Snape could feel the blood rushing from his body, hot rivulets of it running down his neck and pooling inside his clothing, and he knew that his remaining time was measured in seconds. He released the memories and realised that Potter was sluggish with shock. The precious information, so vital to Dumbledore's plans, was about to be lost. Then Granger conjured a flask and Potter used his wand to collect the silvery substance. Snape allowed himself a final indulgence. What could be the harm in spending his last moments gazing into those spectacular eyes? Eyes no longer blazing with hatred or rage, for even Gryffindors stood mute and trembling in the presence of death.
Then it was over. He knew no more.
Harry opened the tall glass door and stepped out onto the balcony outside the Headmaster's office. Ron and Hermione followed him, turning their faces towards the warmth of the rising sun. Figures moved around on the lawn below, gathering up lost possessions scattered on the grass or examining the corpse of an Acromantula that lay with its gathered legs pointing skywards. They might have been looking for the places where their loved ones had fought and fallen and died.
"If you still had a Time-Turner," Ron said sadly, "we could go back and save Fred."
Hermione seized his hand. "I'm so sorry, Ron. Too many people were with him when he died. We'd be seen and it would mess up time like no-one's business."
"Same with Remus and Tonks," Harry said. He was exhausted and stray memories of recent horrors kept interfering with his thoughts. "There are so many people I'd save if I could." He stared down the hillside towards the village of Hogsmeade. "I wonder if anyone's been to collect poor old Snape yet."
Hermione shook her head. "I doubt it; everyone's more worried about helping the injured. The dead are in no hurry."
Ron frowned, gave Hermione's hand a squeeze and released it. He went back into the Headmaster's office and Harry heard his voice murmuring, then he called out. "Hermione? Harry? Come in here a mo', will you?"
Harry followed Hermione back into the building, squinting as his tired eyes adjusted after the blaze of sunlight. Ron, his hands stuffed in his pockets, was staring up at Dumbledore's portrait. The old wizard's painted face gazed fondly at them.
"Go to the Headmaster's desk, my boy. Remove the middle drawer on the right-hand side and at the back you will find a warded compartment." Dumbledore smiled benignly down through his half-moon spectacles. "To access it, you need only to touch the tip of my old wand to the wood and speak the words, 'Dumbledore's folly.' Then I'm sure you will find what you seek inside."
Harry had felt as if he needed a week of sleep, a hot bath and a good meal or two before he was in any state to do anything at all, yet something urged him to seize the handle of the drawer and tug until it slid out with all its contents. It contained sealing wax, quills, bottles of ink, sheets of parchment embossed with the Hogwarts crest and a packet of peppermints. He bent down, thrust the Elder wand inside the desk and said, “Dumbledore's folly.”
A small flap clicked open to reveal a rectangular recess. He was just able to reach to the back and draw out a velvet pouch. It clinked musically in his hand.
"Oh my god," Hermione whispered. Harry opened the bag to reveal a Time-Turner on a long golden chain and a glass bottle containing a scant few drops of liquid, which glistened in a manner that was almost crystalline. It looked like liquid diamonds.
"Is that—?" Harry whispered and Hermione said, "Phoenix tears."
"But those could cure anything—" Harry started as he looked hopefully at his friends.
Ron nodded. "We could go back for the greasy old git, couldn't we?"
"Yeah," Harry agreed. He picked up his Cloak.
"Are you going to put the Elder Wand back first?" Hermione asked.
Harry opened his mouth but paused as Ron held out an arm to stop him.
"Put it back when it's all over, mate. It doesn't feel like the game's finished yet, does it?"
"Game?" Harry asked, with a dull, exhausted burn of anger tightening his gut. "Does this feel like a game to you?"
Ron hitched a shoulder at the portrait above the desk. "Dumbledore's game. He wouldn't have told us about the Time-Turner if it had really ended. Some of his pieces are still on the board. Dumbledore's still playing even though he's dead."
The painted Dumbledore feigned sleep, his chest rising and falling beneath his silver beard. Hermione and Harry stared at Ron and he gazed back.
"Go on, then," Harry said. "Lead the way and I'll follow under the Cloak. If anyone asks, you can tell them the truth, say that you're going to fetch Snape's body. No-one will stop you."
He slipped the velvet pouch into his pocket and the Elder Wand up his sleeve, together with his mended holly wand, and drew the Cloak over his head.
Ron levitated a stick to petrify the Whomping Willow and they crept through the tunnel. Before they reached the Shack, however, Hermione stopped them.
"Once we use the Time-Turner, we mustn't be seen," she said. "I daren't imagine what awful things would happen if we're spotted by Voldemort, and if he got hold of the Time-Turner, he'd take over the world."
"That's what the Cloak's for," Harry told her. "We're too big to all get under it and walk around like we used to do, but it'll cover us if we all sit together in a corner."
Ron was frowning.
"I just want to check on something first," he said. "If Snape's gone, it means we did it, right? We went back and got him?"
When Hermione nodded, he eased forward and peered past the crate. Harry heard him let out a breath. "The body's gone and there's no sign of any blood."
Harry and Hermione followed him out into the dusty, empty room. Thin fingers of sunlight filtered through the cobwebby windows and the warped planks of the walls.
"When we've got him safe, we'll need to hide until we get back to the time we're at now," Hermione said. "until there aren't two of each of us in existence, then we can come out and take him back to Hogwarts without anyone being the wiser. We'll just say we found him unconscious."
"Hang on," Harry interrupted, "we saw the man die, how're we supposed to save him from that? We're not Healers!"
"I reckon Dumbledore wants us to wing it," Ron said, "as usual. Look, you mustn't be seen, right? But there's no reason you can't Apparate Snape to St Mungo's under the Cloak, is there? He hasn't used the Time-Turner, you could even dump him on Madam Pomfrey, as long as she doesn't see you!"
"That's right, Ron!" Hermione said eagerly. "It's only us three who have to stay hidden."
"Let's wait in there." Ron pointed to the doorway opposite. "We'll be able to hear when Voldie leaves and we'll go in when we've gone down the tunnel – the other versions of us, that is; we scarpered just after old Snake-face made his announcement about giving us an hour."
They settled themselves against the wall beneath the Invisibility Cloak, Hermione put the chain of the Time-Turner around all their necks and then, biting her lip, she carefully twirled the little knob on the top of the intricate device.
Knowing that the living Voldemort was only yards away, they huddled together, barely breathing. They heard footsteps, light and swift, as Snape came along the corridor and entered the room where Voldemort waited for him. They listened once again as Voldemort explained why he intended to kill the man whom he believed to be his loyal servant. Harry felt fingers clutching at him and he grasped Hermione's hand as she buried her head in Ron's shoulder. They heard Snape scream, and waited, helpless, as Voldemort swept out and away. They heard themselves climbing from the tunnel, they listened to Snape's final, rasping words, and then, at last, Voldemort's announcement echoed around the Shack, high and cold.
"We're leaving," Hermione breathed, as feet scrambled back into the tunnel and there was silence.
Harry threw off the Invisibility Cloak and they rushed to where Snape lay. Hermione thrust her beaded bag at Ron, lighting her wand as she did so.
"Blood replenishing potion," she gasped and he immediately Summoned the vial from the depths of her bag. Harry drew down Snape's blood-soaked collar. In the dim, blue light from Hermione's wand, he pulled the cork from the tiny bottle of Phoenix Tears and dripped them onto the wound. Before the great gash had even sealed, Hermione was carefully dribbling blood replenishing potion between Snape's teeth.
"He's dead, Hermione," Ron said sadly. "We're too late. His heart's stopped."
Hermione gave a muffled exclamation. She handed her wand to Harry, grasped Snape's nose with one hand and his chin with the other, and opened his mouth. Leaning down, she sealed her own lips over his. She blew into Snape's lungs, then allowed his chest to deflate and repeated the action.
"What in Merlin's name are you doing?" Ron demanded. Hermione sat up again, placed both hands on Snape's rib-cage and pushed down, hard and repeatedly.
"Muggle CPR," she snapped. "Harry, feel for a pulse in his throat. Ron, get ready to give him mouth-to-mouth."
"What? You want me to snog Snape? You're joking!"
"Just do it, Ron!"
"Hermione, look!" Harry pulled at her arm to stop her and together, they watched as Snape's narrow chest quivered, then rose as he drew in a breath. His face glimmered in the wand-light, as pale as a ghost, and his black lashes lay still, but Harry could feel the thread of a pulse next to the protrusion of his Adam's apple.
"Well," Ron said, sitting back on his heels, "that was easier than I expected."
"Only because my parents taught me first-aid and I managed to restart his heart. I hope we were quick enough to prevent brain damage."
Ron muttered something about no-one noticing the difference.
"Now we wait, I suppose," Harry said. "Let's hide out in one of the other rooms. I really, really need some sleep."
"Don't suppose you've got anything to eat?" Ron asked hopefully. Hermione smiled.
"Actually, I did manage to grab some bacon sandwiches and fruit and a bottle of pumpkin juice from the table before we left. Come on."
Hermione levitated Snape through the building, careful not to jolt him as she did so, while Ron banished the pool of blood. Harry transfigured a frayed old rag into a mattress and another into a blanket, and they made Snape as comfortable as they could. Then they transfigured themselves pillows, ate a light breakfast and settled down to rest and wait.
Heaven was not quite as good as it was cracked up to be, in Snape's opinion. He was lying on a stone floor, which was cold and hard beneath his bony joints, and the draught around his privates suggested that he was naked. He opened his eyes and immediately shut them again. He was lying in the main entrance hall of Hogwarts castle. Not heaven, then; this was more like hell. He drew in a deep breath. Yes, Hogwarts in summer, redolent with the scents of unwashed adolescents, house elf cooking, freshly mown grass and armour polish.
He sat up carefully, wondering what had happened to his wand and what he would do if anyone saw him like this. Was he Headmaster still, forced to relive that nightmare year over until he had atoned for his sins? Or was he simply Professor Snape, Head of a disliked house, teacher of an unpopular subject, skulking in the shadows and always on the edge of everything, never quite fitting in with the rest of the staff? Or – Merlin forbid – was he a student again, target of the Marauders from hell? In which case, experience suggested that Potter and Black would arrive very shortly, their instincts would draw them to the scent of his vulnerability like wasps to rotting fruit. He had better find himself a set of robes.
He got to his feet, turning towards the dungeons, and there on the floor lay a neatly folded bundle of black. When he shook it out, he identified one of his own teaching robes and pulled it on. There was no wand in the pocket but at least he was clothed, and his favourite dragon-hide boots were beneath the robe.
He became aware of sound; something in the distance whimpering in a high, thin voice, like an injured house elf or a cold, lost puppy.
"Ignore it, dear boy. There's nothing we can do."
Snape spun around, groping for his non-existent wand. Dumbledore stood there on the staircase; Dumbledore as he had been when Snape first joined the staff of Hogwarts. Standing tall and proud, his silver beard neatly combed and his blue eyes dancing with amusement at Snape's consternation, this was the Headmaster at the height of his power.
"What the hell is this place?" Snape demanded. He felt slightly sick with apprehension, although he suspected that his stomach, like everything else, was a figment of his own imagination and therefore immune to nausea. Dumbledore made a show of looking around.
"I have no idea. Where does it appear to be to you?"
Dumbledore pursed his lips.
"Really? I would have thought – well, never mind. This is your show, after all."
"In which case, what is that dreadful squealing sound?"
"Just a little something left over, something that should have gone on but was too afraid. Forget it, Severus. It is no longer our concern."
Deliberately turning his back upon the Headmaster, Snape strode towards the entrance to the dungeons, from whence the plaintive whining and thumping noises came. Sounds carried a long way in this version of Hogwarts; he tracked them all the way down to the Slytherin common room, where he discovered a small, flayed-looking thing that might once have been a child, huddled in the darkness beneath a chair.
"You can't help it, Severus." Dumbledore had followed him and was bending down beside him to peer at the creature through his half-moon spectacles.
"Why? Because it isn't worthy of help? Because it is, like me, a Slytherin?" Snape reached out to the thing and it recoiled. As it did so, he caught a glimpse of red eyes. It huddled tighter, against the wall, among the discarded sweet wrappers and dust.
"But you chose to redeem yourself, dear boy."
"Don't you 'dear boy' me, Albus!" Snape stood up, his chest on fire and belly churning with rage. "Don't you dare! You watched me turn to the Dark Arts because I had nowhere else to go, just as you watched him, and you did nothing! You let me flounder and then you threw me a lifeline and you reeled me in like a fish."
"You fed me crumbs of comfort, tiny gestures, splinters of affection eked out with teaspoons – just enough to keep me loyal, to enmesh me in your great plan, while at the same time ensuring I was sufficiently depressed to lack the will to escape. You tied me to my memories of my first real friend with ropes made out of guilt and self-loathing. You made sure that I would walk to my death when the time came with my head low and eyes on the ground, unable to back away. You sacrificed me, Albus, and you sacrificed Potter, to make up for your own grievous mishandling of another child who craved acceptance and respect, but who was considered worthy of neither because of a decision made when he was eleven years old, by a senile mediaeval artefact!"
Dumbledore sighed deeply. "All true, I fear."
Snape desperately wanted Dumbledore to bluster, to give him an excuse to punch his long, crooked nose, but the blue eyes gazed sadly at him and the old Headmaster stood with his hands folded in the sleeves of his glittering, multi-coloured robe. Snape drew himself up and spoke softly, with all the considerable venom at his disposal.
"You disgust me, Albus."
Then he turned away, wandlessly summoned vials of potion, and knelt down to attempt to ease the suffering of the bald, bleeding Slytherin child in the corner. As he poured pain relief and healing potions over the raw wounds, everything shimmered and melted away into blank white emptiness and he felt himself drifting away.
"Harry!" Hermione's voice seemed to come from a long way away. Harry tried to pull his blanket over his head to shut her out but she was insistent. "Come on, Harry, wake up, it's nearly morning!"
"Wassat?" he mumbled, rubbing his eyes and groping for his spectacles. "Is it time to go and fight him yet?"
"You've already done that, mate," Ron assured him and Hermione gave a rather shrill little giggle.
"And got the t-shirt. Listen!"
In the distance, under the sound of birds calling their greetings to the sun, were faint cries of jubilation from the castle, and nearer, the voices of the inhabitants of Hogsmeade, questioning and wondering, calling to one another, asking, “Is it over? Has he done it at last?"
"That's it," Ron said. "We made it. How's the greasy git?"
Hermione clicked her tongue in disapproval and leaned over the silent shape on the mattress.
"Unconscious, and not looking too good, but he's still alive."
"St Mungo's or the castle?" Ron asked, and they both looked at Harry.
"Hogwarts. I don't want some idiot cursing him because they think he's a traitor. We can keep an eye on him while he's there and Madam Pomfrey will listen to us, she won't hurt him."
Hermione cocked her head and reached out to touch Harry's arm.
"Is that us?"
They listened to Ron's voice calling, “The blood's gone and there's no sign of him.”
"Once we've gone back in time, it's all over and we can leave," Hermione whispered.
"Flaming complicated, this playing with time," Ron grumbled. "Did you go through all this messing about to rescue Sirius and Buckbeak?"
"It's a bit ironic, isn't it?" Hermione agreed. "Shh, we're going into the other room now."
"We safe to go?" Harry asked as she levitated Snape and waited while Ron banished the mattress, pillows and blankets.
"We've gone back in time," she confirmed. "Yes, we're safe to go."
Her words would come back to haunt them later.
Rather than try to evade the people gathering in Hogsmeade, they returned through the tunnel and yet again emerged from beneath the battered Whomping Willow.
"The wards came down," Ron remarked, "so look out for stray Death Eaters still lurking around."
"Yes, I did wonder if we ought to put the Invisibility Cloak over Professor Snape," Hermione said, "but it's probably better to keep it over Harry. After all, anyone who sees us will think we just went to collect the body; they won't know he's still alive."
"Keep an eye open, mate, just in case."
Harry shrugged, but after their last few months, he was not going to argue. As they walked through the grounds towards the castle, Harry was on high alert and he noticed a bird fly out of a bush.
It was a blackbird, flying low and fast with its distinctive alarm-call, a rapid-fire 'pink-pink-pink' as it sped away, and Harry sensed danger for a reason that he only recognised once he was crouching with his wand in his hand. The bird had flown towards them, not away from them, veering aside at the last moment. He spun towards the bush and threw up a Protego shield faster than he could speak the spell aloud. A dark, stick-shaped object whizzed through the air, hit the shield and vanished in a fountain of sparks, followed by a shower of the things from either side.
"What the hell?" Ron yelled, as one of the arrows ricocheted upwards, under the edge of Harry's shield charm, and tore through the hem of Ron's sweater, missing his side by a hair's breadth.
He added his own shield. Hermione lowered Snape to the ground and stepped over him, casting protections on his other side.
"Who's shooting at us?" she asked, sounding slightly panicky.
"I don't know, but they're powerful," Ron said. "They're destroying the Protego shields!"
"Send a Patronus for help!"
"Can't," Harry gasped, clutching his wand with both hands as he struggled to maintain the shield charm. "It's failing – can't hold it! Do something!"
"Hold it just another moment, then!" Hermione tugged at Ron's sleeve. "Quick, pick Snape up!"
Ron dropped his shield, leaving Harry and Hermione to protect them, and leaned down to scoop the unconscious Headmaster into his arms.
Hermione grasped Ron's arm with one hand and Harry's shoulder with the other, and spun them all into darkness with the familiar wrench of Apparation.
"I don't believe it," Harry groaned, flopping face-down into a patch of dog's mercury. "Not the Forest of fucking Dean again! Tell me I'm hallucinating!" At least one person's weight was pinning down his legs so that he was unable to move.
"We couldn't just dump Professor Snape in Tottenham Court Road, could we? Are you all right?" Hermione asked, rather breathlessly. "I hope no-one's splinched this time."
Ron grunted. "Nah, just landed on a patch of stinging nettles. Ouch!"
"Miss Granger!" The voice came from somewhere down by Harry's left knee. It was weak and scratchy, but that foreboding baritone could only possibly belong to one man. "Kindly remove your hand from my genitals at once."
This was hell, oh yes, and the demons were armed not with pitchforks but with wands, and they stared at him out of the drawn and grubby faces of the Golden Trio. How subtle were the workings of fate, indeed. To be cast into the fires by the Marauders would have been too easy, wouldn't it? He could have sworn at them and hated them with a clear conscience. Arrogant, pure-blooded James Potter, who had everything handed to him on a plate for his entire life, including Lily; Sirius Black, the pitiless bully who thought nothing of throwing his schoolyard enemy to a ravening monster; or the cringing, cowardly traitor Pettigrew, or the spineless Lupin, a Prefect who had never lifted a finger to rein in his friends. Snape would have fought them even while knowing they condemned themselves to the fires by their actions.
Instead, like Dumbledore, Satan had to tangle him up in his own guilt and self-hatred, and inflict upon him the unique combination of tormentors and victims that were Potter, Granger and Weasley. He could recall with great clarity the fleeting, petty pleasure of sharpening his adder's tongue and vituperative wit upon these three children. Weasley, the bumbling idiot who possessed neither the intelligence of his two eldest brothers nor the casually cruel ingenuity of the twins; Granger, who could recite all her textbooks by heart, believed that she alone knew what was best for everyone else, though without a jot of originality or creative thinking; and – Potter. Potter, the clone of his father, swaggering and strutting through Hogwarts with his Invisibility Cloak and the conviction that he was the saviour of the western world.
Damn them, damn them all! They drove him to his limits, forcing him to expose himself for what he really was. In his darkest moments, he knew that he had turned into his own father, a bitter and vicious man who boosted his ego by bullying children. But unlike Tobias, he did not have the excuse of being a mere Muggle who was bewildered and frightened by magic.
He had hated the trio with a profound and gut-churning passion. Now, faced with them for eternity, he knew that hating them had always been the easy way out. Hatred was clean, unencumbered with the complexities of guilt and admiration and envy. He envied them their close friendships, he whose only close friend had turned against him when he was at his most vulnerable. Granger reminded him too much of Lily in her earnest intelligence. He envied Weasley for his loving family and the opportunities he squandered. As for Potter – well, for all his talk of spoiled and indulged brats, Snape had been uncomfortably aware since their Occlumency lessons that Petunia had never shown Potter a moment of affection and Snape was perversely, horribly pleased by that. Why should the child of his enemy, the child who was the cause of Lily's death, be granted a happy life? He had to hate Potter, had to, otherwise he might look too closely at his own feelings of inadequacy.
He heaved himself up onto one elbow. His head spun but he knew better than most the perils of allowing his weakness to show. Who knew what the demons would do once they understood his vulnerability?
"Professor!" Granger exclaimed. She was still pink with embarrassment, which was good; he had knocked her off-balance. It had also seemed to ignite Weasley's protective instincts, and he loomed behind her, his flaming red hair turned into a halo by the sunlight behind it. There was something oddly familiar about the view behind the teenagers; a wide expanse of woodland with oaks and beech and ash, definitely not the Forbidden Forest of Hogwarts.
"What the devil have you done?" he demanded, or at least, tried to, but he felt dizzy and he thought he might be sick. His voice sounded horribly thin and he could barely keep his eyes open. Granger reached to touch his forehead and he attempted to push her away but aborted the action. His thin hand flopped to the ground like a landed fish.
"He's cold and clammy," Granger muttered. "Blood-loss and shock. We need to get him somewhere warm."
"I'll Apparate to Hogwarts and get help," Potter said. He stood there against the bright sky, tousled and scruffy, but there was something about him, about all three of them, that forced Snape to pay attention. They had changed and he could not quite put his finger on how or why.
"Stay under the Cloak until you reach the castle, just in case," Granger advised him.
"Oh bugger!" Potter said. Weasley stared at him, his brow wrinkled. He ought to have looked stupid; Snape knew the boy was an idiot, and yet...
"The Cloak?" Weasley asked.
"Yeah, I dropped it when I was casting the Shield Charm. We left it behind. Look, I'll go anyway, and keep up a Protego. Stay here and I'll—"
"No!" Granger clutched at his sleeve. "No, wait, let's just think about this. We've split up before and it was a very bad thing, wasn't it?"
"True," Weasley agreed, nodding enthusiastically. Potter sighed.
"Okay. What do you suggest?"
"Let's get Professor Snape comfortable and then decide."
Granger held up a filthy, battered, beaded bag. Weasley snorted.
"You're not going to go anywhere without that for the rest of your life, are you?"
"Too right," she said.
Lying still, Snape felt marginally better. The wretched girl was correct, he had not been given sufficient blood-replenishing potion or anything for the shock of having had his throat torn out by a monstrous reptile. He watched as the trio gathered around the ratty, old bag and extracted from it a small, equally scruffy tent, which they erected in a remarkably short space of time. They then proceeded to walk around the tent casting protective charms.
At first he felt a perfectly satisfactory level of scorn for their efforts. This pleased him. The world was running along its allotted path. His satisfaction faded, however, as they completed their Muggle-repelling charms and moved on to setting up wards. The first few were solid, strong, if pedestrian wards straight out of the textbook; it would have taken Snape a few minutes or more to break them. But they did not stop when he expected them to; they kept going, working together in a quiet harmony that was almost eerie and the gathering power of the multiple protections raised prickles over his skin. When they stopped, he wondered if the combined efforts of Dumbledore, Flitwick and McGonagall could have done any better, and the only comfort he found was that his own wards would have contributed a darker magic than anything that these three could manage.
Of course he had forgotten that he was in hell, and hell was the place where everything he had believed in turned out to be false. He fell into an exhausted sleep while waiting for them to mock him.
Snape mumbled something and struggled feebly as they transferred him into one of the lower bunk beds.
"We need to get you out of your robe, Professor," Hermione told him, "it's soaked in blood. Can you give me a hand, Harry?"
Harry thought that he had got used to the surreal things that had happened throughout his life. Hadn't he faced a Cerberus, werewolves, Acromantulas, a Basilisk, a dragon, giants and a Dark Lord? So why did it feel so strange, supporting Snape's weight as Hermione gently stripped off the blood-stiffened robe? Beneath it, Snape wore a white cotton shirt, black waistcoat and trousers of a woollen mixture. His black, dragon-hide boots were polished to a high sheen, apart from a few smears of blood. He was alarmingly small, compared with the vast, looming presence that Harry remembered from his school days. The Headmaster was definitely not as tall as Ron and he might have been skinnier than Harry himself, judging by the feel of the angular body slumped against his side. Harry lowered him back against the pillows. Was it a sign of adulthood, then, to see the vulnerability in his old teacher? Or was it an after-effect of watching Snape's memories, recognising that the git was just a man like any other?
"There, sir, you should be a bit more comfortable now," Hermione said, tucking a blanket around Snape and flicking her wand to cast a warming charm.
Snape sighed and asked in a hoarse whisper, "Miss Granger, am I in hell?"
Hermione frowned, looking concerned, but replied in a bracing voice reminiscent of Madam Pomfrey. "Of course not, sir. You're perfectly safe."
"Then stop patronising me, you foolish girl."
Hermione's mouth dropped open, then snapped shut again.
"Oy, there's no need to get snotty with Hermione when she's only trying to help!" Ron shouted from where he was ferreting in a cupboard for food – not that there was much of anything left after their months on the run.
"Weasley," Snape murmured. "Oh joy unbounded, at the mercy of Gryffindors again. Story of my life." He reached up, probing at his neck where the wounds from Nagini's attack had been magicked away by the power of Fawkes' tears. Clearly confused, he allowed his hand to drop again. "Why is Potter not dead?"
Ron swelled up and flushed with impending rage, but Hermione grabbed his arm as he strode across the tent.
"Don't, Ron, he's barely conscious, he probably doesn't even know what he's saying."
"Never in my life have I not known exactly what I was saying," Snape whispered.
"So all the insults and spite were for real, then," Harry said. Snape's thin hands clutched at the blanket covering his body.
"Potter." The word came out in a pained rasp. "What are you doing here, you idiot?"
"Trying to save your life," Harry told him. "It's all right, Professor, honestly it is. He's dead, I finished him exactly like I was supposed to."
Snape's back flexed and he gritted his teeth for a moment, so that Harry thought that he must be in pain, then realised that Snape was trying to sit up.
"You were meant to die!"
There was such agony, such desolation in that cry, that Harry forgot all his thoughts of getting his revenge on the man who had helped to make his childhood even more difficult and frustrating than it should have been. He very nearly reached out to touch Snape, then thought better of it.
"I know," he said, trying to sound reassuring. "I did. Or at least, his curse destroyed the Horcrux in my scar, but I survived. Then when he cursed me again, the curse rebounded and killed him, because I was the master of the Elder Wand. That's it, basically."
"Apart from Neville being a bloody hero," Ron added proudly. "Good man, Neville. He defied Voldemort and killed Nagini."
Snape gave a little huff – of surprise rather than amusement, Harry thought.
"Yeah, Professor, he was brilliant."
"I knew it," Snape mumbled, "I am definitely dead and imagining you all. Thank Merlin for that."
They stared at him in surprise as he nestled into the blankets and let out a sigh. His next breath was a faint snore.
"Well it is quite funny," Ron said. He had found some instant coffee powder and dried milk and the three of them sat drinking mugs of cheap coffee and listening to the birdsong. "I mean, if he's convinced that he's imagining us, we can tell him what we really think of him."
"And what's that, Ronald?" Hermione asked sweetly. Ron's eyes crinkled as he smiled at her, reminding Harry of his older brothers, so that he thought of Fred and George with a sharp stab of loss.
"He's a hero, of course," Ron said. Hermione snorted and Ron stretched out his long legs and stared at his worn, filthy trainers. "And he really ought to be able to brew himself a decent shampoo. And he's a sadistic, evil-tempered tosser."
"He didn't give a rat's arse what anyone thought about him," Harry said. "He never expected to live through the war."
"He wanted an Order of Merlin once," Hermione pondered. "Don't you remember, when he thought he'd caught Sirius? He was incandescent with rage when he realised it was slipping through his fingers."
"By the end, he just wanted it all to be over," Harry said. He understood, because as he walked to his death, he had felt the same. Except that Snape had stared death in the face for year upon year, and Harry did not know how anyone could do that and stay sane, or whatever passed for sanity in Snape's world. A hair-trigger temper and a sadistic pleasure in bullying children resulted from Snape's life of unbelievable stress. He was simply passing on the misery to anyone within hexing range.
