The Long Stretch To Independence - Part IV
Chapter 23 - Emancipated Minor - The Long Stretch To Independence - Part IV
Severus led Harry down the passage, away from his common room entrance, to a small chamber-like inlet that had a window overlooking the grounds. He had his hand on the boy's neck as they walked, sensing Harry's turmoil and trying to calm his own tension. Lupin had been correct in his assessment of the volatility among the students. He'd yet to hear much more than mutterings about loyalties, and some growled threats among his House members this evening, but that was enough to put him on high alert. The channels of communication that he and Lucius had always relied upon for intel had been strangely silent, as had the Daily Prophet, and the vague, if not entirely non-committal "Ministry presence" which had been assigned to Lucius via the Board of Governors on behalf of the Ministry of Magic. This, and the non-definitive, non-decisive "plan" to return Albus to his Headmaster post "sometime soon" were all very unsettling.
"How are the interactions within your house?" Severus asked when they'd stopped in the inlet.
Harry plopped down on the window bench. "Alright so far, but I saw a few scuffles on the way in from the train," Harry said. He pulled a familiar looking piece of parchment from his back waistband where it had been tucked beneath his jumper. "I need to show you something, and I'm sorry I haven't shown it to you before now."
Severus narrowed his eyes, not liking the guilty look on Harry's face, but stayed silent while the teenager opened the parchment and spread it out on the open seat beside him.
"It's a map of the school. The Marauders Map," Harry said, looking up at Severus to see how he was receiving the information. Severus was clearly displeased, but Harry wanted to tell him what he'd seen before the older wizard could launch into whatever diatribe he looked fit to burst with. "It shows everyone who is present on the school grounds at any given time. I deliberately didn't tell you about it at first," he admitted hastily, "because I didn't want to- …I just couldn't …well, I didn't think I should at first. And then I realized I ought to, but I just didn't remember to when I had the chance. I'm sorry. And I can see you're angry, and I hate that I upset you, but before you go off on me, I think I saw something, and I've got a bad feeling."
Severus clenched his jaw as he realized he was angry because Harry hadn't trusted him with what was likely a treasured inheritance from his father, godfather and Lupin. He was angry at himself for creating this barrier between them, but he was also angry that Harry had withheld such a valuable tool all of this time. He kept these sentiments to himself, instead asking grimly, "What did you see?"
"I saw Peter Pettigrew," Harry said. "He disappeared near the Room of Requirement, which is the only place within the castle, that I know of, that doesn't show up on the map."
Severus felt the blood draining from his face. "How certain are you?"
Harry sighed. "It was just a flash of his name, but the more I think about it, the more I know I saw it. Hermione's cat always hated him when he was hiding in rat-form as Scabbers. Crookshanks is acting really off tonight. He's been running around the castle instead of staying in the dorms with us. That's how he acted in third year when Hermione first got him. He spotted Wormtail for what he was straight away, but none of us understood what was going on until the Shrieking Shack. I saw him on the map that time that you caught me out after curfew in third year."
Severus stared at Harry, struggling to set aside his frustration from his concerns over what Harry was revealing. "I will give you concessions for having come directly to me, instead of launching your own investigation," he said calmly. "But this is the worst possible time to keep secrets from me, Harry. There is no longer any call for it, understand?"
Harry nodded quickly. "Yeah," he said, giving Severus a pained look. "I trust you now, I promise. But I might not even realize I am keeping other stuff from you."
"As long as you are this open with me when you do realize, we will be fine," Severus said, relenting as he reminded himself that Harry had been distressed by other issues earlier in the evening, before this latest upset had occurred. He motioned for Harry to stand up so that he could give him a hug and was more than a tad alarmed at how tightly Harry clung to him. He held onto the boy for precious moments longer than he should have before releasing him to summon Lucius and Remus with the galleon. He then cast a patronus to Minerva to meet him at the Room of Requirement. He could already hear the wolf's approaching footsteps as he took Harry's shoulders and asked, "And your scar? Any sensation there?"
"No," Harry said as Remus approached them at a brisk clip. He had a wild edge to his otherwise controlled demeanor as he went directly to the map.
"Where did you last see him, Harry?" Remus asked.
Harry pointed to the spot on the fifth floor.
Remus stood up and looked at Severus. "I can't legally be held for the murder of someone who supposedly has been dead for years now, can I?"
Severus raised an eyebrow. "Easy, wolf, you're supposed to be setting an example for our youth."
