Chapter Four: Awakening
For the first time in a long while, it is the bright morning sunlight pouring through large windows that wakes Severus instead of a nightmare, the pain of his Dark Mark, or someone calling him because of some more or less dire situation. His sleep-befuddled brain easily recognizes his surroundings as the Infirmary even with his eyes still closed, since he has woken in this very room numerous times before. He keeps his eyes shut a few minutes longer, reveling in the warmth, enjoying the absence of pain and of the familiar stiffness and sourness caused by the after-effects of the Cruciatus Curse.
'Wait a moment. No pain, no discomfort. What am I doing here?'
A faint motion of the blanket on the lower half of his body catches his attention, and he realizes the warm weight on his lap is alive and breathing. The events of the previous evening come rushing back into his mind and he sits up, his eyes snapping open. The rusty-red dragon lying curled up on his lap makes a soft, mewling sound at the sudden movement, but doesn't wake.
'And here I hoped it was all just a strange dream. No such luck.'
The Slytherin sighs, wondering briefly if his past mistakes were really so bad that he deservee this kind of punishment, but comes to the conclusion that it doesn't really make a difference. Thanks to Albus, he is stuck with Potter until the little dunderhead can be restored to his usual annoying self, and he plans to ensure that that will be as soon as possible.
'And the earlier we get started, the sooner I will be finished with Potter-sitting and can return to my dungeons.'
Determined to waste as little time as possible on his loathed student, Severus slips out of the bed. After a quick glance back to confirm that Po - Aenëus, he reminds himself - is still sleeping soundly, he proceeds into the bathroom and goes through his morning routine. When he returns to the room about twenty minutes later, cleaned and in fresh clothes, he feels distinctly better. The hot shower was just what he needed.
He pauses at the door, looking down at the figure on the bed, and lets his analyzing gaze rest on his temporary 'charge'. The little dragon had moved into a bright spot of sunlight while he was gone and is lying there curled up, his muzzle tucked under his right wing and his tail over his front paws, somehow resembling nothing so much as a large kitten. His scales are shining like polished metal in the bright light, the golden rays painting copper, bronze and golden highlights on his reptile skin. He is mainly the colour of rust, fading into bronze where the golden crest runs from his forehead along the back of his neck and along his spine to the tip of his tail. His wings, flanks, sides of the neck and tail, as well as parts of his face are copper, the undersides of his wings golden, and from his throat down to his belly, to the inner parts of his limbs and to the underside of his tail he is bronze and golden. His body is lithe, and though his slender built seems to be natural, the ribs poking out at his sides clearly show that he is underfed. Overall, he has the unfinished look of someone who is in the midst of growing about him, like a child.
Severus snorts. 'Fortunately, we are in the midst of the summer holidays or he would have girls mooning all over him, sickeningly sweet as he looks. But then, he would probably enjoy that.'
Lifting his gaze from the dragon, he notices the trays of breakfast on the table near the windows. 'Time to wake Sleeping Beauty. He certainly needs the food.'
With a sigh of self-pity, he steps to the bed and prods Aenëus in the side, gentler than his usual habit in the hope of preventing another panic attack. The small creature chirps softly and rolled over onto his back with his paws in the air. His golden underside glitters in the bright light with every breath he took, as if each of the tiny scales is made of the precious metal, and Severus catches himself wondering if the skin there is as soft as it looks. His hand is almost touching the smooth hide when he realizes what he is about to do, and he snatches it back rather quickly.
'Merlin, what is wrong with me?' he sneers with disgust. 'That is Potter in there, after all.'
Drawing himself up to his full, impressive height, he scowls at the sleeping figure. "Boy!" he barks, angry at himself, "Wake up!"
Aenëus jerks awake with a squeak, jumping violently, and instantly cowers away from the tall form looming over him. Unfortunately, his sleep-dazed brain doesn't seem able to catch up with the sudden fit of action, so that he trips over his large wings and lands on the floor rather unceremoniously with a distinct thud. A groan and a whine implies that the freshly healed bones didn't appreciate the fall in the least.
Severus snorts. "Clumsy imbecile."
Emerald eyes shoot him a frightened look, like those of a deer caught in the headlights. The Potions Master rolls his eyes.
"Dramatic again, are we not? Well, I do not know about you, Po- Aenëus, but I plan to investigate what Poppy had the House-Elves prepare us for breakfast. And judging from the way you look it would not hurt you to do the same."
The little dragon just continues to stare at him warily, giving no indication of having understood his words. Shrugging, the dark-haired wizard walks over to the table and sits down on one of the chairs. Aenëus had scuttled under the bed when he saw the man coming towards him, but as Severus lifts the lid from one of the trays, letting the scent of tea, toast, bacon, sausages, fried eggs and other delicious things drift through the room, he peers out from under the blanket that hangs over the edge of the mattress. His stomach gives a loud growl, and reluctantly, he moves a bit farther out from under his cover to sniff the air.