"Harry," Hermione said thoughtfully, "which wand did you use to cast Protego?"
Harry frowned, then drew his wand. He had automatically grasped the handle of the wand that nestled into his palm with the warm comfort of long familiarity: his original wand of holly and phoenix feather, his mended wand.
Hermione looked smug. "I thought so. You had nearly as much trouble holding off those missiles as Ron and I did. I bet the Elder Wand would have no trouble protecting you."
"I'll go back to Hogwarts," Harry decided. "I'll Apparate as close as I can get to where we left from, under a Protego cast with the Elder Wand, then I'll Accio the Cloak, go up to the castle and come back with help."
Ron shook his head.
"Don't just march up to the castle. They might be under attack themselves, or there might be Death Eaters lying in wait for you. Keep the Cloak on, mate."
"Be careful, Harry," Hermione said, and there was a note of slight hysteria in her voice.
"I will," he promised. "Won't be long."
Harry popped into existence on the lawn, casting Protego as he did so. Hogwarts lay battered but undefeated beneath the sun and he could see figures in the distance, clustered near the main entrance. Harry cautiously lowered his shield to Summon the Invisibility Cloak.
Something slammed into his leg, just above the knee, with such excruciating force that he was knocked to the ground. Slender, dark arrows whizzed past on either side and he raised the Elder Wand and recast the shield charm. Pain shot up and down his thigh and his heart hammered in his chest. The Cloak fluttered nearby and he gritted his teeth and dragged himself towards it, holding his Protego as the Wand vibrated in his grasp. Every movement sent an agonising jolt through his leg. As soon as he seized the hem of the Cloak, he Transfigured a twig into a stout staff, used it to haul himself to his feet and twisted on the spot.
He concentrated so hard on 'destination, determination and deliberation' that he fell over the guy ropes of the tent as he landed. The resulting burst of agony in his leg almost made him throw up. There was a dull buzzing noise and the green and brown of the trees seemed to go black and fuzzy around the edges. He dimly heard Ron's voice and Hermione's cry of shock, and then it all faded away.
"Harry?" The voice was so familiar, concerned and comforting. Good old Hermione, he thought. There was a decidedly unpleasant taste in his mouth; a blood replenishing potion, he realised, with memories of Quidditch injuries and of brewing the potion with Slughorn in his final year at school. He wondered why the hospital wing was filled with birds, all singing cheerfully.
"He's coming round," said Ron. "How are you feeling, mate?"
"A bit groggy," Harry admitted. "Did I fall off my broom? Who won the match?" Hermione gasped and he grinned and opened his eyes. "Just kidding. Someone shot me."
"I know," Hermione said grimly, holding up an arrow with a shiny, black head. "I pulled this out of your leg. You were very lucky you didn't bleed to death or splinch yourself!"
"It feels fine," Harry said, in surprise, feeling his leg with both hands. He could not even tell where the wound had been.
"We used dittany, blood replenishing potion and the last of the phoenix tears," Hermione told him. "What happened?"
"They were lying in wait," Harry explained. "Did I bring the Cloak back?"
Ron waved the Cloak at him. Hermione sat down on the end of Harry's bed, her hands clasped between her knees.
"We shouldn't have let you go alone," she said. She sounded distraught and Ron immediately plopped down beside her.
"Yeah," he said, nodding, rather annoyingly, in Harry's opinion, "after everything, I mean, to survive all the curses and then get killed by an arrow – almost as daft as being offed by a snake!"
"How is Professor Snape?" Harry asked.
"Asleep. He really needs some more blood replenisher but we're almost out," Hermione said, "and we ought to save a bit in case someone else does something silly like get themselves shot." Her eyes welled up and she cried out, "Oh Harry! You could have died!" and burst into tears. Ron put his arm round her, looking mildly uncomfortable.
"I know," Harry sighed, reaching up to pat her shoulder. "I'm sorry. It seemed like the sensible thing to do, get help from people who should have been helping us all along. The adults, you know?"
Hermione sniffled and gave him a watery smile as she wiped her eyes.
"I think we officially count as adults now, don't we?"
"Yeah," said Ron, "and the adult thing is try to get help or, failing that, plan things out carefully before we set off on another bloody mad rescue mission."
Hermione nudged him.
"When did you suddenly grow up?" There was a sudden stillness and she whispered, "Oh Ron, I'm sorry," and her lip trembled alarmingly. Ron sighed and gave her a squeeze.
"It isn't okay," she said miserably and to Harry's surprise, Ron dropped a swift kiss on the top of her bushy head.
"It will be, one day, won't it? Mum lost both her brothers in the first war and she still misses them. She says she always will. But it hasn't stopped her having a good life since then. I've got a big family and we all fought one way or another and I could have lost everyone, I could have lost you and Harry – I nearly did. I'll always miss F-Fred." He cleared his throat self-consciously and Hermione nestled into his arms.
"And Sirius and Cedric and Professor Dumbledore and Mad-Eye and Remus and Tonks and Colin and all the others," she said softly.
They were silent for a while, remembering. Harry couldn't get his last glimpse of Remus and Tonks out of his mind, her bright hair faded to the same grey-brown as her husband's and their faces peaceful, as if they had just fallen asleep.
"What's that noise?" Ron asked and Harry realised that he could hear an intermittent tapping sound.
"I'll go and see," Harry told them. He tested his weight on his leg but it felt fine, not a twinge to show where the arrow had struck. He popped his head out of the door of the tent. "Oh bugger," he said. Arrows were arching from the trees and slowly but steadily leaching away the power of the wards that Hermione had cast around the tent.
Snape clutched his pillow as Harry shook him by the shoulder.
"I'm sorry, but you've got to wake up," Harry said.
"Go 'way," Snape mumbled. "Sleeping. Feel like shit."
"I know, but we're being attacked, sir."
"What?" Snape blinked blearily up at him. "Potter? What're you doing here?"
"Professor, please wake up!"
Hermione was magically packing away the furniture while Ron leaned out of the front of the tent, adding to the wards.
Snape groaned and rolled over onto his back, throwing one arm across his eyes to block out the daylight. "Is this real?"
"Yes, sir, I'm afraid it is. Now come on!"
Snape threw off the blankets, sat up and swung his legs off the bed, only to hang his head and brace his hands on his knees.
"Sir?" Hermione asked anxiously but he waved her away, took an unsteady breath and pushed himself to his feet, where he swayed alarmingly. Never anything other than pale, he looked as white as parchment in the diffuse light.
"Come on!" Ron yelled. "I can't hold them off much longer!"
Hermione seized one of Snape's arms and pulled it over her shoulder. After a moment's hesitation, Harry took his other side and they half-carried Snape out of the tent. Harry waved his wand and the tent folded itself up and dived into Hermione's bag. They had all learned that bundle of interlocking charms months ago. An arrow whizzed through the space that the tent had occupied and buried its head in the trunk of a tree, twanging for a moment as it vibrated. Hermione Accio-ed her bag then held out her free hand, Ron grabbed it and the wrench of Apparation sucked them away into darkness.
"Everyone all right?" enquired an irritatingly familiar, female voice. Snape felt himself slithering bonelessly through a couple of pairs of hands, unable to fend off an ignominious surge of vertigo after side-along Apparation. The dizziness and nausea eased once he was horizontal, and he found himself lying on his side, staring into short turf scattered with rabbit droppings. A breeze cooled his sweaty face and not far away he heard the steady suck and hiss of the sea.
"Yeah," Weasley said, "I'm good. Harry?"
"Fine," Potter confirmed. "Why are we on top of a cliff?"
"Whoever was shooting at us was hiding in bushes or trees both times. At least we can see anyone approaching here."
Snape hated that she was right.
"Let's put up the tent," Granger said, as bossy as ever. "We'll need Muggle-repelling charms, I expect there's a public footpath along the coast, there usually is."
He had to face facts: this was real, a hell on earth rather than the afterlife that he had anticipated. What had he done to deserve a trip to the seaside with the Marauders Mk II? He hated feeling vulnerable; when hurt or sick, he would rather crawl off on his own than allow Pomfrey to fuss around him, but crawling off was hardly an option when he had little idea what was going on and felt as if he had been hit by the Knight Bus. He was entirely at the mercy of three unpredictable adolescents – adolescents with a grudge seven years long.
They erected the tent and put up their mishmash of charms and wards, then Granger, in her assumed persona of teacher's pet, took hold of his sleeve.
"Can you stand up, sir?"
He snatched his arm from her grasp and pushed himself up, riding out the inevitable light-headed spell that followed.
"There are no house points available here, Miss Granger."
"No," she said curtly, "I never assumed there were."
Even he felt that his comment had been a little unfair, since it had been her ingenuity that had kept herself and her coterie of adolescent males alive through a war, but when had Severus Snape ever worried about being fair? He drew himself up and realised that something was missing.
"Where are my robes?" he demanded in his most poisonous voice.
"They were caked with blood so we took them off," she said, and damn it if she wasn't almost smiling. Then she gave a little flick of one wrist and a dark wand slid down her sleeve into her grasp. Snape's reflexes were appallingly slow; he took far too long to realise that it was her left hand and that she was offering it to him, handle first. The sight of someone else's fingers curled around his birch wand set his teeth on edge. He seized it from her and felt the familiar, warm thrum of its magic settling into his bones. "That's a gesture of goodwill," she said.
"What's that?" Potter asked, coming up behind her.
"I gave Professor Snape his wand back," Granger said.
"Was that a good idea?" Weasley asked, tucking his own wand into his belt. She shrugged.
"Of course it was. He's always been on our side."
Weasley paused with his head tilted, gazing at Snape with a very intense expression. "No, we've always fought against the same enemy," he said, "that's not quite the same."
The comment echoed in Snape's head. It was the kind of thing a Slytherin might say, not a Gryffindor, yet Weasley was a true Gryffindor, all bravado and emotion and impulse. What the hell was going on here?
"Good point," Potter said, "but I agree about the wand, though. It isn't as if he's going to curse us, is it?"
"You sure about that?" Weasley asked with a little snort of laughter. He ducked inside the tent and Potter followed him, and Granger looked at Snape and said, "Coming, sir? I think we've got some coffee left, at least," before leaving him standing on the cliff top, wondering if he had fallen into some parallel universe. He knew that he was still too weak to Apparate, so he had no choice but to enter the tent behind them.
"We need food," Weasley was saying as Snape gingerly stood upright again.
"You need food, you mean," Granger said affectionately. "It looks like there's a Muggle town or village further round the coast, we can walk that far."
"Apparate," Weasley corrected her as he Summoned mugs from a cupboard, but she shook her head.
"Every time we've Apparated, they've found us within minutes. It isn't too far to walk, but we're going to have to steal again and I hate that."
They were sitting in armchairs and had left the middle one for Snape, as if they considered that he belonged in their little ragtag tribe. They were his students; they should be clustered around him, awaiting instructions, not carrying on as if he was barely there! The teacher in him, the Headmaster, demanded that they shut up and listen to him, but the Slytherin pointed out that he might gain more by keeping quiet and listening, particularly as he really had not much idea what was going on.
"Do you want anything?" Potter asked, tapping the kettle with his wand.
"A mug of strong Yorkshire tea with two sugars and a splash of milk, and a fag, ideally a Woodbine."
All three stared at him and Snape allowed himself a little smirk.
"Sorry," Potter said, "we've only got crap coffee with dried milk, but it's hot and wet and it's got caffeine in it."
Snape shrugged and took the empty seat.
"Tell me what happened," he commanded, "after the Dark Lord set his snake on me. Explain how I am still alive."
Potter handed him a mug and began speaking. He was right; the coffee was dire.
"...So we haven't a clue who attacked us or why, only that they were firing these." Harry held out the arrow that Hermione had extracted from his leg. Snape took it and examined it closely.
"I see," said dryly, giving no indication whether he recognised the weapon. Knowing Snape, Harry realised that he would be just as reluctant to give away information as to admit ignorance.
"The answer's simple," Ron said, drawing his wand, "all we've got to do is send a Patronus to someone we trust, like my dad or McGonagall."
"No!" The exclamation came from both Hermione and Snape, and Snape scowled at her as if she had interrupted a lesson with an inappropriate question. Then he lifted an eyebrow and waited with a faintly cynical twist to his lips. Harry had forgotten, or perhaps not wanted to remember what a bastard the man really was. Snape clearly expected Hermione to say something wrong, but after all this time, Harry trusted Hermione's knowledge implicitly. She frowned but turned to Ron.
"We're hidden behind the wards but Apparating seems to draw their fire because Apparating is external, either going out through the wards or starting out from outside them. Sending a Patronus would be the same, it would have to penetrate the wards. Besides, do we want to lead whoever it is back to your parents or to Hogwarts without even knowing who they are or why they're attacking? How would we feel if your dad or one of the teachers arrived here to help and was immediately shot before they could even cast a shield? Those things can kill; a single shot in the leg almost killed Harry!"
"I'd feel happier if I knew what they were," Ron muttered, glancing at Snape. Snape folded his arms.
"Naturally your happiness is my primary concern, Weasley," he said.
All three glared at him and Ron opened his mouth to say something unpleasant. Harry's reflexes were back to normal after sleep and a dose of coffee; he grabbed Ron's elbow and squeezed hard enough to distract him. Ron flinched but got the message, and Harry realised that both Ron and Hermione were waiting for his reaction.
Harry still felt sufficiently well-disposed towards Snape to quash his initial impulse to get angry and shout. It was harder to control the second, to tell the git to be polite to his friends or else they would all leave him to his own devices. That, however, would result in a battle for dominance and Harry knew that if it came to a showdown, Snape would most likely win.
Damn it, hadn't he just defeated the Darkest wizard in the world? Harry took in a breath and it was as if a sudden Lumos came on in his head. It was up to him to be the adult here, to show that he was a bigger man than Snape where it mattered.
"Headmaster Snape," he said in a neutral voice, "do you know what that thing is?"
There was silence for a moment and Harry realised, with a carefully suppressed sense of amusement, that he had put Snape on the spot. He also realised why Snape had turned snide and supercilious; Hermione's conclusion must have been correct, otherwise Snape would have taken great delight in pointing out her errors. Unwilling to agree with her, or for Merlin's sake, actually praise her answer, he had turned his sarcasm on Ron to distract them. He was as bad as Uncle Vernon, who invariably shouted at Harry whenever Dudley did anything silly.
"An arrow," Snape said, which was hardly helpful, but Harry was beginning to get a feel for Snape-speak.
Hermione gave Harry a tiny wink and rather to Harry's surprise, Ron asked, "Do you know who uses arrows like this, sir?"
After a longer pause, in which Harry was sure that Snape was weighing up the advantages of lying, Snape held up the projectile so that the black head reflected the light with a dull sheen.
"The head's made of knapped flint, isn't it?" Hermione enquired, leaning closer. The teacher in Snape won out over the git.
"Yes, Miss Granger. The body is made of wood from the hawthorn tree and the fletching from the feathers of a wild goose." He touched the arrowhead lightly, stroking the sharp edges with a narrow finger. "The heads used to be called 'elf-bolts' by Muggles who dug them up. Even they understood that these were the weapons of the Little People of legend."
"Elves? Like, house-elves?" Ron asked. Snape sneered.
"Oh yes, Mr Weasley, because house-elves go around shooting people with arrows."
This time, Hermione caught Ron with a timely jab to the ankle with her toe. He stared at her for a moment then shut his mouth with a snap and sat back in his armchair, his gaze darting from her to Harry and then back to Snape.
"Are there other kinds of elves?" Hermione asked with a degree of scepticism in her voice, "like in fairy stories?"
Occasionally Harry's mental processes reacted as swiftly as his physical reflexes. "Fairy stories like in 'Beedle the Bard', you mean?"
Ron got there too, after a moment.
"So the stories about the Little People are true? The Fair Folk? You mean there really are wild elves?" Then he stared straight at Snape and waited with his ginger eyebrows raised.
"Well, Mr Weasley?"
"We don't do them in Defence classes."
"Because they are neither Dark nor are they usually of any significance in the lives of witches and wizards. You are not told about them in the same way that we don't teach you not to run head-first into oak trees; it is not that oak trees are not dangerous under those circumstances, but that you are assumed to have sufficient common sense not to head-butt them."
"Hang on," Ron said, "you learn not to bang your head on trees as a toddler, your mum teaches you that!"
"Around the time that your parents teach you not to uproot thorn trees or dance in fairy rings, am I correct?"
"Fairies are little things with wings, they can't shoot arrows!" Ron exclaimed.
"And house-elves work in houses," Snape said laconically.
"Different species, obviously," Hermione said as if to herself. "Are they related to house-elves? Common ancestry?"
Snape nodded once, grudgingly.
"Bloody hell! What've we done to annoy them, then?" Ron demanded and Snape's lip curled. Defence, Harry thought. Snape's sarcasm and spite were all defensive, and that made Harry feel better. His annoyance faded and he wondered what had irritated Snape now.
"Oh," he said in yet another Lumos moment, "it isn't us, is it, Headmaster? They're after you!"
Damn it all, the green-eyed brat was right and Snape had no choice but to admit it. They were in considerable danger, or at least, he was in danger and they were, too, while they associated with him. The fact that Potter was attacked when he returned to Hogwarts meant that the association could not be easily broken, either. If he sent the three Gryffindor idiots on their way, not only would the trio be in peril but he would be a sitting duck on his own.
"Yes," he said, then realised there was no reason to take the blame for absolutely everything, regardless of the regrettable Dumbledore fiasco. "The Dark Lord had many and varied interests. Long before he turned his energies to finding the Elder Wand, he instructed his inner circle to search for other sources of magical power. He came across references to faerie stones, gems which the wild elves collected and imbued with particular qualities during their rituals. I had the opportunity to obtain a number of these items. I strongly suspect that their original owners want them back."
Granger gazed at him with rapt attention, soaking up information with her usual greed. Weasley frowned.
"You mean you stole from the Fair Folk? All the old stories say horrible things happen to people who steal from the Fair Folk."
"You noticed," Snape said dryly, "congratulations."
"So they won't stop attacking us until we give them their gems back," Potter said.
"Well, give 'em back, then!" Weasley said, folding his arms and nodding. "Simple."
"If I actually possessed the gems, yes, but as I don't carry them in my pockets, Mr Weasley, we have something of a problem."
"Great," Potter muttered, "this's turning into another Horcrux hunt."
There was a pause until Granger asked, "What're we going to do, then?"
After another long silence, Weasley took in a deep breath and Snape braced himself for another devastating insight. "Find something to eat?"
"We'll have to steal again," Granger said miserably.
"Can we Accio some fish out of the sea?" Potter suggested. Snape slid his hand inside his waistcoat, removed his dragon-hide wallet and extracted three twenty pound notes.
"For Merlin's sake get some decent tea and buy me a packet of Woodbines."
"Sir, is smoking a good idea after..." something about Snape's expression made Granger's voice trail off, then she reached out and took the money. "Yes, sir. Is there anything else you'd like?"
"Fish and chips will do, I have no doubt there will be a take-away of some description. Now if you don't mind, I shall return to bed."
It was quite clear that Snape was going to take a bottom bunk whether they minded or not. Ron, Hermione and Harry watched him lower himself onto the bed, pull off his boots and then wrap himself in the blankets. He fell asleep within a few minutes.
"He didn't put any wards up," Hermione said as she erected a silencing charm so that their voices did not wake him. "He must trust us."
"He looks totally knackered," Ron said, "almost as knackered as we do, and he isn't young and fit like us!"
"Speak for yourself!" she said, grinning. "Right, we'd better go shopping before the shops shut. Who's staying here with the Headmaster?"
Harry took a deep breath and mentally geared himself up for an argument, when Ron said quietly, "Me." He gave a lopsided little shrug. "You two know how to handle Muggles and you can take the Elder Wand and the Cloak. If we get attacked again I'll wake Snape and if we can't hold them off between us, I'll Apparate us to that big motor-road roundy-bout thing we camped on in Birmingham and put up anti-Muggle charms."
"I shouldn't think the wild elves would like Spaghetti Junction much," Hermione agreed, reaching up to kiss him. "If anything goes wrong, we'll meet you on the Gravelly Hill Interchange on the M6. Be careful, Ron."
"And you." Ron gave Harry a look that promised dire things if he didn't look after Hermione, as if she wasn't capable of looking after herself, and they set off.
It was strange, walking down the limestone path into a car park, and then into the little seaside town. Harry felt as if he had stepped into another world, a normal, everyday existence in which people ate ice cream and walked dogs on the beach. They passed shops displaying postcards, model lighthouses and plastic nets of brightly coloured beach balls. Girls in school uniforms bought sweets and clustered in little groups on the pavement, whispering to each other about the boys who jostled and smirked at them from the other side of the road. They seemed so immature and naive, yet some of them were only a year or two younger than Harry and Hermione.
"Makes you feel old, doesn't it?" she said, turning in at the doorway to a small supermarket and grabbing a trolley. They bought tea, coffee, milk and eggs, fruit and cans of beans, bread and sausages.
"Are you over eighteen?" the woman behind the cigarette counter demanded when Harry attempted to buy Snape's Woodbines; he was forced to cast a mild Confundus charm before she passed over the little packet. They packed the groceries into plastic carrier bags and cast feather-light charms, before following their noses along the high street to a fish and chip shop. Harry's stomach gurgled hungrily as Hermione ordered what looked like enough supper for eight and they walked back up the hill accompanied by a miasma of fried fish.
Harry knew that he would be unable to see the tent until Ron let him through the wards, but he hurried along the cliff top and his heart-rate did not settle until he felt the pressure of powerful charms against his face and chest. Hermione stopped behind him and he distantly heard Ron's voice.
"What's the name of the best Quidditch team ever?"
Harry snorted. "Chudley Cannons, according to you."
Stepping through the wards was like pushing through a huge, tough bubble. Ron stood with his wand in hand, poised for battle, until Hermione followed Harry and he relaxed.
"None. Anything exciting happen here?"
"Not unless you count listening to Snape snoring." He sniffed and stared at the large parcel in Hermione's arms. "Is that what I hope it is?"
"Battered cod, saveloys, mushy peas, beans, curry sauce, cans of cola and a huge bag of chips," she said and he smiled widely and exclaimed, "Did I ever tell you how much I love you?" at which she rolled her eyes.
Snape had never been one to be ruled by his appetite, but life did appear a little less grim once he was outside a portion of cod, chips and mushy peas. The simple, if greasy, food was reminiscent of his childhood; his father had occasionally arrived home with a newspaper-wrapped package of fish and chips on payday if he was in a good mood. Snape and his parents would sit around the wonky kitchen table, eating chips laden with salt and vinegar and washing them down with tea strong enough to tan leather.
"Here you are, sir." Granger handed him a mug of tea and waited as he sipped. Two sugars, a small amount of milk and the mug was slightly chipped, as demanded by the guild of builders and bricklayers everywhere.
"It could have been stronger," he told her, but she was learning; she appeared neither disheartened nor apologetic.
"You're welcome to make it yourself next time, Headmaster," she said in a deceptively mild tone, the little minx. All three of the trio seemed to have acquired a few Slytherin tendencies of late.
One of them had even managed to clean the dried blood out of his robes; he hoped they had thought to banish it thoroughly but did not want to ask in case he gave them ideas. Not that the innocent heroes of the Light would dream of using blood magic, of course.
"Oh yeah, I got you these," Potter scrabbled around in one of the grocery bags and handed over a packet of cigarettes.
Snape almost forgot himself and thanked him, but caught the impulse in time. The defeat of the Dark Lord was no excuse; he dared not allow himself to go mellow, he was too bloody vulnerable as it was. He took himself off outside the tent, dragging a dining chair, settled himself facing the sea, wrapped his robes around himself and lit a cigarette. After a few minutes, he was joined by the three stooges carrying their mugs of tea. They sat upwind of him and they all watched the seagulls drifting lazily past on the evening breeze.
Hermione had been concerned that innocent Muggles might sidestep their keep-away charms too widely and tumble down the cliff, so she had extended the wards all the way to the cliff's edge, enclosing a large wind-blown gorse bush. Something rustled beneath the gorse and Harry's hand went to his wand, but he relaxed as what appeared to be a potato on little legs popped out of a hole and scuttled across the turf, completely ignoring him.
A long, lithe shape rippled out of the gorse bush and hurtled in pursuit of the gnome, which bolted. The gnome struck the inside of the wards at full speed and bounced off, hitting its pursuer on the head and bowling it over, before running along the perimeter of the wards and diving over the cliff. The dazed animal resembled an overgrown polecat, chestnut brown in the body, paler over the head and underside, with black paws and a black stripe across its eyes rather like a bandit's mask. It regained its feet, shook itself, glowered in the direction that the gnome had disappeared and then turned its beady black eyes towards the watching humans. Its nose twitched and it sat up on its hind legs to stare at them.
"Bugger me," it said in a shrill voice, "fucking wizards! Go on, give us a chip, you bastards, a poor sod could starve to death out here now you've frightened away me chuffing supper!"
Snape had his wand trained on the creature from the first word. Harry and Hermione gaped but Ron burst out laughing.
"You're a Jarvey!"
"And you're a long streak of piss, carrot-head," the creature said mildly. "Go on, I can smell the vinegar from here, sodding weeks since I had a decent meal. Nothing but fucking gnomes to eat up here."
"What are you doing here?" Snape demanded in a deadly quiet voice.
The Jarvey cocked its head to one side. "Bugger all, you great tit."
Harry had visions of the creature being blasted into mincemeat for its temerity, but Snape simply flicked his wand and the Jarvey hung upside-down in the air, squeaking in indignation.
"Put me down, tosser!"
"When you have explained why a thoroughly magical creature is living on a cliff-top next to a Muggle town."
"Gnomes," it whimpered, "gotta eat something, there's a colony of pissing gnomes in the gorse."
"Why here?" Snape demanded. The Jarvey squirmed, realised that it could not escape and went limp, its little pink tongue lolling.
"Got dumped," it muttered. It looked away, blinking, as if embarrassed. "Used to live with a fucking wizard, didn't I? His bleeding familiar, I was, and lived like a pig in shit until he got himself hitched to some prissy cunt of a witch. Said she was having a fucking baby and I had to go, that I'd be a chuffing bad influence. Said he had to bloody drown me or else she'd AK me, the bitch. So he dropped me off here and told me to scarper and he'd tell the baggage I'd got the chop." The Jarvey sniffled and pawed at its face. "Go on, put me down, you old arsehole. I ain't done you no harm."
Snape slowly lowered the creature to the ground, where it began grooming its rumpled fur and swearing under its breath.
Hermione ducked into the tent and emerged with the leftovers from their supper.
"I'm afraid the chips have gone rather soggy," she said as she placed the plate on the ground.
"You're a bleeding angel!" the Jarvey exclaimed and almost nose-dived into the pile of food in its enthusiasm.
"I was going to have that later," Ron said, as they watched the Jarvey consuming chips, baked beans and the scraps of batter that Snape had picked off his fish.
"I think his need's greater than yours," Hermione told him.
"Is it a he?" Ron asked curiously.
"It certainly looked like it, from what I could see when he was upside-down."
"Admiring me hairy bollocks, were you?" the Jarvey asked, albeit in a rather muffled voice.
"Revolting creature," Snape muttered, replacing his wand in his sleeve.
"And you're no bleeding oil-painting, tosser. I'm a sodding Jarvey, what d'you fucking expect, poetry? I know a few dirty limericks, mind." It sat up to wipe its whiskers with its front paws.
"What's your name?" Ron asked.
"I was only being friendly!"
The Jarvey stuck out its tongue. "Tosspot. That's me name, innit!"
"What, your name's 'Wanker'?"
"Yeah, so? What part of 'I'm a sodding Jarvey' didn't you get?"
"My brothers would love you!" Ron crowed and then suddenly went very still. Hermione reached out and clasped his hand and he looked out to sea and cleared his throat. "Yeah, well, George would, anyway."
"And your mother would have apoplexy," Snape said rather repressively. He was staring at Ron with a slight frown and Harry realised that they had shied away from telling Snape the details of the Battle of Hogwarts.
"Fred didn't make it," he said quietly and Snape's black eyes flickered from him to Ron and back.
