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Of a Linear Circle - Part VI

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Salazar can’t sleep. This is a usual occurrence, something he once considered a curse of old age. It’s been centuries since he had a wife who grew old by his side, but in those days sleep still came easily.

Now that he has spent time with Minerva, who seems to have little trouble sleeping at all but for nights when the weather brings pain to joints that are just beginning to ache, he reevaluates that long-held belief. It isn’t the body keeping him awake, frozen as it is at the age of seventy-three years. It’s the mind, and all of which crowds his thoughts.

That, and the magic. He’d forgotten the feel of a kingdom that came with a war mage’s title, for all that was not the name of the title when he wore it last. The sense of the earth and the land has always been with him, an innate magical instinct since birth, but the people—gods, there are so many. They’re uncountable if he tries to consider them all at once, a stark reminder that he has shouldered yet another heavy responsibility. It’s easier to consider the magic of the title tied to Inverness and A' Ghàidhealtachd with its mere two hundred thousand-odd people.

How Findláech would be laughing now to see his kingdom under Salazar’s care. The old High King of the North would say he deserved it, and Salazar wouldn’t be able to disagree.

He strokes Minerva’s bare arm in her sleep, then pulls the long black braid from her shoulder and kisses its silvered end. He promised her that he would not regret…but he does.

Orellana’s loss was sudden and unexpected, gouging holes in his heart that he never expected to heal. Marion helped those wounds to become mere scars, as he would never remove his first and best friend from his heart. Then he watched, helpless to prevent it, as Marion succumbed to despair after two of their children were lost to them. She hadn’t birthed Zuri, but she’d loved him just the same.

His marriage with Katalin in Gipuzkoa had been childless, though they’d both hoped otherwise. Much like dear Helga, she’d been lost to a cancer that would be beaten back only to surge forth again like the unstoppable tide. Salazar had gone to Athens afterwards, unable to bear Western Europe.

He met Ismene when she was still a child, had the pleasure of watching her grow to adulthood, and thought nothing of romance. Ismene, however, was definitely a creature after his own heart and plotted accordingly, announcing her intentions by stealing into his home and disrobing right before his shocked eyes. He wasn’t fool enough to turn down the invitation, or the love she offered, though it had left her family wailing in despair at her marriage to such an older man who “would not live long enough to see their children grown.”

Instead, Salazar had seen his and Ismene’s children to adulthood, and witnessed their children bear little ones of their own. He held Ismene’s hand as she slipped from the world at the age of one hundred three. He witnessed his children’s deaths as his grandchildren became adults, married, and began their own families. He left when he couldn’t stand to watch any longer.

The very last time he’d opened his heart to that pain, he’d just returned to Britain. Salazar was standing in a wooden stadium, applauding with the others as one of Shakespeare’s plays came to an end, when he found himself locking eyes with an African-born woman whose braided black hair was threaded and bound with gold. She was an Egyptian magician, called Isis after the goddess herself, and Salazar fully believed she deserved the name. He lived with her in Sherwood-on-the-Marsh, sharing a full fifty years with her, until Death claimed Isis in her sleep.

His last marriage had also been childless. Salazar has never been able to decide if that was heartbreak or relief.

Salazar regrets, and he cannot help it. He will regret every moment he will never have with his Lioness, even as he cherishes what is between them now. He can only plan for what is to come—including the future of the Highlands.

“You’re thinking much too hard on things that cannot be changed,” Minerva murmurs, her voice still rough from sleep.

Salazar glances down to find her blue eyes gazing up at him. “It’s a terrible habit of mine.” He drops a kiss onto her lips and then lies down to pull her close. “Go back to sleep. It’s early yet.”

“Such a convenient excuse to cling.” Minerva's soft laughter vibrates against his chest and invades his scarred, ancient heart.

“Yes,” Salazar agrees, smiling. “I suppose it is.”

 

*          *          *          *

 

Sirius Black doesn’t really pay attention to the passage of time the night of a full moon—especially not this full moon. For the first time, he is not being submissive to a werewolf or snapping at him to make certain Remus behaves himself while transformed. They’re playing together, and it’s glorious. He has never enjoyed keep-away or fetch or tug-stick to this extent. James was a great mate and an amazing spouse, but Animagus deer do not play fetch.

He’s aware of when Snape and Salazar depart from the cemetery. Nizar doesn’t leave with them. He stays, joining in the fun in a way Sirius never expected of this older, educated man who used to bear the name Harry James Potter.

Sirius once dreamed about getting to play with his children, Harry and those who were meant to come after him. He never, ever got to do that…but he is now. He’s running through the dead winter grass as a dog, his son is with him, Remus is simply a large, playful wolf…

God, but the only thing that would make this better is if James, Lily, and their lost second child were to step out of the Forbidden Forest at that very moment.

It doesn’t happen, of course. Sirius is so disappointed that he stalls out, staring at the trees in dismay. He wanted it to be. It should be.

Life is not fucking fair.

Then Nizar bounces a stick off Sirius’s head to get his attention. Sirius barks in disapproval, grabs the stick, and trots back to his son. He has Nizar. This isn’t the life he wanted in 1980 when he married Lily and James, but he can enjoy what he has now.

Before he knows it, the night sky is getting lighter in the east as dawn tries to break the horizon. Remus abruptly transforms the moment sunlight’s first rays streak across the sky.

“BUGGER!” Remus shouts, clasping both hands over his groin. An Animagus can master the magic to retain their clothing. Werewolves are not so fortunate. “I didn’t notice it was so close to dawn!”

Sirius noticed. He just didn’t want to say anything. It’s more fun this way.

Nizar is no help to Remus at all; he’s lying on the ground, giving vent to hysterical-edged laughter. Sirius shifts back to human and takes off his robe. “Might as well wear it tied around your waist, mate. My robe on you might reach the end of your rib cage.”

Remus sighs and takes the robe, along with Sirius’s advice on how to wear it. “Let’s go fetch my clothes and wand from the Shack while he giggles like a lunatic.”

They’re nearer to the Shrieking Shack than Sirius expected, making him wonder if Nizar had been subtly herding them in that direction. The moment he feels the restriction of Hogwarts’ Anti-Apparition wards fade, he grasps Remus’s arm and Apparates them directly into the Shack. Then he goes outside, leaving Remus to get dressed in dingy privacy.

When Remus comes back out, sliding his wand into his coat pocket, Sirius grabs him and Apparates them back to the place they’d just come from. Remus glares at him as he shoves the borrowed robe back into Sirius’s hands. “Can you please stop doing that? I can Apparate on my own just fine.”

“Not normally, you can’t,” Sirius retorts as they cross back onto warded Hogwarts property. “Not after a full moon.”

“Yes, but Sirius—I feel fine.” Remus suddenly stops walking. “Oh, God. I feel fine, Sirius!”

“You said that already,” Sirius tries to say, but then his very tall and insane werewolf mate has picked Sirius up to swing him around. “Hey, watch it!”

“I feel fine, you utter fucking wanker!” Remus shouts. Sirius gives up and dares to smile.

Nizar is waiting for them when the forest gives way to the open area of the castle grounds. There is no sign of the giggling man they’d left behind in the grass but for a few dried bits of it clinging to his robes. “Good morning.”

“It is!” Remus replies, grinning. “Oh my God, it really is! My godson is a fucking genius!”

Nizar ducks his head. “Not so much. We should get the two of you into my fireplace and gone through the Floo, though. It’s a school morning, and some of our overachieving academics wake early.”

“Not so much, my entire arse,” Sirius says during their short walk back to the castle. “I saw the gemstones the house-elves added to your crest yesterday afternoon before you shoved it into your pocket. Geomancy and Potions.”

Nizar glares at him. “Can you conveniently forget that?”

“Nope,” Sirius replies cheerfully, knowing Nizar hasn’t forgotten about Sirius’s eidetic memory. “Granted, the house-elves happened to Remus’s crest, too. He has no idea how to cope with the idea of wearing a black diamond on his person. It’s adorable.”

“Fuck off, Sirius.” Remus is still smiling, radiating such joy that Sirius would suspect Cheering Charms if he didn’t know better. “I’ll get used to it eventually. I’m trying to make myself think of it as yet one more bit of rank to lord over types like Lucius Malfoy.”

“I wonder if I can convince Narcissa to host another ball,” Nizar muses aloud. “Then we can reintroduce everyone properly. I imagine the elves added the black diamond to the family crests Salazar, Severus, and Adele are carrying, too.”

Mention of Snape is only a mild damper. Remus is too fucking happy for Sirius to muster up any measure of the old loathing. “When?”

“The next appropriate time…perhaps the Spring Equinox? I’m not certain. The idea of such limited holidays is not something I’ve ever really gotten used to.” Nizar tilts his head. “I was adopted on the Spring Equinox. I just recalled that. No other real details, though.”

Sirius refuses to let those words hurt him. It wasn’t said to cause him pain; it’s simply an event in his son’s life. “Did you manage to tame your hair for the occasion?”

“Oh, I doubt it, given what I’ve seen of those old photos. I wasn’t a Metamorphmagus yet.” Nizar holds up his hand in warning. Remus and Sirius halt in place, sensing the way things have shifted. “Some are already up and about. We’ll simply Apparate upstairs, and Dumbledore can choke on the feel of a morning vibration on the wards.”

“That sounds like a harmless bit of fun.” Remus is the first to hold out his hand to grasp Nizar’s arm. Sirius has just enough time to do the same before Nizar Apparates them not to the corridor or classroom, but directly into his quarters.

“Good morning, children,” Nizar says to the portraits. Elfric and Galiena are slumped together, still asleep, though Brice is awake and waving. The sight of them always gives Sirius a sharp pang of regret for those he’ll never know. A portrait is not a person, though at least Nizar’s children were sensible enough to update their portraits every year. If this is the best relationship he’ll have with his grandchildren, he’ll take that, too.

“I have to clean up for the day. I’m kicking you out.” Nizar smiles to take any potential sting out of his words. Sirius has no idea how Nizar wards his Floo, but the first pinch of Floo Powder has already turned the flames green. “Go on. Back to London. Take a nap and then wander about the city to feel the magic beneath your feet, Your Grace.”

Sirius rolls his eyes. “Her Majesty gave you a title too, Lord Nizar, Earl over the Heights.”

Nizar sighs. “I know, and it was completely unnecessary. A war mage is already of equal rank with a marqués.”

Remus pauses with one leg already in the fire. “It’s equal to WHAT?”

“Just get in the damned Floo!” Sirius orders, giving Remus a shove to send him off. “Nizar, you broke my werewolf.”

“He’ll get over it. I did,” Nizar says. “Go home, Sirius. Rent a flat, or do something to clean up that awful fucking house.”

“Right.” Sirius frowns in consternation. “Er, see you later.”

“You will,” Nizar replies.

Something about those two words eases Sirius’s heart. He steps into the Floo, allowing it to take him back to London. It feels like they’ve had a proper parting this time. Nothing like last summer, when it felt more like being ripped asunder—and that was before Harry disappeared on thirty-first July.

Remus is already sitting down in the kitchen. “I’m still fine,” he says before Sirius can ask. “I’m tired enough from being awake all day and all night that the Floo made me dizzy, that’s all.”

Sirius can’t blame Remus for that. He puts the kettle on for tea and digs in the pantry for an arse-kicking black loose leaf. He isn’t in the mood to nap. This is the basement of Twelve Grimmauld Place, and Sirius already knows he won’t need to walk around London to feel the city beneath his feet. It’s an odd fucking sensation, but it isn’t unpleasant.

“I think the more important question is: how are you?” Remus asks when Sirius emerges from the pantry with the tea.

“I’m fine.” Sirius glances at the stairs. “Do you think Tonks would like a cup, or should we wait for her to tumble down here and ask for one?”

Remus does his best to hide his smile, but he always fails at it. No poker face at all, the poor bastard. “Best wait for the tumbling. At least she was taught to fall properly during Auror training. Answer my question, Sirius.”

Sirius ignores Remus long enough to finish brewing up tea, rinsing dead spiders out of the teacups before pouring one for each of them. If Remus wants cream and sugar, he can go hunting for it. Kreacher liked to hide both, the little bastard, and Sirius still hasn’t located them. He thought the smell of dairy rotting in its pitcher would be a tip, but no luck so far.

That’s still a bright spot. No more Kreacher in Sirius’s house, and he didn’t have to strangle the house-elf to death for it to happen. Nizar’s finding of that house-elf contract has made Sirius’s life much bloody easier. He’s been living on Muggle takeaway since Kreacher returned to Hogwarts, which has made Sirius feel so improved that he caught himself wondering if Kreacher was attempting to poison him.

Without Kreacher’s unpleasant screeching and threats, Sirius can pay a magical cleaning service out of Brighton to come and fix the damned house. They’re the sort of cleaning service who cares more about Sirius’s money instead of his fugitive status, and now they no longer have to concern themselves about his being a fugitive at all. With their help, Twelve Grimmauld Place is starting to look habitable, though the Squibs who run the cleaning service disapprove of Buckbeak’s room.

Sirius finds himself pondering the idea of asking Narcissa to suggest someone capable to begin redecorating his outdated travesty of a house. Maybe one of those decorator types will know how to remove the load-bearing wall his blasted mother’s portrait is stuck on. Then he can get rid of both the wall and her unwanted portrait.

Then again, he is supposed to be a master of Geomancy. Nothing is keeping Sirius from getting rid of that fucking wall and its painting except for nerves and the desperate need to practice on something less critical.

He could change the entire house. All of it.

Maybe not Regulus’s bedroom. Sirius would like to have that reminder now. The rest of it, though—if he’s a Geomancer, why not? He could make this shitheap feel like a home instead of a drab fucking prison.

Sirius nearly drops his teaspoon when he realizes he is not trapped in this house anymore. No matter what Dumbledore might have intended, Sirius does not have to hide in this place. Just the idea of it makes him hate Twelve Grimmauld Place a bit less. Maybe changing the rest of it will enable Sirius to deal with a hell of a lot of his childhood misery when he’s no longer staring at all of the reminders.

Good God, he can actually hire a housekeeper. Neither he nor Remus can cook to save their lives, and Tonks should never be allowed near a range at all. They go through too much burn cream when she tries.

