gloved hands.
A massive cloud crept nervously across the wrinkled sky, having already poured its angry tears, soaking the tangled black hair and spattering the boy's glasses; the thunder had thrown its tantrum. The cloud had watched the scene below hours later; the thunder hadn't been shouting that time, but the man in the torn clothing had, his heels scraping in the mud as he was dragged off. The forest branches had waved a solemn goodbye to the passing storm, to the man being carried by the figures with gray faces. The cloud ignored them.
Another man with blacker hair, drier hair, was in the forest now. This man didn't seem to mind the lingering darkness. The sky rumbled once more—its final pout—and the cloud drifted from the scene.
The man remained. At least one of them had.
The strange cold crackled in Severus' kneecaps. It wasn't until he had been crouched and silent, crouched and still, for several minutes—an hour, perhaps—that Severus knew his age. Thirty-four years old was too young to notice the pain in one's kneecaps. But Severus could handle the effects of age on his body as long as his mind remained intact.
Meticulous. Isn't that what Professor Slughorn had written on his Potions essay after awarding Severus a handful of consecutive Outstandings? Meticulous as always, Severus. Yes, Severus had paid careful attention to detail, even then. Someone had to. Somehow, however…somehow Severus' meticulousness had landed him next to a tree that surrounded a clearing in the Forbidden Forest. Judging by the half-smothered pile of sticks that once fostered a fire and the few bits of parchment that were wrestling with the yew leaves in the wind, this was a lived-in clearing. An empty clearing. Silent, save the crackling.
A piece of blowing newspaper skittered to a halt over the toe of Severus' shoe. The Weasley boy's photograph grinned up at him through smeared ink. The rat on the boy's shoulder twitched. Severus snatched it, crumpled the little idiot's smile between his fingers; he shoved the damp wad into the pocket of his robes.
So Harry had been telling the truth.
The forest was still murky with darkness; it was well after midnight. But as Severus ran his thumb over a strip of bark, he knew.
Ice had already formed in the grooves. It was August. It was the middle of summer, and Severus could still see the gentle smoke of his breath steaming round his face—not as cloud-like as it had been an hour ago—but, still, it was there.
His knuckles had cramped gray around his wand. He wouldn't move yet. If Black didn't appear at sun-up, Severus would return to the boy. He would bring with him news of which he already knew. News of which he had known for an hour or more.
Dementors weren't allowed within one hundred feet of the Forbidden Forest, unless ordered by the Minister of Magic himself. It would take at least a dozen of them to create the type of icy mist now melting and sweating down the bark. Perhaps more, judging by how slowly the frost was melting. How had the Minister known?
A small tawny owl darted from a nearby tree to peck at a half-eaten leg of poultry now covered in dirt, lying several meters away from its newspaper wrapping. Its black eyes flashed in the darkness; it stabbed at the cold meat once more and flew away.
Yes, Severus knew. He knew, and he was relieved.
He wanted to be glad.
A gentle breeze fluttered the water-swollen pages of a book that was lying near the dead fire.
Severus would remain hidden, waiting, until sun-up. He owed the child that much.
"I had it right here—yesterday. Pinned to my—" Harry huffed. "…bloody—" He reached further, straining his shoulder and not caring. "…stupid—" Another huff. "…wall!"
Perhaps you filed it away with the rest of the important documents you've crumpled into that rubbish heap underneath your bed…
Harry sat back on his heels and knuckle-swiped the sweat forming at his fringe, frowning in annoyance. Even when Snape was completely out of the Dungeons, that voice remained. Smirked at Harry from his bookshelf. Scowled at him from the perfectly compiled stack of papers underneath Harry's bed, thank you very much.
"That's how I keep things organized," Harry grumbled unnecessarily, as there was no one in the room to hear his explanation.
A flame on the wall flickered with skepticism. A twitching, orange eyebrow.
Clamping his tongue between his lips, Harry clutched the mattress this time as he shoved his free arm in a bit further and felt around for a second stack of papers that might have slid off from the master pile. A bit more of a reach…
Harry jerked his arm out. "Fuck," he hissed, sucking in air through his teeth as he squeezed the upturned palm attached to the finger that was oozing blood around a jagged cut. Just what he wanted: a new lightening-bolt scar. Now he wouldn't have to lift his fringe to identify himself. He would simply wave at people.