"Who else?" he asked. The Jarvey sat down and resumed grooming, licking his front paws and wiping them carefully across his face and ears.
"Remus and Tonks, Colin Creevy..."
Hermione, Ron and Harry listed the names of those whom they had identified among the fallen, while Snape listened gravely.
"And my Slytherins?"
"Professor McGonagall sent them away before the battle," Hermione said. She opened her mouth to add something else, caught Harry's slight head-shake and subsided again. He knew that she would try to make excuses for their old Head of House.
"I see," Snape said, getting to his feet. He tapped the pack of cigarettes on his wrist until one slid out, put it to his lips and lit it with a flick of one finger, such a casual use of wandless, wordless magic that Harry realised it was an old habit, long ingrained. He drew in the smoke and released it in a slender plume, making Harry think of a slightly indolent dragon, and stared out into the sunset.
"Life's shit, innit?" remarked the Jarvey. "The alternative's pretty crap, too, or so I'm told."
"It wasn't so bad," Harry said and Snape nodded and blew a smoke-ring that drifted away out to sea and dispersed.
Snape came from sleep to wakefulness without moving, an ability that had saved his life more than once over the years. He identified the gentle, arrhythmic patter of rain upon the taut canvas of the tent. He felt lethargic and a stabbing pain behind his right eye warned of an impending migraine later in the day, but the bed was not uncomfortable and his feet were unusually cosy. He wondered if one of the trio had cast a warming charm during the night, then the warmth twitched and a tiny voice squeaked, "Fucketty-fuck, come 'ere you bastard!" and Snape’s wand slid into his hand even as he realised that Wanker was asleep on the bottom of his bed, no doubt dreaming of gnomes. He pulled the pillows up behind his head and looked around.
He could see a mop of untidy brown hair on the opposite bunk, but the pale, ginger-haired calf exposed at the other end of the bed definitely did not belong to Granger. He gritted his teeth and looked away before he saw more than his stomach could tolerate first thing in the morning. He did not feel up to Having Words with the blasted lovebirds and hoped that Granger, with her usual levels of over-achievement, had remembered the contraceptive charms taught in fourth year. The thought of her voracious appetite for learning combined with the Weasley ability to create mayhem made him grateful that he was unlikely to ever set eyes upon the next generation, let alone teach them.
Potter must have taken one of the top bunks. Snape suppressed a flicker of curiosity; why in Merlin's name should a sleeping Potter be of any more interest than the other two? He lay still and mentally tuned out the sounds of his breathing, the rain and the snuffling of the Jarvey. The absolute dead quiet from both of the opposite bunks indicated silencing charms. Well, obviously Granger did not want her nasty old teacher to know that she was shagging her red-haired Romeo, but why on earth should Potter have bothered? He snorted. Maybe Potter was missing his own little red-head. The thought that Potter was masturbating to fantasies of Ginevra Weasley was more unsettling than knowing what Granger and Weasley-the-sixth were up to. Potter, whether he liked it or not, was a designated hero of the Wizarding World and even if Ginevra was less vapid than most of her contemporaries, she was still a thoughtless little chit who was far too easily influenced by her over-ambitious mother. Snape had tolerated Arthur, William and Charles Weasley, found Percy too self-important to be likable, reluctantly admired the evil genius of the twins and dismissed Ronald, but he invariably avoided Molly like the dragon pox. All he could say in the wretched woman's favour was that she was patient with small children. Shallow and emotional, she was the kind of witch who made him glad that he had sorted out his preferences before he could commit himself. No wonder Bill and Charlie fled to Egypt and Romania as soon as they were able; Molly would control every aspect of her offspring's miserable lives for as long as she possibly could, and her precious little princess would need to fight ten times harder than the boys to gain her freedom. He doubted that she had it in her. If Ginevra got her claws into Potter, the pair of them would be chained to the Burrow for eternity.
He shuddered and drowsed with visions of Molly Weasley, clad in a wrap-around apron and wielding a wooden spoon in one hand and her wand in the other, shrieking, "Severus Snape! How dare you let that Muggle girl touch my boy! How dare you allow those poor children to be out on their own! Unchaperoned! They could be up to anything! They might be having sex!"
"Fuck off," he breathed, mentally casting hexes.
"That's the ticket," chirped a small voice down by his ankles. "Fuckeration."
"That isn't a word," Snape said.
"Buggered if I care."
"Fair enough. Remind me to teach you to swear in Latin."
"Oh yeah! I'll be a fucking erudite Jarvey!"
He was very nearly asleep when he realised that the twitching on his feet had taken on a suspiciously rhythmic character. He peered down the bed. Wanker was humping his big toe.
"What in Merlin's name happened to you?" Ron demanded. Harry opened his eyes and peered over the edge of his bunk, mentally dispelling the charm that had shielded the others from the sound-effects of his nightmares.
The Jarvey hunched in the middle of the tent. Well, Harry assumed that the vivid, lime-green creature covered with a pattern of pink and orange spots was Wanker; it was certainly the right shape and size. It bared its fangs.
"Shut up, twat."
"Oh, you poor thing!" Hermione exclaimed, trying not to laugh. "What happened?"
"He merely lived up to his name," Snape said from the doorway. "I assure you, those who attempt to make free with the body of a dozing ex-Death Eater are rarely let off so lightly."
Hermione giggled and drew her wand. Her Finite Incantatem caused the spots to rotate madly in an eye-watering pattern before dissolving, then the green fur reverted to its original pattern of chestnut, fawn and black.
"Yeah, well, what-the-fuck-ever," Wanker muttered, scratching one ear with a hind foot. "Thanks, fuzzy-head, you're a good bint at heart."
Harry assumed that the Headmaster had been out to answer a call of nature, but something about the way Snape moved, as if he was as fragile as glass, made him wonder. Snape walked across the living area and lowered himself onto his bunk.
"Professor, are you all right?"
There was a long silence before Snape muttered, "No." He lay with his forearm across his face, shielding his eyes from the diffuse daylight.
Why did obtaining a simple answer from this infuriating man feel like pulling teeth?
"What's wrong, sir?" Hermione asked.
"Don't you have any potions with you?"
Harry could see Snape's lips pull back as he gritted his teeth, but he simply snapped, "No!" before rolling over so that his back was towards them. Hermione huffed but she transfigured a leaf into a large, wet flannel, cast a freezing charm on it and went across to him. He flinched as she placed it across his forehead.
"I've got some paracetamol in my bag, if you can bring yourself to accept it, but it's entirely up to you. Sir?"
After an even longer silence, in which Harry wondered if Snape really would cut off his own nose to spite his face, he said, very quietly, "That would be helpful."
Hermione narrowed her eyes but summoned the bottle of paracetamol, shook a couple of capsules out into her hand and conjured up a glass of water.
"Weird," Ron remarked, peering at the little white pills. "Are they as good as a potion?"
"Probably not, but we didn't have the facilities to brew while we were on the run, did we? I like to be prepared for all eventualities. I don't think they'll be terribly effective against a full-blown migraine but they might take the edge off it. Here you are, sir."
Snape swallowed the pills and lay down again. His skin looked exceptionally sallow and there were bruised-looking shadows beneath his eyes.
Hermione cast charms to protect Snape from the scent of bacon and sausages as Harry started frying breakfast and Ron went to relieve himself and reinforce the wards. Wanker ambled over and plonked himself down at Harry's feet, looking optimistic.
"With a bit of luck," Hermione said, arm-deep in her beaded bag, "I've got some useful information in here about elves. I've got quite a few books about mythology from the Horcrux hunt."
"Snape threw up just outside the tent and didn't even bother to banish it," Ron muttered as he came in, casting a quick glance in the direction of the bunks. "He's not in very good shape, is he?"
"Hardly surprising," Hermione sighed. "But honestly, would it have hurt him to say 'thank you for the paracetamol, Miss Granger'? Or even 'thank you, all of you, for coming back and saving my life'?"
"This is Snape you're talking about! You're expecting a lot if you think he'll ever be nice to Gryffindors."
"Ridiculous house system, ruled by that stupid old hat!" Hermione slapped a book down on the table with unnecessary force. "If I ever get into a position of responsibility, I tell you, I'm going to do something about Hogwarts!"
Ron gazed at her in admiration. "Don't do anything by halves, do you?"
"Anyone fancy mushrooms?" Harry asked, peering at the groceries stacked in the cupboard under a cooling charm.
Ron summoned a brown paper bag of tomatoes and a knife.
"Let's have the works, I'm famished."
"When are you not?"
"Growing lad, need my sustenance."
Hermione snorted and opened a book, running her finger down the index.
They feasted on a full English fried breakfast and toast with marmalade, washed down by mugs of tea.
"Dunno what this chuffing black stuff is," Wanker said, "but it's bloody good!"
"Black pudding," Hermione said, "made from blood and pieces of fat, which is enough to make anyone go vegetarian if you think about it too closely.”
"Don't, then," Ron said around a bite of toast, "it's nothing compared with the stuff we drank in potions."
"True. Pass the marmalade, please."
Wanker emerged backwards from under the table, dragging a licked-clean plate.
"Some bugger mention toast and marmalade?" he asked hopefully.
Harry spread butter and Golden Shred onto a slice of toast and dropped it onto the plate. Wanker happily settled down to crunch his way through it, his tail curled around his hindquarters like a cat.
"Anyone got any idea what to do next?" Harry asked, sending the dishes into the washing-up bowl with a soap-and-water charm. Ron and Hermione stared at him and he shrugged, feeling slightly embarrassed. "Well, I knew what to do about Voldemort but I haven't got a clue what to do about this."
"Can't make plans until we know what we're dealing with," Ron said, folding his arms and leaning back in his chair. "Hermione? That's your area of responsibility."
"Obviously I'll start with the books I've got here, and we'll need to question Professor Snape once he's feeling a bit better. Apart from The Tales of Beedle the Bard, I don't have any fairy stories and I don't know any experts on that sort of thing..." Her eyes widened. "Oh my God! The Lovegoods! I bet they'd know!"
Ron conjured parchment, quill and ink. "As good a place to start as any. Let's see, we need to know where Snape's put the stones, how to communicate with the elves, how they're likely to react if we try..."
Wanker sidled across to Harry, climbed up his trouser leg, curled his long, furry body onto his lap and began to snore gently.
Snape had always had a policy of not showing vulnerability if at all possible. When illness or injury gave him no alternative, he would exaggerate his weakness in order to give his enemies a sense of false security; a sick Snape still had to be a very dangerous Snape or else there was a good chance that he'd end up dead.
He had not needed to exaggerate the effects of his migraine, however. Over the years he had perfected potions to control the symptoms, subduing the nausea to a manageable level and numbing the pain. Granger's Muggle remedy made him drowsy, did nothing to stop his belly churning and merely reduced the headache from stabbing agony to a dull throb. He felt as if his right eyeball was internally connected to the roof of his mouth by a spring that someone had wound so tightly that his skull creaked. He wondered if the phoenix tears had eliminated Nagini's venom from his system or if this was a lingering after-effect.
His attempts to sleep off the migraine were apparently futile. He might as well distract himself by listening to the trio making fools of themselves.
"We can do this bit at any time," Weasley was saying. "Here's a plan, see if you can pick any holes in it. Harry, you walk down to that Muggle town and catch a train. When you get to a big town, you go into the loo on the train while it's still moving, put on the Cloak and send a Patronus to Luna asking her to meet us somewhere with her dad. I don't reckon anyone can track a Patronus back to a moving train and even if by some chance they do, you'll have long gone when they arrive at the point you did the casting. A wizard might work out what you did, but the wild elves avoid Muggles and won't have a clue. Then you come back the same way you went."
"How do we get Luna's reply?" Granger asked, her quill scratching busily.
"We don't; we ask her not to respond. We just assume that she'll be at the meeting place, and if she isn't, we try again."
"Could the elves track owls?"
"Probably not but it isn't worth the risk."
"We can ask Luna to bring all the information about wild elves that she can get her hands on," Potter mused. "We'll end up wading through loads of crap about non-existent Nargles and Blibbering whatsits but old Xenophilius did come up trumps with stuff about the Hallows."
"Ask her to keep her trap shut too, otherwise she'll turn up with my family, a couple of Aurors and McGonagall and we'll have a hell of a job getting away again. Also, tell your Patronus to only deliver the message if she's alone, and to come back and report if it can't manage it."
"I've made notes on what you need to say," Granger said briskly, "and you could ask her to bring some potions with her, too, she might be able to get them from Madam Pomfrey; Hogwarts will be such turmoil that she could probably get away with it. You know Luna, no-one ever suspects her of anything underhand."
"Nowhere near as dippy as she likes to act, that one," Weasley agreed.
Snape almost convinced himself that the migraine was making him exceptionally irritable; it had nothing to do with the fact that he could not think of any reason why Weasley's plan would not work. Sending a Patronus from a moving Muggle train was, if not a stroke of genius, certainly not something that the average pure-blood wizard would have considered.
"Let's have a look in my books and see if we can find anything about wild elves," Granger said. "I've drawn up a preliminary reading list."
"Now there's a surprise," Weasley said amiably. "Sounds like it's still raining and there's not a lot else we can do until Snape wakes up."
"Professor Snape, Ron," Granger chided and Potter laughed.
"That's Headmaster Snape, Hermione!"
Snape drifted into a doze, feeling that the earth must have tilted slightly on its axis.
Snape attempted to sink back into the blessed, near-oblivion of sleep, but he knew that only a full dose of Dreamless Sleep would permit that. He groped for his wand, tightened his fingers around the handle and listened.
The rain had stopped. A guy-rope or a corner of tarpaulin flapped gently in the breeze and from the level of light filtering through the canvas, it was probably around midday. A seagull called overhead and in the distance, he could hear a dog barking and a motorbike revving up a hill.
Weasley sat at the table, flicking through a book and occasionally pausing to write something on a roll of parchment. The Jarvey amused itself by stalking a feather around the perimeter of the tent; after watching for a while, Snape realised that the puffs of air that kept the feather moving emanated from Weasley's wand.
"Fancy a sandwich and a cuppa?" Weasley enquired. The Jarvey paused but did not speak. Weasley turned his head to stare straight at Snape.
"Oh," Snape said. "I – yes." He felt oddly disconcerted. Weasley sighted along his wand at the kettle. Snape eased himself into a sitting position, and then when nothing disastrous happened, got to his feet.
"Where are Granger and Potter?"
Weasley slouched across the tent to the kitchen area.
"Gone to catch a train and send a Patronus to Luna Lovegood," he said. "There's cheese, ham, tomatoes or pickle. Accio teapot! Harry wanted to go on his own but we decided it was too risky without Hermione to watch his back."
"Of course," Snape said, "we must not let anything untoward happen to the Chosen One, must we?"
"Actually," Weasley said in a flat, almost emotionless voice, "we were all more worried about leaving you on your own. Merlin knows why. It isn't as if you're going to appreciate it or anything."
The words seemed to take too long to penetrate Snape's brain through the fog of his migraine. He sat down at the table as Weasley brewed a pot of tea and cut slices from a large, crusty loaf.
"Why would you care?" he asked, honestly puzzled. Weasley peered into a cupboard and extracted a packet of ham and a chunk of cheese wrapped in greaseproof paper.
"How about you're sick and Harry thinks it's the right thing to do? Or perhaps we felt just a little bit guilty about leaving you to bleed to death in the Shack and not trying to help you at the time? Or Hermione would have my balls for earrings if I let you die after all the effort she went through to save you? Personally I don't give a toss either way, but they're my mates and if it makes them happy, I'll tag along."
"Ah yes, the loyal sidekick."
"That's me. Help yourself."
Weasley began slapping cheese onto bread, slathering it with pickle and creating sandwiches the size of small textbooks.
"Oy, dick-head," a squeaky voice complained, "got any fucking scraps for a famished Jarvey?"
"Fat Jarvey, more like. Here." Weasley leaned down and handed the beast a sandwich.
"Cheers!" Wanker took the offering and settled down to chomp happily beneath the table. Snape made a desultory effort and put together an edible creation of bread, ham and mustard. The food must have been kept under a stay-fresh charm; Snape found that he was mildly hungry underneath the nausea.
Weasley summoned sugar and milk and poured himself a mug of tea.
"Where are the faerie stones now?" he enquired.
Suppressing the urge to demand that the red-haired brat call him 'sir', Snape reaffirmed their relationship by making Weasley wait as he poured his tea, added milk and sugar and stirred the results exactly ten times widdershins.
"Some are in the Headmaster's office at Hogwarts," he said. Weasley nodded and wrote something on his parchment. "The rest are shared out among certain of the Death Eaters."
Weasley allowed his quill to drop onto the table, splattering ink.
"Bloody hell! When were you going to tell us that?"
"When you asked."
"Which Death Eaters are we talking about here?"
Snape eyed him warily.
"Why? Do you intend to ride in on a hippogriff and demand the stones at wand-point?"
"No, Snape," Weasley said through clenched teeth, "but I can't plan anything if you won't fucking tell me!"
"Language, Weasley," Snape said, unable to suppress a smirk. "Who expects you to plan everything anyway?"
Rather to his surprise, Weasley got to his feet and stamped across the tent and back, his hands clenched at his sides. Breathing heavily, he sat down again and muttered, "I knew this was a bad idea. I just knew it." He drew his wand and Snape's fingers tightened on his own wand, hidden in the folds of his robe, but Weasley simply laid the length of willow on the table.
"I could tell you what's going on," he said, his voice tight with anger, "but you won't give us a single thing in exchange, will you? You'll leave us blundering around in the dark just like Dumbledore did and laugh about it. I've a good mind to leave you to it and just watch what happens, because I don't think you know as much as you think you do. Otherwise they wouldn't be after you." His brow crinkled and his expression took on a more pensive aspect. "I reckon they appeared because the battle attracted their attention and someone must have recognised you as the thief. Or did they? You're not stupid; you'd have made sure that you were disguised. Why did they suddenly come after you?"
Snape hesitated before he replied.
"If I shared my knowledge with you, Weasley, what would I gain in return?"
There, see if the freckled brat has a good answer to that!
Far from appearing irritated, Weasley sat back in his chair and his eyes gleamed.
"Us, Snape. You'd gain us."
"Three adolescents with a hero complex? Wonderful."
"You don't get it, do you? You know that wand that Snake-face killed you for? Remember? Dumbledore's wand, the invincible Death Stick? Harry's the master of it and of Death's Invisibility Cloak, too. Then there's Hermione, who Dumbledore trusted to haul all our nuts out of the fire over and over again, and there's me. Yeah, I know, I'm not much, am I? Just a sidekick. But I'm a Weasley, Snape, and the Weasleys stick together and I've got a brother who breaks curses no-one's ever broken before and a brother who rides dragons for a hobby and a mother who scares the shit out of just about everyone, especially now they all know she's the witch who killed Bellatrix Lestrange. I've got a brother who knows the workings of the Ministry inside-out and another brother who not only defied Umbridge but who owns one of the most successful new businesses in Diagon Alley, and I've got a sister who casts some really wicked hexes and flies like a bird. My old Dad's no idiot either. You see, Snape, if we're all on your side, no-one's going to slam you in Azkaban again, are they?"
Snape sipped his tea to give himself time to regroup. "When did you learn to negotiate like a Slytherin, Weasley?"
"Dumbledore wasn't the only Gryffindor who understood strategy and tactics."
"So it really was you, not Granger, who won past Minerva's chess game in your first year."
"Yeah, that really was me. You only just realised?" Weasley snorted. "Looks like you didn't know everything after all, Professor."
"No," Snape whispered, "perhaps I didn't."
Harry pressed against the resilient bubble of the wards.
"We're back, Ron. Ron?"
"He's too fucking busy," a small voice chirped from near the ground, "he says you gotta answer a silly bloody question first before he can let you in."
"Go on, then," Harry sighed.
"What's my name, knob-head?"
"It's them!" the Jarvey called out and Ron obviously relaxed the wards because the pressure eased against his chest and he and Hermione were able to step through.
"What's he doing, Wanker?" Hermione asked, sliding her beaded bag from her shoulder and reaching in to extract the shopping that she had acquired at the station.
"Playing silly buggers," the Jarvey grumbled and trotted into the tent.
Ron and Snape sat on either side of the table, gazing down at Ron's old chess set. Snape wore his usual supercilious expression and had his elbow on the table, his chin resting on his hand. Ron sat slightly hunched, his gaze darting across the board as he assessed the game and calculated his next moves. Harry knew from experience that he and Hermione were able to think at most two or three moves in advance. Ron, however, had a plan inside his head that allowed him to visualise where he wanted his pieces to be many moves ahead, and this plan was fluid, adapting to whatever his opponent did (and in Harry's case, that included unrealistic attempts to prevent any of his pieces needing to be sacrificed.)
"Sorry," Ron said without looking up, "we're at a critical stage here. Yes, go on, you!" This was to a rook, who obligingly hopped across the board into position on the square that Ron indicated.
Snape reached out and nudged one of his pieces with a thin, stained finger. Harry had always assumed that the yellow-brown marks were from potions, but if Snape was a heavy smoker, then they must be from the tar and nicotine in his cigarettes. The pawn looked up at Snape, shrugged and strode into place.
"You sure about that?" squeaked Snape's king.
"Shut up," Snape said.
"Git," muttered the king. Ron's queen stuck her nose in the air and sniffed disdainfully as Ron directed his next move. Hermione extracted four cardboard cups from her bag and placed them on the table before removing the no-spill and stasis charms. The fragrance of freshly brewed coffee drifted around the tent.
"I didn't know what you'd like, Professor, so I got you a standard cappuccino."
Snape nodded, tapped his queen on the head and forced her to move before glancing up.
"Thank you, Miss Granger."
She looked startled and raised her eyebrows at Harry, who shrugged and eased the lid from his own coffee.
There was a sudden flurry of moves on the board as a cluster of pieces attacked and counter-attacked. Wanker pounced on a pawn that rolled onto the floor. Harry seized the Jarvey by the tail and prised the chess piece from between his jaws.
"Spoilsport," Wanker muttered. Hermione offered him a piece of her apple turnover before putting a brown paper bag of pastries on the table.
Ron carefully examined the now rather bare chessboard and made his next move. Snape immediately responded.
"You should learn not to broadcast your intentions, Mr Weasley. You merely aid your opponent."
"Isn't possible for Gryffindors to hide their feelings," Ron said, moving his king. Snape smirked and responded. Ron murmured, "Checkmate, Headmaster."
Snape barely moved but Harry saw that his spine stiffened. His black eyes scanned the board then he let out a little huff.
"Yes, you will win in two moves. Very good, Mr Weasley, you were bluffing. I concede defeat."
"That was brilliant," Ron said happily. "Do you play a lot?"
Snape took a sip from his coffee and leaned back into his seat.
"The Hogwarts staff used to have a chess league. Filius Flitwick, Septima Vector and I vied for the top three places except," and here his voice faltered for an instant, "for the years in which Albus Dumbledore took part. He invariably won."
He stood up, carrying his coffee, reached into his robe pocket for his cigarettes and ducked out of the front of the tent.
"So he does care," Hermione whispered.
"Yeah," Harry said and bit into a jam doughnut. "He must still be feeling rough or he'd never have let on."
"Snape the human, whoever would have guessed?" Ron indicated the box and watched his chessmen trooping into their allotted places before carefully placing the folded board on top and closing the lid. "That was one of the hardest games I've ever played, he's even better than Charlie or Dad."
"Next thing you know, you'll be bonding over Quidditch," Hermione said. Harry and Ron looked at each other and shook their heads.
"How's your migraine, sir?" Granger enquired when he re-entered the tent. Snape shrugged and she visibly controlled her irritation. "I only enquired because I called at the chemist on the way back from the station and asked for something stronger than paracetamol. It's formulated specially for migraines." She held up a small packet. "It's got ingredients to control the nausea and vomiting."
Snape took the proffered drugs and squinted at the tiny printing on the box. "You can take two every four hours, up to a total of six in twenty-four hours," she said with that blend of bossiness and efficacy that seemed to infect witches who dealt with adolescent wizards on a regular basis. Ronald was already moulding her into an intellectual version of his mother. Still, she had thought of doing what Snape had not; he was in her debt, much to his chagrin.
He had inadvertently thanked her once, for the coffee, and the sky had not fallen in. "I'm obliged to you, Miss Granger."
She nodded and flicked her wand, conjuring a glass of water.
"My grandmother got migraines," she remarked. "She was useless for a couple of days; she had to retire to bed in a dark room."
Snape felt the pressure around his head increasing as he scowled.
"I hardly expect a mere Muggle to hold a migraine at bay by their proficiency in Occlumency," he snapped. There was a moment of taut silence, broken by Potter.
"Look, Snape, Hermione wasn't criticising you. For God's sake stop acting as if everything we say is an attack, will you?"
Snape wanted to snarl at this representation of everything Potterish and hateful, but even through the throbbing of his brain, he realised that doing so would only show him to be as petty and spiteful as Potter obviously believed.
"You expect us to be 'friends', do you, Potter? You expect me to sit down with you and offer you sweets and smile at you in a fatherly fashion?"
"And patronise me like Dumbledore did," Potter muttered with a little huff of wry amusement. He was supposed to lash out, damn him! Where was that simmering, adolescent rage?
"We expect you to be a bloody ally, Snape! It's your enemies we're trying to sort out!" Ah, there was the Weasley temper. Potter extended an arm, his hand out, as if holding Weasley back and the sidekick subsided, glowering.
"You hate being in our debt, don't you?" Potter asked. Snape did not deign to answer such a stupid question. "We're Gryffindors, we aren't going to suddenly demand an arm and a leg in payment! We came back for you because it was the right thing to do, because none of us would sleep at night if we hadn't at least tried, because it made us feel a tiny bit better about all the people we didn't manage to save. Don't you get that?"
"Harry Potter, saviour of the Wizarding World," Snape said, knowing that he was reduced to name-calling and not caring. The increase in his blood pressure made his head feel like it was going to explode. Potter shrugged, and Granger squeezed his shoulder, leaning into his side and wrapping her free arm around Weasley. It was all rather sickening really.
"Well, sir, you can either let us try and sort everything out on our own or you can help, it's entirely up to you, but don't blame us for getting it wrong because we don't have the correct information," Granger said. "Because, honestly, I'm just too exhausted to put up with being constantly criticised and sniped at."
"And you believe that I am not?"
"It isn't all about you," Potter chimed in, "we all did what we were supposed to do, we just didn't sign up to fucking well do it all over again!"
"Language, Potter," Snape said and Potter simply gazed at him out of those Avada Kedavra green eyes and waited. It dawned on Snape rather slowly that they meant it, and that they were right and the knowledge burned in his gut like acid. Had he been fit and healthy, had he still been Headmaster of Hogwarts with all the trappings and authority that position entailed, he could have handled the problem of the elves himself, but he was still in no condition to defend himself. "What do you expect, a grovelling apology? You would enjoy that, wouldn't you?"
Weasley twitched but was restrained by the tightening of Granger's hand.
"I'm not my father," Potter said and he sounded tired and remote, no longer the voice of a quick-tempered teen but a man in command of his emotions. "Just an attempt to be civil would do. Hate us if it makes you feel better, but we might be able to work together if you didn't rubbish everything we say and do."
"How condescending of you, Potter."
"I've had enough—" Weasley began but stopped and visibly reined in his anger.
"Oh, honestly," Granger snapped, "men! You don't have to lock horns over everything, you know!" She pushed herself away from the other two, bent down and swept the Jarvey up in her arms. "Come on, Wanker, I'd like some intelligent company for a bit."
The Jarvey licked her nose with his small, pink tongue.
"I can teach you some fucking good drinking songs," he said as she marched across the tent, one of the chairs bobbing along in her wake.
"—and if you don't sort yourselves out, I'll come back inside and confiscate your wands!" Granger added as she ducked out of the flap.
Weasley snorted. "I'd love to see her try to confiscate Snape's wand," he muttered. "I'd better go and see if she's all right. Yeah? Harry?"
"Oh, go on then," Potter said, the corners of his mouth twitching. "I'm sure Professor Snape and I can manage to not hex each other for a bit."
Snape and Potter stared at each other. The edges of Snape's vision were flickering as the migraine dug its claws into his scalp but he dared not look away, as if Potter would take the first opportunity to expose his vulnerabilities.
