Severus Snape had always known that his Animagus form would be black, sleek and dangerous, but this was the first time he was glad that it was only eight inches long. He waded through the pool of blood, past the bundle of robes that he had transfigured into a reasonable simulacrum of his own body, and scuttled off into a corner to hide and get his breath back. His cephalothorax hurt and he felt dizzy with a combination of shock, venom, blood-loss and indignation.
The Dark Lord had been predictably ungrateful, Potter inevitably foolhardy and gullible and here he was, Severus Snape, unexpectedly alive and kicking every one of his eight feet in frustration. He hadn't fought and spied for all those years, just to waltz off and start a new life without ever knowing the outcome. You couldn't save someone's hide that many times and then send him to die without at least wanting to know if the damned plan had worked.
Oh shit he said, or at least made an irate clicking noise with his mouthparts. He had no intention of changing back into Snape-form and risking either side finding out that he had actually survived, but he needed to know.
He slid between two splintery floorboards and began cleaning his feet, wishing that he had thought to bring the bottle of Ogden's from his desk.
Snape jerked awake at the sound of footsteps and peered out of his hidey-hole. Tiny beams of sunlight pierced the warped planks of the wall, dancing with dust motes and scattering light across the black huddle of the pseudo-Snape.
"Oh, Professor Snape," sighed Longbottom, stopping in the doorway. From Snape's vantage point in the floor, he appeared both monstrous and familiar, looming like a giant. Judging by his lack of surprise, Longbottom had been sent here to collect Snape's corpse. Snape found himself mildly glad that the boy — no, man had survived. Longbottom had grown more backbone in the last year than many of the Death Eaters had ever possessed. "I'm sorry," Longbottom said. "Harry told us all about you. I'm so sorry you didn't live long enough to know."
Know what, you idiot? but Longbottom was impervious to Snape's silent urging. He Banished the puddle of dried blood - Snape had cast Engorgio until it had reached a convincing enough size to have been lost by someone bleeding to death, because details mattered when hoodwinking Dark Lords - and Levitated the corpse. Longbottom paused as he turned to leave. "Professor Snape? If you're still here, if you can hear me, Harry says you're the bravest man he's ever met. He said to say that, in case your ghost is still hanging around. We're going to give you a hero's funeral."
If my ghost was here, you could at least tell it who bloody won!
As Longbottom paused to manoeuvre the body through the doorway, Snape scuttled across the floor and seized the hem of his robe with his pincers. Fuelled by annoyance and frustration, he pulled himself up until he was in no danger of being knocked off as the robe brushed against the steps or doorways. Snape dug in his claws, locking them tightly.
Longbottom's robe swung as he walked, making it hard for Snape to hang on. He wondered if arthropods suffered from motion sickness, or whether he felt sick because he was still thinking like a human. He felt too giddy and ill to look around as Longbottom Levitated the dead Snape all the way back to Hogwarts, although he did get a glimpse of the terrible damage to the front of the castle. How odd to think that this was no longer his problem. He had expected to feel nothing but relief when he finally gave up the responsibility for Hogwarts, yet there was a strange void inside him. The dungeons had been his home for so long. He wondered if Slughorn was still around to look after his Slytherins.
"Och, so Harry was right; he's dead, then." Minerva McGonagall's brogue was always stronger when she was under stress. Longbottom halted as Professors McGonagall, Flitwick, Slughorn and Sprout came hurrying through the entrance lobby. "I wish that I hadn't accused him of being a coward."
"If only we'd known," Flitwick squeaked.
Slughorn patted him heavily on the shoulder, making the tiny man stagger. "He would have failed if we'd comprehended his actions, because the Death Eaters would have realised too. He was a great spy, Filius, the greatest hero Slytherin has ever produced."
"Trust you to turn this into a house issue," Sprout muttered, then said more loudly, "Longbottom, put the poor fellow in the Great Hall with Lupin and Weasley and the others, there's a good chap. I'll come and tidy him up later."
Weasley? Lupin? Snape twitched the folds of the lightweight summer robe together over himself as Longbottom walked past the heads of the four houses. Their contrite words ought to have made him feel smug, but all he could do was wonder who else had died.
He dropped silently to the floor as Longbottom arranged the body neatly beside that of the werewolf and his Auror wife, and he was close enough to hear as Longbottom whispered, "Goodbye, sir. You were a bastard, but you were a very brave bastard. We're grateful to you."
Snape skittered across the stone floor, dodging between the bodies and gazing up at the profiles of staff and Aurors, students and their parents. So many people had given their lives.
Eventually he came to a side room where they had placed the corpses of Bellatrix Lestrange, the decapitated Nagini, and Voldemort himself. Snape crept close, staring up at the white, scaly monstrosity that had ruled his life for so long. He imagined that the venom gland in his tail ached with a need to plunge into that hated flesh, but in the end, he turned his back. Ex-Death Eater he might be, but he would not stoop to mutilating the dead.
He sneaked back to the Great Hall, skirting the walls and keeping to the shadows. Someone had left a copy of the Daily Prophet and a mug of tea on one of the window ledges. Snape clambered up the wall, his clawed feet finding purchase on the uneven stones, and stared at the front page.
Harry Potter Triumphant! screamed the headline in pulsating six-inch letters. The weight of the mug prevented Snape from unfolding the paper to read the details.
Before he could leave to get on with the rest of his life, he needed to know if the wretched boy had survived the experience.
By the time Snape had climbed one of the legs of the Gryffindor House table and wedged himself securely between two of the struts, he was exhausted. Then he realised that people were no longer sitting together in their allocated houses; they were all jumbled together, humans and house-elves and centaurs and ghosts, the hum of their voices punctuated by the exclamations of relief as friends and relatives met, and the grieving of the newly bereaved.
"Harry!" The cries rose to a roar and Snape would have sighed, if he had possessed lungs. "Harry Potter! He's here! Harry!"
So the hero had returned, indubitably alive. Snape grudgingly admitted to himself that this time, maybe Potter did deserve a little of the adulation.
"I didn't do it all alone, you know." There was that irritatingly familiar voice. "If it hadn't been for Ron and Hermione and Neville...." Then, in a lull in the conversation, Snape heard his own name. "- and of course Severus Snape made it possible. No, he was Dumbledore's man. Yeah, I know, he was a git, but he was always on our side. What? He did everything he could do protect the school.... I bet he selected the Carrows himself."
The dippy Ravenclaw remarked, "They were evil. I think they were possessed by Nargles, myself."
"Course they were evil, but they were stupid, weren't they? He knew you'd all run rings round them. They were too thick to suspect him, too."
Really, Potter? Did you actually find a brain on your travels?
Snape began to move through the forest of legs, struts, tablecloth hems and chairs that made up the unexpected world beneath the great refectory tables. When he came across a fat spider hanging from a web, he snatched it without a second thought and jabbed it with his tail, injecting sufficient venom to incapacitate it. Only as he settled down to dismember it with his claws and then suck out its insides, did he realise how satisfying it was to act entirely on instinct. He was beginning to understand how Minerva came to spend so much time as a cat and why the castle contained so few mice.
Potter's cohorts veered between jubilation and grief, but the hero himself seemed subdued. He went off with his two partners in crime for a while. When he returned, he muttered something about going to bed.
Snape sneered, or at least he twitched his mouthparts into an arthropod equivalent. No doubt only the presence of Molly was preventing the boy from taking that wretched Weasley girl with him to celebrate in truly epic style. Was the victory so absolute that the forces of the Light could risk allowing their hero to wander off alone? Apparently so. Potter made a yawning promise to speak to everyone later and stated that he was going to sleep in the Gryffindor Tower.
Once again, Snape made a totally arbitrary decision. He scuttled along the wooden strips that braced the underside of the table, dropped down onto Potter's thigh and slithered into the pocket of his robe. Only when Potter stood up, did Snape wonder what he had done.
The pocket contained a grubby handkerchief, Potter's wand and the scent of young male. Snape could smell him, the rich, fresh odour of his sweat, the underlying musk of his body, no doubt unaccustomed to soap and water during his time on the run. He had never been this close to Harry Potter, inches from the youth's baggy ill-fitting jeans. He hooked his claws into the fabric of the robe and wondered at the strange, subtle quivering in his insides. Maybe it was the after-effect of Nagini's venom, in spite of the antivenin potion he had been taking for the last few months.
Potter climbed up the stairs into the Gryffindor common room and then up into the tower, Snape feeling decidedly queasy and wondering whether a mass of regurgitated spider-guts in Potter's pocket would constitute a fit revenge for all the years of defiance and stress. At last, Potter pulled off his robe, draped it over the end of one of the four-poster beds and toed off his shoes. He stripped down to his grubby underpants and climbed into the bed. Snape extricated himself from the robe with some difficulty and settled down on the coverlet to watch over the wretched boy, as he had watched for so long.
Snape heard the sounds of someone being very, very quiet. He felt the subtle vibrations as they crept across the floor, sensed the movement of the air and came fully alert, poised on tip-toe, as robes whispered around a stealthy body. The faint moonlight from the window outlined a lumpy shape and Snape recognised the profile of Alecto Carrow as she crept across the bedroom.
He slithered down the bedclothes, landing on the rug, and ran as fast as he could across the floor. Luckily, she wore slippers and she was moving very slowly and carefully. He ran towards her, launched himself at one heavy foot, scrambled up the fabric of her slipper and plunged the tip of his tail into her ankle, snapping his claws shut on her skin for good measure.
