Part One: America
In later years, the one thing I will remember most clearly about the night it all began was the snow.
The storm--the first of the winter--starts during my last lecture of the day, an evening seminar on Bonaventure, Aquinas and medieval Scholasticism, and by the time I force off the last wretch begging for a reprieve on his next essay, the entire university is coated in blanket of white several inches thick. I stop on the steps and light a cigarette.
As a child in Lancashire, I thought fresh-fallen snow at night to be almost otherworldly. Each patch of smooth, glittering white flooded by a streetlight was a Narnian realm of magic. The crisp sting of the cold against one's skin. The curious silence that hangs heavy in the air, as if the entire world had chosen this moment to, like a damned fool, hold its breath.
"Beautiful, isn't it?" A man moves from the shadows, his blond hair gleaming in moonlight. Snow crusts his black overcoat; he steadies himself with a silver-headed cane. His voice has the familiar clipped cadence of Britain. I feel a momentary pang of homesickness. Even after all these years, I've yet to become accustomed to America.
"One might say, if one were inclined to be maudlin." I look out across the near-silent landscape. The Gothic-spired tower of Gasson Hall pierces a heavy, dark sky--tinted orange by the lights of Boston suburbia--almost as if it is responsible for the sudden rupture of clouds that sends white flakes twisting in the wind. "Pity it will all be muddied slush within a day."
My companion says nothing, just smiles, a tight, curious curve of thin lips. I lift my cigarette again and inhale. Filthy habit, I am quite aware, and one I picked up in my early seminary years. Nothing is more conducive to a nicotine addiction than theological debate. With a flick of my thumb tobacco and paper ash drifts down to the wet stone steps. I can hear the rumble of the T down Commonwealth Avenue, the bright clang of the doors opening and the carefully modulated male voice informing riders they had reached Boston College, last stop.
I shift my satchel, dropping my half-smoked cigarette to the ground and grinding it out with my heel as I tug on my gloves. By my calculations, I have approximately five minutes before the outbound train will become inbound again. Just enough time to walk to what passes for a station. I don't bother to excuse myself.
The man stops me. "Severus."
I look back, a frown furrowing my brow. I'm quite certain I've no idea who he was.
His long black coat sweeps snow from the steps as he descends, almost regal in his movement. He holds his hand out; without thought I extend mine.
Something heavy and round thuds into my palm; my hand jerks down slightly at the weight. My fingers curl around it. It is warm through the knit of my gloves.
"A gift from a friend," the man says, and I open my hand. Gold glints up at me.
"What--" I break off, looking up.
The man is gone.
"Bloody nutter," I snap and I drop the coin in my pocket and head for the train.
By the time I'm home, he's forgotten.
From my birth I was destined for the Church. My earliest memories are of the quiet liturgy of the Mass, the scent of incense heavy in the air. Mother was adamant about that. On my baptism she gave me to Saint Casmir, promised him my devotion for his protection. She scrimped and saved to make certain I was educated by Jesuits, hiding as much as she could from her paycheques from my father and begging scholarships from Stonyhurst on my behalf. And the day I was accepted to seminary was the first time I ever saw her cry.
The Church is your hope, Severus, she said to me, fingers tight on my shoulder. Her dark eyes looked past me, almost as if she were frightened.
Of what I have never determined.
Yet it is to my mother's credit (or at least to the credit of her determined obstinacy) that, on a bitterly cold Saturday afternoon so many years later, I sit on the snowy steps of Saint Ignatius of Loyola, cigarette in one hand, missal in the other, watching as a few students hurry across the street from the T stop, heading back to the warmth of their halls. The fringe of my black and grey striped scarf flutters in a brisk breeze; the curl of smoke from the orange-black tip of my cigarette drifts into the grey sky.
It is half-two already and if Ferris doesn't bloody hurry up I'll once again be late to Vigil. I'll be damned if I intend to drag my arse out of bed at some godforsaken hour tomorrow to make up for it.
I blow out a thin stream of smoke, rolling the cigarette between my fingertips. The wind catches my hair, flicking it against my cheek, into my eyes. I brush it back, annoyed, and grind the cigarette into the bare earth of the stone planter next to the steps. Butts stick up from the dirt, a small forest of abandoned nicotine. The door opens and shuts behind me and the musty, heavy scent of the church rushes out.
"Severus." Teeth bright through his red beard, Ferris smiles down at me--or Father John as he prefers to be called. I have no use for preferences.
"Ferris." I push myself up from the steps and tuck my missal in my coat pocket. "You're late."
"I was hearing confession," he says calmly and I glare at him.
"Walk," I snap, and we fall into step along the curving sidewalk leading between the Corcoran Commons and a group of residence halls.
Ferris waits silently for me to speak first, his hands clasped behind his back, his black coat slapping against his calves as he walks quickly to keep up with my long strides. He's a lifelong Bostonian, bred in Southie, as he calls it, his voice tinged with just the faintest Irish lilt to the thick American accent.
The damned city is awash in ex-pats from the Isles and Ireland.
I light another cigarette and offer him one. He shakes his head. The cellophane crackles as I shove the pack back in my pocket and exhale. I cross myself quickly, fingers pressing to forehead, chest, left shoulder, right without thought. "Bless me Father," I say at last, "for I have sinned. As you're quite aware it's been seven days since my last confession."
"I'm fairly certain," Ferris says dryly, "that we can skip over the usual? Denigration of students' intelligence and threats of bodily harm, thoughts of homicide against Father DiSalvio--"
"And Brother Hutchens." The cigarette smoke is bitter against my tongue. I breathe out a puff. "And Father Monan. And Professors Fleming, Cronin and Northrup."
Ferris hides a smile. "An active week."
"Staff meeting." I tap the cigarette against my finger. Ash flakes away.
"I see." Ferris sidesteps a girl weighed down with a heavy backpack. She gives me a terrified look; I think perhaps I recognise her from a class last term on the rise of Communism. I bare my teeth and she scampers off, eyes wide. Ferris snorts. "Don't torment the undergraduates, Severus."
We stop on a street corner. "Add that to my list." The cigarette flares orange as I inhale again.
I hesitate, then flick my cigarette away. "Unchaste thoughts." I don't look at him.
Ferris doesn't speak for a moment. When he does, his voice is gentle. "Not any better?"
"In the four years you've been my confessor," I say tightly, "has it ever been?"
"You're not the only one to struggle with this--"
"Oh, for fuck's sake," I snap. Ferris doesn't flinch at the vulgarity. "After twenty years, I'm quite aware that I'm not the only poof in the diocese." My mouth tightens. It's my cross to bear, I've been taught. God's test for my soul, the desires that wake me at night, that threaten to consume me. That wear on what little faith remains to me. It's become empty, all of this. Meaningless words and hollow ritual performed for a Church that insists on my subjugation. My mouth twists bitterly to one side.
"There are those in the Church," Ferris says slowly, not looking at me, "who have a different interpretation of Aquinas's arguments in relation to homosexuality."
I snort. "You bloody liberal Jesuits." Ferris chuckles, and I shake my head and pull the pack of cigarettes out of my pocket again. My hand trembles as I light another. "I've read the Summa more than once, Ferris. Sexual activity is primarily meant for procreation, the unifying of the married couple and pleasure." I gesture wildly, scattering tobacco ashes into the chill breeze. "Whatever the state of Massachusetts decreed last year, in the Church's eyes marriage between two men or two women is morally impossible, and I'm quite certain I needn't point out the absurdity of procreation in this instance. Much as we may wish it different, consummated homosexuality meets only one criteria of natural law, enjoyable as it may be. Ergo, sin."
My throat tightens.
"There is Pius XI's ruling on the sanctity of sexual relations between infertile couples." The wind whips through Ferris's ginger hair, standing it on end. "And Paul VI's acknowledgment in Humanae Vitae that not every sexual act in marriage need be for procreative purposes. Both of which, one might argue, could be extrapolated further to apply to homosexuality."
I take a long drag off my cigarette and exhale slowly. "You're a damned awful confessor. The Holy Father would be horrified."
"Perhaps." Ferris laughs softly, then casts a sideways glance my way. "And Robert Wood argues that it could be God's natural plan for population control."
"Robert-bloody-Wood," I snap, "has the great misfortune not to be Catholic."
Ferris tilts his head. "True. Nevertheless, it is an intriguing argument."
"An argument that you know as well as I is merely an exercise in futile what-ifs."
"John McNeill's interpretation of the Scriptures," Ferris begins.
I cut him off. "And the Vatican expelled him from the Society of Jesus after almost forty years for the heresy of daring to minister to homosexuals. You'd best watch yourself." I cross my arms over my chest and smooth my thumb over the crisp paper of my cigarette before lifting it to my mouth again. The calming nicotine is a relief. "In any matter, you know as well as I do that at this moment in time, the essence of my being is, to my Church, a sin." I push my hair back out of my eyes in annoyance. "If I should choose to indulge it, at least."
Ferris hesitates. "Have you--"
I stare into a drift of snow. Black dirt stains one end, wetly grey. "I remain physically chaste, never fear. In any case, all discussion is pointless since I've already vowed celibacy."
After a moment, Ferris touches my arm. "Severus. Perhaps it would be easier if you took your final vows. There's support in a community--"
"You've been a candidate for almost two years now." Ferris pulls his coat tighter and shivers as the wind twists around the building in front of us. "You've finished your dissertation and DiSalvio's been asking me since your tertianship ended if you've any intention of taking on the priesthood."
"I said no." I turn then and look at him. His eyes behind his spectacles are kind and that infuriates me. I do not wish for his pity. "Not at the moment. It's enough that I'm a deacon--and even at that I am not certain what I believe any longer, John." My stomach twists. "I am not taking holy orders with these doubts. Unlike others, I have more respect for the Church than to make such a lie. If I make those vows, I will keep them. But I have to be sure of myself before I can."
I look away. Fifteen years I have been in seminary and preparation for the priesthood. It is all I've known. All I've expected. I fear I have lost it. "I am sorry," I say finally, "for these and all the sins of my past life."
A moment's silence and then Ferris says quietly, "Stations of the Cross for the next week." I look away, my throat aching. Ferris twists his hands together; his fingers pull at the cuffs of his gloves. "It will get better, Severus. He doesn't put on you more than you can bear."
Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani, I murmur, and Ferris rests his hand on my shoulder.
Desolation sweeps over me as we turn back towards the church and Vigil, my prayer of contrition disappearing into the wind.
Ancient rowhouses and dingy Victorians fill the streets behind Packard's Corner. A wasteland, in my opinion, packed with students drawn by the proximity of two universities on this particular branch of the Green Line. It is also my home.
In the first floor of a near-dilapidated bay-windowed Victorian I find a certain modicum of peace, hidden away from the street. Mine is a sunny flat, large and comfortably worn and filled with leather chairs and heavy walnut bookcases stuffed with books and journals. A stained glass window in the lounge looks out onto the sloping back garden, tarped beds covered with snow and waiting for spring and new plantings to be tended. I consider myself an amateur horticulturist and homeopath; I would much rather tend to my own illnesses than allow some half-educated quack to poke and prod at me. I do have standards, after all, and given that I am rarely laid low by the myriad coughs and colds and viruses that my idiot colleagues suffer through the winter months, I am damned certain I've made the wiser choice.
The upper four flats are rented by five graduate students and one professor. Three of the students are studying humanities at Boston University; two are seminary students from Boston College. Of the entirety of Boston's idiotic student population, they cause the least damage and destruction, and there is the added benefit that at least half of the wretches are utterly terrified of me, guaranteeing me quiet and solitude.
The professor, however, is a gin-tippling artist who insists I call her Sybil and has spent the past two years attempting to coerce me into allowing her to paint me in the nude.
Bloody mad heifer.
I slide an omelette out of the frying pan and onto a plate. The bright yellow of the eggs stands out against the glazed blue willow. A few rashers on the side and a steaming cup of ginger tisane, and I sit, fork in hand, reaching for Nouzille's tome on Aelred of Rievaulx's De spirituali amicitia. Another two chapters and I will be free to write the scathing review of Nouzille's inane doctrinal suppositions and utterly horrific Latin translation that I've been composing in my head for the past three hundred and thirty-six pages. The glimmer of gold beneath my abandoned gloves stops me, however, and before I reconsider, my fingers curl instead around the still-warm coin.
Upon closer examination, I realise the coin is actually an amulet; a small broken circle at the top was obviously meant for a cord. The piece is old, significantly so. Not that it couldn't be an adept forgery, of course. My academic field has been rife with those throughout the ages, courtesy of some of our more unscrupulous medieval relic dealers. I settle my spectacles--seldom used for more than reading in the privacy of my own home--on the bridge of my nose and peer over the rims. I've seen this design before, somewhere, I'm certain
I drag my thumb over the engraved serpent on the front--an ouroboros of sorts, stained with age. A symbol used by numerous groups throughout the years, from pagans to heretics to alchemists to the Church herself. A symbol of cyclicality, of self-renewal, of rebirth, of eternal return.
As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.
Rough-smooth carving catches on my callused skin. Severus. The tongue flickers--a frisson of something twists through me, a strange sense of familiarity that thrums in rhythm with my blood.
Until a blistering pain rips through my left arm, as if immersed in fire.
I swear and drop the amulet. It clatters against the slick Formica of the table and rolls a few inches away. I can almost believe the blackened serpent moves, coiling itself once more across the gold.
My arm aches still and I push up my sleeve. For as long as I can recall I have had a faint birthmark on my left forearm that, in my more fanciful years, I believed resembled a skull. My mother had one as well; she'd told me it is was a family trait. The mark has always been barely noticeable, a pale flush of pink on my sallow skin. Now, however, it is red, swollen.
Almost as if it has been seared into my flesh.
My hand trembles slightly; I close my fist, and the skin around the burn tightens and pulls. For the briefest moment I could swear the coils of a serpent slide through the reddened birthmark, white and smooth.
I must be going mad.
The amulet gleams up at me; I throw my book over it with a shudder.
I wake with a start.
The clock gleams red at me from the side table. Half-three almost. I run a hand over my face and sigh. The Nouzille falls to the floor with a thud. I push the covers back and lean over the side of the bed to pick it up.
And I see him.
Silver-blond hair blowing in the wind, skin pale in the moonlight. He tilts his head and smiles through the thick, wavy glass of the window. Rivulets of rain blur his features as he raises his cane.
By the time I'm out of bed, he's gone, lost in the torrent that pours down, washing away the drifts of snow.
I don't sleep the remainder of the night.
My arm burns.
The T rumbles down the centre of Commonwealth Avenue, horn blowing at cars foolish enough to cross the tracks against the lights.
I sit at a window, staring blankly out at the street; the traffic is bright splotches of colour against wet grey. I press my hand to my forearm, which hurts still. A reaction, I think. Some sort of allergy I haven't previously been aware of. My fingers trace the raised skin through the sleeves of my jumper and my coat.
The amulet, wrapped in a handkerchief, is heavy in my pocket; my palm brushes against it. It's warm through the thick wool and I pull my hand away slowly. Reluctantly.
The street blurs past.
The nave is near silent, save for the soft whispers of the students praying the rosary in the back pews. Requests for easing of youthful troubles, I'm certain: the angst of tormented love, the fear of a difficult examination, simple homesickness.
Pale, watery sunlight filters through the rose window above the altar. Limestone traces graceful circles and swags around the delicate glass representations of the Holy Trinity.
I move to the twelfth station, my missal clenched tight in my hand, fingers digging into its worn leather cover. The figures are carved into basswood, faint indentations of bodies coaxed from the smooth grain and framed reverently in gold leaf. Christ hangs from the cross, limp and broken, flanked on each side by a mourning disciple. Death. Emptiness.
I wish I could believe again. Wish the words, black against the pale cream page of my missal, resonated as they once had so many years past.
By the merits of Thy death, give me grace to die, embracing Thy feet and burning with love of Thee. I commit my soul into Thy hands.
Jaw tight, I pray the Our Father and a Hail Mary. I'm not certain I mean either.
Nothing makes sense any longer.
The amulet in the pocket of my jacket slaps heavy and hot against my hip as I shift. A odd flare of unease twists through me; my mouth thins. I am being ridiculous, I'm quite aware. Utterly. I turn the page in my missal and move on.
"Good Lord, lad, you look more dour today than usual." Horace waves me into his office; I close the door behind me. Stacks of books line his walls; the extras are piled on his desk and the floor. "I'd no idea that was possible."
I'm not entirely certain why I'm here, other than the fact that Horace with his tea and scones and the bars of Cadbury his sister sends from Liverpool which he keeps tucked away in the bottom drawer of his desk is welcome bit of home in the brash upheaval that is America. Two decades in this country and I've yet to become adjusted to it. Horace's arrival a few years back was, if I am to be forced to admit it, a godsend.
"Didn't sleep." I set my satchel next to a chair and drop down into it. It's large and overstuffed, dwarfing even my long legs. Horace does like his creature comforts.
"Pity. Did you try that lavender and chamomile infusion I recommended?" He pours water from the electric kettle on his hutch into a teacup. "Earl Grey or Darjeeling?"
"Yes. It was utterly useless. And Earl Grey, if you will."
Horace chuckles. "You're a creature of habit, Severus." He hands me the teacup. I swirl the Twinnings bag in the water, watching it turn dark brown. Bergamot wafts up in the thick steam and I feel my body relax. "I'd offer sugar," he says, "but you've yet to accept it."
I snort. Four years of weekly tea and he should know by now I prefer it bitter and strong. Horace smiles and takes his seat, smoothing his moustache. He folds his hands over his ample stomach and sighs. "Have you heard about young Reilly?" he asks and I hmm into my teacup. Horace is a font of gossip for the history department, yet another reason I do not object to our teas. My field straddles both theology and history. Keeping track of the convoluted politics for both departments is impossible without assistance. "Terrible thing. Terrible. One does wonder, of course."
I set my teacup in its saucer. "About?" I search my memory for a Reilly. It takes a moment before I place him. Doctoral student in my course on the Church in Modern Europe. Quiet and unassuming. Adequate student, nothing spectacular.
Horace swells a bit, as he always does when he's the source of new information. I say nothing; it gives him a sense of importance. "Reilly, my dear boy, was found dead this morning in his flat. Obviously some sort of foul play." He lowers his voice and leans forward. "Total confidence, of course, but I just happened to discuss the matter with one of the students I know lives in the same building and he claims that he overhead the detectives claiming that drugs may have been involved."
I frown. "Ridiculous."
"Perhaps." Horace settles back in his chair, burrowing into the leather. He looks oddly like a well-fed bug. His moustache trembles; his eyes are bright. "Two needle marks on his neck, though, they say. Neatly placed. Very curious. Obviously he was involved with something not on the up and up."
I suppose I should feel sympathy for the boy. I don't. I barely remember him. Still I grunt and take a sip of tea. I look out the window. It's still raining. Much of the snow has melted, save for the high berns, shoveled and plowed. Students run across the Quadrangle under a flurry of colourful umbrellas.
At my silence, Horace frowns. He steeples his fingers and presses them to his mouth. "Was there a reason you stopped by, Severus? Other than tea? Usually I don't see you until midweek at the earliest."
"No," I say and then I catch myself. With a sigh, I reach into my pocket and pull out the amulet, setting it on Horace's desk and unwrapping it. "Have you ever seen anything like this?"
Horace tugs it closer, squinting into the fabric, then jerks back, face pale. "Where did you get this?"
"It was given to me Friday evening." I watch him closely. "You know what it is."
A moment of hesitation, then Horace shakes his head. "No."
He's lying. I can tell. He won't look at me; his hand shakes as he wraps the amulet back in the handkerchief and pushes it across the desk to me. "Horace," I say and his mouth tightens.
"Really, Severus, I'm terribly sorry, lad, but I've a student coming by shortly and, well, you know how you dodisturb them--"
Within moments he has me out of his office, standing in the hall, the door closed firmly behind me.
"Horace," I shout and pound on his door. He doesn't answer. A student walks past, looking at me curiously until I glare at her. She flushes and hurries down the hall. "Horace!"
I wait in the hallway for an hour, watching for the apocryphal student. He never shows. When the bell rings, I sling my satchel over my shoulder with a scowl and stomp off towards the stairs that will take me to my next lecture.
I'll take my temper out on the dunderheads fool enough to enter my classroom.
God knows the imbeciles will deserve it anyway.
As a deacon, on Wednesday evenings I assist Ferris with Mass.
This service is always well-attended by the historical theology department, or at least those church history classes which I teach. DiSalvio insists upon all seminary professors encouraging our students to attend services, regardless of whether or not their primary field of study falls within the School of Theology and Ministry. In order to keep him from driving me mad--or worse yet, arriving at my office door unannounced, I make arrangements with my students. Bribery, I have found, is an excellent motivator. If the idiots attend Mass once a week for the entirety of the semester I will drop one mark of their choice--as long as I have confirmation of their presence at every service.
By the second day of classes, former students have warned them all and for the remainder of the term, my line at Eucharist is filled only by my classes; no one else wishes to receive Communion from my hand. Even the non-Catholics among my students attend, or most at least, filing by after service with muttered Professor Snapes in an attempt to make certain I note their attendance. In return I take great pleasure in discomfiting them with a blessing. Ferris laughs and informs me that I remind him of a feudal lord receiving recalcitrant vassals.
I rather like the analogy.
Only once have I been challenged by a student who objected to being forced to endure services. As I recall, my response was a tart I would strongly suggest you study for class then. The dean was not pleased; I did not give a damn.
I still do not. Being exposed to philosophies outside one's own sphere of thought is, after all, crucial to proper intellectual growth. Not that my imbecilic students would recognise that fact if it did the bloody can-can and slapped them in the face, of course.
I am halfway through the Gospel reading when I see him in the pews. Tall, thin, with a shock of messy black hair. James, I think, despite the impossibility, and my voice catches. Ferris gives me a sharp look across the altar before I continue.
"The Gospel of the Lord," I say, not looking towards the boy, and the congregation responds with a quiet praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ. I kiss the Book of the Gospels, whispering "Through the words of the Gospel may our sins be washed away" before I carry it back to the side table and take my seat next to Ferris.
He looks over at me, eyebrow raised as he stands. I shake my head and smooth my vestment over my thigh. The brocade is rough against my palm. As Ferris makes his way over to the ambo for the homily, I studiously avoid looking out into the pews.
James Potter. I haven't thought of him in years.
How I hated him at Stonyhurst College. Arrogant wretch adored by those idiot Jesuits. My b�te noire, the bane of my school existence. King of the rugby field. Perfect in his black suit and red tie proclaiming his status in Campion Line--a legacy from his father and his father's father. Bastard.
My green Shireburn tie still lies folded in a trunk in my bedroom.
I had far more brags than he at least. Top of my class, challenged only by my friend Lily.
To my chagrin, I lost her to him during sixth form. My own fault, of course. The angst of adolescence exploding into bitter fury. It is the one thing in my life I have regretted. The one that if I could go back and change I would.
For many years she was the only friend I'd ever had. I keep myself withdrawn from others, that I know full well. Only Ferris has come close to winnowing beneath my defences.
Ferris coughs softly from his place at the ambo and I realise it is time for the General Intercessions. I rise, avoiding his curious look.
The remainder of the service I perform on rote, mind lost in the past as my hands prepare the chalice and paten for Ferris's consecration; as I swing the censor over the altar; as I raise the chalice before the people, waiting for their amen; as Ferris places the Host on my tongue, lifts the Blood of Christ to my mouth.
I barely remember administering communion, the students passing by me, taking the Host from me by hand or tongue. And finally--finally--I find myself before the altar with Ferris, hands joined as we exhort the worshipers to go in the peace of Christ, then kiss the altar and bow. I gather the Book of the Gospels and, raising it, precede Ferris down the center aisle.
The dark-haired man who is not James sits silently in his pew, watching me as I pass by. I look away.
My left arm aches.
My mobile rings halfway home.
I fumble with it, lifting it to my ear as the T lurches down the tracks. "Snape," I say loudly, over the rumble-rattle-clack of wheels.
"Severus, lad," Horace wheezes into my ear. "I've left two messages already."
I lean back against the window. "Mass, Horace. Or have you forgotten it's Wednesday."
"Yes, yes." He sounds distracted. "Say, lad, might you stop by my office tomorrow afternoon? There's something I wish to speak to you about." I hesitate; Horace coughs. "I've not been entirely forthright with you," he says apologetically.
I snort. "Really."
"You needn't sound so peeved." Horace sighs. "I just--look, my dear boy, it's that amulet of yours. I've uncovered some information--"
"Which you already had."
There's a moment's silence and then Horace continues, more subdued. "I recognised the symbol, yes. And I've been in contact with a friend of mine who's much more of an expert on the matter--Albus Dumbledore, his name is, quite a lovely fellow, quite. But there are things I need to tell you, Severus. Things you should know. Say you'll stop by. Indulge an old man."
"My last lecture ends at half three," I say after a moment. "I'll stop by then."
"Excellent." Horace's relief is palpable across the cellular connection. "I shall have a cup of Earl Grey waiting." He hesitates. "And Severus? Do be careful, lad."
"Whyever--" I begin, but my mobile beeps in my ear, letting me know that my signal's been dropped. When I'm finally able to ring back, I'm immediately sent to voicemail. I click my mobile off and frown down at it. Bastard.
A touch of a fingertip and I bring up my Internet connection. It takes only a moment to enter the search into Google: Albus Dumbledore. The name sounds oddly familiar. The screen on my mobile fills with a list of links.
Modern technology is magic.
I'm up until after four, hunched over my laptop, still scouring cyberspace. The amount of material on this Dumbledore is incredible. Two doctorates from Oxford, one in history, one in folklore. A good eighty papers alone in various journals authored or co-authored under his name from the forties through the seventies. Several books. Most of them appear to have been the standard fare for academia. He specialised in the Crusades, and I vaguely recalled seeing his name in a footnote here and there during my studies.
After 1979, he stopped publishing. Retirement, perhaps, or so I thought until I stumble upon a horrific website of bright green lettering against a black, starry background. A midi of the Star Wars theme begins playing the moment the page loads. I slap my volume to mute and frown at my laptop screen.
My eyes widen.
Albus Dumbledore, it seems, lost his mind in 1980.
It was a presentation given at the European Studies Centre at St Antony's College, Oxford in which he focused on the Societas Draconistrarum.
The Order of the Dragon.
A political society, one I was quite familiar with. It was founded in 1408 at the behest of Sigismund of Hungary and his wife Barbara as an elite order for European nobility. Highly influential, it counted among its founding members Ladislaus II of Poland, Alfonso of Aragon and Naples, Henry V of England, Christopher III of Bavaria and Denmark, Duke Ernst of Austria. The leading Catholic royals of the day, bent upon turning back the threat of the Ottoman Empire from the East.
Its second group of inductees a quarter century later, however, included a name which within one generation would become synonymous with evil.
Vlad II Dracul, father of Vlad Tepes, soon to be known as Dracul's son.
From this, Dumbledore extrapolated before his peers and enemies that the Order of the Dragon was to become a haven for vampires.
He was laughed out of a job. A breakdown, his university claimed, trying to cover it up. Stress, overwork, the loss of his partner.
Vampires are a myth, nothing more. Peasant superstition, the remnants of ancient fears and generations of prejudice encouraged by some of the less scrupulous of my predecessors.
And yet I find myself discomfited as I close my laptop. Uneasy. I shake myself and stand. Horace has obviously gone round the bend himself if this is whom he has contacted. Ridiculous. Utterly.
An Order whose mark was a graceful winged serpent swallowing its tail. An ouroboros. Rebirth. Recreation.
It can't be. And yet I know it is.
A scrape of a tree branch across my window startles me and I jump. I almost think I see a pale face in the glass, and then it's gone.
My own reflection, I am certain.
Nevertheless, when I slide beneath my coverlet, I hesitate as I reach for the lamp switch. The amulet rests at its base, still wrapped in the handkerchief. My breath catches. I can hear the steady thud of my heartbeat echoing in my ears, a staccato thump-thump-thump. Want twists through me--for what I'm not certain, though I recognise its deep primal call. It pulls me, tugs me, draws me closer, calls to some dark, twisted place deep within my soul...
I jerk my hand away and sink back onto my pillows, shaking. My forearm throbs; the birthmark is swollen again, red and ugly and near-blistered. I close my eyes for a moment and swallow.
Something is wrong with me. I can feel it in my bones.
What fitful rest I manage is only with the light on.
When I wake to sunlight streaming through my windowpanes, I swear and roll out of bed. I've slept through office hours and my first class of the morning. My students will be delighted.
An hour and a half later I've dressed and taken the excruciatingly slow T ten stops down Commonwealth to campus. I barely make my one o'clock class.
It's there I hear the news.
The police have been called, the students whisper before class begins. It's the same as before. A serial killer, they're suspecting--
I look up from my desk. "What?" I ask sharply and they fall silent, looking between each other. "What?"
A girl three rows back raises her hand hesitantly. Longbottom, I believe her name is. Not exactly one of my brightest students. "Professor Slughorn, sir," she says slowly. She bites her bottom lip. "They found him in his office this morning--"
My ears buzz; I can't decipher what she's saying. I cut her off mid-sentence. "Out."