"I was wrong about you," Potter said softly. "I was always wrong about you but you didn't make it easy for us to trust you."
"You were never meant to trust me, Potter, not while the Dark Lord had free access to your mind."
Potter nodded and stuck his hands into his pockets, the scruffy urchin.
"I'm not my father, you know."
Snape shrugged elaborately. "It was... necessary for me to hate you." The admission hurt, in a way, and yet something lightened inside his chest, a tiny weight lifted after he had said the words. "Had our relationship not been adversarial, the Dark Lord would have expected me to take you to him. As it was, he knew that you did not trust me and that I hated you too much to attempt to gain your affection."
"How much of it was real?" Potter asked, as if he genuinely cared to know.
"You really are that spiteful?"
"Oh yes, Potter, I really am."
"Your tactics are vicious but your strategy's always been for the side of the Light, you mean."
"Something like that." Snape was starting to feel light-headed and shaky, possibly the effects of the caffeine in the coffee and the Muggle drugs. He reached out and grasped the back of one of the dining chairs, watching his thin, stained hand as it moved through the air as slowly as if it pushed through treacle. Then he lost a few moments, blanking them out, and the next thing he knew, Potter had his arm around him and was guiding him towards the bunks.
He became aware of the smell of healthy young male and the citrus scent of the laundering spells that Flitwick taught in second year Charms. Potter was closer than he had ever been, and well-disposed towards Snape for once, and here was Snape feeling like a Flobberworm that had been stepped on.
"I think you need to lie down, sir," Potter was saying and Snape, for reasons he did not bother to analyse, mumbled, "There's no need to call me 'sir', Potter," and Potter snorted.
"Yeah, I bet you don't really mean that."
He sank down onto the mattress, and down and down, into a place where his Occlumency shields kept the pain and the bad memories at bay and he could remember a time when he used to be able to sleep in peace.
"Don't leave me on me own," the Jarvey whined. "I fucking hated being on me own all the time. I was lonely."
Harry sank down onto his haunches. Wanker reared up and placed his delicate black forepaws on his knee.
"We're going on the Muggle railway, Wanker."
"I can keep quiet, honest! I'll pretend I'm a bloody ferret!"
"You're twice the size of a ferret," Ron said. "You'll attract too much attention."
"Go on? Please?" The Jarvey cocked his head in an attempt to look cute. "Take me with you?"
Hermione clicked her tongue in irritation and seized an empty cardboard coffee cup. She tossed it into the air and stabbed her wand at it, muttering a complex Transfiguration spell. When it landed, it had become a wickerwork cat-carrier with a bright red and gold striped cushion.
"There, just remember to make meowing sounds occasionally."
"If you ever want a fucking familiar, missus, I'm your Jarvey!" Wanker crowed, diving through the open door and curling up on the cushion.
"I already have a familiar, Wanker," she said soberly. "At least, I hope that I do. He's a part-Kneazle called Crookshanks. I left him at Hogwarts when we went off on our Horcrux hunt and I haven't had the chance to find out if he's still there."
"And I've got an owl, even if he's completely bonkers and too little to carry anything heavier than a piece of parchment," Ron added. "It's Harry who hasn't got a familiar, you ought to ask him."
Harry latched the door of the cat-basket and stood up. He glanced to where Snape stood, waiting by the door of the tent with an air of suppressed irritation. When it was obvious that Ron had decided not to include Snape in the conversation, Harry asked, casually, "Have you ever had a familiar, Professor?"
"No," Snape snapped. Ron gave Harry a look that clearly said 'I told you so' and Banished the rest of the coffee cups and cake crumbs. "My father did not permit the keeping of 'vermin'," Snape added after a few moments, "and then my position did not allow me to acquire any dependents." He turned and exited the tent in a flurry of robes.
"Wow, was that a snippet of personal information?" Ron whispered, stowing his wand. Harry picked up the basket, realised how heavy the Jarvey was and cast a feather-light charm before following the others out into the daylight.
Snape had Transfigured his robes into a black trench coat over a lightweight suit, also black, and a white shirt. The only touch of colour was his green and silver tie. With his longish, slicked-back hair and the cigarette dangling from his fingers, he looked like a slightly shady character from one of the old black and white films that Harry's aunt Petunia used to watch, a private detective perhaps. Someone dangerous, anyway, who you knew would come to a bad end but might possibly die heroically.
Snape glanced at them, nodded as if in approval and flicked the cigarette stub into the air where it vanished in a puff of white smoke. Hermione dismantled and packed the tent with a few passes of her wand and Harry used the Elder Wand to Banish the wards. They set off down the path towards the town.
Once on the high street, Snape commanded, "Wait here," and strode into the newsagents' shop, his coat-tails flaring behind him.
"I don't suppose they sell Quidditch magazines," Ron grumbled. "What's he after? A Muggle paper?"
"Cigarettes," Hermione said. "He looks different, doesn't he? Younger. In a suit, I mean." When the boys both looked at her, she blushed slightly.
"Don't tell me you think he's as sexy as Lockhart?" Ron demanded with a broad grin. She elbowed him.
"Look, I was twelve, for heaven's sake! Twelve-year-old boys have inappropriate crushes, too!"
"Yeah, but not on stupid gits like Lockhart. At least Snape isn't stupid, I suppose, even if he is still a bit greasy."
"The thinking witches' crumpet?" Hermione asked. Ron and Harry both sniggered. "Although, perhaps I should say the thinking wizards' crumpet," she added with a glance through the shop window to check that Snape was still waiting in the queue.
Harry looked questioningly at her and she shrugged. "The rumour in the girls' dorms was that he's gay," she said, and then Snape emerged, tucking his cigarettes into his pocket, and they set off again towards the station.
Harry stared at Snape's back as they walked. It had never occurred to him to consider that Snape was anything but heterosexual, knowing how attached he had been to Lily, but Hermione's casual comments had sparked a completely new line of thought. He had not really considered any of the Hogwarts teachers as sexual beings – apart from Lockhart, followed by his retinue of adoring witches, but he had been such a stupid prick that he didn't really count.
Harry tried to imagine Snape in a passionate embrace with another wizard. The result was disconcerting, to say the least. Snape, dark and wiry, all passion and spite... dear Merlin!
There was something wrong with Harry, there had to be. He imagined Snape hugging his Mum, Lily Evans, a red-haired girl with green eyes, who morphed into Ginny Weasley and back again, and there was no passion there, only affection and protectiveness and a sad, sweet regret, the kind of emotions that he associated with Ginny. Lily made him think of autumn, of bright waning days and something poignant and lost. Ginny now shared that niche; she too was someone whom Harry had left behind.
He looked at Snape again, really looked this time, the sharp lines of his shoulders in the tailored coat; his silent, gliding walk; the suppressed, coiled-spring poise that came from his long familiarity with his tremendously potent magic.
Dumbledore, in his purple sparkly robes, had overlaid his homosexuality with eccentricity, like a conjurer distracting his audience by his sleight-of-hand. The trio had read between the lines of Dumbledore's biography and were certain that Dumbledore's relationship with Gellert Grindelwald had been more than merely platonic. Harry had a suspicion that Tom Riddle also had little interest in witches; perhaps he had repressed his homosexuality, fearing it as he had feared Muggles and death, regarding his sexuality as irrelevant in his pursuit of immortality.
Harry wondered what he would need to tease a reaction other than anger out of Snape. What might it take to tame that fierce independence? Unlike Dumbledore, Snape appeared brittle; his self-control mitigated by insecurity. Petunia and Vernon had bullied Harry because they feared his magic; did Snape bully schoolchildren because he feared them? Or feared what they might discover about him – in his Pensieve, for example? Harry was almost breathless with the stunning force of comprehension—that was what Snape had been afraid of! He had been terrified that Harry, the inheritor of the Potter-Snape feud, would discover yet another weapon to hold over his head: the knowledge of his carefully hidden sexuality. Had Dumbledore, the old romantic, been fooled by Snape's avowed devotion to Lily? Harry suspected that he had, and Snape was happy to allow him that erroneous belief because it would explain why he had no liaisons and it hid a potential lever from Snape's ruthless and exploitative employer. Dear Merlin, Harry could just imagine Dumbledore's genial voice, gently explaining how Snape could not possibly have relationships outside Hogwarts or, Merlin forbid, leave the school. "Think of the scandal, dear boy! Why, you would never be able to get another job! Who would give you a reference?"
Snape bought their rail tickets and Harry leaned on the wall with his hands in his pockets, the cat-basket at his feet, while Ron and Hermione bought Cadbury's chocolate (for him) and a copy of The Times (for her) at the kiosk. He felt wrong-footed, seeing Snape in a completely different light one moment and in the next, as the same old tyrant of the dungeons, bitter and sarcastic. Yet, having had such a long break away from Hogwarts, having experienced so much and thought so deeply about life and love and death, Harry acknowledged Snape's deep and abiding unhappiness. Dumbledore had not merely allowed Snape to be miserable, he had encouraged him to wallow in a haze of depression. Dumbledore had expected Harry to face death through Gryffindor courage and self-sacrifice, but he had driven Snape to his end with the twin scourges of despair and guilt.
Something had altered in his environment. Snape could not put his finger on it at first; he assumed that the Golden Trio had decided that he was one of the Good Guys and their attempts to resolve the conceptual conflicts between Snape-the-bastard and Snape-the-hero were hurting their adolescent brains. This theory afforded him two minutes of satisfaction before he discarded it. For all her faults, Miss Granger had always given him the benefit of the doubt and Weasley had succeeded in surprising him by both his attempts to bury the hatchet (other than in Snape's back) and his ability to strategise. No, it was Potter who had changed, Potter whose intense covert scrutiny made the hairs rise on the back of his neck, Potter who was applying his rudimentary Occlumency skills to suppress his emotional state sufficiently to attract Snape's attention.
Like any half-way good teacher, Snape was able to ascertain the mood of adolescents in a moment, from their voices, their expressions and attitudes. Add to that a couple of decades of experience as a spy and an almost unparalleled skill as a Legilimens – well, to be realistic, with the deaths of Dumbledore and Voldemort, he was now the foremost Legilimens in Britain – and he could almost read the little buggers' thoughts without trying. Potter, though, had closed in on himself, not because he was sulking, but because the cogs in his brain were whirring so fast that Snape could almost see them. It was a mystery, and one that Snape wanted to solve.
Their position was precarious; Snape was still far from well, the wild elves were volatile and vicious, and an unpredictable Potter added another element of risk. Snape could not afford to wait until the wretched youth decided to come out with whatever was bugging him. The question was, should he advance their policy of wary and tentative openness by asking what the problem was, or risk an explosion of anger if he attempted to use Legilimency on Potter and misjudged the situation? This dilemma occupied his thoughts as they settled themselves into four cramped seats around a table in a railway carriage.
"Bugger, you bumped my effing nose," a small voice announced from beneath the table, where Potter had stowed the Jarvey in its basket. Fortunately in the bustle of passengers taking their places, no-one else took any notice.
"Shut up," Weasley hissed.
"Meow," the Jarvey said sulkily. "Meow, meow, hiss, spit."
Weasley kicked the basket pointedly and Wanker subsided into silence. Granger unfolded a newspaper and began reading, Weasley watched the Muggles out of the window and Potter sat and stared at Snape. They were seated diagonally from one another, so it was not a direct and obvious scrutiny, and whenever Snape looked openly at him, Potter was reading Granger's paper over her arm. Snape could feel Potter's focus on his skin, a subtle pressure like the touch of sunlight or a warm breeze. Less intrusive than the regard of either Dumbledore or the Dark Lord, yet it seemed almost as powerful, as if Potter contained a banked intensity of magic behind that mundane facade.
Snape allowed his awareness to extend, seeking out the tendrils of thought that most witches and wizards exuded quite unconsciously, the uncontrolled emotions available to anyone who was half-way sensitive to such things. Dumbledore had always been adept at gauging people's moods, even if he deliberately tweaked them at times.
Potter was thinking about sex. Snape mentally berated himself for forgetting that he was dealing with a seventeen-year-old. Of course he was thinking about sex; particularly now that his companions made no secret of their shagging. Potter must be driving himself half mad with frustration. No doubt he was embarrassed, afraid that Snape would detect his sordid little fantasies of the Weasley girl. Well, there was no harm in stirring the pot just a little, was there? Snape-the-bastard to the fore!
"Miss Granger," he remarked, keeping his voice sufficiently low so the Muggles would have difficulty eavesdropping, "I do hope that you recollect and apply the charms taught by Madam Pomfrey in your fourth year?"
Granger looked up from her newspaper, her cheeks going slightly pink, but her voice was perfectly composed when she replied.
"Yes, thank you, Professor Snape. I assure you that I recall them very well and apply them as necessary."
He smirked at her and she narrowed her eyes, then returned to her reading. Weasley muttered something about nosy gits. Snape raised an eyebrow.
"On the contrary, Weasley. You are still nominally my students and I am your Headmaster."
"Yeah, well, I don't see what business it is of yours. We're not at Hogwarts now."
"I am merely concerned for everyone's welfare."
"So it's okay to send a bunch of seventeen-year-olds off to almost certain death but not okay for them to make love?" Weasley demanded.
Granger gave her paper a little shake, under cover of which Snape was aware of her casting a Muffliato spell.
"It wasn't Professor Snape's plan, Ronald, be fair."
"Yeah, well, when's Snape ever been fair?" Weasley crossed his arms and looked mutinous.
"Mr Weasley, as far as I am concerned, you and Miss Granger are at liberty to do as you please, although I would prefer you do it in private. No doubt Mr Potter would prefer that, too, rather than be reminded of his continued exile from the arms of his own little girlfriend."
The trio stared at him. Perhaps he had imbued the final word with more vitriol than necessary. He recalled his father informing him with curling lip, that 'your little girlfriend called today, boy. Tell her to stay on her own bloody side of town in the future,' after Lily had innocently visited the Snapes' house at Spinner's End.
"Ginny isn't my girlfriend," Potter said. "It wasn't fair on her," he added rather defensively when both Granger and Weasley looked at him with concern, "especially as I didn't think I'd be coming back."
"Harry..." Granger began, then sighed and shook her head.
"What?" Potter demanded. "You knew I didn't."
"Someone else is going to snap her up unless you make up your mind," Weasley said and Potter nodded rather doubtfully. It was clear to Snape that Granger had meant something else entirely; she met Snape's eyes for a moment, then looked away, but not before he caught the edge of something there, something that equated him with Potter, something that linked them...
So Potter had his doubts about the Weasley chit? What, then, had got him so emotionally stirred up?
Snape knew that his face gave nothing away except for his usual air of bitter resignation, but inside the synapses were firing like nobody's business, migraine or not. That Granger had heard the rumours about his sexuality neither surprised nor concerned him; she had, after all, shared quarters with those notorious gossips Patil and Brown. It was normal for students in the overheated environment of a boarding school to speculate on the sexuality of their teachers, and no doubt old anecdotes had been handed down of Snape's ill-fated relationships with Lucius Malfoy (ended by dire threats of disinheritance from Malfoy Senior) and the younger Black (vanished without trace under very strange circumstances). But it seemed that Granger harboured suspicions that Potter, too, was gay.
Yes, Snape thought, James Potter's son, hero, Chosen One; Potter had to do everything the hard way. The Boy Who Lived couldn't simply slide away into obscurity, marry and procreate and become Mr Average Wizard, could he? Snape wanted Potter out of his life. He had given everything to facilitate the boy's triumph, why couldn't he just go away and enjoy it like a normal person? Why did he have to remain here, golden thorn pressed to Snape's scarred side, reminding him of what he could never have?
That thought required purging at once. Snape's fingernails dug into his palms as he attempted to control his reaction, slow down his heart rate and breathing, and remain calm. He had never allowed himself to indulge in carnal thoughts about Potter, the risk had been too high. Such a weakness would have exposed him before both Dumbledore and Voldemort, would have finished him utterly. Occlumency had been his only recourse, plus the Pensieve that offered only the most fragile of reassurance after Potter raided it – and he had never entirely trusted Dumbledore, either.
He realised that Granger was speaking to him.
"Professor? Are you all right? Is it the migraine again?"
"Yes," he said, clasping his hands together to prevent them shaking.
"I was afraid it would be too much for you," she said, and Potter leaned past her. There was concern in the green eyes, cutting into him like a knife, that Potter should care and yet be so unaware of the deeply repressed yearnings that were escaping their bonds like a handful of snakes, thrashing this way and that. Memories of Potter the child – and Snape had little desire for children, sexually or otherwise – were being overlaid by images of this Potter, the young man, his chin roughened with stubble and limbs lithe with muscle. Potter, whose shoulders were broad enough to hold the weight of the Wizarding World and whose eyes burned with magic. This Potter was lethal. Snape met his gaze.
The power there almost stunned him. Dear Gods, had Voldemort's Horcrux remained inside the lad after all? Snape plunged deeper without conscious thought and it was immediately clear that this was all pure Harry Potter, and that the bloody Horcrux had held his magic in check rather than supplemented it, and now it was free at last.
"Fuck off, Snape!" Potter snarled, withdrawing and raising Occlumency shields far too late. "Is it too much to expect you to ask before you do that? Bastard!"
But Snape was toppling, sliding sideways into the aisle, the rushing of the train mingling with the rushing of the blood in his ears, his vision breaking up into black and white like an old television screen that had lost its signal. The last thing he heard was the Jarvey demanding to be let out to see what was going on and Granger casting a silencing charm on the beast.
One moment Harry was aware of Snape rifling through the surface of his thoughts, the next, he saw the black eyes rolling up and Snape simply collapsed. Hermione had the presence of mind to charm Wanker into silence as Ron and Harry picked Snape up and attempted to reassure the Muggles who were craning their necks to watch.
"Honestly, drunk at this time of day!" a stout women exclaimed loudly.
"He isn't!" Harry responded as Ron grabbed Snape under the arms and heaved him back into the seat. "He's got a very bad migraine. The pain made him pass out." Under cover of rearranging her newspaper and beaded bag, Hermione conjured up a glass of water. Snape groaned and propped his elbows on the table, supporting his head in one hand, and sipped at the water. The audience gradually lost interest.
"Serves you right," Harry said under his breath. "Why did you try to Legilimise me, Snape?"
He saw Snape's dark eyes, narrowed to slits against the daylight, flicker towards him.
"Checking for Horcruxes," he muttered.
"Oh," Harry said. "Still, you could have asked me."
"And would you have been happy to admit it if you still had the Dark Lord riding in your skull, you foolish boy? He would have been able to keep me out, if he'd expected it."
"Yeah, well, did you have to do it on a crowded train?"
"Harry, the Professor's sick," Hermione said reproachfully.
"Best time to ask questions, though, isn't it?" Ron said.
"That's unethical, it's like using torture!"
Snape gave a sniff of disdain. "As if you would know."
Hermione went slightly pink but her lips pressed together.
"Bellatrix used the Cruciatus curse on Hermione at Malfoy Manor!" Ron snarled. He had the presence of mind to keep his voice down so it came out in a strangled sort of hiss. "If that isn't torture, you bastard, I dunno what is!"
Harry saw Snape actually flinch; a minimal tightening of the skin around his eyes and mouth. He placed the glass carefully on the table.
"Miss Granger, there is a potion which helps to mitigate the after-effects of the curse. Kindly remind me to give you a bottle when we return to civilisation."
No doubt Snape had brewed it for his own use. Hermione nodded in acknowledgement and the angry flush subsided in Ron's face.
"So," Ron said, in an effort to sound calm and controlled, "where did you get these stones we're after?" Hermione obviously nudged his foot under the table because he belatedly added, "Professor?" when Snape didn’t immediately respond.
"I obtained them in Wiltshire, which is a county filled with places beloved of the Fair Folk."
"So, did you leave them at Malfoy Manor?" Harry asked.
"Yes," Snape said, and Hermione let out a resigned sigh. "I left a number with the Malfoys, although I did not explain what they were. I also shared them with Jacobus Avery; the remainder are hidden at Hogwarts and at my home."
"Right," Ron muttered. "So why did the Fair Folk attack after the battle? Have any ideas?"
"I don't have 'ideas', Mr Weasley, I know." Snape slid one hand inside his jacket and removed his wallet. He opened an inner flap and tipped out a small handful of Sickles and Knuts and a single pebble, which he held out on his palm. It appeared innocuous enough: smooth, translucent and milky-white, perhaps a form of quartz. "I had intended to show this to the Dark Lord when a distraction was required; however, the opportunity did not occur."
Harry reached out to touch the stone. It felt slightly greasy, as if it was about to slip out of his grasp. When he pressed, his finger slid sideways.
"It's warded!" he breathed. Snape made a minimal movement of his head, a nod that he aborted with the flicker of the skin around his eyes. Harry recognised it as a suppressed wince.
"Exactly. Otherwise the Fae would be upon us by now. All the warding and concealment charms in contact with my body failed when I gave up my thoughts into your possession; I assumed that I was dying and they no longer mattered. I naturally reinstated all my personal protections when you returned my wand, but by then, the Fae had detected the presence of this stone on my person."
Ron took the stone and examined it, handing it to Hermione.
"What would it feel like without your wards?" she asked.
"The feeling is akin to holding an enemy's wand, magical but somewhat reluctant."
"So Voldemort hoped to harness its magic," Hermione breathed, handing it back to Snape, who stowed it away in his wallet again. "Do you think he'd have succeeded?"
"He might have wrenched it to his will, given time, but once he became fixated upon the Elder Wand, this became irrelevant."
Snape lapsed into silence, resting his head back on the seat and closing his eyes. He looked pale, sickly and oddly vulnerable in his Muggle clothes. The Transfigured suit and coat fit him well, but unlike the enveloping folds of Wizarding robes, they revealed how thin he was. He needed a shave and a decent haircut and, basically, someone to care about him, if only a house-elf. Harry felt a twinge of guilt. Snape deserved more than a house-elf, he deserved someone to love him, and to be loved by him.
Snape could function with a migraine – Occlumency shields were good for more than simply hoodwinking Dark Lords – but his energy levels were running very low. There had been times when he had survived for days on a combination of strong pain potions, Pepper-up and malice, but the backlash, both magical and physical, had been brutal. At least Potter and his followers were unlikely to curse him when he wasn't looking; in fact, they appeared mildly anxious about him. It occurred to him that they would cover his back and had proved that they were prepared to do so – a novel circumstance indeed.
Even the Malfoys only sided with him when it suited their purpose. Lucius Malfoy had sent him to his death and had not bothered to instruct a house-elf to check up on him. Snape rather hoped to have the opportunity to point this out to Lucius in the future. Repeatedly. Their relationship had mellowed over the years to a genuine, if typically Slytherin, friendship, and from what Potter had told him about Narcissa's actions before the final battle, the Malfoys were hardly going to blame him for his duplicity. He would allow Lucius to make it up to him, preferably from the wine cellar that the other Death Eaters had never discovered.
He allowed himself to drift off into a fantasy in which Lucius, smirking, revealed the hidden wine cellar and invited him to choose a bottle to drink with supper, and Snape, smirking back, lowered the wards on the second hidden cellar, the one that even Draco did not know about. There was little point to being a spy if you didn't keep in practice.
"Professor?" a hand gently shook his arm and he blinked up at a concerned face surrounded by a halo of out-of-control brown hair. "We get off at the next stop, sir."
Potter hauled the cat-carrier out from under the table and peered through the closely woven wicker strands. A pair of irate black eyes glared back and the Jarvey bared his teeth. Granger giggled.
"Oops, sorry, I forgot to lift the silencing charm. I'll lift it as long as you keep quiet." She waited until the creature nodded, although it continued to glower, then she wordlessly lifted the charm.
"Me-fucking-ow!" the Jarvey snapped and curled up with its back to her.
The train pulled up under a station canopy and they shuffled along the aisle until their turn to step down to the platform. The Muggle station was just as crowded, noisy and disconcerting as Snape remembered. A bored voice with a West-country accent announced that they had arrived at Bristol Temple Meads and that the next train from Exeter to Paddington had been unavoidably delayed due to a signalling failure at Weston-super-Mare.
A young woman with dirty blond hair sat cross-legged on one of the wooden seats, reading a magazine upside-down, humming quietly and utterly oblivious to the stares of the passersby. She looked like a left-over from the hippy era in a long cotton dress and a velvet cloak.
"Hi, Luna," Potter said and she gave him a sunny smile.
"Hello, Harry. I've never been here before; it's nice, isn't it?"
"Luna, I have got to ask," Granger said, "why do you always read everything the wrong way up?"
Lovegood beamed at her.
"Daddy taught me to do it. You set lead type upside-down, you see, so that it still reads from left to right and it comes out the right way round on the printed page. Printers have to learn to read upside-down."
Granger looked completely disconcerted for a moment and Weasley grinned broadly. "Ravenclaw," he said, "there had to be a reason."
"There's always a reason for everything, Ron," Lovegood told him. "Hello, Professor, I heard that you were dead. I expect there's a reason for that, too."
"Miss Lovegood," Snape said. She had been a typical Ravenclaw student, studious and proficient if not exceptionally gifted at potions and he had rarely had reason to interact with her until last year. He had always thought her harmless but slightly mad.
"Daddy couldn't come, I'm afraid," she said, hopping down from the seat and pulling the strap of an embroidered bag over her shoulder. It appeared to be patterned with appliquéd lobsters. "He's terribly busy getting the printing press all sorted out so we can go back into production as soon as possible. Mr Shacklebolt's promised us an exclusive interview and it would be lovely if I could interview you all as well." She cocked her head to one side. "But you don't have to, of course. I just thought you might want to get your side of the story out there before Rita Skeeter makes it all up."
"That would be great, Luna," Potter said, "but we've got a problem to sort out first."
"Yes, the Fair Folk," Lovegood replied placidly, "you really shouldn't have interfered with them; they can be quite problematic. I brought you these." She delved into her bag and brought out a bundle of rolled-up magazines. "We've published quite a few articles on them over the years. I managed to borrow some books from the library as well, so please don't lose them or Madam Pince will get annoyed with me."
"Luna, you're brilliant!" Potter enthused and the girl went pink with pleasure as she handed over a little pile of books, carefully tied together with yellow string.
"It's what you do for friends, isn't it? Lots of your other friends are worried about you, though, I felt really bad about not telling them that you're safe." She paused and peered at them all, including Snape. "Are you really quite safe?"
"I'm not sure, that's what I wanted the information for," Potter said.
"You've all got a lot of Wrackspurts, so do be careful. It's a bit odd, really, I've never seen them around Professor Snape before. Does your brain feel unusually fuzzy, sir?"
Snape scowled at her and folded his arms. She appeared undaunted and gave him a little grin. "You'll all need to be sharp-witted around the Fae and don't forget that they can transfigure hawthorn into almost anything. Do you want me to tell people that you're safe, or is it our secret?"
"I think you'd better not mention Professor Snape at all," Potter said thoughtfully, then glanced at Weasley, who pulled a face.
"Look, can you let my dad know that we're all okay? Just quietly, tell him we'll be back soon and not to worry. Otherwise my mum'll go bananas."
"Yes, I'll do that. Is that everything? I'd love to come with you but I'm afraid Daddy's a bit anxious at the moment, he's only got me, you see."
"That's fine, Luna, thanks so much."
She turned and trotted away, turning just before the exit to give a little wave, before vanishing among the Muggles.
"Where next?" Potter asked cheerfully, stuffing his hands into his pockets.
"That depends on how much money we've got," Weasley said, glancing at Snape, who glared back on principle.
"I'll pay you back, Professor, just as soon as I can get to Gringotts," Potter said and Weasley snorted.
"If they haven't confiscated your vault to pay for all the damage we did."
"Hm," Granger said, "yes, there is that, but on the other hand, we can prove under Veritaserum and Pensieve evidence that not only were those goblins keeping a Class-5a creature without any of the required permits, but they were keeping it under extremely cruel conditions. I'm sure Charlie would have something to say about that."
"Not half," Weasley said with satisfaction. "How much Muggle money have we got between us, anyway?"
Snape sighed, took out his wallet and held up a small, rectangular piece of plastic. Potter and Granger smiled and Weasley looked blank.
"It's a credit card, Ron, I'll explain later in more detail. It means that Professor Snape can buy anything within reason, we'll just have to pay him back before the interest charges kick in."
