Chapter 26: A Matter of Comprehension
The snake slithered around the tattered cuffs of Pettigrew's trousers as he poured the last few silvery drops from a vial into a half-full baby's bottle. His hand was trembling so feverishly that his fingernails clacked against the glass as he fastened the nipple.
Severus flicked his gaze towards the floor. Sirius' eyes remained icy and aloof behind the torchlight's glare on his spectacles. But Severus could sense that Black was following Pettigrew's every movement.
And then, Severus noticed it. Hardly a shadow on the youthful chin. But appearing all the same. A light stubble of whiskers.
The tangled mop of hair lurched as the man's deep-circled eyes jolted up from the wooden crate.
"Two vials of unicorn's blood." Severus raised an eyebrow. "Not one."
Wide, beady eyes jerked back and forth with fear, from the crate to Severus, as he scurried to the corner table to fetch another vial to ameliorate his blundered solution. But as soon as he had grasped it, the flask slipped from his quaking hand, shattering at his feet.
"You fool," Severus sneered as he swept toward the mess, clearing it with a disgusted wave of his wand. He stood in front of Sirius, blocking him from Pettigrew's view. "Look at the state of you. For how many consecutive days have you been consuming this without sleep?" He snatched up one of half a dozen smudged empty vials that once contained a day's worth of Wideye Potion.
"I couldn't say," Pettigrew murmured, still keeping a close eye on the crate. "Four, per-perhaps. F-five. This is only the first time—"
"Go." Severus dismissed him with a terse nod toward the staircase. "Get some sleep. I shall keep watch until you return. Take this." He extracted a vial of Dreamless Sleep from his robes. I will send someone with an Awakening Potion in a few hours."
Pettigrew hesitated, fingering the vial.
"It would be a pity if the Dark Lord learned that your carelessness nearly cost his return," Severus persisted, "over your lacking a few hours of sleep. I can't imagine an extension of mercy over such…weakness." He pursed his lips.
Ducking his chin to his chest, Pettigrew stared at the vial in his hand, clenched his fingers around it.
The torches on the wall popped and crackled.
Bloodshot eyes flickered towards the crate.
Finally, Pettigrew hurried to the stairs.
A simple, almost slipshod plan. On a whim. Against Severus' better judgment.
But the imbecile, sleep deprived, eager to please, had swallowed it.
As soon as Pettigrew was out of sight, Severus reached back into his robes and removed two more vials, silently passing one over to the hand that had begun to sprout a few dark hairs at the wrist.
Severus pointed his wand at the snake, casting a strong sleeping spell. To stun it would be to startle it upon awaking, and the reptile was known to be vicious, especially after a recent milking.
Sirius' mouth slouched in disgust as he swallowed the Polyjuice, holding his hand over his lips to keep from gagging. Almost immediately, his skin smoothed again. The grayish eyes transformed back to emerald, and the few strands of black hair that had begun to wilt perked up to attention.
Severus held out the other vial.
Still deficient of the ability to speak, Sirius glanced up with a questioning frown.
"Pain reliever," Severus muttered. "Quickly. Rowle should return within the hour. Perhaps others." He spared a glance toward the crate. Finding the bundle mostly still, he turned back to find green eyes blinking up at him. A thumbnail wedging the cork more snuggly into the glass rim.
Sirius shook his head. Passed back the vial.
A condescending sniff. A curl of a lip. "God save the Blessed Martyr."
Quick footsteps pounded on the stairs. Severus thrust the vial into the pocket of his robes just before a head of shiny blonde hair came into view.
The boy stopped short. "Oh…"
"You haven't left with your mother?"
"I told her I wished to stay. She left Dobby to attend to me," he sneered, "as if I need a keeper…" Gray eyes scanned the corners of the room. "Where's my father?"
"Attending to business." Severus kept his voice even. "What is it you need?"
"And the others?"
"That is none of your concern, Draco. Come, now, what is it? Speak plainly."
"The door to Father's study…"
Severus' brow crumpled. "Yes?"
The boy leaned his shoulder against the wall. "It's been left wide open."
"Father always keeps it locked," Draco reported. He waited a moment, resting more of his weight against the wall. "You don't find that a bit peculiar?"
"Perhaps the house-elf left the door ajar after cleaning."
