Title: No Pepperup for the Brave
Characters: Severus Snape, Lily Evans
Beta Reader: melusin_79
(Highlight to View) Warning(s): Cruelty to Mandrakes.
Note: Heartfelt thanks to my patient beta.
Summary: Severus hated Pepperup. Not so much the taste as the way it made him feel like a boiling cauldron, full of angry broth and ready to spill over.
On the first day of the second term, Severus woke up with a cold.
He had been dreaming that a long-haired Horklump had cuddled up against his face and was smothering him. As he struggled for breath, the stupid beast wiggled its plump, fluffy bottom even closer, tickling the inside of his nostrils. Severus sneezed and opened his eyes.
The green light of the torches was already pervading the dormitory and filtering through the thick curtains of the four-poster bed. He could hear the other Slytherins getting dressed while comparing their respective holidays, Avery's excited tones rising above Mulciber's mumblings.
Avery had been the only one from their dormitory who'd gone home for Christmas. Mulciber had stayed-his father had got remarried, and it seemed his young wife didn't want Terry in her home just yet-and so had Rosier, who'd said he didn't fancy travelling all the way down to Porquerolles and back just for two weeks.
Severus had made good use of the opportunities arising from the others' plans or lack thereof. He had spent the holidays not only coaching Mulciber to revise his Potions work (he was hopeless), but also, at his demand, training Rosier to duel. The fact that Lucius Malfoy himself had chosen Severus, a wee firstie, as a sparring partner had done wonders for his reputation. Anyway, Rosier was rather good: not very inventive, but very quick and thus fun to work with.
That had filled half of the purse that was now resting snugly in his thoroughly warded trunk.
For the other half, he had aerated dragon dung manure for Professor Sprout and helped put scarves and socks on the Mandrakes that had grown up quicker than expected. Professor Sprout had been generous and, unexpectedly, so had Mr. Filch, for whom he had cleaned up some of the worst classrooms and cupboards. The latter had been a pleasant surprise, as Severus thought that just being on Filch's good side was worth it if one was ever caught in the corridors at an awkward moment.
He had also gutted three barrels of horned toads, as well as grinding Flobberworms to a paste and pickling one hogshead of crocodile hearts for Professor Slughorn. He hadn't expected to be paid for this. Professor Slughorn had hinted in class that the most talented students-he had been looking at Lily Evans, but Severus was sure he'd be included if he managed to get into the Professor's good graces-could eventually be granted after hours access to the Potions laboratory, with permission to use freely everything in the students' cupboard, and maybe-he had paused dramatically-be granted some ingredients from his private store.
Professor Slughorn had indeed not paid him a single Knut, but he had smiled benignly, and while Severus knew that it didn't mean he'd get his wish immediately, he counted it a strike in his favour.
Anyway, the purse was now full from his other endeavours, and he intended slipping out to the Owlery to send it to Mum-Eileen, you are old enough now-today, after classes.
His train of thought was broken by a sudden lull in the other boys' banter. Avery had said something in a very low voice, which was answered by Mulciber's thick cackle. Rosier snickered and retorted just as softly.
Severus lay on his bed, in the shade of the green curtains, sniffling as quietly as possible and trying to squeeze down another sneeze. There was no way he'd let Rosier and Mulciber see him like this, nor Avery if he could help it.
There was a brief silence during which Rosier was probably savouring his wit.
"Come on, I'm starving," said Avery.
They left the room, bickering over who'd be first on the narrow spiral staircase that climbed from their dormitory to the Slytherin common room. Mulciber, the last out of the door, banged it on principle.
Severus waited until the sounds of their feet and voices were lost behind the thick walls of the dungeons, then slipped out of bed.
It was even worse now that he was standing. His head felt like a cartload of lead, his throat was beginning to scratch and, worst of all, his nose had become completely blocked so that he had to breathe through his mouth.
If he turned up like this in class, he'd be the butt of some very tasteless remarks. He could hex those people (a few days later, of course; it was less risky and also good for his reputation), but any teacher would send him immediately to Madam Pomfrey.
Severus hated Pepperup. Not so much the taste as the way it made him feel like a boiling cauldron, full of angry broth and ready to spill over. Not to mention the indignity of fuming at the ears.