"I want a proper cooked meal," Weasley stated, ignoring the eye-rolling from his friends, "and we can all do with a hot bath and a good night's sleep. I vote we hire rooms in a Muggle hotel for the night. The elves aren't going to look for us there, are they?"
"That's a brilliant idea, Ron!" Granger enthused and Potter nodded vigorously. Snape tried to think of reasons for objecting but the thought of a soft, warm, clean bed was just too appealing.
"We must not split up," he cautioned them.
"A family suite should do it, if it isn't too expensive," Granger agreed.
Hermione chose a huge, modern hotel located close to Bristol's main shopping centre, brutally flood-lit even though the sky would not be dark for many hours yet. Ron pulled a face but did not argue. The three scruffy teens barely merited a second glance in the bustling reception area, surrounded by a mixture of conference attendees, Japanese tourists and a group of guests from a wedding at St Mary Redcliffe church.
The uniformed receptionist frowned at her computer screen. "I'm sorry, Mr Snape, I don't seem to have a reservation..." her voice trailed off and Harry saw the tip of Snape's wand twitch inside his cuff. "I'll just need to move a few bookings around, if you can wait a moment." Her fingers clicked across the keyboard and she reached out to take Snape's credit card.
"He used his real name," Ron hissed.
"It has to match the name on the credit card, otherwise he'd have to use magic on the computer and that's usually a disaster; magic makes the system crash straight away. I expect Professor Snape's got a genuine Muggle bank account if he lives in the Muggle world, too."
Harry nodded. Snape's memories had included glimpses of his parents' old home, now his, in a grim, northern industrial town.
"How long am I going to be bloody stuck in here?" Wanker complained, from his basket that now appeared to be a tartan suitcase, thanks to Hermione's Transfiguration skills. "I'm dying for a pee!"
"You'll have to be quiet and wait a bit longer," Harry whispered. "They don't allow pets."
"I'm not a fucking pet!" However he shut up when Ron gave the suitcase a warning kick.
They followed Snape into a lift, crowding in with a family of wedding guests who eyed them warily. Ron attempted to put them at ease by smiling but gave up when they edged even further away.
"Daddy," a small girl said urgently, "there's an animal in that case! Look! I can see it through the crack!"
"Don't be silly," the man said glancing at Wanker's carrier. Wanker stuck out his tongue and the child giggled.
"It's a stuffed toy for my nephew," Hermione said.
"Clockwork," Harry extemporised hastily, "I expect I jolted it and set it going."
The girl considered this explanation thoughtfully. Wanker did not help by making random clicking and buzzing noises under his breath. They all breathed more easily when the lift stopped with a loud pinging sound and the family got out.
"Thought I was going to have to Obliviate them all for a minute then," Harry said. Snape merely scowled and jabbed his thumb at the button for their floor.
They found themselves in possession of two interconnected bedrooms, each with twin beds, and a large shared bathroom. Hermione banished Wanker's carrier and the Jarvey stretched, arching his back, and sniffed the air.
"Fucking funny place, this," he said. "The cleaning charms smell chuffing horrible."
"They're not charms, they're chemicals," Hermione told him. "The bathroom's in there – no, you're not to cock your leg against the house plant!"
Wanker nudged the large, weeping fig with his forepaw and stared at it with an expression of disgust.
"It isn't real!"
"Plastic," Harry agreed and the Jarvey shuddered before trotting into the bathroom. When Harry followed, he found the creature in the bath, urinating down the plug-hole.
"Couldn't lift the effing lid," Wanker muttered before shaking himself and leaping out. "Never did get the hang of indoor plumbing."
"I hope you're not going to doing anything, er, solid in the bath," Harry warned him, with visions of having to suspend the Jarvey over the toilet.
"You can Banish it, can't you? Thought you were a chuffing wizard!" Wanker said over his shoulder before he bounded into the large bedroom.
Snape had removed his boots and was lying flat on one of the beds, one arm thrown across his face to block out the light.
Wanker was clearly full of energy after his incarceration, rolling on the bedside rug and investigating the entire suite of rooms, his bushy tail waving.
"Can you wear a Glamour?" Hermione asked him. He cocked his head.
"Why? If you turn me green and spotty again I'll bite yer bloody ankles!"
Hermione laughed. "No, silly, I thought that if we smuggled you out disguised as a dog, you could come for a walk with us. A corgi would be about the right size."
"As long as you chuffing turn me back again. Don't want to lose me stunning good looks, do I?"
After a couple of attempts, both Hermione and Wanker were satisfied with his appearance as a sable and white Cardigan Welsh corgi. When Harry stared at the creature, he could see Wanker's true form underneath, as if he was wearing a translucent corgi-shaped overcoat, but Hermione assured him that Muggles would merely see a dog.
"You'll have to bark," Ron told him.
"Woof woof bloody woof, yeah, I get it."
"No, you have to bark, not just say 'woof'!"
"Oh, shut up."
Wanker stuck out his tongue and crossed his eyes.
"Bugger off, the lot of you," Snape muttered.
"Will you be all right, sir?"
Snape merely glared with one narrowed black eye from beneath his arm. Hermione swished her wand to close the curtains.
"We'll only be a couple of hours, I want to buy a few bits and pieces."
"Just go." Snape flapped a hand at them. "Don't make me have to rescue anyone or Obliviate too many Muggles."
Harry switched off the lights and heard Snape let out a sigh as he turned onto his side. As they pulled the door closed behind them, Harry caught Hermione's sleeve.
"I want to put up a ward. Just in case."
While he warded the doorway, Hermione Summoned a snapped shoelace from a waste-paper bin and transfigured it into a collar and leash for the Jarvey. Ron picked Wanker up and applied a Notice-me-not charm.
"Bristol, here we come," Ron said cheerfully.
"Yeah," said the corgi tucked under his arm, "let's hit the fucking big time! Will there be booze?"
"Shut up," Ron said.
Hermione had prudently kept the change from their seaside shopping trip, which was sufficient to buy them all second-hand jeans, t-shirts and jackets from charity shops. The clothes that they had worn throughout their Horcrux hunt had been magically cleaned so many times that they were almost transparent in places.
"Transfigured clothes have a habit of reverting back when you're not expecting it," she explained, as she and Harry watched Ron trying on a pair of training shoes. Wanker yawned and scratched his ear with a hind paw.
"We won't be long, Fido," Harry said.
"Fido!" Wanker muttered. "No bloody imagination, some people."
Hermione handed over payment for Ron's shoes and bustled off across the road to Boots, saying something about needing a chemist.
"Snape's headache pills again?" Harry asked and Ron looked smug.
"Glad I'm not a bloody dog," Wanker said, "this would do my head in on a regular basis."
A woman slowed down to stare and Harry gave her a rather strained smile. "Practicing my ventriloquist act," he told her and she hurried off, looking doubtful.
"Daft cow," Wanker said and cocked his leg against a lamp post.
Hermione tucked their purchases into her beaded bag and after a brief detour into a bakery, they wandered back towards the hotel, sharing hot sausage rolls from a greaseproof paper bag.
"Not bad, for Muggles," Wanker declared, licking flakes of pastry from his whiskers. "What's for dinner?"
"We're going to eat in the hotel's dining room," Ron told him, "so you'll have to make do with whatever we can smuggle up to the room."
"Or we can buy you some dog food?"
"What do Jarveys usually eat, apart from gnomes?" Harry asked.
"Rats, moles and voles, according to Scamander," Hermione said.
"I have a very discerning palate, sod it! Being a very well-brought-up fucking Jarvey an' all, I have a partiality for fine dining."
"Steak ‘n chips would be bloody wonderful. Medium-rare fillet, I'm not into cremated steak. Don't bother with the fucking mushrooms and peas and veggie crap, I'm a carnivore."
"You'll be lucky, I don't know if Snape's plastic card thingy will stretch to that."
When they reached their room, Hermione used the electronic key-card to unlock and open the door. Harry threw his arm across the doorway to stop her but was too slow to prevent the Jarvey from pushing past at ground level.
"No!" Harry yelled, "the wards are down!"
The trio drew their wands but Wanker came hurtling out again, almost bowling Hermione over.
"He's gone!" Wanker cried, shaking and pressing against their legs. "The old bastard's gone and there's something fucking 'orrible been in there!"
The windows were wide open, curtains blowing in the breeze, but what frightened Harry most was the slender, dark wand lying discarded on the bed.
"I thought he'd be safe here," Hermione exclaimed, rocking in the armchair, her knees pulled up to her chest and arms wrapped around them.
"No, I'm the one responsible," Harry told her. "I put up a ward but I didn't bother disguising it! I thought it was just an extra precaution, like another lock on the door."
"We shouldn't have left him," Ron said, "but there's no use whinging about it now; we'll just have to find out how to get him back."
Wanker, although reverted back to his natural appearance, was nevertheless sniffing around in a very dog-like fashion, his nose to the carpet.
"Nasty sticky magic," he muttered, "slimy buggers, smell funny."
"Did they come in and go out of the window?" Ron asked.
"Yeah, smells like it."
"Which I didn't ward," Harry groaned.
"Right," Hermione said, sitting up and reaching for her beaded bag, "time to knuckle down and get on with the research!"
"What about dinner?"
"Room service, Ronald, they should deliver it for us."
"Steak and chips for four?" Harry asked, reaching for the telephone.
"Five," muttered the Jarvey. "What? I'm fucking hungry!"
"Four. They'll expect to feed four of us, and you'll have to hide in the bathroom while they bring in the food."
"Oh damn, how are we going to pay?" Hermione groaned. "Snape's got his credit card in his wallet!"
"That's the least of our problems, love. We'll Apparate out tomorrow and leave them to sort it out."
Hermione nodded and began pulling books out of her bag.
"The Faerie Compact pre-dates the Statute of Secrecy by centuries," Hermione said, in between sips of coffee. "It was a treaty between wizards and Muggles on one side and the Free Elves on the other, and basically agreed that each would leave the other in peace. The Elves agreed to stop their habitual harassment in exchange for wizards ensuring that their homes and their favourite places were hidden from Muggles and protected from interference."
"Until Snape went and stole their treasures," Ron grumbled.
"Well, he was under awful pressure," Harry said.
"So that's why they're angry, anyway." Hermione nibbled on the end of her conjured quill. "We need to return the stones, obviously. At least he had the chance to tell us where they were."
"How do we get them to even speak to us without shooting us full of arrows?"
"Harry, did you find anything?"
"It's an article in the Quibbler so I don't know how much we can rely on it. We're agreed that they've got to be trooping faeries, right?"
Ron nodded. "Yeah, they're the ones who use the flint-tipped arrows, according to Grebb and Strengle."
"We have to go to the mound that they're occupying and walk seven times around it, widdershins, slowly working our way in towards the centre, reciting what looks like some sort of mangled charm to ask permission to enter. That might make them notice us and let us in. If they do, we need to placate them with suitable gifts. They'll try to trick us. If they offer food and drink, we have to refuse, but not in a manner that'll insult them. We have to be polite, but they'll treat us with contempt if we grovel too much and they'll be insulted if we come on too strong."
"We need to convince them that it's a good idea to reinstate the Compact."
"We need to convince them to let Snape go, first," Harry said.
"For that, we need the stones," Ron stated, closing the book on his lap. "Agreed?"
Harry lay awake for hours, staring at the car headlights that filtered through the chinks in the curtains and reflected from the ceiling. Beside him, Wanker lay on his back with his paws in the air, furry belly distended with the steak and chips that Harry had not had the appetite to finish. Harry wondered if Snape was even alive. He had to hope that the Fair Folk wanted their gems back too much to kill the man. He tried to work out a way of using the Time Turner to get Snape back, wishing that he had set better wards, or had left the Jarvey behind to keep watch or that they had not gone out at all, leaving Snape so vulnerable.
He snorted. No doubt Snape was giving the Fair Folk second thoughts; he was the least physically vulnerable wizard Harry knew. Emotionally was a different matter, of course. He wondered what Snape was feeling, and whether he knew that Harry would move heaven and earth to get him back.
Harry popped into existence and staggered sideways, feeling as if he had landed on a slope despite the level, well-manicured lawn beneath his feet. A heavy weight released its hold on the hem of his jeans, shook itself and grinned up at him.
"Wanker," Harry sighed, "don't do that! We could have been splinched!"
"Nah, I trust you." The Jarvey sniffed the air. "Posh place, this. Where are we?"
"Malfoy Manor. I'm here to ask a favour so for Merlin's sake don't be rude to anyone, right? Otherwise I'll have to send for Ron to take you back."
"I'll be as nice as fucking pie. Promise."
Harry refrained from rolling his eyes and walked towards the wrought iron gates, the Jarvey loping along at his side. Something rustled nearby and Wanker slowed down, staring into the shadows under the yew hedge. He gave a sudden yelp of excitement and shot into the gloom before Harry could stop him. There was a tremendous clattering and a white peacock erupted from the hedge and flapped away, its tail trailing. Wanker emerged with a six-foot-long feather dangling from his mouth.
"Nearly got the bugger!"
Harry grabbed him by the scruff of the neck and hoisted him off the ground until they were eye to eye.
"This is our best chance to get Snape back," he growled, giving the squirming animal a shake to emphasise the message, "and if you mess it up, I'll bloody well hex you inside out!"
"Okay, okay, I got it!" Wanker squeaked. "Sorry, it was me animal instincts taking over. Fucking hell, no need to get your knickers in a twist! Got carried away, won't happen again!"
"It had better not," Harry warned him as he deposited the Jarvey on the ground. "Now shut up and keep out of trouble."
When a peahen strolled across the drive in front of them, Wanker pointedly ignored it.
The gates were closed and as Harry extended a cautious hand towards them, he could feel the wards like the heat from a fire. He drew his holly wand, cast his Patronus and sent it through the gates with a polite message to whoever was at home. Then he settled down to wait in the sun, his back against one of the limestone columns that supported the gate.
He was woken from a doze by something tugging at his sleeve.
"Oy, mush, wake up, someone's coming!" Wanker whispered. Harry stood up and brushed the grass clippings from his jeans.
"What do you want, Potter?" Draco Malfoy stood on the other side of the impressive gates with his hands in his pockets and an air of mild boredom that was no doubt feigned.
"To ask you a favour."
Malfoy cocked an eyebrow at him. There was something slightly unsettling about the expression until Harry realised who Malfoy had learned it from. All the tight, exhausted anxiety of the last few months came back in a flood and he suppressed an urge to laugh hysterically.
"What sort of a favour?" Malfoy sounded wary and Harry did not really blame him.
"Look, can I come in?"
"If you insist. Merlin, Potter, what are you doing with one of those uncouth little monsters?"
"You talking about me, you posh bastard?" Wanker demanded indignantly, fluffing up and posturing like a tom-cat nose to nose with a rival.
"You either shut up or you stay out here," Harry warned him.
"Oh all right, dickhead. I'll keep schtum."
Harry picked him up under his arm, where Wanker hung with his head and tail dangling, muttering. Malfoy gave a little huff that was too refined to be a snort and aimed his wand at the gates, which swung open.
"You should have stuck with that tolerably well-behaved snowy owl."
"She's dead," Harry said shortly and was slightly relieved that Malfoy did not attempt to express the sympathy that he doubtless did not feel.
Malfoy led the way around the outside of the house. Two elves came out of a doorway, levitating a set of dining chairs made of dark carved wood and padded with green satin.
"Master," squeaked one of the elves, "is the table to be gone?"
"Yes," Malfoy said, waving a hand, "get rid of the lot; the carpets and the curtains as well."
The elves shared a frightened glance.
"But Master Draco, they has been in the Malfoy family for centuries -"
"It doesn't matter," Malfoy snapped, "burn them all! Don't banish them, don't store them away, just take them out and put them in a pile and set fire to them!"
"But they is precious!" the elf wailed. "What will Mistress Narcissa say?"
"She'll tell you to do as you're told, Dandy! None of us can bear to eat at that table or sit on those chairs ever again."
The elf snuffled and trotted off, levitating the furniture in a great heap before it. Malfoy waved a hand, aborted the gesture and stuck his hands back in the pockets of his heavy silk robe.
"It's all chaos," he said, an explanation rather than an apology.
"So's the entire Wizarding world," Harry offered and Malfoy shrugged.
"Well, come on in, then. Don't let the stoat mess on the floor."
Wanker twitched but Harry gave him a warning squeeze. With a sudden scrabbling of claws, the Jarvey twisted in his grasp, scrambled up onto his shoulders and draped himself around his neck like a heavy fur collar. Harry could feel the quick patter of Wanker's heart.
Malfoy led the way into a smallish room with leather studded armchairs, a desk, bookcases and paintings of flying horses. A number of racing brooms hung in brackets on the walls and Harry recognised the one nearest the door.
"Your study?" he asked, just for something to break the awkward silence.
"Yes." Malfoy clapped his hands together once. "Darcy, tea and biscuits for two. What is it you want, Potter?"
"Severus Snape gave your parents some little stones," Harry said. Malfoy appeared genuinely puzzled and he elaborated. "They look like quartz pebbles, uncut crystals, I don't know how many there were. Voldemort—" Malfoy flinched and Harry took pity on him and did not repeat the name, "asked his followers to find them but the Dark Lord lost interest when he uncovered the trail that led to Dumbledore's wand. Snape gave some to your parents, some to Jacobus Avery and the rest are hidden at Hogwarts or at Snape's old home. It's very important that we find them."
"That's a long story."
"Why should I just hand them over to you for the asking?" Malfoy sounded curious rather than contrary and Harry suppressed his instinct to get annoyed.
"For Snape's sake."
"That hardly matters anymore, does it?" Malfoy turned away as an elf popped in, placed a tray on the table before the fireplace, bowed and vanished.
"It matters a lot," Harry told him. "It matters more than anything else at the moment. Look, I'm not asking this on a whim. If you like, you can regard it as payment of a debt."
Malfoy's hand twitched as he reached for the teapot, but he steadied again as he poured tea and milk into a fragile, porcelain cup.
"Help yourself to tea, Potter. Are you telling me that this is important enough to cancel a life debt?"
This time, Malfoy did snort aloud.
"You don't even understand what a life debt is, do you?"
"Yes, Malfoy, I understand the concept. A life depends on me getting those stones back."
"Whose? Your life or one of your cronies'?"
Malfoy's teaspoon tinkled delicately on the sides of his teacup as he stirred his tea.
"Mother and I went to collect his body from the Shack but found no sign of him."
"Where is he?"
"I wish I bloody well knew! That's what I need the stones for; I need them to get him back."
"His body? Or are you telling me that you lied, that Nagini didn't kill him?"
"We went back for him."
"So you said."
"We went back for him, Malfoy. Hermione used a Time-Turner and we took healing potions with us."
Harry saw a delicate pink flush rising on Malfoy's pale face and his grey eyes narrowed.
"If you're lying about this, Potter, I shall cheerfully kill you."
"He isn't lying, you poncy tosser," squeaked a voice next to Harry's ear. "He's all bloody honest and noble like that. You going to eat those chocolate digestives or can I 'ave 'em?"
"Dandy," Malfoy called, "Darcy, Dilly. Come here."
Three elves appeared, standing in a line in their starched pillowcases. Malfoy waved at Harry. "You tell them what you're looking for, Potter."
"Stones," Harry said. "Polished quartz pebbles, about this big." He held up his thumb and finger. "They're quite valuable so they'll be hidden away and they're warded because they have some kind of magical power."
The elves peered up at Malfoy, who nodded. "Yes, go find them, then!"
The smallest elf on the end of the line, a female, Harry supposed, wrung the hem of her pillowcase between her hands and whimpered faintly, while the two males leaned towards one another and whispered. Malfoy scowled and Harry stepped forwards before their master began berating them.
"What's the matter?" Harry asked, squatting on his heels to bring himself down to their level. "Do you know something about them?"
"They is no goods," Dilly squeaked, shaking her head emphatically. "They is from evil elfs!"
"Ah, that'll be them," Harry said. "Where are they?"
Dilly cast a frightened glance at Malfoy.
"I is told not to say. Master Lucius tells I to forgets about the bad stones and all the other precious things!"
"You'll tell me," Malfoy said sharply, "or else!"
"I is not to say!" she wailed, "I is not telling or showing any persons about my Master's treasures!" She began slapping her own face, sobbing loudly.
"Stop her!" Harry shouted.
Malfoy huffed but snapped, "Stop punishing yourself, Dilly! Are any of you elves able to tell us or show us?" The two male elves shook their heads, huddling together and trembling. "It's no good, Potter, they have to obey my father's commands. If I try to override them, the little beasts will only injure themselves. No doubt Father did that to prevent certain Death Eaters from making off with everything of value. We're at an impasse. My father is detained at the Ministry's pleasure for the foreseeable future and neither my mother nor I can override the command while he's still the head of the family."
"Simples," a small voice remarked from down beside Harry's feet. "They been ordered not to show persons where the fucking things are, right? But who says they can't show handsome, erudite and intelligent animals where they are?"
"Wanker, you're a genius!" Harry exclaimed. The elves exchanged dubious glances and the Jarvey sat up on his haunches and looked smug.
"You're joking!" Malfoy exclaimed with a deeply affronted expression. "You call your familiar Wanker?"
"Listen, mush, if you don't like it, you can lump it. Didn't your effing mother teach you any manners?"
"Do not insult my mother in her own house!" Malfoy growled, drawing the wand that Harry had returned to him immediately after the final battle.
"Sorry, Malfoy," Harry said, clamping his hand over Wanker's jaws. "He's a Jarvey, he can't help it, unfortunately. And I told you to behave, you furry menace!"
Wanker said something that was too muffled to be understood, shook his muzzle free and glowered.
"Are we going to find these chuffing stones and get old vulture-beak back or are we going to stand around drinking tea and looking bloody stupid all day?"
"Did you just apologise, Potter?" Malfoy asked curiously, then shrugged. "Dilly, take this delightful creature to the stones and allow him to bring them back with him."
"Yes, Master, but Master Lucius will smack! I is unhappy."
"I don't care if you're prostrate with despair, it's for Snape, damn it!"
"See you," Wanker said and trotted out of the door in the wake of the sulking elf, calling, "Save us a choccie biccie!" back over his shoulder.
They finished the tea and biscuits and Malfoy sent Darcy for cucumber sandwiches and cake. Harry fidgeted, glancing at the empty doorway every few minutes.
"Don't fret, Potter, the elves won't eat your little pet. They'll need to work around my father's wards before the Jarvey can extract anything."
"He'd better be all right," Harry muttered, helping himself to a slice of Battenberg cake.
"I knew you fucking loved me, really!" The Jarvey popped up beside Harry's chair, a small hessian sack grasped between his front paws.
"How did you do that?" Harry demanded, taking the sack. It clinked and he could feel the wards on the stones, like grease filtering through the loosely woven fibres.
"Magic, mush! I'm a magical creature, me, I got me own little secrets. There you are, the elf says that's the fucking lot. She was glad to see the chuffing back of 'em, if you ask me. You finished with that slice of cake?"
Harry Apparated to the middle of the Gravelly Hill Interchange on the M6, hidden under the Cloak, with Wanker under his arm. Surrounded by the ceaselessly circling traffic, their tent appeared like a ghostly image as he approached the wards and waited to be allowed admittance.
Hermione was hunched over books and scrolls at the table while Ron sprawled in the opposite chair, twirling a quill and looking bored. They grinned as Harry held up the bag of Faerie stones.
"One lot down, three to go. Malfoy told me where Avery lives, although he doesn't know if he was killed or arrested or if he's gone to ground."
"That's brilliant, Harry!" Hermione enthused.
"Hermione's worked out the ritual to get into the elves' mound," Ron said, "but it looks like one of us will have to go alone. The ritual's for one person."
"Me," Harry said immediately and Hermione sighed. "Yes, we were afraid you'd say that."
"I'm the master of the Wand and the Cloak, so it has to be me. If anything does go wrong, you'll have to come to my rescue."
"If that happens, I'll bring the family," Ron said darkly. "Let's see the buggers try to deal with Mum, Bill, Charlie and a couple of Welsh Greens. Failing that, I'll get Percy to bore them to death."
"Avery's place next?" Harry asked and Ron shrugged.
They dismantled the tent and Apparated away, causing the driver of a passing Sainsbury's delivery lorry to pull in and double-check for burst tyres at the next service station.
Avery's house was in an isolated spot outside the village of Great Hangleton. It had an air of neglect, with ivy scrambling over the walls and tall weeds smothering the front garden. The wards were fierce but they were not complicated, nor were they able to withstand the power of the Elder Wand. Inside, the place smelt stale and musty, reminding Harry of Bathilda Bagshot's cottage.
"I hope no-one's died here," Ron muttered, pointing his wand at the congealed sludge that had overflowed from a cauldron in the fireplace. Hermione wrinkled her nose.
"How on earth are we going to find the stones in this mess?" The table and chairs were covered with a layer of old newspapers, unwashed plates, underwear, bottles and empty cigarette packets.
"Accio Faerie stones!" Ron said optimistically. Nothing happened.
"If they've still got Snape's wards on them, they'll be impervious to being Summoned," Hermione said. "We'll just have to search."
"You could, or you could ask the only member of the party with a sodding sense of smell," Wanker remarked.
"Of course!" Ron slapped a hand to his forehead. "I keep forgetting!"
"So I fucking noticed."
The Jarvey sat down and scratched his ear. "Please what?"
"Please help us find the stones?"
Wanker sniffed. Hermione bent down to his level. "We're sorry, Wanker. We're so used to having to do everything ourselves, you see. Will you please help us get Professor Snape back?"
"S'pose so. As you asked so bloody nicely and I'm getting quite fond of the old sod."
Wanker shook himself, put his nose to the floor and began trotting around in widening circles, sniffing audibly and occasionally pausing to sneeze and wipe his muzzle with his forepaws. Eventually they followed him up the stairs and into a bathroom that smelled strongly of stale urine. He reared up onto his hind legs and scrabbled at a door set into the wooden panelling, which swung open to reveal untidy heaps of towels and bedding. He peered back over his shoulder.
"Give us a hand, then, for fuck's sake."
Hermione and Harry levitated the laundry out and Wanker sniffed the air. "Yup, they're in here. Nasty Dark wards, too, or I'm a bloody hamster."
Hermione cast diagnostic charms to reveal the wards and Harry used the Elder Wand to disarm them, then Ron levitated the lowest shelf. Beneath it was a hollow space hidden under a Glamour, containing a box of Galleons, some items of jewellery, old parchment scrolls, and a hessian bag of Faerie Stones. Harry carefully removed the stones and reinstated the Glamour. After a moment of consideration, he replaced the wards with standard all-purpose versions keyed to the person whose magical signature was on the rest of the possessions.
"Nifty bit of spell-crafting, mate," Ron said as they trooped back down the stairs. "Bet he's dead or arrested, though, bit of a waste of time."
"That's where you're wrong, little boy," sneered a voice from above them. "Petrificus totalus!"
They all froze, eyes rolling wildly, as Avery descended from one of the bedrooms. "What have we here? Thieves? Accio my possessions!" Nothing happened; the warding on the stones prevented his magic from affecting them. Clicking his tongue impatiently, he snatched the bag from Harry's grasp. "Merlin's scrote, what did you want those for? Answer me! You're Harry Potter, aren't you? I'm going to have some fun with you, boy! Imperio! Tell me why you wanted the stones!"
"Snape," Harry said, through gritted teeth. "For Snape."
"That traitor? Thought he was dead. Never mind. Let's get you lot somewhere no-one will ever find you— OW! FUCK!"
He kicked violently, attempting to shake off the Jarvey whose fangs were clamped into the flesh of his calf. As soon as Avery's attention was diverted from the Imperius curse (which Harry was able to resist to some extent), he felt the petrification lift from his body. He guessed it was due to the quick succession of overlapping spells, or the fact that Petrificus had been cast across three people at once and therefore weakened, but either way, Harry wasted no time disarming Avery and then releasing his friends. Before Avery could react, Ron Stunned him and Hermione summoned ropes to bind him.
"Thanks, Wanker, you can let go now," Harry called out. The Jarvey dropped to the ground and spat.
"Yuck! Dunno when he last washed, but he tastes fucking 'orrible!"
"What shall we do with him?" Ron asked.
