Harry knew he had to wait till nightfall to have any hope of getting the boys out of there without risking their lives. It was a good thing he had learned how to be patient during his years as a professor. He scraped out a sort of depression in the ground near the camp, where he could see and hear all that went on within the camp. He settled in it, sitting quietly with his cloak shrouding him. It had taken him almost a whole day to find the boys, he knew Ginny would be frantic if they didn't come home for supper, but right now he had to wait until sunset. Darkness would make the centaurs more vulnerable and he would need the edge, even with his cloak.
Fury burned the back of his throat when he heard the centaurs ordering about Severus and Alby like house elves.
"Fetch me my jar of honey, boy, before I give you more of Mr. Swish there!" barked Kyletes.
Harry's eyes narrowed and he felt his throat go tight from restraining himself as he saw the centaur wave the willow switch at Severus. What had the centaur meant, more of it? Surely the damned creature hadn't . . . whipped Severus? Harry thought, sickened. Severus didn't act like he was afraid of the centaur, he went to the large lean to and opened a pack and pulled out the jar of honey and a spreader, but Harry noted he moved far less quickly than usual and seemed to be favoring his left leg slightly. Harry felt ill, and guilt swamped him, because he had promised Severus no one would ever mistreat him the way Tobias had done in his old life. But now it had happened, all because Harry hadn't found them fast enough, and he felt the acid taste of failure sting the back of his throat, colored with a searing rage that the bastard had dared to lay a hand upon one of his own. That one he had a special punishment in mind, Harry thought grimly. Hard on the heels of that thought came regret. Severus, I'm so sorry. I came too late and you paid the price for it. But I'll make it up to you somehow.
He watched as Kyletes took the jar and the spreader from Severus, aiming a half-hearted cuff at the boy's head, which Severus ducked neatly. The centaur began spreading honey thickly on slices of wheat bread and eating them messily, without offering any to either the female centaur or to the boys, who were drooling hungrily. Harry felt his heart ache at the sight, it reminded him sharply of his childhood at Privet Drive, when Dudley would eat cake or ice cream right in front of him, and he would never be allowed to have so much as a taste. The unfairness made him as angry now as it had then.
Nobody should starve a child!
He felt a strong urge to reveal himself and curse Kyletes to bits. But again he held himself back. There could be more centaurs lurking about and he would lose the advantage of surprise if he revealed his hand so soon.
Soon Kyletes was bellowing at Megara to bring him the leather sack that rested on a hook inside the lean to. Megara snorted angrily, swishing her tail, but obeyed and fetched the leather sack, which had a narrow neck and a circular stopper. Harry was almost certain it contained alcohol.
Kyletes poured a measure of some sort of whitish liquid into a metal cup and drank it down. "Ahh! Nectar of the gods is kumiss! Nothing else like it."
He gulped down another cup. Kumiss was made from mare's milk, Harry knew that from his studies. It was very potent and Harry hoped the greedy centaur would drink enough to pass out. Just then there came the thunder of hooves and two other centaurs raced into the camp.
"Kyletes, who said you could start the party without us?" a piebald stallion whinnied.
"Yeah, where have you been keeping the skin of kumiss?" asked the second one.
"Quit yer bellyachin' and report. Any sign of the wizard?" growled their leader.
"It's dead as a tomb out there," said Auletes. "That's why we came in by the fire. We're hungry and thirsty." He turned and bellowed over his shoulder. "Ho, Megara, you wench! Fix me something to eat!"
Harry waited for the female centaur to tell the obnoxious male to get his own dinner, but she wearily nodded and dished out some kind of grain and meat stew in a large bowl and brought it to him, along with another cup, which Kyletes filled with kumiss from the goat skin he carried. The other centaur was served in a similar fashion, only after they were all slurping and belching did Megara silently take some stew for herself and give the boys some too, along with chunks of bread smeared with honey, and cups of water.
"Eat, and be quick about it." She ordered gruffly, her eyes darting about warily. "Then best you get into the lean to and get some sleep. Himself won't be wantin' ya anymore tonight."
She turned away at another snarled command to fetch a second skin of kumiss. "Bloody sots!" she grumbled.
The boys ate hungrily, though Alby whined to Severus, "This tastes funny, Sevvy. I don't really like it."