The lot of them gaze at me blankly.
"Out," I say again, and I stand. I'm grateful that I don't tremble. "Out, out, OUT!"
It takes them only a moment to comprehend, and they grab their satchels and backpacks and dash for the door.
I sit alone in the classroom for nearly twenty minutes, staring blankly at the wall across from me.
The third-floor hallway is corded off with bright yellow tape and crowded with people. I stop at the top of the stairwell. A photographer snaps photos from the doorway of Horace's office; a woman in jeans brushes past him, scribbling across a clipboard in her hand. She stops next to a man crouched over what looks like a toolbox and shows him what she's written. He nods and points towards a tall, broad-shouldered man in a suit leaning against the window at the end of the hall and speaking into a mobile.
There's a dark smear on the wall next to Horace's office, another on the floor outside.
A Boston police officer watches me idly for a moment before striding over, her thumbs caught in her belt loops. A shock of pink hair is twisted into a neat bun at the nape of her neck. "You can't enter."
"I'm on the college staff." I look over her shoulder. Even two steps below her, I'm still taller than she.
"Right," she says and she leans back. "Shacklebolt!"
The suited man looks over.
"Faculty," she says and he nods, pushing off the windowsill and tucking his mobile in his pocket as he walks towards us.
The girl falls back.
"Is your office on this floor?" he asks, with a faint tinge of West Indies in his voice, and I shake my head. It still hasn't sunk in.
"No. He was a friend."
Shacklebolt just grunts and dips his head. The lights above gleam warmly off his smooth, bald pate. "Your name?"
"Severus Snape." I look sharply at him as he writes it down. "I didn't kill him." I hesitate, glancing back at the office door. "I don't even know how he died." The word feels heavy and thick on my tongue. Bitter.
I keep hoping that it's not true. That someone will tell me it's an elaborate prank. A ruse of some sort.
Shacklebolt doesn't. "Was he on drugs of any sort?" he asks after a moment, studying me. "Anything that would require injections?"
"No." My voice cracks; I hate its betrayal. Damned fool--and I'm not certain if I refer to myself or Horace.
Or both of us.
"Two needle punctures on the side of his neck," Shacklebolt says. He still watches me; I close my eyes. "Looks like he hit an artery judging from the blood. We'll know about drugs after the results come back from the lab."
It can't be. It's impossible. I refuse to consider it.
His mobile trills and he steps away, answering it with a curt Shacklebolt. I turn down the stairs. I have to go. Have to get outside and breathe. Pretend that this isn't happening. None of it has occurred. I'll wake up in the morning and it will have all been a wretched nightmare.
A glint of metal in an alcove on the landing catches my eye. I bend closer, brow furrowed. A silver crucifix is caught on a baseboard; I pick it up. The beads slip familiarly into my palm. My birthmark aches again, and I grit my teeth.
I glance back up the stairs; Shacklebolt has his back to me. He moves out of my line of sight.
I'm halfway down the stairs before I uncurl my fingers. Nestled in my palm is a rosary...one I've seen many times before.
In Horace's hand.
I twist the beads around my fingers and continue down the steps.
The man from Mass is waiting for me when I leave the building. He leans against a lamp post, a lit cigarette dangling from his fingertips. He flicks ash off the end and nods when he sees me.
I stop on the steps, lighting a cigarette of my own; I tuck my lighter in my coat pocket. My fingers brush the wrapped amulet. "Who are you?" I ask bluntly and he smiles and pushes himself off the lamp post.
"Harry," he says and his voice has the clipped cadence of London. He drops the cigarette to the ground and stamps it out. "Harry Potter."
My mouth tightens at the name. I should be surprised. I'm curiously not. "James' brat, I assume."
Potter tilts his head to one side. "And Lily Evans'."
I hide my flinch well.
He studies me for a moment. "Father Snape, is it?"
"Professor." I blow a stream of smoke in his face. "I've not taken vows yet."
Potter nods. "Professor. There's a coffeeshop across the street. Would you like to join me?"
"Not particularly." I don't know what the bastard's up to, but I don't trust him. Not with that last name. "Why are you here? Surely it's not mere coincidence that's brought you across the pond to my campus." I look him up and down, taking in his scruffy trainers, the frayed hem of his jeans. He shoves his fists in the pocket of his overcoat and blinks at me from behind smudged glasses. "You're not Catholic, are you?"
"I'm not much of anything to be honest," Potter says lightly. He hesitates. "You went to school in Lancashire with my parents."
I say nothing; he shifts from foot to foot and sighs.
"I'd really like to talk to you in private." He looks around uneasily. "It'll be dark in an hour or two--"
"It's winter in Boston. That happens." I take a slow drag and exhale again. "What does that have to do with anything?"
Potter meets my gaze directly. "Everything." He licks his bottom lip and shifts again. "I know what killed Professor Slughorn. Now will you meet with me?"
My hand shakes as I lift the cigarette again, inhaling the nicotine deeply. Part of me screams to walk away. I can't. "Bollocks on the coffeeshop. I want actual food."
Potter follows me to the T.
Brown Sugar is a Thai restaurant just across from the Babcock T stop. Pimmada leads me to my usual spot deep within the long, narrow stretch of peach walls and teak and glass tables, tucked away behind a fringe of bright green foliage just outside the kitchen. She gives Potter a cursory curious glance before looking back at me. "Green tea?" she asks and I nod.
"Two pots." I don't give Potter a chance to answer. It's cold outside and the tea is excellent. "And spring rolls and na-tang to start."
She nods and leaves us with the menus--nearly a dozen pages of choices. I set mine aside. Unadventurously I order kow soi each time.
We're early for dinner; the restaurant is far quieter than it will be in an hour or two once it is filled with students and weary workers commuting from downtown who haven't the energy or desire to cook for themselves. I can hear the rattle and clink of dishes in the kitchen around the corner. It's oddly comforting.
Potter looks over the edge of his menu. I say nothing and instead lean back in my chair, waiting for him to begin. With a sigh he sets his menu down. "You don't make this easy, do you?"
"Is it supposed to be?"
Pimmada arrives with our small pewter pots of tea. I pour a cup and watch a few leaves settle at the bottom.
"My mother talked about you at times," Potter says after a moment. My stomach twists. "You were friends once."
I take a sip of tea. It's warm and pleasantly bitter against my tongue. "Not in the manner I'm certain you're thinking."
"No." He smiles faintly. "She always said you fancied my dad more than her that way."
I splutter, nearly choking on my tea. I wipe the back of my hand against my mouth. "Not amusing."
"That's just what Dad said." Potter's grin is easy and bright. It annoys me. Intensely.
We're silent for a moment, then I set my teacup down. "You speak of her in the past tense," I say quietly.
Potter looks away for a moment, pulling his menu to his chest. His fingers stroke small circles over the leather cover. "They both died a few years back. I was still in school."
Lily, I think and I smooth my palm over the polished wood of the tabletop. A pang of grief twists through me, sorrow for past mistakes. "My condolences," I hear myself say dully, as from a distance.
Potter just nods and swallows.
"How?" I ask before I can stop myself. I have to know.
He twists his water glass between his palms. Before he can answer Pimmada is back with spring rolls and nan-tang. I order my kow soi; Potter chooses drunken noodles. When she walks off, he leans forward. "They were killed by the same thing that murdered Professor Slughorn last night."
I dip a spring roll in turnip sauce and take a bite. It's spicy-sweet and filled with coriander. "And that would be?"
Potter waits for me to swallow. "A vampire," he says simply and I stare at him.
Potter meets my gaze directly. "Am I."
I look away. "There's no such thing--"
"His name is Lucius Malfoy," Potter says quietly. "He's tall with long blond hair and the kind of smarmy smirk that makes you just want to stab him on general principle. He carries a cane topped by a silver serpent."
My blood chills.
"You've seen him." Potter reaches for a spring roll. "Late at night."
"That means nothing," I protest. "You're expecting me to believe that I've been approached by some vampire--"
"We've been expecting it to happen for rather a while now," Potter says calmly and I stare at him in shock.
He nods. "The Order of the Phoenix."
I feel as if I'm caught in some horrifically written Hollywood tripe. Or worse yet, a damned Dan Brown novel teaming with entirely inaccurate secret orders and inane occult mysteries. I shake myself. Ridiculous. "I've no idea what you're talking about."
Potter runs his hand over his face. "Perhaps I should start from the very beginning."
"A very good place to start."
He peers at me through his fringe. "Did you really just quote Maria von Trapp at me?"
My face burns. I sip my tea and let my mouth curl into a sneer. "Don't be an idiot." In any case, technically it would Rodgers and Hammerstein, damn it.
Potter looks sceptical but he shrugs. "How much are you willing to believe?"
"I don't know until you tell me," I snap. I'm desperate for another cigarette.
"Have you heard of the Order of the Dragon?" Potter asks. Before I can answer he continues. "A political society formed in 1408--"
"By Sigismund of Hungary, yes, yes." I glare at him, shoulders stiff. "I am a theological historian, Potter, specialising in the Catholicisation of Eastern Europe. I am quite well acquainted with dear Siggy's Draconists."
Potter nods but doesn't bother apologising. I am not certain if I applaud his bollocks or resent them. "Well, let's just say in time they lost their primary focus."
"The vampiric connection your Dumbledore claims." At Potter's surprised look, I raise one shoulder in a half-shrug. "There is such a thing as Google these days."
"Wouldn't have thought it of you," Potter says and I frown at him. "But yeah. That connection."
I roll my eyes. "Made merely through Vlad Dracul's presence in the Order? A weak assumption based on ridiculous later literary claims." I push my hair behind my ear and rest my chin on my palm. I cannot believe I am even arguing this point. "Stoker's novel--brilliant as it may be--combined meagre historical facts with a multitude of folklore concerning vampiric traits. It is most certainly not an historical document."
"No. The novel isn't. Not entirely." Potter runs a thumb over the rim of his teacup. "But what it was based on..." He trails off.
My eyes narrow. "What the hell do you mean?"
Potter takes a sip of his tea. "The Order of the Phoenix was founded by Bram Stoker," he says after a moment. "My father's great-great grandfather. My grandmother was a Dobbs, and her grandfather was a Dobbs who married Anne, the daughter of Bram's son Noel."
"A fascinating genealogy," I say tightly. "Frankly, however, I do not give a bloody damn about your father's family tree."
"But I think you should." Potter leans forward, his elbows on the table. His eyes are wide and bright green. Just like his mother's. I look away. "Lucy Westerna was real, you see. As were Seward and the Harkers. They were friends of my great-great-great grandfather's. What he wrote...it was fiction, yes, but not entirely."
I stare at him. He's mad. Obviously. There's no other explanation.
"You have to believe me," Potter says softly, gaze fixed on me. "Your life depends upon it."
I snort and his brow draws together. "Overly melodramatic, Potter." I push my chair back. "This is ridiculous."
Potter catches my arm. "Fifteen minutes," he says. "Give me fifteen minutes to convince you, and if I haven't, you can walk out that door and I won't bother you any more."
I hesitate. If I had any damned sense at all I'd leave now. I know this. But the amulet is still in my pocket and the skin on my arm still burns and aches.
With a sigh I lean back in my chair. "Fifteen minutes, Potter. Begin."
"It actually began hundreds of years ago," Potter says, "but that's not really my story to tell. The only part I can speak of is my family's side of events, and that began over a hundred years past with my grandfather's great-grandfather."
A man born in 1847 in Dublin, Ireland, the third of seven children, and named Abraham.
The majority of his life was normal, dull even by some standards. An education at Trinity College in Dublin, followed by eight years in civil service, during which he worked as an unpaid theatre critic. The one surprising quirk in his life was, at the age of thirty-one, his abandonment of his staid civil service position in favour of a position as actor-manager for the Lyceum Theatre in London.
A wife, Florence, soon followed and a son, Noel, his only child.
And then, in the 1890s, Stoker joined a small group of occultists known as the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. His fellow members included men such as William Yeats, Aleister Crowley, and Arthur Waite. He had been curious about the folkloric aspects of the occult for some time, amassing a large collection of books and pamphlets and treatises on superstitions in Eastern Europe in particular in the hopes of writing a work of fiction.
"It was particularly his interest in vampires, you see," Potter says through a mouthful of spring roll, "that brought him to the notice of Florence Farr. They had theatre connections and she heard of his research and was fascinated by it. She convinced the others to let him join."
In their midst, he met a young woman who shared his fascination with the peasant tales of the undead.
Potter licks turnip sauce off his finger. "Her name was Lucy Westerna. She was beautiful and charming and bright for a woman--far more interesting than his wife Florence." He makes a face. "My great-great-great-grandda wasn't exactly the most, er, faithful--"
"He couldn't keep his trousers buttoned?" I ask dryly and Potter dips his head.
"Something along those lines, yeah." He sips his tea. "Later he said that she seduced him, not the other way about, but no one really quite believed him. But the shit of it for him was that he managed to get Lucy up the duff and her family wasn't best pleased, especially since the scandal would be worse if Bram divorced his wife for Lucy. So the Golden Dawn came to the rescue."
They closed ranks, keeping their secret, protecting them both from society's notice. A marriage was arranged quickly for Lucy with a French vicomte known to Crowley.
It was done quickly, with little pomp and even less circumstance. An elopement, it was whispered about town, how very romantic, and by the time her son Lucius was born seven months later, a new season had begun and Lucy Westerna was barely remembered, save by a few close friends.
Including one Mina Murray, soon to be Harker.
"Except," Potter says, "about two years after Lucy's marriage, Mina began to receive letters from her. Weird ones at first, ones that just made Mina a bit uneasy, right? But then the letters got more mad and more terrified. Lucy wrote about creatures that she called 'evil and dark' and she said they came to her every night so that she couldn't sleep." He looks up at me, his brows drawn together. He fingers the rim of his teacup. "She said they touched her, stroked her, pressed sharp teeth against her skin, and she was sure she was dying slowly. Her letters talk about being drained of life and about being afraid for her baby, and they scared Mina pretty damn badly."
Pimmada sets our food in front of us. Potter gives her a wide, friendly grin--rather like a buoyant Labrador, I think uncharitably--and a cheerful thanks, love and she blushes and smiles back at him. I glare at her. She rolls her eyes and leaves us be.
Potter picks up his chopsticks. "Mina went to the Golden Dawn for help and was turned away. It was the fevered imaginations of a woman, she was told. They said that Lucy was just unhappy in her marriage, hadn't settled yet into her role as mother, but they were certain the life she had been dropped into would be best for her."
"And Mina, I am assuming, objected." It annoys me that I've become engrossed in Potter's ridiculous tale.
"Yeah." Potter spears a piece of chicken. "She didn't like it to say the least. So she went to people she knew actually gave a damn about Lucy--and about her. Her husband Jonathan, a doctor named Seward, an American named Morris, and Stoker. They set a plan into motion to bring Lucy and her son back to England."
I drag my chopsticks through my noodles. "And?"
Potter hesitates; I look up at him. "They were too late." He rubs his thumb over his knuckle. Flecks of sauce drip from his chopsticks onto the table. "By the time they'd arrived, Lucy had been buried, and Malfoy refused to release her son. Even to his rightful father."
I stare at Potter. The bells on the door jangle brightly as students enter, loud and laughing. "That's not how the novel went."
"Do you really think he was about to tell the entire truth?" Potter asks calmly and he takes a bite of noodle. Pimmada has brought our food during his tale. "I've access to journal accounts and sworn affidavits from all of them. Bram just used the actuality to write the fiction." He furrows his brow and twists his chopsticks between his fingers. "It was his way of remembering her. And their son, in a way." He hesitates. "He named Abraham Van Helsing after himself."
I lean back in my chair and run my hand over my face. "This is mad." I hesitate. I cannot believe I am about to ask this. I grit my teeth. "Was she�" I sigh. "Turned?"
Potter nods. "According to Bram's diaries." He rubs his thumb over his bottom lip. "They killed her. A stake through the heart and Bram cut off her head. It wasn't pleasant for him."
"I can imagine," I find myself saying. Bloody hell. I do not believe this. I refuse to.
"They went back to get the boy, but the castle--there were too many waiting for them. They couldn't kill Abraxas." Potter stares off into the distance. "I think that's why Bram insisted on Dracula dying in his book. It was a catharsis for him. It was the way he wished it'd ended."
I don't say anything. I'm not certain what to think anyway. Instead I pick up a slice of chicken with my chopsticks and pop it into my mouth.
"They came home," Potter says, "Or at least some of them. Morris was dead, and Seward--" He hesitates. "The clan...they took him. Turned him." His jaw tightens. "My father killed him just before I was born."
"Your father." My lip curls.
Potter meets my disbelieving gaze evenly. "When Bram and the others came back, they vowed to keep fighting, however they could. Whenever they could. They became the first members of the Order of the Phoenix, and my family became vampire hunters, passed down from the Stokers to the Dobbs to the Potters. It's who we are."
I pull the amulet from my pocket, my fingers first catching in the coil of Horace's rosary. I disentangle my hand, then throw the amulet on the table. My arm throbs again, briefly. "And that?"
"Is who we fight." Potter unwraps the amulet and stares down at it. Disgust twists across his face for just a moment. "It didn't take Bram long to figure out that the vampire clan was part of a larger organisation. One that went back centuries." He pushes the amulet back across the table to me. "The Order of the Dragon."
"Are you seriously suggesting Henry V was a vampire?"
Potter smiles faintly and pokes at his noodles with his chopsticks. "No. Bram believed the vampirism began after the Order was disbanded. He thought Vlad Tepes--or the undead version of him, rather, brought it back. Albus's research supports his claim."
I raise my eyebrow. "A secret society of vampires?" My disbelief chills my voice. This is utterly ridiculous. A madman's tale and somehow I'm not surprised at all that James Potter's whelp would be in the centre of this idiocy.
"Why not?" Potter bites into a broccoli floret. "Tepes was a ruler, after all. It's not that far-fetched to think that after he became a vampire he'd want to organise the others he found. Make a vampiric kingdom to rule over forever." He shrugs and twists a noodle around his chopsticks. "At least until another vampire decided to get rid of him. They're not entirely loyal, that lot."
"You're barking," I mutter, tucking the handkerchief back around the amulet. "So if all this is true--and do believe me when I say I continue to have serious questions as to your sanity--where the bloody hell do I fit into it?"
Potter doesn't say anything for a moment, and then he sighs. "That's not my story to tell either."
"Bollocks," I snap.
He shakes his head, almost regretfully. "I've just been sent to convince you to meet with Albus. To bring you home, I suppose." He looks up at me. "If you'll come."
I open my mouth, then snap it shut and look away, lips pressed together. "You've most certainly lost whatever mind you might have once had."
"Albus thought you might say that," Potter says with a grin.
"I have classes; I have responsibilities--" I break off. "And you've yet to tell me why Horace was killed."
Potter swallows and stares down into his drunken noodles. After a moment he says quietly, "It was my fault, that. He emailed to tell us about your amulet, and Albus sent me to speak to him. I..." He trails off and takes a deep breath. "I promised him I'd keep him safe, and I didn't." He swallows. "He was a good man."
I just look at him. I don't know what to think. "How did he know to contact you?"
"He was once part of the Order." Potter smoothes his fingertips over his serviette, pressing out folds. "It wasn't a good fit for him. He always said he was too much of a coward to be of any use. He was bloody wrong though."
"And I suppose it's just a coincidence he happened to be here, to know me," I begin.
Potter cuts me off with a raised hand. "We sent him."
"It's not my story to tell," Potter says again. His eyes are bright and green when he looks at me. Lily, my mind screams. Lily, Lily. "Come to Britain with me and Albus will explain everything."
We sit silently for a moment, staring at each other, barely breathing.
I push my chair back and stand, throwing my serviette on the table. "I have to go--"
Potter catches my arm. "Just think about it, all right?" He pulls a card from his pocket and scribbles on the back. "My mobile doesn't work in the States, but there's the hotel I'm staying at. You can reach me there if you change your mind."
With a curt nod, I shove it into my coat pocket.
I don't bother to say goodbye as I walk away; I can feel his eyes on me.
I shiver as I step out onto Commonwealth; snowflakes are beginning to fall again.
The door closes behind me.
I don't bother with the T; Packard's Corner is only two blocks away as it is and I need the brisk air to focus me.
My mind is whirling, logic and intellect and all damned rational thought rejecting what something in my very gut tells me to believe.
I don't trust myself. I don't want to trust myself.
The shadows lengthen as I walk; night falls early during Boston winters, blackening the sky by five o'clock. I don't notice. Don't care.
A rush of wings startles me, and I look up. The birds have gone for the season, not to be seen again before late March. A shadow dips in the sky, then disappears. I shiver and draw my coat closer as I turn down my street.
I've just put the key in the lock when the floorboards of the porch creak behind me. I tense and twist the key sharply, some hidden instinct screaming at me to get inside. Now.
A pale hand catches my arm and pulls me back with surprising strength. I stumble against a solid body.
"Well, now," Malfoy says against my ear and I shudder. His fingers stroke over my throat, cool and soft, the perfectly manicured nails pressing into my skin. "Aren't you going to invite me in?"
I try to pull away; he holds me fast. His hair brushes cheek. "What do you want?" I say sharply. I can smell his skin, the faint whiff of lavender soap covering a deeper scent, heavy and musty and filled with decay.
"You've been talking to the boy." Malfoy's voice is soft but it thrums in my head. "Not wise, Severus. At all."
"How do you know me?" I stop struggling, but his vise grip doesn't relax.
He chuckles in my ear. "I've been watching you for years," he murmurs. "Waiting." His thumb smoothes over my jaw and I can't stop the quiet gasp. It's been years since I've been touched like this. A few stolen months in university with Evan Rosier�
"You like that." Malfoy smiles into my cheek. His fingers slip down my neck, into the collar of my shirt and over my clavicle. I can barely breathe, can barely think and when his tongue flicks at my throat, my body shudders.
"No," I say weakly, and I try to push him back, but his hands tighten on me, push my head back against his shoulder and I know what he wants, can smell the rusty need on his rancid breath.
It hurts, sharp and quick and I cry out, arching against him. I scrabble in my pocket, desperate, reaching for the one thing I know will stop him.
My fingers curl around the rosary beads and with a groan I swing it upwards, slamming the crucifix against Malfoy's cheek.
His scream echoes in the silent darkness, the wail of a wounded animal. "You bastard," he says, jerking away from me and I fall to the floor, shaking. Blood, warm and sticky pours down my neck. It's smeared dark across his thin mouth. "In the name of the Father," I choke out, raising the crucifix, "and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit�"
A rush of wings and he's gone.
I push myself upright and lean against the door, my knees drawn to my chest. I'm shaking; my heart thuds wildly in my chest. I press my hand to my neck, Horace's rosary still twisted between my fingers. The beads burn against my flushed skin.
I need them to.
A half hour passes as I sit in the cold, silently staring into the drifting snow. I don't think. I barely breathe.
And then finally, I reach into my pocket and pull out my mobile and the card Potter gave me. I stare down at it for a moment, at the neatly block black letters that read Harry James Potter with a number beneath.
I flip the card over and ring the number he's scrawled on the back.
A woman answers, her accent a neatly modulated generic American. "Hotel Victoria."
She connects me.
"Hello," Potter says after a moment and I freeze. My hand trembles. "Hello," he says again in wary annoyance.
"Potter." My voice is faint but clear.
"Snape?" He breathes out. "I didn't expect to hear from you so soon. I thought--"
"I'll go." I cut him off sharply.
Potter falls silent. When he replies, his voice is tight. "What happened?"
"Just tell me where to be tomorrow." I don't want to discuss it right now. I can't.
He doesn't say anything for a moment. "I'll arrange for a flight out of Logan and call you with the details." He hesitates. "Are you all right?"
"Yes," I lie. "I'll be packed and waiting."
"You don't sound all right--"
I snap my mobile shut.
Part Two: Scotland
I lie to DiSalvio and the dean in order to obtain time away from my classes, claiming my mother has fallen desperately ill and is in need of my presence. Entirely laughable given that at the age of 65 she was in far better health than I, as she delights in pointing out each time we meet, immediately after asking me if I've ceased smoking yet.
There are times when I think my nicotine addiction has more to do with annoying my mother than anything else.
I have been excused for two weeks, though I am required to leave contact information. It's a lie that I pray will be forgiven.
Ferris, of course, doesn't believe me and instead shows up at my door before breakfast. "Your mother's as healthy as a horse," he says with a frown and I roll my eyes. "What exactly are you up to, Severus?"
"You wouldn't believe me if I told you," I say, hefting my bag over my shoulder. The taxi blares its horn from the street.
He trails after me. "Have you considered what it'll look like to the police, your disappearing like this?"
I lock the door behind me and drop the key in my pocket. It clanks against the amulet and Horace's rosary. "If I were guilty I would have disappeared after Reilly." I start down the steps. "I have to do this."
I look back at him, just frowning and he sighs. "You're not going to tell me are you?"
"It's better for you if I don't." The taxi driver takes my bag and tosses it in the trunk. "I'll confess everything when I return. I promise. You can give me whatever penance you deem acceptable."
"Don't think I won't." Ferris crosses his arms over his chest. "I'll have two weeks to consider."
I snort and slide into the back seat. "Just pray, John."
A frown furrows his brow. "I don't like the sound of that."
"Neither do I." I close the door behind me. "You'd damned well better take me the fastest way," I snap at the driver and he rolls his eyes and mumbles beneath his breath as he pulls away from the kerb.
When I look back Ferris stands alone on the pavement, watching me drive away, his mouth tight.
I trust him implicitly. Whatever happens.
There is nothing more irritating, I soon discover, than a trans-Atlantic flight with Harry-bloody-Potter.
I do not care for flying at the best of times. It is a torture that must be endured only when necessary, and Potter's incessant chatter does nothing to make it less infuriating. I am relieved when he falls asleep, only to discover we are close to our descent into Heathrow.
The train ride is better at least; the steady clackety-clack of the wheels from King's Cross to Scotland seems to quickly lull Potter into sleep. He stretches out on the seats across from me and closes his eyes.
I can study him then. Black hair hangs in his face, nearly down to his glasses. A curious scar zigzags across his forehead, pink-white against his pale skin. The resemblance to his father is strong, but I can see glimpses of his mother in the sharp angle of his jaw and the soft curve of his bottom lip. I feel another pang of guilt. We'd been inseparable for so many years, Lily and I. The entire school had thought we were dating; she alone had known my bitter secret.
I'd half expected her to shout it from the towers after our final argument, to tell everyone that Severus Snape was nothing more than a nancy poof.
"You're staring at me," Potter murmurs, his eyes still closed and I scowl at him.
"I most certainly am not."
He smiles faintly and shifts on the seat, curling in on himself. His jumper rides up, exposing a stretch of pale skin and the jut of a hipbone over his jeans. My cheeks burn.
I pull Horace's rosary from my pocket. The quiet repetition of Hail Marys falls in rhythm to the rumble and clatter of the train. The green English countryside blurs outside my window.
The train leaves us standing on the empty, minuscule platform of a tiny village in the Highlands. The weathered sign above the ticket office reads Hogsmeade--barely--and I raise an eyebrow as Potter hefts his bag over his shoulder.
Snow blows across the train tracks.
"It's a bit of a walk," Potter says far too cheerfully. "But I reckon we could use it after sitting for so long."
Bloody well speak for himself, he can. I glare at him as I pick up my bag. "Surely you've heard of such thing as an automobile."
Potter shrugs. "Albus's is usually broken down. Brilliant man, but he's absolute pants at keeping it tuned."
"And there's nothing for hire?" We begin walking down the High Street. The snow hasn't been plowed yet; it crunches beneath my boots. A pub sits at the corner of two streets. The sign swaying in the wind dubs it the Three Broomsticks.
"Don't need one. There's not that many people in the village."
An understatement to say the least. The village consists of a few short blocks of shops and houses before disappearing into a thick, dark forest. We take a circuitous path along the edge--Potter tells me few people even consider entering unless they've cause. It's exhausting, slogging through knee-deep snow, always up a slight incline, and even Potter's out of breath after half an hour. We stop on the side of the road, leaning against a fence. I've rid myself of my scarf and hat, preferring the sharp sting of the cold air against my sweaty skin to the hot, rough itch of the knitted wool.
The rattle of an engine catches my ear, and a moment later a faded red lorry rumbles around the curve, slipping on the snow. A wide grin crosses Potter's face. "We're in luck," he says, stepping out into the road.
Part of me secretly hopes the lorry slides into him.
Instead it lurches to a stop a few metres away and an enormous man, taller than even myself with wide shoulders and a thick beard, climbs out from behind the wheel. "'Arry," he shouts and wraps Potter in a one-armed embrace that dwarfs him.
Potter pulls back finally. "Hagrid, this is Severus Snape. Snape, Rubeus Hagrid. He's the caretaker for the castle."
"Castle?" I ask, but the giant's grabbed hold of my hand and is pumping it roughly, shouting please to meet yer loudly enough to bring down an avalanche. I extract myself gingerly.