Angry at the stinging pain, Harry aimed several good kicks at whatever had gouged him.
Teeth? A rusty razor blade? Shards of glass? No matter. Harry might as well have been sticking his bare foot into one of Dudley's manky, one-eyed teddy bears, for all the vigor he'd launched into those kicks.
A soft thud sounded against the wall; something rolled along the stone floor—parchment, maybe.
Your self-control is despicable, boy.
"Right," Harry mumbled tiredly as he let his cheek drop onto the edge of the mattress, his foot still wedged underneath the bed. "Go away." The edge in Harry's tone, however, did nothing to ward off the stupidity he felt at carrying on a conversation with a wall-lantern.
Shame wrung out his insides. He felt a bit like Dudley at the moment. All this grumbling, and now kicking. Many months had passed and yet the f-word still tasted like soap when he said it, so Harry wasn't at all certain where that came from.
Harry wasn't a morning person, but, really, he wouldn't have done that in front of Snape, especially after the heap of trouble Harry had got himself into the night before.
Aurors didn't lose their tempers so easily, Snape had once told him when the two of them were discussing the duties of a dark wizard catcher. Of course, his professor had turned the discussion into a you-had-better-hold-it-together-or-you-shall-never-be-one lesson. Harry had wrinkled his nose through as much of the lecture as he had dared.
Let's see, then.
Aurors valued honesty. Aurors valued trust. Aurors didn't make excuses for their mistakes. Harry might have argued that Aurors probably didn't have someone trailing behind them packing a good wallop or twenty to serve as a reminder for all of those mistakes. Wisely, he hadn't.
Harry bit his lip, wilting with embarrassment. He'd promised himself he wouldn't think about last night, even if he supposed he had deserved it. Snape hadn't been joking; Harry wasn't soon forgetting this one. Not at all.
Aurors do not sulk, now, do they, Mr. Potter?
"They don't melt off their fingernails from brewing too many potions either, I'll bet."
Smiling into the rumpled quilt, Harry enjoyed his bit of safe cheek. He blew out a deep breath and sat up straight. Right. No need to begin the morning a moody berk, flung over his four-poster bed like a dish flannel.
He glanced at his bedside clock—5:30 a.m. A solid two hours, at least, before Harry usually saw the light of day.
There's your early night for you, he thought.
Diving belly-down onto his mattress, Harry balanced on his elbows as he surveyed the pile of odds and ends—okay, so it was mostly rubbish—that he had kicked into view. Harry fished through the heap one-handedly. Socks: flung toward the hamper. Two quills and an empty roll of parchment: shoved back into a cloud of dust and darkness.
"—the hell is this?" Hoisting up his middle to balance on both elbows now, Harry shoved his glasses further onto his nose and squinted speculatively at a flattened crisps wrapper that must have escaped from his trunk at some point. "Back you go, then," Harry murmured as he hung over the edge of his bed and flicked the piece of rubbish in the same direction as he had the parchment.
"Oy!" His palm barely kept the rest of him from tumbling as he scooted forward to snatch up a wadded-up front page of the Daily Prophet. Shaking out the folds with a few good snaps of the wrist, Harry scanned the headline.
St. Mungo's Continues Investigation of Stolen Vials of Scrofungulus Antibiotic
"Hang on—gross," Harry concluded, making a face at the horrid-sounding disease. He bit the corner of his lip, disappointed. This wasn't the newspaper he was looking for at all.
Days ago, the headline had been interesting—exciting, even, considering Ron's family had been waving and smiling up at Harry from the front page of the Daily Prophet—but now, that photograph was vital. And all because it showed a picture of a rat with a missing toe.
If only Harry had asked Sirius to let him borrow that newspaper. If only that sodding toe would have seemed more important last night, rather than this morning when Harry sat up out of a dead sleep and suddenly remembered Hadrian's numbing solution—the numbing solution that that dodgy, red-faced bloke had once given to Peter Pettigrew's mother to numb the pain in her leg.
