A/N: I received a message a while ago from someone who hoped I wasn't seriously injured or dead...and that told me I needed to speed along the process of finishing Chapter 20. I have read every review and every message and I really appreciate everyone's continued support of this story. Thank you so much for encouraging me. I sneak in a sentence or two of writing whenever I can.
Chapter 20: A Hint of Irony Part II
Harry's wand squirmed in his damp grip; his feet shifted in his trainers. The tingles zinging up and down his spine wouldn't let up. He'd stopped glancing over his shoulder, though, ever since the gloom of the apothecary had swallowed Snape whole, the soaked edges of Snape's cloak fluttering into the shop, shooing Harry's feet away from the threshold.
Harry had remained planted, but his eyes hadn't. They squinted, crossed almost, hoping to catch the outline of his professor's head drifting from the shelves to the curtain, to whatever was beyond it.
The floorboards groaned, creaked, and then faded to a grating whisper. The room swelled with emptiness; it held its breath.
The heat of the sun began warming Harry's shirt again, dried his hair a bit, but his neck was all gooseflesh. His fingers pinched his wand tighter; his teeth pressed into his bottom lip as he waited for Snape's footsteps.
Harry listened, shifted in his trainers some more. He straightened—sighed. His wand whapped against his jeans. Harry glanced over his shoulder. A tree branch waved at him from the distance. Another smog-colored cloud was nudging against the sun.
Something was scratching at the floorboards, a papery dragging noise.
Harry whipped his head around, his scalp tingling. Taking a step forward, he froze. He couldn't see Snape anywhere.
Peering in, Harry wetted his lips. "Professor?"
The scratching stopped.
The doorbell tinkled nervously in the wind from its safe perch at the top of the frame.
Harry blinked into the stillness, tilting his head in further, only to jerk back as a heavy thud smashed against the other side of the door, banging it nearly closed; the doorbell screeched for help.
A grunt. Red light flashed through a crack in the door.
Harry bolted forward, shoving the door so hard that it smacked against Hadrian's counter. A blur of green swept across Harry's vision.
A hiss. A gleam of fangs.
Harry slashed his wand through the air; he felt—rather than saw—the red sparks illuminating the cobwebs on the ceiling before he was tugged so forcefully by a grip on his elbow that he lost his footing; his torso smacked flat against the floor.
Harry was dead. He was dead, and he was blind. Though he supposed one couldn't be both at the same time. A person's toes didn't sting when he was dead, either.
Chest burning as he gulped for air, it took Harry several seconds before he realized that his glasses had flown off of his face. And then, suddenly, splinters weren't poking his cheeks anymore as he was hauled off of the floor in the same manner that he was thrown onto it.
The room came into focus as Harry's glasses were shoved onto his nose, his earpiece askew.
"—did I tell you?"
Dangling by an elbow in Snape's claw-grip, Harry stared down at the petrified snake lying near his professor's feet. The snake's fangs shone with venom, its mouth open as if to strike, its emerald skin polished and beautiful. Terrifying.
"Damn it, Harry," Snape snarled through gritted teeth.
Harry tried to speak but ended up coughing instead. Snape was holding onto both of Harry's elbows now.
"Why do I waste my breath?"
"You told me—" Cough. "—you had me—"
"Stop talking. Breathe."
"You asked me—"
Harry breathed. Slow, trembling breaths that tasted like metal and stung all over and. . . helped. When his chest was no longer wheezing, Harry pushed against Snape's arms and peeked up at his professor's frowning forehead, twitching lips. Those screaming teeth.
"That snake would have bitten your head off."
"I told you—" Snape's jaw pulsed. "—to stay put."
Harry's swallow stuck in his dry throat. "You told me to have my wand out."
"How many bloody times must we go through this." Snape's hair dangled onto his cheeks as leant down. "How many times must I—"
"Why do you give me lessons in Defense, then?" Harry argued, wriggling his forearms to free them. And failing. "Why tell me to 'have my wand at the ready' if I'm not allowed to use it?"
Snape pressed his lips together, drawing in air through his nose. He studied Harry's face. And studied it. Finally, he stood, loosening his grip on Harry's elbows. Staring straight ahead, Snape sighed.
Still scowling, Harry rubbed his arms up and down, watching Snape all the time; he rubbed his hipbone, and, then, stooping a bit, rubbed his knee where he'd banged it against the floor. Snape hadn't moved. "I didn't speak that one," Harry informed, still rubbing. "You know. Stupefy. I usually have to speak it—I can't ever get that one right—but this time I did. Did you see?"
Peeling his eyes away from the wall, Snape glanced down at Harry, but he remained silent.
"It'll be knocked out for a while," Harry continued, his attention on the snake now.
"Are you injured?" Snape finally asked.
Dipping his chin, Harry surveyed his limbs. He wrinkled his nose; he shrugged. "No, sir. I'm fine."
