Chapter 29: Sacrifice
The strangled noise that had burst out behind him had caused Harry to pause. He flipped around, sitting back on his heels as he watched Draco smack the top of his own head, then smooth both palms over his hair, one after the other, his face scrunched up, his teeth ground together.
Harry twisted his lips against a grin. "All right?"
"This place is filthy," Draco complained, still scraping cobwebs from his hair.
"It's a ventilation shaft."
"I know that," he spat back, scowling as if Harry were the stupidest person in the world. His gaze dragged over the stone ceiling hovering less than a meter from his head; he squinted over his shoulder into the darkness that trailed him. "Salazar Slytherin was probably alive when they tunneled out this bloody thing…"
"Yeah?" Harry attempted to be civil, even though Draco still had a strand of cobweb dangling toward his ear that he would have loved to point out to the other boy. Watching Malfoy beat himself about the head was almost more satisfying than watching him run screaming from the forest. "Is your manor really that old?"
Still squatting on his toes, Draco frowned at him. "Does it look Medieval to you? This isn't Hogwarts." He held up his forearm. "Lower your wand; you're blinding me."
"Oh…sorry." Harry let the blue light glow about their shoes instead. "It was only a question; how am I meant to know when your manor was built…or Hogwarts for that matter?"
"Any idiot knows that," Draco muttered sourly. He flipped his head toward a distant pinging echo; his voice sounded as though his tongue had swelled in his throat: "It's right in Hogwarts, a History."
A second circle of light illuminated the suffocating space, revealing the entrance to another shaft branching off to their right. Draco must have silently abandoned his earlier proclamation that, as the lead, Harry could worry about casting a light, while he, bringing up the rear, would keep his wand at the ready.
Harry wasn't daft; he had been well aware of the Slytherin's true intention in convincing him to go first. But now that they had soiled the knees of their trousers with grime and could hear their quick breaths bouncing off of the narrow walls, he wasn't worried about being hexed. The promise of more cobwebs and dark, cold tunnels and an irate Potions Master lay ahead. For all the other boy's taunting, Harry knew that Draco wouldn't want to face any of that alone.
A haze of dust glittered in the wandlight as the boy stared down the newfound shaft, his gray eyes overbright, his lower lip caught in his teeth.
Harry rubbed at his nose. "I haven't read Hogwarts, a History—probably should—but Hermione has. She's practically memorized it."
Blinking back into focus, Draco sniffed. "That's hardly a shock."
"I reckon Granger's seen your note by now. You know she's going to tell on you; she's a right prig."
"She's not, either."
The retort was automatic, almost stale; Hermione, indeed, could be a bit of a prig sometimes. But that was only fitting for Ron or Harry to say…not Malfoy, who was actually a massive prig all the time and had made snitching on the Gryffindors into a hobby. If he hadn't been so distracted, Harry would have been delighted to remind the tosspot of that reality, but, now, he could only fix his eyes on the domed shadows quivering on the wall, could only listen to his heart skip beats as the shame prickled down his scalp, warming his whole body.
Hermione might not rat him out, but she would certainly be upset. Maybe frightened. He'd told her that those men they had seen in Sirius' mirror wanted him dead, after all. The worst she could do was send one of the professors after him—he was quite sure she wouldn't follow him a second time. And even if she did tell on him, it's not as if he could be easily discovered, crawling through the ventilation system of Malfoy Manor.
At the moment, Harry wasn't bothered about getting caught, though. Not really. Not yet… Instead he was thinking about illegal Apparition and underage magic and breaking-and-entering…and expulsion. Hermione's worst nightmare. She had risked it all for Harry's sake.
He had thought that leaving her a note would help, but the lump in his throat disagreed with him; the heat continued to prickle his skin; he hadn't felt this wretched since he'd had to lie to Snape about seeing Sirius in the Forbidden Forest.
And without someone to bawl it right out of him this time, the guilt could only hang onto Harry's shoulders, flattening him, squashing his stomach.
"What?" Draco scoffed, furrowing his brow at Harry's blank expression. "For Granger, that was barely even an insult. You look as though your brain fell out."
Harry blinked. "Huh?"
Draco's frown deepened in disgust. "Don't just sit there, Potter… Move! Unless you'd rather crawl back to Hogwarts and hide under McGonagall's robes…"
Harry blinked at him for a few seconds. He raised his wand, causing the other boy to flinch at the brightness. "You've missed one." Harry pointed at cobweb fluttering near Draco's ear. "Did you know?"