Potter's already thrown our bags into the back of the lorry. "Hogwarts Castle. It's Albus's home." He slides across the bench seat and I follow him, gingerly. Neither the lorry nor its driver exactly inspires confidence.
Hagrid shifts the ancient lorry into gear and with a groan of rusted metal and it jerks forward.
I cling to the door handle.
Potter props his feet on the dash. "So you managed to get old Buckbeak running did you?"
"Wi' a bit o' love an' care," Hagrid says, slapping the wheel. The lorry slides across the road. I grit my teeth. "'E's a right solid one, 'e is, if cranky. Just need to 'ave the right sort o' touch."
Potter looks over at me. His hip is pressed firmly against mine. He tries to budge over, to no avail. "You all right?"
"Perfectly fine," I say tightly and grip the door handle harder. I am quite certain I'm going to die on this stretch of mountain.
But I don't.
After twenty minutes of slipping back and forth along the road, we turn a curve and my breath is taken away.
A castle is set into the side of the mountain, large and turreted with parapets that would rival a king's Bavarian palace. Beneath it is a wide lake, smooth and glassy in the late afternoon sun.
Potter chuckles and it's only then that I realise he's watching me. "Beautiful isn't it?"
"I suppose," I say noncommittally, but I'm afraid my thoughts have already been revealed. Potter just smiles.
"He only lives in the main wing," he says as we rattle through the gates. Hagrid stops the lorry in front of a set of steps leading to an arched wooden door. "The rest of it's locked up."
I climb out of the lorry and reach for my bag. "How can he afford this on a professorial salary? Surely he couldn't have saved that much money--"
"Family home." Potter grabs his bag and starts up the steps. "Don't mention it though, or he'll offer to take you on the tour."
"I don't want the tour?"
Potter throws a warning look back over his shoulder. "No. Really. You don't."
The door swings open with slam. Startled, I nearly drop my bag. A man stands in the doorway, younger than I expect, in rumpled trousers and patched jumper, his grey-brown hair shaggy over his collar. "Harry," he says warmly and Potter grins. The man glances towards me, and I take a step back in surprise.
"Remus Lupin," I say tightly. A friend of James's from school. A scholarship boy, as I was. Not as objectionable as many of the wretch's companions but a sodding prick nevertheless.
He nods at me. "Severus." His voice is cool and the look he gives me is appraising. "It's been a while."
My mouth thins. For all I care it could have been longer.
Lupin turns back to Potter. "He's waiting in the study." He reaches for my bag; I stiffen and he drops his hand, an amused smile playing across his face. "I'm not going to steal anything, Severus. I'm not exactly keen on dressing like a priest as a general rule."
I ignore him and instead follow Potter deeper into the castle. The entrance hall is wide and long, lined with overlarge portraits of wizened old men whose eyes seem to follow me as I stride past them. A few lamps flicker and buzz every so often on the wall, as if the electrical connections are faulty. Then again, in a castle this old, they almost certainly are.
Shadows twist across the Aubusson carpets covering the flagstones. A scamper and rustle as we turn the corner gives me pause until a cat bounds into the middle of the hallway. She stops, her tail twitching slowly as she eyes me with suspicion.
Lupin chuckles behind me. "Meet Mrs Norris. She keeps the mice away."
The cat hisses and swipes at my ankle before dashing down a side hall.
"Nasty little cow," Potter says. "But Filch is fond of her."
"Filch?" I ask.
"Albus says he's his butler, but he spends most of his time in the kitchen, tippling from the cooking sherry." Potter stops in front of a carved wooden door. He lowers his voice. "I think he just keeps the crotchety old twat around because no one else down village will hire him." He pushes the door open.
The entire room is filled with books. Two storeys worth, with a circular staircase in one corner leading up to the second level.
It's the most beautiful thing I've ever seen.
I don't notice the others until Potter coughs. I blink and turn back. An elderly man with a long white beard and twinkling blue eyes over half-moon spectacles smiles at me. "Severus," he says, and when he places his hand on my shoulder, I don't wish to pull away.
"Albus Dumbledore," Potter says quietly, then turns to the others, still seated in front of the fire. He nods to a woman his age with bushy brown hair caught back with a tie. "Hermione Granger and her husband, Ron Weasley." A red-haired man next to her nods. His fingers are twined with his wife's; they look disgustingly content. "And Sirius Black."
Black looks the same, if older. His hair is still black, his shoulders still wide, his smirk still as bloody damned annoying.
"Snivellus," he says, and his smile doesn't reach his eyes.
My jaw tightens.
I hated him in school. Despised him. Loathed him. Spent the great majority of my years at Stonyhurst being tormented by him and James bloody Potter. I haven't forgotten the time they trussed me up, hanging me by my ankles from a branch of the old oak off the rugby field, my trousers belted to my knees. They'd taken great delight in humiliating me before the whole school in any manner possible.
Black had broken my nose once in sixth form. I'd split his lip in return. The fathers hadn't been best pleased with either of us.
Dumbledore takes my elbow, leads me to a wide leather chair. "So very pleased to meet you at last, Severus," he says and he turns to Granger. "Hermione, dear, a glass of whisky for Professor Snape, will you, my dear?" He sits next to me. "It is Professor still, yes, and not Father?"
I glare at him. "Yes." I look back at Dumbledore. "Potter says you've answers for me."
"Ah, yes." Dumbledore steeples his fingers and presses them to his mouth. Granger hands me a glass filled with whisky. I sip it. Macallan, eighteen-year, I'm certain. "Would you care for dinner? I do hate the food served on planes now."
"I'm fine." I lean back in my chair. The leather is aged and worn to a buttery patina.
Dumbledore nods. "If I might have a moment alone with Professor Snape?" He doesn't take his bright gaze off me and it's bloody disconcerting.
"I need a shower anyway," Potter says, rising to his feet. "If that's all right, sir?"
"Certainly." Dumbledore smiles at him. "Your usual room, of course."
Granger stands and pulls Weasley to his feet. "We'll start dinner then." At Weasley's surprised but that's Filch's job, she shushes him and hurries him out of the room still protesting.
"Sirius," Lupin says from the doorway, and Black scowls at me.
"I don't think you should be left alone with him, Albus." Black crosses his arms over his chest and leans against the mantel. The fire flickers behind him; shadows twist in the folds of his trousers. "Snivellus always was a mean little sod back in school."
My jaw clenches and I tighten my fingers around my glass. Before I can snap out an appropriate reply, Dumbledore puts his hand up. "Sirius," he says quietly but with a firmness that makes even me take note, "I would suggest you assist Remus with setting the table for dinner."
Black doesn't answer, but he pushes himself away from the mantel with a grunt and a vile glare in my direction. "I'm keeping an eye on you, Snape," he murmurs as he ambles past.
I bare my teeth at him; he smirks.
When the door snicks shut, I look back at Dumbledore. "Well?"
He sighs and stares into the fire. "What do you know about your mother, Severus?"
"My mother." I blink and lower my glass. "What does my mother have to do with anything?"
"Only that she is a link between you and your grandmother." Dumbledore stands, his purple dressing gown falling over his dark trousers. He's wearing socks, bright gold and blue, but neither of the patterns match. He walks to the sideboard and pours a glass of whisky for himself, before bringing the bottle back to his chair. He sets it on the side table between us. "So I ask again, what do you know about your mother?"
I hesitate, turning my glass between my hands. "She was born Eileen Prince, sixty-five years ago. Prince wasn't my grandmother's last name, though. It was the name of the family who gave her and my mother a home."
"And your grandmother's actual name?"
"Caldararu." I give him a curious look. "Husa Caldararu."
"A Rom from Bavaria," Dumbledore says quietly. "Who didn't wish her child to be discriminated against in her new country."
I am silent for a moment, meeting his gaze directly. Somehow I am unsurprised that he knows this fact about me. "Yes," I say finally. "She was pregnant by a gadje. Her vitsa cast her out. In Romani custom, half-bloods are marhime--unclean, that is. And at the time my mother was born there was no recourse with the kris."
"It was the middle of the war."
"1940, yes." I take a sip of my whisky. My hand shakes slightly. "The Romani were frightened. Even if they were inclined to trust the gadje--a laughable thought, do believe me--a year earlier the Germans had begun rounding them up for imprisonment along with the Jews."
The hatred towards the Romani had been deep-seated throughout Europe for generations. A thousand years of Gypsy hunts and mass genocide, of serfdom and prejudice had led to the common belief that they were nothing but thieves and criminals, good for nothing at all. Sub-human, in fact. In 1899 the Nachrichtendienst in Bezug auf die Zigeuner had been set up in Munich to register the Rom and in 1905 the organisation recommended that Germany use--and I do quote--'ruthless punishments' against the 'plague' and 'menace' of the Romanies.
Lebensunwertesleben, the Nachrichtendienst said of us. Unworthy of life. My grandmother had made certain that I learnt this history, that I knew what had been done to my ancestors, that I understood why she forgave her family what they'd done to her. And that I realised why we could never go back to them.
I look at Dumbledore, anger twisting up inside of me. "All Gypsies should be treated as hereditarily sick; the only solution is elimination. So spake the Nazi Office of Racial Hygiene." My mouth twists to the side. "Is it any wonder they sent my grandmother away when they found she was up the duff by a gadje? It was a necessity for survival." My hand shakes as I lift my glass. "For them and her."
Not that it had done my grandmother's vitsa any good. She'd discovered years later through other Romanies that most of her family had been killed, either in the gas chambers or deep within the forests where they had been rounded up and shot.
The Romani call it the Porrajmos. The Devouring. By 1945 only one-quarter of the twenty thousand Roma known to reside in Germany only six years before were still alive.
And so my grandmother, barely fifteen, found herself on her own, with little more than a rosary and small sack of clothing, a bastard in her belly, and no place to go. An abbess helped her to Munich and to the notice of a Jesuit priest who was helping Jews escape through the underground. He made arrangements for her to accompany several Jewish teenagers to resistance members in Switzerland who then smuggled them through France and into a small boat that took them across the Channel. When she arrived in England, frightened, wracked with morning sickness and entirely at a loss language-wise, she was sent to live with an elderly Catholic couple in Lancashire.
My grandmother had kept in touch with her fellow refugees throughout her life.
Dumbledore touches my knee, drawing my attention. "Your grandmother's expulsion from her family was more than a requirement for their survival than you know."
"What do you mean?" I drain my whisky and reach for the bottle, pouring another glass.
"You are quite accurate in your belief that your grandfather was not a Romani." Dumbledore leans back in his chair and crosses one leg over the other. His socks are almost too garish to be borne. "However, I do not know if I would necessarily term him, what was it you said? Gadje?"
I frown at him over the rim of my glass. "Again I ask, what do you mean?"
Dumbledore sighs, his brows drawing together. The fire crackles in the hearth, a log collapsing with a thump and a shower of sparks. "I'm afraid there's really no easy way to say this." He runs his thumb over the rim of his glass. "You've already seen one example of what your grandfather is."
I lower my whisky slowly. "You're not saying�"
"Your grandfather is a vampire."
I burst out in a sharp bark of laughter, only to have it fade away at the seriousness of his expression. "You really can't be serious."
"Are you so willing to deny their existence after your recent experience?" His eyes study me closely, soberly; they've lost their twinkle. "Every culture has their tales regarding creatures of the night, Severus. The Greeks call them vrykolakes, the Sanskrit katakhanoso. Russians talk of the upiry. Germans of the blutsauger, Chinese of the giang shi. The people of ancient Peru thought a cult of the devil existed whose followers drank youths' blood, depriving them of life."
Dumbledore folds his hands together. His fingers are long and graceful and pale in the firelight. "In the early eighteenth century a man named Peter Plogojowitz's body was disinterred in the Serbian village of Kisilova after nine of his fellow villagers died a week after his death. Each one claimed on their deathbeds to have been throttled the night before by Plogojowitz. The body was found fresh, undecomposed, with new growth of beard and nails. His mouth was filled with blood."
"Eighteen ninety-two." Dumbledore's eyes harden. "Mercy Brown. Exeter, Rhode Island. A victim of consumption buried behind the Baptist church in her town. She was exhumed a few moths later by her own father in a vain attempt to prevent the death of her brother from the same disease. Her corpse was found to have turned over in her grave; her heart and liver still contained blood."
I press my mouth together. This is utterly ridiculous. "Improperly embalmed bodies have been known to sit up at times."
"Arnold Paole." Dumbledore leans forward, his voice louder. "Again Serbian. A highwayman who died in 1725 of a broken neck and who was deemed to be responsible for at least four deaths in the village of Medwegya over the next thirty days. He and his victims were dug up and staked through the heart, their bodies burned. Six years later in the same village seventeen people died. The first, Miliza, had eaten sheep believed to have been killed by Paole and his vampires. Another, Stana, had admitted before her death to have smeared her body with vampire blood in order to protect herself from vampires whilst traveling through lands under the control of the Ottoman Empire."
"These tales mean nothing!" I run my hand over my face. "All can be disproved by science."
"'There are such beings as vampires, some of us have evidence that they exist. Even had we not the proof of our own unhappy experience, the teachings and the records of the past give proof enough for sane peoples.'" Dumbledore looks at me calmly. "Stoker attributes those words to Van Helsing in his novel. They're a direct echo of his own journal."
I look away.
"Severus," Dumbledore says gently, and he reaches out. His fingertips brush across my throat, just blow the jut of my jaw. The skin is still tender there, still swollen and raw. I wince. "You know what you've experienced. Stop being so bloody stubborn."
The glass in my hand trembles. Whisky splashes across my thumb. "Even if we said such creatures do in fact exist, they are undead. Which I would bloody well assume means unable to reproduce."
"Ah." Dumbledore drops his hand. His glasses slide to the edge of his nose. "And there would be the rub. However, there are many elements of folklore that suggest the ability of human women to reproduce via intercourse with such creatures as incubi. The legend of Merlin claims that he is the result of such a union and even your own Church discusses the possibility in the Malleus Maleficarum. Of course Father Ludovico Maria Sinistrari holds an opposite view from tradition in his Daemonialitas, yes? As I recall he believed that intercourse with an incubus--or a succubus for that matter--would be a positive experience for the human--"
"And he was a bloody Franciscan," I snap. "No Jesuit worth his salt would have allowed such nonsensical twaddle."
Dumbledore tilts his head slightly and watches me. "Really? Your Saint Augustine even suggests that demons are responsible for gathering semen from men and using it to impregnate women whilst they sleep."
"Stop." I down half my whisky. This is not a conversation I wish to be entirely sober for. "You are not informing me that my grandfather was a--" My throat closes on the word. I cannot even say it.
"Yes." Dumbledore settles his glasses on the bridge of his nose. "As I understand it is not an uncommon belief for the Roma people."
"They also believe spirits roam the earth at night," I snap. I watch my whisky swirl as I tilt my glass to one side. It's cool and firm beneath my fingers.
Dumbledore studies me for a long moment. "Your mother is a dhampir, Severus," he says at last, his voice soft. "Her father seduced her mother and she was the result. She has accepted that."
I jerk my head up, narrowing my eyes at him. "And how would you know?"
He smiles faintly at me. "You should speak to her. Lancashire is not that far from us."
"That's not an answer."
"It's not my answer to give," he says, and my mouth twists. He taught Potter well. I don't say anything; he sighs and sets his glass aside. "I realise the difficulty you face---
"No." I look at him impassively. "You don't."
He leans back in his chair. "Don't I?"
"I am Catholic," I say after a moment. "Even if this ridiculous tripe is true--and I am not yet completely convinced that the entire lot of you are not off your bloody nut--even if it is true, I would have been born out of an evil union. Sins of the fathers visited upon the sons. Whilst I have not made a study of vampiric legend, I do remember Bela Lugosi at the Saturday matinee. If the cinema industry is to be believed, vampires cannot enter sacred spaces nor can they stand against religious symbols." I hesitate, remembering Malfoy's cry of pain as Horace's rosary struck his cheek. "I have firsthand knowledge of the latter," I say reluctantly. "If this is the case, how the bloody hell would I even be capable of stepping foot inside a church all these years?"
Dumbledore presses his fingertips to his lips and smiles. "A logical conclusion I would have expected you to make. However you are wrong in two assumptions, I'm afraid. The first being sacred spaces. Should such an environment, whether church or synagogue or mosque or temple, be abandoned or left in ruins--the sanctified spirit of the place departed one might say--then one may find such creatures in residence. Even Dracula himself was once devoutly Orthodox, you realise."
I frown at him over the rim of my glass.
"The other�sins of the fathers, my dear boy." Dumbledore shakes his head. "Did you know that during the medieval years the Catholic Church actually sought out dhampirs as vampire hunters? Not that your current leaders would encourage such a practise, of course. It would be...unwise."
"Bloody mad is what I think you mean."
Dumbledore nods slightly. "In the eyes of some, yes. However, even your early Church fathers accepted the possibility of vampiric activity. Tertullian suggests--"
I slam my glass against the side table. It shatters with a crash. "Stop it," I say tightly. I can't listen any longer.
"Severus," Dumbledore says quietly and his eyes are fixed on my hand.
I look down. Blood seeps across my fingers, thick and red. I can smell it and my body thrums with a heady pulse. I want. I want. I want.
My arm burns, but the pain is an afterthought. I don't seem to care about it as I watch the drops of blood run across the pale skin of my thumb and spatter darkly against my trousers.
Dumbledore's fingers are on my wrist, turning it as he pulls a shard of glass from the ball of my palm. He presses a white handkerchief to my hand. Within seconds it's red.
"Come with me," he says.
Shaking, I do.
I am stitched up by Lupin who appears to my utter surprise to have, in the years after Stonyhurst, attended medical school.
His specialty, he tells me with a small twist of his mouth, is actually psychiatry; however, he does have the basic medical skills required not to maim me.
I am not certain I trust him. His two stitches across the heel of my palm are neat and careful, though, and he slicks my hand with a salve of his own concoction, comfrey and golden seal. I cannot complain; it was what I would have used myself.
After bandaging me from wrist to fingers, he leaves me in my room at my request. I've no wish for supper, or to be surrounded by the fools downstairs. There's too much swirling in my head.
Instead I find myself on a small balcony outside my chambers, leaning against the rough stone parapet. I light a cigarette; the flare of the match is bright against the shadows.
The air is bitterly cold. It stings my cheeks, burns my lungs with each breath. I rather like it. Beneath me the lake lies smooth and glassy, a million stars reflected in its depths.
My hand throbs. The pain is a welcome relief.
The French doors open behind me with a rush of warmth that quickly dissipates.
"Hey," Potter says, and I take another drag of my cigarette. He sets a book on the parapet next to me; a small journal, bound in leather and tied with a black cord. "That's for you."
I touch the cover. It's old. The leather is worn smooth. "What is it?"
"Bram's journal," Potter says quietly. "Read it when you feel up to it." He leans against the wall, staring out across the snowy stretch of yard. Light gleams from the windows of a small, ramshackle hut next to the paddocks. A shadow crosses the drapes, nearly blocking the warm yellow glow for a moment. "Hagrid," Potter says without explanation. I shrug and pass over the cigarette. He takes it with a nod, inhaling deeply. He blows out a thin stream of smoke. It drifts off into the darkness.
After a moment he sighs. "Albus says he talked to you."
"And that you didn't take it entirely well."
I grunt and extend my hand. Potter gives me back the cigarette. "I don't know how well one can take being informed that one allegedly comes from evil stock."
"You're not evil." Potter watches me. "Look, a vampire's kid--or grandkid, I guess in your case--isn't a vampire. According to legend you might get some vampiric traits passed on, rather like genetics, you could say. Some dhampir inherit the father's weaknesses--like being oversensitive to the sun. Some end up with traits like the vampire's physical strength. Some don't inherit anything at all except a bit of sensitivity to vampiric presence. A pull in the blood, per se."
I look at him sharply. "In the blood."
"Yeah." Potter reaches for the cigarette again. He meets my gaze directly.
I look away, barely suppressing a shudder. "I don't like this," I say after a moment.
"Don't blame you." Potter flicks ash against the stone. "Doesn't make much difference though. It is what it is."
"I suppose." I lean against the parapet, my arms folded on the stone. From this height, I feel like I can see forever. In the distance, over a wide swathe of black forest, the lights of the village gleam and glitter.
Potter hands me the cigarette. "I'm going to be training you," he says. "We'll start in the morning so you should try to sleep."
"Training?" I blow a stream of smoke towards him.
He nods. "You don't want to face Malfoy again without it. Trust me."
"I've no intention of finding myself face to face with that creature again."
With a snort, Potter shakes his head. "You don't get it, do you? For some reason, your grandda has decided to look you up and unless you want to end up being dead or turned, you might want to learn how to kill these wankers."
"And you're to be my Rupert Giles?" I snort. "Oh, please."
Potter grins at me. It lights up his face, and at that moment, he looks exactly like his mother. "Half nine," he says. "Downstairs after breakfast. Don't be tardy." He stops, his hand on the door. "Oh, and I brought you up supper. Hermione's bangers and mash are pretty decent." He glances down at my bandaged hand. "You'll need something inside of you for tomorrow, so eat."
I glare at the door as it swings shut behind him.
My stomach rumbles and I swear under my breath.
Damned annoying wretch.
I look down at the journal still lying on the wall next to me.
With a sigh, I pick it up.
Only Weasley is in the breakfast room when I come downstairs. It takes me fifteen minutes to find it. Despite numerous wings being shut off the castle is still overwhelming. It reminds me, oddly, of Stonyhurst with its meandering passageways and hidden nooks. It has the feel of an old school.
The sideboard is spread with steaming chafers of eggs and rashers, bowls of beans and stacks of toast. I fill my plate and sit with a nod at Weasley. With a grunt, he pushes the teapot across the table from me. "Fairly fresh," he says, taking a bite of toast and turning the next page of The Scotsman. Football scores are emblazoned across the bottom fold.
The Celtic won over the Rangers I note as I fill my mug.
I eat quickly, grateful for the silence, until I look up to find Weasley has set his paper aside and is studying me. I frown and reach for my tea. "What?"
He shrugs. "Never seen a dhampir before."
The tea is bitter against my tongue. The bastard's left it to steep too long. I set my mug down and lean across the table for the milk and sugar. "So very delighted to have obliged."
"Can't fault me for being curious." Weasley leans on his elbows. "So what does it feel like?"
I stir two spoonfuls of sugar into my tea calmly. "At the moment I'm considering what your blood might taste like."
He blanches. "Not funny."
"It wasn't meant to be." I sip my tea. Better.
The door to the breakfast room flies open. Potter strides in, wearing loose jeans and a faded t-shirt. Peeling letters proclaim his devotion to The Who. Roger Daltry would be so pleased, I'm certain. His feet are bare.
He yawns and stretches, running his hands through his disheveled hair. His t-shirt rides up, revealing a stretch of pale stomach. I blink slowly, then look away, face flushing. I'm all too aware of Weasley's raised eyebrow.
Potter sits next to me and reaches for a triangle of toast. I slap his hand hard; he doesn't drop the bread. "Morning," he says sleepily.
Weasley pushes the jar of Marmite towards him. "How late were you up?"
"Three, maybe?" Potter smears Marmite thickly over the bread and takes a bite. "Could have been later."
"Sleep, mate," Weasley says with a shake of his head, "is necessary, you realise."
Potter gives him a faint smile and says nothing as he pours a mug of tea. He drinks it black, downing the entire mug in one long gulp. I find myself strangely impressed. It's a discomfiting thought in relation to Potter.
"We might as get started, I reckon," Potter says and he stands. "Snape?"
"This is utterly ridiculous." I push myself up.
Potter eyes me. "Are you actually wearing that?"
I glance down at my usual garb of black trousers, black jumper over a white dress shirt, black jacket. "I see entirely nothing wrong with it."
"Right." Potter looks dubious. "Don't you have any jeans?"
I roll my eyes. "No."
I look at him in abject horror. "Not bloody likely."
Potter sighs. "Fine. All right. Come on then."
I follow him into the hallway, Weasley behind me. Potter's feet slap softly against the smooth stone floor. We turn down a side corridor and go up a short flight of steps before Potter stops in front of an arched doorway. The carvings on the door are well-worn, but I'm almost certain I can make out Latin letters among the tangled vines and elaborate curlicues.
"Room of Requirement?" I ask curiously and Potter shrugs.
"There's some strange family legend of Albus's that it appears in a time of need," he says. "It's been here as long as I can remember. I used to play in it when I was a sprog." He pushes the door open.
The room is wide and open. Sunlight spills in from two long Gothic windows on the far wall. The lake shimmers in the distance. There's little furniture in the room--a few chairs and a table are pushed against one wall. The wooden floor is worn smooth and covered with an enormous Persian carpet.
"Take your boots off," Potter says and he pads over to the table. By the time I've my first boot toed off, he's back, a wooden box tucked under his arm.
"What's that?" I kick off my other boot. It feels odd to stand in stockinged feet.
Potter squats on the carpet, setting the box at his feet. He looks up at me. "A vampire hunting kit."
I stare at him. "You must be joking."
"He's not," Weasley drawls from the wall he's leaned against. His arms are crossed over his chest. "It's genuine. Made and sold by one Professor Ernst Blomberg in the 1870s. That's one of three I own."
"Ron has one of the biggest collections of vampire memorabilia in Scotland," Potter says with a grin.
"A worthy accomplishment," I mutter.
Weasley pushes himself off the wall and walks over. "Don't be so damn flippant," he says, squatting next to Potter. "This kit might just save your life someday."
Potter unlocks the box. "What do you know about vampires?" he asks.
I shrug. "Only what I've seen in cinema."
"Well, forget all that shite," he says. He pushes the box open. The maroon velvet lining is worn and crushed in places and there are dark blotches on the fabric that I'd prefer not to consider. A gun nestles inside, along with a small crossbow, a crucifix, a Star of David, a rosary, several stained wooden stakes, a small mallet, and a number of dark amber phials.
"Lesson one. How to kill a vampire."
Potter pulls out a stake and hands it to me. My fingers curl around the smooth wood without thought and he smiles. "You've a natural grip," he says and I look down at the stake.
It feels oddly settled in my hand, as if it had been meant for the curve of my palm. The weight of it presses against the cuts on my hand; they sting through the bandage.
"There are three ways to kill a vampire," Weasley says calmly, pulling the pistol from the case. "Shooting him with a silver bullet--"
"I thought that was only for werewolves," I interrupted.
Weasley and Potter exchange a long look, then Potter nods. "For it to be effective against a vampire he has to actually be in his casket. You shoot through the lid. Staking the heart seems to be the best way to keep the bastards dead, though. Or cutting off their heads but that tends to get messy." Potter pulls out one of the phials, capped with a green lid. "Holy water. Very helpful in keeping them away if you need a bit of a breather, but this phial's only if they're of Christian heritage. The Host works well too--"
I stiffen. "That's the Body of Christ you're talking about."
"Yes." Potter looks at me soberly through his messy fringe. "Is that a problem?"
"For me, yes." My mouth tightens. "It's blasphemy."
Potter rocks back on his heels. "You take that seriously." It's a statement more than a question, but I can hear the curiosity in his voice.
"Yes." I don't look at him. Whatever my uncertainties might be about my faith, they remain mine. I have no wish to share them.
A moment's silence, then Potter continues. "Ron'll leave the Host out of your kit then. Holy water's all right though?" I nod curtly. "Right. We're mostly working in the European tradition right now, so a goodly chunk of the vampires you might run into are probably going to respond best to the Christian symbols. The Star of David seems to give Jewish vampires a bit of pause. Enough time for you to regroup a bit, which is all you need. Hermione's worked out an Arabic prayer that's effective on Islamic vampires, and this," Potter pulls out another phial filled with petals, "will slow down Buddhist vampires."
I peer at the phial. "What the hell is that?"
"Lotus flowers blessed by a Tibetan monk." Potter tucks it back into the kit. "Wild rose works on pagan vampires. We've also holy water from the Hindu, Islamic, and Buddhist traditions." He pulls out phials capped in blue, white and yellow. "Colour-coded, thanks to Hermione. She's a bit of an organisational problem."
"And if they've an atheist heritage?" I ask with not a small amount of curiosity.
Weasley laughs from the wall. "Then you're fucked, mate. You'd best hope you've a strong arm or you can get out of the way quickly."
"Or hope you've a bag of seeds to throw. Vampires in general are a bit obsessive-compulsive and have to stop and count them. If all else fails, that'll work." Potter stands up. "Let's see how you handle that stake."
I raise my eyebrow and he grins at me. "Exactly how do you wish to test that?"
"Like this." Potter rushes me and I barely sidestep before he barrels into my shoulder, sending me staggering backwards. "Not bad," he says as he turns back around. "Keep your arms up a bit. Protect your neck."
I shed my jacket, pushing up the sleeves of my jumper and we circle one another slowly, eyes fixed on each other. Potter's glasses are askew; his t-shirt is pulled to one side, revealing a sharp clavicle. "Come on," he says. "I'm Malfoy and I'm going to bite you. What are you going to do?"
"Stay the bloody hell away?" I say dryly and he grins.