Or hadn't given to her…
Crumbling the newspaper—the wrong newspaper—into his fist, Harry threw it against the wall; he dangled over his bed for a long, frustrating moment. His forefinger throbbed with a stinging heartbeat. He touched his thumb to the cut, now darkened with dried blood.
And then he saw it: a large, open safety pin sticking out of the waistband of his very old, soiled Dudley-jeans. The jeans Snape had shrunk for him during detention last year. But it wasn't the pin that mattered, injured fingers aside. It was the trousers.
He knew where that photograph could be.
Bouncing off of his bed, Harry kicked the remaining dust-covered items back underneath his bed before changing into a fresh t-shirt and jeans and wiggling his feet into the trainers that were still mud-caked and drying by the hearth in Snape's chambers. Scraping away as much of the mud as he could—no need to experience the look Snape would give him if his professor saw bits of dried dirt on the rug—Harry laced up his trainers and hurried toward the door to the Dungeon corridor.
He stopped. Turned. He remembered.
Snape's door was still closed; locked, no doubt. The fireplace was black and cold, but the lanterns on the wall were still lit; no more than a wisp of a flame flickered on each wick. Even after they both went to bed, the main sitting room of Snape's chambers usually remained bright enough for Harry to make out the patterns on the rug.
Harry's eyes scanned the room for signs of life. The only bare hook on the hall tree was waiting patiently for Snape's cloak, unconcerned, as if it were used to receiving the man's outer garments at any odd time after midnight. Two splattery shoe prints remained on the rug next to the hearth; aside from that, no other shoes—larger shoes—had been kicked off by the door.
Didn't mean much, though. For all Harry knew, Snape slept in his shoes.
Wake me next time.
Isn't that what Snape had told Harry to do? Harry wasn't vomiting or anything, but Snape would want to know if Harry trekked to the laundry chamber before six in the morning. And even if Snape became sour and shouting, Harry could smile at his professor and remind Snape that he had remembered, at least.
Shrugging, Harry kept his footsteps quiet as he walked over to Snape's bedroom door. Resting his forehead against the wood, Harry knocked. Hardly the rap of a knuckle.
The tiny lantern flames danced with amusement. Even the dark shapes on the wall seemed to laugh at Harry this time, great shadow bellies that trembled.
Most of the time, Snape didn't bother to knock on Harry's door; he just barged right in as if he owned the place.
So what if he did.
Rolling his eyes at himself, Harry gave the door three solid thumps with his fist. Even after a minute of waiting, there was no answer.
Harry tried the doorknob. It clicked, swung open a bit.
Blinking in surprise, Harry pulled back his hand, clenching it into a fist, cracking his knuckles with uncertainty. Another gentle push of the door, and Harry might be seeing his professor in his pants. He grimaced at even the thought of such an atrocity.
"Professor?" he croaked, his nose pressed into the crack in the door.
That was all the proof Harry needed. After all, Snape had once heard Harry whisper a swearword from two rooms and a corridor away. He would, without a doubt, hear the click and squeak of his bedroom door opening.
Snape wasn't asleep. He wasn't there.
Pushing the door further open with a fingertip, Harry peeked inside. He was right. A dark green quilt lay across the pillows without so much as a mussed corner. Harry had never seen Snape's bedroom before, and he was disappointed to find that it looked very much like the Slytherin dormitory, except this room only contained one large bed without posts.
Snape had three shelves full of books hanging above his bedside table. The only word that was large enough for Harry to make out on one of the spines was Dostoyevsky—a last name, probably—and Harry certainly couldn't pronounce it. Snape's dressing table was taller than Harry's and was missing a mirror. Some sort of wooden box lay open on the flat top. Harry smashed his lips together, tilted up his chin to peer inside; from where he stood, he couldn't see a thing in that box.
Apart from the rag rug that had been turned up at the edge, Snape's bedroom appeared as if no one had stepped inside all day.
No one has, stupid, Harry chided himself.
All of a sudden, the curiosity that had pinged like a tiny hammer in Harry's chest faded into something else, something that turned his hands clammy and his stomach to marmalade. He had honestly expected to find a Snape-sized blob under the quilt, not a chilly, empty room.