The thuds of slaps and squeals of profanity trailed after Harry as he continued to slink on hands and knees through the shaft; the guilt trailed him, too, but as long as he kept moving, it couldn't bite at his heels.
Eventually, there were two pairs of kneecaps sliding along the stone again and the panting of focused, anxious breaths.
"There," Draco huffed out from behind; he lowered his voice to a whisper: "Turn left. It should be down that way."
Harry paused as he came to a T in the tunnel, rearranging his feet so that he was squatting on his toes instead of crawling. He pointed his wand toward the right. The shaft seemed to slope into an incline, but he couldn't see anything beyond that, only a small black splotch in the distance.
"What's up there?" He was whispering now, too.
"Who cares? I haven't taken you on a house tour…"
Harry rolled his eyes as he pointed his light toward the tunnel to his left that slanted downward and appeared to branch off again. "I only meant…the dungeon's off that way? You're sure?"
A pause. "What, did the Muggles forget to teach you the difference between up and down?"
Harry squinted over his shoulder, prepared to let civility bugger off, but before he could open his mouth, a distant, strained shout of pain echoed up the stone duct: a boy's voice.
They shared an uneasy look. Draco's eyes widened, flicked from one opening to the other as his tongue passed over his lips. Harry tried to force down a swallow but failed. He needed to keep moving. Nudging his glasses up his nose, he used the palm of one hand to help launch his heels into an awkward crab-walk down the slope, until he decided to slide the rest of the way down on his rear. Off in the distance, Harry could just make out a small, flickering square against the stone, several bands of light and shadow that stretched toward the top of the shaft like the bars of a prison cell. Another grate in the wall. Draco had been right.
As Harry flipped his chin over his shoulder to tell him so, he saw the boy still perched near the top of the slope, his illuminated wand clutched in a death grip, his knees drawn up; his eyes flashed as though he feared he may be swallowed up once he reached the bottom.
Sighing in aggravation, Harry gestured at Draco to move his arse. Honestly, he'd never seen someone shift from an arrogant sod to an absolute wet so many times in the course of a half-hour. Crouching again, his palms pressed to his kneecaps, he waited, watched as the smooth leather soles carefully edged down the slope, then slid along the grit, causing the Slytherin to wobble, lose his footing, and nearly collide into Harry as the tunnel spat him out onto the flat landing.
"Get off." Malfoy jerked his elbow away, glaring daggers as he tried to straighten his buttons and brush the dirt from his trousers.
Harry ignored him. "Look," he whispered, pointing towards the bit of light. "It's just down there."
"Oh, very good, Potter…finally managed to work it out, have you—"
A sudden, sickening scream of pain rushed through the ventilation grill, filling Harry's ears, filling his lungs; his heart knocked against his ribs and his spine tingled as he tried to will his limbs to stop twitching. It hadn't been a boy's voice this time; it had been a man's. And whoever had screamed had sounded as though he were being tortured.
Draco was frozen behind him, an odd grimace on his face; his lips had blanched with fright.
"Nox," Harry rasped. The air pressed in around him as the tunnel dimmed. He peeked around again. "Put your light out."
"Put it out!" Harry resisted the urge to shove him. "Do it! They might see it…"
For another instant, Draco's skin glowed a grayish-blue against the pulsing light, and then he extinguished his light.
Another scream split the air, followed by a pitiful whimpering. A deep, growling voice.
Their ragged breathing filled the murky, narrow space as they strained to listen.
"Shit," Harry breathed. He squeezed both hands between his knees, trying to get a hold of himself. "I can't hear what they're saying; can you?"
Malfoy shifted beside him. He said nothing.
Drawing in a slow breath, Harry balanced on wobbly knees and began inching forward, keenly aware this time of the tip of the sword clinking at his hip, lightly scraping the stone. He paused only a short distance away from the opening in the wall, every nerve-ending alert in his arms and hands as he clamped his palm over the sharp end.
"What are you playing at?!"
The panicked whisper sparked in Harry's ears. He hadn't realized that Draco had been following so closely, but now, his senses heightened on adrenalin, he could smell the other boy's laundered clothes and hair pomade and the perspiration at his temples. And for some reason, Harry suddenly wished more than anything that he'd done this alone.