"Lucius is nearing the ROR," Harry told them anxiously. He wanted to accompany them and help if he could, but didn't dare ask. The look on Remus' face was more severe than he'd ever seen on the man, and he'd been surprised Severus hadn't given him the long promised paddling for keeping the map a secret. No, I'll keep my mouth shut, and my hide intact, for a change, he thought.
"Come," Severus said to Harry's utter shock. "You will stay at a safe distance, but I think it's wise to have you there to perchance sense the evil presence with whom we all dread further acquaintance."
He waited while Harry snatched the map up and folded it to show the immediate surroundings of the Room of Requirement, keeping his eyes fixed on it in case Wormtail exited and returned to view. They walked briskly along, wands drawn, Lupin in the lead. As they were turning into the final corridor that held the entrance to the Room of Requirement, they heard a loud feline SCREETCH, and saw the blur of a large tawny cat race fiercely past them. Remus broke into a run, chasing after Crookshanks. Harry kept his eyes on the map while Severus ushered him forward via pressure from the warm hand he again had on Harry's neck. After a short distance, Peter Pettigrew reappeared on the map at the same exact moment Crookshanks let out a growl that reminded Harry of Severus' conjured bear. He stopped short and watched from a safe distance in disgusted awe as the cat grabbed a large rat in his mouth and shook it mercilessly, before dropping it back to the floor and biting into it ferociously. The rat let out a sickening squeal before Crookshanks again grabbed him and shook him.
"Crookshanks!" Hermione yelled as she tore around the corner with Ron, nearly plowing into Harry and Severus.
At this point Severus had pulled Harry up against his side with an arm draped over his chest, ready to yank him to safety if needed. He held a warning hand up, palm open to alert the two Gryffindor Prefects to stop, which they did with openly shocked expressions. Between the sight of their least favorite professor appearing to be holding Harry protectively, to their view of their favorite professor, beyond them and down the hall, raising his wand to cast a Revelio! charm to force Wormtail out of his animagus form, to the sight of Lucius Malfoy even further down, keeping guard as McGonagall swept up behind him, just arriving at the scene, Harry figured his best friends might now have an idea of what he'd meant when he'd said he had a lot to tell them.
"Your familiar is just fine, Miss Granger," Severus said. He gave Harry a brief squeeze before releasing him. "Stay back here for now, Harry."
Ron and Hermione slowly approached the two of them and they stood in a semi-circle facing the scene down the hall, where Remus now stood threateningly over a cowering and badly bitten Peter Pettigrew, who had resorted to the same snivelling pleas he'd tried with Harry and Ron when they were planning to take him to the authorities in third year.
"You don't understand the power he's always had over me, Remus," Wormtail whinged pathetically from where he lay wounded on the floor. "You don't understand what he's like when you disobey him!"
"I understand that both Severus and Lucius are just as badly affected by his wrath as you have been, but each of them are able to stand alone with their convictions," Remus said. "Besides, Peter, are you not aware that Harry recently killed Voldemort's corporeal form again? The body that you gave your hand, and took Harry's blood against his will to conjure?" He grinned darkly at the way Wormtail's face contorted with rage and fear as he registered what he was hearing. "You used very dark, very terrible means to bring back a master that you could have just as easily left to rot, so don't give me any more of your blather about being helpless."
Severus turned to the three teenagers. "Wands out, each of you," he instructed in a low voice. "You will stay right here. Be prepared to shield yourself if something goes amiss." He waited for them to obey and nod their heads before he began his careful approach to where the wolf was playing with his catch.
"Too bad you're so badly injured, Peter," Remus was saying. "I'd happily give you my wand, and borrow another from one of my friends so that we could finally finish this. But, tempting as it would be to go through those motions, only to put you down like the sewer trash that you are, I do still have my integrity as a role model for Harry and his fellows." He cast a glance down the hall and nodded at Harry to point him out to Wormtail.
Harry saw the change in Wormtail's expression when he laid eyes on him. Harry gripped his wand, hatred filling his heart as he recognized he was looking into the eyes of the criminal who had killed Cedric Diggory, betrayed his parents, cost Sirius his freedom, and killed twelve innocent people in his efforts to cover his actions all those years ago. The man was nothing but slime, and Harry would not stand for him to hurt anyone else. I won't attack, he told himself. But I will defend. The warmth prickled under his skin.
"I'm having flashbacks to third year," Ron muttered under his breath. "Remind me to give Crookshanks a nice long cuddle when I see him again."