Sirius feels his lips twitch as he retrieves his spoon. When Nizar called Sirius and Remus to Hogwarts last week to tell them of Narcissa’s true allegiance, it took all the willpower Sirius possessed not to laugh in his son’s face. Then Nizar told them of how he was able to alter her Dark Mark, throwing cold water over Sirius’s humor. At the last Order meeting on second January, Nizar informed them that the Dark Mark couldn’t be altered or removed without consent. If someone was loyal to Voldemort, they couldn’t truly give consent, and the Mark would remain.

That same day, Remus took Sirius upstairs and made a huge bloody stink of pointing that out in regards to Snape’s lack of a Dark Mark, an idea to which Sirius had eventually given his sulking agreement. Then Remus reminded Sirius of what a werewolf’s nose is capable of in the days before the full moon…and told Sirius exactly who Nizar had to be.

The evening had been a complete disaster from that point onwards.

“It’s not the life I thought I’d have,” Sirius finally says. “Actually, once I realized I was sitting in a prison cell in Azkaban, I didn’t think I’d ever have a life at all, but I do. I have one.” He thinks about what he was considering last night. “It’s not everything I once wanted…but it’s not that bad, either.”

“And you’re a magical duke,” Remus decides to point out.

Sirius is nice enough not to throw the Marquess-ranking bit right back at him. “That is going to involve so much politics.”

“Are you up for it?” Remus asks.

Sirius snorts. “Remus, my entire childhood was full of the sort of politics required to survive this household. Those puffed-up, poncy, Pure-blooded pricks don’t frighten me at all.”

Remus smiles. “Nice alliteration.”

“I’m rather proud of it, too.”

Sirius sees Remus off to bed a few minutes later. His friend shoves his face into a pillow and is asleep before he’s settled. Sirius puts a quilt over Moony that he’ll probably kick off in the next hour before he leaves the bedroom, pulling the door closed behind him.

That same settling won’t come to him. He never quite lost the habit of being awake the whole of the full moon and all through the next day, trying to pretend he wasn’t about to drop and snore on his desk or onto his plate in the Great Hall, or onto the tabletop during an Order meeting years later—or over breakfast while Lily laughed at them, especially if Sirius or James still had grass or twigs in their hair.

He stands at the largest window on the second storey that faces the street, feeling the glass beneath his hand warm up as the sun gains height. Some of his restlessness is definitely coming from sensing London as the entire city awakens for the day. He hopes he can get used to that, or he’ll never have a late morning again.

Full moons are the worst because that is when he misses them all the most. Sirius would watch the full moon cross the sky from the high window of his cell in Azkaban with his head resting on his paws. He didn’t dare watch it when human, knowing the Dementors would try to take even that from him…but he had to watch. He had to witness that rise and fall every time it was visible.

Sirius turns away from the window and goes downstairs to the parlor, picking up a box that’s taken up residence on a shelf. Among all of the other Black family nonsense, it’s unobtrusive, something no one ever notices—well, Moody probably has, but Moody is a lot more circumspect than the old bastard is usually given credit for.

Remus gave him the box's contents after the Triwizard Tournament’s painful conclusion, just after Sirius returned to the townhouse to make certain it wouldn’t be a death trap when Harry arrived in August. The idea of the Order using it as an Unplottable location for meetings hadn’t yet occurred to him, though Sirius imagines it had already bloody well occurred to Albus.

Harry never got to see it, not as it was last summer. Sirius spent months in fear, months trying to figure out if he should grieve, and when his son finally came to Twelve Grimmauld Place the first time, they hadn’t known each other at all.

Then again, maybe he had. Sirius holds grudges like nobody’s damned business, which Remus and Lily both chided him about—often. The entirety of Slytherin House had been the subject of his spite before he’d even stepped through Hogwarts’ doors. He’d learned of a new Slytherin, a literal Slytherin, and fully prepared himself to joyfully hate yet another bastard in green. Instead of hatred, he’d felt…comfortable. Sirius had never felt comfortable around a blasted Slytherin in his entire life, Andromeda included. Yet there Sirius had stood, conversing with Sir Portrait and feeling like he was speaking to a man who not only was not an enemy, but someone who understood.

Sirius takes the lid off the box and looks inside. He thinks maybe…maybe this time he can sort through what it holds without shattering.

When I first heard you were arrested, I didn’t know why, Remus said when presenting Sirius with a cardboard Muggle box that had definitely taken a beating over the years. But I knew what the Aurors would do. If they cleared your flat for evidence, I knew you’d never get them back.

Sirius had looked inside that day, saw the photograph of tiny Harry on a toddler-safe broom with James’s legs chasing after him, and that was all he could take. The only thing he’s done with those items since then was to ask Moony to put everything he’d rescued from Sirius’s old flat into the wooden box he now holds.

The back of the photograph is graced with Lily’s signature and her expressed love. The very first thing beneath the photo is the letter that accompanied it, the envelope torn in Sirius’s haste to see what Lily had to say. James only wrote to him twice the entire time their family lived under the Fidelius Charm, but that was because James Potter was the worst sad sack at writing letters Sirius had ever encountered among Pure-blooded wizards. Lily was the letter-writer, the one who kept Sirius from going out of his mind with concern from August of 1980 until—until the end.

Magicians, Sirius reminds himself. Try to remember to use the Latin, idiot. It’s one more way to spite people like Lucius Malfoy.

 

19th September 1981

Dear Padfoot,

I’m writing to let you know that we’re all well. Harry added four new words to his vocabulary since his birthday! Now our son also can say Yes, Please, Funny, and Loot.

I’m blaming you and James for that. Marauders and their Maps. I wouldn’t be surprised to discover you four really had buried stolen treasure on Hogwarts property just to truly claim the title.

However, No is still Harry’s favorite word, especially when it comes to sleeping.

Dumbledore wrote in August to wish Harry a Happy Birthday (Late) and to ask us to consider allowing one of our neighbors, Bathilda Bagshot, to have access to the Fidelius Charm. He didn’t give a reason, and I didn’t write back to ask.

It doesn’t make any sense, Sirius! If the Charm is to protect the three of us, why can’t Peter and Remus know it? Why her, but no one else except our Secret Keeper?

 

Sirius scowls at mention of Peter, even if Lily only wrote the letter that way in case the family owl was intercepted. Some days Sirius wakes up to the renewed agony of knowing that he let himself be convinced to allow Peter to be Secret Keeper in his place.

He’d read the bit about Bagshot the first time in 1981 and laughed off the concern, though Remus had agreed with Lily that it did sound a bit dodgy. Now Sirius has no damned idea what Albus might have been thinking or planning, and he has half a mind to go visit Bagshot just to ask.

 

This next part…oh, Sirius. I haven’t told James yet.

I’m scared. I don’t know what’s going to happen. I’d rather tell you in person, but that seems unlikely right now. You deserve to know, my love, just in case something goes wrong.

I’m pregnant.

Before you ask? I don’t know if it’s yours or James’s child. It had to have happened on Harry’s birthday. We’ve been a bit too busy dealing with an insomniac toddler since then.

I think it’s yours, though. Call it women’s intuition or something. I’m not certain, but maybe by late April you’ll have an Heir to the Black family.

If not? Then we’ll certainly try again. And again. And again.

I hope you can tell I am not opposed to trying.

We miss you terribly, Sirius. It’s breaking my heart that you can’t be here where you belong.

All my love,

Lily

 

Sirius has to put the letter back into the box, almost overwhelmed by the sight of Lily’s handwriting. James had beautiful script when his arse could be bothered. His letters might have boisterous phrasing, but his handwriting had never been a reflection of his personality. Lily wrote with an economy of speed that was half-print, half-cursive, and not ornate at all. It was Lily captured in ink, the way she’d thought and moved, spoken and laughed.

He gets up and walks over to the repaired Black family tree, going straight to the branch bearing his, Lily’s, and James’s names. There are other moving photographs in that box, pictures of all three of them, even all four of them together. He remembers them all, refusing to give up the memory of those images to the Dementors.

These two portraits of Lily and James on the tree are still new, images that haven’t replayed in his thoughts over and over again. So is the portrait of Harry, which always tries to smile for Sirius when he becomes aware that he’s being looked at.

“It’s really not fair that this is where it’s always going to stop for you,” Sirius whispers, resting his hand on the wall beneath Harry’s portrait. “Not when there is so much more.”

The wall shines gold beneath his fingers. Sirius jerks back on reflex before his thoughts catch up. Not a hex or a trap, he realizes. Just unexpected magic that vanished the moment he took his hand away.

Sirius narrows his eyes and places his fingertips back on the wall. The gold returns, swirling lines that climb down like vines to illuminate three new portraits framed in green leaves—portraits of Galiena, Brice, and Elfric.

“Oh.” Sirius swallows hard. Nizar had to have added this just for Sirius, and he never said a word. He must have been conspiring with Remus to do it, too; Sirius didn’t know Nizar had returned to the townhouse at any point after Compitalia.

Brice’s name connects him to a new portrait, a spouse that Sirius suspects that Nizar doesn’t remember, as he’s never mentioned her. Sirius watches, his heart in his throat, as Uriel deSlizarse appears next to Galiena, and then Sirius’s great-grandchildren and their spouses begin to populate the Black family tree.

To his dismay, the marriage between Brice and his wife never produced any children. The familial line from Galiena, meanwhile, wanders along the wall as he traces it, careful not to lift his hand away, until the family line ends in 1512.

He traces his way back to the very beginning to see that Harry’s portrait has become Nizar, who is giving him an amused look. He can’t hear what the portrait says, but Sirius learned to read lips during untold detentions: Discretion is a virtue.

“Yeah. Good thing I figured that out.” Sirius lifts his hand so he can wipe his face dry with his sleeve. The moment he’s no longer touching the wall, all of the newly mapped lineage disappears. Nizar’s portrait becomes Harry’s again, like nothing had ever changed at all.

Sirius goes straight to the writing desk in the library, finds paper and one of Remus’s non-magical pens, and sits down. There isn’t a lot he can say in a letter that has a chance of being intercepted, but he wasn’t a fucking Marauder for nothing. He can actually be secretive, if not subtle.

 

5th February 1996

Nizar Deslizarse,

Regarding the Tree:

Thank you.

—Sirius Black

 By the way, I have a few things you might wish to see. At your convenience, of course.

 

Remus is awake and entering the basement kitchen by noon. Sirius pauses with a forkful of Chinese noodles halfway to his mouth as they stare at each other.

Sirius decides to go with the blatantly obvious. “You’re awake.”

Remus joins him at the table, brow furrowed in utter bafflement. “Yeah.”

“And…you still feel all right?” Sirius asks tentatively.

Remus nods. “Not a thing wrong. I feel fine. No pain, no headache, no nothing. Like it’s a normal day.” He hesitates. “I don’t think I’ve ever felt fine, Sirius. I can’t remember what it was like—before.”

Fine. Remus is absolutely fine.

Sirius gives up on lunch and puts the fork back down on his plate. “My son really is a fucking genius.”

“Yeah,” Remus whispers. Then he breaks down and weeps with his face buried in his hands.

Chapter Text

Nizar rests his head against the mantelpiece above his fireplace. He wasn’t expecting last night to be anything except grief. Instead, two near-strangers took advantage of the full moon to lead him across the grounds and through the forest, keeping Nizar too busy with canine shenanigans to think much on the funeral, a few restored memories, and a painful lump that still feels like betrayal.

“Did it work?”

Nizar lifts his head and turns around to find his 992 portrait lurking in Brice’s frame. “What?”

The portrait looks deferring and fretful, as it often does when he’s truly upset about something. Nizar wonders if he still does that himself, or if it’s a trait he lost over the centuries. “The potion. Taming of the Beast. Is he—is Remus okay?”

“Yes.” Nizar scrubs at his face, surprised to find dampness on his cheeks that has nothing to do with morning dew. “He was…he’s fine.”

“You saved him.” The portrait’s eyes are huge and veering far more towards emerald instead of multi-toned hazel. “You saved our godfather.”

“I suppose I did.” Nizar sighs and walks over to slump down in one of the elf-acquired chairs. He hadn’t thought of it that way. He doesn’t remember Remus Lupin that way!

He was thinking of Nymphadora Tonks, who welcomed Nizar with a smile and never once questioned his intentions. He’s thinking of a N.E.W.T. Potions student Severus always referred to as Miss Tonks, one of the few who never once let Severus’s past, his temper, or his acrid words destroy her abundant cheer.

Nizar was thinking of Brice and Galiena, and late nights spent outside on that same ground. The stars and moon overhead and two wolves running in circles around their brother Elfric, who always tried to stay awake for the entire night but would fall asleep on someone’s discarded cloak before morning.

“You look like shit,” his portrait says, startling him. “Go the fuck to sleep.”

“I can’t.” No matter how much his head is still pounding from the return of a war mage’s full awareness of a kingdom. No matter that his chest still aches due to a memory from the year 1234. “I have classes to teach.”

“Trust me, as someone who actually remembers being a student here?” Nizar glances up to see the portrait grinning at him. “None of them will complain if you cancel your classes for the day.”

“They might not, but I’m the one who is aware of exactly what they don’t know,” Nizar retorts. “Get out of my quarters. Go pester Salazar.”

The portrait shrugs. “Have it your way, then.” He vanishes from the frame.

Nizar jolts awake a few minutes later when he becomes aware of someone in his sitting room. He nearly knocks a phial from Severus’s hand when he tries scrabbling for his wand. “Fuck!”

Severus regards him with a mix of concern and amusement. “You’ve been exceptionally twitchy since the Queen recognized you as a war mage. I notice the rest of us haven’t been affected that way.”

“Uh.” Nizar scrubs at his face. “It’ll fade. The twitchiness, I mean. I think. It’s probably—how did Salazar say that remembered panic is referred to in non-magical circles?”

“PTSD,” Severus replies. “Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. I’m assuming you’re referencing PTSD that’s subconsciously tied to the war mage title.”

“What a mouthful of words that is,” Nizar mutters. “I probably am. What are you holding?”

