Chapter Seven: Big My Secret
Sirius with his canine senses was the first to hear something different. He looked up from his place on the rug by the door, and woofed softly to alert the other people.
"Stay inside," Wiri commanded. He opened the door, and Harry caught a glimpse of his wand in his back pocket before Wiri's jacket swung to cover it. While it was reassuring that he had the protection of magic, it also alarmed Harry. Wiri must be worried. It was the first time Harry had seen a wand in this country other than his own.
Wiri's shoulders relaxed. "Sev. You took your time."
Harry didn't hear Snape's reply.
Chad pushed past Wiri. "How's Solly?"
"Not great. Cow shed?" Snape's voice asked.
"Yup. Harry and I put down hay. The heater's on so you won't freeze, and we boiled the jug. Maman's been making hot chocolate and you can have some with marshmallows if you like, but if you'd rather then you can have some coffee. Maman made some biscuits too. Do you want to come inside or shall I bring something out to you?"
Harry was at the door peering over Chad's shoulder, and he saw Snape smile tiredly. "I'll take Solomon to the barn. Coffee would be good, thanks, Chad. Wiri — have you got some more pep pills?"
"I left you heaps in that container. You can't have used all of them."
Snape's smile turned cynical, his pitch-black eyes glittering strangely. "Yes, well, one for the pony, one for me..."
Wiri planted his hands on his hips. "Severus Snape..."
"I know, I know, but tonight I'm going to need a little something extra to help me help Solly through." Snape turned to lead the pony around to the back of the house and ignored any admonitions Wiri might have wanted to make.
Slipping past Wiri, Harry followed. Sirius trotted at his heels.
Snape ignored them, too, as he led the pony into the prepared stall. Solly heaved a great sigh. The pony's legs were trembling a little, and his head was low. He also seemed to be having some trouble breathing.
"What is it, Potter?" Snape's voice lacked the usual scorn. He sounded tired; almost apathetic, Harry thought with a sinking in his stomach. It was as if Snape had given up hope of seeing the morning.
Harry decided not to ask about Voldemort, as he'd intended. "Can I help?"
Snape hesitated, head bowed over the pony's back so that his hair shaded his expression. Then he pointed to a box in the corner by the door. "Get some brushes. Soft brushes. And a blanket."
While Sirius sat in the doorway and watched the night, they put the blanket over the pony's loins and brushed until all the white hair made it look as though it had snowed inside.
Harry was fairly sure that horses shouldn't moult like this. It seemed that every swipe he took with the body brush ended up clogging the bristles with hair. Snape had showed him how to use the metal currycomb to clean the body brush, and Harry quickly fell into a routine of using the two brushes. Focusing on something other than the destruction of evil was soothing. Harry brushed and brushed and brushed. Snape was working with the brushes too, but his expression suggested that he was thinking hard, turning various possibilities over one at a time, discarding one after another. At some point Chad came in with coffee and hot chocolate. Harry paused for a drink but was glad to get back to work. Stopping brushing the pony meant thinking about things he really didn't want to think about.
"Chad, tell Rona that my flute is the green bag. She knows the combination. I'll need it, as well as some matches."
Chad looked puzzled, but went back to the house with Snape's request.
A minute later, Rona brought out the flute. "Sev, you can't mean to...?"
"It's the only way to get a message out through the barrier."
Harry stopped brushing to watch.
The flute was pale and looked ancient. It looked like bone. Harry stayed silent, knowing that if he said anything he would just annoy Snape, who seemed to be concentrating fully on what he was planning to do.
First, the Potions master took out a piece of paper and scribbled a message on it. After rolling it into a cylinder, he inserted it into the flute.
One match should have only scorched the bone flute a little.
It flared up like magnesium.
In that blinding light Harry thought he saw a heron unfurl white wings, sing one clear noiseless note that bypassed his ears to hang in his mind like a crystal bell, and take flight.
Then all he could see was the after-effects popping like Christmas lights in the backs of his eyes, and all he could hear was the laboured sound of an old pony trying to breathe.
After a moment, he heard Rona ask, "Will it work?"
Snape replied, "It's all we've got. They're all around us. I can feel them like I can feel the Mark burning on my arm." He was interrupted by a deep groan from Solly that made even Sirius whimper.