"Just eat it, Al. Beggars can't be choosers," Severus sighed, eating his own portion.
"I'm not a beggar," objected his brother.
"It's all we're going to get, so quit being picky," Severus elaborated.
Alby huffed. "Okay, I'm eating," he grumbled. "But Mummy and Daddy cook better." He blew on the stew and swallowed some. Then he took a bite of the bread. "But the bread's good. I like honey."
"Wonderful. Now hush!" Severus ordered rather irritably. "We don't want them to notice us." He knew better than to draw attention to himself when there were drunken men about, even centaurs. He was also beginning to stiffen and his bottom and thighs were throbbing like seven hells. It was drawing on to dusk, and he hoped Harry would make his move soon. He didn't want to spend the night with these drunken fools.
He cast a glance surreptitiously behind him, but couldn't see anything. Which was how it should be. He gently drew Alby towards the smaller lean to, closest to the thick screen of brush surrounding the glade. The little boy had finished most of his portion and drank his water.
"Sevvy, I'm still thirsty."
"Here, finish mine," Severus sighed, and handed Alby his half full cup of water. He had finished all of his stew, it wasn't half-bad, and he'd grown up going hungry half the time, so he didn't believe in wasting food. He gave the rest of his bread to Alby as well.
Alby happily devoured it, getting all sticky in the process. "Uh oh. I need to wash my hands."
Severus rolled his eyes. "Anything else you need to do?"
"Uh huh. I need to go potty." Alby whimpered. "Sevvy, where's the bathroom?"
Severus should have expected that. "There isn't any, Alby. We're with centaurs, and they go like horses do, anywhere they are."
"They do? But I'm not a horse!" Alby squirmed. "I gotta go bad."
"Shhh. Come on, over here in back of the lean to." Severus led Alby to a spot somewhat behind the lean to, where a tall tree was. "All right, go ahead."
Alby looked dubious. "Right here?"
The little boy fumbled with his jeans. "Sevvy . . . my zipper's stuck."
"Oh, for the love of . . ." Severus groaned, then moved to help his brother. "There! Pee on the tree."
He turned his back to give the small boy privacy.
A few moments later, Alby called, "Sevvy, I'm all done. Can you help me zip up?"
Severus did, then he dipped a corner of his shirt in the horse trough and wiped Alby's hands and face. "Okay, now let's go and lie down in the lean to. We've got maybe an hour and a half till the sun sets."
"But Sevvy . . . I don't wanna sleep here! I wanna sleep in my bed. With Bucky. I never sleep without Bucky!" Alby started to cry.
Alarmed, Severus grabbed the little boy and clasped him to his chest, pressing Alby's face into his shirt front. The centaurs were three sheets to the wind, or so it sounded, but Severus had known his father to be the same way and still manage to get up and backhand his son into a wall. "Albus Severus, stop it right now!" he ordered sternly. "I know you want to go home, and so do I, but we can't, and you have to make the best of it for now. Understand? You keep on wailing like a big baby and Kyletes will come over and use Mr. Swish on you and then you'll really have something to cry about! And there won't be a damn thing I can do about it."
Severus didn't like scaring the child this way, but he was terrified one of the centaurs would notice and grow irritated with the four-year-old for crying. His father never could abide it when boys cried, a fact which he had impressed upon Severus by the time he was five. Severus had a feeling that these centaurs were of the same mold as Tobias and despised tears as a sign of weakness. Severus knew Harry was somewhere close by, and he just needed to keep Alby in one piece until Harry made his move.
Keeping the little boy's face pressed into his shirt, Severus guided Alby into the lean to he'd chosen and lay down on the grass, which made a pretty comfortable bed. He pulled Alby down with him.
The four-year-old was still sniffling and then he began to cough. He pushed away from Severus and sat up, his face a mess of tears and said softly, "Don't call me a baby! I'm a big boy!"
"Good. Then start acting like it," Severus said in a more mild tone. "Don't let them see you cry, otherwise they'll hurt you. They think boys who cry are wimpy little brats." He found a rag hanging on a hook in the lean to and handed it to his brother. "Wipe your eyes and blow your nose."
Alby obeyed, then he snuggled down in the grass. "Sevvy, do you think my daddy's looking for us?"