Severus holds up the potion again. “A Restorative Draught. I thought you might appreciate it, given that you’ve missed breakfast and it’s ten of eight.”

“Shit!” Nizar launches himself from his chair and nearly falls straight to the floor. Severus drops the phial to catch him; Nizar looks down at the unbroken stoppered glass and thinks it’s a good thing the elves found a rug with such a thick weave.

“Properly translated: that meant you were to drink the Restorative first,” Severus tells him dryly.

“I gathered that.” Nizar closes his eyes and sits down when the floor begins to spin. He does not want to see that many patterns spinning. When Severus presses the phial into his hand, Nizar pulls the stopper and drinks it without bothering to open his eyes.

“You should cancel your classes for the day,” Severus says.

Nizar finally dares to open his eyes again when he can feel the Restorative kicking in. “Oh, so now it’s a portrait of myself and you telling me to skive off. No.”

“Why not?”

“A ridiculously overblown sense of responsibility,” Nizar replies.

Severus smirks at him. “Gryffindor.”

“No, the word you’re looking for is ‘idiot.’” Nizar has a great deal more success standing up this time. “Could you bring me another one of those…wait.” He thinks on it and decides he might not make it through until lunch. “Between our nine o’clock and ten o’clock classes, would you bring me another of those? We can meet in the staff lounge. I know there may be staff who are paranoid enough to believe that as I wasn’t at breakfast, I was eaten during the night.”

Severus presses his lips together before speaking. “They would not be the only ones.”

Nizar bites back his first, temperamental words. Deep fears are not overcome in a single evening. “You didn’t sleep either, did you?”

“No.” Severus reaches out and pulls Nizar into his arms. “Though it wasn’t just out of paranoid concern about a werewolf on the grounds. It’s the fucking war mage magic. I spent the entire night bloody sifting!”

Nizar chuckles against Severus’s robes. He feels so much better, and it isn’t just the potion’s doing. “It does get easier. Go on to class while I change into clothes that didn’t spend the night in a field. I’ll see you in a couple of hours.”

When Nizar steps back, Severus gently grasps Nizar’s sleeve and lets go, just enough of a tug to gain Nizar’s attention. “Are you all right?”

“I haven’t slept, but I’m well aware of what every single one of my lecture classes is going to wish to discuss today. I’m prepared for that. I’ll be fine today, Severus.”

Severus gazes at him in concern. “Today,” he repeats.

“I’m intelligent enough to know when to be specific.” Nizar hesitates, but Severus deserves an explanation before there is a need to ask the question. “I don’t handle grief very well. I probably never have. I—please don’t take this the wrong way, and please don’t take it to mean that I want you to stay away, but I…”

“Need to be alone?” Severus finishes when Nizar doesn’t know how to continue.

Nizar nods. “Not forever. Just for a few days. A week, maybe?” He gives up and looks at Galiena, who has yet to wander off for the morning. “Help.”

She smiles. “A fortnight would be a good estimate, Severus, though usually it takes less for him to do something foolish that attracts attention.”

“Galiena!”

Severus chuckles and places two fingers beneath Nizar’s chin. “Two weeks. I won’t stay away, but I’ll absent myself in the evening unless you ask me to stay. Agreed?”

“Agreed,” Nizar replies.

Severus tilts Nizar’s head up, kissing him first before stepping back with a clear look of regret on his face. “If you mope beyond a fortnight, I will have no mercy at all in regards to dragging you out of your self-imposed pit of misery, even if I have to poison you to distract you.”

“I want a hint on the type of poison,” Nizar says. Galiena’s clear laughter drowns out Severus’s silent amusement.

“Perhaps we can negotiate on that point.” Severus reaches into his robe and hands over a rolled-up copy of that morning’s Daily Prophet. “You’ll be interested in the front page. The rest of it can go hang for drivel.” He Disapparates after Nizar takes the paper.

Nizar tosses it onto his table to look at later. He now has five minutes to get ready for his first class, and he’d rather not teach while smelling of forest mold. He somehow succeeds in stripping off his clothes, casting a Refreshing Charm, and getting dressed again in four minutes. He is a Metamorphmagus; he can bloody well cheat and make his hair appear as if it’s seen a comb this morning if he wants to.

When he opens the outer door, the first students are just starting to arrive in the classroom. Nizar goes to his desk and sits down in his chair while waiting for the others. His entire body hasn’t stopped aching, not since Saturday morning’s restoration of a war mage’s full awareness. He’s experienced this before and knows how to sift it properly—so it’s background noise instead of a cacophony—but still he aches. Too many emotions, a fucking horrific flashback, too little sleep, alcohol, and running around with a wolf and a dog for the entire night did not help at all.

“Good morning,” Nizar greets his fifth-years as they finish seating themselves. “Should I bother to ask what it is you would all like to speak about today?”

“It’s your task to choose the lecture, sir,” Parvati Patil responds. She’s smiling, but it’s not sparkling mischief. He appreciates that after yesterday’s unexpected funeral.

“Oh, it certainly is, but why bother when I know that none of you will be paying a whit of attention until I’ve sorted your curiosity?” Nizar counters.

Granger puts up her hand. “You know, you talk more like Professor Salazar when the two of you have been together recently.”

“Be thankful I’m not rambling on in Castilian, then. Most of you would be hopelessly lost.” Nizar crosses his arms over his chest. “What do you wish to discuss about Elfric deSlizarse?”

“Actually, Professor, most of us agreed on something fairly simple,” Malfoy ventures. “We wanted to know if Elfric deSlizarse ever wrote a book, like Brice did.”

Nizar raises both eyebrows. “All right, I admit that didn’t occur to me. He did, yes. He completed three before his death.”

“Prolific, wasn’t he, sir?” Weasley asks in surprise.

“It was less a desire to write actual books and more that Elfric and I both shared the habit of wishing to write everything down so we would remember it later,” Nizar says. “But given the way he restricted the nature of each subject to a single volume instead of interchanging ideas…in the end, they were books, not journals or copious notes.”

“Can we see them?” Granger asks excitedly, a sentiment rapidly echoed by half the students in the room. The others also look interested. “That’s why we wanted to know, sir.”

“Absolutely not.” Nizar does his best to keep his smile on his face when confronted by a wave of disappointment. “Two of those books will be N.E.W.T. level for the sixth-year classes next term. The third book I would only give to an adult who intended to learn the art of Necromancy in truth rather than idle curiosity. Its contents are a bit intense.”

Zabini frowns at him. “Are you trying to bribe us into taking Defence as a sixth-year N.E.W.T. elective, sir?”

Nizar gives him a wide-eyed look. “Would I do such a thing, Mister Zabini?”

“Yes!”

It’s a bit easier to smile when the reply is so emphatic. “Then I suppose you’ll have to weigh the pros and cons of attempting sixth-year Defence. Unlike what other teachers have required in the past, anyone is welcome to join in my N.E.W.T. subject as long as you do not score below an Acceptable. If you happen to score a Poor grade but still have an interest in Defence, I might make an exception if you demonstrated a higher level of understanding during the term.”

“Why would you do that, Professor?” Goyle looks absolutely confounded by the notion. “Failing is failing.”

“Mister Goyle, in case you’ve forgotten, I hate the notion of your grading system. I’m far happier when all of you learn what I’m teaching. Your grades can go hang as far as I’m concerned.”

“Er, why, sir?” Crabbe chimes in, surprising Nizar. Sometimes one of that pair will speak in a class period, but it isn’t usually both. He wonders if they’re gathering information for Death Eater parents, or simply too confused to grasp the concept that Nizar is more concerned with teaching than those stupid O.W.L.s.

“Some people don’t test well,” Nizar decides to answer. “I’ll be paying attention to your practicals during your O.W.L.s, as well. If you achieve a Poor grade overall but otherwise demonstrated potential, such information will be sent to you over the summer so you can contemplate your decision to take this class at N.E.W.T. level” He pauses. “None of you are required to take Defence if you feel it doesn’t suit you. But I should like to see you all again in my classroom next year.”

“So we won’t be roaming targets for You-Know-Who,” Longbottom says.

“That noseless twit is not the only danger you’ll ever face in your lives. He just happens to be a blatant example.” Nizar glances at each of his students. “Anything else before we continue with attempts at scholarly wisdom?”

“Does he have a portrait?” Miss Bones asks. “I’d very much like to meet your youngest son in a way that does not involve good Preservation Charms and a burial.”

“I do have one,” Nizar answers. This question, he had expected. “Elfric kept it updated until his death, but it was painted when he attained his apprenticeship majority at age fourteen. I’m thinking you would all rather meet the adult.”

“Both, maybe.” Finnigan tries to duck down in his chair when Nizar looks at him. “Him being young and smart, that’s encouraging, sir. Him being an adult and smart—we see enough of that already.”

“That is an excellent observation, Mister Finnigan. Five points to all Houses, and don’t get used to the idea.”

That earns Nizar more wide-eyed stares. If he hurt less and had slept more, it would be entertaining.

Miss Shafiq is the first to speak in a wobbly voice. “But—a Gryffindor made the point?”

“That he did, but it was the conversation at large that led Mister Finnigan to making it, and that is a conversation all four Houses participated in,” Nizar replies. “I’m not about to start playing favorites at this date. You’re all here working together to attain the same goal. You simply had one of those lovely, rare moments when that proved true.”

“Ohhhhh-kay, sir,” Thomas says, still boggled. “When will we be meeting the younger portrait, then?”

Nizar considers the schedule of lessons that he feels they still need to accomplish. “This is likely something that won’t happen until next month. However, if you all perform well throughout the rest of February? I’ll introduce you to all three of my children’s apprenticeship portraits. Galiena was a master of both Magical Arts and the Written Word, the latter of which seems to be an incredibly rare mastery these days. Elfric held masteries in Necromancy and advanced forms of Mind Magic. Brice was a master of Defence and Blood Magic.”

Miss Brocklehurst isn’t the only one who looks intimidated. “Sooooo you’re going to throw all of the information at us instead of just part of it, sir?”

“In case you hadn’t noticed, that’s what I’ve been doing since the first week of November.”

 

*          *          *          *

 

Minerva, Aurora, and Severus all look up from the table when Nizar enters the room. “Well! Fancy seeing you darken this particular doorway,” Minerva says while Aurora nods in greeting. Severus just scowls his concern without voicing it, handing over the Restorative that Nizar asked him to bring.

“Thank you,” Nizar says, yanking off the stopper and drinking it down before he can taste it. Pain and lack of sleep have finally decided that nausea is today’s magical combination, and he’s not allowing it to win.

“You always make such a face,” Minerva comments in amusement after Nizar gives the empty phial back to Severus. “Is that particular potion another thing you find to be a failing in 20th century Wizarding Britain?”

“The brewing of it? No.” Nizar sighs and slumps down into an empty chair at the table to join them, feeling no need to rush right back upstairs when he can simply Apparate. “But the color is different. Salazar’s were always a very deep, pond algae-colored green. These are more violet.”

“That looked quite green to me,” Aurora says of the potion.

“To you, maybe,” Nizar mutters. “I wonder if Salazar has that formula anywhere. I’d like to know what’s different. Oh, I did finally get to look at the Prophet,” he says to Severus. The promised notice had graced the front page: Madam Amelia Bones, head of the Magical Law Enforcement division, announcing her intention to run for Minister of Magic the moment it is possible to do so. The first surprise the article contains was Bones’s announcement that she was stepping down as head of the M.L.E. in order to avoid any potential conflicts of interest.

The second surprise was discovering that Bones named Kingsley Shacklebolt as her successor.

“How did Albus seem to be enjoying the news of Kingsley’s promotion?” Nizar asks them. Aurora is not directly involved in the Order, but he’s aware of the fact that she’ll fight with them if asked.

“Given that it’s Kingsley, I imagine Albus knew last night,” Severus replies. “He was exceptionally pleased this morning.”

Nizar makes a brief sound of acknowledgement. The idea of having a member of the Order of the Phoenix in charge of the M.L.E. is probably warming Dumbledore to his gaudy-robed toes.

“Dear boy, you look wretched,” Minerva says in concern. “None of our students would think badly of you if you canceled the rest of your classes for the day.”

“I can’t do that. They can’t afford to let them miss any lecture, not if I want them at the level they should be at the end of this term. I just needed to be away from the classroom for a few minutes. If I tried to rest in my office, I’d just go to sleep.” Nizar lifts his head and props his chin on his crossed arms. Severus looked worse through the weekend. Now he seems to be doing better than Nizar—or is hiding it very well. “I’ll be fine. Tea is a miracle cure, and I’m not above drinking it in front of my students.”

“At least you can do such in your classroom and not be setting a potentially lethal example,” Severus mutters. “I have a potent black leaf tea I can fetch during lunch.”

“That would be amazing, thank you,” Nizar replies, aware that he is desperately trying to pretend that everything is—well, if not normal, then at least as close to it as is possible to manage. It’s the middle of the fucking school term. He can’t afford to fall apart because one of Elfric’s spells backfired a thousand years ago.

“Have any of yours acted like imbeciles today?” Aurora asks, sipping terrible-smelling liquid compost coffee.

“I answer their questions first. It lulls them all into a false sense of security before I throw information at them,” Nizar answers, “but yes, they’ve all been rather…twitchy.”

“The full moon was last night. That would stir them up,” Minerva says. “Speaking of such, did everything go…as expected?”

Nizar smiles, glad that someone is asking about Lupin with sympathy rather than fear. Quintinus was too busy bleating for Nizar to be interested in giving him an answer when Nizar encountered him in the hall. “It went perfectly, Minerva.”

“Now you have to publish,” Severus points out with no small amount of vicious glee.

“I was already thinking about it, actually. But it would be a very specific sort of publishing.” That only serves to make Severus glare at him again. Point to Nizar; Severus hadn’t expected his response.

“It’s Monday.” Severus resumes the previous topic of conversation as if they never veered away from it. “The students are always imbecilic on a Monday. The full moon merely exacerbates it.”

“Every time I hear someone in my field declare that there is no detectable magical measure from the full moon that would cause exaggerated behavior, I want to strangle them,” Aurora grumbles.

The discussion is interrupted by Salazar bursting into the lounge. Nizar thinks that the one bright point he expected from this entire week just occurred.

