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No Journey's End

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The Dark Lord, having little respect for the duties of a Head of House during the opening days of a new school year, had scheduled a Death Eater meeting at a very inconvenient time. Unfortunately, he wasn’t likely to review to a memo on the subject.

So Severus dumped on Filch the detentions he’d accumulated during Tuesday’s bad mood, and made his way to Malfoy Manor.

Narcissa had a servile house-elf answering the door, but Severus’ cloak hem was barely over the threshold when she herself appeared. Her eyes glittered, but she reached out both her hands to take his with perfect poise.

“Severus, my ewe lamb.” As she leaned forward to kiss his cheek, the scent of her perfume - violets - folded around him. Her hands were cold.

“Narcissa.” He offered her his arm; she accepted with grace. “It hardly seems flattering to observe that I would rather be here in your company than in the society of those little human pustules at Hogwarts. I’d rather smash all my toes with a hammer than put up with them.”

“Naturally. I take the compliment in any case.”

They ascended the curving staircase, rising through the draping shadows. Narcissa had inherited a house designed by pure-bloods at least five centuries ago, when tastes had been Gothic and lugubrious; she had done a great deal with wallpaper and marble but been careful to retain the sinister air. Like a proper pure-blood wife, she had learned everything about the history of the manor that had been duly recorded, and the first time Severus had been permitted across the threshold as a young man, had detailed the exact history of the black candelabras that flanked the foot of the stairs and the Malfoy responsible for the leering gargoyles in the crown mouldings. At the time he’d been impressed - not so much by the architecture as by the weight of history, the prestige of owning such a place by blood. These days he only wondered what fathead had wanted to stare at those bulge-eyed monstrosities every day. Probably they’d never looked up at the ceiling.

The library doors swung silently open at Narcissa’s approach. Firelight burnished the walls and poured deep pits of shadow into the corners. Everyone was gathered already; Severus was the last. Lucius had arranged himself near the Dark Lord and taken on the office of dutiful listener. In this he had to compete with Wormtail, who had no pride or shame at all. Severus was almost amused at seeing the two of them vying to be the bigger toady.

The Dark Lord glanced over and met Severus’ eye, with a glint of amusement that, for a split second, warmed him as it had always done, and then left him absolutely cold. It was an old look - one of the tricks the Dark Lord had used to appeal to him when Severus was twenty. Witness these fools, the look said. You and I are not like them. You and I understand more than they do.

Get a grip, he snarled at himself. He was here to work, not to grovel to his shriveled conscience.

Narcissa peeled away as Severus knelt to the Dark Lord. The fire from the hearth lay like a scalding shroud on his icy face.

“You’re late, Severus,” said the Dark Lord, but he made a slight signal that permitted Severus to rise. “Did the students keep you?”

A titter traveled through the Death Eaters ringed in a wide crescent around the fireplace. Severus ignored them. It wasn’t as if they were laughing at anything funny, anyway.

“As they always do, my lord.”

The Dark Lord gave a dismissive wave of his hand, allowing Severus to melt into the crowd. He joined Narcissa a few paces to the side: still within sight of the Dark Lord, but only if he turned his head. Sixteen years ago he’d have been bitterly jealous of Lucius’ stance at the fireplace, of Pettigrew’s cringing spot at the Dark Lord’s left hand. He’d have gulped at any opportunity of putting himself forward.

What a fucking idiot he’d been.

Harriet would be in detention with Umbridge by now. He hoped, without much hope, that she would behave herself, and then wondered how he could even think it was a possibility. He’d met her.

“And how is the Minister’s stooge fitting in, Severus?” the Dark Lord asked. Another titter swept through the room, but was quickly choked off when the Dark Lord glanced over. Now was apparently not the time for appreciative giggling.

“I hear she has been sent to discover the truth of what happened to Harriet Potter and her Mudblood friend,” the Dark Lord continued. “Do relate what you told me, Yaxley.”

Yaxley stepped forward, looking proud to deliver tedious Ministry gossip. Kingsley Shacklebolt had already reported on this, and Severus suspected Dumbledore had known it before confirmation was even possible.

