Chapter 19: A Hint of Irony: Part I
Breakfast was a hurried affair. A discarded napkin sat slumped and wrinkled next to Harry's glass of half-drunk pumpkin juice, some of which had splashed over the rim onto the table as Harry had poured it from the pewter pitcher.
Snape had removed his own napkin from his lap and mopped up the dull orange puddle himself, flapped the fabric to perform a quick Scourgify charm, and continued chewing the crust of his toast in silence.
Harry dug his shoulder blades into the back of his chair and waited.
"Finish your breakfast."
Wrinkling his nose, Harry studied the abandoned lump of scrambled eggs congealing to his plate as if to belong somewhere. Harry stole a glance at Snape through his fringe. "I think I'm full."
Snape drew in a deep breath through his nose, swallowed the last of his toast through a sigh. "You think?"
"I mean..." Harry plucked his hands out from underneath his thighs to scratch at his cheek. His nails were growing, now that he'd forced himself to sit on them more than he nibbled at them. "…I know."
Lowering his chin, Snape twisted his lips together. "You know."
Harry glanced at the clock on the wall for the twentieth time. "Yeah," he muttered; his eyes settled on Snape again. "I think."
Snape stared at him.
"Can we go, then?" Harry asked as he scraped his chair away from the table.
The second hand grew louder in the silence; Harry bit his lips together as he tapped his thumb on the table in syncopation to the steady tick.
Snape rotated his fork between his fingers without making a sound against the plate.
"What are you thinking about?" Harry finally asked. "Your forehead's all wrinkled up again."
"Stop that noise," Snape grumbled into his coffee cup before draining it. "Exchanged one bloody habit for another."
Harry glanced at the fingers that immediately retreated into his fist. "Right. Sorry."
"Finish what's in your cup—I'm not about to see my vitamin supplement wasted."
Downing the rest of his juice in two gulps, Harry even held the goblet upside down and allowed the last few drops to drip onto his tongue, easily ignoring the eyebrow of disapproval from across the table.
"I can only taste the pumpkin juice," Harry reported. "You sure you put a whole vial in?"
"I could certainly make it taste worse…"
Harry let this one wither and die.
"Long sleeves," Snape instructed, pushing away from the table and fastening the cuffs at his wrists. Both buttons. He stood, eyes raking absently over the bookshelves. "Double-knot your trainers."
"I do anyway…"
"A triple-knot, then. A tight one."
Harry made a face. "Fancy spelling them off me later?"
The back of Snape's hair twitched as he finished buttoning his collar in silence.
Remembering his promise to his professor, Harry allowed the questioning smirk on his face to fade quickly, curling into the air. He stooped to secure his trainers, making sure to pull down his sleeves, which he'd bunched at the elbows, once his shoes were proper.
And then it dawned on Harry. "You think Hadrian might get sore and hex you if you prod him about Pettigrew?"
Snape turned on his heel. "Why do you ask?" The circles under Snape's eyes were heavy this morning, Harry noticed; dark, like bruises.
Glancing away, Harry shrugged. "Dunno. I was just thinking about…"
A pause. "Yes?"
The conversation behind the curtain, Harry's brain supplied. But his mouth was quicker. "My sleeves…" It was almost the truth.
It was Snape's turn to make a face. "What about them?"
"Well," Harry began, tugging at the material that encircled his wrists.
Without waiting for an answer, Snape crossed the room,grabbing Harry's thinking time out of the air and chucking it over his shoulder. "Your winter coat wouldn't protect you from even the mildest stinging jinx." Snape sliced his wand through the air; the three open doors in the study slammed closed and locked, along with every visible drawer.
"Oh. Why the sleeves, then?"
One last flick of Snape's wand turned down the lanterns on the wall. "They're calling for rain in Dublin." He tilted his head in a way that threatened inquisition.
But before Harry could supply another "oh" or Snape could question Harry's rubbish sleeve-talk further, a pop sounded at the fireplace. A scroll of parchment bobbed lazily in the air. The loose knot and dangling twine immediately gave away its sender.
"I've got it," Harry said loudly enough to garble Snape's order to check the name on it first. A few swishes of his trainers against the rug and one papery snatch later, and Harry's suspicions were confirmed. "It's from Ron, see?" Harry held up the unfurled letter so Snape could see the signature at the bottom. "He hardly ever writes in the summer, but I know how he ties his knots; I didn't have to check," he mumbled in report, already reading.