She screamed, overbalanced and clutched at her leg, knocking Snape flying across the floor and into the wall. Potter yelled something and groped for his wand, and by the time he had lit the lamps, Snape had flattened himself and slid under the dressing table.
Snape watched with interest as Carrow clutched her rapidly swelling limb, rolling around on the floor in obvious agony.
The room quickly filled with Gryffindors.
"What did you do to her, Harry?" Ron Weasley efficiently immobilised the whimpering Death Eater.
"Nothing! I woke up when she yelled."
"She must still have staff access permissions," McGonagall said, peering at Carrow's leg with a distinct lack of sympathy. "It looks as if she's been stung or bitten by something venomous. Longbottom, Weasley and Weasley, take her to the infirmary and ask Madam Pomfrey to identify the cause of the problem, then call the Aurors to collect her while I ensure that no other fugitive Death Eaters have access to any part of the castle. I'm sorry about this, Harry, but you'd better not remain while there's a poisonous creature lurking around in the tower."
"It had plenty of opportunity to attack me when I was asleep," Potter said calmly. "It chose to attack her, while she was obviously here for less than friendly purposes. I'll put up a ward before I go back to sleep. Anyway, she doesn't seem to be dying. It might just be a wasp."
"A bit powerful for a wasp sting," Longbottom pointed out. "Look, you can see where it struck, there's a hole. We'll do a sweep of the room when we get back, Harry."
Potter watched as they trooped out, Levitating the groaning Carrow before them, then he looked around and said calmly "Are you still in here? My friends will find you when they get back, so you might as well come out now."
On balance, Snape thought that he could probably evade them, but he was tired and crotchety and his cephalothorax still ached. His best chance of remaining with Potter and ensuring that the idiot didn't get splattered by rogue Death Eaters, would be to reveal himself voluntarily. He hauled himself out from beneath the dressing table and scuttled across the bedside rug until he stood in the circle of light from Potter's wand.
"Shit," Potter said, staring down. "Well, you're a ferocious-looking little fellow, aren't you?" He pulled his bare feet up onto the bed. "Was it luck, did Carrow just step on you, or are you protecting me?"
Snape lowered his tail and attempted to look innocuous — not that he had much experience to fall back on — then turned to face the door, arched his sting high over his back and raised his claws in the unmistakable threat-posture of his current species.
"Okay.... so you're either a magical scorpion or you're an Animagus. I've had some pretty bad experiences with an insect Animagus — "
Idiot, I'm an arachnid!
"- by the name of Rita Skeeter, so I'll wait till the others get back and see what they think. Does Veritaserum work on insects?"
Arachnids, dolt, and no, it does not work on non-mammalian species. If you had bothered to read your seventh-year potions textbook, you would know that. Oh I forgot, you dropped out of school for some reason, did you not?
"You almost look as if you're trying to talk to me. I wonder what Hagrid would make of you?"
Lily's eyes gazed down at him as Potter folded his legs into a half-lotus position and nibbled at the torn edge of a fingernail.
"My owl was killed in the war, you know. I can't bear the thought of trying to replace her with another owl but I'd like another familiar. Unless you're an Animagus, of course."
Potter, you are blathering. Shut up, I'm exhausted.
"I wonder what you eat? Do you drink water?"
Snape stalked across the rug to the edge of the blanket, dug his feet into the loosely woven cloth and began hauling himself upwards.
"Hang on," Potter shuffled backwards, alarmed. As soon as he reached the level top of the bed, Snape flopped down, stretching out his tail and claws.
"Don't know if we ought to share a bed, if it's all the same to you. I might accidentally squash you and you'd sting me..." Potter grabbed his wand and waited, until the swift, heavy tread reached the top of the stairs and Longbottom and Weasley hurried in.
"Madam Pomfrey says it's the venom of the emperor scorpion, Pandinus imperator. They're not usually lethal to humans but the sting is very painful and — oh."
Potter was pointing at the scorpion lounging on the bed.
"Urgh!" Ron Weasley pulled out his wand and Snape braced himself. "Scorpium evanes — "
"No!" Potter grabbed his wrist. "Don't. It was guarding me."
"Legs," Weasley said with loathing, "claws, pincers, stinger and far too many legs. Yuk."
"How can you tell if it's an Animagus?" Potter asked. Longbottom drew his wand and crinkled his brow in concentration.
"Homenum revelio," he chanted with more optimism than accuracy. If Snape's eyes could roll, they would have revolved in his head.
I'm already revealed, just in another form. Dunderhead.
"Is there a specific charm to force an Animagus to change shape?" Longbottom asked.
"Yeah, I bet Hermione would know. Shall I go and get her?"
Sure enough, when the Know-It-All appeared clad in a dressing gown and a cloud of unruly hair, she pointed her wand and chanted, "Ab animagus adigo!" at him. Snape mentally dug in his claws and gritted his non-existent teeth, clinging to his scorpion-form with all his might. She was a very clever witch but not a particularly powerful one, and Snape had enormous control over his magic and his mind. His body vibrated with effort as he fought to repel her spell, vacillating between forms faster than the human eye could see, but his determination to remain in scorpion-form outweighed her desire to know his true identity. He felt the charm falter, sliding over his carapace like cold water until it dribbled away.
If they had bothered to ask McGonagall to inspect him, he would have had no chance of remaining hidden; but as the old bat had overlooked Pettigrew's presence in the castle for years, he was probably safe for now.
"Seems like I've got a new familiar," Potter said lightly and held out his hand, laying it flat on the bed beside Snape.
"Harry!" Granger exclaimed, while Longbottom muttered dubiously about emperor scorpions not usually being deadly to humans and Weasley groaned.
After all that had happened to him, Potter still possessed such a ridiculous tendency to trust. Snape poked at Potter's thumb with a claw, just to make a point, then climbed onto his hand. Potter lifted him up until they were eye to eye.
"What shall I call you? What's a good name for a scorpion? Shall I call you Voldemort — shit!"
At the mention of the name, Snape automatically arched his tail high over his back and raised his formidable lobster-claws into a fighting stance. Potter's hand jerked and Snape landed ignominiously on his back on the bed. He scrabbled for a moment before righting himself and found himself gently seized around his middle as Potter picked him up and placed him back onto his hand. "Sorry," Potter said, "it's obvious whose side you were on. Were you someone else's familiar?"
Snape was unable to move his head independently from the rest of his body, so he swayed back and forth a couple of times.
"So what is a tropical scorpion doing wandering around Hogwarts, if it isn't an Animagus or a familiar?" Granger pondered, as annoyingly perceptive as ever. "Did you know that the Ancient Romans used to call the constellation Scorpius 'the Lurking One'?"
"Maybe it was going to be used in a Care of Magical Creatures lesson?"
"It isn't a magical creature, Neville. More likely the Carrows were going to use it to scare the firsties," Weasley said darkly.
"He shuddered when you said 'Carrows'," Potter said.
"How d'you know it's a 'he'?"
"Looks like one, for some reason. I'm going to keep him."
"A giant scorpion isn't a very Gryffindor sort of beast to have as a familiar, Harry," Weasley grumbled.
"Because a rat and a toad are so Gryffindor," Potter said, grinning. "It isn't as if he's a baby basilisk, is it? I like him. He's sort of prickly."
"Don't blame me if you get stung."
"I won't get stung." Potter used the tip of his finger to lightly stroke Snape's back. Snape bristled but resisted the urge to teach him a lesson in humility by digging in his sting. He did, however, snap his claws in the air a couple of times. Potter laughed. "Yeah, okay, you don't like being stroked, I get it. You have a lot of dignity for an eight-inch insect, don't you?"
Arachnid! And it depends upon where I'm stroked and by whom...
"Good night, Harry." Longbottom waved vaguely and wandered out, soon followed by Weasley and Granger, hand in hand. Potter placed Snape back onto the bedspread.
"Where d'you want to sleep? I don't want to squash you."
Snape watched as Potter got back into bed, then slid himself under the edge of the blanket where it was folded back on itself. He told himself that he liked warm, dark, confined spaces, and that he got no pleasure from being surrounded by the faint, distinctive scent of Harry Potter, none at all.
Hogwarts had always been infested with cats, toads, owls and sundry familiars and under the present circumstances, the appearance of a large scorpion was hardly likely to raise any eyebrows. The house-elves simply presented Potter with a little jar of crickets alongside his breakfast scrambled eggs on toast, in the same way that Longbottom was provided with mealworms for his toad. Snape crouched on the table, sucking the insides out of a grasshopper and staring at the newspapers spread out around him.
Speak to us, Harry!
We urge Harry Potter to come out of hiding,
"Hiding? I'm at Hogwarts, what's so 'hidden' about that?"
and talk to his anxious admirers. Where is our hero? This is the question on everyone's lips. Is Potter being held against his will by those who wish to influence the young saviour? Read Rita Skeeter's article on page four for further hints as to his whereabouts and the people who want to keep him hidden.
"What a load of bollocks," Weasley proclaimed over a plate of bacon and eggs.
"You'd better speak to her, Harry," Granger said. "Otherwise her speculations will just get wilder and wilder and she'll start interviewing people and asking their opinions. You don't want Malfoy's take on the battle to get published first, do you?"
Snape dropped his grasshopper in the kippers and stared up at the looming Gryffindor faces.
Malfoy? Draco Malfoy's alive? Why didn't anyone tell me? What about his parents?