“The Mudblood-loving Headmaster,” said Yaxley, dutifully insulting, to the usual banal murmurs of agreement, “still has had no success convincing the idiot Fudge” (All right, Severus agreed with that one) “that you were behind the attack, my Lord. He has sent the Umbridge woman to obtain the truth.”

“A spy in your midst, Severus,” said the Dark Lord with a tinge of amusement. This time he permitted the resultant laughter. “And how is she progressing?”

“She already has the girl--”

Severus’ throat caught as a sudden pain pierced him; only by dint of long training did he manage to keep talking.

“-- in detention, my Lord.”

“Hm. I had no idea anyone within the Ministry could be so enterprising,” said the Dark Lord.

The pain itched across his skin like little marching ants, and with it came a rising panic. What is she doing? She’s supposed to be in detention. . .

“That is one word for her, my Lord,” he said, hoping he sounded tolerably composed.

“My Lord,” said Lucius, attracting the Dark Lord’s attention -- no doubt from jealousy, but Severus didn’t care as long as he made himself useful. “My son has informed me that the detention was the result of. . .”

Severus took stock. Unless he’d been surreptitiously cursed, which he tended to doubt, even in this crowd, Harriet was in pain. If she was indeed in detention with Umbridge, which was likely, and if Umbridge had been sent to root out information that Dumbeldore had already offered freely to Fudge, then Umbridge must be the source of the pain.

He would not make a feeble excuse and rush back to Hogwarts to commit instant homicide. He had a job to do. He would -- be calm.

(If only it wasn’t like trying to stop the tide by scooping up water in a little cup and throwing it back into the waves)

Physical sensations. They were grounding. He’d practiced this.

Take stock of yourself, fool.

He felt like someone had dumped him in a bath of itching powder. Even the inside of his nose burned. But the pain was not debilitating, which meant it wouldn’t be to Harriet either. It was acute but stable -- if she were being seriously tortured, his sensations would most likely be peaking and subsiding. And if she were in real danger, he would be suffering more than a full-body itch and a throbbing in the back of his skull.

But he couldn’t think of anything Umbridge would be doing that would result in pain of this nature, and that was almost as hard to deal with as the need to stay put.

You cannot leave, you daft cunt. You have a mission here. She is not in danger or you’d be on the floor.

But she was being hurt, and he had to fucking stand here like a stuffed vulture and listen to this inane, self-important, obsequious fucking chit-chat.

A pleasant fantasy of murdering Umbridge shifted to daydreams of murdering everyone in this room. To keep himself busy, he went through a list of curses he would use as the clock ticked and the Dark Lord droned on.

“. . . presence must be turned to our advantage,” he was saying. “We were successful in luring the child from the school once before, with an ally inside Hogwarts’ walls. . . Umbridge can become our tool, though she will have no idea. Put forth your thoughts, my loyal followers. How can she be of use to us?”

This -- this is why he was here -- to learn information that could be got in no other way. Dumbledore had his spies in the Ministry, but Severus was the only one in this circle. No one else could do this job; that was why he did it. . .

The ideas were predictably stupid enough to try the patience of a saint, which certainly described nobody in this room. He filed them away anyway. He suspected the Dark Lord held these little conferences in order to amuse himself with the idiocy of his followers, and to reassure himself that he really had done a good job of picking the biggest morons in England for his henchman. The Dark Lord had always had a few Death Eaters who could find their arse with both hands, but for the most part he deeply mistrusted intelligent people. These meetings must go a long way to helping him sleep at night.

Blood boiling curse for you, Severus thought as Dolohov suggested they take a leaf out of Fink and Nottle’s book and ambush Harriet on Hogsmeade road, hopefully killing her friends in the process.

Flesh-peeling would do nicely in your case, he thought at Crabbe, who offered his son as a proxy to poison her.

After each idea was presented, the Dark Lord gave a pithy summation of its suitability as a plan, which was to say he insulted it. This only made the others eager to clamber with their own ideas, to be rejected as the stupidest thing their Lord had ever heard. Severus was surprised someone didn’t suggest Imperius-ing Umbridge in the bathroom of the Three Broomsticks; that had been a go-to move fourteen years ago.

“Place the Imperius on her when she visits Hogsmeade, my Lord,” said Lucius. “Then she will be able to carry out our bidding.”