"Yes. And he'll find us too." Severus whispered. "Just be patient." He turned on his side, it was far too painful to sleep on his back, one arm across Alby. "Go to sleep."
Soon his ears were filled with Alby's soft breathing and Severus felt himself begin to drift off too. It had been an exhausting day and he was tired.
By the time the sun set, the three stallions were roaring drunk, even a centaur's unique metabolism was not immune to the potent kick of fermented mare's milk. By then they were throwing daggers at the trees and betting who could hit a knothole at five paces. None of them could, they were so crosseyed from kumiss. Megara rolled her eyes and settled down beside the fire, she had no lean to and didn't dare try and sleep in one of the stallions', they might think she was offering herself to them. Megara hated all of them and would have sooner mated with a pig. Besides, the fire offered warmth and safety, if one of the stallions tried to paw her, she could throw hot coals at them.
She looked over at Kyletes' lean to, where the two slave boys were curled up. She could almost feel sorry for them. But then she turned away. Pity was wasted on them, they belonged to Kyletes now and he was a harsh master. There was nothing she could do about it, even if she had dared to let herself feel compassion for them. She had learned the hard way that she could afford to care about no one save herself. Poor brats were in for a hard life, but then, that was what happened to stupid little boys who strayed from the castle and the protection of their wizard father. Then again, maybe they would get lucky and their famous father would rescue them. Megara snorted. Right, and the moon would come down from the sky and dance a jig. She shrugged and tucked her head down on her forelegs. An instant later she was asleep, despite the drunken revels going on.
Harry waited until the female centaur was asleep, and one of the two stallions was snoring as well. Only the piebald and the chestnut were still awake and they were so drunk they barely remembered their own names. Still he waited, until the moon was high, and then he crept from his hiding spot and went to where the boys were sleeping. He threw back his hood and woke Severus first.
Severus woke instantly, and when he saw Harry, he gave the tall wizard a smile of relief.
"Shh! Don't say anything," Harry cautioned. Then he gently shook Alby awake.
Alby woke after a few moments and Harry clamped a hand over his mouth before the little boy could scream his name. "Alby, listen to me. You have to be very quiet. Understand?"
Alby nodded, and threw his arms about Harry's neck. Harry removed his hand and patted his little son's back. "Daddy, you found us!" Alby whispered into his ear. "Can we go home now?"
"Yes. But first you need to go hide with Sevvy." Harry explained. "Severus, take the cloak and walk down to the right of the camp. Don't worry, I'll find you. But I need you to get away from here before I teach these bastards a lesson." He removed his cloak and swirled it around Severus and Alby. The cloak magically shrank to fit them.
"Daddy, are you gonna beat them with Mr. Swish? Like Kyletes did to Sevvy?" asked Alby. "He was real mean to us!"
Harry's eyes blazed. "Something like that, son. Now you go with Sevvy. Hurry!"
Severus clutched Alby's hand and drew the hood of the cloak over his head, Instantly he disappeared and when he tugged Alby beneath the cloak, so did his brother. He carefully led Alby out of the glade and to the right, as Harry had instructed.
Severus almost wished he could have stayed and seen Harry enact his revenge upon Kyletes, but he knew Alby didn't need to see his dad go ballistic, the poor child had seen enough violence that day. So he kept silent and walked onward, making sure Alby stayed close.
Alby stumbled along sleepily, clinging to his big brother's arm. He was so glad his daddy had come at last! And he hadn't seemed mad at all. Except with the centaurs. Alby couldn't wait to go home and sleep in his warm bed and be hugged and kissed by his mummy. He yawned. Suddenly he felt a familiar urge and he poked Severus.
"Sevvy . . . I gotta pee."
Severus groaned. "Merlin, Alby! Only you would have to go in the middle of a rescue mission! Can't you hold it?"
"No . . . I always have to pee when I wake up at night," his brother told him. "Sorry."
"Never mind," Severus said exasperatedly, and dragged Alby over to a convenient tree. This was why he'd never had kids the first time around.
Harry pointed his wand and coals from the fire suddenly whirled up and around into the air before shooting themselves at the three drunken stallions. The fiery projectiles stung their chests and haunches, making them scream and spring to their hooves.