"Suppose so," Potter sighed. "You're right, it's best to get it out of the way, otherwise God knows what she'll say about me."
Really, Potter, this false modesty is quite unbecoming.
"Hermione, could you help me draft a statement that gives her the general gist of what happened and get her off my back? She might leave me alone then."
"Not much chance of that," Weasley predicted with relish. "She'll want to report on your love-life next."
"Well she can mind her own bloody business. Whether I have a love-life or not is nothing to do with her."
"Harry," Granger said, "Ginny said she wants to be with her parents until Fred's funeral is over, she hopes you understand."
"Course," Potter said, busying himself buttering toast. Even from his vantage point on the table, Snape could see how uncomfortable he appeared. "I'll talk to her after."
"She loves you, Harry," Weasley muttered. Snape shuddered and decided that he had had enough insects.
I would prefer to live in ignorance of the complex sexual politics of Gryffindor House, thank you all the same. Can you please talk about the Malfoys?
"Yeah." Potter did not sound entirely convinced or very enthusiastic.
"Harry!" A group of passing fifth year girls veered towards the table where the Golden Trio sat at breakfast. "Harry, there you are! Can we join you?"
"Harry, can I have your autograph for my little sister?"
"Harry, what was it really like? You know, to kill You-Know-Who?"
Potter groaned and buried his face in his hands. Given the stark choice of vomiting grasshopper innards into the sugar bowl or leaving, Snape chose to scuttle off across the table, slide down the tablecloth onto the bench and from there onto the floor. He had hardly gone three yards before finding himself face-to-face with what appeared to be a small lion, but which on further examination revealed itself to be Granger's hairball of a familiar. The half-kneazle tomcat dabbed cautiously at him with a paw.
Snape suspected that his venom might be sufficient to kill a cat within minutes and he was sorely tempted, but that would put paid to any plans to remain at Potter's side. He waved his tail and snapped his claws in a warning. The beast sat back on its haunches and mewed. A freckled face appeared beneath the table.
"Harry, your horrible pet's about to sting Crookshanks!" Weasley bellowed. Granger's anxious visage joined him.
"Crookshanks? Are you okay?"
The beast leaned to sniff Snape and said "Mrrp" in a satisfied voice.
"He knew Scabbers was really Pettigrew," Granger stated, "or at least that he was up to no good. He says your scorpion's fine, Harry."
Well thank Merlin for that! Accepted into high society at last. Hoo-bloody-rah.
"You haven't given it a name, Harry..."
Snape scuttled off as fast as eight legs could carry him in the direction of the Slytherins.
Clinging to the struts under the table, Snape was able to piece together a very discomforting tale. His House had been given no choice; they had been banished from the school before the battle by Minerva McGonagall without even being given the option to stay and fight. All his work, subtly turning the more intelligent Slytherins like Zabini, Malfoy and Greengrass against the Death Eaters, had been wasted because of the old bat's bigotry! Unable to grind his teeth, he snapped his claws a few times and stabbed the air with his tail. Still, old Slughorn seemed to have accounted reasonably well for himself, and from overhearing Bulstrode and Goyle talking, it appeared that Crabbe had perished, but all three Malfoys had survived, which was on balance a better outcome than he could have expected.
He sauntered back across the Hall, avoiding careless feet and the occasional familiar — an inquisitive hedgehog took one look and beat a hasty retreat — until he returned to the Gryffindor table, only to find Potter and company had already gone. Hoping that the idiot would have the sense to remain with his friends after last night's abortive assassination attempt, Snape decided to investigate the state of the castle.
Snape knew Hogwarts castle very well. He had spent many sleepless nights patrolling the corridors and dungeons, stairways and attics as a member of the staff, and his brief tenure as Headmaster had permitted him access to even more of the castle's secrets. He knew the short cuts that would enable him to bypass the heavily trafficked routes, although he resisted the temptation to turn human in order to tackle the staircases. The portraits and the ghosts were far too ubiquitous and too chatty to permit his presence to remain secret for more then ten minutes if they spotted him. He was waiting to get onto one of the moving staircases when he heard a voice.
"Oo, look, there's ickle Potty's familiar!" Peeves swooped low overhead, cackling madly. "Won't Potty Potter be hopping mad when he finds it drowned in the toilet?"
Snape turned the full force of Legilimency onto the poltergeist.
Don't you dare.
Peeves faltered visibly. He had always treated Snape with a degree of caution, possibly because of his house affiliation with the terrifying Bloody Baron.
"Whooo...." the poltergeist said, feebly. "Wheeee...?"
Snape had a brainwave.
Wouldn't it be fun to put a scorpion in the Headmaster's office?
A moment later, he felt himself swept up by translucent hands as Peeves hurtled upwards, effortlessly navigating the stairways and corridors and carrying Snape along with him.
The gargoyle was lying on its side, gazing blearily at a team of house-elves who were Banishing the rubble and casting cleaning charms at the stairs. Peeves flew above their heads, around the spiral staircase up to the office, where he deposited Snape on the Headmaster's desk and departed again with a fading cackle.
The room was quiet, just the portraits stirring gently in their frames and the distant chatter of the elves. Snape looked around at the office that had briefly been his and was no longer.
"Hello," Dumbledore said quietly. "Peeves back to his old tricks, I see. Is this a surprise for Minerva, or does he imagine that Severus is still in command of the ship?"
"Severus is dead, alas," Phineas Nigellus stated, his high voice reedy with melancholy. "His body lies below, with all the other noble dead."
"Oh don't start that again, Phineas," Dilys Derwent snapped. "We all know that Slytherin has at last produced a hero, you've only told us fourteen times today. Perhaps Snape wanted the creature in order to use its venom in a potion and the delivery was delayed."
"My word, it looks remarkably like Pandinus imperator, how astounding. In my day, we used the venom in a variety of ways — "
"If Severus were alive," Dumbledore stated above the rising voices, "I'm sure that he would be delighted with the final outcome." He was staring at Snape, his painted eyes oddly astute.
"He would be free," Phineas Nigellus muttered. "No more meddling old men to tell him what to do."
"He would be able to follow his heart," Dumbledore said.
"If he ever had one."
"Of course he did. He would just need to find it again." Dumbledore tilted his head to peer over the top of his spectacles at the scorpion. "Off you go, my dear boy. I don't think you want to be here when Minerva arrives, do you? I believe that she is on her way."
Snape would have cursed under his breath if his mouthparts had been capable of forming words. He should not have come here; that scheming old fart was still playing his games from the safety of his portrait.
Dumbledore was right; he did not want to attract McGonagall's attention. She was one of the few people knowledgeable enough to compel him back into his true form.
He dropped down onto the seat of the chair and from there to the floor, out of the door and began the tedious trek down the stairs, lowering himself down over the edge of each step and dropping to the one below. Why the hell couldn't he have been a panther? Even a black mamba would have been preferable to this.
When a hand closed around his mid-section, his knee-jerk reaction was to attempt to sting, only to find that his tail was immobilised.
"Master said to find his scorpion," declared a deep, croaking voice and Snape found that he could move again, and looked up into the face of an ancient, wrinkled house-elf. "Master was worried that his scorpion was lost or damaged." The elf peered closely at him and clicked his tongue, pointing at the place on the side of his cephalothorax where the scaled-down equivalent to Nagini's bite still marred his shiny carapace. Snape felt the elf's alien magic tingling as the damaged tissue sealed shut, and then the elf Apparated directly to Gryffindor Tower and placed him on one of the low chairs in the common room.
Snape slithered from the chair onto the hearthrug and settled down to bask in the warmth of the log fire that was still needed to keep the chill of the stone castle walls at bay. He was, after all, a tropical scorpion.
"Oh, there you are." Potter slung his outdoor robe over the back of the chair. "Another funeral tomorrow, scorpion; Remus and Tonks. It's all just so bloody unfair." He flopped down into the chair and conjured up a glass goblet, filling it with water from his wand. "Do you drink water?" He waved his wand again, producing a saucer, which he floated across to Snape and set down beside him. Snape dipped his mouthparts into the cool liquid and sipped. Potter's wand-work had improved dramatically; the boy had at last achieved the casual competence of an adult wizard.
"They had a son called Teddy," Potter remarked. "Teddy after Tonks' dad, John after Remus. I told them to stay at home, but they insisted on fighting and now the poor kid's an orphan. Well, at least he's got a loving grandmother and godfather who intend to make sure that he gets a decent upbringing. No cupboard under the stairs for him. They died fighting, you know. Kingsley says that everyone who died fighting for us will get an Order of Merlin, Third Class. Apart from Snape."
Snape jerked his face out of the water dish but Potter did not notice; he was staring at something that only he could see. "Kingsley wanted to give him one too, but I kicked up a stink about that. If Hermione, Ron and I deserve orders of Merlin First Class, then so does he."
Thanks, Potter, although I suspect that it is easier to grant someone respect once they appear to be safely deceased.
"If I ever have kids," Potter said, "I'll name one after Dumbledore and Snape. Severus James Albus Potter."
"Severus Albus Potter."
That sounds like a fitting revenge.
"Albus Severus Potter."
Of course. Why didn't I guess?
"I'm off down to the pub now. Just my mates and me, you know, Seamus and Dean, Luna, George, Ron and Hermione, Neville: the old crowd. Don't wait up, will you?"
Absolutely not. Try not to get assassinated.