Rona pulled Harry back as the pony collapsed. "Sev?" Her voice was high.
Snape settled down in the hay with the shivering pony. "Go inside. There's nothing else to be done for now. He just needs some peace."
Rona arranged blankets over man and pony silently, then gestured to Harry with her head. Harry followed her out and back into the house. He only looked back once — Solly was stretched out in the hay with his head in Snape's lap and Snape's long fingers combing gently through the silver mane.
It was warm inside, a completely different warmth to the organic heat of the cowshed. Maman was sitting in her chair. On the couch next to her was Chad, quietly reading aloud to his great-grandmother from a local Muggle newspaper. They looked up as boy, woman and dog entered.
"How is he?" Maman asked.
"Tired," Rona replied succinctly. "Both of them. Solly's way too early. Sev's been taking the same blasted pills he's giving to the pony."
A snort from Maman. "Silly boy. He should know better. He's going to be a mess tomorrow. Now sit down here and tell me exactly what is going on."
Rona complied, giving more detail than Harry would have credited her with knowing. She told her grandmother everything except, Harry noted, Snape's Death Eater past. Somehow Rona seemed to skirt that issue, telling the truth so that Snape's connection to Voldemort was never a consideration. Harry and Chad listened quietly, knowing that if they made a peep they'd be sent into the kitchen. At some level Harry knew that Rona was poised halfway between the maternal instinct to protect the boys and the intellectual knowledge that they were almost adults and that, if the worst happened, they needed to know what and why they were fighting. Any interruption from the boys might have them tipped them back into child status.
At the end of the narrative Rona sighed and raked her hands through her hair. "He's burnt the flute Grandmother Taniwha gave him and sent for help. I hope..." She trailed off into silence.
For long minutes there was only the crackle of the fire. The silence was shattered by an unearthly keening that made everyone except Maman jump.
It was just the wind.
Maman reached out and patted Chad's hand. "Grandmother Taniwha is stirring up in her hills. Can't you feel it? She's sending us the snow. She's building us a wall of snow to hide us. She won't let her own people be hurt by some crowd of fascist hocus-pocus merchants. We're safe here."
In her own way she was as comforting as Dumbledore. Even Sirius crept forward and rested his muzzle on her knee.
"And who's this handsome fellow?" Maman cooed.
Rona looked ill.
Sirius looked up at the old woman soulfully and wagged his tail just a little as she fondled his ears.
"What a nice doggie. With him to protect us I'm sure we're safe."
The tail went thump, thump, thump on the floor.
Wiri came out of the kitchen, wiping his hands on his jeans. He grinned when he saw Maman and the dog. "Associating with criminals, are we?"
Rona glared at him. Wiri shrugged. "What? No-one will be coming up in the storm that's starting. His secret's safe with us."
Maman looked up sharply. "Would someone like to tell a helpless old lady what the hell is going on?" she demanded, her voice threaded with cold steel.
Wiri ignored his sister's hissed, "You and your big mouth..." "What I mean," he said, "Is that this dear old chap with his head in your lap isn't a dog. He's an Animagus. Not called Joe Smith, either. Honestly, Harry..." He gave Harry a hurt look. "We're all friends here. It's a very bad time for secrets. And if Sev doesn't tell us it's okay to skin Sirius Black and use him as a dogskin cloak then it's preferable he makes himself useful as a human. We may need all the wands we can get."
Harry couldn't believe how calmly Wiri took all this. It was clear Chad took after his uncle more than anyone else. Seconds later, a rather disgruntled Sirius Black (human) was sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of Maman.
"Do you have to take this so — unseriously?" Sirius demanded.
"I think you mean 'flippantly,'" said Wiri, helping Black to his feet. "And I'm taking this all very seriously. So seriously that I'm not letting you and Rona keep going on with whatever little game it is that you're playing." But Wiri did seem more amused than anything. By the defensive way Sirius was standing, he was expecting Wiri to throw a punch at any second.
Harry stood up. "Uh, Sirius, this is everyone. Everyone, this is Sirius Black. My godfather."
That got quiet Oh's from Wiri and Maman. Wiri extended his hand. After a moment in which Sirius tried to work out the threat, the two men shook hands. "As you're Harry's godfather, I guess you're more than welcome in our house. Can I get you a beer?"