A snort. He hooked a thumb into the pocket of his trousers. "And risk a bloody good flogging? That's rich." The boy's smirk collapsed when he realized that Severus found the joke less than amusing.
"I shall see to it in a moment. Go upstairs," Severus said, gazing over the top of Draco's head toward the opening that lead to the drawing room. He glanced at his pocket watch. And then his eyes landed on Draco, who was still lounging comfortably. "Upstairs, I said!" He grabbed the boy's arm, pulling him away from the wall and propelling him toward the exit with a palm drawn back, ready to strike.
Draco flashed a look of indignation over his shoulder as he ran up the steps and out of harm's way.
Severus' robes flew out behind him as he strode across the room.
Black pressed his back against the wall at the man's approach.
Ignoring this, Severus crouched down, retrieved his wand, pointing it straight at the body still stuck to the floor. "Finite Incantatem."
Heels scraped against the floor. Palms lifted a numb backside. "What are you playing at?" The whisper was gravelly from disuse.
Settling back on to the ground, Sirius took the spare wand from Severus' grasp. He stared at the second item.
"Hide them. Both of them."
Sirius slipped the invisibility cloak from Severus' other hand. James' cloak.
"Hide them now!"
He shoved them under his shirt, securing them in the waistband of his trousers. When he looked up, Severus' face was so close that strands of twig-like hair were nearly dangling in Sirius' eyes. "In case of emergency only. Is that clear?"
A curt nod.
"I'll be back in ten minutes. We may only have that long."
Perhaps it was the fact that being almost invisible gave Harry the sensation of moving in slow motion.
Or perhaps it was that he had spent the past several hours with Hermione, and if she were still with him, she would have noticed the bits of dirt clinging to the doorknob Harry was clutching. Would have insisted he cover his tracks.
Swearing under his breath, Harry dropped to his knees next to the eight mud-colored footprints perfectly pressed into the white carpet of what appeared to be a study. Maybe a library. The walls gleamed of gray and white swirled marble and the ceiling was as high as the one in Dumbledore's office. A twisted narrow staircase lead to a platform containing a second level of shelves.
But the décor hardly concerned him at the moment. The Forbidden Forest, mud and all, had a knack for ruining his life.
Yanking the cuff of his sleeve over his hand, Harry scrubbed the material against one of the stains. At least he hoped he was rubbing, seeing as his sleeve was the exact color of the carpet. He could just barely make out the wiggling outline of his arm.
Like a giant, misshapen contact lens. A soiled storm cloud.
Harry gazed forlornly at the footprint. Tiny clumps of mud had turned into long streaks of blackish brown.
A sudden gust of heat from the hearth whooshed against Harry's cheeks and forehead. He squinted at the floating head in the fire. "…Hermione? What are you doing? You promised me—"
"I'm not following you, Harry," the girl insisted. "I'm just making sure you got through all right before I go home…" She trailed off. "What have you done to the carpet?"
"Look, I'm trying to clean it, okay?" Harry explained, scrubbing some more with his sleeve. "Who has bright white carpet anyway?"
"Rather common, really," Hermione replied easily. "Who doesn't check their shoes before walking on white carpet? Harry…stop."
"No, Harry, really," she lowered her voice to a loud whisper this time. "What are you doing? You know how to cast a cleaning spell, don't you?"
Harry froze, sat back on his heels.
"Here, I'll do it."
Harry held up both hands, forgetting that he appeared to her nothing more than a blob of clear jelly throwing an invisible tantrum. "Hermione, Istarted on fourth-year spells this summer. I know how to cast a cleaning spell—"
Harry's tongue caught in his throat.
Hermione's head swiveled in the fire. "What? Why did you make that noise? What is it?"
"Footsteps. Someone's coming. Go! Hurry!"
"Close the door!"
"I can't," Harry breathed. "They're too close. They'll see it."
A low, silky voice filled the corridor, followed by a cheeky whinge.
Harry's heartbeat filled his whole body, even his scalp.
Hermione's face disappeared from the flames; the logs glowed orange, shifting, rolling a bit, as if to say I told you so.
"…your father was quite clear when he demanded you make yourself scarce," the voice growled, biting into each word. "And I am losing my patience."
A pair of soles pounded against the marble floor
Harry reached for his wand but stilled almost immediately.