"Unless you want to come?" Potter held out his hand but Snape pointedly ignored it. An evening surrounded by drunken adolescents listening to Potter expounding on his victory was hardly his idea of a good night out. Come to think of it, for so long his nights out had consisted of Death Eater meetings, that he really did not know what he would do on a jolly. The theatre, perhaps, and a nice meal with an interesting companion.... When he looked up, Potter had gone.
He had already decided to attend Lupin's funeral with Potter. As a teen, he would have delighted in knowing that he was to outlive every one of the Marauders, but he gained no satisfaction from the knowledge now. Lily was long dead. Black and Potter, his prime tormentors, had met violent ends, the traitor Pettigrew had paid for his sins and now the werewolf had gone to meet up with the rest of his pack. Snape's anger at Lupin had worn itself out. There had been so many enemies more deserving of his hatred.
Potter returned from the pub tolerably sober. Snape resumed his place on the bed, intent on ensuring that no more errant Death Eaters gained access to the wretched brat. Of course he trusted Minerva's control of the wards; he just wanted to be quite sure that Potter was safe before either of them left Hogwarts to do whatever they were going to do next.
Potter rose early to shower. Snape carefully did not look as the brat wandered into the bedroom clad only in a towel. He had faced up to his own bisexuality many years ago, but fantasising about Potter, the son of his childhood sweetheart, felt too much like paedophilia. He had never been attracted to children, thank Merlin, so there was no reason for glimpses of Potter's leg, stippled with water droplets, to send shivers through his body. Arachnids certainly had some odd reactions to random stimuli.
Potter, clad in a smart robe and polished boots, strode towards the door then stopped as Snape skittered to stand in his way. He reached down and lifted the scorpion onto his shoulder.
"Do you want to come? Okay, then. Hold on tight."
Snape settled himself, clinging to the collar of the robe. This was decidedly more comfortable than riding in Potter's pocket, even if the whiffs of aftershave were vaguely unsettling.
The friends and relatives of the dead, or the Wizarding undertakers, had taken away all the bodies. Now the house-elves were hard at work restoring the Great Hall to its previous condition. Potter's little clique was gathering at the Ravenclaw table, where he joined them.
"Oo," Lovegood pointed at his shoulder with an expression of deep concern, "Harry, is that a juvenile Humdinger or a — "
"Emperor scorpion," Granger said with an air of barely-concealed restraint.
"Mm. I wonder what it's doing on Harry's shoulder?"
Snape prodded the air with a claw, but no one identified the gesture for what it was.
"'S m'new familiar," Potter said around a mouthful of toast and marmalade.
"It looks very Slytherin," Lovegood pronounced with an emphatic nod.
"Yeah," Weasley muttered. "I knew it. Horrible thing."
"He saved my life or at the very least saved me from a nasty hexing, so leave him alone. Anyone else want a cuppa while I'm pouring?"
Snape clambered down Potter's arm and dropped onto the table. By now he had realised that he did not need to feed every day and ignored the jar of assorted wildlife supplied by the elves. Longbottom called his toad and fed it an earthworm, which it sucked in like a strand of muddy spaghetti.
Snape did not notice the owls arriving with the morning post until the world suddenly went dark and he was surrounded by the smell of newsprint.
"Oops," Potter said, laughing, and then, "Oh shit!" with no amusement at all. The paper was lifted away and Snape ran across the table to stand directly in front of Potter, where he could read the headlines. His eyes almost popped out like a snail's.
"Harry Potter's Secret Heartbreak! The Boy Who Lived to Love the Hero!
Sources very close to Harry Potter tell us that the Saviour of the Wizarding World has long harboured an unrequited longing for the late Headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Severus Snape.
"I loved him throughout my sixth year," whispered the lonely and broken-hearted hero. "He was my Half-Blood Prince!"
Ginevra Weasley, younger sister of Our Hero's best friend Ronald Weasley, is at her home at the Burrow. She refused to comment when asked if the expected announcement of her engagement to the Wizarding World's Heartthrob is likely to be postponed indefinitely by this revelation. Is this why she is not at her beloved's side? Is there trouble in paradise?
Once reviled as a Death Eater and a lieutenant high in the army of You Know Who, Snape was revealed as an undercover agent, heroically battling the forces of darkness and risking life and limb on a daily basis. He is a posthumous recipient of an Order of Merlin, First Class. It was Harry Potter's own testimony that cleared Snape's name, but now we wonder if our champion had another agenda all along (continued on page 2.)
"Bloody hell!" Weasley groaned. "The bitch!"
"What on earth?" Granger shook out her own paper and frowned at it through narrowed eyes. "Harry, where did she get hold of this idea?"
"Um," Longbottom cleared his throat and said in a small voice, "Harry, you did say something last night about a Half-Blood Prince, didn't you?"
"Well, yeah, but all I said was that I had a bit of a crush on him in my sixth year, before I knew who he was. I used to wonder what he was like, what it would be like to meet him. Before I found out he was really Snape all along. He seemed so cool, you know?"
Very articulate, Potter. Are you blushing?
"Well, Skeeter has obviously been following you around again. She might have been in the pub right beside you, sitting on Rosmerta's curtains."
"I gave her an exclusive interview and she prefers this load of thestral shit?"
"Course she does, it sells more copies, mate. You need to get in touch with Ginny, she'll be really upset by this."
"Yeah, I know."
"Scorpions eat insects," Lovegood said in her dreamy little-girl voice. They all stared at her for a moment, then Granger laughed.
"So they do! Beetles included, Harry. Perhaps you ought to take your new pet with you when you go out."
"You'd better warn Gin first," Weasley remarked. "I'd hate for her to accidentally sit on him."
Snape shuddered. The idea was enough to put him off his spiders for a week.
The Weasleys attended the joint funeral of Nymphadora Tonks and Remus Lupin. Ginevra had a pygmy puffskein on her shoulder; the creature took one look at Snape and dived into her pocket, refusing to come out.
"What in Merlin's name have you got that for?" she said out of the side of her mouth, coming to stand next to Harry and grasp his hand. "Arnold's terrified of it!"
"He sort of adopted me."
"It's ugly and it's dangerous."
"He saved my life when Carrow escaped and sneaked up to my bedroom. I don't know what would have happened if he hadn't stung her and made her scream."
"Maybe you'd have been hexed and wouldn't have been able to go spouting your mouth off about Snape where Skeeter could hear you!"
"Ginny, I didn't mean —"
"Oh no, sure you didn't 'mean it'. You were just thinking about Snape all year when you might have been thinking about someone who actually cared about you!"
"Snape did care about me, he saved my life -"
"Ron saved your life, Hermione saved your life, Snape saved your life and even your bloody scorpion saved your life. Perhaps that's where I went wrong, maybe I didn't save your life often enough?"
"Ssh!" Molly Weasley glared at them and Ginevra gave her mother a tremulous smile.
"Sorry," Potter mouthed, and the funeral director cleared his throat, preparatory to beginning the service for the interment of the werewolf and his wife.
Skeeter attended with a photographer, and Potter was photographed after the service, with Ginevra clinging to his arm like the heroine of one of the Muggle romances that Snape's father had watched on the telly. The Weasleys surrounded them, tearfully smiling and brave, enfolding Potter into their family with an open affection that must have seemed irresistible to the love-starved young man. Molly Weasley noticed Snape and shuddered.
"Harry, dear, what is that horrible-looking creature?"
"He's an emperor scorpion and he's my new familiar. He's very protective."
Snape, who felt in need of a little light entertainment, stood upright, arched his tail and rattled his claws.
"Well I don't think he's very suitable. Why don't we buy you a nice owl for your birthday? Or a Crup? Crups are very loyal and protective, they make lovely family pets."
"I'm perfectly happy with my scorpion, Molly, thanks all the same."
Molly cast Snape a speculative look with nothing motherly about it at all. Hadn't Snape heard someone say that this woman had put an end to Bellatrix Lestrange?
"Arnold's terrified of it," Ginevra remarked.
And so the battle lines are drawn. Be careful, Potter.
"I don't give up on my friends," Potter said lightly.
"That isn't a friend, dear, that's an insect."
"Oh dear," a sweet soprano intervened, "is there really trouble brewing in paradise? Harry, what does your dear little girlfriend think of your newly revealed feelings for the late — "
George Weasley cast Silencio while the dragon-taming brother knocked Skeeter's Quick-Quotes Quill to the floor and 'accidentally' stepped on it. They left her mouthing like a goldfish, desperately scrabbling in her handbag for a replacement quill.
Snape accompanied Potter to the remaining funerals: Fred Weasley, Colin Creevey and the other Hogwarts students and staff. He crouched on Potter's shoulder as Potter spoke to the bereaved families with increasing confidence and fluency, telling them how much he appreciated their terrible sacrifice and how their loved ones had helped him to make the world a safer place.
"A scorpion isn't a very fitting familiar for a hero, Potter," Slughorn pointed out after Creevey's funeral. "I should choose something more photogenic if I were you. How about that nice owl you used to go about with, she was much more appropriate."
"I like him," Potter said in a very frosty tone.
"Minerva tells me you're thinking of coming back to Hogwarts to take your NEWTs. I'll be delighted to see you back in my NEWT potions class, my boy, delighted. Pop in and we'll have a chat about it some time."
"Thank you, Professor Slughorn, I'll bear it in mind."
Really Potter, don't you want to join the Slug Club and have your praises sung? How unexpected.