He hadn't been alone the time he had tunneled his way through the entrance to the Chamber of Secrets nor when he had gawked up at the stone slab with the iron snakes, trying to work out the password. He hadn't been afraid, really. And he wasn't exactly afraid now. Instead, another sensation had seized him about the torso with a cold, clammy grip, and the sound of Draco's anxious shuffling was only causing that grip to tighten.
He was being trailed by the wrong Slytherin.
Of course, if the other Slytherin were here, Harry would be doing the trailing, and they certainly wouldn't be skulking about in a ventilation duct. Then again, it's not as if he had ever envisioned slinking through a moldy tunnel underneath the girls' toilets with his Potions professor, either…
The tunnel. He knew what he could do. He knew what Snape would do.
"Shut up a minute," Harry hissed at the silhouette behind him. His mouth was dry, and he could taste his heartbeat. But he still managed to speak a clear incantation, circling his wand through the air: "Sonitus Amplificarum."
The white noise crashed around them like waves, rushing through Harry's ears, interrupted only by the keening whimpers that had blended into a moan now, a low wailing of distress that seemed to vibrate the walls.
"Shut him up, I said!" The growling voice again, only much louder. "Severus stopped the bleeding, what more does he want?"
"Both hands intact, I assume…"
The sound of the second voice turned the muscles in Harry's arms to ribbons and set his heart racing. That calculated, flat tone. The tone that Harry had heard at least once a day for half the summer and had to learn to interpret with caution, lest he end up sent off to his dormitory…or worse.
"Chin up, Pettigrew; that hand was already short of a finger, wasn't it?" A quieter voice. Harry felt Draco's form stiffen behind him as they listened to the acidic laughter of the other men in the room. "Been through this once before, haven't you?"
The breath of a whisper: "I know that voice."
Harry blinked at the dark outline of the face over his shoulder. "Who is it?"
Draco gave a dismissive jerk of his head. "Never mind."
Another voice broke through Pettigrew's sniveling. "Perhaps the paralyzing serum wore off? He's been taking vials of Wideye by the droves. Could've counteracted it. What do you think, Sev'rus?"
Harry's attention was jerked back by the familiar drawl, as though the ginger hair and ruddy cheeks were standing in front of him.
"That's Gibbon," he whispered. "I know him."
Before Harry could answer, the flat voice spoke again. "What I think," Snape declared, "is that we are wasting time. Silence him, if you must—Pettigrew has done his part. And fetch the boy."
As tall shadows passed over the patch of torchlight on the wall, the amplified sounds of shouting and struggling clobbered Harry's eardrums, making him wince. But just as he was preparing to cast the counter-spell, the sound of a hissing voice caused his scalp to prickle and his skin to break out into gooseflesh.
Get the boy…
"God," Harry breathed, rubbing the chill out of his neck; flashes of gleaming white fangs and glittering scales clouded his memory. Not again, he thought. Please, not again. "What is that?"
"What's what, Potter?"
But there couldn't be a basilisk in the Malfoys' cellar. Every person in that room would have been petrified on eye contact, at the very least. Idiot, Harry chastised himself, though he allowed himself a few seconds to bask in the peculiar relief that accompanied his lack of logic. Until he heard the hissing a second time:
Without thinking, Harry crawled the rest of the way toward the light, pausing only for an instant to cast Finite Incantatum when the cacophony of the struggle continuing below him nearly split his head open with the noise. His forehead still throbbed with stinging pain as he reached the iron grill and peered down at the scene of chaos below.
Near the corner of the dungeon, Pettigrew was lying in a small puddle of his own blood clutching his wrist, a cauterized stump peeking out where his right hand should have been. The man was lying still and silent, but Harry couldn't tell if he was dead or just knocked out.
As soon as he caught sight of a raw, twig-like limb lifting itself out of the wooden crate by Pettigrew's feet, Harry's vision blurred at the white-hot burning that suddenly engulfed his forehead. Squeezing his eyes shut, he smashed his knuckles between his brows to try to ease the pressure in his scar, vaguely aware of the odd noises that had croaked out of his throat without his permission.
"What is it? Why are you doing that?" Draco demanded—squawked, really—his chin, once again, hovering too close for Harry's liking.