"I'll side-along him to the Ministry and leave him tied up in the atrium," Harry said. "I'll use the Cloak."
"I thought you were immune to Imperius, Harry," Hermione remarked.
"I am. I was hoping he'd lead us to some of the other Death Eaters, but the Aurors can get that out of him with Veritaserum. I'll be back in a minute."
The wards were still down on the Ministry, so Harry left the Stunned Avery against the receptionist's desk with a label addressed to Kingsley Shacklebolt, and then he Apparated out again before anyone noticed. Hermione, Ron and Wanker waited for him in Avery's front garden.
"Snape's place next," he said. "Ready?"
They linked arms, he picked Wanker up and envisioned the place where he had watched Snape and Lily Evans, caught like flies in amber in a time when Snape snatched moments of happiness and hope amid the drab realities of his life. Harry Apparated them all to a dingy town in northern England.
Snape had spent many years practising utter submission to Voldemort, as well as the more subtle and delicate compliance required by Dumbledore. Feigning subservience to an elf was not beyond his ability. They had taken him unawares, and for that, he could barely forgive himself, migraine or not. He knew that Potter would come for him, and he was unable to decide if that thought filled him with hope or with dread. Potter was a youthful, inexperienced, clumsy Gryffindor whose bravado got him into trouble over and over again, and yet recent experience suggested that the boy had matured. His equally youthful companions had demonstrated their abilities to research and to plan and Potter had learned to listen to them. For now, Snape needed to remain alive and evade the worst of the elves' enchantments.
It was raining in Cokeworth; a chilly, depressing drizzle that slicked the cobbled pavements and dripped from the eaves of the red-brick, terraced houses. Some had boarded-up windows but a few were encased in scaffolding, with signs advertising local builders or property developers.
"Looks like the area's going up-market," Hermione said knowledgeably. "These old artisan's cottages are becoming desirable again for first-time homeowners."
"Who'd want to live here?" Ron asked, pulling a face and staring up at the great mill chimney that loomed over the town.
"Muggles," Harry said. "Come on, it's up here."
"Spinner's End," Ron muttered, as they passed the sign at the end of an exceptionally narrow street. Harry stopped opposite the very last house. "Be careful, mate, Merlin knows what kind of nasty wards he's put up!"
"I doubt it, Ron. He doesn't want to attract attention by injuring an innocent postman. He lives partly in the Muggle world, like Hermione and I do; the house is visible so he probably pays all the rates and stuff like that."
The front door was locked. After checking that they were unobserved, Harry cast Alohomora and, rather to his surprise, the door swung open.
"Oh my word," Hermione said, gazing around at the wall-to-wall books.
"You'd better not touch them without Snape's say-so," Ron warned her. "You know what he's like. Wanker? Where are you?"
"I can smell a fucking rat," the Jarvey said, snuffling at the dingy hearthrug.
"Is the scent fresh?" Harry asked anxiously.
"Nah, it's strong but it's old."
"Wormtail," Harry muttered with a shudder. "Go on, see if you can sniff out the stones, but be careful. I bet Snape keeps poisons and Dark artefacts everywhere."
Wanker gave a very put-upon sigh but began trotting back and forth with his nose to the floor. Hermione took a while to work out how to open the door hidden behind one of the bookcases, and then Wanker investigated the staircase and bathroom. Harry peered through a doorway into a narrow, dark bedroom overlooking the back yard. He had once caught sight of a memory of a teenaged Snape, lying on this bed and shooting down flies with his wand. Although dusty and with an air of disuse, the house was tidy, the bed neatly made with a faded nightshirt folded on the pillow. There was something poignant about seeing this small segment of Snape's life without him, though had Snape not survived, it would have been almost unbearable. To know that the powerful, remarkable wizard was not merely a half-blood, but came from such an impoverished background, made Harry admire him all the more.
"Let's try the kitchen," Hermione said, when Wanker had sniffed around both bedrooms, investigating under the beds and inside every cranny.
"If he really wants to hide something, we've no hope of finding it," Ron said glumly. "This's Snape we're talking about; he'll know how to make stuff vanish."
"But would he bother to hide the Faerie Stones so well? They're not worth that much, surely?"
"I bet that git Wormtail took them," Ron said.
Harry Levitated Wanker so that he could investigate the top of the old enamelled metal dresser in the kitchen. The Jarvey dived into the bread bin and the oven, sniffing beneath the edges of the cracked linoleum and through all the cupboards.
"Nope, not a fucking thing," the Jarvey declared.
Hermione opened the back door and peered out. The tiny back yard contained a couple of dustbins, a clothesline and pots of straggly culinary herbs: chives, rosemary, mint and sage. Wanker wandered out into the drizzle, came to a sudden stop and sniffed the air. He pattered across the concrete yard and reared up, his front paws on the brick wall that divided Snape's plot from the yard next door.
"Gotcha!" he called excitedly. They crowded around him and Harry lifted him up. He pressed his muzzle to the mortar between the bricks. "Clever old berk, ain't he? They're behind this brick 'ere."
Harry used the Elder Wand to Summon the brick, revealing a hollow space created with an extension charm. The wards were considerably nastier than those at Avery's house; Hermione's first attempt to reveal them would have resulted in her being hexed had Harry not cast a Protego shield as a precautionary measure. However, the worst curses were reserved for a strongbox and a series of rolled parchments, which Harry left strictly alone. Hermione was correct – Snape had not bothered to guard the stones with anything too dangerous. The Elder Wand broke the sticking charms and removed the hexes, and then Harry replaced the brick and left the house warded and secure.
"Hogwarts," he said and they linked arms again and spun away into the void, aiming for the entrance hall of the school.
It appeared that most of the students and staff had gone home with their families. Hogwarts elves moved about in little groups, Banishing rubble, replacing pictures on the walls and knocking the dents out of suits of armour. Intent upon their work, the house-elves took no notice of Ron and Hermione, while Harry followed with Wanker beneath the Cloak. The gargoyle stood upright again but it merely watched them blearily as they ascended the stairs.
"Is this too easy?" Ron muttered as he tapped on the door of the Headmaster's office. When nothing happened, he carefully pushed it open, his wand in his hand. Pale daylight streamed through the windows and the portraits stirred in their frames.
"Back again, my young friends?" Dumbledore said amiably. "How did it go?"
"That's a long story for another time, Professor," Hermione said. "We need to solve a problem with the Wild Elves before we can stop to chat."
"The Fae," Dumbledore mused. "Ah, yes, tricky folk, very tricky. Do be careful, won't you?"
"Headmaster, do you know where Professor Snape hid the Faerie Stones?"
"My word, Miss Granger, you have been busy! Dear me, it must be a couple of years since I told Severus how to obtain the stones of Eld."
"You told him to get them, did you?" Harry pulled off the Cloak and placed Wanker on the floor.
"Why, yes, Harry, of course I did! I believe that he followed my advice to track the Trooping Faeries to their favoured bathing spot and steal the stones while Queen Mab was bathing. A very nifty piece of spying, indeed."
"Giving the Fae a damn good reason to try to kill him!" Hermione said indignantly.
"No, my dear, he was to give the stones to Voldemort, thus transferring the ire of the King of Eld to the Dark Lord!"
"Where did he hide the stones that he kept here?" Ron asked rather sharply.
"I expect that Severus has them safe; he usually obeys my instructions."
Wanker circled the perimeter of the office; Harry could hear faint sniffing noises and the scratch of his claws.
"Lots of bloody funny stuff in 'ere," Wanker said, sitting up to examine Fawkes' old perch in the corner.
"Is that a Jarvey?" Dilys Derwent exclaimed indignantly. "Get rid of it at once, disgusting creatures! Such a bad influence!"
"Bog off, Missus. I'm 'ere on a mission." Wanker stuck out his tongue and held up a front paw with two claws extended. Ron tried unsuccessfully to stifle his laughter. "Don't think they're in 'ere, actually."
"You will find them through that door, in the Headmaster's private quarters," Phineas Nigellus Black stated in his high, thin voice.
"Phineas!" Armando Dippet scolded, "for shame!"
"We're bound to assist the current Headmaster," Phineas said, "and that is still Headmaster Snape." He folded his arms. "Simply because he is a Slytherin—"
"I never mentioned Houses—"
"You didn't have to! It was obvious—"
"Oh, for goodness' sake!" Hermione snapped and the trio strode across the office to the door. It was locked, of course, but flew open with a bang when Harry cast Alohomora with the Elder Wand. The portraits immediately began arguing about whether he had actually used Dumbledore's old wand and what this signified for Harry's state of mind.
"I thought you bloody lot were supposed to help the Headmaster," Wanker said disgustedly, "but you're as much fucking use as a wet fart in a blizzard!"
"You tell it like it is, Wanker!" Ron said.
"Fucking will an' all," the Jarvey muttered as he put his nose to the floor again. "Idiots."
The stones were hidden in the bookcase, inside a box charmed to resemble a book entitled 'Esoteric Elixirs and Duplicitous Draughts: a Master's-Level Treatise on the Philosophy of Potions' by Diogenes Drabble.
"Shame," Hermione said, "I'd have enjoyed reading that."
"If we ever manage to get Snape back, I'm sure he'll let you borrow the original," Ron told her. "Come on, let's go!"
Harry followed his friends through to the outer office, checking that Wanker was trotting along at his side, which was why he ran into Ron's back when Ron and Hermione stopped dead.
"Really, Mr Potter, I would have thought that you'd had enough of leading your friends into trouble by now," remarked a very familiar voice.
"Oh, bleeding 'ell, now what? Can I bite 'er ankle? Can I? Please?"
Harry picked the Jarvey up under his arm.
"I don't think you'd better. This is the acting Headmistress, Professor Minerva McGonagall."
"Rather more than 'acting', Mr Potter," she said crisply. "Now, what are you three up to this time? Don't you realise that everyone is worried half out of their minds—"
"I'm sorry, Professor," Harry said, sidling past Ron and Hermione and clamping his fingers around Wanker's muzzle. "You'll just have to trust us again. It worked out last time, didn't it?"
She narrowed her eyes and stared at him. Harry could almost hear her brain whirring.
"Did you say 'acting' Headmistress, Potter?" Harry nodded. "No portrait, body not where you said it was, no signs of a struggle... what has happened to Professor Snape?"
"That's what we're trying to find out," he said grimly.
"Surely there's no need for you to do everything yourselves! Let me call the Order together—"
"I'm sorry, we don't have time for that, and to be honest, we don't trust everyone," Hermione said.
"Miss Granger, I am astonished at you..." McGonagall shook her head and held up one hand. "No, I apologise. You're right not to trust everyone where Severus is concerned, although it saddens me to admit it. He made many enemies on both sides."
"Please don't stand in our way," Hermione said.
"And even if I do, you'll go anyway, won't you?"
"Yeah," Ron said, "sorry."
"Winky," McGonagall said sharply and the little elf popped into existence at her side. "Please go to the kitchens and fetch cold meat, cheese, bread, salad, cake, fruit and bottles of pumpkin juice, and bring them back here at once in a picnic hamper."
Winky vanished again.
"That's very kind of you, Professor," Hermione said.
"There's plenty of food here; the elves are convinced that the best way to make everyone feel better is to feed us until we can no longer move. Mr Weasley, I hope that whatever you are doing is worth the worry and stress that you have put your family through."
Ron took a deep breath. "I know. I did ask Luna to tell Dad that I'm fine."
"I fear that Miss Lovegood is not regarded in all quarters as an entirely accurate source of news."
"Yeah, well, can you tell Dad I'll be back as soon as I can? We're sorry everyone's upset but Hermione and I stick with Harry, and Harry feels he owes Professor Snape, so, yeah." Ron gave a little shrug. "We've got to help even if he is a git. That's Snape, not Harry."
"We all owe Snape," Harry said. "He went through hell and we can't abandon him."
Harry became aware of a plaintive humming sound, as if someone mimicked a sobbing violin. He looked down. Wanker gazed innocently back and twitched his nose so that his whiskers rippled.
An abrupt pop signalled the return of Winky with a large wicker basket of food, which Hermione shrank and tucked into her beaded bag.
"You had best depart," McGonagall said in her usual dry, efficient tones. "I'm expecting Pomona, Horace and Filius for supper very shortly, and you will meet them on the stairs unless you hurry."
"No problem," Harry said, drawing the Elder Wand, "we'll Apparate from here." They linked arms, Wanker whooped shrilly with excitement and they blinked into the darkness of the void.
"Faerie Stones?" Hermione asked Harry, reading from her sheet of parchment.
"Fake Galleon for emergency messages?"
"According to The Quibbler's 'Annual Almanac of the Unpredictable and Unseen', the trooping Faeries should be in there until the next dark of the moon." Hermione nodded towards an unexciting-looking, shallow, grassy mound in the Gloucestershire field in which they stood.
"I'll take your word for that." Harry tucked the Cloak into his pocket and drew the Elder Wand. Then he bent down and scooped Wanker up in his arms. "Here, hold onto him, will you? He'll only try to follow me otherwise."
"Oh, bugger," Wanker said. "Go on, be a sport? You know how totally fucking useful I am!"
"No, this isn't like visiting Draco Malfoy," Harry said. "I'd never forgive myself if they killed you."
"Don't worry, we'll hold him," Hermione said. "Good luck, Harry! Don't forget to message us every hour or we'll come in after you!"
"Right," Harry said, took a deep breath, read his instructions once again and began walking a spiral path, widdershins, centred upon the fairy mound.
At first, walking through sheep droppings and buttercups, Harry wondered if Hermione had got the location wrong. The grassy tumulus was most probably a prehistoric burial mound, now no more than two feet in height and eight or ten feet long. Hawthorn bushes stood sentinel at either end, their pale pink flowers glowing in a shaft of evening sunlight. As he walked, concentrating hard upon the mound and upon maintaining a gradually tightening spiral path around it, it seemed to increase in size, or maybe he was shrinking. The first time he passed them, he was aware of Ron with his arm around Hermione. Wanker was sitting upright on Ron's shoulder, his front paws on top of his head, so that he could watch Harry. The pink blossoms of the hawthorns glowed brighter as the sun sank, making the daisies and buttercups that studded the coarse grass look like sparks of silver and gold.
Harry could no longer hear the sounds of distant traffic, only the birdsong, ebbing and swelling from the nearby woods and hedges. He dared not look around to check if Hermione and Ron still waited; he suspected he had withdrawn too far to see them. As he circled the mound, treading through the sheep-bitten grass, nothing seemed to change between one step and the next and yet the mound was now tall enough to come between him and the sunset, casting its long shadow across the meadow. When at last he stepped to its side, its turf wall reared high above his head and he could not understand why he only now saw the doorway with its stone lintel and shadowed interior, lit by the intermittent flicker of a fire.
Taking a deep breath, Harry stepped inside, his palms sweaty with nerves and the Elder Wand held out in front of him like a shield.
There was a central fire in a stone pit, casting dancing red and black shadows through the low, wide room. Many figures sat at rustic wooden benches and tables, all turning to stare at him, all silent and watchful. They were elves, and he could see the resemblance to house-elves, but these creatures were slender and spiky, with narrow shoulders and high cheekbones. Their eyes were dark and fierce. They had none of the disarming ugliness of house-elves and their magic thrummed in the air. It smelled of autumn, bonfire smoke and blackberries.
"A guest," remarked a voice. "Welcome, stranger. Come and join our feast." The speaker got to his feet. He was the largest of the elves, perhaps five feet in height, wearing a cloak of animal pelts roughly sewn together. Harry could just make out the tail of a fox and a badger's striped mask. The elf's voice was breathy and sweet, fluting like a musical instrument.
"Thank you," Harry said politely. "I've come to return something belonging to you."
"To me?" The elf spread his arms wide. "Then doubly welcome! I am Arawn, the King of Eld. What, pray, can you possibly have of mine?"
Harry held up the Faerie Stones, all together in a hessian bag. He tapped them with the Elder Wand, stripping off the wards that Snape had cast to hide them from the elves. It was all he could do not to drop the bagful on the floor. Their magic felt both hot and cold, like ice burning up his arm, almost as fierce as the inimical magic of the Dark grimoires in the Black library. The elves nearest to him hissed softly and leaned closer, as if scenting the stones.
"Ah," murmured the king, "the bridal stones; the dowry of my lady queen." He weaved his way through the tables and benches, coming to a halt about four feet from Harry. He raised a hand, his bare arm emerging from among the rough skins, and beckoned with a spindly finger. The bag jerked out of Harry's hand and arced gracefully into his grasp. The king peered into the bag and then he smiled at Harry. His teeth were pointed like the teeth of a rodent. "And you, no doubt, want something in exchange?"
"Severus Snape," Harry said.
The king cocked his head, his sharp, narrow eyes watching, bird-like. "He who stole the stones, you mean?"
"Yes. I want him back."
"And why should I return him?"
"Because of the pact, your majesty, the pact that hides your homes from the Muggles, in exchange for your non-interference in the Wizarding world."
The king nodded slowly.
"Ah, yes, that pact. The pact that your Snape broke, in fact?"
"Yes," Harry said.
"I see. And what if I was to say that my queen has grown fond of this Snape? That she might wish to retain him?"
"Then we'd regard the pact as broken, your majesty. You would no longer be hidden."
"We? Or merely you? A very young wizard, or so you seem to me. A mere youth, untried, ignorant..." The tip of his tongue flicked out, dark red in the uneven light, and swept across his narrow lips. "A child?"
"Not quite," Harry said. The king flicked his fingers. There was a rustling sound and throughout the hall, elves raised their bows with arrows drawn ready to fire. Amid the tense silence was the small, creaking noises of wood under tension. Harry wordlessly cast Protego and the king laughed and dropped his hand.
Arrows slammed into the shield from every direction. Summoning all his power, Harry felt the Elder Wand vibrate like a living thing in his grasp and he cast the charm that caused hexes to ricochet onto their caster. The elves, who moments before had bared their sharp little teeth in amusement at his predicament, now scrambled to avoid their own rebounding arrows. The arrows were reversed, striking with their blunt ends and their flight feathers preventing them from flying true, but nevertheless they caused a number of minor injuries as elves collided with their neighbours or tripped over benches in their haste.
The king glared for a moment, ignoring his followers as they picked themselves up and hissed their anger at Harry, then he turned sharply and called across the width of the underground room to the table on a dais at the far end.
"My lady Mab, I command you to return the wizard Snape to this... boy."
His queen was almost as tall as the king. She stood up, a dark robe rippling over her shoulders and down her back, and Harry realised that it was formed of her hair, so long that it trailed on the ground at her feet.
"I have become enamoured of him," she said, her voice even higher than his, a piccolo to his flute.
"Nonetheless, I charge you to return to the boy that which he so desires."
She stamped her foot once, as petulant as a toddler, tossed her head (reminding Harry for a moment of Fleur) and disappeared into the cave-like shadows beyond the reach of the firelight.
"While she fetches the wizard, will you join us at our feast?" the king asked. "We have cakes of fine white flour, honey mead, elderflower wine, roasted birds and fruits of the season."
"That sounds delightful," Harry said carefully, "but my friends are waiting for me and they'll be terribly jealous if they heard I had feasted without them."
"Why not fetch them?" The king gave his sharp-toothed smile. "You are all welcome to join us."
"We'd hate to put you to all that trouble, sire."
The king stroked his hand down the front of his fur robe, fingering what looked like the head of an otter. It reminded Harry of Wanker and he suppressed a shudder. Then Arawn nodded towards the back of the hall and Harry saw the queen approaching, and behind her, walking slowly, picking his way between the tables and benches, came Severus Snape.
Snape acknowledged his presence with a single nod, glancing at Harry and then away again at once. His eyes looked as blank as the eyes of an animal; he must have been Occluding furiously. Harry wondered how the elves had treated him.
"Thank you, sire," Harry said and the king inclined his head. Queen Mab gave a little bob of a curtsey, a formal gesture at odds with her curled lip and scornful eyes. She turned away and returned to her ladies at the far table. Her hair rippled in her wake like a silken cloak. King Arawn indicated the dark, square doorway, where night had now fallen over the West Country.
"Good night and fare thee well," the king said, and Harry led the way out of the door, Snape following two steps behind. Harry glanced back after having taken half a dozen paces away from the doorstep and already the mound had diminished, its opening had vanished and the grassy knoll subsided into the ground. Snape was a shadow against the darkening sky, his robes falling in heavy folds from his shoulders.
Harry wondered how much time had passed, if his friends were still waiting, and whether they had all miraculously escaped unscathed, when he heard voices calling his name. He increased his speed.
Hermione threw her arms around him and he squeezed her in return, breathing in the faint, familiar scent of her perfume. Wanker struggled in Ron's arms.
"No, keep still, you daft animal," Ron said, laughing. "Let's get somewhere we can all sit down and eat before you lick them to death!"
"Grimmauld Place," Harry said at once and turned to Snape. "Professor? Is that okay with you?"
Snape's face glimmered, pale in the faint glow of the sunset. He opened his mouth as if to speak, put a hand to his throat and nodded.
"Sir? What did they do to you?" Hermione asked, immediately concerned. He waved her away, a peremptory and thoroughly Snape-like motion that was reassuring rather than insulting. Harry grasped his sleeve, emboldened by success, and Snape looked down at the hand on his forearm but made no move to jerk away. They linked arms and Harry Apparated them all to London.
Occlumency was Snape's only hope; Occlumency and the stubborn persistence that had kept him going all those years. His shield did not falter, his mind was still his own... wasn't it?
No visions of Dumbledore rose to meet them, so either someone from the Order had removed the jinx in the entrance hall or Voldemort's defeat had made it no longer necessary. Ron put Wanker down on the tiled floor and the Jarvey immediately began sniffing the air.
"Doxies?" he asked, his little boot-button eyes narrowing and his whiskers twitching. "Do I smell doxies?"
"Yes, the wretched things get everywhere," Hermione said.
"Tally-ho!" he squealed and bounded away up the stairs, yelling, "Here I come, you bastards, run for your fucking lives!"
Mrs Black's portrait woke and began shouting abuse in response.
"He's a hell of a lot more use than a stupid rat, anyway," Ron said, grinning. "Put him and Crooks in charge of pest control!"
"We'll go and unpack the picnic basket in the kitchen and put the kettle on," Hermione remarked and Ron nodded and took her hand.
"Yeah, see if Kreacher's around, he might have come back from Hogwarts," Harry said. "Come on, Professor, we'll sort you out a room."
Snape's silence was worrying him more than he was willing to admit. What had the elves done to quell that vituperative tongue? Had he screamed so much that he had re-injured his throat? He looked normal – well, as normal as a sallow, too-thin wizard with a hooked nose could look, anyway. He gave an impatient wave and followed Harry up the stairs to the second floor. Reluctant to put him into Sirius' old room, and unsure what the relationship between Regulus and Snape had been, Harry chose one of the old guest rooms. He lit the candles and the fire with a wave of his wand and turned to face his old professor.
"Shall I get you some healing potions, or would you prefer Madam Pomfrey to have a look at you?" he asked.
What happened next left him utterly without words. Snape stepped forward until they were separated only by a couple of feet and dropped to his knees. The action was fluid and practiced, and his robes flared out around him on the dingy carpet as he bowed his head. Harry stared down at him, feeling stupid with shock. What the hell was wrong with the man? This was Snape, who had never regarded Harry with anything but thinly veiled contempt interspersed with flashes of rage. Why was he acting as if Harry was Voldemort come back to life... oh. Oh.
Snape's stained fingers reached out and began unzipping the front of Harry's jeans.
Cool and deft, a thin hand curled around Harry's cock and he felt it begin to unfurl at this unexpected contact. Harry's mouth opened, but like Snape, he was unable to articulate a single word. Snape seemed to know exactly what he was doing, and whatever it was, it felt very nice indeed. Alarming, shocking, completely unexpected, wicked, wrong and wonderful; it felt so dangerous, like riding a broom in a thunderstorm, battering him with sensation. A finger slipped behind his expanding cock and gently lifted his bollocks, rolling them in their sac. Harry almost lost his footing. He needed to protest, surely there was something terribly wrong with Snape! Were the wild elves able to cast the Imperius curse? Wasn't this taking advantage of a man who was acting under duress?
Snape leaned lower and took Harry's cock into his mouth. Enveloped in wet heat, sucked into heaven where a wicked tongue nudged at his slit, wrapped around him, Harry clenched his teeth and clutched at Snape's stringy hair.
"Oh fuck," he whimpered, "Snape, oh shit..."
He was going to come, he had to come in that sinful mouth, whether Snape wanted him to or not... he could not hold on...
Something shrieked like a banshee and slammed into Snape, knocking him sideways and dragging him off Harry's cock with a pop. Stunned, Harry staggered and stared down at Wanker, who was biting at the side of Snape's neck. No love-bites or playful nips, these; the Jarvey was inflicting serious wounds, tearing at the pale skin so that it hung from the underlying muscle in horrific flaps. Harry yelled and tried to grab the animal as Snape thrashed, still in terrible silence.
Feet thundered on the stairs and Ron and Hermione burst through the doorway. Wanker kept biting, his white fangs flashing in the candlelight. Hermione screamed, drew her wand and cast Petrificus totalus and Wanker toppled, as stiff as a board but still frothing.
"What the fuck's going on?" Ron demanded, staring at Harry, who was trying to tuck his softening dick back into his jeans, at Snape convulsing on the carpet, and at the petrified Jarvey. "Has he gone berserk? Have you gone berserk?"
"N-no bl-blood," Hermione stammered, pointing at Snape, "there's no blood! Why isn't he bleeding?"
Harry drew the Elder Wand and cast a generalised Finite incantatem. They all stared as Wanker scrambled to his feet and shook himself and Snape opened his mouth wide in a soundless scream. Wider and wider, his jaw hinged impossibly wide, his skull opened up and then he crumpled and shrank until all that lay on the dingy carpet was a bundle of hawthorn twigs, complete with leaves and blossoms, tied together with a lock of dark hair.
Harry sat down hard on the bed.
Hermione took in a deep breath. "I think we could all do with a nice cup of tea," she said, her voice trembling.
"There's some firewhisky in the kitchen, mate," Ron said.
"Fuck me," Wanker remarked, "you lot can't be trusted on your own for a bloody moment, can you?"
"A fetch," Hermione said, staring at the bundle of twigs on the table, "also known as a doppelganger or a fairy changeling. The Fae were renowned for taking human babies and replacing them with changelings; of course with a baby, it took a lot longer for the discrepancies to be noticed. The mothers used to realise but usually they weren't believed."
"Yeah, well, he was acting a bit odd," Harry muttered, wrapping his hands around his mug of hot tea and nodding as Ron slopped a medicinal dose of firewhisky in the top.
"So were you," Ron said darkly and Harry sighed.
"I know. I was in shock."
"Looked like it."
"Ron," Hermione said, reaching out to grasp her boyfriend's hand, "you do know that it's all over between Harry and Ginny, right?"
"I didn't," Harry protested. Hermione looked at him with a patient, understanding expression that made him roll his eyes exaggeratedly. "What?"
"You've been fixated on the Half-Blood Prince for ages, Harry."
"I didn't even know he was Snape!"
"You watch him," she said. "You watch him all the time, your eyes follow him."
"Yeah, well, isn't like anything's ever going to come of it."
The admission surprised him more than it appeared to shock Hermione or even Ron.
"He never looks at me."
"Exactly." Hermione sat back in her seat and selected a slice of cheese. "He very carefully avoids looking at you. So carefully that it looks like denial. Besides," she leaned forward again, "the elves can't put something into a fetch that isn't already present, or at least inherent, in the original."
"What?" Harry breathed, his supper forgotten. "You mean Snape would have wanted...?"
"That thing couldn't do anything that the original it was derived from wasn't prepared to do."
"I have to get him back," Harry declared. "I mean, I have to anyway, I'd have had to without that – without knowing – oh shit!" He rubbed his hands down his face, feeling the rasp of stubble on his cheeks. "We can't leave him there!"
"Of course not, mate." Ron made a long arm and snaffled a slice of fruitcake. "First thing tomorrow, then?"
"Next time, take someone sensible with you," Wanker said from where he was gnawing the last shreds of meat from a ham bone on the floor. "Someone with a fucking sense of smell! Idiots."