Harry shrank, his shoulders sagging. "It was instinct," he explained. Complained, really. "I saw the red light, and I thought—"
"Oh, for heaven's sake," Snape snapped, latching onto Harry's arm. "You're not in for a whipping every second of your life." He guided Harry by the shoulders toward the banister. "Step over the snake."
"What if it wakes up?" Careful tipped-toed steps. Puddle steps.
"I shall enjoy solitude and silence once again."
Harry caught his shoulder against the banister to regain his balance. A smile crawled across his face. He stepped backwards onto the wide landing, watching as Snape nudged the diamond-shaped head with the toe of his boot.
"Bloody massive," Harry observed. "Where'd it come from?"
Snape continued his prodding. The sickly-white underbelly rippled, then stilled, lying dead across Snape's shoe.
"I think I killed it."
Snape was staring at the wall again. For the first time since they had entered the shop, Harry glanced into every corner of the room. The chair that Harry had sat in the other week was gone, as was the table. Circles of dust stained the shelves, but the slats were otherwise empty.
Harry rested his arms on the banister, poking his knee between the posts again and again. "Did he move shops, then?"
Snape turned his head.
"It was only a question…"
A slow blink.
Harry sat on the step behind him, biting the grin off of his lips as he pretended to study his shoelaces. He leaned down to retie them, ignoring Snape's rifling about, and then, without warning, the pain rushed at him, pinned him to the staircase. His forehead burned; his scar throbbed with a heartbeat of its own. Dabbing at the ridge with his fingertips, Harry winced; the pain jerked a strange grunt from his throat.
All of a sudden, Snape's hands were on Harry's face, and then his chin, threaded through his hair, holding back his fringe. It hurt. All of it.
"Get off." Harry thrust his fists against Snape's wrists hanging over his eyes. "Get off…"
Emitting another clumsy groan at the unfairness of it all, Harry closed his eyes and leaned his weight into the palms that continued to hold him captive.
"Is the pain acute?"
"Christ." The hands tightened. Snape's face felt closer. "The pain," Snape repeated. "Is it shooting? Sharp?"
"Erm…" Harry cracked open one eye. "Feels like…like Quirrell. Maybe worse…"
Snape's face contorted in confusion—for an instant—and then he dropped his hands; his mouth went still. His hair nearly lashed Harry's nose as Snape turned toward the scraping noises coming through the cracked door next to the staircase.
Harry rocked to steady himself as the heels of his hands caught the bannister. His chin touched his chest as Harry watched Snape reach into the collar of Harry's t-shirt and, shortly after, draw his wand from his sleeve.
Then, everything happened at once: the gasping, the jerking away, the invisible locket portkey falling, slipping through the posts, clattering against the floor.
Harry jumped two steps at once—backwards—successfully avoiding Snape's free hand swinging toward his thigh. "You said!"
"Shut. Up." Snape's grip tightened on Harry's collar, lifting the boy to his toes. They stood frozen in an arc, their shoulder blades heaving, glowering at each other.
The stairs rasped below them.
"Move. Upstairs," Snape hissed, level with Harry now. "Move! Now!"
"Don't speak." Muttered through a whisper.
Harry let Snape drag him along until they slid around a corner into a small, empty room where most of the light had been blotted out by thick wooden shutters. Harry squirmed against the corner where his back had been pressed into the intersecting walls. Snape was still holding onto both of Harry's wrists as he tapped the top of Harry's head with his wand.
A peculiar sensation trickled down Harry's face, his spine, his shins. All he could hear was the sound of his own breathing and the voices on the stairs. Harry could see Snape's eyes in the single dusty sliver of light that wasn't smothered by the shutters.
Snape pressed his forefinger against Harry's mouth. He leaned down, his eyes glittering, holding Harry's gaze.
The squeaking of the floorboards grew louder.
Snape didn't blink; he didn't speak. He increased the pressure of his finger, stitching Harry's lips together.
Harry quieted his breathing. He understood.
Without a word, Snape left the room.
Gripping the walls behind him, Harry felt as though his eyeballs were twitching in time with his heartbeat. He could feel his wand poking into his hipbone, but he left it alone. One giant snake was enough.
The footsteps stilled. Harry held his breath, listening.
"…Got the call, did you, Severus?"
"I'm standing in front of you, am I not?"
A snicker, followed by a deeper voice: "Figured Dumbledore would have you dusting out the 'Ogwarts Express around this time of year."
"On the contrary, I have been seeing to my appointed duties, unlike some. You wouldn't know about that, would you, Rowle?"
"I'm standing 'ere, ain't I?"
"Did MacNair browbeat you this time as well, or did you arrive of your own volition?"
Whatever Rowle tried to say was garbled by a third, more familiar voice—a weaker voice.
"I made the fucking call."
"This way. In here."