"Harry!" Ginevra slid her arm through Potter's and cuddled close. Her perfume made Snape feel slightly ill and he scooted around the back of Potter's collar to the opposite shoulder. "Harry, did you get your invitation from Kingsley? For the grand ball at the Ministry?"
"Have you ordered your new dress robes yet?"
"You'd better hurry, although I suppose Madam Malkin would jump at the chance to make your clothes, she won't mind if you leave it till the last minute. You can't wear your old robes, you know, they won't fit properly and people have already seen them. Look, Mum says it would be the perfect opportunity to announce our engagement. What do you think?"
"I want to go back to Hogwarts."
"Now? Okay, if you want — "
"No, I want to go back to Hogwarts for my final year, and I don't want to get engaged until after I've finished my NEWTs."
"But what about the announcement?"
"Why? I'm not eighteen yet, you're only sixteen, we have loads of time."
"But Mum's already making the arrangements for the engagement party. What'll I tell her?"
"I haven't actually asked you to marry me, Ginny."
"That's why I thought the ball would be the ideal opportunity. Mum says that once everything's official, the press will leave us alone and we can — "
"Get on with our NEWTs and things. Actually, I think you're right. It'll be fun to be at Hogwarts together; it'll be just like old times, won't it? Sneaking a kiss behind the Quidditch stands, walks by the lake, revising together in the common room in front of the fire — "
I may vomit...
"Mum suggested that after we get married, we should go away for a long honeymoon, somewhere really exotic with palm trees and sandy beaches and sunshine."
"But I bet she'd agree to you getting your NEWTs first. I'll sit mine as well, but it isn't so important, is it? You don't need NEWTs to bring up children."
"Ginny, I suggest that you go back to your Mum now." Potter removed her hand from his arm. "Perhaps you'd like to ask her to draw up an itinerary. You know, how many times a week we're going to have sex, how many kids we'll have, where we're going to live."
"She loves us both. She only wants us to be happy!"
"She wants to be happy, Gin, and she wants you to be happy, and me being happy would probably be a bonus."
"But I thought that was what you wanted, marriage and a family? That's what you said you wanted."
"I know, Gin." Potter sighed. "When I was expecting to die, marriage and a family seemed like a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow. Now it seems — I don't know, just too much like a trap. I want to do things first, have new experiences, go to different places, learn all the stuff about magic and the Wizarding world that I didn't find out when I was growing up with Muggles."
The Weasley chit pouted at him.
"Ron will be terribly disappointed in you, Harry Potter."
Potter laughed, not unkindly.
"Ron and Hermione and I went through hell together, I think they'll both understand."
"And wouldn't I have come with you, if you'd have let me? Didn't I want to fight beside you? Wasn't wanting to be there enough for you?"
"Hello, hello, another little lovers' tiff? How touching." Skeeter smiled, showing a lot of white teeth. "Is the pressure getting to you, darlings? Tell me, how is the — "
Ginevra Potter drew her wand and cast a very impressive Bat-Bogey Hex at the reporter before marching back to her parents with her chin up and her eyes suspiciously bright.
Potter went to the Ministry ball only after extracting a promise from Kingsley Shacklebolt that he would not be forced to give a speech. Snape was not quite as surprised by this as he should have been. The Young Man Who Had Kicked Voldemort's Arse was keeping as a low a profile as he could, hiding out at Hogwarts where Minerva McGonagall had a way with reporters that prevented them from coming back. Snape suspected that Peeves was involved.
Potter danced (not very competently) with the Misses Weasley, Lovegood and Granger, and with Mrs Fleur Weasley, leaving Snape at the Weasley table, listening as Molly made plans for her offspring.
"Percy's seeing that nice Clearwater girl again, which is lovely, and there's Ron and Hermione, and Ginny with dear Harry. George needs a bit more time, of course, but I really think Charlie ought to settle down now. Don't you agree, Arthur? Are you going to have a word with Charlie?"
"Hm? What's the matter with Charlie?"
"He's on his own."
"He lives in a reserve with a load of dragons and a couple of dozen handlers and trainers, I hardly think that counts as solitude."
"He needs a wife, dear."
"Does he really? Has he said so?"
"He doesn't need to say anything. It really is time he settled down."
"Are you going to talk to him?"
"What about, dear?"
"Finding a nice witch and settling down! Honestly, Arthur!"
"If you say so, love. Oh look, isn't that old Grahams from the Goblin Liaison Committee? I must just have a quick word."
Molly puffed out an exasperated sigh and looked around, probably in search of one of her offspring to harass. She clapped a hand to her mouth with a gasp, and Snape became aware of the nearby revellers falling silent and all staring in the same direction. As a group of witches moved to get a better view, he glimpsed Potter standing alone, looking pale and shocked.
"Oh my," Molly whispered, "Oh Merlin. Who would have believed it?" She jumped to her feet, completely blocking Snape's sight of the dance floor. He ran across the table and slid down the ski-slope of starched linen tablecloth to the carpet, and then began making his way through the forest of gleaming shoes and sweeping robes in the general direction of Potter.
"Professor Snape." Potter's voice whispered through the room like the hiss of Parseltongue. "You're dead. I saw you die."
"Do you not believe in magic, Mr Potter? Well, well, I am hardly surprised at your lack of faith. You had so little faith in me in the past, did you not?"
The deep, compelling voice was both strange and familiar, the voice Snape had truly heard only in Pensieve memories. The tone was right, the cadence spot-on but the inflexion very slightly off, lacking the vestiges of his northern accent, but who would notice? Not the fascinated crowd of on-lookers or Potter, who appeared as stunned as a freshly landed codfish. Snape wished that his Animagus form had been a raven, or even a bloody black dog, so that he could yell a warning. He was tempted to change into human form and challenge the pretender.
He reached the front of the crowd and stared up at the figure in black robes. Polyjuice, he decided, brewed very successfully, using a recently obtained sample, judging by the imposter's rather haggard appearance. He (or maybe even she) had chosen flattering velvet dress robes and was stalking Potter in a slow circle.
"You were a consummate actor and spy, sir." Potter was beginning to recover his poise, rather faster than Snape expected. "We were all supposed to distrust you."
"Were you, Potter?" The pseudo-Snape glided closer, every movement fluid, elegant and very slightly exaggerated. "Were you also expected to leave me to die?"
Potter swallowed visibly.
"You sent me to die, Professor, you and Dumbledore." There was a collective gasp from the onlookers and the Snape turned away from Potter for the first time.
"Well, what are you dunderheads staring at? Have you no dancing, drinking and general carousing to perform? Mr Potter and I have ... unfinished business to attend to."
Hamming it up a bit, aren't you? Snape ran across the open area into Potter's line of sight, his claws making tiny scratching sounds on the polished dance floor. Potter leaned down, picked him up and placed him on his shoulder. Snape found himself staring straight into his own face.
"Really, Potter, what an unusual choice of pet. Still, I should expect the unusual from you. You are infuriating, frustrating, disobedient and occasionally inept, but never could one accuse you of being boring. Come, I want a word with you."
Potter, keep your wits about you, for Merlin's sake! When have you ever simply obeyed me?
Potter trotted after the swiftly striding form, Snape clinging to his robe. Jostled even more than he expected, he glanced down and saw that Potter was tugging out his wand.
"Potter." The pseudo-Snape turned in an impressive swirl of robes and hair, once he had reached the doorway to one of the cloakrooms. Whoever it was had studied the genuine Snape closely. "Potter, did you mean what you said?"
"About what?" Potter appeared understandably wary.
"About me. In the Prophet."
"I — Skeeter got it wrong, you know. I only said that I had a bit of a fixation on the Half-Blood Prince before I knew it was you."
The voice purred in a deep, rich baritone that made Snape wonder if he had underestimated his own charisma. The false Snape reached out to place his fingertips on Potter's cheek and Potter stared at him as if mesmerised. "Did you have no idea?"
He leaned closer, until their lips touched, then pressed together. Behind them, a flashbulb went off in a blaze of white light and Skeeter squealed, "Good one, Bozo!"
Snape, inches from what looked like his own unblemished throat, lunged and pinched his claws shut on the fold of skin above the stiff white collar, just below the Snape's jaw.
The claws of a fully-grown emperor scorpion are powerful enough to snap a pencil in half. The imposter yelped in pain, clapping a hand to his neck as Snape let go and tumbled to the floor. He landed awkwardly and was scrambling to his feet when he saw the black boot descending towards his body. He barely had time to register his imminent demise when Potter yelled and the foot shot past him, and the two wizards tumbled to the floor in a flurry of limbs and robes. The imposter scrambled to his feet first, clutching his bleeding throat. He glared down at Potter and Snape.
"Be very careful, Potter. People are out to get you, you realise, and I cannot always be on hand to pull you out of the fire." He whirled around, robes flying in a very satisfactory manner, and disappeared out of the door.
Potter sat up, his eyes narrowed in anger as he loomed over Snape.
"What the bloody hell did you do that for?"
What did I do? What did you think you were doing, you blithering idiot?
"Harry!" Granger lowered her wand and held out a hand to pull him up. "Harry, are you hurt?"
"I'm amazed. We watched him die."
"Or that was an imposter," Granger said, helping him brush down his robes.
"True. It would have to be Polyjuice, then."
At last. Sometimes I wonder how on earth you lot survived.
"God, it gave me such a shock. What I'd give to just have the real Snape back for an hour, Hermione. To be able to tell him how sorry I am."
Really? Be still, my heart.
Potter picked Snape up and held him up at eye level.
