The headmaster’s right hand was withered and charred, useless but to hold the malignancy in check. Severus felt his gorge rise; his fingers itched to take up Gryffindor’s sword and strike off the blighted limb. The curse’s recoil would likely destroy them both in an instant, and the pleasurable temptation of that very thought was enough to surprise him to stillness, his bones capable of sustaining neither cowardice nor cheer.
He had his execution orders now, and twice over. Between the Unbreakable Vow and the promise in his own heart he stood trammelled, but alone. A laugh escaped him, an ugly, unpractised sound that died as Dumbledore’s blackened fingers reached for his, and he flinched, and then flinched anew as Dumbledore said, “Severus, I fear there is another favour I must ask of you.”
“Do you require the full moon or will a simple crescent suffice?” Severus asked in a voice of deathly calm. “I can fetch it down now if you like.”
“Or is it something a little closer to home? Perhaps something tasteful in the way of a grave marker? I could borrow Fawkes’ cuttlebone and make a start on one tonight. There’s no sense putting off these tiresome chores, as you know, particularly when my time is not my own. Wormtail is probably wondering where I am even now; expecting his supper, no doubt, and he has an uncomfortable habit of gnawing upon the contents of my library once the fish and chip shop has shut up for the night-”
“Stop.” Dumbledore’s hand dropped heavily over Severus’ wrist but there was no strength in the clasp to leave bruises. The dead skin felt like coal, brittle and filthy; its scent was not unlike that of the old steelworks in Spinner’s End. “Since I find myself short handed, I hope I can rely on you.”
“Only if you refrain from punning,” sighed Severus. He drummed his fingers pointedly, both to hurry the request and to shake off the touch.
“Permit an old man his amusements,” said Dumbledore, removing his hand with a too-understanding smile. Severus watched him fumble with the ring as he tried to shove it onto an unmarked finger; Severus did not offer to help. “This task might be to your liking, you know.”
“Like teaching, no doubt.”
“Oh, far more fun. I need you to make a sword.” Dumbledore laughed, and Severus felt like blacking the twinkle from those eyes. “And you have…maybe a year.”
Irma was spending the summer in Bournemouth. In the absence of her suspicious glare, Severus pillaged the library shelves at his leisure only to discover that decent blacksmithing information was elusive. He hunched over a copy of De re metallica, poring through its fragile pages as he cursed Dumbledore under his breath. Well might metalwork run in the Snape veins, but it was a heritage from which he’d fled since he was eleven, and Dumbledore’s commission could not have fallen into two more ill-prepared hands.
It needed to be a good copy, not just to deceive the Dark Lord but because Severus was incapable of mediocre workmanship. The latter was, to Severus’ mind, the more stringent condition; over the years he had come to realise that the Dark Lord’s limited ability to see beyond what he expected was a blessedly exploitable blind spot, whereas Severus’ streak of perfectionism was relentless and unforgiving.
It was a gamble. Dumbledore had let slip that the Dark Lord had put in a brief stint at Borgin & Burkes in his youth, so it was possible that he’d pick a knockoff. The Malfoys, too, might recognise a fake, and although Lucius was currently out of Severus’ hair, his calculating and all too reckless wife was not. Narcissa’s sister was an even greater danger, for Bellatrix had a mistrustful nature when it came to Severus and a niffler’s nose for sparkly gems; Severus feared that any attempt on his part to pass a piece of cheap trumpery into her possession would end in disaster. And even if Severus could produce a plausible facsimile - and there was the trifling matter of a seven years apprenticeship to be mastered in the absence of a master and in a fraction of the time, as well as a goblin’s ransom in jewels to be acquired with minimal funds and the utmost discretion - it would need to pass muster at Gringotts. Should one of the bank’s keen-eyed workers turn up his nose at Severus’ wizard-made sword, then Severus might as well farewell any influence he might have with the Dark Lord, not to mention his own poor entrails.
The frustrating thing was that all this effort and worry might yet be for nothing. Severus was inclined to think that any self-respecting Gringotts staffers would likely keep their own counsel regarding the authenticity of their vaults’ contents; their task was security alone, and anything beyond that would be considered beneath their dignity or notice. In any case, The Dark Lord might never give a thought to the sword, much less require its removal from the Headmaster’s office, and it could prove just another cock up to harrow Severus’ absurd life that he should waste the precious remains of his time in such a pointless endeavour. Severus was not inclined to question either Dumbledore’s gut or the Dark Lord’s acquisitiveness, however, and if Dumbledore believed in the necessity of a deception of this magnitude, then Severus would comply with his wishes to the best of ability.