He dragged his trunk from under the bed, took down the wards and opened it. He checked on the purse first-it was still there, left corner at the back, with everything that should be hidden. The menthol spray was in the right corner at the back with the other things he didn't need often. Mum-Eileen-had sent it to him after his first Pepperup experience.
Crap. It was almost empty. He'd meant to get another one during the holidays, but then he'd decided to stay at Hogwarts when he'd heard that Rosier and Mulciber were staying, too.
He shook the spray, pressed it briefly once in each nostril, savouring the icy relief, and shook it again: there was at most one more dose left.
He needed something Muggle for his cold, and he needed it now. His only hope was Lily.
After carefully replacing the three layers of wards on the trunk, he dressed as fast as he could, took his schoolbag and left the dormitory.
Everyone had already left for breakfast, except the Lestrange brothers, who were sitting up straight on the carved chairs in front of the fireplace. Their pale eyes followed him as he crossed through the dancing shadows of the long room towards the door, but they didn't say anything.
Once he found himself alone in the low, chilly corridor, Severus hesitated. He knew where the entrance to the Gryffindor Common Room was-Lily had shown him-however, hanging around would seem suspicious; he risked being attacked by a group of Gryffindors under the pretext that he was spying on them.
He would see Lily in double Potions later in the morning, but it wasn't the best place to ask her for a Muggle drug. For the same reason, going to breakfast in the Great Hall and trying to hop over to the Gryffindor table to speak to her would draw flak for both of them and from both Slytherins and Gryffindors; besides, he didn't feel like eating.
However, Lily was an early riser and had probably already finished breakfast, in which case, she might have made a quick trip to the library before her Arithmancy class.
He hefted the bag onto his shoulder and set off towards the fourth floor.
He was in luck. She was indeed in the library, the only student seated in the Arithmancy section at this early hour. She was facing away from him, head bent over a thick volume, her dark red hair trailing on both sides of the worn pages.
He looked around carefully. Working together in Potions was one thing, as it was Professor Slughorn who had teamed them together on the grounds that both the Slytherin and Gryffindor groups sported uneven numbers, and Lily was the only Gryffindor with any Potions ability. Being chummy outside Potions was quite another, and they had quickly learned to look distant. Lily quite enjoyed the game of hide and seek. She had even come up with a few hand signals they could use when they passed each other in the corridors without anyone being any the wiser.
As he couldn't see anyone, he took a book from the nearest shelf and slid onto the bench by her side with a grateful thought for the menthol spray. It had unstoppered his nose, at least for the moment.
"Thank you for the quill," he whispered. She had sent him a beautiful raven quill for Christmas, oil-slick black, alive with dark rainbows whenever it caught the light. "What are you reading?"
"Arithmantic Numerology for Beginners," she whispered back. "Did you like it?"
"Very much." He bent over his book, feigning a deep interest. "How were the holidays?"
"Tuney fancies a boy." He could almost hear the eyeroll. "She kept shutting herself in the bathroom to try Mum's lipstick and make faces in the mirror. She was too busy to notice me. Mum was relieved. She had been afraid she'd have to send me away with the Guides to camp, like last summer when Tuney kept complaining I was changing the teacups into rats."
"You weren't, were you?"
"Of course not, but I'd borrowed Nick Hornby's rat and stuffed it in the cupboard."
He bent his head even lower, so that his lank hair covered his snicker, and was overcome by a mortifying sneeze.
"Lily, you don't have any stuff for colds on you, do you?"
"Let me see." She rummaged in her bag and came up with two eucalyptus drops in a torn, balled-up wrapper. "Here, take it, I'm afraid that's all I have."
"Thanks." He was giving the wrapper an extra twist before putting it away in his own bag when the bell rang. "Let's go. See you later in Potions."
By the time he'd filed up with the other Slytherins at the door of the Potions laboratory, Severus' nose was stuffed up again, though he'd already used one of Lily's eucalyptus drops. He wanted to keep the last dose of the menthol spray for the afternoon and was wondering how he was going to manage to not speak at all during the class. If or when he was ever allowed to work on his own projects, the first thing he'd research would be a new cold potion.
The door of the dungeon opened, and Professor Slughorn's belly preceded him out of the door. As the students filed into the room, Gryffindors first, he beamed at Lily, his great walrus whiskers curving up.
Everyone took their usual places, and the flurry gradually died down.