He could feel the black robes beside him before he actually saw them. The muddy trainer prints glared at him like a trail of breadcrumbs. And they didn't travel any further than a meter from the open door.
A dead giveaway.
Harry closed his eyes in despair.
He held his breath until his lungs burned.
"Whoever is in this room, I advise you to show yourself." Too calm. Eerily calm. "I assure you, I know exactly where you are standing."
Kneeling, Harry thought. Didn't make him any less dead.
His arm felt heavy as he extracted his wand from his waistband. He sighed, pointed it at himself. Reversed the spell.
Staring down at the dirt lodged under his fingernails, Harry gripped his kneecaps and waited.
Finally, Harry tossed a string of Morse code glances towards Snape. The man's shoulders were heaving in Harry's peripheral vision. Reaching behind him, Snape threw the door closed. Slashed his wand toward it in a giant X.
The lock clicked. Loud as a slamming jail cell door.
In a matter of seconds, Harry was lifted off the ground by a strong grip around his biceps. His shoulder blades knocked against the row of books behind him.
Snape's lips were trembling.
Harry moved his own lips, but nothing came out.
"What is wrong with you?" Snape rasped. "Who the hell do you think you are?"
Harry looked down at his chest, watching as Snape grabbed a handful of his t-shirt and twisted it, tightening the fabric against Harry's shoulders. He wrinkled his nose at the stale, empty-stomach smell of his professor's breath.
"You are not the Minster of Magic."
Harry's back bumped the bookcase again.
"You are not an Auror. You are not a professor." Snape's nostrils flared as he spat out the reminders through clenched teeth. "And it is certainly not your job to save the world—"
"No!" Snape jerked his fist, clutching Harry's t-shirt even tighter. "You keep your mouth shut until I give you leave."
Harry bit his lips together.
"My God," the man seethed, his voice grainy and strange. "If I would have dared defy my father the way you do me…"
Harry blinked, scrunched his nose to lift his glasses away from the tip. For a second, the only noise in the room was Snape's nose breathing and whisper of Harry's shoulder blades wiggling against the bindings.
Snape's cheeks were still twitching. His eyes were skating all over Harry's face, as though he couldn't quite believe what he was seeing. He held fast to Harry's t-shirt—one of Harry's favorite shirts, no less—solidifying a wrinkle that no iron would ever smooth out again.
The black eyes narrowed into slits. "You would be wise to wipe that smirk off of your face before I do it for you." Snape released Harry's shirt, swapping it out for a wicked hold on his chin as it sank towards his to his chest. "Look at me."
"I don't have a smirk."
"No? I shall tell you what you do have, then. You have exactly five seconds to tell me how it is that you are standing in front of me. Five…"
"Your thumb's hurting my chin…"
"Ow!" Harry tried to wrench free. He failed. "Okay, okay—"
"Okay, I'll tell you. Get off me! I'll tell you!"
Harry rubbed his chin, peeked over the tops of his lenses. "That hurt."
Face tightening, Snape grabbed Harry under the arms. His trainers scraped against the carpet as he was drag-carried the short distance to the gleaming mahogany desk and plopped down so that the two of them were nearly eye-to-eye. Snape pressed the heels of his hands on either side of Harry's kneecaps. Leaned forward.
"I—" Harry wet his lips. "I used the Floo."
The wood squeaked in panic under the man's palms.
"Keep," Snape enunciated, "going."
A brief pause. "And…and the Floo powder."
An Uncle Vernon-sized vein poked out of Snape's neck. "From where?"
Harry's tongue passed over his lips again.
"Ugh!" Harry pushed at Snape's wrist to ease the pressure of the fingertips on his cheeks. "Stop it!"
Snape moved in so closely that Harry could see the pores in his pale forehead. "You tell me."
Harry studied the tremors in the Snape's lips; he lifted his eyes, locking them with Snape's. "Listen, I know you're angry. And I'll take the punishment, but—"
"Jesus." Snape pushed himself away from the desk, towering, hovering over Harry, as disheveled as the Whomping Willow after a windstorm. "We are far past that. Don't you dare trivialize this, young man."
Rubbing at his cheeks, Harry squinted. "Trivialize what?"