But Crookshanks was standing by, as if waiting for Wormtail to revert to his rat form again. Harry was pretty certain he needed a wand to do that, but he was glad the half Kneazle was on alert.
"Severus, you can stop the pretense," Wormtail said up to the dark haired wizard as he came close enough to join the conversation.
Severus looked up to see that Lucius had come closer with Minerva, and had stepped over to stand on Remus' other side. He looked back down at Wormtail. "What did you seek to accomplish by coming here, Wormtail?" he asked. "Surely you knew that the Dark Lord has been M.I.A. for over a week, now. Did you think he was on holiday, here in the castle?"
Wormtail glowered at Severus. "You were his favorite, and you loved the attention. We all knew this," he said. "You may think you have succeeded in your betrayal, but my Lord is eternal. I've no real concern that Harry has killed another of his bodies. There are plenty more opportunities to resurrect him. And when he returns next, I'll be sure to let him know your true allegiances." His nasty rodent-like face broke into an evil bucktooth grin.
Severus shrugged inelegantly and said in a flip tone, "Indeed you should enjoy that fantasy, but he cannot be aided any further by you, rat. At this point I think it is safe to assume that you will keep your other hand. I do not, however, know about your soul."
His taunt had the desired affect on the cowardly Peter Pettigrew, but Severus took no satisfaction. He was not indifferent to the rage Remus Lupin was struggling to contain from where he stood between the two adult Slytherins. He was, however, quite alarmed at Wormtail's revelation that there were "plenty more" horcruxes.
"I've alerted the aurors," Minerva interjected. She was keeping her distance, purposefully prepared to block any unexpected attempt at escape on Wormtail's part.
It was right about then that Peter Pettigrew managed to wandlessly shift back into his rat form and dart frantically down the hall towards Harry and his friends. While the older wizards all reacted instantaneously in the background, Harry stared in bitter awe at the audacious rat-wizard's last ditch effort to free himself from his impending doom. Wormtail managed to appear to be galloping as he leapt between statues and window seats, breaching long distances in between leaps, and making rapid progress towards the three teenagers. Everything was happening so quickly, and Harry was realizing that the other wizards couldn't cast their hexes at Wormtail without risking hitting Harry, Hermione, or Ron. He let the hum of anger under his skin shoot power into his wand as he shouted, "Contego!" and created a rock-solid shield that the rat slammed into snout-first and fell with a thump to the ground, knocked out cold.
"Bloody hell!" Ron yelled as Harry released the shield.
"Incarcerous!" Hermione shouted, casting the spell that wound the rat in ropes, the same way Umbridge had tied up the centaur.
Harry turned away from the scene, as the adults rushed towards them. He felt sick to his stomach. He was allowed to walk a short distance away without interference and gather himself for a few minutes while the others gathered themselves in the aftermath of the confrontation.
"You heard his reference to the existence of additional horcruxes?" Severus asked quietly as he stepped in front of Harry and tilted the boy's chin upward. His fingers immediately found the scrape from when Harry had landed on hands, knees and chin. "When did this happen?"
"I got shoved earlier from out of nowhere," Harry said, feeling deflated. He stood still while Severus healed the scrapes on his hands and chin. He didn't mention his knees because healing those scrapes would require removing his trousers.
"Do I want to know what you did to retaliate?" Severus asked. He tilted his head up so that he was staring downward as he waited for Harry to respond, taking in the exhausted, heavy way Harry was holding himself. He knew the answer by the guilt on the boy's face. "Let's set this ground rule moving forward," he said softly. "If you use your wild magic against a fellow student again, I will punish you by paddling you. Understand?"
Harry nodded, holding his gaze while working his jaw. "I'm upset with myself for doing exactly what you warned me about," he said in a low voice.
"And that is why you used your wand on Wormtail, rather than your more lethal tactics?" Severus surmised. When Harry nodded again, he released the boy's chin. "I know you're tired now, and I'm not pleased to see you in so much conflict. We need to discuss this further, and soon. Do you think you could rouse yourself for an early breakfast with me in my quarters tomorrow?"
"Yes, sir," Harry said.
"Good," Severus said calmly. "Then let it go for now, and go get some sleep." He refrained from the urge to hug the boy in front of an audience. But he did squeeze his shoulder and give him a light swat on the backside as he sent him after his friends, who were now heading back to Gryffindor Tower with Lupin, leaving Lucius and Severus to help Minerva guard over Wormtail until Kingsley and his team showed up to place him under arrest.