"Now, now. Settle down, settle down."
Professor Slughorn smiled genially at the thirteen Slytherins (left side of the class) and the fifteen Gryffindors (right side), tucked his thumbs under the lapels of his maroon velvet waistcoat and inflated his already bulging chest so that the gold buttons threatened to burst off.
"Today's lesson is a bit of a challenge, but I'm sure everyone will do all right. As you can guess,"-he gestured at the pile of fluffy earmuffs on his desk-"we are going to brew a Mandrake Restorative Draught. Professor Sprout has obtained a particularly plentiful batch of mandrakes, and we must seize the opportunity as they have reached the best age for use in Potions. Who can tell me how we know that?"
Several Gryffindors threw their hands up. Bless the show-offs.
"Yes, Miss McDonald?"
Mary McDonald said in one breath: "It's when they begin to throw parties and move from pot to pot, sir."
Professor Slughorn nodded.
"Very good, and that's why Professor Sprout repotted them last week in Hold-Tight pots so that they'd be well rested before processing. She's kept most of the females for reproduction, of course. Can you tell me which of our specimens"-he waved at the granite worktop-" is male and which is female?"
Lupin raised his hand. "The one with the smallish, round leaves is female, sir."
"You smelled it out," mumbled Sirius Black.
"Tut, tut, Mr. Black," said Professor Slughorn as Lupin blushed. "The important thing is that Mr. Lupin is right. There are thirteen male mandrakes in that batch and only one female, which we'll use as the catalyst. You'll work in pairs, one mandrake to each team." He made a little pause, then his silvery moustache quivered as he took a deep breath once more.
"Now, processing the male mandrakes is the easier task. They're used for the basic stock, which means that after being carefully washed, they can be simply chopped up at the joints and tossed into the cauldron. The female, on the other hand, needs a more delicate dissection-Miss Evans, you'll take care of that; Mr. Snape, move over to help Miss Evans"-Potter scowled-"and you will use her cauldron; it has the thicker bottom. The male mandrake teams will begin first. As you can see, the pots are on the far side of the sinks, in the 'dirty' area of the worktop. After you've put on the earmuffs, each team will line up. Each team will pull its mandrake out of the pot, wash it carefully in the first sink on their right, then rinse in the second sink, so that no trace of soil is left, and dry it with the tea towels on the 'clean' area of the worktop before bringing it to their preparation table. The detailed instructions"-he waved his wand-"are on the blackboard. Now, take your earmuffs"-he seized a pair of emerald ones-"and line up. Go!"
Everyone scrambled for the earmuffs, Black elbowing Mulciber away from a pair of dark green ones, which he threw to Potter who tried to give them to Lily. She sniffed and picked the first pair in front of her, which were yellow. Severus, to his relief, got the last pair of black ones. Pettigrew was somehow left with the pink.
The first thirteen teams lined up at the sinks in pairs, Potter and Black first. Potter grabbed the nearest pot and held it fast while Black grasped the clump of green-greyish leaves and yanked brutally. The mandrake came out, caked in soil, and Black thrust it under the jet of icy water spouting from the lead gargoyle tap. The mandrake writhed and gasped, opening its mouth spasmodically, while the earth washed away in tiny rivulets, revealing its body. A few girls raised their hands to their mouths, as if to stifle a giggle. Black scowled and moved the creature under the second tap before plonking it down upon the drying area.
Severus, having already lit the fire under their cauldron, joined Lily in reading the instructions on the blackboard. Those concerning the female mandrake were indeed long and complicated, and by the time he'd reached the last paragraph, he was doubly glad that the earmuffs meant he wouldn't have to speak, not to mention hear.
Meanwhile, the first teams already had the male mandrakes splayed out on the tiled worktops. Lupin, who had paired up with Pettigrew, looked a bit greyish, but Black smirked in Lily's direction before bringing down his Potions knife on the vegetal elbow. Green ichor spurted forth, and the mandrake's mouth opened in a silent howl.
Lily drew her lips together more tightly and motioned Severus towards the sink. There was only the female plant left. He held the pot while Lily pulled it out and washed the tiny, flailing limbs before drying it with a clean towel. They carried it to the work table and laid it on its back. It squirmed and tried to roll away, but Severus grabbed its ankles and wrists. Lily took a deep breath and drew the silver knife in a single resolute line from neck to navel.