"Do you think he was an imposter?"
Snape tilted his head up and down. Potter sighed and put him onto his shoulder.
"Yeah, so do I. The genuine Snape would have waylaid me in a dark corner, he'd never make a spectacle of himself like that. It just wasn't his style. Shame you chased him off, I was hoping to get an idea of what he was after."
"Murder?" Granger said in a clipped voice.
"In front of this crowd? It felt more like I was being chatted up."
"Well, there's your answer! I think your scorpion was jealous. Perhaps someone's after your money. Come on, you'd better talk to Ginny before she blows a fuse after that little display. Why on earth did you let him kiss you?"
Potter turned beet red and muttered, "Wanted to know what it would have been like."
"To snog a bloke?"
"Snog Snape. Well, I'll never get another chance to find out, will I? I need a drink."
So do I. Good God, jealous? Me?
Snape was a very pensive arachnid indeed for the rest of the evening; not that anyone noticed.
"I can't hate him anymore," Potter said morosely, turning the little flask of memories between his fingers so that the misty contents swirled and shimmered. "Not now I know why he was like that. He couldn't help it. God, he must have been so lonely and unhappy."
I suppose I was...
"Hermione says that everything points to him suffering from depression, you know. Being so careless of his appearance - "
You try controlling your hair when you're working over cauldrons all day. Come to think of it, you could try controlling your hair full stop.
"- and being so short tempered - "
No, that was just my natural assertiveness.
"- and all that Slytherin House bias."
Who else would stand up for the poor buggers if I didn't? Not your precious Dumbledore, that's for sure.
"He never seemed to have any friends."
Blame Albus for that one as well; he put me in an impossible position where I didn't dare trust a soul, especially him.
"I wonder if he ever had a lover."
Chance would have been a fine thing. I might have made a go of it with the werewolf, had your precious future mother-in-law not pushed that mad Auror at him. He always swung both ways and he was almost tolerable once he was out of the shadow of your ghastly father and vile godfather. I wonder which one she changed into at night?
"Poor old Snape," Potter sighed. "I bet he'd turn in his grave, or laugh his head off if he knew. He and I had so much in common. I never thought I was abused, but Hermione says that Snape and I both suffered from emotional neglect as kids - "
"We were both forced to rely on ourselves from an early age, both used and manipulated by Dumbledore and Voldemort." Potter placed the flask carefully on the bedside table and flung himself back against the pillows, hands folded behind his head. "Both got far too close for comfort to the Dark Arts. Both sorted into Slytherin - "
"- at least, I would have been in Slytherin if I hadn't met Ron and Malfoy first and already made up my mind I wanted to be a Gryffindor. I argued with the Hat. That would've been funny, if I'd been put into Snape's house."
Absolutely hilarious. Bloody hell.
"Both in love with a red-haired witch." Potter frowned. "Do you know, scorpion, maybe we've got even more in common there? Snape adored my mum, but it was like an obsession, you know? He wanted something he couldn't have, he wanted to possess Lily, she was like an idealised witch, friend and lover, and when my dad started showing an interest, Snape wanted her so that Dad couldn't have her. He didn't want her because he loved her, the real Lily Evans, he wanted this perfect little package of childhood friendship and sexual partner."
Thank you, Doctor Freud. Enough of the armchair psychology, if you please.
"Maybe I wanted Ginny because I want to be in a real family and the Weasleys are the best family I know. I want kids and a house and a wife. I dunno if I actually want Ginny. I mean, she's nice, but she doesn't understand. Only Ron and Hermione understand. And Snape. He'd have understood."
Potter shifted slightly on the bed, and tugged at the leg of his jeans. "Really weird to think that Snape and I would have understood one another so well, if only we'd got past all that mutual loathing and talked to one another. For all his skill at Legilimency, he never understood me."
You may be right, although you'll never hear me admit it.
Snape felt as if he contained too many thoughts for the size of his head. Potter was turning out to be far more self-aware than Snape had been at the same age. It was all rather disconcerting. Perhaps he had never before been in a situation where he had just listened to Potter in the way that he had listened to his Slytherins. If Potter was prepared to put aside his prejudices and re-evaluate his opinions, should not Snape, the adult, the teacher, protector and ex-Headmaster, attempt to do likewise?
"Oh hell," Potter muttered and swung his legs off the bed again. He grabbed the folded bath towel that the elves had left on the chest of drawers and went into the bathroom. Snape slid down the bedspread, dropped onto the rug and scuttled in his wake. His duties as self-appointed guardian of the Potter brat naturally extended to checking out the adjoining rooms. Of course he had no interest in watching children in the shower. The cynical little voice that he thought of as his scorpion alter ago cackled madly in his head.
When are you going to admit that Potter is no longer a child? He's seventeen, for Merlin's sake!
Seventeen, and those three months on the run had left Potter with a physique that would be the envy of an international Quidditch player. Snape stared up at the firm and muscular thighs as Potter stripped off his shirt and peeled down his jeans and underwear. Snape had never in his life expected to think the words 'Potter' and 'magnificent' in the same sentence.
He saw Potter standing alone, naked, and he saw him as a whole, neither Lily nor James, student or warrior, just a young man with the kind of understated elegance that he had always appreciated.
Potter waved his wand at the showerhead to adjust the flow and temperature, placed his wand carefully within reach and stepped under the stream, turning up his face with his eyes shut. Snape crouched on the bath mat and watched Potter wash perfunctorily and then grope for a bottle behind the selection of shampoos. Snape recognised the scent of the moisturising lotion that the house-elves supplied to anyone who worked with solvents and potions. Potter squeezed a blob into his palm and reached down with a sigh. Snape was unable to look away.
Potter leaned back against the wall, cradling his balls in one hand and using the other to smooth the lotion up and down his cock. There was just the hiss of the water spraying from the faucet, the gradually rising tempo of Potter's breathing and the sight of his hands, working on the sweetly flushed young cock that bobbed high above Snape's head.
Snape did not know whether to be amused or disgusted with himself. Had he saved Lily's son for this? For this perfect, terrible revelation, the realisation that the heat between them might have begun as simple resentment, but it had twisted and evolved into something else entirely. The aspects of Lily that he had loved, her fiery courage, wit and loyalty, lived on, and he wanted them still.
Potter groaned and arched his back, sending a jet of white come into the spray. The young man quickly dried himself off then wandered back into the bedroom, rubbing at his hair with the towel.
"Scorpion? Where've you got to now? I don't want to step on you in the dark."
Snape scurried out of the bathroom, around the base of the wall and out onto the rug beside the bed. Potter peered short-sightedly down at him, then picked him up and placed him on the bedspread. His hands were warm and steady, and surprisingly reassuring in their deftness.
Potter yawned and pulled on a pair of pyjama bottoms before getting into bed. "G'night, scorpion. Another busy day tomorrow; the last funeral. Goodbye to poor old Snape. Nox."
"I can assure you, Miss Granger," Slughorn puffed out his waistcoat, "No one could make Polyjuice Potion at Hogwarts without me being aware of the fact. Both my own stock of ingredients and the school's supply are completely intact."
Potter and Granger thanked him and made their way up from the dungeons, Weasley trailing along in their wake.
"Y'know Harry, if this was a game of chess, I'd be trying to see what they were heading for, what position they'd want their pieces to be in when they'd finished their current play."
"Checkmate, I s'pose."
"Yeah, and you're our king. So what are they after, lulling you into a sense of false security and killing you? Or was bringing Snape back meant to make you look like a liar and discredit you? If so, why?"
Snape turned around on Potter's shoulder and stared at the redhead. These were the kind of questions that Snape should have been asking, not some eighteen-year-old school dropout.
"Or is he trying to seduce you?" Granger asked.
"What?" Weasley yelped.
"You haven't seen the papers yet, have you, Ron?" Potter sighed. "Brace yourself. Ginny is going to hex my balls off for this one."
Harry Potter's New Love Interest? Is the Boy Who Lived Gay? Seen here in an intimate moment with Professor Severus Snape, ex-Headmaster of Hogwarts and miraculous survivor of - see page 3 for details!
Weasley threw the paper aside and as an afterthought, cast Incendio at it.
"Definitely trying to discredit you," he announced. "Miraculous survivor, my arse. Snape died right in front of us."
They walked into the Great Hall and settled at the Gryffindor table. Lovegood wandered to join them, humming to herself.
"Did he?" Granger spooned porridge into a bowl. "Let's look at this logically, Ron. You said we should think of it like a game of wizard chess. What did Snape achieve at the Shack?"
"Apart from dying? He gave his memories to Harry."
"Right, in such a way that Harry automatically believed them."
"He made Harry tell everyone he was dead," Lovegood said cheerfully, "Do you think he used the Imperius curse? I mean, look." She held up a copy of the Quibbler.
The Return of Severus Snape
The last Headmaster of Hogwarts has been appearing all over the place lately; he has been spotted in Diagon Alley and appearing at the Ministry grand ball. It seems that rumours of Snape's demise have been greatly exaggerated. Are Harry Potter's reports of his death the result of the strain under which the young hero has been operating recently? (See page 9 for further details.)
Tarbh Uisge on the Increase.
Go to page 11 for advice from our resident expert on how to prevent the Tarbh Uisge from invading your fishpond.
Phoenix Expecting Dragon's Love Child!