If only he had more time, but he might as well have ordered a slice of the moon. The school’s Defence curriculum was a shambles, and it would be a difficult job dragging the student body up to scratch. At least Potions should be safe in Slughorn’s hands, if Dumbledore could only con the old man into returning to Hogwarts. Severus had suggested using Potter as a lure - the boy’s fame had to be good for something and Slughorn had an acquisitiveness to rival the Dark Lord’s - but still, his old Potions teacher was slippery. Dumbledore had countered the suggestion with one of his own, but Severus had seen little purpose in approaching Slughorn himself; despite Severus’ top marks, he had never been invited into the Slug Club.
Severus closed the Agricola and pushed it to one side, then pulled out a musty copy of the Codex Unicornis with a low groan. Every book he had studied thus far had lead to the inescapable conclusion that his was a near impossible task, for Gryffindor’s sword possessed an implausible length and density balanced solely by the unique counterweight in its pommel: the mystic ruby. Any decent reproduction would require a stone of the same power simply to lift the sword properly.
The entire hilt was littered with gaudy red gems, but most of these had only decorative purposes and did not cause Severus undue concern. He would have cheerfully taken both rubies and points alike from the Gryffindor hourglass had Dumbledore not pointed out apologetically that the House stones were in fact not true rubies at all but spinels. In any case, Dumbledore’s brother Aberforth would be sending out some discreet feelers for a source of the tiny Siva’s bliss jewels, of which fourteen would be required for the hilt; Dumbledore had also told him just that morning, with a grim expression, that Emmaline Vance’s bequest to the Order would likely include some gem-encrusted treasures that should prove useful in furnishing the three tips of the pommel and guard.
It was that wretched carbuncle that lay at the heart of the sword’s pommel that could prove Severus’ undoing. Unicorns had changed dramatically since the time of the founders, and the mystic ruby, always the rarest of the rare gems, was now a simple footnote of natural history. Dumbledore had his theories regarding the failure of even the oldest of modern day unicorns to produce the blood-red jewels at the base of their horns - the greenhouse effect figured chiefly in his rambling discourses on the matter - but to Severus it was a moot point; the only known example of a mystic ruby left in the world was embedded firmly behind Gryffindor’s grip, and Severus had no idea how to obtain another.
The castle’s stones were beginning to thaw beneath the summer sun. Severus leant back in his seat, feeling sweat bead at his brow as he now cursed Dumbledore’s name aloud. Severus was loath to admit it, but Dumbledore was right: this task, formidable and rash as it was, rather appealed to him in spite of himself.
Gryffindor’s sword pre-dated steel, but there was no shortage of iron ore hidden beneath the Forbidden Forest, nor shortage of fuel to fire a blast furnace. After inviting himself into Filch’s office, Severus discovered a trove of crumbling old maps showing the dispersal of shallow bell pits, long disused, throughout the extended Hogwarts environs. It was these mines that had equipped the original construction of Hogwarts; on foot he explored those closest to the castle, only to find them played out, whilst on the wing he travelled further, and found more than enough raw material to meet his needs. It was just as well; the forging of a single sword by an unskilled stickler would require an enormous amount of practice.
The Hogwarts smithy lay nestled in the ivy-covered shadow of the castle. Decades had passed since it had seen use, and dust motes and cobwebs alike rose in rebellion when Severus first forced open the door. He cast some protection spells and a Muffliato for good measure; he wanted no curious beaks in this business, not least because he would undoubtedly be making a duffer of himself. A careful examination of the equipment - the anvil and the forge, the hammers and tongs and shaping tools - showed that the preservation charms of some long-ago Hogwarts wizardsmith were holding well. Indeed, the only thing wanted was some decent ventilation - the starlings had been making their presence felt in the chimneys and loops - but that was easily fixed with some enthusiastic wand-waving.
He rifled amongst the various tools, testing their heft and balance, and whistled in satisfaction when he discovered a Thor’s hammer swinging between a single jack and a straight peen. It was horribly heavy - Severus would need to develop some serious muscle, and quickly, if he didn’t want to put his back out - and the handle was made for a goblin’s small hand, but judicious application of an Engorgement charm might render it usable. The hammer’s distinctive handling would best mimic the goblin’s typical drawing-out method, if Severus could only keep from shattering the metal in the process. He would take any small advantage he could find.
He removed his outer robe, tied his hair back and wrapped a leather apron about his body, then set his wand to the coal and watched the old furnace blaze to life.
…I gyve to my sonne as an heyrelome to his house of Horne the carbunclle of unicorne… Severus rubbed his bloodshot eyes as the words before him blurred into gibberish. He’d found the reference - his first firm lead in his search for a mystic ruby - in a collection of old Muggle State papers of all places, but after weeks of hot, back-breaking experiments in smelting and a Saturday evening spent watching Potter sift through Flobberworms, he felt almost too exhausted to care. Perhaps he should have dispatched the boy to Slughorn’s supper after all, and student discipline be damned; it was all rather wasted on Potter regardless, and Severus found himself less and less entertained by the futile struggle between them.