I’ll just strangle you with my bare hands.

The throbbing in Severus’s head was deeper now, and he wasn’t entirely sure it could be attributed to whatever was happening in Harriet’s detention -- which, whatever that was, was still going on.

Umbridge wouldn’t be able to become the Dark Lord’s stooge if Severus killed her. . . Murder was sounding better by the second.

People were starting to move about, to mutter to each other, shake hands, look at the time. The meeting was breaking up. The Dark Lord must have had his fill of fatuous remarks.

“Severus?” Narcissa was still at his side. “Will you stay and take tea?”

Judging by her tone, she desperately wanted to talk to him. Had something not been wrong with Harriet -- but tonight there was no choice.

“To my regret I must return to Hogwarts at once.”

“Of course. If you see Draco--”

Someone bumped Severus roughly as they squeezed past. “Out of the way, Snape,” said Yaxley.

It was said to rile him, but it was not remotely creative. In fact, it was one of the lamest attempts to be insulting that Severus had been subjected to recently, which included the names the first year Gryffindors called him behind his back.

Severus’ wand was already out. “Oh, Yaxley. . . Do watch where you’re going.”

Then he hexed him in the face.

The angry cuts on the back of Harriet’s hand felt like they’d been written in fire. Taking a deep breath, she stuck her hand under the icy stream of water coming from the bathroom faucet. The sting gave her a good opportunity to bring out some of Snape’s choice swears.

Speaking of Snape, she’d been expecting him to charge into Umbridge’s room before she’d written to the end of the first line. But the office had remained distinctly Snape-free.

That’s good, she’d told herself. If he told me to stay out of Umbridge’s way, then he should take his own advice.

And yet, with each bloody mark of the quill-tip she’d dragged down the paper, she’d wondered where he was.

A towel wrapped around her right hand -- blood was already spotting through the paper -- she fumbled in her school bag with her left. Last spring, after Hermione’s abduction, she’d started carrying around the Map and her cloak. But after solemnly swearing, she couldn’t find any dot labeled ‘Severus Snape.’

She frowned over the dungeons, the Great Hall, Dumbledore’s office, even -- her insides feeling cold by this time -- the Astronomy Tower, where Snape liked to prowl and surprise students out for a moonlight canoodle. As far as she could tell, all of Hogwarts was Snape-free.

And if Snape, who’d sent down a salve after Harriet had just burnt her hand a little, was nowhere to be found after she’d spent an hour carving her hand open at the will of an evil toad, then he had to be with --

The bathroom door scraped open. As if her heart weren’t jumping at her throat, Harriet wiped the Map clean and looked up as calmly as she could.

In the deep shadows of the doorway, a pale sweet face surrounded by long fair hair stared back.

“Asteria!” Harriet said in surprise, her pang of relief braided up with guilt.

Asteria’s smile trembled across her face, but then vanished when she saw the towel wrapped around Harriet’s hand. “Oh! What happened?” she whispered, as if they might be overheard.

“Cut myself.”

“Won’t you go to Madam Pomfrey?” Asteria’s hands reached forward, as if she would take Harriet’s injured one. Harriet pretended to fuss with her bag strap, to draw her hand away.

“Was just going there,” she lied.

“I’ll come with you. That is --” Asteria, still unused to asserting herself, shrank a little. “If you w-would. . . let me.”

Since Harriet hadn’t had any intention of going to Madam Pomfrey and showing what was actually on her hand, she very much wanted to refuse; but turning Asteria down would be like throwing a kitten to a manticore.

“It’s nothing, really,” she said. “I don’t want to bother her.”

Something flickered in Asteria’s gaze. Harriet wished she hadn’t put the map away, so she’d have something to fiddle with. She had a feeling she wasn’t being very convincing at all, and the longer they stood there staring at each other, the more her flimsy excuses would come apart.

“I’m not keeping you from. . .” She gestured at the toilet cubicles. “I hope?”

“Oh, no. I came in here because I saw you running past.” She bit her lip, like she thought she was overstepping.

“Oh,” was all Harriet could think of in reply.

Asteria’s eyes searched Harriet’s face. Harriet couldn’t meet them; she looked away, fiddling with the towel, which was melting into her hand as it soaked up her blood.