It appears that one of Harry Potter's fellow pupils has got himself into hot water! Fenella Phoenix, teenage singing star of stage and airwaves, today announced that she is having Draco Malfoy's baby. Malfoy, only son of well-known Death Eater Lucius Malfoy, refuses to comment. (continued on page 4)
"Luna, he died," Potter said.
"Hang on," Weasley muttered. "Luna, you might be on to something. Okay, let's assume he survived."
"You were there, Ron! We saw him - "
"Perhaps we saw what Severus Snape wanted us to see and what he wanted the Dark Lord to see. Do you really think Snape worked with that bloody snake all that time and never made himself some sort of anti-venom?"
"He bled to death."
"Could Snape cast a wandless, wordless glamour? I bet he could."
I underestimated you, Weasley. Not that I'll ever tell you so.
"There's a way of proving it one way or another," Granger said calmly. "We'd better go and have a look at the body before the funeral."
Snape was rather flattered that Potter had prevailed upon McGonagall to hold the funeral at Hogwarts. His tomb was to be next to Dumbledore's.
The heavily warded body lay under a stasis charm in Snape's old bedroom, where McGonagall and Flitwick insisted upon accompanying the Golden Trio to examine it.
"I need to know if this is really Snape's body," Potter said. "We have a feeling that it might not be."
"Professor Snape, Harry," McGonagall muttered, in a moment of misty-eyed nostalgia that made Snape wince. Flitwick rolled up his sleeves.
"It looks genuine enough, but I'm sure we're happy to put your mind at rest. Stand back, everyone." Flitwick cast a series of rapid, efficient charms and the body quivered. The little Charms master frowned. "There's something there," he said. "This definitely feels like Severus, and yet..." He cast again. The skin of the corpse turned black and Granger gripped Weasley's arm. "Good grief!" Flitwick squeaked and the tip of his wand blurred as his magic fought against Snape's. "Minerva, this is a Transfiguration!"
The tall witch raised her wand and joined her magic to Flitwick's and the body exploded in a shower of sparks. When the smoke cleared, they stared at a pile of empty, blood-splattered robes.
"Severus' blood," McGonagall stated, "And his robes."
"He did the Transfiguration himself," Flitwick added. "I duelled him; I know what his magic feels like."
"Well," the Headmistress said, putting away her wand, "I had better send out the owls and cancel the funeral. You were right, Harry. Again."
Careful Minerva, his head will never fit through the doors.
"Bloody hell," Weasley said. "The greasy old git fooled us all."
Of course I did - who are you calling an old git, you freckled dunderhead? A hundred points from Gryffindor!
As Potter strode up from the dungeons, there was a definite bounce in his step.
"I've got to find him! Hermione, where should I start?"
Turn your head a little to the left?
"He might not want to see you, mate," Weasley said warily. "He hates us."
"Don't care. He can hex me if he likes, I just want to thank him and apologise."
"He wanted you to think he'd died, so that you'd automatically believe his memories and go to your death! He owes you the apology, Harry."
"The day Severus Snape apologises to me is the day I kiss him on the end of his nose and call him 'Cuddles'," Potter said, chuckling. "It won't happen. I want him to know that I understand, that's all."
"So, now we know Snape is alive, d'you reckon that was the real thing, last night?" Weasley asked.
"He might have been under Imperius," Granger said, "but I still agree with Harry, I think it was someone Polyjuiced. Did you look at his neck, Harry?"
Potter's eyes widened behind his spectacles.
"Yeah, just before the scorpion pinched it. There wasn't a mark on him."
"Nagini was a magical creature, I think she'll have left a scar."
"That supports the Polyjuice theory. How easy would it have been to get a hair from Snape, while he was Headmaster?"
"Not too hard for a Slytherin, I expect."
"Mm." Granger looked thoughtful. "I can think of someone who's perfectly capable of brewing Polyjuice, who would easily have got a hair from him, and who might know where he is now."
"So can I," Potter sighed. "Draco Malfoy, if he has the balls to do it. Otherwise it'll be his father."
"Shall we go?"
A white peacock strutted across the drive inside the wrought iron gates, glancing out at the three youngsters, then away again with supreme indifference.
"God," Granger whispered, "I never expected to be here again." She walked the last few paces until she reached the gate and placed her hand on the ornate latch. "Locked and warded. What do we do now, stand here and yell? There's no bell-pull."
Weasley went to stand beside her and grasped her hand, silently acknowledging her obvious discomfort. Snape prodded Potter lightly in the side of his neck and when he looked round, pointed with a claw to the left.
"He says to go that way."
Weasley peered at the scorpion.
"How d'you know?"
Snape shrugged and pointed again. Much as he wanted to know how things fared with the Malfoy family, he too had his doubts about this expedition. Visions of Charity Burbage, hanging above the polishing dining table like a carcass in a butcher's shop, still haunted his dreams.
"Come on." Potter set off and the other two jogged in his wake. Snape directed them to a small door set in the hedge, one of the private entrances to the garden. As Potter halted, unable to open the door, Snape wordlessly visualised the charm that identified him to the wards.
The door swung open and Potter turned his head to stare at the scorpion on his shoulder.
"I'm starting to wonder about you," he said, and flinched as Snape nipped him lightly. Snape tapped a claw against his own mouthparts and Potter mouthed, "Sorry. Which way now?"
Malfoy Manor drowsed in the spring sunshine, seemingly deserted except for the peacocks. Snape wondered if the family had fled abroad, or gone to ground in an isolated cottage somewhere to lick their wounds and wait until their crimes had been forgotten, or at least smoothed over by copious applications of the Malfoy gold. Snape did not doubt that Narcissa and Draco would survive the scandal, although he wondered if Lucius could ever regain his former social standing.
Snape was pleased to note that the three all had their wands out. He guided them to one of the servants' entrances, once again identifying himself to the wards, and along a stone passageway towards the kitchens. As they passed a flight of steps to one of the old wine cellars, Snape heard a very familiar voice.
"You really didn't do terribly well, did you? It seems that I have to do everything myself - ah, I think our guests have arrived. Do come in."
The door creaked open to display three figures standing around a cauldron. Draco Malfoy was stirring the potion with a pale, glazed expression on his face. Narcissa stood against the wall, clutching a fold of her robe against her chest and a figure remarkably like Severus Snape turned to stare up at them, his lips curving into a sneer.
"Professor Snape," Potter said with his voice flat and devoid of inflexion. Snape shifted on Potter's shoulder, trying to convey a warning without attracting attention. He was silently berating himself for his carelessness. The wards had been left unchanged for a reason; they had alerted the Malfoys to his arrival and that was on balance, a very bad thing. The undercurrents here made Snape's senses bristle. "Or are you really Lucius Malfoy?" Potter continued.
"My father isn't well," Draco said. His voice trembled very slightly. "Professor Snape has been helping me brew potions for him."
The Snape-alike nodded brusquely. He pointed at Narcissa.
"Narcissa, you're not making our guests very welcome, are you? Come on down, please."
"Professor," Potter said, "what was the last thing the Dark Lord said to you? Do you remember?"
"Are you daring to question me after everything, Harry?"
"You've never called me Harry before, Professor."
"My dear boy, everything has changed, has it not?"
"You're even less convincing than the last Snape. Who was that, was it Draco?"
Malfoy gave Potter a wild glance before looking down into the cauldron again.
"Don't be daft, Potter," Draco muttered. "It was Snape, alright? Snape's alive." There was a wealth of suppressed pain in the taut voice and Narcissa made a tiny sound, of agreement or distress.
"How's your throat, Professor?"Weasley snapped, raising his wand. The false Snape spun round with his wand in his hand. It was an angular movement, fast but jerky, as if he was still unused to the body he inhabited.
"Avada Ked - "
"No!" Draco seized the cauldron and flung it, with its boiling contents, straight at the imposter. The Snape threw himself backwards and instead of striking his face, the scalding potion sloshed down his thigh.
"Your father will die for that, you little shit!" the imposter roared and slashed his wand at the wall. Further along the corridor, something crashed and a man screamed.
"No! Not Lucius!" Narcissa screamed, grabbed a flask of potion and threw it, catching the Snape on the shoulder. The impostor slashed his wand at her and she fell back, sobbing.
As Potter, Granger and Weasley all cast Stunning spells, the impostor flung up a Shield Charm and roared, "Imperio!"
Snape flung himself from Potter's shoulder and began to transform, groping for his wand and twisting desperately in the hope of landing on his feet.
"Draco, Narcissa - get them! Imperio! Kill Potter first then the others!" The false Snape withdrew two wands from his robe and tossed them to Draco and his mother, who seized one each and raised their arms, lurching towards the staircase with identical blank and empty faces, only their eyes rolling wildly as they understood what they were about to do.
Snape landed awkwardly, arms out for balance. Draco and Narcissa began casting curses at Potter: the Cruciatus curse and the horrible burning of the Fire-Ant Hex. Potter reacted by casting one of the strongest Shield Charms that Snape had ever seen. Granger and Weasley both stared back and forth between the two Snapes, losing precious seconds as the Malfoys turned on them, binding them and Summoning their wands.
Satisfied that Narcissa and Draco had disarmed Potter's companions, the impostor sneered with Snape's face and pointed his wand at Potter. "Sectumsempra!"
Snape threw himself between Potter and the curse. The moment had come and he embraced it gladly, hoping that he had done enough for Potter to be able to save the Malfoys as well as his own friends.