He cast a weary eye across the will again, pondering just how much credence he was willing to give the brief mention of a carbuncle. Any worthy red stone cut en cabochon might gain within a family an amuletic reverence over time, and Muggle lore was riddled with rubbish about unicorns, a subject about which Muggles knew precious little; every passing allusion or glowing eulogy to the hapless beasts had to be regarded in the context of a certain degree of romantical hysteria. Severus lay down the ledger and picked up the Daily Prophet instead, but the news of the Shunpike arrest only strengthened his fear that the wizarding world was no more sensible than the Muggle one. This fresh evidence of Ministry incompetence made his brow throb with irritation; he wondered, not for the first time, precisely what his long struggles could accomplish when every second fool seemed bent on tearing the country apart with good intentions.
A cold touch brushed his shoulder, making him shudder, and he glanced up to find that Binns had wafted into the staff room. Binns regarded him with his customary dazed expression and said, “Good evening, young Septimus. I believe you’re in my chair.”
“Your pardon,” said Severus grudgingly, rising with caution to his feet and biting back a groan; every inch of his body ached with fatigue. He wandered over to one of the narrow windows and let his eyes rest upon the darkness outside, wondering where Dumbledore might be, and whether there was any point attempting sleep tonight or if he should head down to the smithy; his insomnia was acute, and the steady ring of his hammer gave him more peace than his rumpled bed, for all that he could not yet forge a straight, unbroken line of metal.
His thoughts were interrupted by Binns, who was nodding slowly over Severus’ ledger. “Ah, karfunkelstein, the king of stones,” murmured Binns, his flat drone in marked contrast to his words. “The crystallised quintessence of a unicorn’s blood, freely given, believed to shield its bearer from harm and misfortune. Remarkably rare, indeed, beyond price.” His wispy face drifted into an expression of dull testudinal musing. “I’ve heard of this.”
“I thought you had little patience for legends,” said Severus, his eyebrows rising in surprise. This was more whimsy than he’d heard from Binns in almost thirty years.
“Hm?” Binns blinked sluggishly at Severus, as though he had forgotten his presence. “Legend? No, no, the Horne carbuncle is a matter of historical fact, although where I might have read of it, I cannot guess.” As Severus blinked back at him, Binns pursed his lips in distaste. “The undoubtedly chance-won Luck of an old Muggle family of dubious merit and uncertain lineage is rather beyond my sphere of intellectual inquiry, but you might question Professor Burbank on the subject. Perhaps she would have more information.”
Perhaps she might, Severus thought, as he watched Binns’ insubstantial form lose itself in the deeply cushioned armchair - their conversation plainly at an end - but Charity Burbage also had a habit of boring on about computer technology and no discernable interest in genealogy. It was worth a try, however, and if he was very lucky then this tedious worldwide web she was so fond of might have fallen to bits by now.
He gathered up the ledger and strode towards the door, which swung open without warning before him; only a swift and rather undignified leap backwards saved his nose. He glared at the offender, whose arms spread expansively and whose overfed bulk filled the doorway, thus cutting off Severus’ escape.
“Ah, Severus, just the man I was looking for!”
Severus sighed in resignation. “Good evening, Professor Slughorn. I hope your supper went well.”
“Yes, yes, but enough of that, now, Severus, I want none of your ‘professor’ nonsense,” tutted Slughorn, waving an admonitory finger in Severus’ face. “How many times must I ask you to call me Horace? It has been a very long time since you were my student, and these tiresome manners of yours make me feel positively antique, you know, although do not imagine that I cannot perfectly recall your way with a Befuddlement Draught, even after all these years - such a quiet, shy boy you were, but such a deft touch with the lovage, never have I felt a fog like it-”
“You were looking for me?” Severus prompted, lest Slughorn chatter until breakfast.
“Oh! Oh dear. Yes, I-” Slughorn paused, then dropped his arms with a wry smile. “I wanted to apologise for my abominable cheek, trying to finesse young Harry out of your detention. That was bad form of me, really very bad form, and a teacher of my experience ought to know better. I suppose I’m a tad out of practice. I hope you will forgive me.”
“Apology accepted,” said Severus. He waited for Slughorn to move aside that he might pass, but Slughorn simply stood there, regarding him with a thoughtful expression.
“You’re looking quite fit,” said Slughorn finally, almost fondly. “There’s a bloom in your cheeks. I wonder what you’ve been up to.”