“Can I. . . see your hand?” Asteria asked quietly.

Harriet felt a curious lump in her throat. “It’s nothing,” she repeated, roughly.

Silence. A pipe dripped somewhere, the plaintive echo of falling water.

“Please?” Asteria asked, even more quietly.

Harriet blinked swiftly. Chancing a look at Asteria, from the corner of her eye, she saw her face set with resolution, but also something that made Harriet’s throat feel caved in.

She held out her hand.

Asteria’s eyes widened. Gingerly, she took Harriet’s hand and unwrapped the sodden towel. It slithered down into the sink. Still with extreme gentleness, she titled Harriet’s hand so she could clearly read the letters, in Harriet’s own handwriting, cut into her skin: I will show respect.

A spark flared in Asteria’s face; her jaw flexed. For a moment, she looked like somebody ready to fight. Harriet observed it in fascination, forgetting that her hand still throbbed.

Then it faded, and Asteria looked disturbed instead. “What is it?”

“Don’t get detention with Umbridge,” Harriet said dryly.

Asteria swallowed. “She did this?”

“Well, she sort of has you do it to yourself. There’s a quill.” She shrugged at the expression on Asteria’s face, her skin feeling tight and uncomfortable. “It’s not a big deal. I don’t. . .” She squeezed the fingers of her good hand together. “I just don’t want -- a big deal made of it. It’s fine. I’m fine.”

Asteria was silent a moment or two. “Will you let me . . . tend it?”

“. . . Sure,” said Harriet, surprised.

Asteria led her down to a little alcove on the first level of the dungeons. A section at the top opened to the air, like a window with no glass, leaving the small space thick with the scent of algae and wet earth. Harriet perched on a recessed stone bench carved into the wall and dragged the map out again.

Still no Snape dot.

The back of her hand burned.

If he was in the castle, he’d certainly have come. And the only reason he wouldn’t be in the castle was if he was -- with him. And she’d seen Snape suffering from the Vow’s feedback loop. . . if Voldemort should realize something was wrong --

Her throat felt like she’d swallowed an ice cube. Her only consolation was that this time, her injury was minor. Maybe he wouldn’t be too distracted.

Soft footsteps echoed down the hall; her heart jumped -- but Snape walked completely soundlessly. A moment later, Asteria swung round the corner, carrying a little battered leather satchel in both arms. She set a fat little jar of something mint green on the bench between them, a role of gauze, and a pair of scissors.

“Where’d you learn how to do this?” Harriet asked, impressed, as Asteria spread some kind of stinging paste over the inflamed letters on her hand. Within seconds, a cool tingling washed across Harriet’s skin.

“I just read some things, I suppose.” Her touch was gentle and light as with a wet cloth she dabbed the excess paste away. “I had. . . wondered if there were herbs or things to take to. . . calm one down. You know. Because I get so. . .”

She ducked her head, bending over the little bag she’d brought.

“Were there?” Harriet asked.

“A few. But none for. . . what I really needed.” She brought out a roll of clean white bandage and began to wrap it around Harriet’s palm, then over her wrist to secure it. “But I learned other things too. And then after this summer. . .” Her voice caught, but she said steadily, “Well. I told you. After that I - thought it would be good to prepare some things - to know. . . this.”

Harriet’s sense of guilt felt like a tennis ball sitting in her chest.

“How were you after the. . .” She couldn’t think of a good word for it. “After all that?”

Asteria’s grip tightened on Harriet’s hands, then released. Her face was turned down, slightly away, and Harriet couldn’t read her expression. Should she bend down to look, or was that being interfering?

“I have - nightmares,” Asteria said in a rush. Her grip tightened again and stayed. “The darkness, the falling - and sometimes I dream. . .”

Harriet had a sense of foreboding, though at what? She waited, not wanting to scare Asteria’s confidence off.

“Sometimes I dream that Draco and I weren’t - alone. That something found us.” She suddenly released Harriet’s hands and stood, tucking her hair behind her ears, before sitting again and clasping her hands tightly together in her lap. “I don’t even know what but - I just. . .”

“. . . I know,” Harriet said heavily, wishing she could tell her the truth.