His dear brother finally met Professor Cuthbert Binns.

Salazar stares at them in a glorious blend of furious bewilderment. “Are you all out of your fucking minds?”

Aurora lifts an eyebrow. “We teach here,” she says mildly, deciding to accept Salazar in a temper as equivalent to dealing with Nizar or Minerva in the morning—or Severus in general. “The answer to that question should be obvious.”

“Fine. Fair point,” Salazar allows, and then points back the way he came. “Why is a ghost being allowed to teach a fucking class?”

Minerva lets out an amused snort. “Because Binns died in his very own armchair in 1958, got up the next morning, and carried on like normal.”

Why?” Salazar asks, still baffled.

“No one is actually certain if Binns is even aware of the fact that he is, in fact, deceased,” Severus replies in a dry voice. “Given his attention span regarding his own students, I’m personally convinced he never noticed his own death.”

Salazar slaps his hand over his face. “I’d wondered why the grade averages by year, and for those stupid tests, were so low for History. Then I entered that classroom today to discover most of the students bloody well sleeping! Does no one realize that ghosts are a natural soporific?”

Nizar is not going to ignore that granted opportunity. “Isn’t History of Magic the class that you skived off on every single time after the first lesson, Severus?”

Severus has a glint of amused suspicion in his eyes when he answers. “That would be the one, yes. It’s called having a sense of bloody self-preservation!” he adds when Minerva and Aurora both stare at him. “I did the far more intelligent thing, read the textbooks, and was thus the only student of my year in my House to attain an O on the bloody History O.W.L.”

“I’m not upset that you did that,” Aurora says after a moment’s pause. “I’m angry because it never occurred to me to do the same thing!”

“Binns certainly wouldn’t have noticed if you had.” Severus smirks at Aurora. “You Gryffindors are such gluttons for punishment.”

Salazar has finally put aside bewilderment to be utterly incensed. “Did it not occur to anyone at all to hire a replacement for the dead man?”

Minerva rests her chin on her hand, apparently enjoying Salazar’s outrage. “I do believe Headmaster Dippet, Albus, and the School Governing Board were all fond of the fact that they have a member of staff who costs the school no money per year whatsoever. Ghosts do not eat, need clothing, require pay, or even notice a lack at Christmas.”

Salazar pinches the bridge of his nose, hissing in Parseltongue under his breath. “By all the—that’s complete lunacy.”

“Even if Albus hired another teacher, Binns still wouldn’t leave,” Aurora says. “He’s rather attached to the place.”

Severus glances at Aurora. “I doubt Binns would even notice if another instructor replaced him in that classroom. He’d simply drone on as usual.”

Salazar drops his hand and glares at them. “Then why not move the classroom? Oh, and look at what is conveniently available—a Defence Tower fourth-floor classroom empty and waiting to be used, complete with a connected office space on the second floor.”

Minerva lets out a slight cough. “There is also the, ah, lack of knowledgeable magical history teachers in Britain, Salazar. There is especially a lack in regards to history teachers who are willing to put up with both Hogwarts’ and Albus Dumbledore’s eccentricies. I highly doubt there is anyone qualified, even if you were to do as you claim, pull the money from your own coffers, and hire another history teacher yourself.”

“It’s not mine; it’s an account set aside solely for the school,” Salazar mutters. Then he notices the wide, merciless grin on Nizar’s face. “Brother. No.”

“You’re the one who has lived through the last thousand years, experiencing history directly.” Nizar ignores Salazar’s angry growl. “Who better to teach history than someone who was actually there?”

“Nizar—”

“Were you not the one just complaining about the soporific qualities of ghosts?” Nizar asks innocently. Severus makes a faint, strangled noise that has to be suppressed laughter.

Salazar scowls. “I will not be doing it. You’re not winning that wager, hermanito. I’ve not been a teacher of children in a very long time.”

“All right, then.” Nizar gets up from the table and shrugs. “I’ll just be letting Rowena’s portrait know that she’ll be needed to teach, as the living man with the best credentials available refuses to do so.”

Salazar’s expression of thwarted fury is wonderful to behold. “FUCKING FINE!” he roars, and stalks out of the lounge, just missing Filius and Rolanda.

Filius looks bewildered. “What was all that about?” Rolanda is still in the doorway, her head tilted to one side to observe Salazar’s angry progress down the corridor.

“Oh. That was us gaining Hogwarts a useful history teacher,” Nizar replies as he sits back down.

“What could a portrait do to cause such an immediate, loud capitulation?” Aurora asks him.

“Rowena would never, ever let him sleep again.” Nizar feels his grief ease for a bit, temporarily replaced by smug satisfaction. “If he kept portraits out of his bedroom, she’d send in the castle’s ghosts. He’d never have a moment’s peace until he agreed to replace Binns.”

Rolanda finally enters the lounge, grinning. “That was cruel, and very Slytherin.”

“Absolutely I am,” Nizar says, smiling again as he bows his head in a graceful nod. “Besides, how else are we going to get all of our lovely little blighters—I mean students—to learn the correct history of this school unless they’re hearing it from one of the original four?”

Severus is smiling in a way that causes Aurora to give him a stern look. “You didn’t tell Salazar about Binns. You let him discover that little truth on his own.”

Nizar lifts both eyebrows. “It must have slipped my mind, informing him of such things. Oh, and he now owes me thirty Galleons. It’s only the beginning of February, after all.” Then he informs them of the terms of the original wager.

Minerva looks both disapproving and pleased. “You set him up to lose, Nizar.”

“I know my brother very well. If there is one thing he can’t stand, it’s a lacking education.” Nizar grins. “Zure eskolaratzea gaitzets dituzte I.

“Which means what?” Filius asks, bright-eyed with curiosity.

“It’s Basque. Euskaran. It means I loathe your schooling.”

“No more Binns. Instead, we’ll have a most experienced history instructor.” Minerva glances around at the others before looking to Nizar and applauding, swiftly joined by Filius, Rolanda, and Aurora. Nizar smirks, spreads his arms, and bows again without standing up.

“And what of your next trick?” Severus asks. To everyone else he would sound mocking. Nizar just hears barely restrained, fierce pleasure in another Slytherin’s success.

“Oh. That.” Nizar pulls one of the old journals out of his robe pocket. “I’ve recently been starkly reminded of a few differences between this school then and this school now. Hogwarts currently has a total of twenty subjects available. There are seven primary subjects, plus flight instruction for first-years, and twelve electives.”

Aurora and Minerva both look like they’re getting ready to receive a blow. “Dear God, how bad is it?” Minerva asks.

Nizar pages open the journal to the place where he marked it with an ancient, Preserved strip of ribbon last Friday evening. “We had thirty subjects available in magical and non-magical classes, which led to the possibility of a student being able to choose among Britain’s forty-six recognized magical masteries. Some of those a student could only attempt if they had an innate talent for it, particularly the elemental magics, but the basic education to succeed was available even if they had to seek their apprenticeship outside Hogwarts.”

Not surprisingly, Severus is the first to recover from hearing those numbers. “I am not teaching any of those classes,” he growls.

“Nor I,” Aurora adds, bewildered. “We’re at our work limit as it is. If the student population ever increases, we’ll be overrun!”

“That’s because we have too few staff.” Nizar pockets the journal. “We also structured things a bit differently. Excuse me; I need to go back upstairs to make certain that door behaves itself and admits my next class.”

Nizar collects informative gossip from the Weasley twins later that same afternoon. Salazar apparently entered Binns’ classroom, encountered a ghostly professor, and promptly filled the air with colorful, delightful Castellano that made the students who were still awake turn their heads and stare.

Granted, the Weasley twins didn’t need to gather their gossip from others. They were hiding in the classroom that morning under the Invisibility Charm. Nizar is still not certain if he’s grooming the twins towards general Defence, or if he’s creating the sort of spies that wander into enemy encampments to leave chaos in their wake. Either is fine, really.

The students receive new timetables Tuesday at breakfast. The reaction to the changed classroom for History of Magic and the subject’s new teacher is mixed. Some of the excitement comes from the fearless academics and the Slytherins, but the others are largely subdued by the idea of having an actual Founder teach them history. Aside from that, the most prominent student belief is that Salazar cannot possibly be more dull than Binns.

“You’re also a Founder, Protectoris. They’re not bloody terrified of you,” Salazar mutters at Nizar as breakfast is ending that morning.

“I’m not one of the original Four, and yes, they absolutely were terrified of me,” Nizar responds, feeling no sympathy for Salazar at all. “Have fun!” Salazar growls something impolite at him and leaves the table.

On Wednesday morning, Miss Granger delivers reports from one of her own cultivated gossip sources, Edward Black, who attended the very first of the new History classes on Tuesday morning. Salazar made it three pages into Hogwarts: A History before his jaw dropped. Then he threw the book behind him, sat down on the desk, and proceeded to ask: Who wrote that rubbish? Are they still alive? and Does anyone know where she lives so that I can visit and correct her fascinating errors? Ginevra Weasley reported to Gryffindor Tower that in her class of fourth-years, Salazar was assigning them a chapter a week of Hogwarts: A History to read. They’re to write down what they suspect to be the truth as well as what they suspect to be complete nonsense.

Nizar nods. “Salazar reacted to that book’s existence about as well as I expected, then. I hate that damned book, too.” By the time Nizar finished slicing out paragraphs and pages of horseshit in the copy he acquired, he had perhaps one-third of a book remaining.

Miss Granger pauses in the midst of packing up her bag. She’s always the last to leave his classroom after practicals are done, but as she vacates before his next class arrives, Nizar doesn’t mind that she lingers. She’s intelligent, a good source of information from the student body, and has informed him that she’s inclined towards accepting his offer of being Nizar’s assistant next term. Best she’s used to him now than jarred by something later, when more responsibility is required.

“It’s still the oddest euphemism for killing someone I’ve ever heard,” Miss Granger says. “Correcting someone’s errors, I mean.”

“Killing people is messy,” Nizar replies absently, flicking through the pages of the journal. He’s still trying to make sense of the fifth journal he wrote in 990. Based on what Salazar has mentioned, Nizar thinks this one was written when the Horcrux’s slow removal was tiring him—his thought patterns and handwriting are both a disjointed mess. Worse, it doesn’t help him to recall any of those events at all. It’s like reading the words of a stranger. “The M.L.E. gets involved, and then everyone wants to make an awkward fuss.”

“Sometimes you say worrisome things,” Miss Granger comments, but she doesn’t seem alarmed. “Oh, and you swore in front of an underage student, sir.”

Nizar looks up from the book. “Did I?” He recounts his words and sighs. “So I did. At least you’ll be seventeen this autumn.” Now that he’s paying attention, though, his words regarding the M.L.E. don’t necessarily feel like his. He feels like he’s…quoting.

Quoting who?

“Oh, and it seems that Professor Salazar is scheduling a specific lecture in the dungeon ballroom for every History student to attend Friday evening after dinner. That is when he’s supposed to be telling everyone the story of the actual Founding. When I asked, he said it began in 984. The year 990 is merely when the school was officially opened to any student wishing to learn! Isn’t that exciting?”

Nizar musters a smile for Granger’s enthusiasm. “I hope you enjoy your time in his classes. Believe me, he is never dull.”

“Were any of them?” Granger counters as she slings her bookbag over her shoulder.

“No. None of them were dull, Miss Granger.” Now it’s a fight to keep the smile in place. “I once told Professor Snape that the Founders were all kind, vicious lunatics. I don’t think there is room for even a hint of dullness in that description.”

Miss Granger looks delighted. “Not at all! I seem to have a knack for falling in with that sort, sir.”

“Of course you do,” Nizar replies. The moment she leaves the room, his smile dies a pathetic death. He misses everyone from that era terribly—all of his family. If the portrait preserved anything correctly, it was his grief. Holding Elfric’s second funeral has stirred all that grief back into a whirling maelstrom, and he fucking hates it.

Chapter Text

Draco eyes the crowd in the old DADA classroom and tries not to wince. Professor Salazar must feel the same way about repeating himself as Professor Slytherin does. Their entire year is trying to seat themselves in the room rather than only two Houses at a time.

“This would be so much worse if it was Quirrell’s setup,” Pansy comments. “It would be positively claustrophobic. Oh, I see free desks up front.”

“Of course they’re terrified of him,” Theo mutters under his breath, snickering. “Come on.”

When they sit down, it’s to find that Slytherin dominates the front of the room, though the swots from the other Houses are just behind them—well, and Weasley, who did challenge Professor Salazar to chess rather than shriek and hide. It’s everyone else who is still leery of their House Founder, which is patently ridiculous. They’re used to Nizar Slytherin; Salazar Slytherin should not be that intimidating!

Draco mentally composes a letter to his mother in his head while they wait for class to begin. He can’t wait to tell her about the lingering fears, though he has to coach his words carefully. He doesn’t want to send along his certainty about Professor Salazar’s identity and leave Mother in the position of having to defend her son’s continued “rebelliousness” before the Dark Lord.

When Professor Salazar appears, he isn’t wearing the beautiful woven robes from one thousand years ago, or anything wizard and modern. It’s that beaten leather jacket over a t-shirt with a rainbow-triangle design, black denims, and oversized boots, ones definitely meant for work instead of leisure. Except for the prism, Salazar Slytherin is wearing Muggle black from head to toe…and yet he still manages to look imposing and regal.

That, I want to learn, Draco thinks in admiration. Father can say what he likes about clothes making a man, but if a man can put on the most casual and worn of clothing and still have that sort of bearing, then the clothes are only a part of what it takes to command a room.

His father is an idiot, anyway.

“Oi, what’s with that getup?” Macmillan asks. Draco makes a face at the Hufflepuff’s rudeness. Macmillan is a Pure-blood. Even though blood purity is nonsense, he should have been raised with better manners.

“It’s called clothing, Mister Macmillan,” Professor Salazar drawls in lazy response, proving that he is already aware of everyone’s names. He’s had several weeks to observe, so the others should have been prepared for that instead of acting like their teacher just began juggling severed heads.

Draco glances over just in time to see Granger roll her eyes at the dramatic gasping. She’s always been quite levelheaded about that sort of nonsense. He liked that about her even when he wasn’t allowed to like anything about her.

