Once outside, Severus realized how dark it had gotten. The dementors were more active at night. He handed Harry back his wand with a stern look implying that he had more to say but it would have to wait. He also tossed wands back to Harry's friends.
"Dementors," Ron said shakily from between his two friends.
Severus followed his gaze and, as he had feared, they had caught sight or smell or feel of them. A group of black shapes glided towards them. Black paled.
"I can't... they'll... they won't let me get to the castle..." he stammered. In his panic, Black took off in the other direction. Severus growled.
"Black get back here!" he yelled. He fixed Harry with an intense look. "You stay. Here."
With those parting words, he took off after Black, dementors coming fast. He saw his dark form stumble towards the lake. Severus cursed and glanced behind him. He berated himself for not practicing his patronus more. He had only the experience from that one night with Harry. Severus hoped it would be enough.
Pettigrew could feel the spell that bound his body weakening, failing. Snape must be losing concentration or getting farther away. He twitched his foot and confirmed that it had faded enough for him to move. Relief stretching deep into his chest, Pettigrew waited until the children were occupied with the incoming dementors before he transformed. In moments, he was a rat, slipping easily between the ropes that bound him and out into the night.
"Pettigrew," Draco breathed, looking at the pile of lifeless rope. "He's gone."
"What?" Hermione said spinning around. "We have to go after him."
They set Ron down in a hurry and it was less than gentle. He gritted his teeth.
"Sorry," Hermione muttered quickly as an orange flash swept unexpectedly past her leg. "Find him, Crookshanks!"
Harry's heart beat fast within his chest. The dementors were getting closer and Severus had since disappeared into the trees. Pettigrew was racing in the other direction, destroying any hope Sirius had of freedom. But if Sirius, or God forbid Severus, got the kiss, what would it matter?
"Go after him!" he told Draco and Hermione. They had already begun the search, firing stupefys at anything that moved. Crookshanks was an orange flash moving through the tall grass. Harry took a deep breath and sprinted towards the forest right as the dementors closed in, concentrating in one dense area in the trees. Harry headed straight for it.
"Black, you idiot! Where are you?" Severus called, breaking through the line of the trees and onto the shore of the lake. As soon as he located Black, who lay in a heap a quarter of the way around the lake, the dementors showed up in the clearing of the trees above the lake. Severus ran towards the defenseless Black and despite his hatred for the man, prepared to defend him. A dementor swooped down just as Severus reached the panting convict.
Thinking of Harry, Severus said, "Expecto Patronum!"
A blue shield sprung from his wand to repel the dementor but it faltered soon after it was gone. Two more replaced it. Severus tried again.
"Expecto Patronum!" Much the same as before, the spell dissipated as soon as the dementors turned away. He needed more power.
Before he could finish the next incantation, a dementor had come up from behind Severus and Sirius, chilling them to the bone. The happy thought that he had only moments before vanished and was replaced by fear, self loathing, regret, and despair. A scream echoed in his ears. As it swept away, Severus lay panting, trying to regain whatever happiness he had. As a trio of dementors swept down from above, Severus gave it his last effort. He imagined that Harry lay beside him rather than Sirius and that he would be given the kiss if he failed at this spell. Thinking of everything that had made his past three years happy, he incanted the spell one last time.
"Expecto Patronum!" This time, a fully formed doe burst from the end of his wand, cantering through the three dementors and causing them to scatter. It circled in a loop above them before Severus lost his concentration. Another dementor came from behind and Severus passed out, screams filling his ears, filling his soul.
"Hermione!" Draco called, pointing at a depression in the tall wheatgrass. It was if a valley cut through the grass and it continued to move.
"Stupefy!" she said. The bolt of light hit right next the edge of the depression where Pettigrew presumably was.
"Stupefy," Draco tried. It hit right behind where the rat was. The depression moved faster.
They continued shooting stunning spells at the spot but he always managed to move just in time. Draco cursed the speed of rats. Just as it looked like Pettigrew was getting away, Crookshanks leaped on the lump in the grass and a loud squeal could be heard.
"Good Crookshanks!" Hermione yelled, running forward.
Pinned down by the cat, Hermione did not have trouble stunning the squirming rat. She picked it up by its tail, disgust on her face. Using a spell similar to Snape's Hermione wrapped it tightly in rope that came shooting from the end of her wand.
"There, he can't transform or he will be choked," she said proudly.
Draco nodded gravely. "We need to get him and Ron up to the castle."
"But... Harry," she said worriedly, looking towards the forest where dementors swarmed.
"Do you know how to cast a patronus?" Draco asked.
"No," she admitted.
"Then we can't help. We can help Ron," he pointed out.
"You're right," she said. "Let's go."
Harry raced through the trees, ignoring the sharp branches that cut into his face. Where were they? His side hurt and he was forced to heave to catch his breath but Harry pushed through. He stumbled out on the edge of the lake just as a silvery blue doe flickered out of existence. He saw a dark form crumple across the lake. Harry's breath caught in his chest as the dementors closed in for what seemed to be the final time.
Pulling out everything he had, every raw emotion, every moment of happiness, every feeling of belonging and of ecstasy, Harry cast a patronus to save two of the most important people in the world to him. He prayed that it worked.