Sirius seemed to be trying to fight a nervous twitch. "Uh — yes please. A beer would be great right about now."
"Can I have a beer?"
"No, Chad, but you can have some more Milo if you're wanting something to drink. Harry?"
"I'm not thirsty, thanks."
Sirius bowed to Maman. "Sorry to have fooled you like that." He took her hand and kissed it. Rona's expression soured further as Maman smiled as graciously as the Queen.
"You're forgiven. It's not every day a handsome man has his head in my lap. If I were ninety again you'd be in trouble." She winked and patted his hand.
Harry had never seen his godfather blush before. Chad sniggered.
Realising a retreat was in good order, Sirius sat down on the couch next to Harry and slung his arm around his godson. When Wiri handed him a tall glass of beer, the Animagus buried his nose in it.
There were many things to talk about, not least the present situation, but nobody seemed to want to break the quiet. It was, mused Harry from where he sat curled up against a dozing Sirius Black, as if speaking of such things would make them real. Much like the popular antipathy towards naming Voldemort. Harry began to doze too.
There was a thump on the roof followed by the terrible screech of claws sliding across corrugated iron.
Harry jolted upright.
"Relax," grunted Chad as Harry's elbow caught him in the ribs. "It's just Helen looking for Uncle Sev. Keas aren't much for flying at night, but she'll find him."
Sure enough, Harry soon heard the satisfied gurgle of a kea who has discovered what she wants.
The fire had burned down and Rona had gone in to check on Eru when the door opened and Snape came in with Helen on his shoulder. He looked awful.
"How's he doing?" Wiri asked immediately.
Snape nodded. "He'll be fine. Right now he's sleeping. Tomorrow—" he hesitated, as if tasting the word for a hidden jinx "—tomorrow he'll be up and about again. The boys will have their work cut out for them just trying to keep up with all his energy."
A snore from Sirius turned into a snort as he woke up confused. "Death Eaters?"
Wiri grinned, not necessarily with humour. "No Death Eaters here, mate."
Some people are never at their best when waking. Sirius was one of them. "No? What about the one who just came in?" he growled back.
"Wake up, Sirius, it's just Sev."
Harry had a terrible feeling about this, and not just because the scar on his head suddenly sent a jolt of pain through his skull. Snape was wearing a frozen look on his face that was from more than the snow outside. Quickly Harry elbowed Sirius in the ribs.
"Ouch, careful there, Harry. Snape's the one I'm talking about. Okay, ex-Death Eater, but in my opinion—"
"Your opinion," Snape bit back frostily, his eyes glaring death at the Animagus, "is hardly worth inflicting upon us."
Sirius snarled, "People have a right to know about you just like you think people have a right to know about Remus being a werewolf—"
They were interrupted by a walking stick being banged on the floor.
"What," said Maman icily, "is he talking about? Wirimu?"
Wiri just shook his head, baffled. Harry was surprised — didn't these people know about Snape's past?
"Severus... what is this man saying?"
Snape stood there dumbly, his eyes black pits in his ashen face. He backed up against the door as Maman moved close to him and leaned on her stick. "Severus Obadiah Snape — explain what this man has just accused you of."
Harry's stomach had a terrible cold feeling clenching inside it, as if he had swallowed a packet of Ice Mice.
Snape grabbed Helen. Helen squawked at the indignity. Her squawks turned to outraged shrieks which were quickly muffled as Snape stuffed her in a cupboard behind the coat rack and threw the bolt on the door. Furious thumps, shrieks and scratches ensued within.
"Will you deny it, child?" Maman's voice was soft with heartbreak.
Snape never moved, his eyes not leaving the old woman's face. He didn't even blink when she raised her hand and cracked the flat of it across his face.
Harry gasped, and heard Chad echo him. Sirius gripped his shoulders tight when he tried to get up. There was an extra angry screech from the cupboard.
"You know what Grindelwald did to my husband — and now you follow his heir?" Maman spoke quietly and there was the faintest tremor to her voice. Snape was pale except for the red mark where he had been hit.