"How impractical of me to suggest it," Snape's sour grumble tapered off as he unlocked and stepped into his sleeping chambers to collect whatever he'd forgot.
"He's home from Egypt," Harry called out.
The squeaking of Snape's dresser drawer was the only response.
Harry grinned as his eyes scanned over Ron's latest account of Fred and George's pranking experiment with toilet paper and pepper-up potion.
Rotten luck, Percy, Harry thought. He read on a then his grin melted away. He felt Snape's presence in the study again, watching him. The parchment crinkled loudly in the stillness.
Harry lifted his eyes. Snape's cloak was only half-buttoned. His hands hung by his thighs.
Licking his lips, Harry glanced down at the letter one more time to make sure he'd got it correct. "Scabbers," Harry muttered stiffly; his lips felt like twigs.
"Ron's rat," Harry explained, unable to look away from the gleam in Snape's eyes. "The one that's missing a toe. It's gone."
He could never quite manage the cold.
He had gotten used to the bland, pasty quality of the prison food; his eyes had eventually adjusted to the thick darkness that made everything look brown. As a distraction, he had fabricated countless stories in his head of what life would be like with Harry, once he plucked up the courage to give that shithole the slip.
He'd allowed the memories of James and Remus and Lily, even tiny Harry, to intoxicate him, flow over his parched and petrified brain like cool water.
James' glasses fogging over when he flew Chaser. The shy, pleased smile that had flashed across Remus' face, turning his cheeks red, whenever he'd gotten an Outstanding on one of his essays. The wispy, black curl that fell across Harry's soft forehead.
The gurgle of laughter that filled the room each time Sirius tried to blow the hair away from those green eyes that watched everything, waited for the grown-ups to clap for him and smile and kiss his cheeks.
Sirius had even learned to ignore the sharp points of the stone floor digging into his shoulders when he had tried to sleep each night.
At least Cornelius Fudge had placed a smooth wooden bench, long enough for Sirius to stretch out his long legs as he slept, in the tower holding cell of the Ministry of Magic. But the cold, though. The cold, this time, was unbearable. Kept him from dozing longer than a quarter of an hour at a time.
Even Sirius' breath shivered, clawing against his throat, begging for the warmth of his lungs. He watched the gray shadows float along the ceiling, one after the other, always at the same slow pace, like raindrops sliding down a window.
After a while, the steam of Sirius' breath became less visible. The air warmed. Someone was coming.
Sirius pushed his back away from the wall, listening. His teeth unclenched; the skin of his arms pricked with gooseflesh: not from the cold, but from the lack of it.
The shadows skittered away.
"…believe you wish to see Mr. Black alive at his hearing?"
A scoffing chuckle echoed throughout the corridor. "Of course, Albus."
"Then, by all means…" Their voices grew louder, Dumbledore's, especially. "…see to it."
The edge of a turquoise velvet robe drifted across the bars of Sirius' cell, so close Sirius could have reached out and grab it from his place on the floor. Both men kept their backs to him.
Sirius pressed his toes into the floor, left bare ever since the Ministry officials confiscated his shoes to keep him from concealing any weaponry. His toes were as good as numb. Ten ice cubes scraping against the stone.
A throat cleared; pudgy hands twisted together behind pin-striped robes. "Your implication?" The Minister wasn't laughing anymore.
"Unless a Dementor is performing the Kiss on a convicted criminal, I doubt one—or in this case twelve—would be found in such consistent close proximity to a wizard awaiting trial. . ."
"A murderer, you meant to say, Albus," Fudge corrected crisply, "one who has recently escaped a prison full of guards. I would hardly say that twelve Dementors is excessive."
Dumbledore clasped his hands together, mimicking the Minister's stance; his fingernails were clean and shining in the scanty torchlight. Sirius was suddenly very aware of the grime that darkened his skin, stained his toenails.
"A valid point, Cornelius," Dumbledore commented, rocking back on his heels. "I cannot help but mention, however, that the Dementors were the very guards that allowed Mr. Black to escape without a trace. Hundreds, were there? If I'm not mistaken?"
Silence followed. Sirius could hear Dumbledore's robes dragging against the iron bars.
"With the Dementors deadening one's senses, not to mention his memory, the Wizengamot would have difficulty, no doubt, extracting valuable, factual evidence from the criminal in question," Dumbledore continued. "We shan't forget the disappointing case of several of Voldemort's most dangerous Death Eaters unable to stand trial years ago. . ."