“It’s been one exciting party after another,” Severus replied, his tone deadpan, although Slughorn’s choice of the word ‘bloom’ almost made him snort with amusement given his recent adventures in smithing. Nevertheless, no one had yet remarked upon the increasing ruddiness of his complexion; it seemed strange that Slughorn of all people should take note now.
“You can’t fool a knowing one like me, my boy. Well I recall your lack of enthusiasm for social gatherings, but something’s fired a glow in your eyes. A special project of your own, I don’t doubt, you were always such an inspired and determined young wizard.” Severus shifted the heavy ledger in his arms pointedly, and Slughorn hopped aside at last, his moustache bobbing in a comical fashion. As Severus swept out of the staff room, he heard Slughorn’s voice behind him say, with a disquieting note of gravity, “Do take care of yourself, do.”
As the weeks wore on and the sky grew chill, his arm began to learn the rhythm of the hammer, and then to love it. Beyond the smithy walls there was so little within his control, but before the glow of the furnace his blades grew flatter, longer and ever stronger. He emptied his mind and lost his sleep, and as the blood burned like fury in his veins, he thought that this must be how a precious stone was made.
After a fruitless discussion with Draco, Severus returned to Slughorn’s party, where he nibbled a selection of pasties and Christmas pie in a dark, quiet corner. The haze was thickening - the elderly warlocks gathered in the centre of the study were evidently enjoying hashish with their tobacco - and the din of inane babble and raucous song scrabbled at his ears. He closed it all out and listened instead to the pulse of ringing metal deep inside himself. A similar beat of hypnotic impenetrability had echoed in the recesses of Draco’s mind, and Severus guessed that for all the boy’s foolish scheming, Draco was somehow forging a weapon that might work.
A hand grasped Severus’ forearm suddenly, where the Dark Mark lay beneath his sleeve, and he nearly dropped his plate. His reverie broken, Severus glared down at Slughorn, who fluttered at his elbow with an uncertain expression in his gooseberry eyes. Severus lowered his hammer arm - it had reached of its own accord for the new-made knife against his breast - and then he recalled that it was Christmas, and that Slughorn was his host. He proffered the blade upon an open hand instead and said, “For you.”
He was proud of the work - it was his sharpest yet, and his first effort at affixing a neat leather handle to the tang - and he was pleased to see Slughorn’s wide eyes bulge even more as he took the knife in his eager fingers. He tested the tip against one plump thumb, crowing with delight when it drew blood and sucking his thumb like a toddler. “But this is a princely gift, Severus! I haven’t seen work such as this in many a year, and it will be just the thing for processing my more sensitive ingredients.” His head tilted to one side as he gazed up at Severus with scarlet cheeks and Severus could see the fairies’ light dancing across his gleaming scalp; he must have mislaid his ludicrous hat. “I- well, I rather thought you were about to strike at me just then.”
“Not at all,” Severus dissembled, feeling somewhat embarrassed himself. The confrontation with Draco must have unsettled him more than he realised.
“These are nervous times for us all, but I-” Slughorn paused for a long moment as he stared into Severus’ eyes, and Severus lowered his shutters, showing nothing; he had already revealed too much. Slughorn proved it when he continued softly, “I daresay there’s more on your shoulders than most, my boy. Oh dear.”
“Teaching is always a heavy burden,” said Severus, keeping his tone noncommittal.
“Yes, yes, indeed!” replied Slughorn, nodding his head enthusiastically. “A burden. Well. I do sincerely hope you’re not having too dreadful a time of it. Er, at my party, I mean. Yes, at my party. I know you’ve always found such affairs a bit grim. Parties are rather like potions, I sometimes think, so tricky to get the constituents and their proportions just right, and one never knows when an explosion might take place. Take that Sanguini fellow, I don’t know what Eldred was thinking-” He stopped to draw breath, and then chuckled. “Pay me no mind. I suppose I’ve had a little too much to drink.”
“Not at all,” said Severus again, wishing himself far away.
“I have, dear boy, I have. In fact, I’m just pickled enough that I will be so bold as to point out the bewitching smutch of plum sauce at the corner of your mouth.” There was mischief in Slughorn’s eyes, and a greed that made Severus’ belly twist, and when Severus lifted a fist to knuckle at his mouth, Slughorn tapped his chest with the knife, a mock threat, and said, “Oh no you don’t, that’s mine. I saw it first.”
He took Severus by the shoulders and stretched up on tiptoe, and his face filled Severus’ vision, warm pudding and damp breath. “Wait-” Severus started, and then Slughorn’s lips brushed the edge of his mouth, stopping his voice and his lungs. His eyelashes struggled like moths against Slughorn’s skin, and when Slughorn’s tongue curled into the corner of his mouth he had to fight not to meet it, not to meet it with a fight.