“Er, sorry. Sir,” Macmillan remembers to tack on, sounding sheepish. Or terrified. One of those. Draco isn’t certain he cares which it is beyond the need to always be aware what sort of impression he’s left in his wake.

“You’ll learn,” Professor Salazar says. He walks along the front of the room, giving them a measuring look. “I’m certain the gossips have already brought to you the news of what I think of this school’s sanctioned history tome.”

“That it’s rubbish, sir,” Millicent responds, and is visibly relieved when he doesn’t say anything about her lack of signaling for attention. Draco didn’t expect Professor Salazar to follow academic standards, anyway, not when Professor Slytherin only gives them a passing nod.

“That’s putting it kindly, Miss Bulstrode.” Professor Salazar leans against the front of his desk and crosses his arms. “Your homework—yes, we’re already discussing that. Isn’t it terrible?—will be a bit different from that of your younger classmates. This Friday, I’ll be hosting a lecture in the evening, mandatory for anyone attending this class. Your task after the lecture will be to seek out a book or other documentation that is in agreement with me, and no, it isn’t arrogance if you’ve the right of it because you literally lived it, Miss Blishwick.” Professor Salazar seems amused by the Gryffindor’s irritated huff. Granger just looks annoyed. “You’ll then be writing on what that resource says, or on how it expands upon what I’ve told you. Given that this is going to be a very difficult thing to find, you’ll have until twenty-first February to turn in your results. Do note that I’m not speaking of necessary length. I’ll accept a single page that barely qualifies as a scroll as long as you write of what you find. Also acceptable is your lack of discoveries in this regard as long as you record all of the means used to attempt to find these resources.”

“What—what is the lecture going to be about on Friday evening, s—sir?” Corner stutters out. Draco eyes him, well aware of why Michael Corner would fear a Founder. Idiot.

“The actual Founding of this school,” Professor Salazar answers as if it should have been obvious. “If you’re going to learn it, you’re going to learn it properly. Today, however…”

Professor Salazar grins at them. “Today we’re going to discuss why the 1970s in Britain were complete shit for everyone. After I’m done, you might understand your parents a bit better than you did before.”

“Everyone?” MacDougal asks curiously. The others are shifting a bit, realizing that Professor Salazar is not going to be a narrow-edged instructor. Any Slytherin could have warned them, but then, they didn’t think to ask.

“And that is why we’re going to start with why it was such a fine time to be Irish,” Professor Salazar replies. He then drops them head first into horrifying politics that none of them are prepared for at all.

 

*          *          *          *

 

On Friday afternoon, Nizar’s next bright spot is listening to Salazar whinge at length in regards to the history textbook’s failings. “The first quarter of it is wrong, awful, and full of bloody fanciful suppositions!” Salazar yells, stomping back and forth in his new office on the second storey. Nizar thinks it convenient that this office is also attached to the classroom by a private stairwell. Either someone was thinking sensibly, or this was a…

Staging area. The stairwell is there because this room was a staging area for those going up to the fourth floor of the tower to defend the castle.

Nizar rubs at his temples. Stupid random recollections.

“I’m not used to teaching children who think I’m terrifying,” Salazar finally says as his ranting ceases. “Or that there are so many of them at once. Oh, and I’ve insulted and angered quite a number of them by teaching not mere History of Magic, but History in regards to this entire world.”

“That must be going over well,” Nizar says. “I have students who insist that there are no such things as airplanes.”

Salazar nods. “A number of Pure-blooded blighters think I’m pulling their legs. They’ve never encountered the idea of orbital satellites before in their lives.”

“The horror. You’ve shattered their innocence forever.” Nizar might not have seen a satellite launched into the sky, but at least he’s been paying enough attention in the last few months to know what a satellite is. He thinks he even understands their purpose. Maybe.

Nizar has also stood on top of the Astronomy Tower and watched one of those orbital satellites sail across the clear night sky like a large, brilliant star. He hadn’t been able to breathe until it disappeared from sight. He wonders if Aurora has ever tried to explain those large moving “stars” to her students and found herself facing a wall of disbelief.

Maybe she didn’t know what it was, either. That’s a depressing thought.

“Oh, I can do ever so much worse than that,” Salazar replies. “Explaining the concept of radio waves will be entertaining, as it does actually apply to their Wizarding Wireless.”

“That still sounds simpler than dealing with Dumbledore regarding your inadvertent sacking of his staff ghost.” Binns continued on teaching through Thursday afternoon before it finally occurred to him that he was lecturing to an empty room. The resulting angry shriek echoed throughout the entire castle, prompting Nizar’s students to remind each other to avoid that particular part of the third storey. It would be amusing if they did not now have a classroom haunted by an infuriated ghost who likes to throw desks.

Salazar makes a noise that sounds like bottled, fermented frustration. “I spoke with that one on Monday afternoon before changing the bloody scheduling for History. He thinks my teaching the young ones will be an ‘insightful experience.’”

Nizar raises both eyebrows in surprise. “That’s the only thing he had to say?”

“Yes, but it isn’t the only thing I had to say. I asked him why he’d left a ghost in charge of teaching history for over forty years. Dumbledore said he’d been taught history by Cuthbert Binns as a student and found him to be a candid educator, as he put it. When Binns insisted upon carrying on with his employment despite dying, the Headmaster at the time and the staff—Dumbledore included—decided that Binns was still capable. I asked the spangled bastard if he’d ever sat through one of those classes since Binns’ demise. He had not. I’m still not certain how I managed to get through the rest of that conversation without needing to dispose of a corpse.”

“It should have occurred to me long before now—he never did observe any of my classes after Dolores was removed,” Nizar realizes. “Dumbledore did ask me once or twice how things were getting on, but none of my students reported being interviewed by the Headmaster regarding their Defence lessons.”

“I asked the other staff. They reported similarly.” Salazar looks as if he’d prefer to bash his head against his desk several dozen times. “Politically, Dumbledore has done a fine job as Head of the school. In regards to academics?” He shakes his head. “I’d ask the Heads of House to vote for his sacking, but I already know two of them would say no and another is not yet ready to be convinced. I would also need to find a replacement, but the Lioness is quite accurate as to how few wish to be employed here. She doesn’t want to be Head of the school, either.”

“Speaking of those who wish to be employed here, you still haven’t paid me for that wager,” Nizar reminds Salazar, smiling.

“That is because I’m still deciding if I will actually be continuing with this,” Salazar retorts. “It’s…they lack so much, little brother. I scarcely know where to begin.”

“I imagine that would be why the students tell me that you seem to talk about whatever crosses your mind. That does work, you know. Not knowing when to shut up is still a means of littering your path with information for others to trip over. Besides, you’re the one who will now set the O.W.L.s and N.E.W.T.s at the end of term. You’ll remember what you’ve told them and what you haven’t.”

Salazar rubs at his face. “I have no idea how you adjusted to this so well.”

Nizar refuses to clench his jaw, much as he’d like to. “Not much choice in the matter, Sal. Besides, I witnessed the evolution of how they were taught. It was familiar already, even if I still refused to teach according to someone else’s shoddy standards. You’ll get used to it.”

“And then there is their utter lack of a full education.” Salazar begins opening and closing drawers in his new desk, probably in hopes that someone forgot a stash of alcohol. If he succeeds, Nizar will warn him off; he wouldn’t trust anything Dolores left behind. “These children know almost nothing of other cultures, other languages, science, health, mathematics, healing, literature, economics, civics—and geography! I’ve not seen your map anywhere in this castle, hermanito, and its lack is as disturbing as the fact that it was never replaced in any form.”

Nizar frowns. “What map?”

“Your version of the Recording Charm, little brother.” Salazar gives up on the liquor hunt and sighs. “You pieced together scrolls until you had a length of paper the size of one of the kitchen trestle tables. Then you recreated from memory a map of the entire Earth, as witnessed during your years in primary school in this time.”

“Oh. That must have been…well, useful. I think.”

“Nizar: it was amazing.” There is an echo of ancient wonder reflected in Salazar’s eyes. “None of us had ever seen our entire world mapped in such a fashion before. Our students were the most educated magicians in geography in the world.”

“Maybe it’s in the rubbish room aspect with everything else, though it does make me realize that there are no maps in Hogwarts. I haven’t even seen one of bloody Britain.” Nizar can’t recall if there had been any other maps in Hogewáþ in his time or not. There must have been a map somewhere, even aside from what sounds like a very devoted undertaking on his part. “That’s an odd lapse.”

“It’s perfectly in line with the schemes of that fucking governing board and useless Ministry,” Salazar points out, scowling. “I’ve been dwelling on that for days now. After I put in a weekend visit to London, that classroom come Monday will have its walls covered in maps from differing eras.” He sighs. “I’d love to start with Hogwarts’ first map. I’d like to show them what we did know.”

“Try a Seeking spell in the rubbish room aspect,” Nizar suggests. “That might do it. I’m more concerned by the fact that right now, Hogwarts has twenty subjects it teaches. Only twenty, all magical, and all of them crippled by the governing board.” And by Utredus Gaunt, he thinks, but can’t bring himself to say that aloud. “All it would take is the student count increasing by twenty and the staff would be at the maximum they could handle without being overworked. Those who aren’t overworked aren’t qualified to teach anything else. We need help, Salazar.”

Salazar rests his face in his hands. “I know. This gap is so vast, Nizar. I’m not certain I know how to fill it.”

“Lists. Lists are our friends,” Nizar says in a dry voice. Salazar lets out a muffled laugh. “In the meantime, I don’t know how you’re handling it, but I haven’t just been teaching Defence. I’ve been covering the basics of Healing Magic, diplomacy, ethics, Mind Magic, history when necessary, the differing types of magic—which is supposed to be covered by bloody Magical Theory! That class is meant to be a requirement, and yet somehow half the students in Hogwarts manage not to take it. It’s treated as a fucking elective.”

Salazar lifts his eyes to Nizar. “How much worse can it get, little brother?”

“I’m having to teach them basic dueling form, as trying to teach them actual dueling was a complete fucking failure,” Nizar says in a flat voice. “They could only improve so much on the lessons they’d received in the past. Once I realized the problem, I made them start over. They didn’t know how to move, and they all relied on the exact same sort of casting position. My students are still learning those basics, but at least now I think we’ll get somewhere. Then there is the fucking pamphlet.”

Salazar is starting to look pained. “What pamphlet?”

“The pamphlet I had to construct and give out to all of my students in order to teach them how to properly write an essay. I received utter disasters from students that are otherwise intelligent!” Nizar yells, striding across the office to rest his head against the wall. “Then there are the ones who are curious about flight and levitation now that they’ve witnessed Miss Lovegood’s broomless trips around the castle. I still want to show them all how to build a broom so they don’t have to buy overpriced and limited goods in a bloody shop. It’s one thing if you’ve a professional need, but Wizarding Britain turned brooms into an expensive commodity—and do not get me started on that fucking cobbler in Diagon Alley.”

“Please do not stab that cobbler. There are puffed-up Pure-bloods who would be so disappointed.” Salazar starts chuckling. “Then again, perhaps that is an excellent reason to stab the cobbler. Nizar, that is all too much for one man to teach at once.”

“I'm aware of that!” Nizar retorts, turning back around so he can pace the room. “But no one else is teaching it, Sal. I’m not trying to pad their education with fluff. We’re discussing things that they need to know!”

“Like bloody finances.” Salazar drops his hands so he can lean back in his chair. “Sciences. Training the non-magical students in the use of a quill, or at least let them bring a bloody fountain pen to Hogwarts. The lack of accommodations for those with physical impairments that would be stymied by stairs—or even the mental impairments, like young Mister Weasley and his dyslexia. You’re right that we need help, little brother, but I’ve no idea where to even begin finding it.”

Nizar shoves his hand into his hair. “We had twenty-eight magical subjects and fourteen non-magical ones, Sal, but we don’t have to restore all of the non-magical ones, thank the gods. These children come to Hogwarts already knowing basic maths, reading, and how to write. The majority of them don’t know a damned thing about how to construct their writing, but at least they can put words on paper.”

“But the rest is still a problem, and I’ll need to find another History teacher who isn’t a blithering idiot,” Salazar mutters. “It’s this summer, little brother.”

Nizar looks away. Salazar isn’t wrong about summer. Nizar can feel it, a vague sense of time catching up to them both. The house-elves also think Voldemort will die this summer, divining it with runes, Arithmancy, water, stone, thread, metal, or whatever tool they’ve come to use for their gifts.

Not if I can help it. Nizar has no idea what he can possibly do to keep Salazar from dying when Voldemort does, but that doesn’t mean he’s going to stand aside while Salazar reaps the rewards of a stupidly worded contract.

“Then I’ll change the topic to something you would like to discuss,” Salazar says when Nizar remains silent. “Do the letters from irate parents in the Prophet rate your approval?”

“I wasn’t certain anyone would be able to get them published after that first article,” Nizar admits. “But I’m glad to see I was wrong.”

“Right now, those letters are coming in from people with money enough to pay to see their words in print.” Salazar looks thoughtful. “I don’t yet know how many Madam Malfoy could reasonably expect to finance before it’s considered a Malfoy-led conspiracy.”

“That’s an accusation she can’t afford, not when she needs to maintain her voice in the Ministry. She could convince someone else that she’s helping to pave the way for someone more ‘appropriate’ to take control of the Ministry, but I’d rather she not have to do that, either.” Nizar sits down on the edge of Salazar’s desk. Balancing the politics necessary to unseat Fudge, work with the Queen, charm the rest of Wizarding Britain, and act against Voldemort is already a complete pain in the arse. It would be all too easy to destabilize one or all of those plans by making a single wrong decision. “Or perhaps we’ll be fortunate, and the Daily Prophet will keep printing those letters of outrage if public opinion turns.”

“I don’t think we’ll get there so easily, hermanito. Cornelius Fudge is too entrenched. He’ll fight back.”

Nizar shrugs. “I fear nothing from a man who insists upon wearing that hideous hat.”

 

*          *          *          *

 

Before dinner, Nizar and Salazar both seek out Aurora Sinistra’s quarters within the Astronomy Tower. As Salazar suspected, it’s a tiny, twisting maze of a room that used to be storage, though neither of them can recall what it held.