Harry marched across the dew-damp field with Hermione and Ron at his heels and the Jarvey bounding at his side. He had gone to his final meeting with Voldemort filled with fatalistic determination; this time he was just plain angry. However, he knew better than to allow his rage to goad him into carelessness. He had learned that lesson years ago.
He pointed the Elder Wand at the gentle slope of turf and snapped, "Alohomora!" Creaking, the tumulus swelled upwards and outwards, the doorway unfolding with its limestone portal. Inside, he heard high voices and the slight but distinctive sound of arrows being nocked to bows. He cast a Protego shield without breaking stride.
"What is this?" demanded the king as Harry ducked inside the hill. "How dare you enter Eld without performing the ritual of supplication?"
"You tricked me," Harry said. "You broke the pact! No deliberate interference in the Wizarding world, remember? You didn't give me Snape, you gave me a fetch." He threw the bundle of hawthorn twigs to the floor. The king cocked his head.
"My lady? Is this true?"
The queen lifted a long hank of her hair on one hand, gazing thoughtfully at it as she picked out a hawthorn petal and then she smiled at the king.
"I signed no pact," she said sweetly, "I assumed that it did not apply to me."
"So you can't even sign on behalf of your people?" Harry demanded. King Arawn sighed and pointed at Queen Mab.
"Return the sorcerer," he said. She seized the edge of the table with both hands and leaned forward towards him with her lips drawn back from her teeth, hissing with rage. The transformation was startling, like a spoiled house pet suddenly transfigured into a snarling wildcat. The king bared his teeth in response and for a moment, Harry thought that they would come to blows. However, Queen Mab slowly backed down, breathing hard, turned and made a sharp, stabbing gesture at the elves surrounding her. A little group of them moved away into the shadows, returning after a moment dragging Snape by the arms.
He could barely stand upright. Even in the dim light of the fire, his face appeared haggard and grey with fatigue, his eyes sunken in dark sockets, and he badly needed a shave. He glared at Harry and croaked, "About bloody time, too!"
Harry looked down. "Wanker? Go on, check him for me."
Wanker undulated across the earth floor with his long-bodied, loping gait, sniffed at Snape's leg and then proceeded to climb him like a tree, scrambling up his robes to perch on his shoulder where he licked his ear. Snape batted half-heartedly at him with one hand.
"Thank you," Harry said formally, bowing to the king.
"Excuse me," Hermione said and cleared her throat as the elf blinked at her. "We need to do something about this pact. You haven't taken it very seriously, have you? If we're supposed to honour it by making sure that the Muggles and the Wizarding world leave you in peace, it needs to work both ways, doesn't it?"
Arawn stared at her, as if startled that she could speak at all, and then he held out a hand to his side. "The pact," he said softly. An elf rustled from the back of the room, carrying a parchment scroll in both hands and placed it in the king's grasp. The king swept the wooden dishes from the nearest table and unrolled the scroll. Hermione peered down at it and gasped.
It was written in Latin, in a careful, round and unsteady hand, and it bore three rusty-brown signatures at the bottom. Squinting, Harry made out the names Alberic Rex, Artorius Rex and Merlinus Ambrosius.
"My father," Arawn said, tapping the first signature with a yellow fingernail. "The king of the humans and a wizard," he continued, sliding his finger to the second and third name in turn.
"We need to sign it again," Harry said. He heard Hermione swallow audibly.
"It's signed in blood," Ron whispered. "Merlin's blood."
"And Arthur's," Hermione agreed, her tone hushed and reverent.
"Potter, don't you dare sign anything without checking for magical bonds or curses," Snape said in a rasping voice.
"Oh!" Hermione gasped and rummaged in her beaded bag. "I'm sorry, sir! I brought this for you!" She held out Snape's wand. He took it, slowly running the length of wood between his fingers, and then aimed it at the scroll and cast a series of wordless spells that glittered like tinsel across the yellowed parchment.
"The magic is ancient and diffuse," he said, sliding the wand into his sleeve. "There are no adverse personal consequences for any of the signatories."
"You should sign too," Harry said, looking up at him, but Snape shook his head.
"You three." He began coughing and pressed a hand against his chest, struggling to control the reflex. "Pure-blood and Muggle-born." He indicated Ron and Hermione. "And power." He glanced at Harry and away again.
"Merlinus signed with his wand," the king said. Snape nodded and Hermione stared at Arawn, who stared back, managing to look down his nose at her even though she was a few inches taller.
"Were you there?" she asked and he sneered as if she had asked a foolish question.
He held out a hand and jabbed the nail of his right forefinger into his palm. A drop of bright crimson blood welled slowly from the resulting nick in the skin. He dipped the fingernail into it and used it to scrawl "Arawn, King of Eld" onto the bottom of the page.
Hermione Transfigured a hawthorn twig into a pen nib, attached it to her wand and withdrew a drop of her own blood from her thumb to sign the scroll, then Ron and Harry did the same.
Hermione pointed her wand at the scroll and whispered a duplication charm, snatched the copy out of the air and tucked it into her bag. "For our records," she said, smiling sweetly.
Arawn handed the parchment to his subordinate, who waved it in the air to dry the blood and then carefully rolled it up again.
"Can we bugger off, now?" Wanker enquired from his perch on Snape's shoulder. "Before this git here collapses in a heap?"
"Go," Arawn commanded and turned away, his arms folded in what would definitely be a snit in any ordinary being.
Queen Mab, however, was still glowering at Snape. She suddenly held up one hand, pointed at him and proclaimed, "Never again in your life shall any woman willingly touch you with affection! I have foreseen this and it is my curse upon you!"
With an air of satisfaction, as if she had won a victory, she sat down at her place and began delicately picking the meat from a roasted bird with her fingers.
Harry held the Elder Wand at the ready, covering their retreat as they moved towards the doorway, but the elves appeared to have lost interest in them.
"What did they do to you?" Harry demanded as soon as they emerged into the early morning.
"Yeah, you look like shit," Wanker supplied helpfully.
Snape blinked as if half-blinded by the silvery light. "I did not touch food or drink while in their realm, Potter, for I had no intention of remaining ensorcelled for the next hundred years."
"Let's get you home, then," Harry said, and whirled them all back to Grimmauld Place, controlling the soppy grin that was trying to spread across his face.
"Honestly!" Hermione exclaimed as soon as they were safely inside the old house, "she was just as much of an old fraud as Professor Trelawney!"
"Miss Granger, the elves have their own variety of magic which – oomph!"
Hermione threw her arms around Snape. His immediate protest was muffled by the unruly tangle of her hair and he stood stiffly for a moment. Then, to Harry's surprise, Snape's hand came up to pat Hermione's back. Only once, but it was definitely a pat.
"You are overwrought," he remarked, having freed his mouth from her bushy hair.
"No I'm not," she said shakily, "I'm just so glad you're alive and I had to prove that vindictive crone wrong!"
"I sometimes wondered," Snape said, taking her by the shoulders and pushing her firmly away, "why you were not sorted into Ravenclaw; however, your particular brand of uncompromising compassion could only be tolerated in Gryffindor."
"Oh, I know," she said, wiping her eyes with the back of one hand, "but that doesn't mean I don't mean it. I'm glad, Professor, I really am."
"Yes, I am aware." In an off-hand manner, as if it did not really matter, Snape waited until she had turned away before remarking, "Thank you, Miss Granger."
A couple glasses of water, a bowl of chicken soup and a sandwich supplied by the ancient Black house-elf, a mug of strong tea and a cigarette, and Severus Snape came to the conclusion that he was definitely going to survive. He had had his doubts during the last couple of days.
Something seemed off about the trio, he realised. Granger and Weasley kept giving him sly glances, as if they knew or suspected something about him that worried them, while Potter barely looked at him at all, and the damned overgrown ferret was wildly and inappropriately affectionate. It kept climbing into his lap and sprawling on its back in the hope of having its belly scratched. Snape frowned and rubbed at the bridge of his nose. His sinuses always ached like the devil after he had held his Occlumency shields for more than a day or two.
"Did you come to the elf king's hall more than once, Potter? Did I hear your voice there earlier, or was I imagining things?"
"Yeah, that's right, sir." Potter inexplicably blushed and stared down into his mug of tea. "I took the stones back and bargained for your return."
"The Queen gave us a fetch, instead of letting you go," Granger said and Snape took a moment to work out what she meant.
"Yes. It was unable to speak but we assumed that it – you – had hurt your throat again, or that they'd cursed you somehow."
"I see." Snape leaned back in his chair and glanced at the three of them through the hanging strands of his hair. Weasley looked embarrassed, Granger uneasy and Potter was pressed back into his seat as if he wanted the upholstery to swallow him whole. Snape considered the little that he remembered of Faerie lore and the creation of changelings and had a sudden intimation of disaster. His heart gave a lurch and he felt queasy. "What did this... fetch, this copy of me, actually do?"
"Come on, Ron!" Granger grabbed her boyfriend by the hand and jumped to her feet. "We'd better go and make sure Kreacher knows not to tell anyone about Professor Snape being here."
"But we already – oh. Yeah, right."
Potter opened and closed his mouth like a fish, his expression appealing to his friends not to desert him. Granger gave him a brittle smile and dragged the not-unwilling Weasley out of the sitting room.
"Potter?" Snape said quietly, "I apologise if anything untoward happened."
"Not your fault, is it?" Potter mumbled. "It wasn't you, it was a copy."
"An imperfect copy." Snape got to his feet, spilling the spluttering Jarvey onto the floor. "Any unwarranted impulses that might have been demonstrated by such a copy are not ones that I would ever have willingly revealed, let alone acted upon."
"Yeah, I get that." Potter ran his hands through his hair, but it was an apprehensive gesture, not the cocksure posturing of his father. Snape saw that now, belatedly recognising the lack of the father's arrogance in the son. "I just – Snape, was it because it was me or would your fetch have done that for anyone?"
Hardly the question he had anticipated, but then Potter had always been able to knock him emotionally off-balance. He stared at the wary green eyes and decided that as soon as he had slept, he would leave Britain for good.
"I have never been profligate with my affections or with my body, Potter."
"Speak plain English, will you? Do you mean your fetch fancied me?"
Acutely uncomfortable and determined to make sure Potter never knew it, Snape bared his teeth.
"Yes, it did. Are you satisfied?"
"Yeah," Potter breathed, and all of the tension seemed to drain out of him. His eyes darkened, he gazed up at Snape and his lips curved in a slight smile. Snape stared at his mouth, allowing himself this last, sweet and hopeless moment of longing. "It was the most amazingly sensual thing ever. Your mouth – its mouth... it was magic."
"It was simply sex, Potter." Snape ground out the words, his insides clenching. What had the accursed thing done?
"No, it was because it was you, or at least I thought it was you. You went on your knees and you opened my zip..." Potter shifted his hips and his cheeks flushed pink. Snape swallowed hard.
"Do not confuse lust for a higher emotion."
Potter was on his feet, from flopped in a chair to standing without apparently going through an intermediate state; clearly the fluid agility of a Seeker.
"You protected me for years, was that because of lust? You tied yourself to two monstrous wizards for most of your life, was that because of lust?"
"I shall leave the country tomorrow," Snape said in a tight, controlled voice, "you need not trouble yourself about me again. Find yourself a nice witch—"
"Wizard!" Potter snapped.
"—or wizard to explore your sexuality with and forget about the momentary aberration of an imperfect simulacrum of a flawed man."
"Snape," Potter said, and his voice was equally hard, his eyes flashing with the temper that Snape knew well. "Stop being a stupid prick!" Then he reached up, grabbed Snape by the back of the neck, and jerked his head down until their mouths converged.
It was the collision of planets, the realignment of stars, and it was wet and inexperienced and sloppy. It was firewhisky and hot tea, cigarette smoke and the musk of a healthy, young male.
Snape had wanted this and controlled his longing, hidden it away under layers and layers of hurt and spite and resentment, and now it burst free and he could not have drawn back from it even if Dumbledore and Voldemort stood one on either side of him. There was no reason to stop, not when Potter was biting at his lip, exploring his mouth with his eager tongue and sharing his breath.
"For fuck's sake," a squeaky voice remarked from behind them, "about time, too. You two poofs ‘ave been dancing around each other for ages, and it was really starting to bug me."
Harry could not believe he was doing this. He had expected to get his balls ripped off or his cock hexed into a slug, but Snape had fallen into the kiss like a hungry Kneazle onto a plate of grilled salmon. Snape kissed as if he had been starved of human touch and affection for his entire life, and with a sort of frisson compounded of affection and lust, Harry realised that was most likely true. Whoever touched Snape? Who hugged him, wished him a happy birthday or shook his hand? Who lay beside him and ran their hands over his skin?
Snape was breathing hard and his eyes appeared wild, no longer the black, shuttered stones that Occlumency shields presented to the world, but filled with all the complex anxiety and need and hope that Harry felt himself. He reached up and brushed the long, greasy hair from Snape's face and realised that he had been granted permission to touch, to explore and to taste. He stood on tiptoe to kiss the end of Snape's nose and the dark eyes flashed. Harry grinned.
"Sorry, I just had to."
"What are you doing?"
Here was an edge, a moment when Harry sensed he could so easily lose everything he had just gained, simply by saying the wrong thing. Snape was like a wild hippogriff, a proud, prickly thing, all high temper and nerves, poised for flight. Snape needed careful handling, but Harry was starting to think he could cope with that.
"I'm meeting the real Severus Snape." He interlaced his fingers with Snape's, comparing the longer, thinner, tobacco-stained hand with his own.
"I do not do romance," Snape said.
"Nor do I. Madam Puddifoot's place made me want to heave." Harry gave a little tug. "Come on, let's go to bed."
"Potter..." Snape's voice trailed off as if he wanted to make a last objection but could not find the resolve to throw away this chance. "Have you done this before?"
"Not with a bloke, no."
"Or a girl?"
"Um, sort of."
Snape sighed. "Dear Merlin, yet another reason for them all to crucify me."
"Ginny and I experimented a bit. We didn't do that – not everything." Harry noted the sardonically angled eyebrow and realised that if he really wanted Snape to see him as an adult, he was hardly going the right way about it. He took in a deep breath and ignored the heat rising in his face. "We didn't have penetrative sex but we did a lot of other stuff."
"Wonderful," Snape muttered, "remind me to update my will."
"They'd better not do anything to you just because of this," Harry said, "or they'll find themselves on the wrong end of the Elder Wand."
"I've created a monster."
"Yeah, fucking good, innit?" squeaked the Jarvey. Snape turned and glared. Wanker scratched his ear. "Yeah, right, um, I think I'll just go and hunt doxies in the attic. If anyone wants me. Right."
"Are you coming?" Harry whispered, and led the way upstairs.
Standing in the candlelit bedroom that smelled of dust and old fabric, Snape wondered if he was hallucinating. He had imagined something like this, in those rare and precious moments when he allowed his fantasies their freedom, before extracting them and casting them away before they could reveal his weakness to Voldemort, or heaven forbid, to Dumbledore.
In his dreams, Harry Potter had come to him, defeated and hurt, begging for help or comfort or information. Snape had always assumed that he needed to bargain for the touch of Potter's body; he was prepared to offer up his power and knowledge for a brief taste of heaven. He had never imagined that Potter would actually want him. There was nothing diffident about the real Potter, nothing feigned or reluctant.
"Potter," he said, hoping to retain his tenuous hold on the proceedings, "what, exactly, do you want to do?"
"Everything," Potter said, as if he was the director of this miraculous hallucination, "I want you to show me everything. If you want to, of course." The green eyes turned thoughtful; not wary or reluctant, merely contemplative. "I don't want you to do stuff you're not happy with and I don't know what I like yet, so I suppose we'll need to find out."
"I was a Death Eater," Snape growled, needing to push against Potter's outrageous optimism, needing Potter to understand what he was letting himself in for. "Do not go crying to your friends when you find out what buggery really entails."
"I don't scare easily," Potter said equably, "not any more. God," he murmured and his eyes darkened, "will I get to bugger you?"
Snape opened his mouth to protest. "Never!" was on the tip of his tongue, and "over my dead body!" or "no-one buggers Severus Snape!" and then he glimpsed the fantasy that floated at the front of Potter's mind, offered up like a gift.
He saw himself, folded over the upholstered arm of the old chaise lounge in the bay window of the drawing room, where old Mrs Black had been accustomed to sit with her needlework of a winter's morning. He saw his pale, narrow arse in the air, his belly and cock pressing against the cushions, and the bony protuberances of his spine arching away to his bent head. Potter's view, from behind Snape, allowed a glimpse of his balls hanging between his spread thighs, and Potter himself was erect and purple and dripping with arousal. Potter slid his hand across Snape's arse and leaned down to whisper to him.
"What do you want me to do, Professor? How do you like it? Do you want me to use my finger first? Shall I stroke your dick with the other hand? Roll your bollocks in my palm? Teach me, show me what you need."
Snape's mouth went dry and his belly tightened with desire. His limited experience of being buggered had been painful and humiliating; Lucius had been older, bigger, more powerful and, with hindsight, completely selfish and no more practised than Snape himself. The thought of letting a complete novice loose with his arse ought to scare the shit out of him, yet Potter's unique brand of confidence and sheer dumb luck, coupled with this newfound ability to listen to instruction, made Snape's cock twitch hopefully.
"It is a possibility," Snape admitted. "However, anything inserted into my un-lubricated orifice will be hexed off immediately."
Potter grinned. "Got it. Um, yeah, what d'you use for lubrication, then?"
"There are charms," Snape growled. "First, however, I am in dire need of a bath."
All he really wanted was to throw Potter down and thoroughly sodomise him, then sleep for a week, but those annoying remnants of his conscience kept insisting that he give the boy the opportunity to change his mind.
"S'pose I must pong a bit too," Potter agreed. "We were too worried about getting you back to bother with bathing." He aimed the Elder Wand at the bathroom and twiddled it. The plumbing gave a deep, gurgling rumble and there was the sound of water gushing into a tub. Snape gave a sharp nod and strode into the bathroom, waving his own wand until the billowing steam was scented to his liking.
"Hey, that smells like you!"
"Despite rumours to the contrary, I do bathe."
"Some sort of wood," Potter said, wrinkling his face as he breathed in. "I dunno, we don't cover stuff like this in potions. Something spicy and citrus, but there's a kind of deep, dark background."
"Myrrh, patchouli, vetiver, lime, vanilla, pine, almond and clove, with just a hint of rosemary," Snape said. He was rather proud of the spell, and sometimes wondered if, in another life, Severus Snape might have become a rich entrepreneur instead of an impoverished teacher.
Potter nodded, then astonished Snape yet again.
"There's rosemary," he said, "that's for remembrance." He must have seen Snape's expression through the gloom because he appeared, for a moment, to be both smug and amused. "You think I'm stupid, don't you? Best friends with a bookworm, remember?"
"So you are able to quote snippets of Shakespeare. Congratulations, Mr Potter."
"Ophelia," Potter remarked. "Hermione and I read Hamlet together after Ron... yeah, well, we were stuck in a tent and she brought her favourite books with her and I needed to keep busy, otherwise I'd've gone mad."
"Everyone will believe that you have entirely lost your mind," Snape told him. Potter shrugged.
"Been like that since I was twelve," he said philosophically. "I’m used to it." Then he gave Snape a grin that was equal parts eager Gryffindor and nervous youth. "Can we hurry up?"
"Losing your nerve already?" It was so easy to revert to his snide, defensive persona, almost a relief in a way. Potter narrowed his eyes and stepped closer.
"No, it’s because I've got a hard-on like you wouldn't believe and I want to use it for something."
"Oh, we will use it, Potter, I assure you of that."
The old, claw-footed bathtub was large enough for two wizards; perhaps Potter had expanded it. Snape had never experienced such a strange combination of languor and arousal. He was exhausted, half-starved, bemused and adrift. Every time the scented steam and the heat threatened to send him to sleep, the touch of Potter's hand would jerk him awake, his defences triggered by the unfamiliarity of another's touch. Unaccountably, Potter, who had been surrounded by friends and sycophants for all his years at Hogwarts, seemed to understand.
"Shh," he whispered, running his fingers through Snape's dripping hair, "you're safe. You can trust me." And Snape did. He felt secure in that deft Seeker's grasp, caught like a Snitch and held close, enclosed in the circle of Potter's little family of the heart. The trio had opened to accept him, their bonds had been tested to the limit and had ultimately held true, and now they had opened not for the obvious choice, Weasley's sister, but for Severus Snape.
"She'd never be any good for you," he muttered and Potter stared at him, his head on one side.
"Who? You mean Ginny?"
"She had her beady eye on you from the very start, but she's a manipulative little chit and as narcissistic as her mother."
"You've been watching, have you?"
"I always watch; watching is my job."
"She's all right, she's just... young."
"And you are not?"
Potter sighed. "Too young to deal with Voldemort, you reckon? Too young to watch my mates being tortured or killed? Yeah, that's right, Hermione and Ron and me, we're all young, like you were when you took this." He placed his hand flat on Snape's forearm, where the grey tracery of skull and serpent appeared no more than an ugly tattoo.
"I made that decision myself; you were given no other option."
"I don't think Dumbledore gave you many choices." With that, Potter spread himself out on top of Snape, lying partly supported by the lapping water, chest to chest, their cocks aligned. Snape swallowed hard.
"If you expect me to assuage your curiosity later, do not... I am not a teenager, Potter!"
He held himself still by force of will as the wretched boy wriggled against him, delivering hints of delicious friction to his now fully-aroused cock.
"Can't we go to bed, then?"
Potter was up and out, casting drying charms on himself in lieu of towels. Snape followed more slowly, the muscles of his thighs trembling slightly with the effort of standing upright. He held up his hand to forestall a drying charm to his hair.
"It tangles hopelessly," he said, not wishing Potter to think him vain – as if Potter's opinion mattered to him. Potter summoned a bath towel from somewhere and held it out.
"I don't want you to catch a chill."
Snape rubbed the worst of the moisture from his hair, recognised the delaying tactic for what it was, and followed Potter back to the bedroom. Elsewhere in the house, a set of old bedsprings creaked faintly and rhythmically. Snape cast a silencing charm and shut the door.
His supper sat uneasily inside him and his belly was filled with little tremors. Like a virgin, he thought, going to a bridal bed. There was only one virgin here, only one dewy-eyed innocent, and that was not Snape.
Potter stood square, bouncing slightly on his bare feet, bright-eyed and eager. His cock swayed hypnotically from its nest of black hair.
"What shall I do next?" he asked. Snape aimed his wand at Potter and sighted along it. Potter froze for a moment, his hand outstretched, and Snape recognised the moment of indecision. He waited until Potter recognised it, too, and, like the Gryffindor he was, actively chose to continue. He lowered his arm and nodded. Snape cast the charms.
Harry felt a spell enter his arse and wriggle up inside him, hot-cold and stinging a little, followed immediately by something slick and oozing. He automatically clenched the muscles of his anus.
"What was that?"
"A cleansing spell and a lubricant charm," Snape said nonchalantly, placing his wand on the bedside table. He appeared so bloody superior, as if they were approaching a boring potions lesson that he had taught a hundred times before. The trouble was, Harry understood why Snape always had to appear in charge. Snape had lived his life on the edge for so long that he could not let go of that precarious authority. After the last year of disastrous decisions and narrowly avoided calamities, Harry felt a bit the same way. Old habits made it easier for him to defer and Snape to take command.
"Will you teach me?"
Snape shrugged. "Later, Potter, if you wish."
"Are we going to call each other 'Potter' and 'Snape' when we've got our cocks in each other's arses?"
"An impossible position, even with magic." Snape's tone was as dry and acerbic as ever.
"You know what I mean."
This was all going wrong, he could feel Snape withdrawing into his customary prickly animosity. What should he do? He was already so nervous that he would get this wrong – ah. A Lumos came on in Harry's head and he grinned to himself. Of course, Hippogriffs were capricious beasts; under all their bluster, they combined the flighty nature of the horse and the lightening reactions of the eagle.
Harry walked towards Snape, though not too fast, careful to watch Snape's expression but keeping his own soft and unthreatening. He reached up, undaunted by the narrowing of Snape's black eyes, and slid his hand up the side of Snape's face, relishing the feel of stubble against his fingers.
"Please," he said, "I want you to teach me."
Snape clearly did not expect that and Harry thought he could get used to allowing his Slytherin side out to play more often. He added "Severus" experimentally, tasting the word, allowing it to slide across his tongue in its Parseltongue-like cadences.
Snape grabbed him by the upper arms and yanked him against his body, covering Harry's mouth with his own. Harry reached up and grasped Snape's head, refusing to give up all control. It was part kiss, part wrestling match, and it was brilliant; all hard and muscular and Harry could feel the heat of Snape's cock against his belly. Kissing girls had involved embracing softness and the worry that he might hurt them or upset them by doing the wrong thing. There were no such concerns here. Physically, Snape was not going to break – emotionally might be another matter, of course.
Snape pushed him until the backs of his legs pressed against the bed. That was fine with Harry; he fell backwards, holding on, using his weight to pull Snape down with him. Snape's cock pressed against him. It was a heady feeling, knowing that he was doing this to Snape – Snape! – the aloof and sneering git, the taskmaster who prided himself on his implacable imperviousness to all blandishments or threats, now reduced to panting urgency. Harry could not help a brief moment of triumph.
Snape tugged at him, wordlessly directing him to turn over. Harry was clasped in a cage of bone and sinew, held in Snape's limbs like the prey of an Acromantula. He tensed and Snape murmured to him, so that he felt the words as a low vibration through the chest pressed to his back, as well as the whisper in his ear.
"It will be easier for you this way for the first time, Potter."
"Harry," he corrected him.
He felt a hand grasp his hip as Snape moved him into position.
"Harry," he purred, and a shiver rippled up Harry's spine, a wholly visceral thrill that lanced between his body and brain. Snape ran a finger lightly down the knobs of Harry's spine, continuing over his coccyx and between the cheeks of his arse. The skin seemed hyper-sensitive, unused to being touched, certainly not with this intense attention. Snape circled the pucker of his entrance, rubbing gently, and then his other hand snaked down and cupped Harry's balls, rolling them lightly in their sac.
Harry whimpered. His cock was as hard as iron and he needed friction and heat. But as soon as he lifted a hand from the bed, Snape stopped what he was doing. The warmth against the backs of his thighs, the teasing hands, the soft breath puffing on his back, all were gone, and he felt instantly bereft. He replaced his hand and Snape seemed to snap back into existence. A charm, Harry decided, a sneaky Slytherin charm to ensure his compliance. Well, he would think up a suitable response when it was his turn.
"Please..." Harry was surprised to hear his own voice, speaking words that he would never have dreamed of speaking to this man. "Please, Severus!"
"You like this, do you?" Snape murmured, his voice deep and dark and silken, as rich as mead.
"You want more?" The wicked hand fondled his balls again. Harry was too busy trying to nestle further into the hand so that his cock gained some attention to realise that the finger against his arse was pressing harder, until suddenly it was inside him. It felt strange, intrusive but not too unpleasant. It moved around, a live thing in his insides, until it crooked and rubbed somewhere that made him gasp at the intensity of sensation.
"Welcome to the glory of the prostate, Mr Potter," Snape said in his dark, golden voice and wiggled his finger.
"You can fucking – oh! – call me Harry when you've – oh! – got your finger up my bum! Oh god Severus, that's incredible!"
"I am obviously not doing it correctly if you can string together a logical sentence."
"You know me," Harry panted, pressing back against Snape's hand, urging him to continue. "Resistant to Unforgiveable curses."
"Harry Potter, I shall reduce you to babbling if it kills me!"
"Go on, I dare you!"
Harry felt himself being stretched wider as Snape introduced another finger, uncomfortable but worth it for those zinging, sparking jolts of pleasure. Then Snape withdrew completely.
Large and hot, that had to be Snape's cock butting at him, seeking admittance. Harry panted, trying to relax his arse enough to accept it.
"Press back against me," Snape said, the voice of authority. Harry gave a gasp of amusement and pushed back, and felt the burn of stretching muscles and a sudden giving way as the head of Snape's cock pushed past the entrance. Then Snape pushed in all the way, until Harry could feel him pressed against his thighs and back, and Snape grasped him around the middle and stayed like that for a little while, fully sheathed in him, holding him tight.