"Yeah, well, I've other plans." Potter lurches forward and I raise the stake higher. Weasley watches us from the side of the room, amused. "Come on, Snape. Don't be such a nancy priest."
"I'm not," I say sharply, "a priest." I move towards Potter, who circles to the side.
"Come on," he taunts. "Scared of me?"
I run at him, lowering one shoulder the way I'd once done on the streets of Clitheroe. I'd spent most of my summers learning how to fight as a child. I'm not about to forget how now.
Potter grunts as I slam into him and we tumble to the floor. My knee presses against his chest and I raise the stake up, ready to plunge it--
And he twists beneath me.
The next thing I know I'm flat on my back and Potter's wrenched the stake from my hand. The tip is pressed against my throat and Potter leans over me, his thighs straddling my chest, his breath hot on my cheek.
I stare up at him, into narrowed green eyes. His hair hangs around his flushed cheeks; he licks his bottom lip. I almost want to lift my neck, to let him have free access to my throat. It's a nearly irresistible urge.
"Not bad," he whispers and a wide grin breaks across his face. "You did better than Ron his first time--"
"Oi," Weasley says from the sidelines and Potter ignores him.
"Try again?" he asks me, standing and holding a hand out.
I ignore it as I clamber to my feet. "Oh, yes," I say grimly.
I'm not going to be shown up by a twenty-five-year-old wretch, that's for bloody certain.
My entire body aches.
I'm bruised and scratched and am quite certain that at one point I dislocated my knee. I am far too damned old for this sort of idiocy.
I escape the castle--and Weasley's mirth at Potter's thorough trouncing of my useless arse--choosing to walk off my soreness. I find myself at a small tower on the north side of the castle. Owls perch on the roof and in the windows, watching me cautiously as I make my way up the path. I hear my name called; in surprise I look up. Dumbledore leans out of a window and motions to me.
"Come up, my boy."
The door to the tower is open, and I enter, curious. The tower is dry and hot inside and it reeks of owl droppings and dead rats.
Dumbledore descends from a far too rickety ladder, his Wellingtons slick on the narrow rungs. His long beard is caught with a tie, halfway down his chest, and he pulls a falconer's glove off his left hand.
A small ball of grey fuzzy feathers and sharp beak pokes out from his jacket pocket. Dumbledore lifts the tiny owlet out, letting it roll across his hand. "A hatchling," he says. "Very uncommon this time of year, but we've a new flock coming in early it seems." He smiles and strokes the quivering clutch of feathers. The bird eyes me quizzically as it shuffles across Dumbledore's palm, its wings dragging slightly behind it. "He'll fledge in another month, I'd say."
Dumbledore sets the owlet in a nest; several other owlets clack at him, rushing to the side of the nest to nip at his fingertips. "Little ones," he says with a quiet laugh. "Children are a delight, whatever form they take."
I snort. "I might disagree." My few experiences with the obnoxious ankle-biters have not been enjoyable, to say the least. Wretchedly horrifying beasts.
Adult owls swoop above us, hooting softly, their wings spread wide. Dumbledore looks up.
"Beautiful, are they not?"
I eye the birds dubiously. "In a Hitchcockian way, perhaps."
Dumbledore chuckles and looks up. "My pet project." At my questioning look, he smiles. "I've a theory that owls might be quite useful as trained messengers, much like homing pigeons."
A white owl swoops down and settles on his shoulder, dragging its beak through his hair. "Have you had any success?" I ask dubiously. I'm quite certain the old man is barking.
"Enough to continue." He strokes the owl's feathers. "I understand you were to have training with Harry this morning?"
I wince. "Yes."
Dumbledore's eyes twinkle. "He did say he would go easy on you at first, given your wounds."
"Wretch," I murmur. I glance down at my hand, turning it. It doesn't hurt as badly as it had before. Sunlight brightens the white bandages, nearly blinding me and I have to blink for a moment before I realise Dumbledore is watching me.
"You heal quickly," he says after a moment. "You always have."
It's true. Mother had never worried about scrapes and bruises on me. They'd be gone within a day or two. I'd never questioned it; it had always just been that way.
"How do you know so much about me?" I ask. "You can't have learnt so much so quickly."
Dumbledore doesn't answer for a moment and then he shakes his head. "Your mother and you have been of interest to the Order since we first discovered her story." He steps out of the tower; I follow him. The owl on his shoulder takes flight, circling above us in the bright winter sky.
"Why me?" I ask after a moment. "Surely if this is my grandfather, he's more interest in his daughter."
Dumbledore hmms. I glance at him. Shadows from the bare tree branches above us cross his face. "And you are a male heir," he says finally.
I shiver and pull my coat closer around me. "Incredibly old-fashioned of him."
"I highly doubt your grandfather is a very progressive vampire." Dumbledore clasps his hands behind his back.
"Who was he?" I ask.
Dumbledore glances at me. "Your grandfather? A man not unlike ourselves. His wish for power tainted him, however. Bound his soul to darkness."
"How very dramatic," I mutter.
"Indeed." Dumbledore looks over the rims of his glasses at me. His blue eyes are sober, shadowed. "Willfully giving oneself to a vampire is not an action to take lightly."
Snow falls from a tree branch, striking my shoulder. I brush it off absently. "And you know he was turned of his own free will?"
"Yes." Dumbledore sighs. "I knew the vampire who turned him."
I nearly stumble over a tree root. "I see." I don't. At all. None of this makes any damned bloody sense. I'm not certain it ever will.
A twist in the path brings us to an open view of the lake. It sparkles in the afternoon sunlight. A heavy splash sends drops of water shimmering through the air.
"The squid," Dumbledore says with a smile and I raise my eyebrow.
"In a lake?"
He chuckles softly. "You'd be surprised at what you might find in a Highland loch." He stares out over the water. "The squid is what it's been called for generations now, whether or not its genus is indeed Architeuthis."
We stand still, watching a hawk dip lazily over the water. "You were acquainted with the vampire who infected my grandfather?" I ask finally, turning to look at Dumbledore.
"Yes," he says. The sun glints off his glasses, hiding his eyes. "He was someone I once knew well." His voice softens, grows wistful.
Dumbledore nods and his glasses slip to the end of his nose. The sunlight is harsh against his face, highlighting every wrinkle, every age spot. He's old, I realise, far older than his spryness would indicate. "His name was Gellert. We were once..." He trails off for a moment, then sighs. "Close."
I catch his meaning immediately. "Oh." We begin to walk again, slower now.
"We were young," Dumbledore says quietly. "Foolish and curious and far too certain of our own immortality. We'd only been with the Order for a year, perhaps a few months over. It was all so new back then. We'd no idea what we were doing in many ways." A small smile curves his lips. "Perhaps that was part of the excitement of it all. The danger. We were still at Oxford at the time, both of us reading history, and on holidays we were tracking creatures that, with one slight misjudgment on our parts, could kill us. Or worse. It was, one might say, extraordinarily heady. And our prey was quite persuasive at times."
"And this Gellert..." I trail off.
"Was intrigued by the promise of power. Strength. Immortality." Dumbledore steps over a snow-covered log. "I won't fault him for that. I came close to that seduction as well."
I frown. "What stopped you?"
"Gellert," Dumbledore says simply. "I saw what happened to him after he turned. What he became."
An owl hoots in a tree above us. I'm silent for a moment. "You truly believe all this," I say at last.
"I know what I have experienced." Dumbledore looks over at me. "Is this so very different from your belief in your God?"
Yes, entirely different, I wish to scream. Instead I sigh and press my lips together. "I am not certain of what faith, if any, I have any longer."
"What is faith but the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen?" Dumbledore stops on the path, his hand on my arm. "You haven't lost your beliefs, Severus," he says, voice gentle. "You've only lost your path. Those are entirely different matters."
"How do you even know?" My anger flares up. "You're barely acquainted with me, if that. You've no idea--"
"I wasn't so very different from you in my youth." Dumbledore continues towards the castle. I follow him. Snow crunches beneath our boots. "I recognise the symptoms perhaps." He looks oddly wistful. "I lost my way once and I've yet to find it again." He looks at me over the rim of his spectacles. "I should hate for you to find yourself on the same course."
After a moment I say tightly, "I do not require your sympathy."
Dumbledore lays a hand on my arm. "No. But you have it nevertheless."
"What happened to Gellert?" I ask.
His eyes soften, sadden. "One night, many years later, I killed him," he says quietly.
The remainder of our walk to the castle is silent.
My training takes place each morning after breakfast.
Surprisingly, I enjoy it. I have never been a physical man. The company of books has been of more import to me in my life. I stayed away from sport in school, allowing the Blacks and Potters to ponce about the rugby field. I preferred to sit inside at my window, book in hand, and mock the fools.
Now, however, there's something almost primal about the release sparring with Potter brings me.
On occasion Weasley takes his place. He is a police officer in Edinburgh, and his training takes the form of proper fighting procedure. Movements designed to bring an opponent down from various angles are his specialty; he is startled to find himself on his knees, arm twisted behind his back, on our second encounter.
"Not bad for a scrawny shit like yourself, I reckon," he says reluctantly, and he scowls when I twist his arm just a slight bit harder before releasing him.
Potter just laughs.
My afternoons and evening are spent with Stoker's diary, deciphering his spiky scrawl. The leather binding of the journal is torn and stained, page corners crumble with each careful turn. Still, I'm captured by the story he tells. The pain of seeing his Lucy defiled, the sharpness of her teeth when she bit his hand as he was trying to contain her, the burn he'd felt afterwards, the horror. He writes of his guilt at leaving his son behind, of his attempts throughout the next fifteen years to find him again, only to be thwarted in one way or another.
Stoker's private self-flagellation is wrenching at times to read, even for a cynical bastard such as myself.
There are such beings as vampires, some of us have evidence that they exist, he writes in a shaky hand and I stop reading at that sentence, staring out the window for an hour.
My doubts are slowly fading.
The journal is a compendium of vampiric research, a collection that extends past that which he presented in Dracula. He has documented everything, cross-referenced with other volumes that I soon find on the library shelves. Maps trace reports of vampire sightings throughout the years, a strangely migratory pattern circling across the Continent. Charts track folkloric customs for detecting and destroying vampires. I am most amused by the Serbian claim that vampires may only be seen by twins born on Saturday--and only when both wear their shirts inside out.
Madness, I tell Potter during our next match and he just grins and informs me I obviously have not reached the tradition regarding pelting a corpse with pebbles as it is lowered into its grave as a precaution against the creation of a vampire.
I have not.
By the weekend my hand has healed and Lupin takes out the stitches. The wound is pink and barely swollen. Lupin says nothing, just eyes the startling progress calmly, then smears it with salve and bandages it again. He looks pale, almost unwell. It's startling enough of a difference that I feel compelled despite my better judgment, to ask after his health.
He just smiles faintly. "An old illness, nothing of concern," he says without looking at me as he packs his medical kit again. "It flares up every so often."
I am dubious, but, as he pointed out, it is no concern of mine. I put it out of mind.
Monday night I am unable to sleep. The moon is high and almost full, its light brightening my room. I'm uneasy for some reason. Restless. Wolfish howls echo through the mountains, far too close to the castle for my comfort. At half one I find myself sitting in the window seat, feet flexed against the worn velvet cushion beneath me, Stoker's diary propped on my knees. I am close to the end. From my dressing gown pocket I pull the amulet, still wrapped in its handkerchief covering. It's warm in my hand, and I unwrap it slowly, barely daring to breathe. I have taken to carrying it with me at all times. I'm not certain why. I just need the weight of it nearby. It's oddly comforting.
The amulet gleams up at me in the moonlight, shadows falling across the face of the worn gold. I tilt it; the dragon appears to twist with the movement. I smooth my fingertip across the rough carved scales. The burn is immediate. I grit my teeth and turn my arm. My birthmark has grown darker over the last few days, purpling beneath my skin. The skull is more pronounced and the stain has widened. I'm quite certain a serpent twists through the eye socket now.
A movement outside the window catches my eye, the quick flutter of a wing against diamond-paned glass. I jump, then shake myself for such foolishness. The owls, of course.
Still my discomfort lingers.
A whisper echoes across the room, unintelligible. I turn. No one is there.
I frown down at the amulet. "What are you?" I murmur, and I slip it into my palm.
The moment the gold touches my skin, I fall from the window seat. Stoker's journal flies across the room. Pain twists down my arm, sharp and ragged, and I can barely hold myself up. Wind rushes around me, catching my hair, pushing me back into the floor. Blood pounds in my ears, a steady thrum of my heartbeat. The whispers return, soft at first, then building into a shriek of voices, a high cacophonic crescendo that I finally realise is my name.
Hands are on me, pulling me up and I try to jerk away from them.
I strike out, my fist balled tightly, and the amulet slips from my grasp, rolling across the floor.
"Severus," Potter says quietly, and it's his hands on me, steadying me as he helps me sit up. I slump against the wall, breathing hard. My fingers ache. I turn my hand over.
The amulet has burnt into my palm, a red and angry serpentine circle across the slick pink scars. I watch as it fades slowly.
"Are you all right?" Potter asks.
An unearthly howl fills the air, and I jerk back. Potter lays his hand on my arm, though he looks distracted for a moment. "It's just the wolves."
"I was not aware there were so many in this area."
Potter doesn't answer for a moment, then he shrugs. "There are a few." He helps me stand. "What happened?"
I shake my head. I don't wish to speak about it. Potter picks up the journal and hands it to me. He reaches for the amulet before I can stop him. Calmly he wraps it back in the handkerchief.
"That didn't burn you," I say, idiotically, as I take the amulet from him. I slip it back into my pocket.
"You're not a dhampir." I spit the hated word out.
"Something like that, yeah." He sits next to me on the window seat. He's wearing a pair of plaid pyjama bottoms and a t-shirt that is far too tight for his shoulders. I look away, throat suddenly dry. I have the distinct feeling that my next confession will involve far more than the Stations of the Cross.
With a rush of proper Catholic guilt, I realise I have abandoned my penance in the past few days. I should find a church, I think blankly.
Potter looks at me, his brows drawing together in a worried expression that reminds me of his mother. I find it highly disturbing. "You're certain you're fine?"
"Yes," I snap, humiliated at being seen in such a weak position. I push my hair back from my forehead. My hand barely shakes. "Get out, Potter."
"I don't think--" he begins, running a hand through his hair.
I glare at him. "OUT."
Potter's mouth snaps shut, and he gives me a mulish look. "Fine," he mutters. "See if I give a bloody damn if you're alive in the morning."
The door slams behind him, and I fall back against the window. The glass is cool against my flushed back.
I'm nearly certain I've gone mad.
It's a five-hour train to Clitheroe in Lancashire.
I leave early, before the others are awake. A note left at the breakfast table merely states where I am going and when I expect to return in the evening. No apology. No belated requests for permission. I merely go. The sky has not yet begun to lighten.
A boy watches me curiously at the station. His eyes are grey and his hair beneath his fur cap is a pale blond. Something about him is disconcerting. Perhaps the steady way he watches me as I purchase a ticket and board the train. He stays on the platform when the train pulls away, a curious smile twisting his thin lips.
I'm paranoid, I decide. I've spent far too damn long with madmen lately.
I sleep on the way down, curled beneath my coat, my legs stretched out on the seat beside me. When I arrive in Clitheroe, I catch a taxi to take me to the street I swore I'd never step foot in again.
Spinner's End is as ramshackle as I remember it. Half the rowhouses along the street have been boarded up; the old cotton mill looms empty and dark above their roofs. I can smell the reek of this curve of the River Ribble.
The key to the house is still on my key ring. Even after all these years I've yet to remove it. The door sticks when I turn the lock and I shove at it roughly. It swings open with a creak.
Dust dances in the dim sunlight from the door, disappearing only when I shut it behind me. I shiver, not only from the chill in the air but also from the memories. If I close my eyes I can hear the shouting still and faint strains of the Sinatra my mother used to try to drown it out.
Fly Me To The Moon still sets my teeth on edge.
The furniture in the lounge is draped in once-white twill. I sit gingerly on the edge of the sofa and wait.
She'll come, I know. I've no doubt Dumbledore will ring her once he's read my note. She'll know where to find me.
It takes nearly an hour before the door rattles. I've stretched across the sofa by now, half-dozing, but by the time she enters the room, I'm upright, on my feet.
"Mother," I say quietly, and she stops in the doorway.
It's been five years since we've seen each other. I'm surprised by how frail she looks. Her skin is pale; her cheeks gaunt. She's twisted her thick grey hair in a knot at the nape of her neck as always, though, and her dark eyes are bright and sharp. "Severus."
"I knew he'd talk to you."
She doesn't say anything, just walks into the room and looks around. Her eyebrows furrow. "Everything I've done, Severus, was to protect you."
Mother sighs and trails her fingertips across the mantel. They come away black with dirt. "You don't understand--"
"Because you've never told me!" Mouth tight, I cross my arms over my chest. For so long it was just the two of us against him. Now I feel alone. Adrift. "How long have you known about the Order?"
"Which one?" she asks with a sigh, but she doesn't wait for me to answer. "I was a child when Albus first found us."
I move closer. "How?"
Mother scowls at me. "I was a child, Severus. The details are not entirely clear to me and your grandmother has never been all that forthcoming." She sits on the arm of a dust-clothed chair. "I believe she confessed to our priest who knew of the Order. All I know for certain is that around the time I began primary school Albus began visiting regularly. For the longest time I believed he might be my father." She meets my eyes. "I was fifteen when I found out the truth."
"An entire thirty years ahead of me," I snap.
"Why do you think that is, Severus?" She stands up then, her shoulders straight and stiff. "Have you yet stopped to consider that all I have wanted for you was to keep you away from his notice? The day you were born I promised you to the Church because there you'd be safe. And it would all end. If I could keep you faithful in the Church, if you remained childless, there'd be no reason for him to come after you. Albus and Horace promised me--"
I cut her off. "Horace? Horace Slughorn?"
Mother presses her mouth into a tight line and looks away. After a moment she nods curtly. "Horace was the priest who christened you."
Angry silence stretches between us. "No one ever told me," I say at last. Bile burns my throat; my fingers twist in the wool of my coat.
"You weren't to know." Mother pulls one of the drapes back. Sunlight filters through the grimy windows, streaked with twenty years of dirt and dust. "I wanted you to be protected. Your father agreed."
"Father knew." My voice is dull, empty.
Mother lets the drape fall closed. "Yes," she says softly. "Tobias was part of the Order." She hesitates, doesn't look back at me. "He was assigned to protect me at first. And then you came along."
I can feel my cheeks heat. "It's not as if I couldn't count, Mother." My parents were married in June and I was born in January.
"I know." She looks back at me then, her eyes shadowed and dark. "Whatever his faults, he did protect us."
My mouth twists to one side. "It was perfectly acceptable for him to beat the both of us as long as no one drank our blood?"
Mother says nothing.
My fingers close tight around her fragile wrist. She doesn't stop me as I turn her arm, pushing the sleeve of her cardigan up. The mark is still on her arm, pale pink against her skin. A skull, nearly identical to my own.
I drop her hand.
"So," I say after a moment, "all of this, my entire life, you arranged for me. And I allowed you to."
"You're a good Jesuit, Severus." Mother lifts her chin. "I've never doubted it was right for you--"
"I have." I run my hands through my hair, pulling it tight off my forehead before letting it swing free, lank and limp against my cheek. "Every day, Mother. Do you know how many years I've questioned everything about myself? About what I believe? What truth is for me? I never had a chance to discover for myself. It was always what you wished. What you pressed for. And now I find it's because of this?" I pinch the bridge of my nose. "You hadn't the right to keep this from me."
She crosses her arms over her chest. Her grey cardigan pulls across her narrow shoulders. I can see the sharp jut of her bones against the cotton. She's always been thin, but not like this.
A stab of guilt twists through me.
"I did what I did," she says finally, "to keep my boy safe. I won't apologise for that. I refuse to." She touches my cheek gently. Her fingers are warm and papery soft. "One day you'll forgive me."
"What's his name?" I ask. I have to know. "My grandfather. Who was he?"
Mother doesn't answer for a moment. "When he was alive, he was called Tom Riddle," she says with a sigh. "Don't ask what he calls himself now, Severus. It's better not to know." She walks from the room. I hear her steps echo along the foyer, and then the door snicks shut.
I take a shaky breath and close my eyes.
I can't suppress the shudder that twists through me.
It's past dark when I return to Hogsmeade.
Hagrid is waiting for me outside the station. His eyes are red-rimmed and he's subdued when he greets me. "They're waiting for you up castle," is all he says before slamming the lorry door shut. He doesn't speak for the remainder of the ride, instead driving with his eyes fixed firmly on the road before us. Every so often he sighs, blinking hard.
I consider pressing the matter--after all, it's not as if I am a prisoner and I damn well will not be treated as one--but I'm tired and drained and am grateful for the quiet.
The occupied wing of the castle is blazing with lights when we pull up, the lorry shuddering to a stop on the icy flagstones. Potter is already halfway down the steps, a coat flapping open at his knees. The laces of his bright red trainers are untied and he trips over one, stumbling down the last two steps with a muffled fuck.
I catch his arm before he slams into me. The muscles of his biceps are hard beneath my fingers. "What the bloody hell is the hurry--"
"You're all right," he says breathlessly and he looks over at Hagrid. "Remus and Sirius are on their way from Glasgow."
Hagrid nods. "Road's clear enough."
I look from Potter to Hagrid. "I should think someone had best tell me--"
"Albus is gone," Potter says tightly, and I stare at him.
"There's blood outside th' Owlery," Hagrid says, not looking at me. His hands are shoved in the pockets of his ratty overcoat. "'e went up after supper to see after the wee birds an'--" He breaks off into a muffled sob. It's oddly disconcerting from a man of his size.
Potter puts his hand on Hagrid's shoulder and squeezes. "It'll be all right. We'll find him."
Hagrid snuffles and nods, reaching into his pocket for the most enormous handkerchief I've seen. "Right that." He blows his nose and sniffs again. "I reckon then I ought to be puttin' Buckbeak up for the night unless you'll be needin' him any?"
Potter shakes his head and Hagrid shuffles off, his shoulders slumped. I look back at Potter.
"Do you actually think he's been taken?"
"Yes," Potter says grimly. He turns and starts back into the castle. "There are enough signs. The blood in the snow, the footprints at the Owlery. Rosmerta down at the Broomsticks told me earlier there was a dog trotting down from the station before dawn. One she hasn't seen before."
"A dog?" I pull my coat tighter around me as I follow him up the stairs. "What difference does some mongrel make--"
"Vampires, Snape," he says, voice tense, "have an annoying little habit of turning into mist and animals and all sorts of terribly irritating manifestations or haven't you bloody read Dracula?"
Bastard. Not since I was bloody fourteen. I glare at him. "Do forgive my appalling lack of education, but I've had more compelling dreck on which to waste my time over the years. So do explain."
Potter sighs and pushes the door open. "Everyone thinks of bats when you mention a vampiric transformation. But the fact of the matter is that they can take any form they wish. Even a tiny insect. A favoured form, though is a dog or a wolf. They can do more damage that way." He chews his bottom lip. "Albus has been working on a paper about it--not for publication, of course, no one will take it. Just for his collection. He's hypothesised that they've some sort of transfigurative property in their bodies or something. Hermione understands it better than me. But Albus called them Animagis."
I snort. "Idiotic term."
"Why not you?" I snap. "Or me? If they're so determined to convince me--"
Potter cuts me off. "What better way to bring you to them?" He shakes his head, mouth tight. "They're cagey shits, that's for certain."
Weasley and Granger are in the library, packing satchels with books and phials of holy water.
"Sirius here yet?" Weasley asks and he tosses a wooden stake at me. I catch it with one hand easily.
Potter shakes his head and grabs an empty satchel. "On his way." He shoves a crucifix into the bag. I wince at the rough treatment.
"For God's sake, you idiot," I say tightly, taking the bag from him, "a little respect would not kill you." I take the crucifix out gently, wrapping it in a cloth from a pile on the desk before slipping it back into the satchel with a murmured in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Weasley watches me. "Going to be different having a monk around."
"I'm not a monk," I snap at him.
He shrugs. "Priest, whatever."
My shoulders tighten in annoyance. "I'm not a priest."
Weasley rolls his eyes and drops his loaded satchel to the floor. "Look like one to me, mate."
I bare my teeth at him. "I am most certainly not your mate."
Granger interrupts. "How's Remus feeling?" she asks Potter. "The moon's tomorrow night--"
"Fine," he says with a sideways glance at me. I pretend to ignore him. "A bit tired."
She looks back over at me then, a book clutched tight to her flat chest. Granger's not a pretty girl. Her hair is too wild, her features too tight and pinched. She is, however, intelligent, which is more than I can say for the majority of the Order.
I still don't like her.
We pack the satchels in near silence. They allow me to handle the crucifixes and rosaries. I find myself silently blessing them as I tuck them into the bags. I'm not certain why. Perhaps old habits die hard.
I don't even need to ask to know we are going after Dumbledore. It's not a question. Wherever he's been taken, we will find him.
The last satchel has just been set aside when the library door bursts open.
I turn, only to have a fist slam hard against my jaw, knocking me back into the desk in a burst of pain. Dumbledore's papers go flying across the room; a stack of stakes rattles to the floor.
Black's glaring down at me, eyes bright and mad, and he grabs my jumper with both fists. "This," he hisses, his spittle hitting my face, "is all your fault, you fucking Gypsy shit--"
"Fuck you," I say tightly, hoarsely, digging my fingers into his arms. I shove him backwards; he staggers, pulling me with him and slamming me to the floor. His fist cuts up against my jaw again, then against my nose. Blood flies everywhere; his knuckles are crimson.
I hit him hard, and his head snaps back. It only angers him more. He's two stone heavier than I am and bloody insane to boot. He rolls me across the floor, pummeling me with his fists, slamming my head against the flagstone.
"Lily chose James over you because she knew you were nothing more than a sniveling, cowardly Gypsy bastard," he say into my ear, his voice low, his breath hot against my skin. "She walked away from you, Snape, and never looked back--"
With a roar of anger I shove him off me, sending him rolling back across the carpet. I can hear the others behind me, as if at a distance, their shouts muffled by my rage. Someone grabs my shoulders; I jerk away, sending them stumbling backwards. Kill, my mind shouts at me. Kill.
My fingers curl around a stake and I see Black's eyes widen in fear--in genuine fear of me--and it's the most incredible moment of my life. "Fuck you," I say again and I bring the stake down, swift and sure.
I stop just millimetres from his heart.
We stare at each other, Black and I, breathing hard. My blood drips onto his cheek. "Do it," he says, jaw tight. "See if you can live with yourself afterwards."
I can, I want to scream. I can and I want to. But I know he's right. As much as I hate him, as much as I despise his existence... I can't. I want it so badly, though. My heartbeat still thrums in my ears. The stake shifts, the sharp tip pressing against Black's white shirt. A tiny drop of red spreads out through the cotton.
The stake falls from my hand and rolls across the floor, stopped by the edge of the Aubusson.
Black exhales slowly. "Told you," he whispers, and my fist slams into his jaw, knocking his head into the flagstones with a sharp crack.
I push myself up and walk out of the library without looking at any of the others.
Part Three: Romania
The ancient and battered train rattles through the flat plains of Wallachia, taking us from Bucharest to Curtea de Arges at the foot of the lower Carpathian mountains.
I ignore the others across the aisle from me. Lupin has remained at the castle, unable to accompany us due to health concerns, or so Potter claimed as we loaded the lorry. Black, on the other hand, was determined to join our ranks, bloodied and bruised face or not.
"I want to keep an eye on Snivellus," he'd said with a venomous look in my direction. "I don't trust the bastard."
Lupin had merely sighed. "Sirius--"
"If it wasn't for him, Albus would still be here," Black snapped and Lupin had looked away at that.
As much as it galls me to admit it even to myself, he is right. I bear responsibility for Albus.
Black watches me now; I can feel his eyes on me as I turn the page in my missal. It is well after six and I am required to pray Vespers. I whisper the familiar words of the Canticum Magnificat under my breath. They steady me. Prepare me.
The train lurches, carrying us around a wide curve. I hear Potter swear softly as a bag drops down from the rack above him. He shifts and stands to put it back in its place.
It's dark outside; the sun has set nearly an hour ago. The sky has faded from faint grey-blue to a deep, velvety black sprinkled liberally with bright, glittering stars. My fingers brush against the amulet in my pocket. The familiar pain bursts through me. It's an odd comfort.
Our compartment is quiet, save for two children wandering the aisle. Their hair and eyes are as dark as mine; their expressions wary and sharper than their years. Neither the boy nor the girl can be more than ten.
Wallachia is home to many Romani vitsas, I'm quite aware.
"Si tu love?" the boy asks Potter in an oddly lilting sing-song.
Potter looks at him blankly, then shakes his head. "I'm sorry; I don't understand."
"Si tu love?" The child tries again and Potter leans forward.
"Are you looking for your mum?"
I roll my eyes and lower my missal. "He's asking for money, you idiot." I glare at his older sister. "Chavi."