"Albus." Snape impatiently smoothed the hair away from his forehead. "The headmaster." Snape's gaze pinned Harry to the desk. "Did the headmaster inform you of this location?"
"Why would he?"
"Lupin, then," Snape snarled, his jaw pulsing. "Or Black."
"What are you even talking about—"
A dry swallow. "Which one…what?"
"God damn it."
Harry hunched up his shoulders, flinching away from the hand that darted towards him. But the hand snatched a glass paperweight instead.
It shattered against the marble fireplace.
"I HAVEN'T THE TIME FOR THIS!"
Several seconds passed before Harry cracked his eyes open. The hair on his forearms stood at attention. He dug his fingernails into the gooseflesh, waiting for his stomach to relax.
Snape was staring into the dying flames, sucking in noiseless breaths. He dragged his palm down his face, holding it over his mouth for an instant, before gripping the back of his neck.
Dust-like slivers glittered on the carpet.
"Dobby helped me. And Hermione. I asked them to. It was me. Be pissed off at me. Not them."
Harry picked at a hangnail. Folded his thumb into his fist. Squeezed it until it ached. "Sirius asked me to go with him somewhere—some place in London, I think—and I said no." He flashed a glance over the rims of his glasses. Slid them further up his nose. "I told him I couldn't," Harry repeated.
Snape continued to clutch his neck.
"I was going to sit tight. I really was. But I saw you cast a Shield Charm through the mirror, and I thought you were… I mean…" A stinging heat gripped Harry's torso, crawling upwards. "I dunno." He stared at the dangling laces of his trainers.
"You saw Black hit the ground."
"Through a mirror." A pause. "He gave you a mirror?"
"Yeah." Harry kicked at a loose shoelace. "Yes, sir. I mean."
The word stabbed painfully into Harry's gut. "Sorry."
Harry peeked up all the way this time. Snape was looking at him. The blackness of his eyes had dulled.
"You should not have been left alone."
"I've been left alone since before I learned how to write my name." Harry sank his teeth into the insides of his lips, tried to somehow puncture the swelling of his throat. It didn't help. He closed his eyes in frustration. "I'm used to it."
"Perhaps at one point you were."
"It doesn't bother me."
Harry sniffed once, unsure how to respond. "I really am sorry," he finally muttered. He blew out his breath. "I'll take the hiding."
A short stretch of silence. And then:
Sliding down from the desk, Harry gripped his elbow, holding it close to his ribs as he dragged his feet toward Snape.
The hands on either side of his face startled him, had Harry blinking up in flutters.
"You cannot be here," Snape tightened his fingertips, tilting Harry's glasses crooked, "because you are in danger. Never mind the hiding. Danger. Are you listening to me?"
Harry stared at him.
"You cannot be here because these men want you dead. The Dark Lord wants you dead."
A cold tingle weaved down Harry's spine. But the proclamation didn't shock him. Didn't exactly frighten him, really. It was the clouded gleam of Snape's eyes, the thread-thin lines that creased the corners that stole the moisture from Harry's throat.
"I know he does." The words tumbled out, stupid, childish. "But why does he?"
The lines around Snape's eyes had deepened. Harry wanted to look away, but he didn't.
"Because," Snape said slowly, "twelve years ago, he was defeated by an infant." The pad of his thumb pressed the scar on Harry's forehead before his hands dropped to rest against the thin shoulders. "And he does not comprehend how such a phenomenon could occur. It galls him."
"Nobody understands it. I don't even understand it."
Snape's throat rippled. "They need your blood for a potion—a complex potion that may very well bring the Dark Lord back to existence. And the blood must be taken forcefully. You must be alive when it's taken."
Harry let the words hang in the air for a moment. Waited for the hot prickling in his scalp to disappear.
"Oh…" The breath of a whisper.
"Do you understand now?" Snape's lips were twitching again. "You. Cannot. Be here."
"But..." Harry nearly choked on the word. He swallowed. Tried again. "But if you would have told me all this, I would've stayed back, you know? How come you didn't just tell me? "
The hands fell from Harry's shoulders.
"I don't know."
Gooseflesh sprouted on Harry's arms. He flipped his gaze toward tiny creaking that seemed to come from the second floor of the study, but the loft was empty. Harry held on to his elbow again. Shifted his trainers. Forced a small, awkward cough. Anything to get that gray, lifeless look off of his professor's face.