He didn't care about the box anymore.
Backing out of the threshold, Harry closed the bedroom door without a sound. He stood, pulling at a bit of fringe on the rug with the sole of his trainer.
The flames on the wall seemed brighter. They twitched expectantly. But Snape's voice was absent this time, leaving Harry to grapple with no one but himself. His stomach growled. He was anything but hungry.
Glancing down, Harry made a face at the second, louder grumble. "Oh, shut up, will you?"
But stomachs couldn't answer back either. He spared one last glance at the empty hook on the coat rack. "He's fine," Harry muttered. No one spoke. Nothing twitched. Including Harry.
He kept breathing, though. He breathed and he thought.
Snape was fine. After all, Snape was Snape.
And he would be back soon.
It was those three thoughts that sent Harry toward the laundry chamber. Those three and a fourth: a missing toe.
Harry had thought that Dobby was the only house elf who admired him to the point that the elf would gladly lie face down in a puddle just so Harry wouldn't have to get his feet wet—a fact that both shocked and shamed Harry to the highest degree.
But he'd been wrong.
As Harry climbed the staircase leading to the first floor, his arms straining around the stack of freshly laundered clothing that had been folded for him, the red and gold ribbons that held together his trousers and t-shirts fluttered in front of his glasses again.
"Let us be delivering your clothes, Mr. Potter, sir," the elves had chorused, squeezing their hands together and watching with round, worried eyes as Harry had balanced the heavy pile in his arms, pretending, for the sake of the elves' nerves, as though he were carrying a bag of feathers.
If Harry had thought Dobby's fussing over him had caused his face to turn redder than ever, he prayed he wouldn't suddenly run into a mirror; after that trip to the laundry chamber—his first and last—his face was surely the color of an eggplant.
Red and gold ribbons. Like a Christmas gift.
Several kilometers of corridor, it seemed, separated Harry from the elves now, yet the their cries of distress continued to trail after him like a tag-along infant, tripping over its feet.
The shiny end of a ribbon lifted with a gentle breeze as Harry rounded a corner; it tucked itself over the rim of his glasses.
Stopping, Harry sighed, shifted the pile in his arms and shook his head from side-to-side trying to dislodge the ribbon before the corner poked his eye out. No luck.
Swearing under his breath, Harry lifted the pile as high as he could; one more shake of his head…
Spectacles, laundry, books, and Harry's bum all hit the ground at the same time. Harry shook his head once more, this time to clear the buzzing in his ears. He'd bitten his tongue.
"Oh, Harry, I'm so sorry. We've done it again, it seems."
Harry felt his glasses settle gently onto his nose; he blinked in surprise at the face that turned out to be quite close to his own.
"My eyes were on this book instead of whoever was in front of me," Professor Lupin explained, his eyes narrowed apologetically. He twisted his wrist a bit to show Harry the cover of the book he'd been reading.
Blasting Boggarts by Aurelius Godfrey
"At least we know it's interesting," Professor Lupin smiled, still crouched, his hand on Harry's shoulder.
Harry tried to mirror Professor Lupin's grin but could only manage a cracked plate face. His backside had begun to throb a bit, but he didn't mind that nearly as much as the sight of his clothing strewn about the floor—underpants and all.
As if reading Harry's mind, Professor Lupin's face drooped slightly, his smile fading. "Here…" He reached behind him, withdrawing his wand. A gentle flick and Harry's laundry was once again bundled and laced together. "You hit the ground awfully hard," Professor Lupin muttered. "Are you all right?"
"I'm okay," Harry lied. He took a hold of Lupin's outstretched hand and let himself be helped up. Without thinking, he winced and jerked his arm as a sharp sting jolted through his finger.
Professor Lupin peered down at Harry's open palm. "No wonder the wincing…and rightly so. Ouch."
Harry squinted down at the jagged thing. He supposed Lupin was right.
"Did that happen just happen?"
"Is it sore?"
"No, sir," Harry fibbed, curling his injured finger into a fist, away from Professor Lupin's prodding thumb.
Lupin let Harry's hand fall. He pressed his lips together; his eyes shone kindly as though he were remembering something.