She looks over at me and blinks slowly. "Can tute rakker Romanes?" she asks in surprise.
With a snort, I nod. In order to understand my mother in a temper I'd had to learn the language. "Me rockav." I point over at the others. "Naj len love." Before she can ask about the state of my own wallet, I stop her with a curt naj ma love.
The children look disappointed, then the girl brightens as her eyes fall on the rosary in my lap. "Tu san rashay," she begins and I cut her off.
They exchange a dark look, but turn and head back to their seats as directed. Unlike gadje children, Romani know what their elders expect of them. Especially by one they think is a priest.
I return to my prayers, only to be interrupted by Weasley's what the hell was that?
"Gypsy," Black sneers and my jaw tightens.
I look up; Potter's watching me, a small smile curving his mouth. Granger leans over him. "I'm sorry, sir, but what did you tell them?"
"That none of you had any money and that they should find their bloody seats." I turn the next page of my missal.
Potter looks down the aisle, watching as an old Romanian man waves the children off in annoyance. "They're so young." He stands and a moment later is squatting next to their seats. He digs into his pockets and pulls out a few notes, smiling as he hands them to the brats.
I return to my prayers.
My murmured Our Father falters as Potter brushes past me, taking his seat again.
I close my missal and stare into the rushing blackness outside my window.
My arm throbs steadily.
The Curtea de Arges train station is an enormous white building topped with two cupolas and trimmed in green and gold paint that gleams even in the dark.
We disembark in exhaustion. The day has been taken up with travel. A drive from Hogsmeade to Edinburgh, then a plane to Bucharest, and our interminable train ride, stopping at every tiny village upon the way.
Dining cars are unheard of on a Romanian local service; other than a few apples and prunes purchased from locals boarding the train at certain stops, we have not eaten.
My stomach rumbles; Granger gives me a sympathetic smile. She looks pale and tired. Dark circles rim her eyes. Weasley places his hand on the small of her back as she descends the steps, leans in to whisper something in her ear that makes her laugh softly.
Black hefts two bags over his shoulder and heads after them. Potter and I follow.
We're to meet someone here, some sort of guide. Potter calls him Krum and his face softens slightly when he speaks of him.
I find this quite irritating.
Krum is waiting for us on the street, next to a rusting, squat van that makes Hagrid's ridiculous Buckbeak look luxurious. He's young, with dark hair and eyes and a hooked nose not unlike my own. He pushes himself off the bonnet and strides towards us, a wide smile brightening his sour face.
"Harry," he says, and he leans in and kisses Potter, quick and fast on the mouth as he drapes his arm around Potter's shoulders.
It's oddly intimate and oddly discomfiting.
We all look away.
Potter's laugh is warm and open. "Viktor. I was hoping Remus reached you."
"Four hours ago," Krum says easily. His English is careful and thickly accented. "The phones have been down. I was fortunately on my way here as it was."
Potter raises his eyebrow just as the two children from the train run up. They stop suddenly, eyeing me, before hurling themselves towards Krum, whispering. He bends down and listens to them, then looks back up at me. "Rashay," he says. "Ande save kumpania?"
I sigh. Another Rom. Of course. I suppose I should prepare myself. This is my grandmother's homeland, after all. "Caldarari," I say reluctantly, giving my grandmother's clan name.
"A cauldron-maker," Krum says with a smile, referring to the traditional craft of my mother's family. He tosses our bags in the back of the van. "We are Lautari. Or at least these two." He squeezes the children's shoulders. "I'm dzhorevtsi. Lautari through my father. My mother was Bulgarian."
The van is crowded with bags and bodies. The children--Krum's cousins, I learn soon enough--sit in the front, both in the passenger's seat, clinging to the dashboard as we bump along the potholed road. I find myself pressed between the far wall of the van and Potter who, as Krum takes a sharp turn, tumbles into me. "Sorry," he murmurs, trying to push himself back up. His fingers dig into my thigh and I wince.
It takes us nearly an hour to make our way to Arefu. The village is small, quaint, and the villagers, with the exclusion of the Romanies, Krum tells us, are the direct descendants of the servants of Vlad Tepes. In 1459, the Impaler, son of Vlad Dracul and Stoker's inspiration for Dracula, had Cetatea Poienari built by captured Turks. The citadel nestled on a cliff has for centuries guarded the Arges Valley from pass into the Transylvanian mountains.
The houses are small and shabby with faded paint and sagging roofs. The village isn't wealthy by any means. But the streets are shoveled clear of snow and the paths to the houses are neat and orderly. There are no animals about; no dogs wandering the roads or cats perched on the fences. Both are marhime to the Rom.
My mother had forbidden me a dog all my childhood, no matter how I begged.
We stop in front of a shack twice as large as the others on the street. Krum, it seems, played football for Bulgaria for a season and a half before his knee was torn in a match against France. He sent most of his pay packet home to his parents. The children are out in a flash, running down the street. Krum just shakes his head and laughs. "You'll stay with my family," he says. "There's not much room, but it's better for gadje."
"What does he mean?" I hear Black murmur to Potter and I curl my lip.
"He means," I say, climbing out of the van and dusting myself off, "that we'd not be welcome beyond the first room of a full Romani house." I look Black up and down and allow a thin smirk to curve my mouth. "They would consider you as unclean as swine."
"Fuck off, Snivellus," he growls and Potter lays a hand on his arm.
Black gives Potter a baleful look. "Christ, Harry--"
Potter just looks at him and Black turns away. "Sod it all. I'm calling Remus to see how he's feeling."
"There's still another night." Potter frowns up at the sky. The moon hangs heavy over the tops of the bare tree branches.
Black pulls his mobile out of his pocket. "Yeah, I know."
A woman steps out of the house and onto the sagging porch. She's not much older than myself, I realise, and her cheeks are pink in the chill night air. She pulls a shawl around her shoulders. "Come in, come in," she says in heavily accented English. "Before you catch your deaths."
The house is warm and smells of stuffed cabbage and corbast pasulj, a thick bean and sausage stew I remembered my grandmother simmering for hours over the back burner of her cooker.
My stomach rumbles again at the heavy scent of paprika and garlic.
Black comes in after a moment, and at Potter's quizzical look he shrugs. "He's fine," he says and the others relax. I frown, but don't press the matter. I tell myself I've no interest in Lupin's health, and I do not. But neither do I like being ill-informed.
One of them is likely to crack, however, at some point. Weasley is the most likely.
Krum's mother--Eleanora she says her name is--waves us to the table and begins to dish up bowls of soup and plates of cabbage filled with bacon and ham and beef. Thick slabs of fresh bread are passed around the table along with a crock of homemade sauerkraut and a jar of ajvar--a spread made of eggplant and roasted peppers and garlic and oil.
I smear it thickly across my bread and take a bite. It's almost as if I'm home again, six years old at my mother's table, listening to her chatter with my grandmother in a language I only half understood.
We're halfway through dinner when a tall, broad-shouldered man enters. He eyes us, then dips his head and allows his son to introduce him. Stefan Krum. Silently, he takes a seat at the end of the table, between Weasley and myself and reaches for a plate of cabbage rolls.
"So are the arrangements made for tomorrow?" Potter asks, elbows propped on the table.
Krum nods, his mouth full of bread. He swallows and wipes his thumb over the corner of his lips. "We're to meet Sanguini tomorrow evening." He looks down at his father. "You spoke to him tonight?"
"Hai." Krum the Elder doesn't look up from his cabbage. His voice is rough and slow as if it hasn't been used recently. "He will see what he can discover."
Eleanora leans past me, refilling my teacup. The tea is steaming and fruity. Entirely unlike Darjeeling or Earl Grey. A gold crucifix swings from her neck, delicate on a thin chain. I catch her arm; she looks down at me in surprise.
"Are you Orthodox?" I ask, touching the crucifix lightly. She nods. "Is there a church in the village?"
"Three streets down," she says, and she smiles faintly. "You wish to pray?"
"Yes." It's been a week since I've stepped foot in a church. I haven't gone that long in twenty years. It feels odd.
She touches my shoulder. "You go to Matins in the morning."
I nod and she turns to pour Granger more tea.
Potter watches me curiously from across the table. He doesn't say anything.
We sleep in the front room.
Granger is given the sofa; Weasley sleeps beside it on the floor. Black takes a spot in front of the fireplace, and Potter joins him. I wrap myself in a blanket on one of the wide chairs. The seat sags slightly in the middle and the back is too straight for comfort.
I consider it part of my penance still.
Boston feels so very far away now, almost a lifetime away. Ridiculous, I know, given that I've only been away a few days. But my life has been turned upside down and I'm nearly a half-globe from my quiet flat in my quiet neighbourhood. I say Compline in the moonlight filtering through the brightly embroidered curtains. By the time I'm finished, the others are snoring.
I sleep fitfully. My arm aches. The pain has increased since I stepped foot on Romanian soil. I can feel the mark burn into my skin; when I close my eyes I can hear the whispers of my name as if they were being carried on some distant wind.
The clock in the hallway strikes half five when I get up. There's no use in pretending to sleep. I go to the small bathroom off the kitchen and piss, then splash water on my face. I'm pale in the mirror, more so than usual, and my cheeks are gaunt and hollow.
I turn my arm. The mark is black, crusted, as if it has been charred into my skin. It throbs in rhythm with my heartbeat, a steady thrum of blood and life rushing through my veins.
Severus, the voices whisper again, and I can feel the soft breaths on my skin.
The sink is cool against my palm. I grip the side tightly and breathe in, trying to stifle the sharp twist of pain. I bite my lip hard; I can taste the faint tang of iron. When I push myself upright again, my flushed cheeks reflect back at me and blood smears my mouth.
Without thought, I wipe the back of my hand over my lips. The streak of crimson across my pale skin disappears in a stream of lukewarm water from the faucet. I watch as it swirls down the drain, faint pink against the rusted porcelain.
The church is quiet in the early dawn.
Saint Sara is the titulary saint. I'm not surprised. Sara-la-Kali has been the patron saint of the Roma for generations despite not having sainthood officially conferred on her by either the Western or Eastern Catholic Churches.
Such minor inconveniences have never proved important to my maternal ancestors. In their minds Sarah was the Egyptian handmaid for Saint Mary Jacobe whom tradition claims found herself, after the Crucifixion, set adrift in a boat in the Mediterranean with her companions Saint Mary Magdelene and Saint Mary Salome. Miraculously the women and their servants landed on the Provencal coast; the supposed spot of this miracle is now called Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer. Each year Romani from across Europe make their way to the oceanside town to set Saint Sara adrift on the waters again--and to get roaringly pissed in the process, of course.
I stop before the icon of Saint Sara at the entrance. Her dark skin is luminous beneath the flickering candles; the silver okhlad covers all but her delicately painted face and hands. I cross myself and light a candle, murmuring a prayer to her.
Only a few old women sit on the scarce benches around the walls, mouthing prayers near silently as their fingers slip over the rope and beads of their chotkis. One turns her head as I leave the narthex and step into the nave, her dark eyes bright in the wrinkles of her face.
The iconostasis at the front of the nave gleams in the shadows, the gilt of the elaborately carved wooden tiers setting off the darker, muted paint on the rows of icons. Christ the Pantokrator watches me from the right side of the screen; his mother the Theotokos from the left. Their eyes are dark and sober and seem to stare into the very core of my being.
My breath catches.
The candles before the altar flicker, nearly going out before burning brighter than before.
I tense. The mark throbs and burns, the pain nearly unbearable and I double over with a gasp, fingers tight around my forearm. "Stop," I choke out--to whom I'm not certain--and a rush of wind twists around my legs, sending my coat tails flapping.
It slams into me, pressing against my chest, sends me staggering backwards. The old women watch me, their muttered prayers growing louder, their eyes frightened.
The wind pushes me backwards slowly; my feet slip on the worn wood of the nave. I struggle against it, my Our Fathers and Memoraes caught in its roar.
My fingers catch on the doorframe, digging into the plaster and wood. "In the name of the Father," I scream, "and of the Son--"
The wind lifts me sharply, pulling my hands free, and hurls me out of the church. The door slams shut in front of me, a heavy thud that echoes deep in my soul.
Breathing hard, I stare up at the church, my hair hanging lank in my face. My fingers are bruised, my fingernails broken and bleeding. The shadows of the cupolas stretch over me.
I sit up, my body aching. My soul is empty. Numb. Blood runs down my left arm, curling over my wrist in crimson rivulets. The mark is red and open, a perfect skull of raw flesh against my skin.
Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani, I whisper brokenly, my eyes fixed on the cross atop the cupola. The sun filters greyly through thick morning clouds.
There is no answer.
I'm sitting on the steps when the others wake, a cigarette in my hand. I can hear them stumble around sleepily, then a moment later Potter flies out of the front door, panicked and half dressed. He draws up short when he sees me.
"I thought--" he says, then falls silent.
A drag of nicotine and I blow a thin stream of smoke towards him. "I went to church."
"Oh." He pulls his jumper over his head. His hair pops through the neck, wild and uncombed. "You might have left a note." His voice is muffled against the thick wool until it slides down his chest. He settles his glasses back on his nose.
"Perhaps." I inhale slowly and stare out over the snow-covered yard. I shift the cigarette packet in my hand; the cellophane wrapper crinkles between my cold fingers.
Potter sits next to me, pulling his trainers on. He laces them tightly. "You all right?"
"Fine," I lie. He gives me a sharp look but doesn't say anything.
The others tumble out of the house. Granger hides a yawn behind her hand and Weasley moves as if sleepwalking. Only Krum and Black are in good spirits.
Black tosses his bag in the back of the van. "How far do we have to go?" he asks Krum.
Krum rubs the nape of his neck. "A little over a hundred kilometres, but with the snow and the mountain passes it'll take a while."
"We'll make it by nightfall?" Potter jumps up and grabs Granger's bag from her.
"Yes." Krum peers up at the morning sky. "We should be going soon though." He looks at me. "A blessing for our journey, rashay?"
I tense. I can still feel the press of the wind on my bruised chest. "I'm not a bloody priest." I drop my cigarette to the ground and grind it out with the heel of my boot. It leaves a black mark against the white snow.
Krum looks me up and down. "You've the look of faith on you," he says calmly. "In my eyes at least."
"Then you're a fool." I climb into the van, shoving past Potter. Granger and Weasley exchange a glance; I glare at them. "Let's just be done with this fool's errand, shall we?"
Krum meets my gaze evenly as he tosses a handful of stakes on the floor. His father climbs into the passenger seat, not looking back at us." As you say, rashay."
He slams the door closed.
Travel along the sharp curves of the Transfagarasan Road is treacherous at the best of times. From late October to June Romanian officials close the road to traffic due to heavy snowfall in the mountains. One wrong turn of the wheel could send a car spinning off the side of a cliff.
We take the road anyway.
Krum knows the road well, and he drives with the skill of a nomad. His father takes the wheel when he tires and he stretches out in the passenger seat, sleeping. Potter and Black and Weasley join him in snoring at times, much to the annoyance of Granger who sighs and slips on headphones to block out the cacophony.
I do not sleep.
Much as I despise planes, I am also not overly fond of automobile travel. I am particularly not fond of automobile travel over slick icy roads that could result in my demise at the foot of a 2,034-metre mountain.
Horace's rosary is still in my pocket. I reach for it. The pain that shoots up my arm as my fingers brush the beads is unbearable. I jerk my hand away with a sharp breath and stare down at my trembling fingers. The tips are pinkened, almost as if they've been burnt.
Potter touches my shoulder; I shudder. "You okay?" he asks.
"I'm fine," I say and I turn away, pressing my forehead against the cold window. All I see is a blur of snow and stark black branches.
Potter doesn't press me.
We pass through five tunnels as we creep along the mountain range. Sharp white peaks and jagged ridges thrust up against the grey sky; just after noon it begins to snow.
Krum slows the van even more. The wipers scrape the icy windshield, squeaking with each sweep of snow from glass.
It takes another three hours to descend from the summit, and yet another before we make it through the snow to Carta, a tiny village on the banks of the Seaca River. The sky is already darkening above us.
We stop outside a tiny cottage. Krum and his father go knock on the door as we unload our bags. We're grimly silent, the lot of us, even Black, and Potter keeps glancing at the setting sun, his brow furrowed.
Krum waves us towards the cottage, and we hurry up the short path. Snow crusts my boots by the time I reach the door. I kick it off before entering the warmth of the miniscule sitting room.
"This is Dragomir Petrescu," Krum says, and the wizened old man beside him bobs. "He doesn't speak English, but he's a friend of Sanguini's. He'll let us stay here for the night."
Petrescu feeds us stew and bread, the Eastern European staples of winter cuisine. He brews a pot of coffee, black and sweet and thick as paste and serves it in fragile porcelain cups once rimmed in gold. They are obviously family heirlooms seldom taken down from the brightly painted hutch in the corner of the kitchen.
We wait as night lengthens, talking quietly--or not at all.
The knock comes at half midnight. We all jump; Potter and Black reach for the stakes they've thrust through their belts. Petrescu murmurs something I cannot understand, and he unlatches the door.
A man--or what is left of him at least--enters. He is tall and painfully thin, almost emaciated. His eyes are shadowed with dark circles and his white hair is pulled back with a black ribbon. He says something to Petrescu, clasping the old man's elbow, before he turns to us with a small bow.
He smells foul, like rotting decay. It sets my teeth on edge, tenses my shoulders. There's something about him that makes me highly uneasy.
"Honoured," Sanguini says, and his voice has the lilt of Italy in it. He tilts his head towards Krum's father. "Stefan."
The elder Krum nods silently.
Potter steps forward and extends his hand. "I'm Harry," he says. "Viktor says you might have word on Albus?"
Sanguini sighs and takes a seat at the table. "Yes." It's then I see his teeth, sharp and pointed. Black notices as well.
"Harry," he says tightly, his fingers on his stake. "He's--"
Potter puts a hand on Black's arm. "I know. It's okay."
Sanguini smiles faintly as Petrescu puts a glass of thick red liquid in front of him. He raises it. "Cow's blood," he says. "Not quite the same, but it keeps me alive." He looks at Black. "I didn't ask to become what I am any more than your lover asked for his own curse, Mr Black."
"How did you--" Black's mouth tightens. "Leave Remus out of this."
"I know a great deal about the Order of the Phoenix," Sanguini says calmly. He sips the blood; it stains his bottom lip and he licks it away. I can't suppress a shudder. Sanguini looks at me. "And you must be the dhampir. I can smell it on you."
I lift my chin. "Smell what?" I snap.
"Death." Sanguini twists the glass between his fingers. "The scent of your family's curse." He smiles, a dreamy curve of his thin mouth. "We're all cursed in a way, I suppose."
I find him incredibly unsettling.
"What about Albus?" Potter asks again. He meets Sanguini's gaze evenly. "Is he still alive?"
Sanguini nods. "For now. They've been feeding on him but not enough to drain him. His Lordship is toying with the idea of turning him."
"Shit," Potter says. "Can we get in tomorrow night?"
"Yes." Sanguini leans forward, his elbows on the table. He takes another sip of blood. "It won't be easy."
"We didn't think it would be," Weasley says grimly.
Sanguini lifts his glass again. "You could die. Or worse."
I touch my neck. The bite from Malfoy has healed already, but the skin is still tender at times. I suppress a shudder at the memory of his breath against my throat.
"That's a risk we're prepared to take." Potter's pale, but his voice is even. "So how do we get in?"
The vampire is gone by half four.
We've a plan in place for the next evening. I seem to have a significant role in it. I can sense vampires, Sanguini informed me evenly. It's a gift of the dhampir.
Bloody hellacious gift.
The others are asleep, curled on the floor of the living room. Granger and Weasley are wrapped around each other, legs entwined beneath their shared blanket, Weasley's hand curled around his wife's breast.
I sit in the kitchen, sipping coffee. I'm tired, but not enough to sleep. The fire in the wood stove shifts and pops behind me, casting orange-black shadows across the worn linoleum. My missal is on the table next to me.
I haven't prayed all day.
The amulet is in my hand, heavy and warm. It's stopped burning, stopped hurting.
I don't take that to be a good sign.
"Hey." Potter shuffles into the kitchen. His feet are bare and he's pulled off his jumper. His navy t-shirt is worn and faded--a hole at the neckline shows a flash of pale skin--and his jeans hang low on his hips. His hair is literally standing on end and a pink imprint of a cushion button mars his cheek.
"You're supposed to be sleeping." I set my cup down.
Potter pours coffee from the stained pot. He yawns. "So are you. What's your excuse?"
"Habitual insomnia," I say with a sigh. It's a rare night I'm in bed before two.
"Me too." Potter takes a seat next to me. His glasses are gone; he blinks and squints at me. His eyes are a deep green. "Thought it'd gotten better, but lately�" He trails off.
I grunt and run a finger over the rim of my coffee cup.
We sit silently for a moment, then Potter rubs his face and leans back in his chair. "You're not frightened are you?"
"Of course I am," I snap. "I'd be a fool not to be."
Potter smiles faintly over the rim of his cup. "You don't seem the type to admit it."
I snort. "Only reckless idiots do not own up to fear, Potter. The true test comes in managing it to one's benefit."
"Fear is an excellent motivator." I cross my ankle over my knee. Dust covers the bottom of my sock; I rub at it. "Appropriately used it can suggest one turn one's entire focus on the task at hand, thus accomplishing it with greater success."
Potter twists his cup between his hands. "Do you think that will happen here?"
"I bloody well hope so," I mutter into my coffee.
A silence stretches between us, then Potter shifts in his chair. He picks my missal up before I can stop him and flips through it.
I snatch it back. My palm prickles painfully and I drop the missal back onto the table with a grimace. "Don't."
"Do you really believe in all this?" he asks. "I mean, I'm curious. Not trying to be an arse or anything."
A moment passes before I reply. "I'm not sure any longer."
"Oh." Potter tilts his head. "Why do you still read from it then?"
"I pray from it," I say wearily. "And not being sure, you imbecile, does not equate to no longer believing at all. I merely..." I hesitate. "I have my doubts."
He nods and leans forward, resting his elbows on the table. "I don't really believe in anything. Sometimes I wish I did, but I don't think I can. You know?" His brow furrows slightly and the look he gives me is oddly uncertain. "I mean, it's not like I care if other people do. I just..."
"Don't see the point in it?" I ask quietly.
"Yeah." He props his chin on his fist. "I don't know that I want anything to be out there after I die. Isn't all this--" He makes a sweeping gesture with his hand, "--enough?"
"Perhaps," I say. The moonlight filters in through the grimy, streaked glass of the window next to me. "Some of us want more, I suppose."
Potter shakes his head. "I don't really see that."
I look at him; he looks back at me, serious and sober. "Perhaps you're not meant to," I murmur. At his raised eyebrow I shrug. "Perhaps there are some individuals who need more than this."
"I guess." Potter leans back. "It's not like I don't believe in good and evil. Can't do this sort of work and not. I just don't know that I want someone else naming it for me. Or telling me what I should do about it, right?"
"A fair enough request," I say grudgingly. In many ways that is the crux of my own crisis of faith.
Potter studies me for a moment, then he pulls a knotted cord from out of his pocket. It's simple brown twine, knots interspersed along the length. "Give me your arm."
"No." I glare at him. "I'll do no such--"
His fingers curl around my wrist, warm and soft. My stomach lurches. "Don't be such a stubborn tit," he says softly. He ties the cord around my wrist. "Viktor gave this to me, but I think you should have it instead. It's a mul--"
"Mulengi dori," I say. I touch the twine. It's an old Romani superstition, a way to keep evil spirits from attacking one. Some claim that it can even make them do one's will. I don't believe either.
"Yeah." Potter flushes. "Forgot you'd probably know what it was." He coughs softly, his cheeks pinking. "Viktor said it was for protection, but I reckon you could use a bit more than me, all things considered."
"There's no magic in it," I point out. "It's nothing but a superstition."
"I'd say the same thing about your praying." Potter shrugs. "Just wear it for luck." He dips his head and his hair tumbles into his eyes. "You can think of me. Or something twattish like that." I look at him in surprise.
"You and Krum," I begin; he shakes his head.
"We were a long time ago." He smiles faintly. "Back when we both played football."
I raise my eyebrow. "You played football."
"Two seasons with Liverpool." Potter looks wistful. "Before my parents died. Sometimes that all feels like another lifetime." He looks at me, his face sober. "Everything changed after that. Things seemed different."
"Yes." I twist my cup between my hands. "My father died when I was fifteen."
Potter doesn't say anything for a moment. "Do you miss him?"
I stare into my coffee. "At times." I take a sip of the too sweet brew, grimacing. "He was a bastard, however. A fucking drunk all too willing to take his frustration out with his fists." Potter watches me, silent. I sigh. "He wasn't entirely terrible."
"There aren't many people who are."
"I suppose not." I snort. "You sound like your mother. I'm quite certain she said something rather similar to me at the time."
A faint smile twists Potter's mouth. It's oddly engaging. "She had that way about her." He looks away. "I miss her."
"Yes." Lily Evans had a most unfortunate way of worming her way under one's skin.
Potter looks at me then, and I'm struck by the sharp angle of his jaw, the soft curve of his bottom lip. I lift my cup to my mouth with a shaking hand. "Did you love her?" he asks quietly.
"Not the way you assume." I reach into my pocket and pull out a packet of cigarettes, tapping one into my palm. I offer the pack to Potter; he shakes his head. Cracking open the window next to me, I light the cigarette and breathe out slowly. Cold seeps in, and I shiver.
The nicotine rush is worth it.
"How then?" Potter studies me, his chin on his fist.
I blow a thin stream of smoke towards the open window and stare out. The moon is silver-white in the black sky; stars glitter around it, sparkling bits of light millions of miles across the universe. "Lily listened," I say finally. "She took the time to hear what someone said. To determine what fed into their thoughts." I look at him then. "For many years she was the only person who bothered with me."
"I stopped trusting her."
"Right," Potter says. "And the reason for that?"
A shrug and another drag off the cigarette. I flick ash out the open window. Bright red paint lines the panes, cracked and flaking in spots. "Your father," I say at last. I meet his eyes. "He was a sodding prick, to say the least. You should ask Black. I'm quite certain he'd be pleased to regale you with stories of their torment of me.
"He already has." Potter dips his head and sighs. "Look, I'm sorry--"
"Don't," I say sharply and I blow a stream of smoke into his face.
He falls silent.
"Your mother chose her path and I chose mine," I say after a moment. "Nothing else needs to be said."
We both stare out the window. Snow begins to fall, a few scattered flakes at first, then heavier, shimmering in the moonlight.
"I've always loved the stars at night," Potter says after a moment.
I don't say anything for a moment. "Again you sound like your mother."
He smiles faintly. "She used to take me out at night and show me the constellations."
My stomach twists. "I taught her those." It had taken three nights lying on our backs hours after curfew before Lily had been able to make out Leo. "Regulus was her favourite star."
"Will you ever forgive her?" Potter asks. His voice is soft, careful.
I drop my cigarette into my coffee, watching as a single curl of smoke twists up. "I did years ago," I say, not looking at him.
He places his hand over mine; I pull away. Potter's cheeks flush.
"Go to bed," I say quietly. "You need your sleep."
The kitchen is silent when he leaves.
At dusk we prepare ourselves.
Bags and kits are opened; phials of holy water and long stakes are tucked in pockets and belts. I reach for a crucifix; it stings smartly against my palm before I shove it in my coat. I keep my face impassive. I do not flinch.
In my trouser pocket I can feel the warmth of the amulet.
Sanguini appears an hour after sundown. He eyes our ragtag group and sighs. "We should be going," he says, and we follow him out of the house.
We do not take the van. Instead we walk along the snowy road, silent shadows against the gleaming white. The full moon hangs heavy in the sky, low over the stark black branches. I can hear the howl of wolves in the distance and my skin crawls.
I walk beside the vampire, the others trail us. He looks over at me. "You are prepared for this, Father?"
"I'm not a priest," I say blankly and he nods.
"Pity. It would be easier for you."
I look at him sharply. "What does that mean?"
Sanguini shrugs. "Whatever you may think, Father--" the word rises on a mocking twist "--you are not so very different from we nightwalkers." His thin smile doesn't reach his dark eyes. "You are dhampir above all and there will come a time for you to choose."
"There is no choice to make," I say tightly, quietly. I glance back at the others. They're not listening.
"So you say." Sanguini tilts his head, leaping over a slight stone wall. I follow him. "But you hear the voices, yes? I smell their touch on you." His eyes drift down to my arm.
I close my fingers over my forearm. "Whose voices?"
The vampire just smiles and refuses to answer. I have a distinctly unsettled feeling that something is not right.
The ruins of a monastery loom before us, draped in ice and snow. Crosses over graves rise up over the sloping path. The scent of decay is strong, even in the cold, crisp air.
Potter hurries towards us. "What are we doing here? I thought we were going to the castle--"
He's cut off by a shriek of voices, a cacophonic cry that chills my bones. My hand flies to the stake in my belt.