The Slytherin watches him out of the corner of his eyes while buttering a slice of toast and frowns at the boy's, no, dragon's strange behavior.
Braver now that the man's attention seems to be concentrated on his breakfast, the dragon dares to leave his safe-haven and hesitantly sneaks towards the table. About halfway there his courage leaves him and he stops, uncertain how to proceed.
When it becomes obvious after a few minutes of waiting that Aenëus isn't going to approach his breakfast on his own anytime in the near future, Severus sighs in annoyance and finally raises his eyes to look at him openly. The dragon flinches and whimpers, pressing his small body flat on the ground in a futile attempt to conceal his presence.
The Potions Master snorts again. "Oh, do come on, boy, surely I am not that dreadful to look at. At least, my intimidating demeanor never had any impact on your insolent attitude before. So kindly stop writhing on that floor and come here to have some breakfast. Poppy would have my head if she thought I did not take care of you properly."
Aenëus just whines softly, and tries to hide beneath his large wings again.
'Damn it, what is wrong with the boy? He was never that self-conscious during term and whatever happened at the Ministry, there simply was not enough time for anything that might have changed his behavior so drastically.'
Deciding not to use his special tone of voice again lest his effect on the boy might lessen, he resorts to bribery instead. He takes the piece of toast he just buttered and offers it to the little dragon. Aenëus jumps at his movement and backs away a bit, but fixes his gaze hungrily on the food in Severus' hand.
"You might as well take it," he growls, "Seeing as you are obviously incapable of preparing your own food at the moment. Just do not get used to it."
The rusty-red creature sniffs again and stretches his slender neck to follow the trail of the delicious scent. He moves slowly forward until he reaches his previous position, but stops there once more, nostrils flaring, wings half-spread. Emerald eyes gaze longingly at the slice of toast, and the small body trembles slightly.
'As if he is afraid. Peculiar...'
Realizing he will have to use his Slytherin instincts to overcome the dragon's reservation, he puts the piece of toast on the floor and pushes it towards Aenëus until it comes to lie about halfway between them. The dragon chirps anxiously, then moves forward, inch by reluctant inch, all the time keeping an eye on the Potions Master, prepared to flee at the slightest threat, like a wild animal. He reaches the piece of toast, then grabs it with his fangs and darts back. Once at a safe distance again, he sits down on his haunches, takes the toast between his paws like a squirrel and gulps it down quickly.
"You better slow down boy, if you do not wish to regurgitate what you just ate. There is no need to eat so hastily anyway, no one is going to take that food away from you."
Paying no heed to his words, the little dragon finishes his toast and licks his paws clean like a kitten before his yearning gaze returns to the table. Severus heaves another sigh and puts down a second, much smaller piece of toast, this time much nearer to him. Aenëus hesitates at first, but the hunger wins over his caution and he comes forward to snatch the food. The third piece, however, remains in the Slytherin's hand. It takes much longer, but the little dragon finally comes, trembling with fear, to take the food and rush back to the bed.
They repeat the process until Aenëus gains enough confidence in him that he stays at Severus' side while he eats and doesn't flinch every time the wizard moves. It takes a while.
Eventually, the dragon's hunger is stilled. He strolls back to the bed and climbs onto it, his motions awkward and hindered by his large wings. Once back on the blanket, he sits down in a patch of sunlight and starts to clean himself like a cat.
After finishing his own breakfast, Severus rises also and slowly follows Aenëus to the bed with a mug of tea and the Daily Prophet. The dragon stops licking his left front-paw and glances at him warily, tensed and ready to bolt away any moment. The dark-haired wizard shakes his head at his former student, then sits down on the far end of the bed with his tea-mug in hand and leans against the headboard, silently observing his 'charge' over the newspaper.
When nothing happens after a few minutes, Aenëus resumes his cleaning, still alert. His tension lessens after a while, as he seems to realize that the human is ignoring him, and he grows bolder again. Slowly, cautiously, he approaches the wizard, until finally his curiosity gets the better of him. He moves next to the Slytherin, glances over his arm and stares at the moving pictures in rapt fascination. He is so enthralled by the magical photographs that he doesn't even notice Severus' hand on his neck until the wizard strokes his golden crest lightly.
The dragon starts violently and backs away, but halts when the man makes no move to hurt him or keep him in place. Instead, the Potions Master just holds his hand out for him to smell. After a few moments of consideration, Aenëus accepts the invitation and sniffs shyly at the pale, long-fingered hand. Seeming satisfied with his findings, he takes a deep breath and tentatively rubs his head at the outstretched hand.
With another shake of his head, the Slytherin complies and softly, carefully caresses the small dragon. The effect is almost as intense as on the previous evening. Several minutes later, Aenëus lies curled up in Severus' lap once more, sighing in relief as the talented hands stroke the rest of the tension out of him.