"Dunno," he slurred, still massaging his forehead. "I… Ugh! Ow…"
"Oh, fuck off," Harry managed to rasp, thrusting his palm against the boy's shoulder, overwhelmed by the pain. He gripped the handle of the sword at his hip, sucking in gulps of air to steady himself. The burn seemed to recede a bit, enough to allow him to squint his eyes open and gaze back down into the dungeon, into the giant cauldron bubbling in the middle of the floor.
But the cauldron had been abandoned.
Instead, hems of robes were flying in all directions as a few of the men darted around the room, their wands pointing at the dark corners. Snape stood near a stone column, his shoulders stiff; he gripped the lapels of his robes as he watched the search.
"He's escaped!" one of the men, perhaps Avery, shouted.
"Escaping is impossible," the professor reported, his voice all-too calm, "and the entrance is sealed."
Scooting closer to the ventilation grill, Harry scanned the visible portions of the room; he couldn't see Sirius anywhere. Had he somehow escaped while the others had been distracted by Pettigrew and his bloody stump?
"Concealed himself…" another man with a dark beard spat, still searching.
Snape again: "Perhaps…though the boy's wand was confiscated…"
Harry's stomach lurched as the stinging in his forehead amped up. He could feel Draco staring at him and knew the boy had seen him wince. The men continued to circle the dungeon, Snape included, casting Homenum Revelio every few seconds, while Lucius Malfoy stoked the torches on the wall with a sweep of his wand, brightening the dank room. Even in his haze of discomfort, Harry had the presence of mind to slide back into the shadows, pressing his shoulder blades against the other side of the shaft as he watched from a distance. Noticing his father skirting about the dungeon, Draco had shrunk back, too.
Perhaps Harry knew what to look out for, perhaps it was because he'd been in the same situation dozens of times, never mind that he'd been on the inside of it, dodging Filch or sneaking off to the Mirror of Erised or sharing air with Ron and Hermione... But barely an instant passed before he noticed it…near Pettigrew's head still lying on the ground. If he would have blinked, he might have missed it.
The toe of a shoe disappearing into thin air.
The stone wall gave a twitch of a shiver, a rustling curtain, and then stilled. Sirius was under the invisibility cloak—his cloak. Snape hadn't left it for him because he had never intended for Harry to use it, to need it, but Sirius had needed it.
They did have a plan.
Harry's hands grew cold but his face burned hot. He felt as though he were having an out-of-body experience, as though he'd half-woken from a nightmare—his eyes open, his body still spasming in sleep-paralysis, the last traces of fear attempting to fade and cling on at the same time.
He wanted to shout for Professor Snape. He wanted to Levitate Sirius and his dad's cloak and hide them both behind the iron grate in the wall. He wanted Peter Pettigrew to stay passed out on the floor. More than anything, he wanted Malfoy to stop breathing on him. But Harry knew he couldn't control any of that. He couldn't do anything except huddle in the darkness of the shaft like an insect trapped in a spider's web and watch the plan unfold.
Watch the giant snake circle around the cauldron, ignoring the aggravated shouts of the men and the sparks flying from wands as it patiently slithered toward the corner of the dungeon where Harry had only just glimpsed a floating foot. How did it know?
Sliding on his knees toward the light again, he held his breath as he watched the serpent crawl on its belly, its scales glistening. Definitely not a basilisk…but Harry was certain he had seen that snake before. In fact, at one point, he had reckoned the Stunning spell he'd fired off in Hadrian's shop had killed it.
The snake began to raise its head off the ground, its tongue flickered out, its eyes focused on the wall in front of it.
One of the men's curses rattled the wall; dust sprayed down from the ceiling. Snape had moved out of sight now, but his voice rumbled an admonishment from the opposite corner of the room.
The snake advanced toward the corner, unperturbed.
Sweat dotted Harry's aching forehead, but he clenched his jaw against the sensation, leaning forward to poke his fingertips through the openings in the iron grill.
"Look at me," Harry hissed through his teeth, shrugging off the pinching grip on his arm. "Turn around and look up here."
As though pulled by a hook, the snake turned and raised its head, its marble eyes trailing over the bundle in the wooden crate before craning up at Harry. The forked tongue flicked at the air.
"Leave it. It's me you want…not him."
Sparing a quick glance to his right, he saw that Draco had scooted away from him; even in the dark, Harry could make out a pair of wide, frightened eyes.