Potter's eyes widen behind his glasses. "You bastard--"
We're surrounded by pale faces and dark robes. A good fifteen of them, all young. No older than Potter. They circle us slowly, coming closer. A blond man, with a pale pointed face and grey eyes holds up a hand. I recognise him immediately. I've seen that face once before on a Scottish train platform.
"So nice to see you again, Potter," he says. He nods to me. "Snape." His eyes flick disinterestedly over the rest of our group.
"Fuck off, Malfoy," Potter spits out. He raises a stake. "Or I'll finish what I started last time."
"I'll take him, Draco," a girl says. Her dark, bobbed hair swings forward, obscuring her pale face. "You promised me one to play with."
The blond man--Draco, I assume--holds up a hand and the girl stills, watching him. "Not him, Pansy. You can have any of the others but Potter." His eyes fall on me. "And the priest, of course. Father's asking His Lordship for that one."
Pansy licks her lips and studies us. "The dark one then." She crooks her red-tipped finger at Krum. "I think he'll taste...." She tilts her head and smiles. "Pretty."
Sanguini pushes Krum forward.
"No," Potter shouts, and he reaches for Krum's arm, only to be slammed into the ground by a quick gesture from Draco.
"Do shut it," Draco says lazily. "You're so very tiresome."
My fingers tighten on the stake in my pocket. I tense, balancing on the balls of my feet. "Stop."
The vampires look over at me, amused. "Oh, you don't really want to do that, dhampir," Draco says softly. "Believe me."
"I think I do." I take a step forward; they fall back a step. Pansy shifts her eyes from me to Draco and back again. She curls her fingers around Krum's neck, stroking his jaw with her thumb.
"Snape," Potter says behind me.
I ignore him. "I'd suggest," I say, pulling the stake out of my pocket, "that you hand over Dumbledore."
Draco laughs, a sharp, bitter trill that echoes in the night air. "You suggest. How droll." His eyes flash red for the briefest moment. I feel myself caught, incapable of moving. "I'd suggest that you know your place, dhampir. Whether or not His Lordship spawned you, you're nothing but a wretched half-blood." His mouth twists to one side; his disgust rushes over me in a wave.
I lift my chin and rock my body forward once, twice. I break free, taking a step. The young Malfoy whelp looks taken aback. "And what were you once?" I ask. "You've the look of Lucius--"
A chuckle from a solid, thick boy behind Draco. "He's got you there. Weren't so long ago you were a dhampir yourself."
Malfoy's nostrils flare. "Shut it, Crabbe. I chose my side." He looks coolly at me. "As you'll choose yours."
"We're fucked," I hear Black mutter behind me. My mouth tightens.
I whirl on Sanguini, raising my stake high as I slam it into his chest. His eyes widen; his mouth drops. Blood bursts from the wound, pouring over my hands. I twist the stake to the right once and he screams. I jerk the bloodied stake out of his chest and he sinks to the ground, still blinking, until his body explodes in a shimmer of dust that scatters across the blood-drenched snow.
My breath comes in sharp uneven huffs. I turn slowly, jaw clenched. "You were saying?"
The others hold still for just a moment, staring at the crimson mark against the white footprints. A breath is taken.
And then all hell breaks loose.
In the darkness I can feel Evan shift over me. His fingers are soft against my cheek, over my mouth.
"Stop," I murmur, but I don't mean it. I seldom do. Classes be damned; I prefer to lie here a bit longer with him, tangled together until I can slip unnoticed from his room and return to my own hall.
His palm slips down my throat, cool and smooth against my heated skin. His mouth brushes mine, once, twice, then harder, our tongues pressing together. It takes my breath away.
And when his hand curls around my cock, I gasp and arch up into his touch. "Evan--"
"Severus," he whispers, but it's wrong. Not his voice.
Not his touch.
My eyes fly open. "Fuck--"
A small smirk curls Lucius Malfoy's mouth. "Such language for a priest."
I shove him off me, jerking the zip of my trousers painfully back up over my hard prick. I take a deep breath and roll to the side of the bed away from the blasted vampire. The room is dark, lit only by a leaping fire beneath an elaborately carved mantel. Dusty damask drapes are drawn tight across the windows; bookshelves fill the dim corners. The ceiling is high and shadowed, but I'm almost certain I can make out painting across its surface. Fat cherubim and twisted grapevines. It's not finished.
My head aches. "What am I doing here?"
Lucius stretches across the bed, his hands behind his head. He's oddly beautiful in the firelight, blond hair draped over his shoulders, his black robe spread over the cream brocade duvet. There's a stain at his feet, pale brown and faded. I can't look at it.
"We brought you home, of course." Lucius tilts his head to one side and studies me. "Or my son did, at least."
I run a hand over my face. Blood is still caked beneath my fingernails. "Your son."
"One must keep the family name intact," he drawls, "if not the family blood." He sits up, folding one ankle over his knee. "I assume Potter informed you of our genetic connection."
"Yes." I look at him out of the corner of my eye. "How old are you now? A hundred?"
Lucius smiles. "One hundred and eight to be exact." He leans across the bed and touches my cheek. I jerk away and he frowns. "I've watched you grow up, you see. His Lordship made certain that only someone he trusted would look after his heir." He moves closer to me; the mattress shifts beneath his knees. "I hated that wretch Rosier. Taking what was to be mine...."
His mouth is on mine again; I try to pull back only to find myself sinking back against the pillows, his fingers threading through my hair. I can feel the throb of blood rushing through me and I ache. Christ in heaven, I ache.
He shifts on me, settling between my legs again and I groan. I don't want this--I don't--I gasp as he rocks against my prick.
"I killed him, you realise," Lucius says into my mouth and my stomach twists. "I caught him one night alone outside the library. He tasted so lovely, Severus. No wonder you sucked him down so eagerly." He drags his tongue along my lower lip and I shudder. "What would the Fathers have said?" He pulls back and laughs softly.
"Get off me, you bastard," I choke out weakly. I try to move. I can't. Evan. He'd disappeared at the end of summer term...I'd always thought he'd merely tired of me, tired of school. I close my eyes. "If it wasn't for me then�" The words trail off
Lucius laughs again. "Oh it was most definitely your fault." His fingers curl around my throat, his thumbnail presses against my skin. "I was promised you, after all, and I don't like sharing. I was quite pleased when you chose the Jesuits." He kisses me again, roughly and his fang catches on my lip, ripping it. The pain is sharp; I gasp. He groans and laps eagerly at my blood. "So deliciously sour," he murmurs. "I've wanted more."
I turn my head and stare at the wall. "Where are the others?" I can vaguely remember screams and shouts and the thud of stakes into flesh followed by shrieks from the very pit of hell. There was so much blood on my hands.
"Taken care of," Lucius says tightly and at that I shove him, pushing him off me again. He rolls onto his side. I slam my arm against his neck, holding him down, much to my surprise. My hand catches his wrists, twisting them behind his back. His skin is cool and waxy.
A scream, the look of horror on Krum's face as the girl drags her pointed fingernails across his throat, his blood pouring over her fingers. Her mouth presses against the gashing wound, drinking eagerly. The arc of Potter's stake as it slams into her back. His grim face, spattered with her blood as he drops to the ground next to Krum.
"They had better be alive." My voice catches for just a moment. I don't particularly like the majority of my companions. But still. Not even Black deserves a death like that.
Lucius's smile is thin. "Some."
Granger, caught with her arms behind her, kicking out at the lumbering, dull vampire holding her. His fingers twist in her hair, jerk her head back as he licks his lips. They shine in the moonlight. Weasley shouts from behind, catches Granger as the vampire stumbles forward, his eyes wide, his mouth dropping open. He falls to his knees, gasping for a breath just as his body implodes in a sharp puff of dust and bone fragments. The bloodied stake falls to the snow.
"I want to see them," I say, pressing my elbow against Lucius's throat. He breathes in sharply; his eyes meet mine.
"Not yet," he chokes out. I dig my fingers into his fleshy underjaw. He glares at me. "Your grandfather's sent me for you."
I stare down at him. "My grandfather."
Lucius snorts. "If you've any desire to see your..." His lip curls. "...your friends, I should suggest you take it up with him. No one would be fool enough to take you without his express permission."
"I see." I pull away. Lucius rubs his throat and scowls. "Then take me to him."
"My orders do not come from you." Lucius stands slowly, pulling his robe around him. The faint pink marks on his throat have already faded. He smoothes his sleeves and starts for the door. He turns back to me, with it half-open. "And Severus? If you ever try that again, I will drink every last sip of blood from your damned--"
I brush past him. "You'll do as my grandfather wishes," I snap, "and I greatly doubt my death is in his plans."
His angry hiss in my ear only makes me smile.
The hallway is narrow and cramped and barely lit.
"Have you fools not heard of electricity?" I mutter beneath my breath and Lucius looks back at me, his eyebrow raised.
"We prefer the dark," he says, and he flings open a door. Music and discordant laughter echoes in the hall.
A hush falls over the room as we enter; our footsteps are loud against the flagstones. Torches have been lit along the walls, casting flickering shadows across the throng. Their faces watch me stonily. We're halfway down the room before I realise what the vaulted ceiling and stone arches mean.
The bastards have defiled the monastery.
Wind whips through a broken window, sending snow scattering across the floor. Broken stained glass lies discarded at the foot of a worn statue of the Theotokos.
The crowd parts for us. I can hear the whispers and hisses as I pass. I stiffen my shoulders and stare straight ahead.
Lucius falls to his knees at the foot of the altar steps. "My Lord Voldemort," he murmurs, his forehead pressed to the flagstones.
"Rise." A man, if that's what he can be called, sits at the top of the steps in an ancient wooden and leather chair. He's pale and almost serpentine in his features--nostrils mere slits against smooth flesh, eyes with only the barest hint of lid.
My blood chills.
Lucius stands, his head still bowed as if he were a penitent. "Snape, your Lordship, as you wished."
The thing looks at me then, and his eyes gleam red in the firelight. "I see." A woman stands next to him, her black curls caught up high. Jet beads glitter on the bodice of her black dress; she eyes me haughtily.
"On your knees to your Lord," she says, teeth bared.
I remain standing, my arms crossed over my chest. I raise an eyebrow calmly. My heart thuds against my chest. The crowd rumbles behind me.
A small smile plays across His bloody Lordship's face. "Blood runs true." He waves me closer. "Let me see you."
Lucius pushes me forward. I stumble, to the glee of the vampires behind me. A sharp look from their Lord and they fall silent.
He stands and walks down the steps, remaining above me as he grabs my chin, turns my face to one side, then the other. His fingernails are sharp against my skin. "You have the look of my daughter," he says quietly.
I meet his gaze. "You're Tom Riddle then."
His hand strikes my face, nearly knocking me backwards. My cheek stings; I press my palm to it. It's bleeding. Lucius hisses next to me.
"You may call me Lord Voldemort." His Lordship's mouth is tight. "Nothing else."
I nod, a curt dip of my head that sends my hair swinging forward, catching on the blood on my cheek.
He licks his fingers, then presses them to my face. The stinging disappears, as does the blood.
There's a quiet wail from the others.
"You'll have your sport soon enough," my grandfather says sharply and they fall silent. He turns to me. "Your mother is well?"
"Yes." I eye him. "What do you want with me?"
He smiles. "What would a doting grandfather wish for his grandson?"
"You don't particularly strike me as doting."
Voldemort tips his head. "Perhaps not." He looks me up and down. "I thought your mother might become my heir. I watched her as she grew to adulthood, of course. One keeps track of one's spawn after all. I found her...lacking."
"My mother lacks nothing," I snap at him and he chuckles.
His robe drags across the steps as he moves to my level. "She lacked everything. Strength. Ambition. Desire." He touches my face. "You know all about desire, do you not, Severus?"
I look away.
Voldemort laughs, then moves closer, circling behind me. His breath huffs across my throat. "I am willing to offer you everything. Power. A sexuality you've denied yourself for so many years. Eternal life like nothing your foolish Church can promise. When my Master calls for me, you will take my place for generations. There are those--" he gives Lucius a scathing look "--who would leap at this opportunity."
"Then choose them," I say, meeting my grandfather's eyes. "I've no interest."
My head snaps back as his fingers close around my throat. "Not so quickly." He drags his thumb over my jaw. "Your very blood calls out for this life. You hear it every night, do you not? That steady thrum inside of you? The sweet whisper of your name dragging you deeper--"
I jerk away. "Stop it."
Voldemort grabs my arm, pushing my sleeve up. The Mark is black against my skin. "Blood of my blood," he says softly. He pushes the silk of his robe up to his elbow. A matching black skull mars his forearm. He doesn't look away from me. "Lucius."
Lucius extends his own arm. Another mark, the same as mine, is on his flesh.
I look back at my grandfather. "What does it mean?"
"That you, my boy, belong to me." Voldemort's eyes glitter in the torchlight. "You always have."
We stare at each other for a long moment, then Voldemort smiles.
"The amulet if you will."
I hesitate, then, as if compelled, I reach into my pocket and pull out the small coin. It's unwrapped. There's been no need for a handkerchief the past day. The burning has ceased.
Voldemort takes it from me, holding it between wizened fingers. He draws a deep breath, running his thumb over the engraved serpent. "This is your history, Severus. The Order of the Dragon."
I don't say anything.
He turns the amulet. The serpent slithers from front to back, settling again with its tail in its mouth. My breath catches.
"I was born a very long time ago," Voldemort murmurs, meeting my eyes. "My mother would tell me stories of her grandfather. Grand, glorious tales of blood and murder and intrigue. Imagine what they meant to a poor English peasant boy. My mother's father had been the son of a prince of Wallachia. As a child, he had fallen, you see, from his mother's horse whilst the family and their servants were in retreat from the Turks. His parents believed him to be dead. He wasn't." Voldemort strokes my cheek with his knuckle--a horrific imitation of a paternal caress that sends a shudder down my spine. "Instead he was found by a peasant alongside the road. Gaunt, his name was, and he raised the boy as his own. He named him Marvolo, and when my grandfather's father discovered him to be alive fifteen years later, the poor serf was highly rewarded. Unfortunately, my grandfather was soon to find that bearing his rightful name of Dracula--son of the mighty Dragon--would be detrimental to his health."
"The Turks weren't fond of Vlad Tepes," I say, and Voldemort tilts his head again. His skin, when the torchlight hits it, looks like serpent scales.
"You always were a bright lad." He touches my shoulder, leads me up the steps slowly. "After his father's supposed death by the Turks, Marvolo Gaunt fled to England to save his life and there begat Merope, my mother. When she was twenty, she was visited by her grandfather." He pushes me into the chair. "Vlad was still alive. He'd discovered the secret to immortality, you see, or a variant of it at least, and was more than willing to share it with his granddaughter, incestuous though it might seem."
I look out at the shadowed nave of the ruint chapel. A wide hole in the roof let moonlight filter through, illuminating a swathe of pale faces, listening intently to their Lord. "And this is what she passed down to you."
"And I give it to you." Voldemort's hand is heavy on my shoulder. He holds the amulet before me. "It is your birthright, after all. Your great-great-great-grandfather deemed it so. He reformed the Order to his specifications. An army of the undead sworn fealty to him for eternity." He leans closer. "Brilliant."
"Why isn't he still here?" I ask tightly. I glare up at my grandfather. "Where is your mother for that matter?"
Voldemort shrugs, a quick lift of one shoulder. "I killed her when her consort became too difficult to manage. Grindelwald always was a fool. It was not incredibly difficult to offer him up to our enemies."
"Albus," I begin and Voldemort cuts me off with a scowl.
"I gave him what he asked." His mouth twists to the side. "And he allowed me what I desired. A safe haven for my heir to be raised in exchange for his lover's death." At my expression, he laughs. "Surely you did not think your professor to be without sin? Idiot boy."
The vampires howl with laughter. Even Lucius smirks at me.
"As for Vlad Tepes," Voldemort continues, "there is a time when our Master calls each one of us to his side."
Voldemort raises an eyebrow. "Perhaps you know him as Lucifer. Bringer of light." His eye falls on Lucius and he smiles thinly. "He allows us our life after death for our promise of fealty. Not a difficult choice."
"A blasphemous choice." I'm shaking. My grandfather notices.
"One you long for," he says softly. "You kick against the pricks, little one. You struggle with that which you have been told to believe. And now..." He sweeps his arm wide, his sleeve fluttering in the cold air. "Now, I offer you the chance to rid yourself of all those foolish human beliefs. Take it, Severus."
My pulse pounds in my throat and I stare out at the throng of vampires. They raise a cry to the sky, an unearthly, chilling scream that fills the air, floods my veins. I believe nothing. I believe everything. I can be man. I can be eternal. I want--
"Please," Lucius says and his voice is almost a whine. "You promised--"
Voldemort nods; Lucius licks his lip, then raises his wrist to his mouth, dragging his tooth along the pale skin. Blood wells up, pours over his palm. I can smell it, sharp and bitter and I moan softly.
My heart pounds; I can feel it in every millimetre of my body. I close my eyes, feeling the rough carvings of the chair arms beneath my palms. They scrape and press against my skin as my hands tense. I hear Lucius whisper my Lord as he climbs the steps toward me. My grandfather touches my cheek, my forehead, drawing my head back, exposing my throat. His fingers are cold, clammy.
"The blood is for the soul, Severus," Voldemort whispers in my ear. "Drink of it."
I can feel Lucius's arm brush my cheek, can smell the blood as his slick hand slides over my jaw. "Drink," he whispers, his mouth pressed to my temple.
For a moment, I hesitate. Power. Freedom. Strength. All mine.
And then I turn my head, press my mouth to my shoulder, away from the sharp iron tang of Lucius's wrist.
"Only beware of this," I say quietly, my voice muffled, "that thou eat not the blood, for the blood is for the soul: and therefore thou must not eat the soul with the flesh." I open my eyes and turn my head again, staring up at Voldemort.
The hall is silent.
"Deuteronomy chapter twelve, verse twenty-three." Pulling away, I step down between Lucius and my grandfather, then look back at them both. Lucius is half-turned, his brow furrowed. I lift my chin. "I would suggest," I say finally, "that when you use Scripture to make your point you take it in the entirety of its context."
Voldemort's mouth thins. "You're unclean, Severus. Unclean to that ridiculous, outdated faith you cling to. Do you truly think it will save your soul in the end?" His nostrils flare. "It's all lies, you realise."
"Better lies than what you offer," I snap.
"Really." He circles me and leans closer, his red eyes glittering. "Aren't you tired of fighting them?" he whispers. "You could be the man you were born to be. No more guilt. Only pleasure."
My jaw tightens and I say nothing.
"I give you a chance for your freedom." Voldemort tilts his head, studying me. "What has your idiotic Church to offer you?"
I'm silent for a long moment, then I meet his eyes. "Grace," I say softly, and the emptiness in me slides away. In an instant, my choice is made. I wonder if it had been all along. "For all its myriad faults, it offers grace."
Voldemort's steps back as if struck. Anger twists across his face, quickly replaced by calm. "You fool." He looks back at the woman standing a few feet away. "Bellatrix. Bring out our guest."
She smiles, a cruel, bitter curve of her mouth, and nods. Her heels click against the flagstones.
"What are you going to do?" I ask sharply.
Voldemort ignores me and instead turns to the throng of vampires below us. "Draco Malfoy," he calls out, and the boy shoves his way past the others. His eyes glow at the recognition. Pompous little arse. A woman with pale blonde hair and the same pointed face follows him, hissing at the other vampires as they try to keep her back. Draco kneels at the foot of the steps; she stands behind him.
"Lucius," Voldemort says, "bring your family to me."
The elder Malfoy dips his head and steps down to his son, holding out one hand to him and the other to the woman. He leads them up the steps; they bow to Voldemort almost reverently and he places his hands gently on their heads.
"My eaters of death," Voldemort says, and his voice rings through the room. "My faithful are well-rewarded." He caresses Draco's cheek and throat. The boy leans into it, a heavy-lidded look of satisfaction on his face.
It makes me ill.
Bellatrix returns, a hooded man in tow, his hands tied behind his back. My heart stops at the glimpse of long white beard.
"No," I say and Voldemort smirks at me.
"I would have given him to you," he says softly, "had you accepted what I offered. Instead, young Malfoy claims him."
"Don't you bloody dare!" I lunge forward and a hand around my throat stops me. Voldemort holds me tight, my feet barely on the ground. My arms are caught at my sides, unable to move.
Dumbledore's hood is pulled back; he meets my eyes. He's frailer, pale, his eyes shadowed, dark. Dried blood streaks his throat. The bastards have been feeding off him for two days. Draco's tongue drags across his lip; his eyes gleam greedily.
"I'm sorry," I choke out and Dumbledore smiles gently at me.
"It's not your fault, my boy," he says. His voice rasps and he sways for a moment before catching himself. "When the time comes, you'll know what to do."
Voldemort's fingernails dig into my skin, drawing blood. "Get on with it, Malfoy."
Bellatrix jerks Dumbledore's head back. She looks at the boy expectantly.
And then he's on Dumbledore with a cry, his thigh shoved between the older man's legs as he slams his mouth against his throat, drinking eagerly. He holds his arm out; his mother drags a sharp fingernail down it, cutting him. Bellatrix forces Dumbledore's mouth open and presses Draco's bleeding arm to it, covering Dumbledore's nose until he gasps for breath against the bloody skin.
Dumbledore's body jerks against Draco's and they slide to the floor, the boy still feeding frantically off his throat, his bloodlust unsated.
I'm shaking, screaming for it to stop, struggling to be free from my grandfather's iron grasp. It's only when Draco pulls away from Dumbledore's limp body, his face smeared with the old man's blood, his breath coming in sharp gasps, his eyes glazed and blank, that I'm allowed to slip limply to the floor. I crawl to Dumbledore, heedless of the delight of the vampires behind me.
His eyes flutter, and, hands shaking, I smooth his hair back from his forehead. It's soft and wiry beneath my fingers. "Help me," he whispers.
There's only one thing I know to do.
"We commend to you, O Lord, the soul of this your servant Albus," I say softly, and his body twists beneath my hand. He cries out, a scream of pain and I stop. The words catch in my throat.
"Go on," he gasps.
I take a shaky breath and nod. I lick my bottom lip "And beseech you, O Jesus Christ, Redeemer of the world, that, as in your love for him, you became man, so now you would grant to admit him into the number of the blessed."
Dumbledore's body trembles beneath my fingers; his skin reddens at my touch. His eyes roll back, the whites visible.
"You fool," Voldemort says above me, and I whirl on him, angrily.
"Fuck off." Spittle flies from my mouth.
His eyes narrow; his lips twitch in amusement. "Your idiotic superstitions won't do him any good now. He'll die tonight and wake up with tomorrow's moon, one of us."
Dumbledore grabs my arm. "Severus," he says weakly.
I turn back to him. My heart slams against my chest; I can barely breathe. The agony on Dumbledore's face wrenches through me. This is all I can do for him, whether or not it means any damned thing at all. "May all the Saints and Elect of God, who, on earth, suffered for the sake of Christ, intercede for him," I whisper, my voice rough. "So that, when freed from the prison of his body, he may be admitted into the kingdom of heaven: through the merits of our Lord Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with the Father and the Holy Spirit, world without end. Amen."
Another scream from the man beneath me gives me pause. Dumbledore's skin is blistering beneath my fingers, and I draw a ragged breath. "May the blessing of God Almighty the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit descend upon you and remain with you always." My hand is steady, unpained as I make the sign of the cross--and I know now what my choice means--and Dumbledore slumps against the floor, his eyes empty.
I close his eyelids gently.
Fingers twist in my hair, jerking me to my feet.
"This," Voldemort says, his eyes hard and bright, "will happen every nightfall to your companions until you reconsider your decision. One by one, they'll join us, each drinking from the other's veins."
"Why?" I glare at him. "Why do you care so damned much?"
Voldemort shoves me back, sending me staggering into Lucius. "Get him out of my sight."
Lucius's hands curl around my shoulders tightly.
"I want to see them," I snarl. "Before I make any bloody choice."
Voldemort hesitates, his mouth a thin line, then he nods to Lucius. "To the hunt," he snaps out, and turns on his heel.
He strides through the crowd of vampires. They follow him blindly.
The corridors beneath the sanctuary are narrow and ancient. Rough-hewn stone walls catch my sleeves as I walk behind Lucius. Only the torch in the vampire's hand lights our way. We stop before a rotting wooden door set into a vaulted archway. A rattle of keys from Lucius's hand and the door opens with a quiet scream of rusted hinges. He nods at me, and I step into the dark hall.
We've reached the monks' cells. Doors line the walls, small holes cut into each one. My footsteps echo in the silence as I slowly walk down the hall.
There's no answer.
"Potter," I say loudly. I'm holding myself tense, I realise in surprise.
A rustle of movement behind one door stops me. "Snape?" Granger's pale face, streaked with blood peers out at me.
"Who else?" I ask tightly.
She presses her forehead to the door. "Harry's here. He's lost a lot of blood, though." Her eyes are wet. "Malfoy's been down."
"Potter's not drank any of Malfoy's blood, has he?" My stomach lurches.
Granger shakes her head. "Not yet."
"Keep him from it." I peer through the hole in her door. Potter's on the floor, curled in on himself. My breath catches. He looks pale, weak. "The others?"
"Sirius and Ron are down the hall," she says. "Stefan too. Viktor--"
The tears slip down her cheeks then. "We couldn't do anything--we couldn't stop them from taking you. Harry thought--" She breaks off, taking a shaky breath. "You're all right?"
She studies my face. I bare my teeth for her and she relaxes. "We didn't know if they'd--"
"Severus," Lucius says from behind me, and his hands slide over my shoulder, pulling me against him. "Have you seen enough?" He wrinkles his nose. "It reeks of human down here."
I push him away. "Get off of me."
"Snape, you bastard." Black's face presses against a door a few feet away. "You sodding Gypsy prick--"
Lucius is next to him then, his fingers flying out, scraping over Black's cheek. Blood wells across his chin. "Watch your tongue, you blood traitor."
Black spits in his face. "Go back to fucking my shit cousins, Malfoy."
"You wretch--" Lucius grabs Black by the throat, slamming him into the door. "Too much of a coward to accept your family's wishes--"
"My family be damned," Black roars, his fingers jerking Lucius's hand away, pressing it painfully against the door. I can see the bones snap beneath his skin. The vampire jerks back with a howl. Black looks at me, his eyes dark and glittering. "If he dies, Snape, I'll hold you responsible. Do you hear me? I'll hunt you down myself and stab you through your black heart--"
Weasley pulls him back. "Sirius. Stop."
Black turns on him, shoving him against the wall. I hear him fall with a thud and a muffled curse.
"I'll kill you, Snape," Black screams at me, and Lucius watches me, amused. His fingers smooth over his bruised skin, his broken bones. In a moment it's smooth again. He clenches his fist, turning it.
With a shudder, I turn and walk out of the hall.
I can't stop shaking.
Lucius leaves me in my room.
The door is locked from the outside; I immediately try the windows. They have been boarded up on both inside and out, I determine.
With a groan, I lean against the wall, staring around me. The room is large and open. My guess is that it was never originally meant to be a bedroom. A receiving room, perhaps, once meant for entertaining guests less used to the simplicity of monastic life.
Another entrance might be possible.
I go from wall to wall, pressing on paneling, shoving hard against plastered walls to see if any are hollow enough to indicate a previous passageway.
None appear to be.
"Bloody fucking hell," I shout, slamming my fist into a painted panel. Pain explodes through my wrist. "Shit."
I grab my hand, holding it tight, and I sink to the floor. My head falls back against the wall. I feel helpless. Hopeless. There's nothing to be done. I breathe in, harshly. For the briefest moment I weigh the horror of a life lived in this manner against the mortal sin of suicide and an eternity spent outside of the celestial presence. I am truly not certain which would be worse.
The hours pass. How many I am not certain; I have no way of telling morning from evening. The fire burns down to mere embers, leaving the room swathed in shadows.
Still, I sit, fingers curled around my wrist. I sleep, though not for long. A few minutes perhaps. My exhaustion is near overwhelming.
In quiet whispers, I pray the rosary, twisting the knotted mulengi dori around my wrist with each decade. It takes three minutes to pray a decade I know from experience, seventeen for a full mystery.
I'm halfway through the Fifth Mystery for the third time when my answer comes.
The string of the mulengi dori is rough against my fingertips. I stare down at it, rolling it between my thumb and forefinger. It's a superstition, I tell myself, ridiculous to even think...and yet.
Somehow I am certain it will work.
I untie the cord and wait.
I doze, in the corner behind the door.
My knees are pulled to my chest, the mulengi dori twisted around my hand. My stomach rumbles; I haven't eaten in over twenty-four hours. I would gladly sacrifice my own mother at the moment for a bottle of water, a thought for which I am certain she would box my ears soundly.
The creak of the floorboards outside my room wakes me. Keys rattle at the doorknob. I tense and pull myself up into a crouch, waiting for the door to open just enough--
I have Lucius's arm twisted behind him before he can react. He hisses and twists, turning to strike me, but the cord is already coiled around his wrist.
"Sara," I say, staring into his angry eyes, "patron saint of Roma the world over, you who came from a far-away country across the seas, from your place in heaven, come to my aid."