It was uncomfortable, more so when Snape began to move, and then it no longer mattered because Snape found the angle that he had obviously been seeking. With every lunge, the head of his cock rubbed against that secret, wonderful place and set Harry's nerves on fire.
Faster and faster, until Snape lost his rhythm and gave a series of short, jabbing thrusts and then he shuddered, tight against Harry's spine, and he reached around and grasped Harry's aching hard cock, sliding the foreskin across the head and squeezing. That was all it took. Harry grunted and came, collapsing face-down on the bed, Snape sprawled across his back.
"That was fantastic," Potter mumbled against Snape's ear. He groped around and Snape realised that Potter was pulling the covers over them both.
Only now, curled together in a sated heap of sweaty limbs, did Snape realise that Potter had babbled, but that Snape had been too incoherent to point it out.
No-one had ever wanted to sleep with him before. When he was young, Snape had been used, then later, when he was older and wiser, he had used others, but always they immediately went their separate ways. Now Potter draped himself over him like a hot blanket, lax and sated, smelling of clean male sweat and a faint, salt-sweet scent that was all his own.
The foolish boy obviously thought that he was completely safe. He had not even locked the bedroom door, let alone set wards. Snape could do anything he wanted with him: stun him and carry him off, bind him with magic and have his wicked way with his body, Legilimise him and rape his mind – anything. He ran his hand down Potter's flank, exulting in the feel of the lean muscles and the crisp little hairs on his thigh.
"We've got to do that again," Potter said.
"I am not seventeen."
"In the morning, then."
"Unless one of us casts a cleaning charm, you may find that by the morning, we will be painfully stuck to one another."
Potter laughed a breathy, warm puff of air across Snape's ear, held up his hand and wordlessly summoned the Elder Wand. He gave a quick wave and Snape felt a charm wipe away the sweat and spunk, and then the air shivered faintly and Snape thought he heard a slight, sweet chime, like a distant bell.
"What was that?"
"What? Oh, just a ward. 'S okay, go to sleep."
But Snape called his own wand to him and silently tested the defences, and found them to be solid as anything Dumbledore had ever cast with that wretched wand. Only then was he able to sleep, knowing that they were as safe as magic could make them.
"I thought you loved my mum," Potter said quietly. Snape opened his eyes and found Potter propped up on one elbow, watching him awaken, and wasn't that strange? It had been many years since Snape had trusted anyone enough to sleep while they watched him.
"I thought you loved Hermione Granger," Snape responded. "In fact, I was under the impression that you loved Ginevra and Ronald Weasley, too."
"Oh." Potter nodded thoughtfully. "Yeah, I see. If I'd caused Hermione's death... yeah, I'd never forgive myself."
"It looked like Dumbledore thought you were in love with my mum, though."
"He was an old queen, wasn't he, flouncing around in his sparkly robes?" Potter said with a faint, fond smile, and then he scowled. "He'd already got you over a barrel. I s'pose if he'd known you were gay, he'd just have made your life even more of a nightmare."
"I have to assume that you are a fairy changeling," Snape said, throwing back the bedclothes and standing up. His hips and back protested at the sudden movement. "What have you done with the genuine, Albus-worshiping Potter?"
"Don't be a git," Potter protested. "Hey, where are you going?" There was a note of mild concern in his question and Snape had to remind himself that the boy was not yet eighteen and had just discovered sex; there was nothing personal in it.
"Unless your desire to try everything includes water-sports, Potter, I have an urgent need to urinate."
"Water...? Oh, right. Do people really enjoy that?"
"So I am led to believe." Snape Summoned his wand, Transfigured a spare blanket into a dressing-gown, opened the bedroom door and almost tripped over the animal stretched across the threshold. Wanker blinked at him then curled up, muttering, "You reek of sex, you randy old bugger," before going back to sleep.
He had to wait for a few minutes for his erection to subside before he could relieve the pressure in his bladder. When he returned to the bedroom, Potter was lying on his front, the pillows bunched under his hips so that his slim, muscular arse was angled up in the air. Snape almost forgot to breathe. Potter turned his head to gaze at Snape over his shoulder, neither coyly or nervously, but with his shining Gryffindor confidence and readied smile.
"It’s morning now."
Snape swallowed and groped for his wand. He cast the cleansing and lubrication spells and Potter wriggled. "You have to teach me those."
"I don't have to do anything," Snape growled, and Potter grinned.
"You will unless you want to do all the work every single time," he said, as if they had agreed to something long-term, something exclusive and mutual. Snape resolved to think about that later.
Almost everyone except Granger and Weasley would want to eviscerate him for this, Snape thought as he sheathed himself once again in the tight heat of Potter's arse. They would assume that poor little Potter submitted to him out of fear or a misplaced sense of gratitude. They would never believe that Potter wanted this with desire equal to his own; that Potter could be both generous and ferociously demanding. There was nothing submissive about this ex-virgin hero.
Snape had expected compliance, had even desired some degree of mutual enjoyment. What he got was fiery, muscular lovemaking with a partner who made up for his lack of knowledge with a desire to make Snape's experience as good as his own.
Snape had always disparaged McGonagall for her blind loyalty to her Golden Gryffindor, but he had been disappointed that sensible people like Flitwick, Vector and Sinistra had also succumbed to the myth. Now he realised that they were all correct. Potter learned very fast indeed, but he learned by doing; he did not gain much from being instructed. Snape's rigorous and authoritative teaching style was appropriate for the intellectual Granger but it had not suited Potter. Give him a goal to aim for and plenty of positive feedback and Potter simply flew.
"Tea's just brewed," Ron said, indicating the teapot in the middle of the table and taking a slurp out of his mug. Harry nodded and reached for the milk, then blinked.
"Morning, Kreacher. Are you cooking for an army?"
The elf was flipping eggs, mushrooms, bacon and sausages in a vast frying pan that covered all four burners of the ancient stove.
"Missus Weasley says that she will return with members of the Order," he croaked. "Kreacher assumed that Master wished him to be hospitable."
"Great," Harry sighed.
"Best to get it over in one go, mate," Ron agreed. Hermione methodically spread marmalade on a slice of toast.
"It would be rather nice to get back to a normal life," she said.
"You ready then?" Ron asked. "You know what's going to happen."
Harry touched his hip, where he had stuck both his wands in his belt. "Yes." He had hardly started his bacon and eggs when the front door banged open and footsteps approached down the staircase.
Molly Weasley stopped just inside the doorway and surveyed them with her hands on her hips. Harry could see a gaggle of redheads peering over her shoulder.
"Hello, Mrs Weasley," Harry said.
"Hello, Mum," Ron muttered. Under her scowl, he reverted to an eleven-year-old staring at the floor and waiting to be scolded.
"Good morning, Mrs Weasley," Hermione said politely.
"Well, I suppose it was too much to expect to be told that you were going to run off again? To be warned that my son was going to vanish into thin air? You might have been captured by Death Eaters! You could have all been killed!"
"But we sent a message—" Ron began and Mrs Weasley rolled over his words without noticing them.
"Vanished! No-one knew where you were! Death Eaters everywhere on the loose! Stray curses knocking people down without warning! Hogwarts wards completely gone! Worried sick, with my poor Freddie dead and Georgie needing his family's support and where were you? Flying off to who knows where on another wild goose chase!"
"I'm sorry, Mrs Weasley, it was my fault," Harry said, standing up. "I know you were all worried about us."
"Oh, I'm not angry with you, Harry," she said, then turned back to Ron until Harry stepped in front of his friend.
"You should be, because it was my idea."
She stared at him, looking puzzled.
"No, dear, you'd been through a terrible ordeal, you were in shock. Ron should have known better—"
"Ron's been through exactly the same ordeal," Harry protested. "I couldn't have done any of it without Ron or Hermione… or Snape."
"You should have let us know where you were going, all of you," Arthur Weasley said, sounding plaintive rather than angry. He sidled around his wife with his hand on her shoulder. "You can't keep disappearing like this, upsetting everyone."
"If we'd tried to explain, you wouldn't have listened to us!" Ron protested. Mr Weasley looked at him and Ron blushed and lowered his gaze. "Yeah, sorry Dad, you did listen the first time, I know, but no-one else would've understood. We had to go and save the greasy git."
George snorted. "You mean you put Mum through days of hysterics for Snape? Why?" The Weasleys seemed to form a solid wall topped with red hair as they filed in through the kitchen door.
"Because he didn't deserve to die," Hermione said hotly. There was a moment of silence and she tipped her chin up. "Neither did a lot of other people, but Professor Snape was the only one we could actually save, so we did. We had to."
"Thus you might consider that I'm the one to blame, rather than your little cohort of hot-headed, Gryffindor heroes." The smooth, silky voice was unmistakeable. Not even Harry had noticed Snape until he spoke from the shadows at the far end of the kitchen. He stood up and moved into the light, his face pale against the dense black of his robes and hair. He had his hands out, empty, in front of him.
The wall of Weasleys suddenly bristled with wands. Without a word, Harry, Hermione and Ron stepped in front of Snape to face them, shoulder to shoulder, Harry in the middle with the Elder Wand in his hand. Wanker shot out from beneath the table, claws skittering on the flagstones and reared up to his full two-and-a-half feet in height to stare at the Weasleys.
"Bloody hell," he squeaked, "a Quidditch team of fucking gingers!"
Mrs Weasley gasped and flicked her wand. Foam bubbled out of Wanker's jaws and he collapsed, scrabbling frantically at his muzzle with his forepaws as a great mass of frothing soapsuds enveloped his face. Ginny giggled shrilly then clapped her hand over her mouth, Percy looked appalled and George guffawed.
"That's a Jarvey!" he exclaimed. Ignoring everyone else, he darted forwards and waved his wand, ending the mouth-washing spell, and then he knelt down beside the animal. Wanker spat a couple of times and scrambled to his feet, shook himself and peered up at George.
"Ta, that tasted fucking 'orrible. You anything to do with old carrot-brain over there?" He glanced at Ron, who was warily lowering his wand.
"He's my little brother. What happens if you ever stop swearing?"
"Dunno," Wanker said, "probably stop being able to talk at all and wouldn't that be a fucking shame, with me being so erudite? I'm exceptionally clever for a Jarvey, I'll have you know. Bloody fantastic sense of smell!"
"I'll bet," George agreed. "Are you looking for a home? I can offer you a place at my joke shop if you're interested."
The Jarvey placed his little black forepaws on George's knee and gazed up at him.
"Sorry," he said regretfully, "that sounds like a chuffing fabulous offer, but I'm already taken. I'm the familiar for that pair of tossers over there. They'll get themselves into the most awful trouble without someone fucking sensible to look after them."
"Which pair...?" George asked, glancing at Ron, Hermione, Harry and Snape.
"Old vulture-beak and the scruffy, speccy kid, of course."
"How ridiculous!" Mrs Weasley huffed after a second of silence. "Well you can go to Azkaban with Snape if you like—"
"If anyone tries to send Snape to Azkaban, they'll have to send me too," Harry said.
"And it's a fucking stand-off!" Wanker crowed.
"Oh, shut up," Harry said, picking Wanker up and dumping him in George's arms. "No-one's going to Azkaban. We're all going to sit down and eat breakfast and we'll tell you why Snape should get an Order of Merlin."
"Sausages?" Wanker asked hopefully. "With ketchup?"
"You've already eaten breakfast," Ron said.
"So've you, you greedy git!"
"Look," Harry said in exasperation, "everyone, just sit down before Kreacher's breakfast goes cold and he gets depressed again, will you?"
Ginny made a bee-line for the seat next to Harry. He eyed her cautiously until she leaned in against his arm and whispered, "You and Snape? Really?"
He nodded, feeling his face going beet red. She helped herself to tea.
"You're not upset?" he asked, under cover of the scraping of chairs and clatter of dishes.
"A bit," she said, "I suppose. But I always thought... never mind." She gave a deep sigh. "You've been away so long. We sort of grew apart, didn't we?" She frowned and muttered "Mum'll be upset. She had her heart set on getting you into the family officially."
Harry agreed, glancing around the table. Snape was seated between Arthur and Bill Weasley, and Harry saw the glitter of black eyes as Snape registered the presence of Ginny next to him. Hermione gave Snape a knowing look and began whispering to Ginny. They kept glancing at Ron and it was his turn to go red to the ears.
Kreacher was levitating another pile of freshly toasted bread to the table when Harry heard the tap of heels on the stairs. Kingsley Shacklebolt came into the kitchen, followed closely by Professor McGonagall, who gave a cry of surprise and pressed a hand to her chest.
"Severus!" she gasped. "Oh, Severus! You – you impossible man!" She marched across the room and he stood up, eyeing her warily. She jammed her hands on her hips, in exactly the same stance as Molly Weasley in scolding mode. "Why didn't you tell me? Or confide in Filius? We would have kept your secrets! You didn't have to do it all alone!"
"Under Veritaserum?" he asked silkily, "or Legilimency? Really, Minerva, are you telling me that you could withstand the Dark Lord if he decided to invade your mind?"
She stared at him, parted her lips and then shut them again, pressing them into a thin line.
"It was necessary," he told her, "I am sorry."
"It was all Albus' idea, wasn't it?"
"The bastard!" she snapped and everyone else fell silent and stared at her. "He sent teenagers into battle and he left you totally isolated! Well if that's what he did when acting for 'the greater good', we're damned lucky that he never went Dark!"
"Yeah, missus," squeaked Wanker, bouncing happily on George's knee, "see, even actin' Headmistresses can swear if they try fucking hard enough!"
Hermione reached past Ginny to stuff a sausage into the Jarvey's mouth.
"Harry," Kingsley said quietly, "a word, if I may?"
Harry nodded and stood up. "I'd like Hermione and Ron to come, too, please."
Kingsley's eyes crinkled as he smiled. "Your legal team?"
"Something like that, yeah."
This time, Harry did not need to send his Patronus and wait like a supplicant at the gates of Malfoy Manor. Snape simply placed a hand on Harry's sleeve and drew him along in his wake, through the gates, which melted like smoke and reformed behind them.
"Draco cannot have reset the wards," he remarked, releasing Harry's arm. "Very careless of him."
"He probably left you included in them. I told him you were still alive, it was the only way I could get him to let me have the Faerie stones."
"You mean let me have the fucking stones," chirped Wanker from his position on Harry's shoulder. Harry snorted.
"Well, yeah, Lucius told his elves not let anyone have the stones. They took him literally but he never said not to give the stones to an animal, so Draco persuaded the elves to give them to Wanker."
"I'm a frigging hero, too, see."
"Good grief," remarked a bored and horribly familiar voice. "Severus, you really do revel in keeping unrefined company, don't you? It must be all those years of teaching the offspring of the hoi polloi."
Harry's hand slid to the handle of the wand in his belt.
"Mr Malfoy," he said between gritted teeth.
"Mr Potter," Lucius responded with a little smirk. "How nice to see that you are still around to save the day."
"Yeah," Harry said, "I thought you were detained at the Ministry."
"A minor misunderstanding, soon sorted. Severus, my dear chap, rumour had it that you were deceased. Splendidly inaccurate, I gather, since you resemble neither an Inferius nor a vampire."
"I wondered why you didn't send a house-elf to check up on me after sending me to the Dark Lord," Snape said blandly. Malfoy's pale eyelashes flickered as his eyes narrowed.
"As I recall, things got a little hectic at that stage."
"I'm sure they did. I don't actually remember."
"Never mind," Malfoy said, and even Harry caught an edge of forced levity in the arrogant voice. "All is well in the end. Draco and Narcissa will be overjoyed, my friend. Do come in."
He gave Harry a totally false, little smile, making it clear that he was included in the invitation but that Malfoy was not happy about it. Then he reached out to Snape and placed an arm around the shorter wizard's shoulders. "Delighted to see you, Severus, I really am," he murmured, steering him into the house and leaving Harry to follow behind. Wanker, balancing on Harry's shoulder, gave a hiss like an angry snake.
The manicured hand cupped around Snape's shoulder was moving slightly, thumb and fingers describing little circles. With a hot lurch of rage, Harry realised that it was more than the touch of a friend. He and his mates might sling a casual arm around each other's shoulders, particularly after a successful Quidditch match – the twins had been renowned for almost knocking him off his broom in their enthusiasm – but Malfoy was fondling his Snape in a blatant manner that set Harry's teeth on edge.
"Can I bite him?" Wanker asked in a little growl.
Harry was very tempted to Levitate the Jarvey to the exact height of Malfoy's arse.
"No," he sighed, "we're here to build bridges, or at least that's what Hermione said."
"Severus!" Narcissa Malfoy jumped to her feet, her robes fluttering and her high heels tapping delicately as she flew across the entrance hall. She embraced Snape, lightly kissing him on both cheeks. "Oh, my dear, I couldn't believe it when Draco told me that you'd survived after all! How wonderful! That Harry Potter has a lot to answer for, telling us all that you'd died."
Harry snorted but refrained from comment. These were Snape's friends, after all, and he couldn't expect Snape to tolerate the Weasleys if Harry was rude to the Malfoys. Oddly enough, the sight of Mrs Malfoy hugging Snape did not rouse the same possessive instincts in Harry that her husband's touch had inflamed. He wasn't sure how much longer he could hold on to his temper, though.
"Potter, Granger and Weasley came back for me," Snape said, perhaps sensing that Harry was approaching hexing-point.
"Had you taken potions? You were always prepared for the worst."
"No, Narcissa, in this instant, I was ready to die. They went to considerable lengths to save me, including the use of an illegal Time-Turner, phoenix tears and Muggle resuscitation techniques."
"Oh, dear," Narcissa remarked, "not another wretched life-debt?"
Snape took a deliberate step away from her, drawing his robes closely around himself and folding his arms.
"There is nothing wretched about owing my life to someone who owes his own life to me."
"Reciprocal debts cancelling each other out?" Malfoy said, stroking his chin, "Hm, I advise you to get that in writing before someone thinks to call in the debt. Don't need that hanging over your head, do you?"
"Gryffindors tend not to think like that, Lucius," his wife remarked.
"Yeah, we're very simple creatures, really," Harry said. The Malfoys looked at him as if the chandelier had suddenly joined in the conversation. Snape's eyes glittered with amusement.
"S'right," Wanker remarked, "decent grub and regular sex and he's chuffing happy as Larry."
"Good gracious!" Mrs Malfoy gasped, her reaction so like Molly’s that Harry grinned. Malfoy wore an expression that suggested something had just died underneath his patrician nostrils.
"Severus, for Merlin's sake, couldn't you have made the boy leave that revolting animal outside?"
Wanker snarled and bounced on Harry's shoulder, preparing to launch himself at Lucius. Malfoy drew his wand and the Elder Wand leapt into Harry's hand before he even realised he had made a conscious decision to respond.
Snape strode across the hall, snatched Wanker from Harry and tucked him under his arm, placing himself between Harry and Malfoy.
"There are three things wrong with that sentence, Lucius," he said in a cold, level voice. "One, you insulted a wizard's familiar; two, Harry Potter is an adult and should be respected as such; and three, I cannot and will not make him do anything. Frankly, you are lucky not to be hexed six ways from Sunday."
Malfoy stared at the wand that had destroyed Voldemort and swallowed audibly. Before he could reply, Narcissa gave her cool, brittle smile.
"It's a Jarvey, Lucius, it's bound to be a little... vulgar. It is in the nature of the beast. That's brave of you, Severus, to handle another wizard's familiar in such a cavalier fashion."
"Oh, I'm 'is as well," Wanker chirped from his position on Snape's hip. "I got two wizards all of me own. Fucking brilliant!"
Malfoy snorted. "You're not telling me that you'll allow that beast to live at Hogwarts, Severus, surely?"
"I think I might just do that," Snape said with an evil smirk. Narcissa, meanwhile, was looking from Harry to Snape and back with a considering expression on her icy, beautiful face. Then she took her husband's arm.
"We're very happy for you," she murmured, "aren't we, Lucius?"
Harry saw the moment that Lucius Malfoy's grey eyes widened, as he understood what she was telling him. Malfoy paled, just a little, and Harry felt the hot knot inside his chest loosen and dissolve.
"Thank you, Mrs Malfoy," he said and she inclined her head to him, and he saw the edge of her satisfied smile as she turned away to call Draco to come and greet his Head of House.
"So the Wizengamot not only have no intention of making you stand trial, but they're going to award you an Order of Merlin, First Class, same as Hermione and Ron and me," Harry said. "Kingsley says it should be all signed and sealed in a few days, and he'll confirm your position as Headmaster in writing while he's at it."
Snape snorted. "Anything for the Chosen One. You might be the flavour of the month, Potter, but don't expect it to last."
"I don't, that's why I need to make the most of it. Kingsley's confirmed that Ron and me have got our places in the Auror Training Programme. We'll start in October."
"Without taking your NEWTs, of course."
"Hermione's going to come back to Hogwarts and take her NEWTs but she's interested in joining the Department of Mysteries – I think she's got her sights set on making changes to the Ministry from within."
Harry stared out at the view from the Headmaster's tower. He could see Hagrid rebuilding the fencing of the animal pens. A very young unicorn was trying to interest Fang in a game of chase but the boarhound merely yawned and settled down to doze in the sun.
"I can't come back, can I? It would put you in an embarrassing position."
Snape shrugged as if he had little interest in the topic and selected a book from the shelves.
"If you wished to continue our association, then yes, it might be awkward."
"Of course I want to," Harry said. He caught the swift flicker of a dark eye as Snape glanced at him. Neither he nor Snape had learned how to be vulnerable—both starved of affection as children, both inexperienced in relationships. Harry reminded himself ten times a day that Snape had spent most of his life not daring to love anyone. He wandered over and slid a hand around Snape's narrow ribcage. The Headmaster stiffened under his touch.
"We must leave in a few minutes, Potter, or we will be late."
"Just because I hug you, Severus, it doesn't mean I'm always trying to drag you to bed!"
Snape's expression was doubtful but he nodded and indicated the door.
"Tell your friends that I shall arrive shortly. I have a brief errand to run first."
"You're not trying to wriggle out of going, are you?"
"I gave my word."
"Okay, good. Wanker, are you coming?"
The Jarvey bounded from the outer office, where he had been annoying the portraits.
"If the old ginger biddy's cooking lunch, I s'pose I'll go."
"Yeah, but I wish you'd be polite to Mrs Weasley. They're a really nice family."
"I'm always fucking polite, and anyway, she started it! She was the one who washed me mouth out with bloody soap!
"Just try to keep quiet if you can't stop swearing. Come on."
Although Harry suspected that he would be able to Apparate through Hogwarts' new wards using the Elder Wand, he didn't like winding Snape up too much, not after managing to extract a promise that the Headmaster would attend Sunday lunch with the Weasleys. Instead, he and Wanker walked down to the main gates. Only then did he pick up the Jarvey and Apparate to the Burrow.
Ron and Hermione waved from the orchard and left their conversation with Bill, Fleur and Percy to come and meet him. They strolled towards the house, now rebuilt with funds from the Ministry's war-damage compensation fund. The new Burrow was cosy and compact, although Harry missed the lop-sided old building held together by magic, love and optimism.
"No Severus?" Hermione asked.
"He says he has an errand to run, then he'll be here. He was picking out the books he promised you when I left."
"Yippee! Gnomes!" Wanker squealed and charged into the back garden, sending gnomes running in all directions.
"He never actually kills them, they just get really fast and fit," Ron grumbled. "I should know, Mum always sends me to de-gnome the cabbage patch and I can't catch the blighters since he's started chasing them around."
Hermione sniggered and poked him in the middle.
"Are you sure that isn't a result of you putting on weight on your Mum's cooking, dear?"
"Have to make the most of it – Auror training starts in a couple of weeks."
Hermione had been away in Australia for the summer, attempting to rebuild her relationship with her parents, so Ron had moved back home while the Weasley family slowly began to come to terms with the loss of Fred.
The pop of Apparation signalled the arrival of George, who nodded a greeting and slouched towards the house with his hands in his pockets. Wanker, who definitely had a soft spot for George, launched himself at him, forcing George to catch the Jarvey in his arms and stagger dramatically.
"Bloody stupid animal!"
Chuckling, George hoisted Wanker onto his shoulder and Wanker reared up with his paws on top of George's head.
"Oy, watch what you're doing with those claws, Wanker!"
"Shut up, ginger git."
"I'll stick my dick in your ear!"
"You would too, wouldn't you, you horrible animal?"
"Too chuffing right!"
"Harry, train your evil pet to behave, will you?"
Harry shrugged. "He won't listen to me. Severus is the only person with any control over him."
Mrs Weasley clucked over George and asked if he was eating properly, glared at Wanker and smiled mistily at Harry. Harry suspected that she still held out hopes of him and Ginny getting back together, despite the rumours that Ginny was seeing Dean again.
They sat down at the magically enlarged dining table, Wanker lurking beside George's chair hoping for scraps, and Mrs Weasley was serving the soup when Harry heard the distinctive crack of Apparation outside the house. Snape came in Levitating a pile of books and a cardboard box, which he set down on the floor before taking his place between Harry and Hermione, nodding in response to the chorus of greetings.
"Miss Granger, I have included the second of Drabble's treatises on the philosophy of potions, as well as Carnadine's 'Esoteric Potions of the Incas'," he remarked, tilting his head towards the books.
"Brilliant!" she exclaimed, beaming at him. "Thanks very much – and I keep telling you to call me Hermione! I've brought you that one I told you about, the translation of the Mesopotamian herbal with the potions recipes in the back?"
"Ah, yes, I should be interested in comparing the uses of the early varieties of Mediterranean herbs..."
Harry tuned out the conversation and instead turned to Bill, George and Ginny, who were talking Quidditch. The box on the floor gave a sudden little lurch and something scratched inside the lid.
"Severus, is there something alive in there?"
"Indeed," Snape agreed, taking a sip of onion soup.
"Not potions ingredients, I hope," Mrs Weasley said.
"Not at all, Molly," Snape said. "Merely a little something that might find a place in Weasleys' Wizard Wheezes."
George looked slightly ill at ease.
"Yeah, well, I've been thinking about selling up."
"Oh, no, George! You can't!" Ginny cried, amid a chorus of dismay from her brothers, Hermione and Harry.
"Isn't the same," he muttered, "hate being there by myself. So bloody quiet all the time."
"Ah. Then perhaps I should return that to the Magical Menagerie." Snape indicated the box, which was now rocking slightly as the contents made a determined attempt to escape.
"Good of you to think of me, Sna—Headmaster. What is it?"
Snape flicked his wand at the box and the lid flipped open. Wanker peered out, or at least, something with the same sleek head, bandit's mask and beady eyes sat up and stared around. Harry realised that it was actually smaller than Wanker. The original Wanker stalked towards it, his tail standing up and the fur ridged along his back, like Crookshanks spying a rival.
"Don't frighten it, Wanker," Snape said, seeming completely unconcerned that his familiar was about to start a fight. The smaller Jarvey squealed, "Piss off, you great berk!" and jumped out of the box.
"I am informed that it is named 'Titsy La Booba'," Snape remarked.
"Fuck me, you're a bint!" Wanker said, his voice going even squeakier than usual with surprise. The female stuck her nose in the air.
"And you're a walking pair of bollocks, smart-arse."
Mrs Weasley aimed her wand at both animals but George gave a crow of laughter.
"Titsy? You called her Titsy?"
"She was already named when I acquired her – it was her or an albino called 'Shagnasty' but I assumed, obviously correctly, that the resident Jarvey would not take kindly to another mature male muscling in on his patch."
"Too frigging right," Wanker said, sidling up to Titsy with what might have passed for a leer, making his whiskers bristle. She waited until he was pressed to her side and then nipped him on the muzzle. He leaped backwards and crouched to the floor with both paws pressed to his smarting nose.
"Oy, Tits!" George called. "D'you want to come and live in a joke shop?"
She considered him for a while with her head cocked to one side, then trotted across the room and scrambled onto his lap.
"Bugger it, why not?" she said and curled up.
"Oh, really!" Mrs Weasley huffed.
"Thank you, Severus," Arthur Weasley murmured, watching his son stroking the sleek head of his new familiar. "You're a good man."
Harry reached out under cover of the table, grasped Snape's hand and squeezed it. He resisted the urge to look over at the man, and instead let a smile stretch slowly across his face. After a minute, Snape squeezed back.