Bleed the boy…
Harry jerked his attention back to the snake; its head had risen even further off the ground, a third of its body nearly vertical, swaying a bit as if it had been charmed…or perhaps readying to strike—he couldn't tell yet.
What he didn't miss was the sudden glare of torchlight reflecting off a round pair of lenses gawking up at him, hovering in midair. Then, like the flash of a snapshot, the face was gone. Harry's heart skipped a beat, his fingertips white and numb against the iron. His head felt fuzzy and a buzzing static swam into his ears; an eerie hush fell over the dungeon.
Snape was standing behind the snake, his brow crumpling as he studied its diamond head. His face went very still. His throat bobbed as he fixed his gaze on the wall in front of him.
And then he lifted his eyes.
They stared at each other, silence hovering like fog between them. Snape had stopped breathing. Didn't even blink.
The jolt of electricity that coursed from Harry's scalp down to his toes should have had him twisting away from the grill, should have had him scrambling on hands and knees in the opposite direction, had him shoving Malfoy's dead-weight out of the way, had him calling for Dobby…
But he could only curl his fingers round the iron even tighter, press his teeth into his lip, and wait to see which pair of glassy eyes, coffee-black or slitted, would lunge for him first. At this moment, Harry didn't know which would be worse.
Still, without knowing why, he remained frozen to the spot, unsure anymore of who was meant to be saving whom. Snape's earlier warning ran through his head over and over: if you disobey me…if you run away from this safety…I may not be able to protect you. Not this time.
The words hadn't mattered nearly as much to him standing in his bedroom at Privet Drive as they did now.
It wasn't long before Lucius' blond head floated into view at Snape's shoulder. Another after that.
The cauldron bubbled and spat behind them.
There was a sharp intake of breath; a thick shoulder tensed as the bearded man raised his wand. And then everything happened at once.
Harry had rolled away from the grill, tucking his knees under him and cradling his arms over his head, but the explosion still caused the air to throb around him and shards of rock to pelt the back of his neck. He lay tucked into a ball for another moment, listening to the shouts of curses and shuffling of feet and thudding of flesh on stone. Listened to his own breathing.
When he finally peeked up through his fringe, he saw that Draco had moved even further away and was sitting with his forehead stuck to his drawn-up knees and his hands over his ears.
McGonagall's robes, indeed. If the Head of Gryffindor House were to appear, he knew Malfoy would be the one doing the hiding, no doubt. Never mind that this mess had been his idea…
"Jesus," Harry breathed, scowling at the pathetic sight.
Straightening his specs, he twisted around and immediately saw the gaping hole in the wall: the blasting curse had somehow missed the grill by several meters. With a final passing glance over his shoulder, Harry abandoned the other boy and started crawling toward the jagged opening, leaving the Slytherin to blub onto his trousers or, perhaps, wet his pants. What did it matter now?
Enough of an edge remained under Harry to slide one foot onto it so that he could crane his upper body into the gap and peer down into the dungeon, flinching against the burning that flared up in his scar.
Nearly a dozen men filled the room now, but no one was looking up at the ventilation shaft anymore; each wizard was paired up with another, slashing his wand through the air. The snake was slithering around the crate now, but Harry hardly paid it any mind. He couldn't take his eyes off of the blue glow of Professor Dumbledore's shield charm arching from the top of his head to the snowy beard near his feet. The headmaster moved with all the ease and dexterity of a much younger wizard as he cast a Stunning spell that flattened the man he'd been battling, then spun around and blocked another curse heading for him.
A tall man with a bald head whom Harry had never seen before was squared up against Lucius Malfoy on the opposite side of the dungeon, and he was surprised to see Professor Snape toe-to-toe with Gibbon, the shopkeeper's ginger hair gleaming with sweat. Others were casting curses and blocking spells in another corner, but Harry didn't recognize any of them.
Pettigrew still lay petrified in the corner, but Harry could see now that the man must have been hit with a Body-Bind spell, since his watery eyes were skirting back and forth; no one had bothered to free him.
However, it wasn't until Harry spotted the silver heap of his cloak and a pair of crooked glasses lying not far from those beady eyes that he suddenly realized his limbs were trembling and it hurt to breathe. Edging out a bit further, Harry scanned the four corners of the dungeon with wild eyes until he caught sight of Dudley's shirt and a pair of bony ankles peeking out from the bottom of too-short trousers.