Harry looked away, embarrassed. Snape was right again: Harry really was pants at telling lies.
"I'm still no good at healing spells," Lupin began, stooping to pick up the two books that had fallen out of his hands. "But I've got a skin-repairing solution in my classroom wardrobe that'll be just the ticket. And," he continued, "if you just hold that bundle by the knot, it should be easier to carry." He brushed his hair away from his eyes. "With your good hand, of course…"
"Thanks, but I've a plaster in my trunk," Harry tried again. "I'll just use that—"
"If Madame Pomfrey got a look at that cut and knew I'd let you walk away with it untended, she'd have my head, with the hair attached."
Harry wanted to protest that he had his own skin-repairing solution—he'd even brewed some himself—but he knew an order when he heard one. Even if it was spoken through a smile.
He followed Professor Lupin halfway down the corridor to his classroom. Harry was surprised to find that the door had been left slightly ajar. Snape always locked his classroom door when he left it, even for a minute. He'd probably station Fluffy, the three-headed dog, in front of it if he could.
Harry sniffed in amusement to himself.
Professor Lupin turned a bit, planting his hands on his hips. "Ah. Well, you'd think I'd have my books sorted by now." He nodded toward the lopsided hill of volumes stacked on top of a row of desks. "Professor Lockhart left dozens of his books. Most are in that pile."
"Start a bonfire," Harry said before he could stop himself. Chuckling, Lupin raised both eyebrows as if to agree. Harry smiled. It was nice to know that grownups could laugh too.
"Let's see to that scratch, shall we?" Professor Lupin's face was still beaming with mirth as he collected the almost-empty vial of skin-repairing solution from a small wardrobe in the back of his classroom. "Just a bit left, but it should do."
"Does that work?" Harry piped up. He'd caught sight of a small antique radio with two plastic knobs on its front while Professor Lupin had been searching for medicine.
"Professor Snape brewed this at the beginning of the month," Lupin claimed as he turned the corked vial over and over in his hands. He'd misunderstood. "So it should work quite well, I'd imagine."
Harry stared at him, forgetting the radio for a second. "Snape gave that to you?"
Thumbing the cork, Lupin gave Harry a half-smile before handing the solution over. "Hang on a moment," Lupin mumbled with a snap of his fingers. "You'll need to clean that cut first." He strolled over to the wardrobe for a second time.
Somehow knowing that Professor Lupin wouldn't mind, Harry sidled over to the radio and turned one of the knobs until he heard a soft click.
Harry jerked his hand away; the radio blared a static protest. "Sorry," Harry blurted, stuffing his hand into his back pocket. "Is it mucked now?"
"Oh, don't be sorry," Lupin said through the bag of gauze he was holding in his teeth. He nudged the wardrobe door closed with his foot and let the bag drop into his empty hand. "I just meant—here," he set the bag and the sterilizing potion next to the radio. "Watch this. It can't run on electricity, so…"
One tap of Professor Lupin's wand and the radio cleared its throat and came to life.
A shrill singer warbled a high note over the sound of an orchestra.
Harry made a face.
"Opera," Lupin explained, his eyes shining. He reached for the potion. "Your hand, sir."
Obeying, Harry held his breath.
Grinning knowingly, Professor Lupin popped the cork from the vial. "Just a quick sting; it'll be over in a flash," he said gently. "Promise."
The radio beeped at them from behind, silencing the soprano and whoever was unlucky enough to accompany her.
Harry helped hold the gauze underneath his cut to catch any cleaning solution that dripped.
"We interrupt this program to inform our listeners that notorious murderer Sirius Black has at last been taken into custody and is being held at the Ministry of Magic under maximum security. No one is certain where Sirius Black was captured, though witnesses claim to have spotted him near Hogsmeade village only yesterday…"
The potion poured over Harry's cut, stinging his fingers and splashing onto his trainers. Purple smoke curled in front of Professor Lupin's face, but he didn't seem to notice. The man stared at the radio, his lips the color of ashes.
The empty vial slipped from his fingers and shattered against the stone floor.
"—The Minister of Magic has ordered all Dementors to delay carrying out the sentence until all evidence against the murderer Black is reexamined…"
Lupin's eyes latched onto Harry's and held them; his parchment lips pressed together; his Adam's apple sank into his throat.