A cluster of black robes drifted into Harry's vision. He squinted against the sudden bright light that pulsed from one of the men's wands and tried to melt into the wall behind him. Glancing down, Harry nearly wrenched his joints out of all sockets. His arms and hands were the exact color of the plaster. He was invisible. Almost. The wall wiggled every time Harry moved even his smallest finger.
The three men, Snape included, were standing in a semi-circle now with their backs to Harry. The squat, ginger-haired one was alternately swiping his knuckles across his forehead and wringing his hands.
"Tried to run, that one." The bearded man—Rowle, Harry supposed—nodded toward the floor. "Didn't put up much of a fight, though."
"He was a simple lad," Hadrian muttered. "Wouldn't've uttered a word."
"The little wanker would've peached. Look at 'im. He took one look in the cellar and tried to run, didn't he?"
"Frightened was all—"
"Oh, belt up, will you? Since when 'ave you become a sentimental bloke, Gibbon?"
"A needless act," Snape broke in, as if he were commenting on the weather. "Foolish exploits such as this are what caused you to fall out of favor last time. The boy's memory could have been wiped clean."
Rowle lifted his chin, shaking his head; he puffed a silent chuckle into the air.
Hadrian—Gibbon—stood silently, staring at the thin, crooked limbs of his apprentice lying discarded on the soiled floor.
Eyes adjusted to the room now, Harry willed himself to look away from the boy's unlaced shoestrings, the eyebrows that seemed to cower behind his fringe. But Harry couldn't even blink. His stomach cringed and trembled.
Harry stared. He stared and shivered all over until a starched sheet floated into the room, guided by Snape's wand, and wrapped itself tight around Flynn's body.
"Don't look at me like that, Gibbon; you said, yourself, the bloke was an orphan."
"Enough." Snape's tone was curled with disgust. "Conceal the body and yourself. Dispose of it. Properly."
"Giving orders now, are we?" Rowle sneered.
"He was my apprentice; I'll do it."
"Remain here," Snape said. "Rowle is quite used to tidying up after his blunders."
It took only a moment for Rowle to realize that no one was laughing with him.
Faint grumbling and swearing followed the man through the doorway, and then the body. They listened to Rowle's moping footsteps, heavier with each stride.
Gibbon blinked at the empty threshold.
"Dolohov…Rowle…" Snape sniffed, sliding his wand back into his sleeve. "Which imbecile do you plan on summoning next?"
"You told me not to contact you—"
"I told you to use discretion. Can you not tell the difference? You've ways of summoning me without involving the rest…" Snape trailed off, his shoulders stiffening. "The risk is too great. It is not time."
"And the boy?"
A shivery silence passed.
"The boy," Snape seethed, moving closer to Gibbon, "is not your concern. The boy is not here. But yours, however…"
Gibbon inched backwards.
"Your boy is dead."
Gibbon's swallow filled the room.
"Dead, Gibbon." Snape paused. He shook his head slowly. "Your impetuosity is pathetic."
"But it was only today, Sev'rus—the burning—and when Pettigrew appeared this morning, I—"
"Pettigrew, yes," Gibbon agreed, nodding, he stretched his fingers across his chest, swallowing again; he drew in air, taking his time. "I scarcely believed it—haven't seen him since he was a wee one; favors his da, he does. I didn't see the snake until he came inside the shop. And the bundle he was carrying…"
"Speak sense, Gibbon."
"I must show you, Sev'rus." The man trudged forward. "Come. To the cellar. Please. MacNair is on watch…"
Hesitating the briefest of seconds, Snape passed a flicker of a glance in Harry's direction and followed Doherty Gibbon to wherever he was headed.
Alone in the dark, Harry breathed deep, quick breaths through his nose. He slithered down the wall, catching the ground hard with his backside. He didn't even feel the sting. Cradling his head in his hands, Harry balanced his elbows on his knees.
Aside from the apothecary—or whatever the hell he was—Harry had never seen or heard of any of these men in his life. Except Pettigrew.
Pettigrew had been in Hadrian's—Gibbon's—shop this morning. Maybe he was still there, lurking. Maybe Snape was standing face-to-face with him now. Maybe the snake had come to and was slinking up the stairs, hoping to finish what it had begun. Maybe the glance in Harry's direction was Snape's way of asking Harry to follow, to 'have his wand at the ready.' Or maybe it was Harry's job to stay put, where Snape had placed him, and think of a plan. Think rationally, Snape had scolded more than once.
Absolutely, Harry was thinking. He couldn't stop thinking.
He was thinking, wondering, how the fear, so alive, had gotten trapped behind the frozen deadness of Flynn's eyes. He was thinking that he had never seen eyes so wide, so awake, so still.
Only he had.
And then, for the first time in his life—as clearly as if she were lying cold, lifeless, in front of him—Harry remembered his mother.
He pressed his knees against his heart to keep it from falling onto the floor. He closed his eyes.
He waited for Snape.