"Ow! What in nine hells?"
"My tail's on fire!" one shrieked and galloped off to douse it in the stream.
"Who did that?" neighed Kyletes blearily.
"I did," Harry said, his eyes burning as hot as the coals he'd just thrown at them. He stalked forward, wand at the ready.
"Who the hell are you?" demanded Kyletes.
"My name is Harry Potter. Maybe you recognize me? Even if you don't, it doesn't matter. What does matter is that you kidnapped my boys and hurt them. Nobody hurts my kids and gets away with it."
"You think you can take us, wizard?" sneered Auletes, full of false courage.
Harry gave him a mirthless smile. "I don't think so, centaur. I know so."
He gestured with a hand in a flinging motion. The earth suddenly rose up in a wave, like an ocean of mud and slammed into the two stallions, knocking them off their feet and half-burying them in sludge.
They screamed and tried to get away, but the mud was heavy and they could only pull themselves halfway from it.
Megara awoke at the sound of their distress, but made no move to help them. She simply remained where she was, she would not risk drawing the wrath of Harry Potter down on her head. Besides, those fools deserved whatever they got. Kyletes especially.
"How does it feel, centaur, to be helpless and frightened?" Harry asked, his tone low and deadly. "Do you like it?"
"No, great wizard!" blubbered Auletes as he strained to pull free of the clinging mud. "Please, show mercy!"
"Why? Did you show mercy to my children?" Harry demanded coldly. "Don't bother lying. I watched how you treated them tonight. You treated them like dogs and worse. You beat one of them. You're nothing but disgusting bullies who deserve a taste of your own medicine. And I'm about to give you some."
"If you're going to kill us, at least let us die standing up," argued Kyletes.
Harry sneered. "No. I'm not going to kill you, that would be too easy. Instead I'm going to do this."
He waved his wand in a complex pattern and hissed something in Latin.
Suddenly Kyletes and Auletes began to shift and change, their bodies shrinking and becoming small and hairless. Within moments they were no longer centaurs, but small boys, one with red hair in braids and the other with dark hair, around five or six. They were stark naked.
"Ahh! What have you done to us, wizard?" cried Kyletes in horror. "We're . . . humans!"
"That's right. Human boys . . . just like those you steal away and make slaves."
"Change us back! We can't live like this!" bawled Auletes.
"Yes, you can. You just won't like it much." Harry declared. He turned and called over to Megara, who was now staring at the newly transformed stallions with a cold interest. "You there, what's your name?"
"Megara," she replied, rising.
"I noticed that these two seemed to think you were at their beck and call. Is that how Diomedians treat all their women?"
"Not always. Just the arrogant ones like Kyletes and his friend here. They think they're the Great Mare's gift to centaurs. And I'm just an orphan with no family to give me rank."
"I see. How would you like some new servants?"
Megara's eyes gleamed. "I would love it."
Kyletes shouted, "No! You can't do this! I am Kyletes, son of the Chief Stallion! I refuse to be a slave to her!"
"Me neither!" said Auletes, crossing his arms over his chest.
Megara's eyes narrowed. "It doesn't matter whose sons you are. Now you're nothing but whiny human brats, and I am a centaur filly."
"They're all yours," Harry said. "Treat them exactly how they treated you . . . and my boys."
"With pleasure!" Megara laughed softly. Then she picked up the willow switch from the ground. "Get moving and fix up my lean to. I want the grass so thick inside I feel like I'm sleeping on air. Well, what are you waiting for? Maybe you need a taste of this?" She cracked the switch hard across their bare behinds.
They yelled and began running to do what she said.
"What about Pyrrhus?" she asked Harry.
"The gray fellow? Did he harm you or the children?"
"No. He just watched mostly."
"Then he can get off with a singed tail and looking like a coward."
"Why don't you ask Megara about how she tripped your precious child?" Kyletes shrilled.
Harry gave the filly a sharp glance. Megara looked away. "Is that true? You tripped my son?"
"Yes. I . . .I shouldn't have . . . but I was taught humans are beneath us . . . it was cruel of me . . ."