He wasn't fast enough to pull back when Maman's hand shot out and grabbed his left wrist. A look of panic crossed his face and settled in his eyes as he tried to break free, but the old woman's grip had the iron strength of bitter fury.
She pushed up his sleeve and spat like a cat.
"There. There. You — you dare walk into my house — into my family — when you wear the mark of this — this filth. How dare you."
He was cut off by a back-hander across the other side of his face that knocked him back against the door and made even Sirius gasp.
"Get out. Get out. Find your filthy Death Eater friends and get out of my territory. My curse on all of you." She spat in his face.
Snape twisted his wrist free like it was burning and stumbled backwards out the door into the darkness. Harry caught a last glimpse of him wiping his face as snowflakes danced in the light from inside before the door slammed shut.
It was several long moments before anyone remembered to breathe.
"Maman," croaked Wiri, sounding as thought he had only just remembered how to speak.
"Did you know?" Maman demanded. "Did you know?"
Wiri shook his head. "I never even guessed."
Chad was crying softly, his eyes wide with the realisation of betrayal. "Not him," he kept saying. "Not Uncle Sev. He's not like Dad..."
Harry slid out of Sirius' grasp and, before anyone could stop him, shot out the door.
Outside the temperature had plummeted. It seemed almost too cold for snow, but big, fluffy flakes were falling from the sky, catching in the moonlight and spinning in the light from the open door. They fell into Harry's hair and melted on his glasses. Not far away, they had begun to shroud the tall, black-clad figure that stood like Death in black robes.
"Professor! Professor, wait!"
Snape had walked a little way down the road to where he was standing. His palms were open to the night sky. Strangely, the snowflakes didn't fall into his hands, although they did zig-zag dizzily above them, as if there were twin vortexes of energy spiralling up to the sky.
"I'm busy, Potter," he muttered distractedly.
Harry stopped. Like a prickling on the back of his neck, he could feel the rising thrum of magic. Without looking around he heard his godfather jog up behind him. "Snape? What the hell do you think you're up to now?"
He was ignored. Harry reached back and found his godfather's hand and squeezed it. Wonder of wonders, Black took the hint and didn't ask any more questions. He, too, sensed magic at work, turning his head and sniffing at the air.
Harry felt it first in his feet. Then, out of the corner of his eye, he saw the magic. Its sensing was like the first little ripples of an earthquake; moving in towards the house, rebounding and coming back until they formed a standing wave encircling the house. Something about it was familiar, but it took him a moment to place where he knew the magic from.
They were the wards from Snape's cottage.
There was a moment of uncertainty, then they snapped into focus, earthing themselves around the house and sheds.
As soon as Harry realised this, Snape's shoulders sagged and he stumbled to his knees. Harry ran to grab his elbow. "Professor? Are you alright?"
Snape coughed to clear his throat. "As alright as I need to be."
"But your house?"
"Has served its purpose," Snape snapped back harshly. "The wards are needed here."
"Snape, what did you just do?" Sirius was standing in front of them. He offered his hand, but Snape ignored it, leaning on Harry a little instead as he struggled to his feet.
"I've placed some protection around this house. It's set to prevent anyone from moving through while they bear malice to the inhabitants. Any of the inhabitants," he added wryly, "so that makes it about the only place in the world you, Black, would be safe." He waved a hand mockingly. "You can thank me later. Just make sure your godson and everyone stays inside. Help should be arriving soon, but I don't know when. I'll try and create a little distraction in the meanwhile."
"I can't believe I'm saying this," Black muttered, "but come back inside with us. I'll try and explain to them that—"
"Oh, like that ever helped me. I think you've done enough explaining for one lifetime. Harry, if anyone should happen to break through, get to Solomon. Take Chad and Eru — the horse can carry three. He'll take you wherever you want to go. To Hogwarts. To the dark side of the Moon. I don't care where — just tell him where to go and he'll take you. And make sure Helen stays inside the cupboard. I don't want her following me. She's too trusting."
He shook off Harry's hand and started walking.
Snape spun in a swirl of black cloak and snowflakes that shone like flecks of bone. "Get inside the house, Potter, or you'll be losing more than points for Gryffindor!"
Harry blinked. That was all it took for Snape to disappeared into the night.
"Shit," said Sirius.
Harry thought that summed up the situation quite nicely.
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