The air around Sirius seemed to cringe; Fudge sucked in his breath, choked by the most infamous name, as well as the memory of the Ministry's embarrassment.
"What—" Fudge cleared his throat again. "—what do you suggest, then, Dumbledore?"
A wooden stool suddenly popped into existence behind the headmaster. "As several weeks remain until the beginning of the new term at Hogwarts, I would be more than happy to see to the duty myself, Cornelius," Dumbledore proposed, already settling onto the stool and drawing his wand, resting it in his lap.
Sirius pressed his back against the wall once more, his heartbeat thudding against his forehead.
"That is," Dumbledore went on, "unless you find me unfit for the job?"
Whatever the Minister of Magic said next, Sirius didn't hear. He was concentrating on slowing his lungs.
"Severus has him," Dumbledore muttered in response. "He's safe."
Sirius' stomach constricted with a pang of jealousy. Helplessness. He understood. He understood and he hated it.
The sound of footsteps eventually grew fainter in the distance. The shadows didn't return. Sirius pushed against the wall to stand, taking a step toward the bars. His toes were tingling with feeling again. Dumbledore's half-moon spectacles flashed into the darkness of the holding cell. A smile tilted his lips as his long fingers slid between the bars.
Sirius stood there, saying nothing, his dirty hand enfolded in the warm skin. His throat swelled, ached.
"Patience," Dumbledore whispered. He released Sirius' hand and extracted a novel from his pocket, letting the pages flap open to the one he'd bookmarked.
Swallowing against the soreness that still gripped his throat, Sirius lay down on his wooden bench and stared at the domed ceiling. He could almost imagine floating candles above his head. He wiped at his eyes with a soiled sleeve. And then he fell asleep.
"I didn't tell Ron anything."
"I haven't said a word."
"You don't have to."
Snape's heels continued to chip the pavement; his face remained drawn and still.
"Even if I had, you really think Ron would have believed me? He'd have thought I was taking—" Harry licked his lips, hastily clearing away the foul word. "—he'd have thought I was joking, putting him on, you know?"
"Tell Dumbledore," Harry pressed on, quite used to Snape's silence by now. "You could send him your Patronus, or use the coin to send him a message. Anything. He'll find Pettigrew and take him to the Ministry. You told me they have ways of making people tell the truth, remember?"
Steady, marching clicks.
"You can Summon things from any distance, right?" Harry squinted against the sun. "Summon Pettigrew. He's a rat—he's small; he'll zip through the air right quick."
At that moment, a bird glided right over Snape's head as if to prove Harry's point. Snape didn't notice.
Frowning now, Harry cracked his knuckles as he walked, knowing very well that Snape didn't like him doing that.
The area was starting to look familiar; this was only Harry's second visit to Ireland, first time winding through this particular alleyway, but judging by the grass sticking up between the cobblestones, he could tell that these backstreets weren't trod on too often.
Harry pretended to read the street signs, engaging in another round of knuckle popping, slower this time. Louder. "Or... I suppose we could let him get away. That makes loads of sense."
He could feel Snape's glare baking the left side of his face. Or perhaps it was the sunlight that had bleached the sky into a hot, massive cloud.
So much for Snape's rain prediction.
"These sleeves are stupid." Looking straight ahead, Harry shoved the cuffs far past his elbows. "It's hot as Hell." Spoken under his breath, the whisper danced naughtily around in his mouth.
Perhaps it had been heard. Harry hoped it had.
Gritting his teeth together, Harry made sure to keep up with Snape, his trainers flapping noisily against the pavement, his feet aching. Concentrating on the blister forming on his heel stopped him from saying anything else, so Harry kept up the pace, moving ahead.
For exactly three seconds.
Harry wiggled his shoulder blades against the cool bricks that were suddenly behind him as he tried to twist his upper arm out of the clutch of Snape's fingers; he turned his face away from the breath that whooshed its annoyance right against Harry's fringe. Flicking a nervous right-left glance along the alley, Harry tried to keep his eyebrows pinched and serious.
"Precisely," Snape ground out. "Not a witness in sight. How unfortunate for you."
"You didn't say I couldn't ask questions."
"Correct; I didn't. Rather like Weasley's name never entered my vocabulary this morning." Snape's lips stiffened and paled as he leaned down. "So stop —" Snatch. "—putting words in my mouth."
"I d'n't," Harry slurred, tensing his jaw against the slight pressure of the fingers and thumb on his cheeks, tugging on Snape's wrist for good measure.
"We don't have time for this petty defiance you have decided to drag along, so speak plainly."