Asteria’s eyes darted up to her face and away, but she’d turned her upper body toward Harriet, as if asking for more.

“After - last February. I’d dream about it all the time. Sometimes it was every night, and then sometimes it would drop off and I’d think, oh, I’m better, and then - ”

“It came right back.”

“Yeah.” That was all Harriet could say, if she wanted to protect Snape’s and Sirius’ secret. She knew very well why Asteria was dreaming of someone finding them. Maybe she should tell Snape.

“Harriet. . .”

“Hm?” Harriet glanced at her, but Asteria hid whatever she was feeling behind an unconvincing smile.

“Nothing. How is your hand now?”

She flexed her fingers; her palm was now wrapped snugly in its bandage. It still stung a bit when she moved it, but beneath the bandage the skin was cool and faintly tingled. “That’s loads better, thanks.”

Asteria shook her head and placed fat little bottle of that minty paste in Harriet’s good hand, along with a roll of bandage. “Try not to get it wet in the shower. In the morning, you should re-wrap and reapply. Or you can find me before breakfast and I’ll do it for you. It’s hard to do one-handed.”

Harriet shot her a sharp look, and saw perfect, quiet understanding in her face. Her own mouth tugged up in a half smile, though her throat felt too small at the thought that Asteria knew what it was like to want to take care of her problems alone.

“You have to use this stuff a lot?” she asked, because she had to know.

“Not particularly,” said Asteria, seeming quite honest. “But I know. . . what it’s like to take care of things by yourself.” She was plaiting a piece of extra bandage between her fingers. “Daphne. . .” She trailed off, looking down at her bandage.

“She’s not in any trouble?” Harriet asked sharply.

“I don’t think so. Well. Not. . . no,” she said, clearing up absolutely nothing.

“Well,” Harriet said. “If she ever is. . . I’ll help you.”

Asteria’s smile stretched her cheeks. She ducked her head, nodding at her mangled bandage scrap.

“You always do,” she said a moment later, as if she’d had trouble getting it out.

Harriet felt that old pang of guilt, but figured that, strictly speaking, that summer she had helped. Asteria just didn’t remember it.

She gingerly placed her damaged hand adopt of Asteria’s where they worried at the old bandage, and squeezed.

“So do you.”

Asteria turned her palms over and held on.

Harriet’s wristwatch chimed - a charm Hermione had put on it to alert her of the hour. She groaned. “Guess I should get back to Gryffindor.”

“Oh, it’s after curfew,” Asteria said, worried. “Will you be all right?”

“Yeah, I’ve got the Cloak. Various people think I should carry it everywhere now.” She smiled to take away some of the harshness of the necessity, but Asteria didn’t look relieved. Harriet supposed she wouldn’t.

“Thanks for this,” she said to change the subject, raising her mummified hand. “It feels loads better.”

Fixing her bag over her shoulder, Asteria only ducked her head to hide her smile, the way she always did for praise.

They turned the corner to the foyer where the staircase lay, and almost walked right into Snape.

Harriet put out her arm as Asteria teetered backward; she grabbed on. Snape, too, had swayed back, and he drew himself up to his full height -- which was a lot to Harriet, but, she noticed, not very much to Asteria. Hot relief spread through Harriet’s middle at the sight of him, even a rush of fondness when she saw his face flash with the fury that would definitely precede a vicious telling-off. If only he didn’t look like he’d just been kicked out of a tomb for scaring the other corpses. His red-rimmed eyes stared out of deep hollows, and he was breathing through his yellowed teeth. Harriet edged a little in front of Asteria in case Snape really went off, though Asteria was so much taller that Harriet wouldn’t be much of a shield.

“It,” Snape hissed, “is past curfew. Just what do you think you’re--”

His eyes fell on Harriet’s bandaged hand. Unless Harriet was mistaken, they even bugged out a little. It was almost funny, except she was afraid he was going to have a heart attack.

She couldn’t tell him. If this was what he was like before he knew --

“Miss Greengrass,” he said in a truly deadly voice that made Asteria squeak. “You will return to your common room. Miss Potter,” he struggled like he’d been garroted, “you will come with me.