Lucius screams, dropping to his knees, and the mulengi dori flames white around his arm. He catches himself with his free hand, his hair falling across his face. "Severus," he groans, and he throws his head back with a sharp cry. His face is twisted in pain, his lips drawing back to bare sharp, white teeth.
I flinch, but continue, knotting the cord tightly. The words come from outside of me. "Defend me from the snares of the enemy and from all adversity and extend to your child your continual protection against the powers of darkness. Saint Sara, pray for me." I take a deep breath, my fingers tight on Lucius's wrist. "O ushalin zhala sar o kam mangela," I whisper.
The shadow moves as the sun commands.
The room is silent, save for Lucius's ragged gasps.
"Get up," I say finally and with a glare he does. I drop my hand, he lunges for me. "Stop."
Lucius stops, breathing hard. "You bastard."
I smile thinly and push him toward the door. "You're going to take me down to the others. Now. And we're not going to be caught, Lucius."
"And you think that's possible." He snorts. "First Death Eater I see--"
"You'll pass." I meet his gaze. "And every one thereafter. As far as any of them will know you are taking me down there on my sodding grandfather's order. Do you comprehend?"
He growls at me, glaring through a fall of blond hair. "I won't--"
I raise my eyebrow calmly and he screams again in pain as the mulengi dori tightens around his wrist, white-hot. "It's poisoning you slowly, Lucius. Saint Sara will see to that."
"You superstitious fool--" His spittle strikes my cheek.
I wipe it away with the back of my hand. "A superstition that appears to be working." I step through the doorway. "Take me downstairs."
With a hiss, he brushes past me.
The lower corridors are silent and pitch black.
"Light the lamps," I say, my fingers tight on the nape of Lucius's neck. His hair falls over my hand, silky-soft. He doesn't answer. I dig my fingernails into his skin and he breathes in sharply. The mulengi dori flares in the darkness. "I said, light them."
A moment's pause, then he mutters, "Lumos." The lamps along the wall burst into flame.
"Where did you put our weapons?" I ask. "You can't have emptied the phials of holy water."
Lucius is stubbornly silent.
His tongue darts between his lips. "Storeroom."
"Take me there." At his hesitation, I twist my fingers in his hair, jerking his head back. "Take me there."
Lucius pulls away and turns down another hallway. He looks back, eyes dark and baleful. "Are you coming or not?"
I follow him.
Our footsteps echo in the quiet. Nothing moves in the shadows. Not even a rat.
"Why did you do it?" I ask after a moment, looking at him sideways.
"What?" He snaps the word out bitterly.
"Your father was searching for you--"
Lucius's mouth thins. "Abraxas Malfoy was my father. Not that bloody human."
"That's not true." We turn a corner; the hallway narrows. I fall behind him. "How old were you when he turned you? You don't look much younger than me."
He doesn't answer at first, then he sighs. "Forty-three."
"You lived with him for forty-three years before--"
He cuts me off. "My father allowed me my time to make my choice. As I allowed my son."
"What sort of choice was that?" I murmur, almost to myself. "A living death?"
Lucius looks at me sharply. "Eternal life. Power."
"At what price?" I shake my head. "You could have had freedom with Stoker--"
"With Stoker?" Lucius whirls on me. "With the man who left me as an infant? Who consigned me to this life for eternity because he was too much of a bloody coward to come after a band of vampires to save his bastard son?" His hands tremble as he pushes his hair back from his face. "Don't think I didn't watch him in later years. I had a half-brother. Noel. I met him once, in an alley in Amsterdam." Lucius looks away. "He resented me for our father's guilt-ridden pursuit of me as I resented the fool for his place as the rightful son. But it was never about me for Stoker. Not really. It was always about my mother."
I watch him. "You're named for her."
Lucius tilts his head in acknowledgment. "She gave up her own self for Abraxas's promise that he would allow me to make my own choice in taking the curse. He kept that vow." He stares off over my head. "A monster such as Abraxas Malfoy had far more honour than Abraham Stoker ever could claim."
A torch crackles overhead, casting long shadows across Lucius's pale face.
"You chose for him," I say at last.
"I'm a Malfoy, not a Stoker." He turns. "Do you want your damned weapons or not?"
I follow him slowly.
The storeroom is small, located at the end of a twisting passage. They've hidden it away with good cause.
Lucius stops at the door. "I won't go in."
I nod. "Stay here then." I look back at him from the open entrance. "If this bloody door moves even an iota I will call on all of heaven to burn you whole."
He hisses. I'm not a fool; I'm completely aware of what he'd hoped. One small move, one slam of the door, and I'd be trapped in here for eternity. Or at least until His bloody damned Lordship saw fit to release his errant grandson.
The room is dusty, disorganised. Piles of broken statues and battered chalices lie strewn across the floor. I look back at Lucius.
He shrugs. "His Lordship had villagers empty what little was left of the monastery before he claimed it back in the sixties. Better than us blistering our fingers." He snorts at my appalled look. "Oh, please, it's not as if we ran the priests out. This place was abandoned for over a century as it was and do believe me when I say neither Gheorghiu-Dej nor Ceausescu had any interest in preserving it for use. Bucharest during the Cold War was quite happy to leave this ruin alone." He looks wistful. "I do miss Ceausescu, I must say. Absolute wretch of a bastard, but most useful."
"What happened to the villagers?"
A small smile curves his mouth. He twists the mulengi dori, fingers working beneath it. "You saw most of them last night."
"Bastard," I mutter and I turn back to the storeroom.
Our stakes have been tossed just inside the door, phials of holy water discarded. Most of them have shattered, leaked between the broken stones, seeping into the dirt below the storeroom floor. One small plastic bag of sunflower seeds has tumbled out of a satchel. I grab it and the few remaining phials and shove them in my pocket, collecting the stakes and sliding them through my belt. Horace's rosary lies dangling from the end of one. I slip it over my hand, wrapping it tightly around my wrist.
It doesn't burn.
I stand and walk back out to the hallway, brushing past Lucius. He shudders. "Have you your death weapons now, priest?" He bares his teeth again, growling. The cord on his wrist tightens, and he staggers back against the wall. He pulls at it, his fingernails ripping at his skin. Blood flows over his hand, splattering against the floor.
"Don't," I say, but he only howls, tearing at the knotted cord until it snaps.
Lucius breathes out, his chest heaving. "Your prayers weren't enough, I suppose." He drops the cord at my feet.
"You kill me, your life will be forfeit," I say, circling around him.
His teeth are sharp and bright against his bottom lip. "Oh, I've no intention of killing you, Severus," he says softly.
"Don't do this--"
Lucius lunges for me.
Without thought, I jerk a stake from my belt and swing it towards him. He blocks it easily with his forearm and shoves me against the wall.
"You want this," Lucius says, and his breath is hot against my throat. "I can smell your blood--"
I shove him away, sending him staggering across the hall. He slams into the stone wall, his head hitting it with a sharp crack.
"Hail Mary, full of grace," I whisper to myself, gathering my strength, "Blessed art thou among women--"
Lucius laughs. "As if that will help you. When are you going to learn, Severus? Your saints, your Virgin, your prayers, your crosses, your God mean nothing."
"To you perhaps."
He flexes, tenses. "I suppose we'll see then."
My fingers grip the stake tightly. In a manner, he is correct. It is not the words that will kill him, I know. Not the physical accoutrements of the Christian religion, whatever the folklore states. They mean little, really. Mere stumbling blocks to slow the creatures. They needn't be crucifixes or prayers to saints or holy water. The true power that they have comes only through my own belief in their holiness. The Star of David, the name of Allah, the Ashtamangala, fire, hawthorn, garlic�all would accomplish the same if the wielder has faith in them. They are merely tools. Frail fragments of faith used against evil.
And what will kill Lucius, I am aware, is not my God but me.
Lucius rushes at me; I sidestep him, my heart pounding. The wall is hard against my back.
I'm backed into a corner. No escape.
Lucius turns, his face triumphant. He reaches for me, his fingernails sharp and pointed.
With an upward swing of my arm, the stake slams into his chest with a muffled thud and the cracking of sternum and ribs.
His eyes widen, his mouth opens once, twice. His blood pours over my hand, thick and warm, and just as he lurches forward, his last breath gusting across my mouth, his body explodes in a plume of dust. His ring of keys clatters to the floor.
I lean against the wall, gasping. My hair is caught on my damp temple; I raise my bloodied hand, still clenched around the stake.
"Christ," I choke out softly, and the stake drops to the floor.
I cross myself.
It takes me nearly a quarter-hour to find the monks' cells.
Only once do I run into vampires; I smell them before I see them, and I quickly hide myself in a shadowed alcove until they pass, my heart racing. I wait a moment before I slip away, down another corridor.
I stop outside Black's cell. The rattle of keys brings him to the door.
"What are you doing?" he asks angrily. "Coming to hand us over, Snivellus?"
"Oh, do shut it, you fucking tit," I snap. I fumble with the lock, twisting the heavy skeleton key with both hands. The door swings open. "I've come to get your bloody arse out."
Weasley and Stefan leap up behind him. The elder Krum's face is drawn, shadowed.
I shove a stake and a phial of holy water in Black's hands. "It's all I could get."
He hefts the stake, a damned smile crossing his idiotic face. "If I didn't loathe you, I'd kiss you."
"Do restrain yourself."
"Hermione," Weasley starts and I cut him off, handing him a stake.
"I'll get to her and Potter in a moment."
Weasley catches my arm. "No," he says tightly. "Malfoy and his cronies came down ten minutes ago and took her. We heard them when they brought her past--"
"Shit." I stare at him.
His face is pale, his freckles a stark contrast. His eyes are wild. "I have to get her. I'm not leaving without--"
"Don't be an idiot," I snap. I shove more stakes at him and Stefan. "Go. I'll get Potter and we'll catch up."
The boy nods. Black's already half down the hall. Stefan grabs my elbow as I turn. I look back.
"Be careful," he says in his rough, rusty voice. He's off then, his footsteps echoing after the other two, and I turn towards Potter's cell.
I hear it before I reach the door. A soft sigh. A muffled groan.
Through the grate I see Potter collapsed against the wall, head lolled to one side, eyes staring blankly at me. The only thing holding him upright is Draco, his face pressed to Potter's neck.
My heart stops.
The keys rattle in the lock. The younger Malfoy whirls, his face streaked with Potter's blood. His eyes glow a brilliant crimson in the shadows as I throw the door open. With a roar of rage, I grab him by the throat, slamming him against the side of the door. I can hear the bones in his shoulders snap.
He screams--an unearthly shriek that sends chills down my spine--and his fingernails scrape across my cheek, coming away bloody. I don't even notice the pain.
The stake is in Draco's heart before I realise it, sinking with a soft suck into his flesh.
He's gone, drifting around me in a faint, gleaming ash.
I drop the stake and rush to Potter's side, crouching next to him.
He's weak, barely able to push himself up. "Snape," he says faintly.
"Shut it." I pull him half across my thighs, smoothing his unruly hair back so I can see his throat. "You would be so damned foolish, wouldn't you--" My voice cracks slightly. Potter's fingers curl around mine. His breath rattles in the back of his throat. He presses my fingers to his mouth.
"Knew you'd come."
"Liar," I say, and he just smiles, but it falters.
He closes his eyes. "I'm sorry, Severus," he whispers against my skin. His grip loosens; his hand slides away, falling open onto the floor. His breath slows. Stops.
"Don't," I scream at him. "Don't you dare sodding die, you wretch."
Potter's limp in my arms. My stomach twists. He can't die. I won't let him. I won't.
I don't stop to think of what that might mean.
Blood streaks Potter's throat and his shirt, drenching the cotton through to his sleeve. Without thought, I lean down and press my mouth to his throat, my lips soft against the angry dual tears in his skin. "Please," I whisper. "Please, Holy Mother."
Before I can pull away, Potter sucks in a gulp of air with a rasp, his body jerking in my arms. His eyes flutter open.
We stare at each other.
In shock, I drag my thumb over his throat, smearing away blood. The wounds are gone.
"Severus?" Potter says, voice shaky. "Did you just..." He trails off, blinking behind his glasses. They're dirty, smudged with fingerprints and spattered with blood.
"It wasn't me." My hand trembles as I pull it away. Potter's blood, with both Malfoys', stains my hands. I wipe my fingers on my trousers.
Potter coughs. "Yeah, that's not what I was going to say." He touches his neck, his eyes lingering on my mouth.
"We're not going to talk about this," I say blankly. My cheeks are hot.
Potter nods. "Okay." He slowly pushes himself to his feet, wincing and catching himself once against the rough stones of the wall. He glances down at the bloodied stake in the doorway. "You wouldn't happen to have another one of those?"
I clamber up, pulling one from my belt and handing it to him silently.
We pause for a moment. Potter licks his bottom lip. "We're really not going to talk--"
"There's a monastery full of vampires out there," I snap, gesturing wildly. "I think it's a bad time."
"Yeah." Potter shrugs. "Right then."
He heads out the door. I'm on his heels.
"And for the love of all that's holy," I say tightly, "can you please, you idiot, attempt not to get yourself killed." I pause. "Again."
Potter's laugh echoes through the empty hall.
We step over three piles of dust in the upstairs corridor.
"I'm hoping that's a good sign," Potter says, moving closer to the doors to the chapel.
I raise my stake higher, peering around the corner. "One would hope."
He raises both eyebrows; I tilt my head towards the corner. He nods.
We slip around the edge of the wall, and Potter's nearly at the door when a hand grabs him, shoves him against the wall. A stake is at his throat.
"Shit," Potter hisses, and Weasley lowers his stake.
"Sorry, mate," Weasley says apologetically. "A bit on edge, I reckon."
Potter rubs the pink mark under his jaw. "Yeah, I'd say." He looks at Weasley and Stefan. "Where's Sirius?"
"About to create a diversion." Weasley grins. "Those three dust piles you passed? They were about ready to go in and tell His Bloody Fucking Madness that the greasy git over here'd slipped out of his rooms."
"Fucking shit," Potter mutters.
Weasley nods. "We figured it might be best for Sirius to pull one of his..." He pauses. "Well. You know."
"Might as well." Potter leans against the door, his hand on the knob, a stake clutched in his other fist. He still looks pale and worn out; his throat is bruised slightly. "Is Hermione in there?"
"Yeah." Weasley's brow furrows. "She's safe until they bring him in." He nods towards me. "He has to be there."
Potter shifts against the door. "Okay then. We'll go in when we hear Sirius. You and me first, Stefan and Severus can come in after--"
"Severus?" Weasley asks and Potter flushes but doesn't say anything.
I curl my fingers around the hilt of a new stake. I'm balanced on the balls of my feet, ready for what comes next. The rosary swings from my wrist.
I wonder if I'll live through this night.
I wonder if it matters.
We hear a muffled thump and then a shout from inside the chapel.
Take that you bloody fucking wanker!
Black never did have an extraordinary amount of class.
Potter and Weasley shove the doors open, their stakes already swinging high, bringing them down into the backs of the two vampires guarding the entrance. They disappear in a burst of dust.
The chapel is in an uproar. Black clings to the statue of the Blessed Virgin on the side of the nave, his stake sweeping arcs around him, catching the more idiot vampires as they leap up to pull him down. He laughs like a maniac, his eyes madly bright.
Granger is held on the altar steps, clutched tight by a furious Voldemort, his fingers curled around her throat. Dumbledore stands next to him, the wrinkles of his face nearly smoothed out, his white beard neatly combed. He wears a black robe of the same cut as my grandfather's.
It makes me ill.
A few vampires catch sight of us, turning our way.
"Go," Potter shouts, and he and Weasley shoot off in separate directions, stakes in both hands, swinging wildly.
I look at Stefan. He lifts a phial of holy water then looks down the centre aisle. "Hai?" he asks and I nod.
We run down the nave, sending vampires scattering as we toss holy water their way. I have a flash of solemn Mass in Easter, of Ferris dipping the palm leaves into holy water and sprinkling the people in the name of the Trinity. I slam my stake into a young woman's chest as she rushes towards me. It's only when I see her wide, dark eyes that I remember her name.
"May God have mercy on your soul," I whisper, and I pull the bloodied stake from her heart. She fades into a shimmering nothingness.
Stefan spits where she stood. I cannot blame him.
I look up at the altar. Granger twists in Voldemort's grasp; he shoves her towards Dumbledore, his eyes fixed on Potter. He strides towards him. I turn to follow; Stefan grabs my arm. "The girl," he snaps, and I look back at Granger, at Dumbledore staring at her, a curious hunger on his face.
"No," I shout, and I run towards them, Stefan on my heels. It feels slow, as if I'll never reach the wide stone steps. Dumbledore looks at me. His mouth opens; he pushes the girl away.
Stefan throws a stake towards her, and she catches it, turning to raise it to Dumbledore.
Tears are running down her face as she looks at him. "I can't," she says. "I can't--"
"Granger!" My foot is on the first step. "If you want to live--"
"I can't. Not him," she screams at me and Dumbledore smiles.
It's a vicious twist of his mouth that chills me. I shove the girl aside, lunging in front of her as Dumbledore attacks.
Horace's rosary slams into his shoulder. He falls back with a scream, rolling against the steps.
"Severus," he chokes out. "Please--"
Our eyes meet. His mouth parts; I can see the sharp fangs. My hand shakes.
"Please," he says again and I can see the agony in his gaze. It's what I would want done for me.
I bring the stake down again with a squelching thud. Dumbledore grabs my wrist and looks up at me, his eyes pained. "Thank you," he whispers.
I jerk the stake free. Blood rushes from the wound.
His body disintegrates.
I cross myself slowly, my breath coming in ragged gasps. I look at Granger. She stares at the spot where Dumbledore had lain. I snap my fingers in front of her face. "Pull it together, girl, if you want us to get out of here alive."
She blinks once, then looks down at the stake in her hand. She nods, turning just in time to slam it into the chest of a shrieking vampire.
A shout from across the nave catches my attention. Voldemort has Potter cornered, a tight smile on his face.
"Bloody hell." I run towards them, Stefan and Granger following me. A vampire skids into our path, stopping us with a wide smile.
"Oh, for God's sake," I mutter. I let the rosary on my wrist fall loose. "Get out of the sodding aisle."
The vampire laughs. "I think not."
"Then we'll do this the painful way, you twat." I swing my arm up, letting the rosary slam into his face.
He smirks at me.
"Fuck it," I snap and I grab the bag of seeds from my pocket, ripping it open with a fingernail. The vampire lunges for me; I throw the seeds at him and he falls back with a wail, dropping to his knees.
As he reaches for the first seed, Granger whirls forward and thrusts her stake into his heart, shoving him back with her foot in his chest.
I eye her. "Not terrible."
She smiles and dusts off her hands. Stefan stares at her in surprise.
Another shout from Potter and we're running towards him again.
My stake is raised as I near my grandfather. He puts his hand up, stopping me as if I'd run into a brick wall. He doesn't bother to look my way. "Coming to the rescue, Severus?"
"Something along that line," I say dryly. "Let him go."
"I find him very interesting all of a sudden," Voldemort says. His knuckle brushes against Potter's throat. Potter's stake is at his feet. "He smells of death and yet...he lives. Curious, would you not say?"
I shift my weight to my front foot, tensing. "Not particularly."
"You should." Voldemort turns his head then, looking at me. "He smells of you."
"I wouldn't know why."
Voldemort just laughs. "I wonder if I were to make him a proper undead if you would change your mind about which side you'd choose?"
My fingers are tight on my slick stake. A splinter digs into my thumb. "Why do you give such a bloody fuck what I do?"
"Because, you imbecile," my grandfather says, turning to me in a whirl of silk, "you have something I want." His fingers close around my throat. "There's a very strong power in you. I can feel it with every beat of your bloody heart, and you've no idea how to even begin to harness it. What you might do with it."
I meet his eyes. They're crazed, wild. "I've no power."
Potter stoops behind him, reaching for his stake.
Voldemort's mouth twists. "Fool." He places his hand on my chest. His fingernails dig into my skin. "If you only knew."
He's a madman.
I pity him.
My grandfather lurches forward, with a pained cry. Potter's stake is in his back. Potter jerks it out and Voldemort whirls towards him, mouth open, fangs bared. Potter brings the stake down again, straight through his heart.
His dying scream echoes through the nave.
A silence falls.
The vampires stare at the empty space between us. They shift from foot to foot.
They have no leader.
Potter draws a shaky breath. "We should get out of here," he murmurs.
Black and Weasley catch up with us outside of the monastery.
"There's a proper church a half-kilometer down the road," Stefan says. "If we can get there, we're safe until morning."
None of us argue.
We move quickly through the snow. I can feel my heart thudding against my chest. I'm covered with blood. I'm exhausted. And I could use a double Macallan, neat. Perhaps two.
The churchyard is in sight when she drops down in front of us.
Her hair is wild, half-escaping the twisted knot it'd been in before. She's pale and breathing hard. Bellatrix, I recall. "You," she says to Potter. "You killed him."
Potter raises his stake. "And you want some of the same?"
She bares her teeth. "He was mine. I gave everything for him. It was my honour to be chosen to serve as his consort--"
"Bella." Black's voice is quiet. Even.
Her head jerks his direction. "Traitor. You ought to have been there standing with him. With your family."
"I never much cared for any of you lot." Black steps between Bellatrix and Potter. "That's why I never showed up for my calling. Narked Mother off, I'm sure, but she always was mad as a bag of snakes."
"Sirius," Potter starts, but Black cuts him off.
"Get in the church, Harry. All of you."
Black doesn't take his eyes off Bellatrix. "I said go, Harry."
Bellatrix laughs. "As if you could stop me--"
Black's stake arcs towards her; her hand flies out, fingernails gashing him across the throat just before the stake pierces her heart.
He falls to his knees, hand to his throat. His blood pours across the white snow.
"Sirius," Potter screams, running to his side. He drops to his knees, cradling Black's head in his lap. He looks at me. "Please."
"I..." I stare at him.
"Please," he begs, his eyes bright. "He's my godfather--I can't lose--" His voice breaks.
I walk over slowly, kneel next to Black. His eyelids open, then close again. Blood streams down his throat. I look up at Potter. His face is hopeful.
I don't have a choice.
Silently I whisper a prayer to the Holy Mother. I don't know if it will work. I don't know how it worked before.
For Potter, and for Potter only, I try.
My lips brush Black's throat. I shudder as they press against the wound, as Black's blood stains them. I pull away, my breath held.
Black's eyes open. "Harry," he whispers, and he touches Potter's cheek.
Potter smiles down at him. "You're going to be okay."
"Harry," Black says again, and his hand falls.
His breath stops.
Potter's anguished no echoes through the black night.
Part Four: Scotland
Black is laid to rest in a white marble mausoleum on the grounds of Hogwarts Castle.
Lupin stands alone as the undertaker slides the casket in the crypt. There is no fanfare, no ceremony. Black had held no religion, conformed to no belief system. Granger, Weasley, Hagrid, Potter and I wait behind him, silent as the crypt is sealed. The marble shutter, engraved with Sirius Orion Black, 1960-2005, Toujours Pur, is pushed down over the seal with a solid thump that echoes through the ancient necropolis.
The undertakers bow slightly, taking their leave. We follow.
I wait for him outside, telling the others I'll make my way to the castle shortly. Potter gives me a long look, then nods.
Snow has begun to fall before Lupin comes out. It's light, a fresh dusting over the foot that already covers the ground. I hand him a cigarette and light it for him, along with one for myself. Lupin takes a long drag before blowing a stream of smoke towards the sky. His face is gaunt, worn.
"How long?" I ask, and he looks at me then, his eyes empty. We begin to walk down the path back to the castle.
He doesn't bother to ask me to clarify. "Fifteen years." He stares into the distance. "Would have been longer but he was always bloody damned stubborn about seeing what was beneath his nose." A small smile flits across his face. "It was Lily who told him, you know. Sat him down one night and got him pissed out of his mind, then told him she bloody well knew he fancied me. Once he admitted it to her, it took him two weeks before he'd face me again."
I snort. "He always was a coward." The insult doesn't hold a sting. The bastard's proved me wrong on that score.
"He wouldn't let me go," Lupin says quietly. "I wanted to, but with the moon--" He breaks off and looks at me, brow furrowed.
"When were you bitten?" I take a drag off my cigarette.
"I'm not an idiot," I say without looking at him. "Once one accepts the possibility of vampires it's not all that wild a leap to noticing the symptoms of lycanthropy."
"Ten years ago." Lupin knocks a bit of ash into the snow. "I was caught in a raid one night that happened to be on the full. The vampires were using werewolves as guard dogs." His mouth tightens. "They're beasts to them, after all."
We stop outside the castle. Lupin turns to me. "Harry told me you tried."
"It wasn't for Black's sake," I say bluntly.
Lupin nods. "I know. Still." He extends his hand. "Thank you."
My fingers curl around Lupin's for the briefest of moments.
Two days later my mother arrives.
She finds me in the library, surrounded by Dumbledore's papers. I owe it to him to put them in some order, to see what I can do to have them published in some manner.
I look up. She looks frail and tired in the doorway.
I stand, and she hurries towards me, pulling me into her arms. She presses her face into my shoulder. "I'm sorry," she says.
Since the day of my birth, my mother has never apologised to me for anything she has done.
I smooth my hands over her shoulders. "I lived."
Mother steps back. Her mouth trembles just once before she pulls herself together. She reaches for my arm and pushes my sleeve up.
The skin is bare.
"Mine's gone as well," she murmurs, turning her arm to show me. There is no Mark. "When I woke up on Sunday it wasn't there."
"Potter killed him." I slip my fingers through hers. When I was small her hand seemed so large and strong. Now mine dwarfs hers. I touch the thin band of gold on her ring finger, moving it slightly. "It's over."
She smiles, a wide curve of thin lips that crinkles the corners of her eyes. It almost makes her look beautiful. For the first time I can see the young woman who caught my father's eye. With a faint feeling of surprise, I realise I've forgiven her even him.
I kiss her cheek and Mother's fingers tighten on mine.
"What are you going to do now?" she asks. "Will you go back to Boston?"
"Perhaps." I look back at the papers scattered across Dumbledore's desk. "There's work to be done."
Mother nods. She doesn't say anything for a moment, then she sighs. "And the Church?"
I turn away; our fingers slip apart. The sun filters through the library windows, bright and clean. "I don't know yet."
She just watches me.
"I have my faith again," I say quietly. "I just don't know where it might take me."
Mother leans against me, her chin on my shoulder, her arms wrapped around my waist. "My mother always said everything passes, only God lasts."
"I know." The owls swoop past the window, their wings spread wide. I can't help but think of Dumbledore.
He's found his path again, I'm certain.
And now I've to find mine.
The stars are out when I step out onto the tower balcony. The lake glistens below, and the squid's splash carries across the crisp winter air.
Potter leans against the parapet, looking out blindly over the grounds. "I wondered how long it would take you to find me."
"You weren't at supper." I rest my elbows on the stones next to him, my hands clasped before me. "Or lunch for that matter."
"Not very hungry." Potter's hair hangs in his eyes, his fringe covering the rim of his glasses. A faint breeze ruffles it. "You've been holed up in the library anyway, so I can't imagine you'd care."
I rub my thumb over the stone wall. It's rough and cold against my skin. "You're angry."
He sighs. "No."
I just look at him. I've never been an incredibly perceptive man in certain ways, this I know full well. Ferris prefers to call me emotionally stunted. I prefer to call him a damned idiot.
Potter pushes his glasses up the bridge of his nose. "It's just been a long week, I suppose."
There's nothing to be said in return.
"You're leaving, aren't you?" Potter asks quietly.
I look away. "At some point, yes." The lights are on in Hagrid's hut. "I've been gone too long as it is. There are responsibilities--"
We're silent, staring out at the stars shimmering across the lake.
"This used to be an astronomy tower," Potter says finally. "Did Albus ever tell you?" At the shake of my head, he continues. "His grandfather liked to come up here and study the constellations. When I was little there used to be a huge telescope in that corner beneath the gable. Mum would bring me up late at night to let me watch eclipses." He looks out wistfully over the parapet.
I stare up at the sky. I can make out Orion and Gemini. "The stars aren't that very different in Boston."
"There's an eclipse in three months," Potter says. He doesn't look at me. "On 24 April."
Potter nods. "A lot can happen in three months." He twists his fingers in the sleeves of his jumper. "A lot of decisions made."
Venus gleams brightly next to the Pleiades. "Yes." I find Leo. Regulus glitters in its heart.
His hand is on my arm, turning me towards him.
My breath catches. "Don't."
As usual he doesn't listen to me. Instead his fingers brush my cheek, slip through my hair. I let him pull me closer.
"Severus," he says and his mouth is on mine, soft and hesitant. I don't move. I can't. It's gentler than Lucius's kisses, more careful than Evan's.
And it leaves me breathless and aching.
My hand cups his cheek, my mouth opens to his and Potter groans, leaning into me, pressing me against the parapet. The kiss turns eager, desperate, ravenous, all teeth and tongue and hand sliding through hair, over skin, biting and licking until we're both gasping, and I never want him to pull away.