They lingered behind in the laboratory, cleaning the sinks and putting away ingredients until everyone else had left and Professor Slughorn shooed them out. Lily checked that the Potions corridor was empty, then they slipped quickly away and took a detour Severus had learnt from Mrs. Norris.
Lily was striding away so furiously that Severus had trouble keeping up with her.
"He lost twenty points from Gryffindor!"
"You got twenty points for your work."
"And you got twenty for yours, and fifteen more for stopping Black from throwing a dungbomb in our cauldron. That's fifteen net for Slytherin. I'm never going to hear the end of it."
Severus cast a look over his shoulder. The shortcut they had taken from the dungeons was reasonably sure, and the corridor was for the moment empty and silent, but you never knew. He didn't doubt Potter's gang would try to retaliate, and he also knew he should keep out of trouble, considering what had happened during the first term. Potter had a knack for making himself appear as a warm, noble heart, even in his own eyes. When he hexed someone, it always looked like the other party had deserved it. Or like James was rescuing someone from unspeakable evil.
"He would have ruined everyone's work by spoiling the catalyst just out of spite," continued Lily. "I can't believe it!"
"Black is crazy. Most pure-bloods are," muttered Severus. He sniffled and wiped his nose on his sleeve surreptitiously.
Lily frowned: "You should go to the hospital wing."
"No, I hate Pepperup."
They had just turned the corner around the statue of Aethelred the Unready.
"How about the library? I'm not going to lunch." Lily readjusted the bag across her shoulder.
"I'm not going to lunch, either. I can't smell anything."
"You don't know how lucky you are. It really stank in the class before Professor Slughorn cleared it."
The running footsteps behind them seemed to materialize out of thin air. Black and his gang had somehow caught up with them.
"Oooo, icky-bitty Snivellus has been put off his food!"
"Just keep walking," hissed Lily, looking straight ahead.
Severus' hand slid instinctively into his robes. He had sewn the inner pocket himself where his wand rested, just below the Slytherin crest.
"It's just as well; his nose would drip on his plate."
"It is a beak, a prow, a snout, a mighty scythe, a human hosepipe-is that a drop of dew hanging from its tip, or just pure grease?"
"Be careful, James, I found him in 'Nature's Nobility' as the Knight of the Sniffling Spear."
"Sod off, Black," snapped Lily, but she couldn't help walking a little faster.
"Oooo, Sir Snivellus the Sorry from Sorrywaste Castle has got himself a Damsel-Errant."
"He was too lily-livered to disembowel that mandrake, so he got her to do the dirty work for him, too."
"I wonder how he could bear it," added Black. "How does it feel for a snake to get help from a Mudblood?"
Lily's hand flew for her wand, but Severus had already drawn under his robes. Black's hands flailed to his head, and he groaned with pain as two sturdy leeks sprouted from his ears. Potter winced and staggered back under the weight of the branched horns that had burst out of his forehead.
"What is going on here?" Professor Dawlish had stepped out of the Defence Against the Dark Arts class.
"Nothing, Professor, just joking," Lupin hurried in. Pettigrew had retreated smoothly behind a suit of armour.
Dawlish's eyes moved from Black, still clutching at his head, to Potter who was leaning against the wall. "Who did this?"
Lily stepped defiantly in front of Severus: "I did, Professor. They insulted me."
"Indeed, Miss Evans? Hand over your wand, please."
Still glaring at him, Lily handed her wand, butt first.
Everyone knew that Professor Dawlish really wanted to be an Auror, but had already failed the practical exam twice. He was boring the students to death with lessons about magical forensics and how to collect incriminating evidence in order to convict Dark Wizards. Yeah, if you caught them.
Holding Lily's wand in his left hand, Dawlish approached the tip of his own wand and said: "Priori Incantatem."
A silvery hedgehog erupted from the tip of Lily's wand and swirled before changing into a pincushion then vanishing.
"Transfiguration homework, I suppose," said Dawlish. There was an odd satisfaction in his voice. "Mr. Snape, your wand."
"Detention, in the Forbidden Forest, right after the last class, without dinner?!" Lily was fuming.
"You shouldn't have said it was you."
"You were already in enough trouble from that toenail thing just before the holidays, and that was Black's fault, too."