“It’s fine,” Harriet whispered to Asteria, squeezing her arm. Snape waited, practically vibrating, and then marched Harriet along to his classroom. He flung open the door with a crash; the torches flared as he stalked past, knifing pits of trembling light and deep shadow across his face and hair. Harriet had to admire the display.

She gathered all her determination and guile. If she was going to get out of there without him discovering what Umbridge had done, she was going to need it.

In his office, he spun around, his cloak swirling round his legs. Harriet prayed he wouldn’t trip; he might just explode and kill them both.

“What,” he said in a viper’s whisper, his finger pointing at her hand, “did. You do.”

“Cut myself.” It was true.

“Repeatedly?” His eyes seemed to stare out from some pit. The uneasiness grown by his absence had dissipated once she knew where he was, but a feeling of disquiet was creeping through her now. He really didn’t look well.

“Pruning a plant. It got me a few times, that’s all.”

“Really.” He could wield a simple word like a pruning knife. “Is that what your detention involved?”

She tried to paste a nonchalant expression on her face. From the way a muscle jumped in his cheek, she wouldn’t have bet on her success.

“I was just writing lines, that all.”

“Lines.” That one was stronger than a paring knife; more like a machete. “Let me see your hand.”

Shit. She stuck it behind her back. “You’ll just ruin Asteria’s hard work.”

His fingers jumped into a fist. “And why was Asteria helping you? Why not the estimable Madam Pomfrey?”

“It was Asteria I was helping with the plant. She knows all about this stuff--”

The pinpricks of light in the depths of his eye reminded her of a painting in one of the lesser used corridors, of a monk carrying a lone candle in the midst of drowning shadows, his face gaunt and haunted. Only Snape looked more like what could’ve been stalking him in the dark.

“Let. Me see. Your hand.”

“I’ve told you.” She stepped to put the chair between them, in the hopes that he wouldn’t deign to involve himself in a stupid game of chase. “You’ll mess it up.”

Snape watched her, eyes glittering. His hand flicked up, holding his wand. For an indignant second she thought he’d hex her; but then he said with deliberate precision, “Accio bandage.”

“Oy!” She grabbed the end as it went flapping loose and they engaged in a furious tug-of-war: him with his spell, and her yanking on her end. “Give it--back!”

“Very well.” He dropped the bandage, and then darted forward and seized her wrist. Her right wrist, because she’d used her right hand to grab the bandage, damn it--

He went completely still, staring at the back of her hand held up toward him, his long fingers curled around her wrist and the bottom of her palm. Her heart slammed against her sternum.

“This is your handwriting,” he said at last, in a voice so quiet it was louder than any alarm.

“I told you it was lines,” she said heavily.

His gaze met hers. Something stared out of him; some thought or emotion that made her whole nervous system shiver.

“Don’t kill her.” Her voice came out too loud.

That disturbing light stayed in his face; his focus didn’t waver. Then he dropped her hand and turned away. He wafted away -- his office so full of shadows, in the light of his indifferent fire, that he seemed to melt into them -- and opened the door to his personal store-room, which Hermione had once robbed.

Harriet was trying to rewrap her hand when he reappeared carrying a jar of something that looked like sickly honey.

“Miss Greengrass is not, apparently, without expertise.”

He set a bowl on his desk and upended half the goop into it. Was his hand shaking or was that the funky fire he kept in his grate? If only he’d turn up the lights like a normal person instead of skulking in the dark.

“This will work faster,” he said, shoving the bowl forward with the tips of his fingers. “Put your hand in it.”

Cautious but curious, she did, letting the bandage drop to spool on the desk. The stuff in the bowl did feel sort of like runny honey, cool and smooth and viscous, and had the same soothing feeling on her hand that honey did on her throat.

“Oh,” she sighed. “That’s -- nice. What is it?”

“Murtlap essence. Stay there.”

He melted back into his storeroom, while she sat with her hand soaking. When she flexed her fingers, the cuts didn’t pull at all.

Snape oozed out of the shadows with his own roll of bandage and another jar, this one full of little pink dittany petals.

“And what is dittany used for, Miss Potter?” he asked in his most astringent professor voice. Maybe he was feeling the strain of being helpful.

She pressed her lips together on an absurd urge to smile. He was fine. He’d come back in one piece. “Like I remember.”