Slughorn released him, bouncing back to ground with a cat-like lick of his own lips and a strangely hesitant smile. “You’re strong, Severus,” he said, and Severus came back to himself, tasting the resilience of his hard-tempered muscles, the way they had stood unswayed by Slughorn’s weight when even the hammer’s drum had faded from his awareness. “You’re strong, but you must be careful, as careful as you can be. Thank you so much for the gift.”
He tottered away on his dainty feet, back to his other, more amiable guests. Severus dropped his head back with a sigh, thinking to find a spray of mistletoe lurking above his head, but there no sign of the noxious weed, just Slughorn’s soft, exotically coloured hangings shielding Severus from view.
His skin felt the kiss long after he had scrubbed it from his face, and everything seemed to remind him of it, not least of all the sign over the Hog’s Head door. He stepped inside and Aberforth nodded him towards a table at the back, where Willy Widdershins sat nursing a pint and a sack of ill-gotten rubies. Willy was thoroughly Confunded and would hopefully retain little memory of his part in the caper, but Severus did some fiddling to be certain; luckily the brain was so much easier to browbeat than the flesh.
Slughorn’s parties appeared to have ceased, as Severus came to realise when he continued to trip over the man in the staff room, night after night. Slughorn seemed at loose ends without a bulging social calendar, and there was a look of the hunted in his eyes.
When a cache of dull papers from a genealogical institute in London arrived for Severus, he made one of the more irritating blunders of his life by retreating with it to the Hogwarts kitchen. He had made some solid allies there in recent times due to his neat way of patching a kettle, but Slughorn followed him down and promptly made himself at home, seducing the house-elves into fawning subservience with his culinary enthusiasms whilst Severus squinted at washed-out photocopies filled with execrable handwriting, trying to track down the particular family line he was after.
Slughorn offered to help, but Severus bundled his papers together in frustration and snarled at him to mind his own business. Slughorn sat down opposite him with a wistful expression, his belly almost bisected by the table edge, and Severus realised with loathing, as the air agitated about his ankles, that Slughorn was attempting to play footsie. One of the house-elves, Manky, who had an inordinate fondness for Severus and an ear for a brewing temper, served up a bowl of black sesame ice cream before leaving him in peace, and Severus shoved the papers to one side and started spooning the gritty grey delicacy between his lips.
“You used to adore that stuff when you were a boy,” said Slughorn thoughtfully, his increasingly glassy gaze fixed upon Severus’ mouth. “None of the other students would touch it with a ten foot broomstick. I always wondered if that was its appeal for you.”
“I don’t remember,” Severus muttered. It seemed like the sort of thing Black and his lot might have made fun of - Severus with his grey morals and his grey knickers and his grey ice cream - but the burst of subtle sweetness across his tongue recollected nothing but simple pleasure.
“No,” said Slughorn, looking troubled. His eyes dropped to the table surface. “No, of course you wouldn’t.”
After arguing bitterly with Dumbledore, Severus paced at the edge of the Forbidden Forest and considered the wisdom of approaching Draco again. Instinct told him that it would only put the boy’s back up and raise his defences ever higher, but keeping a close eye on him was not enough; Severus had only the two, and they were desperately overworked. Perhaps a leash…
He snorted in sour amusement. The idea had some merit, although it was perhaps not entirely in keeping with the spirit of his Vow.
Turning his back on the castle walls, Severus plunged into the forest. Some distance might clear his mind, or get him devoured by large spiders, and he was so bone-weary that he didn’t know which prospect appealed more. As the last of the sun’s glow faded between the tree trunks, he sent his Patronus ahead of him to light his way, and its strength astonished him as always with the undeniable, shining proof it provided: he wanted to live.
Severus walked on and on through the growing darkness until the doe was the only thing he could see. His always tensed muscles were ready to take him into the sky at any sign of danger, but nothing disturbed their passage until they reached the edge of one of the old bell pits, where a unicorn stepped from the shadows on delicate hooves to nose curiously at the doe.
Severus caught his breath. It was a small, male unicorn, its coat still tinged with gold and its horn little more than a nub. It had probably been born in the time since Quirrell’s distasteful little rampage and it was certainly too young to have learnt caution. It pawed at the doe, asking to play, and Severus rolled his eyes and sent his Patronus into flying curlicues around the unicorn’s pricked ears. The two sparkling figures leapt about together in merry circles, the unicorn’s soft cries yet betraying little evidence of the braying stridence of the fully grown adult, for which Severus was grateful.
When it became obvious that the unicorn might keep up its prancing antics indefinitely, Severus waved away his Patronus. “I don’t have the leisure to waste my time babysitting foolish creatures,” he said, when the unicorn regarded him reproachfully, “indeed I’ve more than enough of them to deal with back at the school. No, don’t give me that look, I am profoundly unmoved. Unless you have some relevant knowledge to share or perhaps an enormous ruby hidden beneath that pitiful stub you call a horn, I’ll be on my way.”