"EXPECTO PATRONUM!" he cried. From the end of his wand burst a large stag which cantered into the horde of dementors, repelling all it came near. He directed it to return, to circle around and keep them away. Harry continued thinking of happy memories as he edged around the lake to revive his guardian and godfather.
"My word, what happened here?" Madam Pomfrey stammered as the trio came stumbling into the hospital wing, scratched, bruised, bleeding and disheveled.
"Long story," Ron said through gritted teeth as his friends lowered him onto a bed. "Bit by a dog."
She tutted and went to gather the supplies necessary to treat the wound. Hermione and Draco looked at each other and inexplicably broke into laughter. Soon Ron joined in and, without any apparent reason, they laughed out the stress and adrenaline that they had accumulated over the past few hours.
With Harry maintaining a patronus, the three made their way up to the castle. Sirius stumbled a few times in the brush, weakness apparent as Severus helped him back up. He studied the emaciated man as he grabbed his elbow once more to brace him from falling as Black's balance failed him. After regaining his footing, Black pulled his elbow away, shooting Severus an annoyed look. Severus, in turn, shot him a glare. Neither said anything for fear that if an argument broke out, Harry's concentration would falter and the dementors would have an opportunity to close in.
Black tripped again and Severus rolled his eyes, annoyed. Stooping down in the dark, Severus's brow furrowed. There was a body beneath Black. Realizing the same thing, Black pushed himself off.
"Ah!" he cried.
"What is it?" Harry asked in a carefully controlled voice.
"Mr. Zabini," Severus said after rolling over the body. "Knocked out."
"Is he hurt?" Sirius asked.
"Apparently," Severus said derisively. He levitated him. "We should hurry. I have no idea how long he has been here."
They walked faster up towards the castle, blue stag circling them repeatedly. Harry ended the spell with a relieved sigh as they crossed the threshold to the castle. By the time they made it to the hospital wing, Dumbledore, McGonagall, Ron, Draco and Hermione had already arrived. Pettigrew lay, human and incapacitated, on another hospital bed. At the sight of him, both Harry and Sirius stiffened.
"Harry, my dear boy, and Severus," Dumbledore said graciously. "I am glad that you are unhurt," he said before turning to Sirius. "And Mr. Black, Hermione has made quite a plea on your behalf. She says that you were framed."
"I was," Sirius said, sitting down on an empty bed to rest. "By that vermin over there," he said, pointing at Pettigrew.
Dumbledore studied him. "Severus?" he asked. "You were there. Your thoughts? Do you believe him?"
Severus stood very still for a moment, looking between Harry and the man that he hated almost as much as Harry's father. He could see the uncertainty in Sirius's eyes. It would be so easy to discount the whole story and make Black out to be a manipulative liar. Then, he looked at Harry. No uncertainty resided in those familiar green eyes; only confidence that his guardian would tell the truth.
"I do," Severus said, "though I do not like it."
Dumbledore nodded. "Then I, in turn, believe you. When the minister arrives, I shall try and convince him of it as well. Severus, if you would fetch some vertiaserum? I have the feeling he will insist upon it for both you and Mr. Pettigrew," he said to Sirius. "Do you object?"
"Not if it means my freedom," Black replied. "Though you will have to be specific when you ask questions because I believe that I am responsible for James and Lily..." he trailed off, eyes glazing over. He shook himself. "But I didn't betray them."
Dumbledore nodded. "I will be there to make sure he asks the right things."
"Thank you," Black replied tiredly.
"How was Mr. Zabini involved?" the old man asked, gesturing towards the unconscious boy.
"We do not know," Severus said. "We stumbled upon him in the woods."
"Interesting," he muttered then nodded his dismissal at Severus. Severus went to fetch the potion that could clear his enemy's name.
As Madam Pomfrey fussed over Ron, Harry stood in the corner, trying to stay out of the way. He studied his godfather who was sitting on a bed and leaning awkwardly against the wire headboard. Harry was just about to say something to him when Dumbledore spoke up.
"Harry, I think it best if you attend to your friends at the moment," he said. "Minister Fudge should be arriving any time now and it would be best if you are unassociated with Mr. Black for the time being."
Sirius cracked an eye open and watched Harry nod then walk to Ron's bedside.
"Sorry about your leg, by the way," Sirius said to Ron.
Ron grunted in acceptance of the apology. Silence fell. Harry sat in a chair as far away from Pettigrew as he could manage. The hospital wing remained rather quiet as everyone waited for the minister to arrive. Dumbledore moved to sit next to Sirius.
Harry heard him ask, "Would you summarize your side of the story so that there are not...unpleasant surprises when the minister is present?"
"Of course," Sirius replied and told him much of what had been said in the shrieking shack.
Finished with both Ron and Blaise, Madam Pomfrey brought Sirius a cup of water. He smiled at her gratefully. Harry studied him from afar and by the end of the second telling decided that he believed him completely. A shiver ran down his spine as Harry realized that this was his father's best friend. His godfather. He was as close to true family as Harry would probably ever get. He hoped that he and Severus could learn to get along. Harry had no idea what he would do if they didn't.
The minister arrived and surveyed the strange array of people that littered the hospital wing. Then, he, Dumbledore, Black and Pettigrew moved to Dumbledore's office for the interrogation and explanation. Relieved that everything was being taken care of, he said goodnight to Ron and headed to the common room with Hermione and Draco. A nice long sleep was sounding very good at the moment. He had completely forgotten about the prophecy.