He set the jar down with a little rap. “Scarring.”

“Oh. Yeah.” She looked at the words I will show respect floating crimson on the back of her hand. “That’d be useful.”

A blood quill. The livid words on the back of her hand, now resting beneath the surface of the murtlap, floated across his vision. He’d stood in Narcissa’s drawing-room listening to Death Eater posturing while Umbridge had had her writing lines with a blood quill.

Don’t kill her, Harriet had said. She had no idea.

Blood boiling, skin-flaying, eyeball-melting. . .

Only Harriet’s by turns- watchful- and- oblivious presence was keeping him from flitting upstairs and displaying his. . . displeasure. He imagined how good it would feel to see that bulbous face twisted in fear. . . Smashing Yaxley’s head against the floor would be only an appetizer. . .

But Harriet would follow him and try to stop him. He’d already murdered one worthless pile of flesh in front of her; she didn’t need to see it again. (The first time may have been a comfort, or it might have scarred her for life -- hard to tell.) No, she was sadly correct: Umbridge couldn’t be murdered.

It was good Harriet was here. He could indulge in the fantasy without needing to act on it. He was calmer now. Each little cup of water went back into the sea. She was healing; he knew she was well enough. He was left only with the pain of his little spat with Yaxley, a solidly grounding sensation of pain with no drawback, and before he went to bed tonight he could -- non-homicidally -- draw up a plan to deal with Umbridge.

Maybe a little homicidal. . . some sort of untraceable violence, perhaps. . .

“What’s on your lip?”

Out of reflex, Severus raised his (trembling) hand to touch it. He caught himself and put his hand back down, but it was too late.

“You’ve got a cut,” she said, as if she couldn’t believe he’d have the nerve to lecture her about injuries when he had one himself. “You’re bleeding.”

“Chapped lip,” he said quellingly, but of course it had no effect on the most Gryffindor of them all.

“There’s blood on your hand, too. I saw it just now,” she added when he exerted all his control over his movements and expression and held rigidly still. “What happened at that -- meeting?”

What happened they were plotting ways to abduct and kill you while I knew that piece of human shit was torturing you is what happened

“The most evil deeds you can imagine,” he said with biting sarcasm.

She pinched her lips together, narrowed eyes flicking over him like she was searching for a way in. He wanted to drag his robes around himself and shrink into the shadows. More fool he, for having an audience after going there. He had only himself to blame for this attention, this notice, at this time of weakness. Even in the cavernous shadows of his office, her eyes were bright and penetrating.

“How bad is it?”

In spite of everything, and in spite of himself, he was faintly impressed by her gumption. But he’d had plenty of evidence lately that she no longer found him frightening in the least.

Well. He remembered her face when she’d blurted out Don’t kill her. Perhaps a little bit frightening still.

“It’s none of your business.”

“Sure. Like my hand wasn’t yours.” She stood up, dripping murtlap essence. “Let me see.”

“Put your hand back in that bowl!”

Her expression wavered like she was trying to exert control over her temper, but she must have decided not to waste her time. A good instinct; Severus despised it when people controlled their temper at him.

“You can’t make a big fuss about my hand and then not do anything about yours!”

“I most certainly can.” In fact, his ribs were throbbing and it hurt to breathe; he was sure there was blood underneath his hair from the strike his head had made against the table; but he’d drink the bowl of murtlap essence before he told her about it. This pain was nothing; he was only tired. He was back at Hogwarts and she was in one piece. He would mend. “I am the adult.”

“Doesn’t mean you’ve got sense.”

Even he was struck momentarily speechless, and he didn’t think it was entirely the result of a knock-down drag-out fight in Narcissa’s drawing-room. He tried for his most dangerous voice, but he was pretty sure it only came out incredulous. “I beg your pardon?”

“If you’re supposed to be setting a good example for me,” she said, an unrepentant flare in her eye, “you aren’t if you refuse to take care of yourself. So. What are you going to do?”

He couldn’t believe his ears. “I’m going to throw you out if you aren’t careful.”

“With my hand still all messed up?”

She had him there, and her face said she knew it. He tried a different tack. “I’ll send you to Pomfrey.”