“There is plenty of room in this tower, and it’s not being used. Why?” Nizar wonders, placing his hand on the stone wall between a set of hanging photographs. He’d never realized that Aurora had siblings. “Wasn’t this once an open section, Sal?”

“I believe so.” Salazar is standing in the center of the room; Nizar can feel his brother investigating the area with the help of the castle’s magic. “That wall was not built by anyone who held her magic.”

“I just hope no one entombed a body in there.” Aurora smiles to hide her nervousness at the idea of hidden corpses. “It would be just my luck that I’ve had an unwanted neighbor for the last fourteen years.”

“Take down your photographs and move everything away from this wall,” Salazar instructs, helping Nizar and Aurora to clear the space by hand and with magic. Then Salazar reaches out to the castle, removing the stone by means of having its material bleed away into the original walls of Hogwarts.

“Oh. It’s merely more storage,” Aurora says in surprise. “Though I do still hope there are no stored corpses.”

“If they’re within that space, they were tidily preserved—Nizar?” Salazar breaks off in concern. “What is it?”

Nizar is staring at the painting that has been left leaning against an old storage chest. Even in the dim lighting of the revealed large space, he can make out a woman’s Romanesque features and dark hair pinned atop her head with large silver combs. She has the northern Pictish eyes that look like the green-blue of the ocean, but her skin is a darker bronze than his and Salazar’s.

She’s bloody taller than everyone except for Godric!”

She is that, yes. Helga seems pleased.”

Helga seems to be over the fucking moon, Sal.”

I am going to assume that means something pleasant, Nizar.”

Lady Edonya, forgive my curiosity: is your height due to giant blood, or are you simply very Norse?”

Her words had been deep and bell-like, the voice of someone who sang often. “Just a hint of giant blood…and I’m also very, very Norse.”

That you are.”

Nizar has no idea that he blacked out until he awakens, utterly confused to find himself lying down and for the ceiling to be overhead.

Fuck, but it’s the ceiling in the hospital wing. Gods, Sal, why?

He struggles to prop himself up on his elbows and nearly gives it up when the room begins to spin in an unhappy whirl. “Why?” he asks again, though that particular plaintive whine is meant for the fucking spinning.

“That’s very much what I’d like to know, hermanito.”

Nizar glances over at Salazar, who is sitting on the next bed over, arms crossed, with deep concern stamped onto his features. “Sal, I have no idea what—”

“I’ve just gotten Mister Hughes and Mister Ackerly settled, so I can—good, you’re awake,” Poppy announces as she approaches, her wand already in her hand. Severus is following her. Nizar catches a brief look of concern before Severus smooths his features out to his habitual impassiveness. “Now I can work a proper diagnostic spell.”

Nizar tries not to flinch back from the cast charm. He’d rather perform them himself, knowing from experience that he isn’t comfortable with most Healers who are not Helga. “I’m probably fine—or not,” he says when he sees the results of the spell glimmering in the air.

“Your blood sugar fell to the floor just as you did,” Poppy announces in displeasure. “That is not what caused your collapse, though it certainly contributed. It’s this activity here in the brain.”

Nizar looks up at those blazing red and orange areas. “What the hell is that?”

“Those are parts of the mind usually associated with memory,” Poppy explains briskly. “If I didn’t know any better, I’d say you were exposed to a powerful surge of magic, and it attempted to feed your portrait’s disturbed Preservation Charms.”

“You are not incorrect.” Nizar glances at Sal and knows his brother came to the same realization. It isn’t just lingering aftereffects from the Preservation Charms and the castle’s magic attempting to help him fill in the blanks. The full might of that original, complicated working is still attached to him. With the available boost in magic, those spells and charms are now truly intent on doing their job.

Fuck. Nizar has enough to concern himself with instead of needing to worry about complicated spells that won’t end until they consider their task to be complete. It isn’t even safe to get rid of the bloody things!

“The blood sugar crash is fixable, as long as there is not anything else…?” Nizar trails off, hoping the answer is a resounding no.

Poppy scowls. “I am used to seeing readings like these on children I know come from homes that are not seeing to their needs. Mister Potter—” She breaks off, visibly upset. “He is often my worst offender for not eating or sleeping properly. You need to take better care of yourself, Nizar.”

“I’m well aware of what my habits have been of late.” Nizar feels a return of this week’s constant exhaustion. “Is it the dinner hour yet, or did I miss it?”

“You’ve missed the first half.” Poppy dismisses the diagnostic image with her wand. “I’ll have the elves bring dinner here. For all three of you, as these two idiots also neglected to eat.”

“I was not leaving this room until I had answers,” Salazar says in firm voice.

“Nor I,” Severus adds, but he does offer Poppy a graceful nod. “Thank you for your assistance and consideration.”

Poppy smiles and pats Severus’s arm, a familiarity he allows without a hint of the usual flinching. “You’ve been nothing but scrupulously polite to me ever since your third year, Severus.”

“That’s because I didn’t wish to be flayed alive,” Severus mutters once Poppy has retreated to her office, ostensibly to call for dinner. “Nizar?”

“It was that painting, wasn’t it?” Salazar asks.

“It was. Someone help me to sit up. Everything keeps spinning, and it is not pleasant.”

Salazar and Severus take his arms on opposite sides and help him to sit upright until Nizar doesn’t think he’ll simply fall over. “Thank you.” Nizar rubs at his eyes and sighs. “I remembered who she was. I remember Edonya, Sal.”

“I’m glad of that, at least, even if I’m not happy about the manner in which you remembered her,” Salazar replies. “Strong magic, hermanito. It has to be the magic of granted land and title attempting to fuel those remaining Preservation Charms.”

Nizar nods, relieved when the spinning doesn’t get worse. “I don’t understand why I decided to bloody well pass out from it, but it’s a logical conclusion.”

Severus frowns at him. “I’m more concerned that it really was due to the bad habits Poppy mentioned.”

Nizar rolls his eyes, which makes the spinning room loop a bit more stridently. Bad idea. “I’m not starving myself, Severus. I just don’t eat well when I’m upset. I never have.”

“No, you don’t, and I’d forgotten all about that,” Salazar murmurs. “I imagine you forgot that if you’re doing so, you need to ease back on anything magical.”

Nizar stares at Salazar before he says, “Fuck,” in the most disgusted tone he can muster.

“That definitely confirms my hypothesis.” Salazar smiles when three elves appear with trays full of food. “Thank you all for the kindness.”

“It is being no trouble, Professor Salazar,” one still dressed in Greengrass colors chirps, disappearing after she’s handed Nizar the first tray. At least its contents are sensible: soup and bread, water and tea. He can cope with that.

“Who is Edonya?” Severus asks after Nizar all but inhales dinner. The room has stopped spinning, and he feels like he could stand up without falling over.

“Edonya Dyonisia was a Norse vikingr and Vǫlva of mixed Persian descent,” Salazar answers. “She was a beautiful woman with a bit of giant’s blood in her lineage, and thus taller than all of us in the castle but for Godric. You saw the portrait of her when I removed it from Aurora’s properly enlarged quarters in the tower.”

Severus nods. “I did. She was beautiful, as you described, but it was hard to determine her size from a portrait.”

“She was also Helga’s lady. They were hand-fasted, married without it being something that magic or the Church would recognize. They didn’t want Helga’s idiot brother to get any foolish ideas into his head if he learned that his sister had wed.” Nizar stares down at his empty tray, feeling the food he’s just consumed try to sour in his stomach. “Edonya died during the invasions of 1013. Helga was devastated—she always thought she’d be first. She was older, famous, and a visible target in our society, whereas Edonya was not.”

“We were heartbroken,” Salazar says quietly. “She was an excellent magician and a good friend. To lose her the year after Brice…that was hard on all of us.”

Nizar considers the potential outcomes of flinging his teacup at the nearest wall. “I disliked King Æthelred upon first meeting. Those battles made me hate him.” He shakes off the memory and its accompanying anger. “Sal, are you still giving that lecture in the dungeon ballroom tonight?”

“I am. Why, do you plan to be in attendance, hermanito?” Salazar asks.

“Someone has to be there in case you get something wrong,” Nizar replies.

Salazar smiles. “And how would you even know it to be incorrect?”

“When it comes to our history?” Nizar puts the tray aside, not really in the mood to smile in response. “I’ve always known if I’ve heard something said wrong, even if I didn’t know why.”

 

*          *          *          *

 

Minerva isn’t certain what she expects when she goes to the dungeon ballroom that evening. It’s always been a rather gloomy space, more appropriate to telling ghost stories. She wonders if that is what Salazar intends. Those sorts of tales do tend to keep a young one’s attention riveted.

Instead, she enters to find the room brightly lit by flaming torches that encircle the room; candles are all gleaming in the cast-iron round candelabras hanging from the ceiling. Rather than an empty room, stadium seating that was likely made from the very stone of Hogwarts has turned the ballroom into an amphitheatre. The seats are absolutely packed with students but for a section that has been claimed by staff, with room remaining for stragglers like herself.

She chooses to sit down with Nizar, who is next to Severus, who is sitting at the very edge so he does not have to tolerate anyone else at his side. “Are you all right?” she asks him.

Nizar rolls his eyes. “Does everyone bloody know? Yes, I’m fine. Magical incident, not dead, dying, or incapacitated. Fully capable of heckling if Salazar botches something.”

Minerva smiles. “As long as you have your priorities in order, dear.”

Filius is seated just below them, taking one of the empty spots below Minerva and Nizar. Almost all of the faculty is present, though Minerva narrows her eyes as she notes that Barnaby and Eustas are not. To her surprise, Sibyl has come down from her tower, which is a very rare event. Argus is standing off in a corner, holding Mrs. Norris and pretending to be invisible.

Salazar is standing on the floor before the stone risers. She almost expected him to dress Muggle, just to be irritating, but instead he’s chosen black boots and trousers with a dark green shirt that looks to be one of the fine linen originals. Over that, Salazar is wearing his long black silk vest embroidered in gold and bronze, which most certainly sets the proper tone.

He is currently pointing at rows, lips moving as he counts under his breath. “Oh, there will be students who receive disappointing O.W.L. and N.E.W.T. results this summer.” He glances at the doorway as their last two students, older Hufflepuffs, scramble into the room and wedge themselves in among the others.

“I’ve put quite a bit of thought this week into deciding how I should tell this tale.” Salazar words gain him immediate silence. “If I speak too long, not one of us will be fit to greet the world before noon tomorrow, yet all stories deserve a beginning.

“So: this is ours.”

The last living war mage, Myrddin Wyllt, watched five centuries of war unite and divide his beloved isle over and over again. He decided in the middle of the 900s that if he did not leave behind a sanctuary devoted to magic, then his entire life’s work would be for naught. To that end, he found a magical node in the southern Highlands, one of the strongest on the island, and there he placed a stone. Myrddin linked that Founding stone to the great node buried in the earth, and raised a stone structure high around it, the first buildings of the school he named Hogewáþ. It is and is not a surprise to hear that the eldest parts of the school are the Entrance Hall, the Great Hall, and the tower that now holds the Grand Stair.

Minerva listens in utter fascination as Salazar discusses the eldest Founder, Duchess Hrodwunn—Rowena—of the Magical Bavarian duchy named Raven’s Claw. A brilliant young woman who learned every language set before her, who attained her first self-taught magical mastery in Arithmancy at age fourteen before continuing to teach herself any magic that seemed appealing. Her only marriage gave her a non-magical son and two magical daughters.

Rowena was the first of the four to meet Myrddin in the flesh, though Helga arrived soon after, fleeing her brother’s attempts to eliminate all perceived threats to his claiming their parents’ throne in the north. At age sixteen, Helga Hlodvirsdóttir (later calling herself Hugðilepuf) was a fully recognized and trained magician among the Norse, the rare warrior Vǫlva who also chose to be a Healer. Salazar tells them without the slightest hint of bragging or falsehood that Helga was one of the loveliest of women who ever inhabited this Earth. He amuses Minerva by adding that Helga would often use that beauty to lure in those foolish enough to assume a pretty face equated to weakness.

Salazar made certain that his sister Estefania would be granted control over their lands and holdings and allowed to act as Marquésa in Salazar’s place before bringing his very young family of himself, wife Orellana, and toddler daughter Fortunata to Briton. He met Godric for the first time in Inverness; they were introduced to each other by the High King of the North. Along with Godric’s wife Sedemai, they traveled into the Highlands together.

Their very first sight of Hogwarts—then far more a keep than any sort of castle—was of Helga defending it against an army sent by her own kin. Salazar then promptly demonstrated that at not quite fifteen, he had no bloody idea he was an Earth-Speaker, called upon that magic as they were being overrun, knocked a bunch of idiots to the ground, and then promptly joined them.

“In typical Slytherin fashion, you made certain to make an impression, then,” Miss Parangyo teases him.

Salazar grins. “I’d like to claim such an opportunity for a pun, but alas, Godric made certain I left no such impression on the ground.”

Myrddin named Godric, Rowena, Salazar, and Helga as his school’s Founders: those who would be linked to the Founding Stone, Keeper of Hogwarts’ Magic. The points on the compass who would guide.

“Uh—what is it liked to be tied into a magical node at age fifteen?” Mister Sloper asks.

The expression on Salazar’s face is somewhat comical. “I’m an Earth-Speaker, Mister Sloper, one who is especially attuned to the magic of the earth. I was as high as a bloody kite for nearly ten straight days. Myrddin was not amused, but as he is the one who didn’t consider that side effect, the blunder was all on him. Helga never let him forget it.”

From the autumn of 984 through the winter of 990, the four Founders, Orellana, Sedemai, and their acquired staff built onto the castle using the magic channeled by the Founding stone. Myrddin’s houndings and mutterings, Salazar’s scrying, Godric’s instincts, Helga’s desire to protect, Rowena’s desire to educate—all served their purpose. By first March of 990, Hogwarts was perhaps three quarters of the way to being the size it is now. In 991, they added the structures that would take it up to seven-eighths complete, and after the Founders’ time, all other additions were made by others.