The unicorn approached him hesitantly, then rubbed its horn against the back of his hand. Severus sighed in defeat and gave it a scritch between the ears, then found himself kneeling before it and stroking the velvety horn in spite of himself. “This is how you nitwits get yourselves into strife, you know,” he muttered, as the unicorn shuddered all over in bliss. The horn’s texture was a balm against his blistered, calloused hands, and the unicorn’s head felt unspeakably fragile between his palms. “Too innocent, too damned stupid. But you’re quite safe from me. I doubt there’s even a brain in your skull much less the thing I’m after, and I still have some small care for my soul, despite what others might think of it.”
The unicorn wuffled its agreement in his ear, its small snout twitching in the strands of his hair before it nuzzled wetly at his cheek. “Yes, yes, you are repellent, aren’t you?” Severus said, grimacing through the unicorn’s giddy ecstasy of kisses. He raked his fingers through its swishing tail, collecting all the long, loose hairs even as the unicorn chewed on his own. “Stand still, would you, you silly nag? I might as well replenish my stores while I’m here, so the evening’s not a complete waste. And I know an old man who’s delighted to get his greedy mitts on anything special going.”
It was some time before Severus recalled his eleven o’clock appointment with the headmaster.
“I’m not very good in a crisis, you know,” Slughorn told Severus a few nights later, as they worked together in the Potions classroom, stirring at numerous simmering pots and cauldrons, large and small, filled with a variety of antidotes. The Weasley boy’s poisoning had prompted in Slughorn a shame-faced orgy of brewing; Severus, who guessed full well the origin of Slughorn’s tainted mead, had his own guilt to expiate. His thoughts were grim, and he had stopped listening to Slughorn’s incessant babble hours ago, until Slughorn whispered, “I- I’m not brave like you.”
Severus gritted his teeth, annoyed by the transparent appeal for comfort. “Then try harder,” he snarled, wondering what in Merlin’s name he was doing there, stirring unicorn hair into a Mandrake Draught, in the unlikely event of a basilisk attack.
Slughorn was standing at the basin in the corner, washing his hands under the gargoyle, and Severus could not see his face. “I don’t think it’s a matter of trying. I think it’s just something a fellow’s got in him, or not. If one doesn’t have it, then there’s not a particle of use in trying. Won’t get anywhere trying.”
“Won’t get into trouble, you mean,” Severus retorted, immediately wishing he’d bitten his tongue. He moved to another cauldron, tossed in a handful of pickled Murtlap tentacles, then joined Slughorn at the basin.
“Your hands are looking a little better,” observed Slughorn quietly. “Every time I see these poor hands lately, the treatment you’ve been subjecting them to, I want to rub some care into them. And if I notice, someone else will. I don’t want anyone else to notice you.” He took one of Severus’ hands between his own, running wet fingers about the palm until Severus’ own fingers curled into the touch and his breath shivered out.
It was a beautiful, clear April night. From the top of the Astronomy Tower, Severus saw Dumbledore return to the castle; even the Bloody Baron stopped his clanking momentarily to peer over the ramparts. “What are you up to, Dumbledore?” whispered Severus, and the Bloody Baron moaned an incoherent conjecture that was no more helpful than his dim memories of Ragnuk the First, before floating off to discover more information.
Severus had reached a dead end. The blade was ready, a stupendous monument to Godric Gryffindor’s inadequacy issues, and the hilt was a work of art, a bejewelled glorification of bloodshed. Severus had ground and filed, polished and charmed and occasionally cheated, and it was no cheap gimcrackery, but a weapon to be proud of. But the sword remained hollow; the mystic ruby eluded him, and the fanciful detail work on the hilt that had tested his scratchy eyes and cramping fingers for too many sleepless nights remained incomplete. So faithful was his craftsmanship that the sword, like its progenitor, drooped heavily in its bearer’s grip without its exotic counterbalance. He stared up at the stars, wondering whether the perfect stone might fall at his feet if he only waited there long enough. There was a quiet but rebellious wish deep inside himself that the stone should never come to him; the forging of this deceit was tempering him in its turn, but the sword’s completion would only bring forward its use, his use, and he did not think he could ever be fit for the troubles to come.
Severus finally turned his attention from the skies back to the Hogwarts grounds, his shoulders heavy. From this height it looked like there was something peculiar going on at Hagrid’s hut, and doubtless Potter was involved. The Bell girl was returning to school at last, which meant that the student body was just about due for some fresh mishap; Severus swept down the spiral staircase and moved swiftly through the castle, hoping he might be able to head that mishap off.