Severus shrugged. They were on their way down to Filch's, and the dusk was rapidly filling the west gallery. The sooner they got it over with, the better.
"I hope the leeks hurt a lot," said Lily, skipping the last stairs to the Entrance Hall.
As they turned into the narrow corridor leading to the caretaker's office, the torches lit up suddenly, throwing deep shadows into every nook and corner, and they almost ran into a short, massive figure.
"Ouch! Sorry, Professor," panted Lily.
"No harm done, none at all, Miss Evans. So, you've got yourselves into trouble? I heard Professor McGonagall wasn't very happy, either, about your detention, but Dawlish wouldn't listen to reason."
So, Professor Slughorn wasn't using Dawlish's title either.
"I had a little word with Mr. Filch, and he was telling me that his cat needed a potion. It seems that the poor beast is shedding its fur at an alarming rate. Now, you shouldn't worry too much about your detention-Hagrid never takes first years beyond the unicorn clearing; he'll just make you pick some tail hairs from the bushes. Pity, really, because a little farther, if one would turn to the left around the outcrop of rocks, they would see the snow bridge above Dead Burn. There is a field of Plangentines on it, and this is the perfect time to harvest them, under the first full moon of the year. But,"-he sighed-"Hagrid is much too heavy to venture onto a snow bridge, and so am I." He smiled ruefully. "Anyway, you can trust Mr. Filch to keep anything for you, should you need to. Oh, I almost forgot"-he drew his wand and flicked it, first at their cloaks, then at their boots-"just a little charm to keep you warm and dry." He gave a little chuckle and bounced back and forth on the balls of his feet. "Off you go now. Good luck, and try to behave yourselves."
As Mr. Filch drew back the bolts and started to open the heavy doors of the castle, Mrs. Norris wound through his ankles and slipped out onto the first wide step, fur bristling in the cold evening air.
"Want to watch the doors until I come back, my pretty?"
The cat stared back at him with her enormous, lamp-like eyes.
"All right, just don't catch a cold." He scratched the animal briefly behind the ears and turned around. "Follow me, you two. I haven't got all evening."
It had stopped snowing. The sky had cleared and was now a dark blue turning quickly to deep black as they marched off across the grounds, the caretaker's lantern swinging ahead.
They walked in silence, except for the old man's wheezing, until they reached the gamekeeper's hut and Filch knocked on the door, which unleashed ferocious barks from Hagrid's dog.
"Hold your damn beast, Hagrid," shouted Filch through the closed door. "I don't want him slobbering all over me and covering me in muck."
"Oh, shut up, yeh old shrivelfig, and go cuddle with yer cat," Hagrid's voice rumbled as he opened the door. A sliver of light fell on the snow. "He's only a puppy," he added, holding the calf-sized boarhound by the collar.
"Right," said Filch coldly. "I'll be back tomorrow to pick up what's left of these two." He turned and walked back to the castle.
Hagrid waited until the lantern bobbed away before releasing the dog, which began to leap around in joyful circles.
"Here, take these." Hagrid was holding out two soft leather pouches drawn with a long string. "Put them around yer necks. You can collect the unicorn hairs in there; they'll hold anything snug and safe. Down, Fang!"
They set off towards the edge of the forest, the black hound in front tracing a shallow furrow in the fresh, deep snow. Hagrid followed him, huffing and puffing like a steamer. The trench he was opening was so wide that Severus and Lily could easily walk behind him, side by side, the plumes of their breath rising in the cold air.
Night had fallen, but the moon wasn't yet up. The vault of the great trees overhead made the darkness even deeper beyond the swaying circle of Hagrid's lantern, which was itself mostly obliterated by Hagrid's massive behind. The wavering sides of the lens of yellow light flickered left and right on the towering trunks and the compact masses of the thickets.
They couldn't hear anything else besides the noise of the snow crunching under Hagrid's boots and the swishing of his clothes, rugged wool against rugged wool, heavy rawhide hem rubbing against the ploughed snowbanks.
"It's not far. Don't yeh worry," said Hagrid reassuringly.
They had walked for almost an hour, and Severus was making a mental note about the relative meaning of "not far" for half-giants, when Hagrid stopped so abruptly that they almost bumped into him. In the sudden silence, they could hear their own breath and, rising above it, a thin, tremulous whimper. Severus leaned forward to peek around Hagrid's bulk.