The black-clad wizard echoes his sigh. "Just what has happened to you, Potter?" he asks quietly. "What did they do to you?"
But the little dragon only glances back up at him with no recognition in his jewel-green eyes.
Before he can say anything else, the door opens - much more carefully than the last time - and Poppy peers in. Aenëus sits up on his lap and tenses, but Severus' soothing hand on his bronze back calms him down enough to prevent him from dashing under the bed again.
"It is alright, boy, she means no harm, on the contrary. It was Poppy who tended to your injuries last night," he tells the little dragon calmly. The copper-coloured creature relaxes slightly, but continues to watch the Nurse suspiciously.
The Slytherin nods at her. "I think you can come in now, but move slowly, he is still quite jumpy."
"Thank you, Severus, I'll keep that in mind. Pity that we can't give him a few drops of Calming Potion, but it won't go well with the Nutrient Potion." She enters the room slowly, keeping her motions calm and soft.
"Somehow I doubt that he would benefit from the Calming Potion. Loath as I am to admit, it seems his reactions have their root deeper than in mere hysterics. I fear we will have to investigate this matter farther as soon as he is able to communicate again."
Poppy nods in understanding. "I see. Now, do you think you can keep him calm enough for a quick check-up? I need to see how far the healing of his injuries has progressed."
The Potions Master scowls briefly. "If you give him some time to get acquainted with your presence and approach him bit by bit, I see no problem."
"Then I shall try to do just that," she replies. She begins walking towards the two figures on the bed, pausing between each step and continuing to talk softly to the dark-haired Slytherin.
"Did you get him to eat anything?" she asks.
"Actually, I did, although he was rather reluctant to accept anything as he still seems to be frightened by humans. I left it at toast as to not exert his stomach after the malnutrition he must have endured, judging by his eating manners."
"Hm, from the looks of it, the Nutrient Potion did him a world of good. He is nowhere near as bony as he was yesterday."
"His ribs are still too prominent. Do you think it might be a result of the transformation?"
Poppy frowns slightly. "No, I don't think so. It would be different if he was a werewolf, but for an Animagus who has mastered his transformation, the process doesn't take much energy. The way he looks, this must have been going on for some time."
The tall wizard growls. "Too many questions. I just hope that we will be able to reverse the transformation today, so that we can finally get some answers."
"So do I, Severus, so do I. Although he makes a very cute dragon, don't you think?"
Her colleague grumbles something she can't quite catch, and she smiles, thinking of how sweet the two had looked together last night.
Finally, the Nurse reaches the bed and sits down on the edge very carefully. The little dragon eyes her anxiously, but the Slytherin's hand caressing his crest and back keep him distracted, and when again nothing bad happens, he relaxes gradually, half-closing his eyes and snuggling into the man's arms.
"I think now might be a suitable moment, Poppy. Pay attention to point your wand away from him when you take it out and let him sniff at it first."
With a nod, she follows his advice. After a quick inspection, Aenëus settles back in the Potions Master's lap again and curls up, obviously set at rest.
Several murmured incantations later, the dragon has fallen asleep, and Poppy looks up at Severus with a deep frown.
He raises an eyebrow at her quizzically. "Is something wrong?" he demands. "Apart from the obvious, I mean."
"Well, his spleen and the kidneys are healing fine, as are the bones, but..." she hesitates.
"But?" he prompts.
"I just checked on the fractures again, and it seems some of them were older than one day, as are several of the bruises."
She can see his black eyes widen, but only because she has known him for so long. To others, the obsidian irises would conceal the pupils' reaction.
"How old?" he mutters, his eyes starting to glitter.
"The fractures about seven days to three weeks, apparently at four different dates, the bruises from one to at least three weeks since they fade after that, but I think it goes back even farther."
Both are silent for a moment, and Severus goes pale, knowing what her findings imply.
"Severus..." Poppy begins, but he cuts her off.
"It must have started this summer. I never saw any physical abuse in his memories when I started to teach him Occlumency in his Fifth Year, and during the summer after that Albus taught him, he would have noticed if something had been wrong," he whispers harshly.
She looks at him with a feeling akin to dread. "No physical abuse?" she asks sharply.
"Well, sometimes I would get flashes of his life at home, and the way his relatives were treating him was not... very loving. But as it did not cross the line of verbal abuse and he never showed any of the signs that suggested it might be otherwise, I let it rest."
Poppy draws a deep breath.
The Slytherin stares down at the dragon in his lap, his face white, his gaze blank. "How could I have been so blind? I should have known it was only a matter of time, I before all others. But instead I chose to ignore the warnings, even believed it would be good for him to be put into his place, to put a damper on his arrogance, his sparkling self-confidence. I thought it might keep him grounded, prevent him from completely becoming the arrogant bastard his father had been. And after what happened in his Fifth Year, during one of our Occlumency lessons, I hated him so much that I did not even care," he whispers in a strangely emotionless voice.