There was no sign of Potter at Hagrid’s, however, just two great sodden, snoring lumps and the most useless watchdog in Britain. “Wake up, you old fool, you’ve got classes in the morning,” said Severus, kicking at the legs of Slughorn’s chair.
“Is that you, Odo?” Slughorn mumbled, his eyes opening for a moment only to roll back into his head.
“Terrible thing, terrible,” sighed Hagrid, as his lolling head knocked a candle into his hair.
“That’s the most intelligent remark I’ve ever heard from your lips,” said Severus, blowing the candle out after a brief struggle with himself. He conjured an enormous stretcher and shoved Slughorn with difficulty into it, then floated him back to the castle, leaving Hagrid in Fang’s tender care.
“What’s your password?” Severus barked, poking Slughorn with his wand when they reached his rooms.
“Felix Felicus,” Slughorn moaned. “My dear, oh dear. Be gentle with a tired old man.”
The door opened obligingly, and Severus waved the stretcher inside until he found Slughorn’s sumptuous bed, which whumped in agony beneath Slughorn’s bulk when Severus whisked the stretcher out of existence. Severus, looking down at Slughorn’s florid face, realised that he’d been crying. “Stay awake,” he said. “Where do you keep your hangover potion?”
“Bathroom,” whispered Slughorn. “Cabinet by the toilet. No, wait. Third shampoo bottle from the left on the soap tray in the shower recess.”
“You don’t even have any hair, you great menace,” said Severus, as he stalked into the bathroom. Sniffing all the bottles cautiously, he discovered firewhisky in the third bottle and a hangover potion in the fifth. He poured out a glass of the latter and held it to Slughorn’s mouth. “Nice try.”
Slughorn swallowed most of potion, dribbling just a little into his moustache, and looked almost immediately better for it. Severus pulled out his handkerchief to dab at Slughorn’s lips; Slughorn took it from him to use on himself as tears began to scuttle down his face. “You’re a good boy, Severus.”
“You’re drunk, Horace,” said Severus.
Slughorn sucked in a shuddering gasp and held a hand to his heaving chest. Severus wondered in alarm whether a heart attack was imminent, but Slughorn’s breathing soon slowed, and he sat up and blew his nose with a great honk. “You’re a good boy, Severus, you are, and I’m just a foolish old man, a coward. If you knew what I’d done-”
“Believe me when I tell you that you can hold no monopoly on stupid behaviour.”
“But I have to tell you-”
“I’m not your confessor. Be calm.”
Slughorn stared up at him, then took him by the hand, tugging him down, awkwardly, onto the bed. Slughorn’s hand was sweaty, too intimate, but Severus felt almost accustomed by now, tamed by its very strangeness, and he did not pull away. “Severus?” Slughorn said quietly, calm as Severus bid him, and so close, too close. “Would it be particularly stupid of me to ask for a kiss?”
Severus brought Slughorn’s warm fist to his mouth, kissing the back of his hand where brittle bone lay somewhere like memory beneath soft plump skin, too far away to cause hurt. He smelled like leafy plants picked at twilight and alcohol, and Acromantula venom and dog, familiar scents all, just as Slughorn was somehow familiar. Severus turned the hand over, pressing his mouth against the salty, yielding pads of Slughorn’s palm and sinking his teeth into the web between thumb and forefinger.
Slughorn gave a little choked-off yelp at the bite of teeth. “That’s- oh dear, but that’s just what you did after I first asked you that question.” Severus opened his eyes and saw the sadness in Slughorn’s as Slughorn nodded and sighed, his body a tremor to shake the bed. “Yes, I did, and yes, you did, but that was all, I promise you that much, because I may be a coward but I hope that I’m not a bad man, not truly, and it is long done now, and forgotten, forgotten, except I can never seem to forget anything at all that I wish to and I rather wish you could remember now because really, it can get so very lonely-”
“Be quiet,” said Severus, placing a hand across Slughorn’s mouth. He waited a minute, and then two, as their breathing calmed, and then he said, “Try again.”
“Didn’t we establish between ourselves that trying does a coward no good?” asked Slughorn, licking his lips and watching Severus helplessly. “I don’t even know why, because you’ve never been a comfortable sort of person, never - all iron will and prickly skin - but it is what it is. And- and I would do my best by you, if I could, except that I don’t really know if you need or want anyone at all. I know you hate to be touched, can’t bear it really, and I think you were like that long before ever I came along, at least I hope you were, not that I would wish that upon-”
“No,” interrupted Severus, covering Slughorn’s mouth again. “No, I like to be touched too much, but no one touches me. I know what it is when years go by, a lifetime, and a stranger’s brushing arm is a shock to stop time, a brand that lasts forever. Don’t say I can’t bear it.” Slughorn’s insinuation about the past, and the memory he’d clearly modified, disturbed Severus less than this belief in his own lack. “I can bear it, but I don’t know how.”