“I didn’t remember that,” Nizar murmurs under his breath as another student asks Salazar why his sister and brother didn’t accompany him to Hogwarts. “I didn’t remember it was the same day as my birthday.”

“Estefania was far more interested in politics, and she was very, very good,” Salazar answers the student. “Nizar, like the rest of us, was educated at home until the school was officially ready to open its doors. Not that it stopped anyone who heard tale of what we were up to in the north. We had students all but dropped on our doorstep all throughout the previous year by desperate parents who wanted their magical children safe and educated.”

Then there is, formally, an open school for magic on the isle of Briton. Godric’s wife Sedemai explained the first ideas of Magical Theory, taught Transfiguration to all, and tested their students for skills at levitation or flight. Someone is foolish enough to claim that no one can fly with magic; Salazar merely rolls his eyes and ignores them, which is the sort of answer that makes the asker feel foolish and allows others to realize that there was no joke intended. Helga taught Charms, Rune Magic, and Healing while also teaching Apparition. Godric was a teacher of Defence and History, and was such the storyteller that he and his audience often had to be reminded that there were other things to be done that day. Rowena catered to the teaching of languages, geography, mathematics, Arithmancy, reading, writing, the magic of the spoken or written word, Mind Magic, courtly behavior, ethics, and diplomacy.

“When did Rowena Ravenclaw ever sleep?” Miss Stivers asks, appalled.

Salazar chuckles. “Things were a bit different in those days. We didn’t need to run our students into the ground with a full day of lessons on every single day. Once they mastered what was required, they moved on to a new lesson. For quite a long time, I was the only one qualified to teach anything of Divination, Potions and Herbology, Astronomy, Elemental Magical Theory, Weather Magic, and if any had ever shown the inclination, Earth-Speaking. Until she died…”

Salazar always pauses before saying her name, and that is how Minerva knows whom he will speak of. “Orellana was a Wood-Speaker who showed the young ones how to build their brooms, and taught Alchemy to those who wished to learn. She had no deft hand for Potions, but the science of Alchemy? That was another tale altogether. Thus it was just us six until September in 991, when Orellana died.”

“How?” Miss Vane asks, one of many students who seem distraught.

“Childbirth,” Nizar answers rather than Salazar, who looks relieved not to have to voice the cause. “She had a blood deficiency—you’d call it anemia—that we tried to treat through the latter half of her pregnancy with Zuri. We thought we’d stabilized it, but…we were wrong.”

There was no one who could teach Alchemy after Orellana, but Nizar had been Orellana’s student in wood-speaking, which enabled them to continue broom lessons until they gained another teacher for both subjects. They did so just in time for Nizar to take the Defence post from Godric in the summer of 992, as Godric wished not to dwell on fighting unless it was to take on an apprenticeship.

“You were bloody seventeen!” Mister Carmichael declares, staring at Nizar. So do all the others who would much prefer not to be taking on any sort of hefty responsibility until they aren’t given a choice in the matter.

Nizar looks annoyed. “So?”

“Mental,” Miss Bhatia says in a bemused voice. “But we knew that, sir.”

No one else resided in the castle through the summer of 992 but for students, teachers, and their staff…and that brings them to the tale that most of Minerva’s Gryffindors have been curious about from the very start. Most of the staff Salazar has told them of are non-magical, though two are non-magical people from a magical lineage.

Minerva listens with her heart in her throat as Salazar describes to them why he learned never to discount his brother’s instincts, no matter the reason. One of those two non-magical men from a magical lineage, Nizar had never trusted. That man waited until all of the magicians were out of the castle dealing with another matter and absconded with two of the students, young girls. Nizar had already been named the school’s protector by Myrddin, and while the castle was supposed to tell them all if something was wrong, that is the day they learned that his senses were more fine-tuned—and still it was not enough. The first child was dead, and the second grievously injured, before that man was stopped. No one is foolish enough to ask how Nizar stepped him, not given the expression on his face.

If Orellana’s death broke the dear man’s heart, then that non-magical servant’s act shattered Salazar’s trust in those who’d been with them for years already.

“And that’s why non-magical types were banned from the castle,” Mister Zabini says. “That’s when Muggles stopped being able to see Hogwarts.”

“Not only for that reason, Mister Zabini, though without such details, it does look very much like that,” Salazar replies quietly. “To our eyes, that man’s act served as a warning of things to come. Certain of our students already had to dwell in the castle throughout the year, as it was not safe to go home to their families. The church on the island was far more tolerant in those days, but worse was coming and we knew it.

“I’ve been alive from twenty-eighth December 969 until this very day,” Salazar says, “and no matter my years, I still could not tell you if I thought we did right or wrong by choosing to hide the way we did. I honestly could not say if I believed us to have made things better or worse.”

Salazar wisely changes the subject, going into more detail of the structure of Hogwarts, particularly those who were permitted to be students in its halls. Any magical being was welcome, Salazar tells them; magic was the only requirement for entering the school as a student. The sheer amount of muttered outrage the students indulge in when they learn that mixed-blood students of other races as well as Squibs were educated in Hogwarts makes Nizar scowl and Minerva wish to plaster her hands over her ears when the walls echo with it.

“Squibs are without magic, you say?” Salazar does not look impressed by the primary argument. “My mother was descended from one of the most powerful magical families in the County of Castile. The magic in her line had skipped the previous three generations, but it still flowed in her veins, else she would never have been able to pass her family’s magic on to my sister…or on to me.”

Salazar holds up his hand, allowing emerald flame and silver sparks to dance in his palm. “That green shine of my magic is of my father’s family. The silver is of my mother’s. She would never have been able to pass on magic if she were without it.” He dismisses the fire and points to Argus lurking in his corner, whose eyes widen as half the assembly turns to look at him. “If Squibs were truly without magic, that man would not be able to see this castle or work within her halls—and yet, there Argus Filch stands. Your primary and stupid argument regarding Squibs is easily dismantled. Oh, and do stop insulting my mother,” Salazar adds. “I still take such comments personally.”

“But the Founders booted out Squibs and half-human types!” Mister McLaggen exclaims.

We did no such thing,” Salazar retorts. “As a matter of fact, that didn’t happen until the thirteenth century. That is the same century when the enslavement of elves began, elves who were free beings of Hogwarts, and it started when their contract with Hogwarts was deliberately hidden away, their education taken from them. The rest of those ridiculous rules banning students for foolish reasons came about early in the fourteenth century.”

Salazar glances at Nizar, who seems to consider something before he nods. Whatever Salazar has asked, Nizar does not look happy. “What if I were to tell you that the divisions you all know, the separation of Pure-blood, Half-blood, and the insulting term Muggle-borns, were all the result of one man’s vile actions in the first half of the 1200s? That before such time, those distinctions never existed?”

“No recognition of a Pure-blood at all?” Mister Malfoy asks. Minerva glances at him to see no trace of defensiveness, just curiosity. He has grown up quite a bit this year, and she could not be more pleased.

“Long-lived and uninterrupted magical lineages were recognized and honored so long as they continued to earn that respect,” Salazar tells them. “But otherwise? No. One was a magician, or one was not. You did not need a lineage to become famous…or infamous.”

“You’ve proof of this?” Albus asks.

Minerva frowns. If she didn’t know any better, she would suspect Albus of being the one sounding combative. Odd.

Nizar stands in place. “The man in question—whose name I will not mention, as I have no wish to sully his descendants—came to the Slytherin Common Room in 1234 to brag to the portrait of the castle’s last known, titled Protector as to what he’d spent years in Hogwarts doing while acting as one of her instructors. He didn’t realize he was bragging to the real person, of course. Not at first. When he did, he moved the painting. If you’ve been tied into a magical ley line for your continued survival? Having that forcibly stripped away bloody well hurts.”

Minerva discovers that she’s wringing her hands together. She did not know any of this, which means it must be a very recent discovery. Even Albus looks taken aback by Nizar’s recitation.

“And you didn’t remember.” Miss Fawcett looks sad. “Because the painting was moved.”

“No. Not until very, very recently.” Nizar sighs. “Our lovely perpetrator kept Obliviating the Headmaster at the time so he would conveniently forget his fears and concerns. He removed paintings, hid paintings, cursed paintings, and convinced the Sorting Hat to resort to simplicity of song rather than recitation of the school’s Founding history. In short, this man did an excellent job of sabotaging everything my family worked to build here.” Nizar sits down and Minerva reaches out to pat his arm. He gives her a terse smile in response.

“Why not name this man?” Mister Derrick of Slytherin asks. “History should hold him accountable!”

There are several students who add their agreement before Salazar holds up his hand. “This man wanted the truth to be forgotten. The best revenge is to make certain he is forgotten. I’d much rather we go forward from where we are now rather than dwell on what was.

“Now, I’ve covered the actual Founding, along with a few things I’d no intention of discussing at all this evening. That means you may now ask questions, and I won’t turn down a single one.”

Minerva has to clamp her lips together to keep from smiling as Salazar is subjected to an interrogation that sounds very much like the one the Order treated him to on second January.

“All right, something a bit different, then,” Miss Mirfield says. “How can so many of us be descended from Godric? It seems I can’t turn around without walking headfirst into yet another distant cousin!”

“Sedemai would be laughing so much right now,” Nizar whispers, smiling. Minerva is glad to see that he seems to be in a better mood now that discussions of this mysterious villain and paintings have been put aside.

“Godric and Sedemai had what you lot would call an…” Salazar frowns. “No, wait, some of you are probably not aware of that term yet, as it’s largely in non-magical use. They call it an open relationship. Godric was free to look about and follow his inclinations with other women so long as his wife approved of his choices beforehand. Sedemai wasn’t the type to do so, herself, but as far as she and Godric were concerned, there was no dishonor in it. They had faith in each other’s words and trust in each other’s dealings almost from the moment they met until death parted them. The, ah, problem of Godric’s many descendants is that Godric had the worst luck when it came to Contraception Charms acting as they should.”

Miss Weasley raises her hand, bright-eyed. “I’m one of Anna Mirfield’s many, many cousins, sir. I take it you mean the Contraception Charms kept failing?”

“That they did. Godric was of a long line of magical English eorls and took care of any child he sired if their mother requested assistance. The difficulty was that we didn’t even know there were so many failures until the odds started to stack up against him. Sedemai even accused him of being too pissed to remember to use the magic properly, but that was never Godric’s difficulty. It was his own magic, you see. It was…” Salazar smiles. “It was something else, darling Gryffindor. The man radiated magic in a way an Elemental Magician would, yet he was not of their ilk at all. His magic had a way of affecting things that spent a long time on his person, that talking Sorting Hat included. It’s a living, talking hat because it was Godric’s Hat, struck with a Babbling Hex. Gods, but if only I’d chosen something else to fling in his direction that day.”

Minerva clasps both hands to her mouth to muffle her sudden laughter. She may as well not have bothered, given that laughing is what most everyone else seems to be doing.

“And I still say that it was Helga’s fault!” Nizar shouts above the racket.

“Oi! How would it be our Founder’s fault if it was Godric Gryffindor wearing the Hat and Professor Salazar casting the hex?” Miss Applebee wishes to know.

“Never mind. We’re back to it being our fault,” Nizar concedes. “My brother and I felt challenged and crafted the only known alcohol potent enough to overcome Helga’s very Norse constitution. She was really not pleased to wake up with her very first hangover that next morning, and started throwing spells at myself and Sal for being the cause. Then Godric got involved, and it was a complete debacle.”

“You know, we’ve been wondering why you keep calling the Sorting Hat an alcohol-soaked bit of talking felt,” George says, grinning.

“However, that does make perfect sense, and feels quite appropriate besides!” Fred chimes in.

“Please never give my students alcohol,” Minerva requests in a dry voice.

“Minerva! They’re underage!” Nizar responds, insulted. “I would only do that once they’ve graduated.”

“No thanks,” Miss Shah says at once. “You’re Spanish. I don’t want to die, Professor.” That sets the lot of them off laughing and talking again,

“Okay! Wait! Question!” Mister Thomas yells, causing most of them to settle again. “Your bit about the Gryffindors’ relationship had me wondering, Professor Salazar. How could they get away with that sort of arrangement back in those days?”

Salazar raises an eyebrow at Mister Thomas. “Muggle-born?”

“No sir, Half-blood whose magical father decided to take off instead of hanging about,” Mister Thomas replies. “I was raised Muggle, though.”

Salazar nods. “I see. Your history books in primary school would have talked of what relationships in our time were presumed to be like. Most of them are entirely incorrect, by the way. I will say that in Christian circles, it was frowned upon to be with another outside your marriage—at least as far as the Church was concerned. There was overall more of an attitude of ‘Mind your own business’ when it came to that sort of thing. As long as you weren’t causing dramatics that stirred up the entire village, no one was much bothered. In magical circles, Godric and Sedemai’s marriage arrangement wasn’t unusual at all. Open marriages, triad marriages, group partnerships and marriages, hand-fastings instead of recognized marriage, casual relationships, cross-cultural and cross-species relationships—all were common in our day. That really didn’t stop being the case until the Ministry formed.”

“That’s a lot more open-minded than I expected,” Mister Goldstein says in surprise, accompanied by muttered agreement.

“Open-minded.” Salazar considers it. “I would imagine it’s a matter of perspective. No matter if you had magic or not, the world was a different place one thousand years ago. You lived with the knowledge that a disease could strike you down. A minor wound could turn septic and kill you if no healer could cure the infection. A blade might end your life whether you were actively involved in a conflict or not. When you are always aware that Death might lurk just around the corner…you laugh more. Love more freely. Live more. You delight in existing. You are yourself, to your utmost ability, because you never know when those chances might be taken from you.”

Minerva swallows, sobered once more. She is doing exactly that now, but she hadn’t the sense to do such when she was younger. It took age and grief to learn that lesson.

Salazar glances down at the floor. “You’ve no idea how grateful I am that disease, the violence, and deaths by infection are all so much less than they were. I lost almost the whole of my family’s descendants from every branch to plagues and pandemics. But when the fear of death faded, what seems to have replaced it is the fear of living. We once took every opportunity granted us to celebrate, because those moments, great and small—all are worth celebrating. Now the very idea of celebrating beyond a strict set of Western ideals is looked down upon as if it’s some sort of failing.