Harry scratched at his cheek once his face was free, trying to recall why he felt so angry.
Harry looked away; his eyes found a beetle crawling on the ground. He pressed his teeth into his tongue. His fingers found their way into his jeans pockets.
Snape, however, wasn't exactly truthful about the time constraint, because he was still standing in front of Harry with his arms crossed, waiting.
A cooler breeze—a great deal cooler—gusted between the buildings, tickling the insides of Harry's ears. A tiny dot plinked against his jeans, darkening. Another. Then two more. Three. The raindrops spit and splattered, spread like a pox on the fabric.
The only heat that remained was radiating from Harry's face. He dragged his sleeves back down, as if he'd meant to do that all along. He peeked his eyes up.
Aside from the new raindrop pattern on Snape's shoulders, his professor hadn't moved a millimeter.
Jabbing his shoulder blades against the wall, Harry hooked his thumbs in his belt loops, blew out a breath. "I think I'm just. . ."
A pause. "You think. . ." Snape echoed slowly. But the voice lacked the mockery this time, just as it lacked concern for the chilling rain.
The voice, instead, helped Harry to lift his chin all the way. "I'm just tired of being chased all the time. I want to catch Pettigrew and free Sirius so I don't have to think about it anymore. And I just want to everything to be… I dunno. . ."
Harry swallowed hard, staring at the glistening cobblestone, the raindrops trickling down his glasses. He could feel Snape's eyes on him.
"Yeah." Harry nodded against his chest. "Normal." Wiping his wrists against the wet fringe now dripping water into his eyes, Harry flicked his eyes up a second time as Snape's black umbrella snapped open, hovering over both of their heads.
The sound of beating rain floated over them as they began walking again. Snape kept his hand on Harry's shoulder until they emerged from the darkness of the alley. For once, Harry had let it be. Neither of them spoke as they splashed along the sidewalk where Hadrian's shop stood at the end of the street.
They were almost to the front door when the top of Harry's head was suddenly cold and wet again. Flipping around, Harry found that Snape and his umbrella had paused a few paces behind him.
"What is it?" Harry called out.
Snape didn't move. Must not have heard him.
Even in the shadow of the umbrella, Harry could see the see that Snape's face had turned the color of chalk; his mouth hung open. Snape was gripping his own forearm, his nails as white as seashells.
Harry jerked around in a quick circle, squinting down the streets, looking for the dodgy bastard who must have thrown a hex in Snape's direction. He pulled his wand from the waistband of his trousers as he moved closer to his professor, sparing one last glance over his shoulder. By the time Harry looked back, Snape had straightened, released his arm. But the lines around his mouth were still deeply creased, and Harry noticed the color was still drained from Snape's face.
"What happened?" Harry asked again. "I can't see anyone."
"Never mind that." Snape's voice was thin as he pulled Harry out of the rain. Again.
"But you were holding your—"
Harry was about to argue once more, but a collage of newspaper photographs were in front of his nose all of a sudden, one in particular catching his attention. Harry's stomach tightened as he studied the tangled black hair, the dirty knuckles that gripped the bars of his cell. Sirius wasn't screaming in this photo.
The jiggling of the door handle brought Harry out of his momentary fog.
"Why's it locked?" Harry wondered as his eyes scanned over row after row of newspapers plastered on the insides of the shop windows. "Has he closed?"
"Not to my knowledge," Snape muttered; he performed a silent Alohamora.
The door creaked open, stubbing against something neither of them could see. Harry pushed against the door twice, watching it bounce against the jamb, before Snape's hand shot out, palming Harry's chest and pushing him a bit.
"Get back. And get out your—"
"It's out." Harry held his holly wand in front of Snape's face.
Giving the door a final, pointless push, Snape twisted his own wand between his fingers; he aimed just inside the half-meter of open space. "Stay back, Harry."
Standing near the curb now, Harry listened as something slid against the floor of Hadrian's shop.
The door eased open.
Author's Note: So...I'm alive and kickin', believe it or not. Thank you very much for taking the time to leave reviews for the last chapter. I read them all, appreciate them all, and long for the days when I had a boring job that left me loads of time to respond. Sorry for taking so much time between posting chapters; I do promise that I'll never abandon this story; I literally think about this story every day. And, finally, since I've left you with a bit of a cliffhanger here, I promise to work as quickly as I can on Chapter 20. A special thanks to Amber (Squee-Bunny) for reading through this chapter and catching any grammar errors for me!