Fang was cowering against his master's boots, whining wetly and shuddering.
Then he heard the other noise-something heavy, crushing through the thickets to their right, on Lily's side.
With a high, keening howl, Fang uncurled like a released spring and bolted back along their tracks.
"Stop, Fang, yeh stupid dog!" yelled Hagrid. "Stay here, yeh two," he growled before charging off after Fang.
The lantern swayed wildly before getting lost in the darkness of the Forest.
Severus caught Lily's wrist to pull her aside and was relieved to find that she already had her wand out.
"Well, that's taken care of him," she whispered.
"I cast a Confringo on those bushes. First turn to the left after the outcrop of rocks, and we can go pick the Plangentines."
He squeezed her hand to let her know that they shouldn't make a noise, anyway, and was pondering whether to risk a Lumos when the moon came out, flooding the Forest in blinding silver streams through the black stripes of the trees. He let go of her hand, and they ventured into the fresh snow, wands at the ready.
It was lots more difficult now that Hagrid wasn't opening the path, and they were panting by the time they reached the unicorn clearing. It was empty and quiet, a blinding sea of white.
On the far left, barely visible through the trees, the outcrop of rocks jutted out against the moonlight like a crouching beast.
They waddled through the snowdrifts to the foot of the promontory and crept along the narrow ledge under it, keeping close to the wall.
Almost directly below their feet, a deep, black crevasse ran in both directions like a gash in the snow. At the narrowest point, right in front of them, the snow had built up into a dam. Its crest arched to the other side, a thin strip of milky white with a strange, shifting glow.
Lily tried the bridge with the toe of her boot, then moved forward gingerly, one step at a time. With her second step, the snow came alive and shimmered as if a long, subdued wave had run through some fur made of moonlight. She took a third step and turned to beam at her friend before moving on.
Severus shivered. Professor Slughorn's charms were probably beginning to wear off, and he could feel the cold seeping through his clothes.
He stepped tentatively onto the bridge. With each step, long ripples surged through the glimmering surface, widening and closing back around his ankles. He bent to take a closer look. It wasn't the snow. It was a thick field of white, star-shaped flowers, dusted in a soft, silky down and growing so close together that they were completely hiding the snow under their immaculate cover.
Each Plangentine was opening and closing its petals like a quivering butterfly, pulsating in rhythm with its nearest companions. The fluttering quickened as Severus fumbled through in search of a stalk. It was smooth and cold like a thin stem of ice and just as brittle. When he broke it between his fingers, the whole field shuddered as if the flowers would take flight, only to slow down almost as quickly to a lazy flicker.
The first Plangentine Severus picked continued to pulse calmly after he had put it into the leather pouch.
"I hope they won't get crushed," whispered Lily.
"No, this is Mokeskin," he whispered back. "We can collect as much as we want."
"Bet I can harvest more than you!"
Severus had almost caught up with Lily in the middle of the bridge when they heard the clamour and the thundering gallop growing behind them in the Forest. They froze, and then the doe burst from behind the rocks, followed by the herd of centaurs, bows in hand.
The centaurs stopped at the foot of the outcrop, but the terrified doe leapt onto the narrow crest, straight towards Severus and Lily.
It had almost reached them when a deep sigh ran through the bridge. Severus felt Lily clutch at his robes. The field of ice tilted, sinking under their feet, and everything went white as they fell amid the rumbling cloud of snow.
He landed on his back with Lily on top, her weight knocking the breath out of him. He gulped for air, inhaled snow and coughed, then all of a sudden, the weight was gone, and Lily was pulling on his arm.
"Sev, get up!"
He coughed again, sat up abruptly and looked around.
They were at the bottom of the canyon. The sky was a narrow strip of black far above, dotted with a few stars. The slanting moonlight barely outlined the outcrop of rocks jutting behind them over the brink of the chasm. There was no sign or sound of the centaurs-they had probably turned back. The dam of snow still stood at their left, but the crest was interrupted by a deep dent. The whole middle of the bridge had collapsed.
They had been lucky to fall onto deep, fresh snow and yet not to have been crushed by the whole weight of the dam. He felt for his wand-it was still there and unbroken.
He drew it and, experimentally, tried to send sparks.