Whatever the announcer said next, Harry didn't hear a word of it, for he was already shoving open the classroom door. The few bits of glass that had stuck against the soles of Harry's trainers crunched beneath his feet as he willed his numb legs to keep moving forward, to ignore Professor Lupin's voice calling his name down the corridor.
The Entrance Hall was still dim and quiet with the early morning light peeking in through the tall windows. Harry's fingers tore at one of the wooden slabs that kept the front doors locked until sunrise. His hand was slick with sweat as he finally succeeded in jerking the lock open. Harry stared at the three heavy slabs he'd yet to pry open.
Growling in frustration at his own stupidity, he yanked his wand from the front pocket of his jeans. "Alohamora!" Harry shouted.
A chorus of happy clicks echoed through the hall. The double doors groaned as they slowly opened to reveal another set of clicks resounding nearly a quarter-mile away—front gate clicks. These were even louder than the first. Harry stared at the gate. He stared at the black robes in front of the gate.
The black robes turned.
Sucking in his breath, Harry grabbed the handles of both doors to throw them closed again, but then he changed his mind. He pulled the doors open further and stood there, listening to the sound of his own teeth clenching together. His own breathing in his ears.
Snape was walking fast now, his eyebrows twisted together. He stopped when he reached the top step.
Harry glared up at him, his chest rising and falling in time to Snape's breaths. Snape's eyebrows hooked together even further, like two crooked question marks. It was the stupidest face Harry had ever seen. And he wasn't the least bit frightened of it. Harry grit his teeth harder and shook his head the tiniest bit.
Snape's brows untangled as he lifted his chin. All questions drained from his face, as if he already knew. Snape nodded toward the Entrance Hall. "Inside."
"I'm not moving."
Neither of them breathed. Not even a bird chirped.
Harry stared at the dark rings under Snape's eyes and waited for the man's nostrils to grow into saucers, for his eyes to turn into black marbles. But his professor's face didn't even twitch. Without a word, Snape moved forward, his hand reaching out to steer Harry along with him. Harry jerked his shoulder away, glaring again.
Snape pursed his lips, sighing through his nose.
Harry's swallow hurt his throat. "You're a liar."
Snape ran his hand over his eyes and down his face, exhaling once more. He gazed over the top of Harry's head. The circles under his eyes grew darker somehow.
"You are," Harry croaked, so angry that he didn't even care about the hand that was sure to reach around at any minute and smack him sore. "You expect me to listen to you all the time, but you never tell me what's going on—"
Snape lowered his eyes.
"—and then—" Harry swallowed again, shaking his head. "—then you go mental and whack me for lying, when you're an even bigger liar. I'm pants at it, remember?" He spat. "You said so yourself."
"Stop." The command was tired, and Harry barely heard it. He didn't want to hear it. He wanted to stomp on it.
"I told you the truth!" Harry shouted. "I always tell you the truth, and you don't even care. You went and turned him in anyway after I told you he was innocent!" He jerked his arm away from Snape's grasp so hard that he bumped his back into the door. "Sirius would have killed me if he weren't, you know, I was with him for two hours! But you don't care what I say. You haven't a bloody clue—"
At once, it was all there: the pincer-grip on Harry's arms, the flared nostrils, the trembling lips.
Harry tasted the memory of soap.
"Stop it!" Snape gave him a stern shake. He could feel Snape's breath on his face, and Harry was afraid to blink.
"That," Snape lowered his volume, giving Harry another jostle, a gentler one, "is enough."
Harry goggled at his professor.
Snape stared at him without blinking. "Enough."
Shaken, Harry jerked out a nod.
Snape loosened his grip. Harry dropped his eyes, his face turning red and hot as his brain came back into focus, smugly reminding him of every word he had just screamed out for Snape and Hagrid and probably even Dumbledore to hear, wherever he was.
Harry felt rather than saw Snape move again, but this time, Snape simply went back outside and stood at the top step. Peeking up through his fringe, Harry squinted at the bright orange sun warming the sky. He watched Snape out of the corner of his eye for another moment. Realizing his professor was going nowhere, Harry dragged his feet to the top of the stairs. Sparing once last glance at Snape, Harry sat on the cold step.