He knew as soon as he said it that he was wasting his time. She rolled her eyes at him. He should’ve been driven to a fury. The whole spat should have made him incandescent. He didn’t know why it hadn’t. He felt mostly bemused and bewildered, with a strange lump in his throat. Perhaps he’d been cursed worse than he thought. He’d better run a scan later.

“And I’ll tell her that you’re hurt, too,” she retorted. She folded her arms, then winced when it scraped her wound. “Ow. Look. Just -- do something about your lip and your hand and I’ll stick my hand back in the bowl. That’s not too hard.”

Reduced to bargaining with a teenager -- worse, one who couldn’t keep herself out of trouble for a single day. He consoled himself with the knowledge that she’d only seen a tiny portion of his injuries. He could hoard the rest to himself.

Let her have these two. Then she’ll relent. You’ll be left in peace.

“Hand,” he said in his most threatening tone. “Bowl.”

But he rose -- with a searing glare as she dipped her hand back into the bowl like an overzealous mime -- and trudged into his storeroom. He did not limp, but his knee kicked him for it. He brought down bottle of disinfectant and bruise salve, to apply to his lip and the cut on his hand, to pass her cursory inspection. He was lucky she had little experience detecting other people’s injuries or she would have realized he was hiding worse.

He needed to get her out of there soon, or she might catch on anyway. Even if, once she was gone, he would no longer have the certainty. . .

She would be in Gryffindor. Nothing bad had ever happened to her in Gryffindor. Wait, Black had broken in with a knife -- but he’d been after Wormtail, and had only slaughtered Ron Weasley’s bed curtains.

A madman running round Gryffindor with a knife. This was what he needed to be thinking about now, certainly.

“Better?” he asked with some of his finest sarcasm as he returned to his desk. He did not lean on it too heavily as he sat down, and he didn’t sag into his chair.

She gave him a serious look over, which again failed to have the usual effect of infuriating him. He pretended he did not wish he was lying down under his desk. If he could survive an evening with the Dark Lord and his evildoers, he could weather the probing attention of a fifteen-year-old Harriet Potter.

He hoped.

“It wasn’t. . .” She frowned. “Him, was it?”

He didn’t like being reduced to hunting for words. He wouldn’t tell her to mind her own business, though, not again. It would be a waste of breath.

“Another Death Eater. I started it,” he added when her expression grew stormy, wondering why he felt this information was necessary to impart. Surely it wasn’t appropriate; after all, he was always trying to get her to stay out of trouble. And as this little interlude had proven, she would be quick later to throw it back in his face.

She looked surprised, then smiled, seemingly out of reflex. It dropped quickly, replaced by worry. “What for?”

“I don’t like him.” He picked up the dittany and began spreading it across a bandage. “You may remove your hand.”

She was silent -- miraculously -- as he wrapped up her hand again. Or maybe not miraculously. Perhaps she was just gathering new ammunition.

The motion of his arm as he looped the bandage around her hand was soothing, even when his elbow throbbed. He could feel her watching him as he worked, but it did not trouble or distract him.

“When you didn’t show up in her office, I thought something might’ve happened,” she said quietly. “Especially when I couldn’t find you on the map later.”

He paused, then resumed securing the end of the bandage. “I am only thankful you didn’t decide to mount a ridiculous rescue mission.”

“Didn’t even occur to me.” She sounded tired.

He glanced at her face from the corner of his eye. He couldn’t interpret what lay on the surface, and he was in no state to delve deeper into memories.

“It is late.” His whole body cried out when he stood. “I will escort you back to Gryffindor Tower.”

“You don’t need to. I’ve got the map and my cloak.” She was already pulling the silvery fabric out of her bag. “Besides, you need to fix whatever else you got from that fight. Looks like your ribs.”

For the third time he was rendered speechless. She took the opportunity to swing herself beneath the cloak, shimmering out of sight. The sight of her face he caught before it disappeared was not smug but serious.

“G’nite,” the air at the door said, before it clicked shut.

He sat slowly back in his chair. He should go after her. Even with the cloak, she could still get in trouble.

He touched his lip where he’d hastily dabbed the antiseptic. It stung.

He closed his eyes and rested his aching head against the back of his chair. Just a moment’s rest, and then he would rally, and follow. . .