They rose a few feet and sputtered miserably out. The walls of the ravine stood high and dark, spotted only here and there with patches of snow, held on a jagged rock fang.
To their right, the bottom of the gully slithered between the steep sides before it bent sharply and lost itself into the night.
There was no sign of the doe.
Lily followed his glance: "I think it went that way."
She was huddled in her robes, hugging herself with her hands tucked inside the sleeves, and she was dancing in place. Her lips were drawn tight, and her face was white. Slughorn's charms were definitely wearing off.
This was not good. Not good at all. When Hagrid came back, he'd look for them in the clearing, but their tracks had been stomped out by the herd of centaurs. Hagrid would have no idea in which direction they had gone. By the time he looked up the area of the crevasse and supposing he'd think to look at the bottom-well, they could freeze to death before being found.
There was nothing else for it.
He got up and held out his hand to Lily: "Come, it has to lead somewhere."
They staggered up the the bed of the dead river, stumbling and slipping every other step on the uneven boulders hidden under the deceptive cloak of snow.
After the bend, the ravine was even darker because it went perpendicular to the rays of the moon. Both of them lit their wands, but the Lumos was very weak, its light watered down and wavering feebly. Severus wondered again if there wasn't something about the gully that dampened magic.
"It doesn't work well, does it?" whispered Lily.
He didn't answer. Walking had warmed him up at first, from the inside, but then the snow that was clinging to his clothes had thawed and seeped through the three layers of wool, and his feet were squelching in his drenched socks. He was also, for the first time since the morning, keenly aware that he had missed both breakfast and lunch, and regretting it very much.
The innermost layer of clothes was damp and warm as long as it stayed in contact, but each step, each clumsy movement, peeled it off the skin before bringing it back frozen in an icy sheet, hungry for the warmth of his body. After a moment, it seemed less painful to just stand still or lie down and give in to the numb embrace of the cold. Icy, warm; icy, warm, with each step, trying not to slip and fall. There was only the next step, Lily's breathing at his side and the faint fluttering of the Plangentines in the leather pouch against his chest. They hadn't been crushed, after all.
He had lost count of time when the gully bent again to the right. Lily stopped and looked at the sky: "If it keeps straight from here, it should bring us again towards Hagrid's."
"How do you know?"
She pointed at the hard glint of the stars above: "That's the Plough, and that's the Pole Star above it."
Severus was glad to believe her. Somewhat cheered up, they walked a little faster, though the ground seemed to climb, now. The sides of the canyon were lower, too, but at the same time, they seemed to lean towards each other, and the river bed was getting narrower. They had walked for quite a while, one behind the other with Severus in front, when the passage narrowed down to a crevice barely larger than his shoulders. The walls had rejoined now overhead in a vault, and he was looking into a tunnel.
He stopped and thrust the feeble light of his wand as far as he could in the crevice. He couldn't see much, but there was a whitish patch some way ahead.
"I think I can see the snow on the other side."
He slid carefully into the opening, fumbling with his left hand against the stonewall, right arm extended in front of him, wand at the ready. He could hear Lily shuffling behind and sliding on a pebble.
He had walked about twenty paces, and the whitish patch was much nearer, but he was beginning to doubt it was snow as it seemed to hover a bit above the ground. He crept on prudently and was about an arm's length or so from it when the tip of his wand got caught in something invisible and very soft. He tried to withdraw it, but whatever was holding it was elastic. He shook it harder, and this time it bounced back twice as far, and he felt the viscous strands wrap around his wrist.
Panicked, he tore at them with his left hand, but it was caught too and, even worse, he felt himself being pulled forward. He twisted his body, trying to escape, but his ankles were gripped as well and jerked upwards. He was now hanging enmeshed, almost upside down and, as the light from his wand fell squarely on it, he understood what that white patch was.
The doe was hanging a little below him in the Acromantula web, held almost vertical, her four legs pulled apart by the fuliginous strings and her belly exposed. The feathered shaft of the centaur arrow jutted from it.
"Lily, don't move!"
He struggled frantically to get free, or at least to aim his wand at the web, but the more he struggled, the tighter he was held. His head was almost touching the doe's, now. Her eyes were alive, black and liquid, and that was the last thing he saw.
There was the smell of smoke-smoke?-then someone shaking him by the shoulders, urgently.
"Severus! Wake up!"