The Nurse's face softens lightly, and she places a warm hand on his forearm.
"All of us have made mistakes, Severus. As you just said, even Albus didn't see it coming. The only thing we can do now is being there for the boy and help him through this hard time."
The Potions Master shakes himself out of his trance-like state and nods. "You are right. Do you think he is well enough that we can try the spell when Albus comes back?"
She looks down on her little patient, contemplating for a moment. "I would feel better if we could postpone that until late afternoon, so that he has a chance to replenish his energy stores a bit more. But there is something we can do now."
Severus tenses slightly as he catches on to her train of thought. "You want me to try using Legilimency on him."
Poppy nods. "Perhaps we can learn more about what happened and how he ended up like this."
The black-clad wizard takes a deep breath and forces himself to relax. "Very well, I will try."
He takes his wand out of an inner pocket of his robe, keeping his movement to a minimum so as to not wake the little dragon, then prepares himself and points the polished piece of dark wood at the sleeping form on his lap.
For a long moment, everything is blank, and Severus fears that his former student might still have enough control over his emotions to shut him out, even in this condition. But then the dragon tenses and memories flash into his mind.
Fire, fire is everywhere... scarlet and golden flames dancing around a little dragon who lies on the ground, battered... soot covers the rusty-red figure who can only crawl forwards slowly because of the pain... so much pain, but grim determination to get to the archway, to the people behind, to those who will care... desperation sets in as the realization dawns that he will not make it, he is too weak, and cold... he will die alone, alone, always alone...
then suddenly footsteps... a tall, black-clad figure looms over him, wand ready to strike... a faint memory of others, clad like this one, hurting him, hurting his friends, and panic floods through his veins... but there is no escape and every motion just hurts so much... surprise rises in him at the sudden relief from his all-consuming pain, and another memory stirs in his mind, but is quickly squashed by the feeling of strong arms around him, restraining him, confining him, picking him up... panic... flight... and still cold, so cold...
the frightening sight of a burned body on the floor, an awful smell, and shock when he can hear the man breathing, one of those who have hurt him... flight... the clothed legs of the other wizard, a familiar scent, a feeling of safeness?... then the two men talk, meaningless sounds to him, but he knows it shouldn't be that way... warmth radiates from the wizard, the one with the familiar scent, calling to him, promising to take away the coldness, and he inches closer to the black-clad legs... which move all of a sudden, and it hurts, and the panic strikes again, telling him to get away, just away, as quick as he can...
then that voice, that wonderful voice, that makes his heart ache so much, evokes a longing deep inside of him, a desire to belong, not to be so lonely any longer... a fleeting memory of anger, regret, respect and reluctant trust... the decision to take the risk... and then the strong arms around him again, but this time promising shelter and protection... and a sense of rightness... home, home at last...
Trembling, Severus breaks the spell and puts his wand away. 'Merlin, what was that? It has never been so intense before!'
Unlike all the other times when he has used that spell, he not only glimpsed flashes of the other's memories, but directly experienced them! His head is still reeling with the sensory overload, and he doesn't even hear Poppy asking him if he is alright, so shaken is he by what he has just lived through.
Only Aenëus' whimper manages to break through the chaos in his mind. Looking down on the shivering, distressed dragon, Severus reacts on pure instinct and draws the trembling creature into his arms. The little dragon crawls into his robes and claws softly onto his shirt, careful not to hurt him, snuggling into his chest and tucking his head under the Slytherin's chin as he had done the previous evening.
The Nurse stares at the two trembling figures in puzzlement, but when she realizes they are finding comfort in each other and relaxing gradually, she decides to give them some time to recollect themselves. She leaves the room to order two mugs of hot chocolate for them from the House-Elves; they both look like they would need them.
Back in the room, Severus is still holding the little dragon tightly, and for once, it is not Potter in his arms, the insolent Gryffindor, the Boy-Who-Lived, the Star-Seeker, the son of his school nemesis, the bane of his existence, but a beaten, scared, lonely child yearning for a bit of love and affection. He can't help but think of another dark-haired boy, in a similar situation, who chose a way that didn't lead him to the warmth he craved, but to death and destruction. In that moment, he swears to himself that he won't let it go that far with this one, no matter what he has to do to save him.
He looks down into the other's emerald eyes, and for the first time, it is not Potter he sees, but Aenëus.
He cradles the dragon gently, leans back onto the pillow between him and the headboard, and closes his eyes. 'I am sure I am going to regret this. But right now it does not really matter. I suppose I will deal with that when it occurs.'
As both of them drift into a light slumber, one feeling remains foremost on his mind.
Home, home at last ...
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