“Oh!” cried Slughorn, his eyes liquid as Severus dropped his hand again. “Oh dear, but - if that is the case, then just come to my bed, please. I want you. I- I have a great care for you, and it just doesn’t seem to go away, I don’t know why, so why don’t you just lie down with me and we’ll muddle along together?”
“I dislike muddles,” muttered Severus, feeling the shadow of too many missteps creep over him, and the things left undone because of it. “I like to get things right.”
“Well, I know that,” said Slughorn, as if Severus were a dimwit, “but even I know that it’s a damned silly way to waste your life. And you’ll be so safe and cosy here with me, I promise.”
Severus watched as Slughorn wriggled upon the bed, throwing off his clothes to reveal vast rolls of skin, imperfect, inviting skin with a boil here and a wrinkle there and delicious dimples everywhere that Severus found that he wanted to touch, very badly and very well, touch with his fingers and his lips, his teeth and his cock. His skin on Slughorn’s, and nothing in between, because he wasn’t a coward and Slughorn was not a bad man.
So he removed his own layers, struggled beneath the covers, and conformed his body to another as best he could, and the shock of it was much like the smash of his hammer against hot metal, enough to rattle the flesh from his bones and every thought from his head, and still he was safe, and strong.
Except nowhere was truly safe, after all, particularly in a life so strewn with missteps that they tripped him, again and again. As he stood in the hospital wing in his blood-stained robes, he kept a close eye on Draco’s chalk-white face and knew it would never be close enough.
He stormed downstairs to his rooms only to find Slughorn there, and he was surprised at how pleased he felt, how stupidly grateful he was to step into someone’s arms and be held, no matter how vulnerable it made him.
When he dragged his face from the warm crook of Slughorn’s neck, he saw that Slughorn’s face was ashen, sicker by far than Draco’s, and that there was blood on his robes to rival the mess of Severus’ clothes. Severus took him by the shoulders and said, “What happened?”
“Oh dear, Severus, it’s nothing, truly, just a scratch and the dittany works wonders, oh, how embarrassing, I meant to be done before you got back, just a secret, a little present that I wanted you to have-”
“What happened?” Severus repeated. He had to force himself not to let his grip tighten, had to force himself to let go.
“Well, I- I meant to slip a little something under your pillow, just as a surprise, you know, I don’t know why, except that I don’t really need it and I think you want it, or at least you would if you knew I had it. I know how you like to get things right.” Slughorn reached into his robe, one of the absurd smoking jackets that he favoured, and pulled out a hard, round object, smeared with blood, that he tucked into Severus’ hand. “I meant to clean it up, but I came over rather woozy. Not really a one-man job, I’m afraid, but you see I’m supposed to pass it on to my son or daughter, which, ha ha! Well, yes, in the general run of things my ancestors would have dutiful offspring at the ready in case of a fainting spell, but now there’s just me, and you, and I don’t mean to suggest that I have fatherly feelings or whatnot, because really-”
Severus’ hand tightened around Slughorn’s gift, and whilst Slughorn gasped for breath he asked quietly, “Horace, what’s in your other pocket?”
“Oh! That?” Slughorn patted his robes in a disingenuous fashion before quailing beneath Severus’ glare and drawing forth a bloody knife, Severus’ knife, from his pocket. “Severus, it’s nothing to be cross about, truly. Just an old family tradition, and it might as well come to end now, since there certainly won’t be any Slughorns after me. No one even remembers how it came into the family in the first place; the only thing my father knew was that it came from some distant Muggle on the distaff side and got duly swept under the rug, or under the skin as it were, since that’s how it’s supposed to work, on people at least, you wear it under the skin, on the left near your heart, and it confers a certain, well, invulnerability, although I’m not certain how much I believe-”
“Stop,” Severus ordered grimly. He pushed the jacket open and ran a hand under Slughorn’s left breast, where his skin was so warm and damp, so welcoming, and found the slick of dittany and the beginnings of a scar. “I thought that was a boil.”
Slughorn blushed, his complexion finally returning to something like normal. “Well, it was, in a way. And I’ve lanced it now. Oh, my dear.”
There would be trying times ahead. After Dumbledore’s fall from the Astronomy Tower, Horace gathered with the others in the Headmistress’ office. His gaze fell upon the sword of Gryffindor, gleaming and perfect in its glass case, and he felt a familiar clutch at his chest.
He thought it was Hagrid who might have told him once that Dumbledore trusted Severus to the hilt, and Horace knew well where his own heart lay.