He didn't want to. I am just fine, thank you very much. Perfectly numb.
He was shaken again, and the pain rushed back, flooding his body from head to foot. The pain, and the cold.
He sat up, shivering.
The first things he saw were the blue fire, burning in a hollow, and the shape of the doe, lying on its flank in the snow at the entrance of the tunnel, feathered arrow still sticking out. There was a large puddle of blood widening from under the body.
Lily was pushing something spongy and utterly disgusting against his lips. It smelled of blood and smoke.
Then, he noticed the brown smears around her mouth. He tried to turn his head.
"Eat. I did, too."
She pushed the shred of flesh, half-raw, half-charred, against his lips again. "It was dying, anyway."
He took a reluctant bite. It was horrible: viscous and tangy, sickly sweetish with a tinge of bile. He swallowed and closed his eyes, managed not to throw up and forced himself to take another bite.
When he took the chunk of liver from her, she wiped her hands and her silver knife in the snow then waited until he had finished.
"How?" he croaked.
"We were near the end of the tunnel. You had broken a lot of the strings already. I cut the rest and pulled you out. Can you stand now? We should move."
He stood and staggered, but soon he was able to fall in step behind Lily.
The river bed was now hardly more than a furrow in the ground, and the sky was turning pale with the first signs of dawn. The snow, however, was now knee-deep, and Severus felt his newfound energy leaking out. By the time Lily pointed at the distant smoke winding up in the sky, he was both feverish and thoroughly chilled again.
"Shall we go directly to the castle?" asked Lily. "Hagrid must be worried."
"We 'ave to gib the 'langentines to Filch." His nose was stuffed again.
The Astronomy tower was now in view, but Severus' teeth were chattering, and he was overcome with a feeling of urgency.
"I owe you a 'ife debt," he said, just in case he might die before reaching the castle.
"You owe me a knife debt?" Lily had stopped to draw out the silver dagger and was examining the blade with a puzzled expression. "Nah, the edge is all right."
"A life debt," he articulated raspily.
"Oh." She resumed walking, her eyes fixed on the distant plume of smoke.
They trudged through the snow in silence for a few minutes. Then she said: "I don't want you to owe me a debt."
"You can't take that back. A life debt is owed, that's all. Except from family, of course." His throat burned with the effort of speech.
"What do you mean?" She had stopped again.
"There are no life debts inside a family, as you already share the same blood." He drew the scarf tighter around his neck and kept walking.
She stared, then ran after him. "Sev, that's it !"
"We have to share blood! That's done between friends!"
He eyed her sceptically: "I don't know if that works."
"It does! I've read about it, and two girls at the Guides camp did it." She had already rolled up her left sleeve, and was tugging at his, exposing the white underarm. There was a double flash of silver.
"Here," she said, putting her slitted forearm over his and wiggling it a little so that the two gashes would fit. "We are of the same blood, you and I."
It hadn't hurt: her knife was sharp, and she had been quick. Severus looked at the thin streaks of red running along his wrist, then in her eyes.
"I think it's all right, now." She lifted off her arm; the rivulets of blood were already drying up. She smiled at him, relieved.
Severus pulled his sleeve down. "Let's go." He couldn't wait to reach the safety of the dungeons.
"For Merlin's sake! As if I hadn't had enough trouble yesterday with Black's leeks and Potter's horns! It's a good thing they're already out of the hospital wing or I would have had to confiscate all your wands! Drink your Pepperup, Mr. Snape, or I'll have to double the dose."
Severus grimaced as he swallowed the potion. It was a good thing his nose was still blocked.
"And you, Miss Evans, go to your dormitory! He needs rest and so do you. You could have caught your deaths, both of you!"
Lily nodded and, with a last glance at Sev, went quietly out.
Severus leaned back; his head was beginning to swim and fill with billowy clouds. Madam Pomfrey fluffed his pillows and retreated to her office, still muttering about stupid giants and would-be Aurors.
The walls were white, and the window in front of him was white, too, but it was a living sort of white. There was snow sifting down from the skies again, very fine and very thick, a vertical, unhurried veil that covered everything else like dust from the wings of a white moth, falling forever.
The smoke was beginning to drift out of his ears; he waved his hand to dispell the wispy fumes in front of his eyes.
We are of the same blood, you and I.