He pressed a bit of mud into the stone, feeling awfully rotten.
A long while passed with neither of them saying anything. The birds started chirping again. Something blurred in front of Harry's glasses. He looked up at the bit of wrinkled newspaper fluttering near his nose. Slipping it from Snape's fingers, Harry glanced down at a rather smudged version of the very photograph he had hung over his pillow, before it had gone missing. Harry couldn't even make out Ron's smile anymore.
"He was gone before I even stepped foot into the forest." Snape glanced down, holding his outer robes draped over his arm. His smart shirt was rumpled.
"Did…" Harry licked his lips awkwardly. "…did you know—"
"That Black had been captured?" Snape shook his head. "Not officially. The Headmaster sent me his Patronus at half-past five. I was informed then."
"So, then, you've been…" Harry trailed off, feeling like an idiot.
Rough fingers caught Harry's chin before it touched his chest. Harry squinted into a face that appeared much sterner than it had ten minutes ago. For some reason, it made Harry feel better.
"Need I say a word?" Snape prompted slowly.
"I won't do that again," Harry said, for once finding no need to plead his case. "Really. I'm sorry."
A studying pause. Snape nodded once and released Harry's chin.
The sun was blazing hot now, cooking the top of Harry's head.
"I lost mine," Harry mumbled, dejected. He traced the smudged blob where the rain had marred the rat's picture. "Ron's family's picture was hanging over my bed, but I can't find it now."
"Maybe," Harry decided. "I tried to look in all my pockets."
"I do, though," Harry said sadly, trying to smooth what Snape was able to salvage of Sirius' newspaper. He gave a sidelong glance toward Snape. "I believe him. He—he was friends with my dad."
All Harry could see of Snape was his hair.
"I wanted to show you the picture of the missing toe," Harry explained, shielding his eyes from the sun. "I wanted you to believe me."
"Whatever makes you think I don't?"
Biting his lips together, Harry stared at Snape, who, in turn, raised his eyebrow, appearing no more impressed by Harry than he had since Harry had first met him. "I was thinking of…erm…" Harry tried to gather his thoughts, encouraged by this turn of events. "…the numbing solution that Hadrian mentioned. Remember?"
Another single nod.
"Remember that chopped finger story that Sirius told me? And Pettigrew?"
"Desist with the rhetorical questions, Potter."
"Er…yeah, sorry," Harry spoke quickly. "I'll bet Hadrian knows more than he lets on. He's completely dodgy. I can tell."
Snape rolled his eyes.
"Can we—" Harry paused. "I mean…may we go see him? I won't break anything this time, I swear. And if you tell me to sit down and shut up, I promise I won't move. And if I'm a bother, you can pummel me; I won't even complain—"
Pressing his fingers to his temple, Snape closed his eyes for a moment. When he opened them again, he was frowning at Harry. "Where were you planning on going this morning, when you tried to leave the castle?"
"The truth, young man."
Harry flushed, looked away. "To find you, I guess."
"Find me..." Snape repeated. "Why?"
Harry shrugged, pressing mud into the stone again. "I just wanted to make sure you believed me."
"You weren't heading toward the Ministry, or anywhere else?"
Harry examined his professor as if he'd gone round the twist. "You'd kill me if I left the grounds. I don't have a death wish."
"Hm," Snape concluded, standing. "Have you got your wand?"
"'Course." He held it out for Snape to see, only to jerk a bit when Snape grabbed his wrist, peering down at the dried blood that was smeared across the cut on his finger and down his palm. Harry squinted down in surprise as well. "It's not what you think…"
"Frankly," Snape began, uncorking side-by-side vials of sterilizing and skin-repairing solutions, "I don't want to know."
Harry winced through the ten-second repairing. Wiggling his healed finger, Harry gave Snape an appreciative grin. His professor hadn't said it, exactly, but to Harry the approval was clear: he was going with Snape.
Author's Note: If anyone is actually still reading after my many months of going AWOL, bless you. :) I've missed this so much, and I hope you all enjoyed the chapter.