I'm shaking and hard and my lips feel suddenly chilled.
Potter's breath comes in short, quick pants and his mouth is red and swollen. He touches it, his eyes fixed on me. "You have to know what you want," he says after a moment. "You have to find that."
I drag my tongue over my lip. I can still taste him. "There are things I can't be."
"I know." Potter steps back again, widening the distance between us. His hands twist in the hem of his jumper. "That's why you have to know."
He nods and pushes his glasses back up his nose. The moonlight glints off them, hiding his eyes. "Three months," he murmurs and then he's gone, running down the spiraling steps into the castle. His footsteps fade away.
I stare up at the sky, the cold settling across my flushed skin. Three months. I draw a shaky breath.
I leave Scotland before dawn.
Part Five: America
My life changes.
I return to find the Boston Police certain that I am responsible for the murders on campus. I go through two grueling days of interrogation, remaining utterly silent the entire time, Horace's rosary gripped tight in my hand.
They wouldn't believe me anyway.
Late on the second day, Shacklebolt enters, his brow furrowed. He slams my file on the table in front of me and tells me I'm free to go.
I just look at him. He meets my gaze. "You have friends in Scotland," he says finally, and I glance down at the folder.
A letter's on top, dated a week past.
The signature belongs to Albus Dumbledore.
I walk down the steps of the police department, looking around me. The trees are still stark against the grey sky; the latest snow's begun to melt. In another week, perhaps three a Nor'easter will swing around again, icing the slush and covering it with yet another thick layer of fresh snow.
The world seems odd. Strangely sharp.
I sit in the pew at Saint Ignatius, my missal firmly in hand. Mass has become a comfort in a way it has not been for years.
I've seen evil. I know it exists now, as more than a vague theological construct. And I know I was protected by forces outside of myself.
Over the course of the past three months, my faith has changed. Strengthened, even. My vocation, on the other hand, has not.
The pew creaks as Ferris sits next to me. He's taken off his liturgical vestments and slipped back into his black jacket. He says nothing for a moment and then he sighs. "You're certain about this."
"Yes." I don't look at him. Sunlight filters through the jeweled rose window above the altar. It's finally spring.
"DiSalvio's swinging between livid and delighted, you know."
I snort. "Prick."
Ferris smiles and stretches his legs. His ankles hit the kneeler. "You'd have made a good priest, Severus."
"You're mad." I eye him. "I've hardly the patience or temperament for priesthood. We all know that."
"True." Ferris looks over at me. "You would have made a good Jesuit."
I tilt my head. "That I will accept."
"What will you do after exams?"
The church is quiet; a door opens behind us and students wander in with hushed whispers and high-pitched giggles, desperate for last minute prayers to various saints in the hopes that a paper will be written overnight, an unstudied-for test passed. I rub my palms over my trousers. "I've been offered a position with Harvard Divinity."
Ferris raises an eyebrow. "Will you take it?" My loathing for the pompous fools at that particular institution is well known among the Society.
"I haven't decided." I stare up at the altar. After a moment, I say quietly, "I may be abandoning the priesthood, but I'm not leaving the Church."
"There's no reason you should."
I look at him evenly.
Ferris shrugs. "Grace, Severus. It's a gift of God freely given in an act of love. Basic theology and you know it as well as I. The only requirement for our acceptance of it is to be open to the possibility. Whatever our church fathers might claim, I find no reason why someone such as yourself would not be."
I frown. "And Augustine argues that any sin is a turning from God. A bondage--"
"Oh, good Lord." Ferris throws up his hands and scowls at me. "Stop being so deliberately contrary. While I realise you prefer to skulk about in your dysphoria, even Augustine acknowledges the work of grace to restore communion with the Father." His eyes narrow. "And need I bring up Aquinas' gratia gratum faciens?"
"I'm queer, John," I say, mouth tight.
Ferris rolls his eyes. "As you know damn well, you're not the first homosexual in the Church, you idiot."
"A Church which teaches--"
"Severus," Ferris says calmly. "Shut up."
I glare at him, but I fall silent.
Ferris turns in the pew, propping his elbow on the back. "Do you have faith in your faith?"
"Don't be a tit," I mutter.
I sigh. "Yes."
"Then as I see it, that's all that matters." Ferris runs his hand through his hair. "You can drive yourself crazy if you want, pouring through the doctrinal statements and flagellating yourself for what God made you to be. Or you could actually--and yes, I do know this might be far too shocking for your delicate nature--let yourself be happy for once." He looks at me soberly. "Life's too short, Severus, to torment yourself."
One of the Jesuit novices strides through the nave, his heels clicking on the stone floor. He nods to us. I glare at him; he flinches and hurries through the side door.
"You're telling me to sin," I say finally.
"I'm telling you to be happy." Ferris is silent for a long moment. He stares down at his clasped hands. "There's an eclipse tomorrow night," he says at last. A small, rather annoying smile plays around the corner of his mouth. "You've mentioned it a time or two."
My cheeks heat. I look away.
"You've already made up your mind," Ferris says softly. "Stop trying to talk yourself out of it."
I study the statue of Saint Maria Goretti. "He probably won't show up."
Ferris slaps the back of my head. I jerk forward in the pew, turning towards him in fury. "You bast--"
"You're being an ass." Ferris glares at me.
"I'm being rational. Unlike yourself." I rub the back of my head. "And if you ever do that again and I'll break your bloody hand."
Ferris eyes me. "Scrawny runt like you. I doubt it." He smirks, a reminder that he played American football--idiotic sport that it is--at Notre Dame. I despise him.
"Oh, bugger off," I mutter.
"I do have to meet with DiSalvio." Ferris stands. He places a heavy hand on my shoulder. "Be happy, Severus. As for the rest of it�" He chuckles. "Well, I am your confessor."
After he leaves, I sit alone with my thoughts, staring at the altar.
The lights of a car sweep through my sitting room. I set my book aside and peer out the bay windows with a frown.
A cab pulls out of the driveway and speeds down Gardner just as the buzzer from the front door echoes through my flat.
I'm out the door and through the foyer without bothering with shoes. When I throw open the front door, Potter's standing there, hair on end, bags at his feet, his hands shoved in the pockets of a hooded sweatshirt.
"Hey," he says and I stare at him. He licks his lip. "I'm a day early, I know, but the thing is that I started thinking last night what if something went wrong and my flight was delayed or cancelled or I don't know, Heathrow shut down entirely, and I was driving Ron round the bloody twist, I guess, so he told me I should just come early and if you wanted to throw me out on my ear, well, then that was my answer now wasn't it and anyway he's tired of hearing me go on and on about you and whether you even remember--"
I grab his sweatshirt and his eyes widen. "Shut it, Potter," I snap, and I jerk him to me, kissing him roughly.
We stumble against the doorway, Potter's hands twisted in my hair, my fingers tight on his hips. Our mouths are eager, hungry, and the quiet sounds he makes as our tongues press and slide against each other cause my prick to ache.
"Harry," he says breathlessly as my mouth slips down his neck, my teeth nipping at his skin. "You should probably--oh God, do that again--you should probably call me Harry now."
"Shut it, Harry," I say against his throat. I can feel his pulse pounding beneath his skin and I drag my tongue across it, a faint excitement rising in me. He moans.
I push him through the doorway.
"Bags," Harry says and with an annoyed grunt I pull away from him, reaching back to grab his frayed satchel and carry-on.
"Didn't bring much with you," I say, shoving the satchel at him.
He slings it over his shoulder. "Didn't know if you'd let me stay."
"Idiot." I steer him towards my flat, brushing my mouth against the nape of his neck. He shivers.
"It's been three months," Harry says softly. "And we didn't make any promises." He closes the door behind us and looks at me. "You could have decided you didn't want--"
My mouth cuts him off; I press him against the door, rubbing up against his hip. I'm hard through my trousers. Harry's hands clench my shoulders.
"Oh," he says into the kiss and I snort.
"Idiot," I say again and I drag my teeth across his bottom lip. I don't think. I don't want to think. I just want his body moving against mine like this.
Harry arches against me and my hands slide up under his sweatshirt, pushing it up his stomach. His skin is warm and soft; he's thin, wiry beneath my palms. He shifts his hips, angling them against mine and my breath catches. His cock strains his jeans, the firm bulge pressing against my prick, and nothing's felt that bloody good in a very long while.
I pull back and look at him. His face is flushed, his mouth wet and swollen.
"Severus?" he asks, and his fingers slip over my shoulders, keeping me close.
I shake my head and lean in to kiss him again.
"What's wrong?" His mouth moves against mine; it sends a flash of heat down my spine. My hips jerk forward and I groan.
"Nothing," I say into the curve of his throat, and I realise the truth of that. Nothing is wrong. At all. I smile against his skin. His fingers smooth across the nape of my neck.
In answer I slip my hands to his hips, lifting as I shove him up the door. "Wrap your legs around me."
He does, his teeth nipping at my ear, and I carry him down the hall and to my bedroom, dumping him unceremoniously on the mattress. I look down at him, spread across my coverlet, his eyes bright, hair rumpled, a stretch of pale white stomach showing between his sweatshirt and jeans.
I lean down and run my tongue across his skin and he gasps. He smells of almond soap; his skin is salty-sweet.
"Severus," he whispers, fingers stroking through my hair, and my prick jumps. I have his jeans unzipped before I can think. A white triangle peeks through the denim, pushed up by the head of his cock.
I take it into my mouth and suck lightly, the cotton of his smalls soft against my tongue. Harry's fingers tighten in my hair. "Oh, God," he chokes out and I hmm in satisfaction.
He twists beneath me with a groan. "Please."
I have his jeans halfway down his thighs; I pull his pants down slowly, my breath catching at the sight of his cock, short and thick and red against his stomach. I lean in and run my tongue along the underside.
It's been years. I'd almost forgotten that musty-sweetly bitter taste. My tongue laps at his head, short quick strokes that make Harry's breath catch before I suck him into my mouth.
"Oh, Christ," he says, eyes wide as he looks down at me. "Do you know how fucking incredible you look?"
My hair falls over my eyes, over the sharp jut of his hipbone. I take more of his prick into my mouth, slowly, carefully. He tastes different than Evan did. More musky. More sweet.
I like it.
I pull Harry's foreskin back, running my tongue beneath it and his hips jerk up. He cries out, his breath coming in short, sharp gasps. I'm causing that, I realise and I groan softly, pressing my hips against the mattress. My cock aches; I want nothing more than to reach down and stroke it, hard and fast until I come over my hand--
My hips rut against the bed.
Harry tugs at me, pulls me away from his prick and up over him, kissing me roughly, eagerly. "Severus," he whispers, and he shoves his jeans and pants down, kicking them off as he pushes me onto my back. He straddles my hips, pulls off his sweatshirt and throws it aside. His skin is pale in the moonlight, his nipples dark and hard. I run a thumb across one and he gasps, pressing into my touch. "Do that again."
I scrape my thumbnail across his nipple again, watching as he arches. I lean up and catch it with my mouth. Harry cries out softly. I bite him, licking the abraded skin gently, my mouth pressed to his chest. I suck his nipple; my hands hold him steady, my fingers tight on his rib cage. "Harry," I say into his skin and he presses me back against the mattress, kissing me hard.
"You don't know how many times I've wanked, thinking about this," he murmurs between kisses.
I bite his lip. "I think I might match you." His glasses are fogged. I take them off, setting them on the nightstand before leaning in to kiss him again.
Harry reaches between us, tugging at my belt, jerking it free. "You've got too fucking many clothes on."
I push up, pulling at the buttons of my shirt, not giving a damn as they pop free, scattering across the bed. I shove the shirt off, contorting my shoulder into an impossible position as I lean up to kiss him. Harry pulls my trousers open, and I lift my hips as he tugs them down, throws them to the end of the bed.
He stares at me. I flush. No one's examined my naked body this closely for at least twenty years.
I lift my chin and stare back at him.
Harry grins. "You're beautiful," he whispers and he pushes me back against the bed, his mouth on mine.
"Bloody liar," I say, kissing him, and he bites my jaw.
"I never lie about shit like that." Harry rocks against me, dragging his cock against mine. I groan, pressing my hips up. Our pricks slide together, hot and slick and heavy.
Harry lifts up over me and looks down at them. "Christ, that's--" He breaks off in a groan. "Severus--"
I roll him over, nearly to the edge of the bed, and I drag my mouth down his throat. He's trembling beneath me and when I curl my fingers around both our cocks, stroking them slowly, pressing them together, Harry arches, pushes his shoulders into the mattress, panting. "Three months," he chokes out. "Three months I've wanted---"
"I know." I capture his mouth with mine. Our tongues thrust together; I suck at his, scraping my teeth along it. He whimpers and rocks his hips up.
Our pricks slide through my hand, heads slick and wet. I can barely hold myself up. I need him. Want him. "Harry," I whisper. My hair falls across his cheek, catching on the corner of his mouth.
"Fuck me." The words skitter across my damp skin. "Please. Severus, I need--"
I pull back, my body shaking. Harry stares up at me, his eyes glazed, unfocused. His skin is flushed. A drop of sweat rolls down his neck. I lean in and lick it away. It's salty-sweet.
"Severus," Harry groans. "If you don't--"
"Shut it," I say roughly, kissing him again. It feels right, this slick-hot press of bodies together. It's what I've wanted.
What I need.
I roll off him and he protests, reaching for me, his fingers sliding across my back. I rummage in the nightstand. I'd gone to the chemist after leaving Saint Ignatius, furtively purchasing my first box of Trojans and a small phial of lubricant. One solid glare at the gum-snapping cashier had caused the transaction to be accomplished in blessed silence.
I pull them out now, my fingers slipping as I tear open the foil packet. I hold the condom out to Harry. He takes it from me hesitantly. "Do you want me to--"
"Put it on me," I say and he relaxes. I snort. "Afraid you'd hurt me, Potter?"
"Yes," he says honestly. His fingers curl around my prick, thumb stroking along the shaft. I breathe out. "Have you ever--"
"Some." I watch as he rolls the rubber along my cock. It's tight and smooth and slightly uncomfortable. The steady stroke of his fingers makes it tolerable. "There was someone in university."
Harry reaches for the lubricant, pouring a little on his fingers. He smoothes them along my prick, smearing the lubricant over the rubber. I take a shaky breath. "What was his name?"
"Evan Rosier." I take the lubricant from him and push him back against the bed. "He was the only person I ever fucked." I slick my fingers and raise my eyebrow. "I don't think I've quite forgotten how, though."
Harry spreads his thighs wider and grins up at me. "Like riding a bicycle."
"Or something along those lines," I say dryly and I press a fingertip to his hole. Harry shifts, lifting his hips. I press my finger inside of him and his eyes darken. He catches his bottom lip between his teeth.
I twist my finger slightly. Harry presses down against it with a soft groan, and his prick bounces against his stomach. I kiss him, and he tangles his fingers in my hair, his teeth sharp against my lip.
"Severus," he whispers and I press another finger into him. He hisses and tightens his arse. "Oh, Christ."
My breath comes in short, sharp pants as I watch him writhe beneath me. "You like that."
"Yeah." Harry drags his mouth up my throat, sucking lightly. "Oh, God, yeah."
I press deeper, twisting my fingers again. Harry jerks; his hands grip my shoulders.
I hesitate, my fingers stilling inside of him. "You're certain."
Harry pulls me down onto him. His teeth scrape my jaw. "Sometimes you're such a fucking tit--" He breaks off with a cry as I push another finger into him. "Severus, Christ."
My cock presses against his thigh, dragging stickily across his skin. "Is this what you want?"
He nods, breathless, arching as my fingers fuck him slowly.
His glare amuses me.
"Fuck you," he says and he leans up and kisses me. "If you don't get your fucking prick inside of me right now--"
I pull my fingers away, pressing the head of my cock against his hole. I look down at him. "Harry."
"Please," he whispers, his eyes glittering. "I need you."
With a groan I sink into him.
He's hot and tight and I shudder as my prick slides deeper. It takes all I have not to slam into him, hard and fast, coming in a white-hot rush. Instead I rock into him slowly, in careful shallow thrusts, trying to control my shaking body.
Until Harry, with an impatient growl, digs his fingernails into my hips and shoves up against me. "Fuck me," he says roughly and his hands slide to the small of my back as he wraps one leg around my hip. "God, Severus, I need--" He groans, his head falling back against the mattress. "Please--"
With a cry I slam into him, lifting his hips off the mattress. I press my face into his neck, breathing hard. "Harry." His skin is slick and hot against my mouth and he drags his fingernails down my back with one rough thrust.
My skin stings. My cock aches.
I fuck him quickly, arching into him, Harry meeting each press of my hips with his own. We kiss and bite, our mouths and teeth moving across heated skin, our grunts and groans echoing in the silent room.
The bed knocks against the wall, a hard, loud rhythm that drives me, pushes me into fucking him faster. I lift up over Harry; he throws an arm out, fingers twisting in the sheet, pulling it off the mattress as he writhes beneath me. His feet press into the bed; his hips jerk up. "Harder," he gaps. "Severus, God--"
I grab his hip with one hand, raising up on one knee. I pull Harry's legs to my shoulders; I turn my head to suck on the tendon at his ankle as I slam into him again. My balls slap wetly against his arse.
He cries out.
I feel alive. Blood pounds through me, sings through my veins, flushing my skin. My hands slip over Harry's damp thighs. I watch as he pushes against the headboard, bracing himself with both hands as I fuck him hard and fast. His cock slaps his stomach.
I curl my fingers around it, stroking hard, and Harry swears. His neck is corded, his eyes half-closed. His mouth is wet and red and he whispers my name over and over as he tenses beneath me.
With a sharp cry, he comes, arching up, and I fall against him, my sticky fingers smoothing down over his cock. I'm breathless, aching, and my prick jerks inside of him, my rhythm gone.
"Harry," I say and I press my fingers to his mouth. He sucks them, tasting his come eagerly, his gasps ragged and sharp.
It's my undoing.
"Harry," I say again, louder, and he kisses me, his teeth hard against mine. His fingers twist in my hair.
"Come for me," he says against my mouth and he tightens his arse around my cock. "Please, Severus. I want to see you--"
I kiss him desperately, my tongue sliding over his teeth, tasting the sour acridness of cigarettes.
My hips slam into his arse. Harry's feet flex. My toes dig into the mattress, pushing me deeper into him. "Harry--"
I thrust again. And again. Harry pulls my head down, kisses me hard
I press forward, my balls tight and aching. I throw my head back with a roar. Harry bites my throat. The scrape stings, burns.
My body shakes as I come, my hips bucking forward. I can't breathe. I can't think.
I fall onto him, gasping.
Harry's hands smooth down my back, slow, gentle strokes of skin on skin. I press my face into his neck. Nothing has felt like this. Ever.
Not even Evan.
I don't want to lift my head. I don't want to see his face, to let him know how raw and exposed I am.
Harry shifts beneath me; my cock slides out of him.
I roll to my side and take the condom off. It's oddly heavy and limp against my palm. I stand on shaky legs and walk across the room to the rubbish bin in the bath. The condom hits the bottom with a wet thud.
My face reflects back at me in the mirror. Red marks line my throat, a few bruising faintly. I touch them. My fingers shake.
Hands pull me back. Harry presses his mouth to my shoulder. "Are you okay?" he asks quietly.
Harry's arms slip around my waist. I lean back against him. He watches me in the mirror. "Severus."
"I'm fine." I turn and pull away, walking back into the bedroom. Harry follows me.
I wanted this. I know I did. Still, a wave of guilt washes over me. I sit on the edge of the bed. Harry stops in front of me.
He touches my face. I look up at him.
"I'm not asking you to give anything up," he says, his eyes fixed on mine. "I know it's not going to be easy for either of us. And I don't entirely understand why you need to believe what you do." He licks his bottom lip. "But the thing is that I think I could fall for you and I think I want to. And if that's part of you, then I don't want to change that." He gives me a faint smile. "Just as long as you don't spend hours angsting every time we fuck."
I hide a smile in a frown. "Is that what I'm doing."
Harry pushes my hair back off my forehead. "Something like, yeah." His fingers are soft against my cheek. "Will you let me stay?" he asks. His voice is hesitant. Nervous.
I catch his hand and kiss his wrist. "As I recall we've an eclipse to watch."
He relaxes. "Do we?"
"Given that I purchased a telescope for the event�" I slide my hands to his hips, leaning in to brush my mouth against his stomach.
Harry straddles my thighs and laughs. "Did you really?"
I snort. "One must have the proper accoutrements, Mr Potter."
"You are the bloody strangest man I've ever met." Harry pushes me back against the bed. He grins down at me. "I like it."
"Wretch." I pull him into a kiss, sliding my hand down to stroke his prick.
If I go to hell, I'm damned well going to go sated.
I sit on the steps of Saint Ignatius, cigarette in one hand, missal in the other. Students hurry across the street from the T stop, headed back to their residence halls, laughing and shouting on a brightly sunny, almost warm Saturday afternoon. A brisk spring breeze ruffles my hair and dissipates the smoke curling from the tip of my cigarette.
It's nearly three and if Ferris doesn't bloody hurry up I'll be late to Vigil. I've no intention of listening to Harry whinge tomorrow about my having to drag my damned arse out of bed early to make up for it. He's plans for a late brunch along the Charles if I was paying proper attention to his nattering this morning.
Idiot, I think, with a certain admittedly large amount of fondness, and I blow out a perfectly round smoke ring worthy of one of those damned hobbits Harry's become obsessed with in recent months. It drifts up into the sky and fades away. I should never have introduced the wretch to Tolkein.
"Severus." Ferris smiles down at me.
I push myself from the steps and tuck my missal in my coat pocket, flicking the cigarette aside. I grind it out with the heel of my boot. "You're late."
"I was hearing confession," he says calmly and I scowl at him. He just laughs and gestures towards the sidewalk that curves down towards Corcoran Commons. "Shall we?"
The breeze gusts around the corner, shaking the fresh new yellow-green leaves on the trees. I cross myself. "Bless me Father," I say, "for I have sinned. As you're quite aware it's been seven days since my last confession."
"I'm fairly certain," Ferris says dryly, "that we can skip over the usual? Denigration of students' intelligence and threats of bodily harm, thoughts of homicide against Professor Madigan--"
"And Olupono." I watch a small swallow sweep down from an oak. It lands on a high wall, watching us curiously. "And Boulton and Clooney."
Ferris hides a smile. "Departmental meeting? How has Harvard managed not to fire you yet?"
I give him a baleful look. "There is such a thing as tenure."
"I see." Ferris clasps his hands behind his back. His hair sticks up with a particularly stiff gust of wind. It gleams bright red in the sunlight. "Any other sins to confess?"
"Sodomy," I say bluntly. "Seven counts--" I catch myself, considering. "No, eight. Harry woke me up last night around half-four."
Ferris holds up his hand. "I really don't need details, Severus. And anyway, it's been three years. The two of you are for all intents and purposes married--"
"Not," I say tartly, "in the eyes of the Church."
"In the eyes of this priest you are." Ferris scratches his nose and sighs. "Do we have to go through this again?"
I glare at him. "And don't think I don't know you're responsible for putting that bloody nonsensical idea in Harry's head."
"This is Massachusetts," Ferris says mildly. "You could marry in a civil service if you wished--"
"Abso-bloody-lutely not." I cross my arms over my chest. It's cold in the shadows still, despite being nearly May. "And for God's sake, stop encouraging Harry. Every time I turn around he's another brochure for some damned Provincetown inn lying about the flat." My eyes narrow. "And not for any good reason."
Ferris chuckles. "I don't know why you bother to argue with him. He'll get his way soon enough."
"I can at least make it difficult for him." I snort. "It builds his character."
We've circled back around the church. Ferris stops at the front steps. "Two full rosaries for the week, and tell Harry I'd be pleased to join the both of you for dinner on Wednesday."
"What?" I frown at him. "When did he--"
Ferris claps my shoulder and starts up the stairs. "Oh, and don't forget I've offered you to lead the liturgy at Dignity Boston the Sunday after next."
"You bastard." The hodgepodge of liturgical traditions the queer Catholic group uses drives me mad and he damned well knows it.
Ferris raises an eyebrow. "Consider it part of your penance, Severus. And this time, gender-inclusive language if you will? I don't want to get another irate call from Elizabeth."
"John," I snap, and he just laughs, letting the church door close behind him.
Bloody damned priest.
I meet Harry at Brown Sugar.
Pimmada graduated top of her class from Boston University last spring and has been replaced by Mali. It took Harry approximately two dinners to discover that she was an education student at Suffolk and had a toddler named Kiet.
She smiles at me when I come in, nodding towards our usual table. Harry's already ordered; he knows exactly when Mass ends and how long it takes the T to reach Babcock. Two orders of Thai spring rolls and a plate of satay chicken are waiting, piping hot, along with a pot of tea.
I sit and glare at him, snapping open my serviette and draping it across my lap. "Wednesday?"
Harry swallows a mouthful of spring roll. "Hey to you too." He leans over and kisses me. He tastes of coriander and turnip sauce. "How was Mass?"
"Fine. I've been informed I'm to lead liturgy in two weeks at Dignity, and don't even think of making that face, Harry bloody Potter, because if I'm forced to suffer through giving a homily, you are required by nature of our relationship to endure listening to it, agnostic or not." I reach for a spring roll. "And speaking of suffering, Wednesday?"
Harry sighs. "I thought it'd be nice if John came over. It's been a while and you always like arguing theology with him." A wide smile brightens his face. "And that pays off for me later." He looks off into the distance, eyes unfocused. "Least it did last time."
I snort. "I rather think St Augustine would roll in his grave at being considered foreplay."
"As I recall you knocked my arse through the plasterboard." Harry licks turnip sauce off his thumb. "Plus I thought we might invite Madigan as well, and you and John could eviscerate him over that liberation theology shite of yours."
I pause, a piece of satay chicken halfway to my mouth. It clicks into place then. There's only one reason Harry would be that willing to suffer through an evening of utter boredom just to make me happy. And it has nothing to do with sex, damn it. "Harry."
He doesn't look at me. "Yeah?"
"You're going off again, aren't you?" I lower the chicken to my plate.
Harry sighs. "Ron rang yesterday. There's a new nest in Copenhagen that's got a bit active lately and we think it's affiliated with the Order--"
"I'm going with you."
"You can't." Harry gives me a mulish look. "You've exams coming up; there's no way you can slip out of your lectures this time of year. Besides it's probably nothing exciting. Only a few newly made vampires getting a bit cocky--"
I just look at him. He lifts his chin. I sigh. "If you get your damned self killed--"
He kisses my cheek, runs his fingers through the back of my hair. "I won't," he says softly. "I promised, remember?"
"Next time I go." I sound petulant I know. I'm annoyed. There's entirely no sense in Harry having all the enjoyment. "It wouldn't kill you lot to schedule hunts around term."
Harry gives me an incredulous look.
"It wouldn't." I scowl at him.
"Are you seriously more jealous that I'm going hunting than you are worried about the possibility I might get my arse killed?"
I pour a cup of tea. "Yes."
Harry snorts and picks up another piece of chicken. He waves it at me. "You're a bastard."
I hmm over the rim of my teacup. Mali sets a plate of drunken noodles in front of Harry and a bowl of kow soi before me. Harry grins at her, and they enter into a five-minute discussion of Kiet's latest achievement--this one appears to be related to shoelace-tying. The child is obviously destined for MIT with such brilliance.
I tune them out, focusing instead on my noodles and curry sauce.
"Oh," Harry says, wiping his hands on his serviette and picking up his chopsticks and it's only then that I realise Mali's been called to another table, "the roofer's coming next week to take a look at that leak in the hall so for the love of Christ, don't nark him off like you did last time. He actually does know what he's doing, Severus, as much as you hate to admit it."
Harry glares at me. "If your damned ego costs us another thousand dollars, I swear to God, you're not getting sex for a month."
"As if you'd make it that long." I drag my chopsticks through my kow soi.
I look up at the silence. Harry's eyeing me. I sigh. "Fine. I won't point out yet again that the impractical way the fool patches the damned roof is inefficient in the extreme."
"Thank you." Harry pops a broccoli floret into his mouth. I watch him eat, the way he frowns as he drops a piece of chicken from his chopsticks, the look of bliss he has as he sucks a noodle into his mouth. I smile faintly. He looks up at me. "What?"
I shake my head and take another sip of tea. "Nothing."
He gives me a curious look, but doesn't press the issue. He knows me well. "Your mother rang this afternoon, by the way."
"Did she?" I stir the noodles in my bowl, sloshing the yellow curry up the sides. "And?"
"You'd best ring her back tonight." He takes a sip of tea. "It's something to do with her flight schedule next month."
I roll my eyes. Harry just laughs, a soft, warm huff of amusement that makes me smile, and I brush my knuckles across the back of his hand.
This is not a life I would have chosen for myself, I realise. And yet. I find myself curiously content.
Perhaps I might even be happy.
Our fingers slip together. The bell on the door jangles again; the rattle and clatter of dishes from the kitchen rises. Harry smiles at me and I pull my hand back with a cough, hiding my pleasure.