Harry scowled. Then he pointed his wand and a giant pair of shears appeared and cut off most of Megara's flowing tail. He had learned from his former teacher Firenze that cutting off a centaur's tail was very shameful. "Maybe that will remind you to not be cruel to small boys." Harry said.
"How long will they be human?" Megara asked, blushing.
"Until I or another wizard as strong as I am breaks the spell, or they learn their lesson about bullying helpless children," Harry replied. "I have to be going now. Tell your chief that this is what happens when anyone touches the sons of Harry Potter."
Then he turned on his heel and left the glade, using his tracking spell to find where Severus and Alby had hidden.
Once he had located them, he took back the Invisibility Cloak and picked them both up. "I want to get far away from here before I talk to you both and heal you," he explained. "And that means I need to move fast."
"Daddy, did the bad centaurs get in trouble?" Alby asked, clinging to his father.
"Yes, they sure did. They won't be hurting anyone ever again," Harry told him, satisfaction edging his tone. He re-cast the Swift Foot spell and began to run, this time using the tracking spell to guide him to Hagrid's hut and out of the forest.
The gamekeeper was not at home, he was away visiting his relatives in giant country as his half-brother Grawp was getting married, so Harry used the hut to clean up both boys as best he could. Alby was easy, Harry simply cast a Freshen Up charm over him, and gave him a big mug of hot cocoa.
"There! Feel better?"
Alby nodded, then he asked softly, "Daddy, am I in trouble for running away and chasing the snake? Are you gonna spank me?"
Harry knelt and ran his fingers through his youngest's hair. "While it was wrong of you to wander off without telling me where you were going, and normally you would get a few swats for it, I think the centaurs kidnapping you and your brother is enough of a punishment. I don't think you'll ever forget it or do it again, will you?"
"No," Alby shook his head rapidly. His arms came about Harry and he snuggled with him.
Harry held the little boy for a few moments, figuring that when he got back home, he would give Alby Dreamless Sleep tonight. The poor thing looked exhausted. "All right, son. Now I need you to sit here and drink your cocoa while I go and help your brother."
Alby slipped back onto his chair and said seriously, "That bad centaur hurt Sevvy, Daddy. He was gonna hit me with Mr. Swish only Sevvy wouldn't let him."
"I know. Sevvy's a good big brother, Alby." Harry ruffled his son's hair and rose. Then he went to find Severus, who had insisted on washing up himself in Hagrid's back bedroom. Harry had found a small container of wound healing paste and took it with him. He tapped gently on the door. "Sev? May I come in?"
He heard a muffled sound and took it for assent, opening the door and walking into the bedroom, which was lit by a single glowing magic lantern. The five-year-old was standing in just his underwear in front of a large basin of water, trying to scrub away the grime. "Hey. Need some help?" Harry asked softly, closing the door behind him. He turned the lamp up so he could see better.
Severus turned to look at him. "I feel all dirty," he said. "I need a bath, Harry."
"Yeah, I imagine a bath would feel real good on those welts, huh?" Harry stated, coming to sit down beside the child on the floor.
Severus stiffened, a rosy flush covering his face. "Alby told you."
"He did, but I have eyes and ears, Severus. I knew before he said anything what they'd done to you. And I'm sorry I couldn't get to you in time to protect you," Harry said sincerely, guilt slamming him in the chest again. "I promised this would never happen again and now look at you."
Severus stared at the other wizard, speechless. He could see the guilt written all over Harry's face and it astonished him. "But . . . you can't blame yourself for this, Harry."
"No? I should have been keeping a better eye on you two."
Severus shook his head. "It's not your fault Alby ran off. I should have told you where I was going. Who knew those centaurs would come along and kidnap us? It was just bad timing and circumstance. You don't have anything to feel guilty for. You rescued us."
Harry sighed. "There is that. But you protected Alby when I couldn't. Just like you did for me when I was a teenager."
Severus looked embarrassed. "You Potters always need looking after."
"And you've always been there for us," Harry said. "Thanks for being such a good big brother to Alby."
"You don't need to thank me for that!" Severus said, sounding slightly insulted. "I would never stand there and watch someone smaller than me get hurt like that. Not anymore," he declared fiercely. "I'm not a spy anymore. And that's what big brothers are for—to protect their younger siblings. You ought to know that, Harry."