He sank down to his knees in agony, hearing Potter's voice cry out, strong and clear. "Finite incantatem!" He had time to think Oh you clever boy! as Draco and Narcissa Malfoy were released from the Imperius curse and rounded on their captor. Snape fell forwards into darkness as Potter, Draco and Narcissa cast Stunning and Binding spells almost in unison.
"So it was Rookwood," a voice said from somewhere in the room. "I thought I saw Aberforth bringing him down, in the final battle."
"Yeah, but he only Stunned him, he must have come round while Harry was talking to Voldemort, and then sneaked off back to the Manor to lie in wait for the Malfoys. Kingsley says that the Aurors have got him securely locked up this time."
"Lucius," Snape said, or tried to say, but his mouthparts did not seem to be aligned correctly and when he shifted, he had far too few legs and claws.
"Severus?" Poppy Pomfrey's hand slid behind his head and the lip of a vial pressed against his mouth. "That'll teach you to spend so much time in Animagus form. Man cannot live on grasshoppers alone, you know."
Snape gagged slightly but knew better than to argue with the hand that held the potion vial. He swallowed the evil-tasting stuff, recognising one of Slughorn's Blood-Replenishing Potions. He opened his eyes, staring up at the so-familiar ceiling of the Hogwarts infirmary. "Lucius?" This time, he managed to coordinate tongue and lips and got the word out in a recognisable form.
"We dug him out of the rubble, Professor." Draco came into view, looking bright-eyed and bushy-tailed but slightly less smug than usual. "The Mu - Granger had a vial of dittany and managed to keep him going until we got a Healer in. He's recuperating at home. Potter and I remembered most of the charm you used to heal me and we kept you in one piece until Madam Pomfrey could finish it and heal you properly. I couldn't believe it when the wards indicated you were still alive, sir. Welcome back."
"Thank you, Draco." Snape's voice was hoarse and rusty, but it wasn't until he rubbed at his throat that he felt the slight ridge of healed scar tissue beside his larynx.
"That'll do for now," Pomfrey said, making a shooing gesture with both hands. "Professor Snape needs to rest. You can come back and see him tomorrow. Off you go, Weasley, Malfoy."
"I just want another minute," Draco said, "I need to tell Professor Snape what happened, I won't be long."
"See that you're not, young man. Miss Granger, you wanted to replenish your first aid kit, I believe?"
"Rookwood made me brew the Polyjuice and forced Mother to pretend to be you at the ball," Draco said quietly. "He had my father tied up in the dungeon, to make sure we did as we were told. Mother did try to warn Potter that there was something wrong."
"So he was after both me and Potter."
"Yes, and us as well, Father says he was always envious of the Malfoy name and money. He thought that if he made us kill you both, we'd be brought down too."
When Snape looked up, he saw a wry little grimace on Draco's face.
"Where is Potter?"
The grimace intensified.
"He was waylaid; they may have been female Weasleys, though the larger one sounded like a Hungarian Horntail whose nest had just been raided. I heard your name mentioned in rather unflattering terms." Draco raised an eyebrow.
"Surely you didn't sleep with Fenella Phoenix?"
"Professor, please! She was a Hufflepuff. Anyway, I certainly wouldn't have forgotten my contraceptive spells if I had. I do still have some respect for the Malfoy name." He got to his feet, and something in his expression suggested that he knew why Snape had changed the subject, and the matter had been filed away in the devious little labyrinth of his Slytherin mind. Snape would have expected no less.
"Mr Malfoy?" Poppy Pomfrey's voice sounded a warning. "I hope that you haven't been upsetting my patient?"
"No, Madam. I'm just leaving."
"You may return tomorrow — oh! Mr Potter! Professor Snape's resting, but I'm sure he won't be averse to just a quick visit..."
Draco went out with a sly little smirk that did not bode well. Potter passed him with a quick nod of recognition, but his green glare was fixed on Snape. His untidy hair seemed to bristle like the fur of an angry cat, and when he halted at the foot of Snape's bed, the rage came off him in waves like static electricity.
"How could you?"
Potter's demand was full of the old arrogance, as if Snape should know what he meant because this was Harry Potter and Potter was the centre of the universe, its hub, and the axis around which they all revolved. He opened his mouth to cut the little bastard down to size, but Potter's words rolled right over him, unstoppable, backed by the force of his magic.
"How could you do that to me? God, you didn't even have a shield up, what made you do it? I could hold a stupid shit like Rookwood off with a Protego!" Potter took a deep breath, but Snape was too astounded to take advantage of the momentary hiatus. "You didn't need to do it, and he almost killed you! If Malfoy and I hadn't managed to remember most of the charm you used to heal him, you'd have bled to death, you stupid git!"
"Mr Potter!" Pomfrey snapped, but Snape held up a hand and she subsided. At least someone still treated him as if he was the Headmaster of Hogwarts.
"Poppy, it may be best to allow Potter to get this out of his system. Heaven knows what he will do if chased off in this mood; the foundations of the castle are damaged enough." He flicked his fingers at her and she went, with a barely-audible sniff. Potter drew his wand and put up a Silencing Charm and privacy ward without taking his eyes off Snape for an instant.
"Mr Potter," Snape purred, his voice just a little rough but good enough to be going on with, "have you quite finished?"
"I've barely started!" Potter's chest heaved; he was building up an impressive head of steam. Had he looked like this, when he stood to face Voldemort for the last time? His cheeks were glowing with emotion and his eyes flashed like the spell-light of death. If he still looked outrageously young, it was with the youthfulness of a newly fledged phoenix, brimming with power and vitality.
"You knew how I felt about you," Potter exclaimed, "I told you! You knew, and you went and almost got yourself killed in front of me, again! Why did you do it?"
The answer was staring Snape in the face and he tried for a sneer, although his mouth still felt strange: too soft and mobile with not enough segmented mouthparts.
"Have I not protected you before, Potter? Perhaps it is an ingrained habit that I am unable to break."
"Oh yeah, I forgot, Dumbledore forced you! Well maybe you've forgotten or something but he's dead." Potter paused and closed his eyes for a moment. "Look, I know what you're trying to do." He clenched both hands and forced them down to his sides. "You always make me angry when you want to keep me off-balance and stop me from finding things out. I'm starting to understand now, see?"
"Understand what, Potter?"
Snape felt hot and cold, sensing that Potter was leaping ahead in this race for enlightenment, outstripping him in both power and grace.
"I saw you, you know. Watching me. My eyesight isn't great, but I can see a damn great eight-inch-long black insect — "
"Potter, a scorpion is an arachnid."
"I know," Potter said, "I loved the way you bristled every time anyone called you an insect. I don't think you realised quite how you gave yourself away sometimes. You certainly gave yourself away, watching me in the shower."
Snape realised that he was holding his breath and so was Potter.
Potter's tendency to eschew subtlety for forthright confrontation could surely be turned to Snape's advantage here.
"What do you want, Potter? What do you expect to achieve by this Gryffindor need to meet everything head on?"
"Rather more than you have by being cunning, Professor."
Potter was striding towards him, stalking him, eyes unwaveringly fixed upon Snape's face. "I want you to be honest and tell me why you took the curse that was meant for me. I want to know why you hung around, when you didn't even know who'd won or whether either side wanted to kill you. I want to know why you watched me in the shower. I want you to be honest with yourself."
"Or what, Potter?" Snape remained motionless. He told himself that this was the behaviour of a predator, but the little inner-scorpion voice was snidely pointing out that he currently looked far more like prey.
"Or else I'm going to show you."
Potter's fingertip alighted upon the end of Snape's nose and moved upwards, to trail along his eyebrow, down around the curve of his jaw and thence to his mouth. "You see, Professor, we know so much about each other, we have so much in common..."
His lips were as soft as the brush of a leaf and he tasted of something fresh and untainted.
"I want to find out more," Potter breathed into his mouth. "So much more. I want to know what it's like to be a scorpion." He climbed onto the bed, straddling Snape's thighs, and Snape, who had snapped and snarled and stung those who dared to try to get close to him, was helpless under the gaze of Lily's eyes. He could not move, frozen in place while the presumptuous brat kneeled above him. "I want to get to know you. All of you."
"All of me, Potter? I doubt if you truly mean that."
Potter's hand ghosted downwards, across the starched hospital sheet and the candlewick bedspread. Snape froze beneath him, trapped by the heat coming from the strong young body and the strange, delicate bonds that held them there, eye to eye. The hand pressed lightly and Snape clenched his jaw or else he would have mewled and thrust to meet that sublime pressure.
Potter's eyes glinted green, behind the spectacles that were misting with the moisture from Snape's breath.
Snape moved at last, reaching up to cup the back of Potter's head and draw him down so that their mouths pressed together. Potter gave a little huff of laughter and straightened his legs so that he wriggled on top of Snape, their groins wickedly aligned, hot and hard even with the coverlet and Potter's clothing between them. "You'd better believe it, Professor," Potter whispered.
Snape slid his hands around the hard, muscled curve of Potter's ribs. Potter pulled back his head and stared at Snape, then a smile swept over his face like the sun rising.
"Oh yeah," he said. "You'll have to teach me all about it."
"That wasn't quite..." Potter's hands moved, sneaking under the bedspread to knead very lightly against his balls through his pyjamas and Snape was lost, keening between his teeth and thrusting upwards to get more of that delicious friction. Potter's strong, agile fingers closed around Snape's cock and he made a happy humming sound against Snape's ear.
"I'll take all eight inches of you, Professor. Claws and sting and all."
Snape could hardly wait.