The attempt failed.
"Well." More shifting. "He's tried to kill me twice already. Remember? I'm not dead yet."
The eyes found Harry's face.
"What…what do you want me to do? What can I do to help?"
Snape straightened, the fog lifting.
"I want you to go home. I want you to stay there."
"My aunt isn't even home. She doesn't exactly like me; I don't think she'll come—"
"Hogwarts," Snape broke in. "Not Surrey." He buttoned the cuff at his wrist, the trance slipping off of him the rest of the way. "I want you to go home. Find the headmaster—I'll find him. Stay with him until I return."
"He's not there…"
"He can be." Snape shook his hair from his face as he fixed the other cuff of his sleeve, repairing the broken paperweight with a flick of his wand, cleaning the carpet with another. "He will be."
"I can be very brave. I won't do anything stupid. I really won't. I swear I won't disobey you ever again—"
Snape cupped Harry's chin, leaving his pincer claws out of it this time. "Listen to me," he murmured. "No—hush—listen. Listen."
A sniff. "Okay."
"If you get killed or even injured, I will never forgive myself. Do you hear me?"
"Yes, I do."
"Please, obey me. I shouldn't have to threaten you to extract obedience. You are too smart. You know better now."
"The matter is closed." Snape thrust his finger a centimeter away from Harry's nose. "I scraped your lifeless body off the floor when you were eleven—and you were lucky enough to live that time. I will not do it again. Not in the cellar of this degenerate excuse for a household. Not ever."
Snape let his arm drop. He drew in an uneven breath.
"I want you to go home. Understood?"
A jerk of a nod.
"Say it, then."
Snape considered him a long, long moment. Finally, a single nod of his own. "Very well." He reached for the jar of Floo powder on the mantel.
"What about you?"
The hearth blazed a hot, transparent green.
"…What about me? Get in."
"What if you're the one who gets injured or killed?"
Strands of hair fluttered about Snape's chin in the warm air as he regarded Harry with his granite face. He crooked his finger.
Harry took a step forward. Didn't shrug away from the heavy palm on his shoulder.
"The headmaster would never let that happen."
"How do you know?"
"…What about Sirius?"
A slow blink. "I…will not let anything happen." The words clattered out of his mouth like wooden blocks. "Now step in."
Harry placed a foot in the green flames, his fringe blowing straight up. "Maybe you should take my invisibility cloak, just in case. It's locked in your room, but…"
A strange shadow passed over Snape's face as he yanked his pocket watch from the inside of his robes. He swore. The man had barely moved his lips, barely breathed it, but Harry heard it all the same.
Harry stepped out. "What? What'd I say?"
"Get back in there." Snape tugged his robes over his shoulders. "Get out of here. Now!"
Harry held his palms up. "Okay, okay. Where should I wait for Dumbledore?"
Snape spun on his heel, clutching his neck once again. "His office. You have to speak his whole name for Floo admittance."
"Which is what?"
Snape told him.
Harry made a face. "Hang on. Percival what?"
"Oh, for Christ's sake, Potter." Snape spat it out again. Carefully. He even ordered Harry to repeat it. "Go! And stay there."
Fabric flapped in the wind as Snape swept his robes around his ankles and strode toward the door, locking Harry in behind him.
Longing for his locket, Harry let a sigh burble through his lips as he trained his eyes upward, recalling the order of names, preparing for what was, apparently, the most vital Floo network recitation of his young life.
The sound of a book splatting against the floor suddenly jerked Harry out of his thoughts. One of the second floor shelves was quivering.
An entire section of the bookshelf squeaked open.
Harry ducked, stuck a foot out of the flames. Reached for his wand.
A pale hand, white knuckling its wand, eased its way out of the crack in the hidden passageway. Followed by a head of white hair. A pinched, panicked face.
"Oh, shit," Harry breathed. "Snape…"
Draco's chest puffed out with a silent snort as he stared down at Harry. Panic melted into glee. "I knew it."
The study lit up with flashes of red.
An entire row of books flew off the shelf, just missing Draco's feet.
The ceramic jar exploded behind Harry's head, dusting his hair with Floo powder. Ignoring the smack of leather soles on the spiral staircase, Harry sprinted toward the door.
This time, it worked.