Harry chuckled slightly at the faint scolding tone. "I know, Sevvy. Alby's lucky to have you for his brother." Then he reached out and swept the boy into a hug, pulling him onto his lap. "And I'm proud to have you as a member of my family, Severus Snape."
Those simple words touched something deep inside the lonely little boy. He could tell Harry truly meant them and was not just saying them. Family. Severus could not remember the last time he had felt as if he truly belonged to a family, not since his mother had passed the Veil. Since returning, he had felt like an outsider, despite all of the Potters' efforts to make him feel welcome. But no longer. Now he felt a warm glow surge through him, and he knew then that he had finally found acceptance, and a family at last. It both frightened and comforted him. Because now he had something to lose, but also something to love.
Words could not express the depth of his feelings, so Severus did not bother speaking them. Instead he hugged Harry as hard as he could, burying his face in the other's shoulder. Tears came to his eyes, tears of joy and relief, and unlike all the other times, he did not fight them, but allowed them to fall, drenching Harry's shirt.
Harry was overwhelmed as well with emotion, and he simply held Severus and rocked him, rubbing his back and murmuring, "It's all right, Sev. I'm here for you, always. You'll never be alone again. You're like my son, and I love you like I do Albus."
Severus sobbed softly and shook his head. That didn't seem possible. "How can you?" he mumbled into Harry's ear.
Harry smiled and stroked the boy's raven hair rhythmically. "Because family is more than just blood, and love doesn't care about any of that, it simply is. That's how I can love you and Alby both, Sev. Because love is forever and always, without beginning or end."
"Who taught you that?" Severus sniffled.
"You did," Harry answered.
"Me?" Severus lifted his head and stared into Harry's emerald eyes.
"Because that's how you loved my mother."
"Oh," was all Severus could manage to say.
Harry coughed, then said, "Now how about you let me fix you up? If I bring you home like this, Ginny will hand me my head. Not that she won't anyhow for being late for supper."
"So why don't you send her a Patronus?" Severus asked reasonably.
"Hmm . . . yeah, I could do that," Harry agreed. He summoned the white stag and sent it off with a wave of his wand. "All right, let's see what that bastard did to you." He gently banished the underwear and then snarled several curse words as he saw the vivid stripes crisscrossing the small bottom and thighs. "I should have beaten the lousy scum myself instead of just making him become a human with Megara as his mistress."
"I've had a lot worse," Severus commented, letting Harry coax him into lying on his lap.
"I don't care!" Harry objected. "I knew he'd . . . beaten you, but I never thought . . . bloody hell, Severus! Some of these were bleeding!" Harry gently began to wash the welts with the soft wet cloth.
Severus sucked in a breath, for he was still very tender. "That's what . . . usually happens when . . . you get hit with . . . a willow switch . . ." He wriggled a little. "A belt's worse . . . trust me."
Harry nearly cried upon hearing that matter-of-fact tone. "Sorry if I'm hurting you. I'm trying not to."
"I know," Severus replied through clenched teeth. Despite himself, a few tears escaped, but Harry was very gentle, gentler than most Healers.
Finally, Harry was finished cleaning the welts and then he spread the wound healing paste on, smiling sadly at the child's gasp of relief. "There! How's that feel?"
"Much better," Severus replied. "I'll be healed in a day or two with that." He could feel the magical salve working, it tingled and soothed the raw skin, numbing and healing on contact. He climbed off Harry's lap.
"You can have a long soak in the tub when we get back home," Harry promised, and conjured new underwear and freshened up Severus' clothing before helping the boy dress.
They went out into the main room of the hut and found Alby asleep with his head on the table.
"He's worn out," Harry said,smiling.
"So am I," said Severus, smothering a yawn.
"Me too," Harry agreed, then he gathered up Alby and asked Severus, "Want me to carry you?"
Severus considered. He normally disliked being picked up and hauled about like a sack of potatoes. He had legs and could walk perfectly fine. But tonight . . . tonight he was out on his feet. He held out his arms. "Yes, please."
Harry lifted him gently and held him close.
Then they all went home to Godric's Hollow.
When Harry opened the front door he found Ginny on the other side, looking haggard and frazzled. "Hi, honey, I'm home."
"Harry James Potter, where in Merlin's name have you been?"