Restored to his full height, tangles of long, black hair twitched about Sirius' shoulders as he attempted to Stun the man across from him, dodging around a column when his spell missed. Out of practice, his movements were stiff and awkward, and he twisted and fingered his wand as if he couldn't get a feel for it. Despite his hesitancy, he managed to send forth another shower of red sparks, blasting the other man against the wall. The points of his shoulders heaved a sigh as Sirius shoved his fingers through his hair, pausing to see who else might need help.
The hissing voice returned, sending a fresh wave of goosebumps down Harry's neck:
Kill him…kill him now.
Harry watched helplessly as the snake flicked its tongue against the cracked spectacles on the ground and then slithered past them, raised its head.
"Sirius," Harry croaked, gripping the sharp edge of what remained of the shaft as he watched the snake pull itself up, rearing back to bare its fangs. "Sirius! Look out!"
The dark ropes of hair flipped around, his gaunt face contorting. It was too late. The fangs sank into Sirius' side, below his ribs. The man doubled over with the shock of it, but he managed to dive toward the ground before the snake could strike him again.
Another jolt of adrenaline rushed through Harry's veins, but this time, he didn't freeze to the spot; he launched himself out of the jagged opening, landing so hard on his trainers that he felt a hot stab of pain in his left ankle. Ignoring the throbbing, Harry knew what he was supposed to do as he pulled the dagger from the belt loop of his jeans and stepped forward, lifting it high.
The snake swiveled around, its fangs glistening. But Snape was faster.
The sword clattered against the ground and Harry got a face full of black robes and lanky hair as his professor swooped forward and lifted him off the ground, his sore foot dangling awkwardly near the man's hip as he was carted across the room to an empty corner behind one of the stone columns. Just before Snape dumped him to the floor, he saw the snake lying inert next to the crate: someone else had done the job.
Sirius wasn't moving either. A patch of his shirt stuck to his torso, wet with blood. Harry watched the stain slowly spread.
Red sparks were still flying through the air as the last of them battled it out, but the dark wizards were outnumbered enough by the aurors and by Dumbledore that Snape was able to spare a minute to crouch down.
"He's hurt, Professor!" The words came out brittle and dry. Harry grabbed at the man's sleeve and tried to pull the larger hand away from his swollen ankle. Even though Snape had lowered Harry bottom-first, he must have noticed the wincing. "Sirius needs help! You promised you wouldn't let anything happen…"
Strong fingers clutched at Harry's cheeks, lifting his chin. Snape's eyes were clouded, smog against a pitch-black sky, and his jawline twitched as he brought his face so close that his hair dangled.
The man spoke through clenched teeth: "You stay here."
"Don't you dare move." His fingertips tightened. "Do you hear me?"
Harry nodded, swallowing hard to keep from choking up.
The noise continued on the other side of the room, but he could only watch as Snape waved his wand from the ceiling to the floor, causing the air to wiggle and blur, muttering an incantation Harry had never heard before. And then he turned and swept toward the far side of the chamber.
Sitting on his hands to keep them from shaking, Harry tried to work a little moisture in his mouth as he waited for someone to kneel next to Sirius and close up the leaking wound. His shoulders jerked as a jet of sparks flew toward him between the columns, but the spell only ricocheted when it got close, the air around him glowing a veiny whitish-blue.
Harry sucked back a groan as he looked down at his foot; his trainer now squeezed tighter than a blood pressure cuff pumped to full capacity, and since the stinging in his forehead wasn't nearly as sharp from this side of the room, he couldn't ignore the throbbing in his ankle. But at least he wasn't bleeding or dead.
Snapping his gaze across the floor, Harry saw that Sirius was still sprawled out near the wall while the rest of them moved about the room, easily binding the hands of the wizards they'd knocked out and restraining the ones they hadn't. Lucius Malfoy stood with his nose in the air, glowering, twitching his hair out of his face as he submitted to his hands being bound by the tall wizard with the hoop in his ear.
"Professor!" Harry called out. Damn it, he added to himself. "He needs help!"
Dumbledore must have heard him because the next thing Harry knew, the headmaster was huddling over Sirius' torso, his beard and his robes obscuring nearly everything but the other man's ankles.
Harry propped himself on the foot that would hold him and eased up until he was standing, blinking away the dizziness as he checked to make sure all dark wizards were secured. He pushed both palms against the air in front of him to see if he might be electrocuted, but the invisible shield only glowed a bit.
Gritting his teeth, Harry limped forward, the pain stabbing with every step, until he stood behind Dumbledore. The man's beard was still blocking the view of the bloody shirt, but Harry could tell that he was pouring something onto the gash; after a moment, Sirius stirred against the ground.
The headmaster kept a gentle hand on Sirius' shoulder as he gazed up from the floor.
Snape stood staring down at Pettigrew; his face had gone gray and very still for a second time; he held his wand at his side, but his fingertips were pale around the handle of it. His fist trembled.
Again, no answer.
Glancing over his shoulder, as if he knew Harry had been standing behind him the entire time, Dumbeldore straightened, nodding his permission for Harry to take his place before he moved to stand next to his other former student.
Bending over so he could catch the floor with his hands, Harry stuck his injured foot out in front of him as he lowered to a crouch; he could feel Sirius' eyes on him, and when he finally settled, the man tilted the corner of his white lips into something that resembled a smile.
"Severus," Dumbledore spoke up, softly this time. "He will stand trial; Cornelius will see to it." Softer still: "It's better this way."
Harry looked down at Sirius, but the hollow eyes were trained on the ceiling. He wasn't smiling anymore.
"I'll wait for the Minister. He'll be here shortly." The headmaster's voice drifted above them like snow. "Take Harry home."
Snape allowed himself another instant, a slow exhale, and then he turned. His eyes found the empty corner…then dragged over to the boy on the ground. His nostrils flared as they took in air. His jaw pulsed, the blood rushing to his forehead.
Harry's eyes widened as his professor strode toward him, but his whole body was stiff now, his head pounding again, and he couldn't hoist himself up quickly enough to avoid Snape's hands tucking under his arms, lifting him up the rest of the way.
"I shall send for Madame Pomfrey," Dumbledore offered. "She'll need to evaluate Sirius, as well."
"No, I'm fine!" Harry attempted to push away Snape's grip on his upper arm as he balanced on one foot. "Really!"
Changing tactics, Snape stretched an arm across Harry's chest, pinning the boy's weight to his side and leaving his arms to hang in front of him.
"You keep quiet," the professor hissed into his ear. "Understood?"
Sagging in humiliation, knowing it could get worse, Harry avoided the sneers of the group of dark wizards bound together and the stares of aurors that stood guard.
Definitely not the way he saw this ending.
At almost the same moment he spotted the serpent's head lying next to his foot, its mouth wide open.
Jumping in surprise, he swore under his breath, pulling once at Snape's arm to try to loosen it. He failed.
"Father!" The room glanced up at the pale face suddenly framed by the ventilation grill, at the voice choked with distress.
Harry pressed his lips together in a guilty grimace as he craned his neck around to peer up at Snape. He watched the man's brows knit together as if they, alone, had just sorted out the details behind the surprise drop-in. But the coal eyes weren't glittering down at him; they were locked on the other Malfoy.
The two men glared at each other with such malice that Harry was waiting for one of them to catch fire.
"Get off!" Draco's high-pitched whine cut through the tension.
Harry glanced up in time to see the boy shrug away the thin, knobby hand from his arm: Dobby's hand. Lucius had looked up as well, his Adam's apple dipping in his throat; he blinked several times before giving a single nod.
A crack vibrated the air as the house-elf Disapparated the two of them out of the ventilation shaft.
Lucius lowered his chin, his face unreadable. But Harry understood anyway: he had just sacrificed his means of escape.
The headmaster nodded towards them again. "Go on."
Reaching into the pocket of his robes, Snape pulled out something the size of a galleon, holding it in his palm while Dumbledore stepped forward to help him with the charm. Another portkey.
The old man had just pointed his wand toward the disc to activate it when a cold breeze drifted down the stairs, fluttering the flames of every torch on the wall. A pall fell over the room as Harry watched his breath steam in front of his face. But it wasn't until he saw the black robes drift down the stairs, the scabby lips rattling under the hoods, that the familiar icy nausea swept through Harry's body. He closed his eyes against the awful sensation.
The screaming in his head and the wailing from the floor overlapped until he slumped over his professor's arm and let the darkness swallow him.