“Why should it be considered a failing to take joy in being alive?”

Chapter Text

Nizar is so glad that the students ran out of questions around eleven. There is a Quidditch game early enough in the morning that some of the players chance yawning through the game if they don’t start taking themselves off to bed. As it is, they can’t get rid of any of them until the students linger to witness Salazar returning the ballroom to its original form. There are a lot of wide eyes and gleeful smiles as they watch a Founder of Hogwarts ask the castle to reclaim solid stone.

He wasn’t certain how tonight’s story would affect those who listened, but so far what he’s seen and heard is overwhelmingly positive. Thank the gods.

Nizar turns around when someone coughs for his attention. Argus Filch is standing there, cradling Mrs. Norris in his arms. “D’you have you a moment, Professor?” Filch asks.

“Many.” Nizar follows Filch over to the shadowed corner the man lurked in for the entirety of Salazar’s tale. “What can I do for you, Mister Filch?”

Filch gives several students an angry scowl when they wander too close. “It’s just…I was wanting to apologize, Professor. About the—the incident. With the music.”

“Oh? It’s not racket any longer?” Nizar is trying not to be bitter about that moment, but he still regrets what he did while still in the throes of a massive flare of temper. That alboka would have been better served by lingering in Hogsmeade’s music shop for another century.

“No,” Filch grumbles.

“Are you going to continue to ban rules that don’t exist to suit your own personal preferences?” Nizar asks.

Filch’s expression turns sour. “No, I won’t be. I shouldn’t have reacted—that way. I heard ’bout what happened to that instrument you were playing.”

“An alboka,” Nizar supplies. He never informed anyone else as to the alboka’s fate, so Severus must have mentioned it to Salazar. His brother must then have mentioned it to whoever he judged would be in the right position for Filch to find out without the truth being shouted in his face.

“Alboka, then. That’s not something I ever wanted to see happening, Professor,” Filch says. “I just have such a terrible trouble with noise!”

“Noise.” Nizar frowns. “Sound, musical sound, or any loud noise?”

“It’s all noise to me, Professor,” Filch admits. “It’s always been just overwhelmin’ sound, anything louder than a conversation—and sometimes even that’s just too much for my ears.”

“Sound. Any sound.” Nizar blinks a few times and turns around. “Sal! Come here!”

Salazar looks at the crowd of students and staff between them, shakes his head, and then Apparates directly to Nizar’s side. “That would take too bloody long, otherwise,” he says. Filch stares at him for a few seconds in shock before apparently deciding to ignore the in-Hogwarts Apparition.

“Argus Filch here was just telling me that he has trouble with sound. Any sound,” Nizar says. “Conversations included. Doesn’t that sound familiar?”

Salazar grins. “It does indeed. I do believe we may’ve stumbled over this man’s magical talent!”

Filch is furious. “I’m a Squib!” he hisses. “Got no magic!”

“No, you have very little magic compared to a wand-waving magician. As I told those young blighters, if you were completely without magic, you couldn’t see Hogwarts to work here,” Salazar counters. “For a so-labeled Squib, it’s about finding the ways in which their talents do manifest themselves. You, my friend, need to be studying the sciences of Magical Sound. Your ear is untrained, which is what makes all noise seem overwhelming.”

Filch looks stunned, and possibly on the verge of abruptly sitting on the floor. “How would I even do such a thing?”

“To start with? Reading.” Salazar rubs at his bearded chin. “I’ll seek out those particular books on your behalf. From what I’ve seen, Hogwarts’ library is not what it should be in regards to the rarer magics and masteries. Afterwards, you’ll need a teacher, and we don’t have one here. Barnaby Harper has no mastery in Magical Sound, and I wouldn’t trust him to be a decent teacher. That may mean traveling elsewhere during the summer months.”

“Bear in mind that this won’t make you capable of wielding a wand,” Nizar says, wanting to forestall any possible disappointment. “But mastering the magic you do have certainly won’t hurt you.”

Filch nods, still a bit suspicious. “You said your own mam was a Squib. If she were that, what did she do for her bit of magic?”

“She understood water. Elemental magic,” Salazar answers. “She could not manipulate it directly, but she was trained to understand what she could hear and feel, and thus knew how to properly harness its strengths. Her side of the family had always been prone to speaking to air and water. Should I fetch you those books?”

“Er…aye. Yes. That would be…I don’t have much money. A caretaker’s salary isn’t much t’all,” Filch mutters.

Salazar swears in Parseltongue, but Filch only leans back instead of attempting to flee. “That I can also fix, though—and I mean no offence—I’m not certain why Hogwarts has a human caretaker. The elves were our caretakers by agreement.”

“Professor Dippet hired me when I was younger. Professor Dumbledore suggested to him that maybe they should put a human face on the castle’s care, what with the house-elves being so shy,” Filch says, staring down at the ground. “I understand if you’ll be wanting to sack me from a pointless position.”

“No, I do not wish to sack you,” Salazar replies, brow furrowed. “I simply want you to be in the place that is best for you, your talents, and your interesting cat who is not a cat at all.”

Filch clutches Mrs. Norris protectively. “Now—you be leaving my darling alone!”

“You are touchy, aren’t you?” Salazar observes. “I’ve no intention of doing anything with your cat. What you two get up to on your own time is none of my business. Come on, brother. I’m in the mood for a late tea.”

“Wait! You’d be interesting in—in helping me—and I’m still not certain that’s actually your goal, mind,” Filch says huffily. “I know you don’t much like me.”

Nizar just shrugs. “I’ve never held anything against you but one single moment of foolishness, Argus. Oh, and my brother and I tend not to say things unless we mean them. Good evening.”

“I see we’re here by ourselves this evening,” Salazar asks after Nizar uses the opportune moment to Apparate them upstairs to his sitting room.

Nizar glances at the tea tray in relief when one of the elves pops it into place on his table. “For now. Severus was waylaid by Pomona, Minerva, and Filius, but I’ve no idea what that’s about. Tea?”

“Yes. I’d prefer a drink and the means to bloody well calm down after that.” Salazar sits down, revealing that his hands are shaking. “I’m glad the students found much of it to be light-hearted, little brother, but that was harder for me to speak of than I expected.”

Nizar frowns and pours tea for Sal before retrieving his own cup. “I thought it might be. No Mind Magic to distance yourself from it at all?”

“I thought it might leave the wrong impression,” Salazar replies after he’s added cream to his tea to cool it down. “I didn’t want any of the darlings to pick up a hint of emotional distance and think my words weren’t true.”

“That’s probably for the best. I think in those willing to listen, it had the greatest effect.”

Salazar picks up one of the biscuits and stares at it instead of eating it. “Most of our young Marked Death Eaters were not in attendance, though a few were.”

Nizar takes up the same kind of biscuit and understands at once why Salazar was hesitating. It’s been sweetened to his preference rather than the sugar content of food that Sal has grown used to, and might actually be bitter to his senses. “I had to use Mind Magic to speak of…of him. Croaking out inaudible words is no way to make an impression.”

“Unlike falling into the dirt,” Salazar agrees. “And I blame you not at all. You still came across as one on the verge of either tears or murder, so it worked well enough.”

“Minerva definitely noticed, yes.” Nizar eats the biscuit just to be certain he’s consumed something before midnight lands on them. He’ll never escape Poppy’s clutches if he passes out again because of easily remedied reasons. “Who did you tell about that poor alboka?”

Salazar makes an amused noise. “Cornered your ginger twin mischief-makers and asked them to be subtle about it. They said they’d be as subtle as I required as long as the end result was that the daft old man apologized for what he’d said.”

“He isn’t daft. Not entirely daft, anyway,” Nizar amends his words. His older students had informed Nizar as to how thrilled Argus Filch was with Dolores Umbridge’s temporary presence. “He’s bitter and tired of living his entire life as a subject of mockery. Sound—that should have occurred to me that very day.”

“Yes, but you’ve always had a temper, and it was about two sensitive subjects, besides,” Salazar says. “That it occurred to you today is good enough.” He glances down into his teacup. “An alboka made the traditional way, over a century old. Those tend to remain in families. Replacing such a thing isn’t easy.”

“Easier than you’d think.” Nizar leaves his teacup on the table. “Wait here.”

He goes into the combined workroom and study and returns with a box. Salazar gives him a suspicious look, as if Nizar retrieved a container full of beetles. Nizar wonders if they remain one of the only creatures on the planet that Salazar is leery of.

“What is in that, brother?” Salazar asks.

“Well, it’s a different box, as the other one aged so much it wasn’t capable of doing its job anymore.” Nizar places the box down on the table in front of Salazar. “Galiena had a new box made, and then she placed it into that applewood trunk. I didn’t find it until I was almost done clearing out all of that magical space. Open it, pendejo,” Nizar instructs when Salazar just stares at it. “It doesn’t bite.”

“You’ve said that to me before, and it was very much something that liked to bite.”

Nizar smirks at him. “Scarab beetles are pretty, useful in potions, and it was a box of dead ones.”

“And yet still one managed to clamp down on my finger,” Salazar retorts, but does finally open the box. Then he sits back in shock, staring at what it holds. “Is that what I believe it to be?”

“It is.” Nizar nudges Salazar’s shoulder. “Maybe you should pick it up. You know very well that this especially does not bite.”

“No,” Salazar whispers. “This is an entirely different sort of biting.” He lifts the alboka out of its maple case, revealing the polished oxen horn and its rowan wooden reeds. The gentle designs carved into the wood are still easily identifiable to Nizar’s eyes, representing all the serpents known to have called upon by the Deslizarse bloodline. “I didn’t realize you still had it.”

“I gave that to Zuri, actually, thinking that it should remain on your side of the family,” Nizar explains. “I don’t know how Galiena managed to reclaim it after Zuri’s death, but she did.”

Salazar is running his hands along the entire instrument, as if he can’t quite believe what he’s holding. “I’ve only a single silent portrait left of him remaining in Gipuzkoa. I never thought to hold anything of my father’s again, Nizar.”

Nizar smiles. The expression on his brother’s face is all the payment he will ever need for being required to stand up and speak of Gaunt’s actions tonight. “Then I’m glad my daughter knew when and how to be properly underhanded. Can you still play it?”

Salazar makes a face and then lifts the horn to his lips. What emerges is almost true music accompanied by quite a bit of out-of-tune noise. “Oh, definitely not!” he says, laughing. “That’s almost worse than your first attempt, hermanito!”

“Really? I don’t recall. I’m sure it had to be memorable if you’re still thinking of it one thousand years later.” Nizar accepts the alboka when Salazar hands it over. “I was trying not to maul ‘Herr Mannelig’ when Argus had such a terrible reaction to the sound.”

Salazar smiles. “It amazes me how people simply cannot recognize how old that tune really is. But I’m glad it’s not been forgotten. There are interesting variants of it being played now, including one done by a young German rock band that likes to indulge in the old songs and sounds. They remind me quite a bit of the loud celebrations the Norse knew how to indulge in.”

Nizar gives in when Salazar subjects him to too many pleading looks and raises the horn to his lips. “If this is terrible, you brought it upon yourself,” he warns Sal, breaths in, and begins to play. To his relief, it’s not that bad. He always had a good ear for notes, if not the potential for any sort of magical understanding, and he knows he’s holding the melody true.

When there is a knock on his door, Salazar gestures at him to keep playing as he gets up to answer it. “Good evening, Lioness,” Nizar hears.

“Good evening—and there is Argus Filch’s most hated sound again,” Minerva says in surprise.

Nizar lowers the pipe for now, knowing a true interruption when he sees one. “Not only this, but that can wait. What is it, Minerva?”

“A bit of thought from the Heads of House within the school.” Minerva frowns. “It actually took me several attempts to gain access to your classroom door. You’d think it was trying to keep me out.”

“No, not at all,” Salazar tells her, taking her hand as he guides her to the table just as if they were in Court. “Spring is approaching, and that always makes magic feisty as the winds bring in extra energy. The towers are more susceptible than the rest of the castle.”

Minerva raises both eyebrows. “That would explain why Ravenclaw and Gryffindor both have the more active pranking wars at this time of year.”

“It really does.” Nizar smiles when another teacup pops into existence on the tray. “Tea, Minerva?”

“Gladly.”

Nizar allows Salazar to explain the alboka while Minerva prepares her tea and Nizar readies a second cup for himself. “Well over one thousand years old,” Minerva says, marveling over the alboka. “It’s quite beautiful, though the sound was a bit intense even in a space as…er, enlarged as this one.” Minerva glances around. “I do recall this room being far smaller, Nizar.”

“Geomancy fueled by knowledge of Pictish magic.” Nizar tries to be nonchalant to soothe Minerva’s nervousness at the change. “I simply restored it to what it used to be.”

“I see. It is…fitting,” she says at last. “I do like that you now have two eastern-facing windows. I’ve always been fond of such, myself.”

Nizar gives the alboka back to Salazar so that it can be secured again in its case. “I sense shenanigans, Minerva. What were the Heads of House busy doing after tonight’s lecture?”

“We’ve been enjoying the letters that have been published in the Daily Prophet this week regarding Fudge’s incompetence,” Minerva begins. “We each found ourselves wondering how many students of well-connected Pure-blood families or Half-bloods with good family relations dwell within our Houses. There are, of course, quite a few. We began wondering how many of our children we might easily convince to write to their parents of their concern regarding Fudge’s lack of concern for their safety. Perhaps a mention of the Dementors, the lack of doubt in Voldemort’s return…”

Nizar taps his fingers along his teacup and smiles. “Convincing them individually would not be difficult in some cases, but I imagine asking the more subtle among them to drop hints to the others, or simply write the letters in public spaces to be caught at the act and thus needing to explain…”

Minerva smiles. “Such a Slytherin, though I confess that we all discussed those ideas. Filius is still utterly seething over the Dementors that kept invading school grounds, not to mention that idiot Minister bringing one directly into the school. Even Pomona is quite prepared to participate in the matter. She does not like the idea of her Hufflepuffs in danger. We’re keeping Albus out of it, of course. The school’s charter aside, Albus will be able to tell the bloody Wizengamot in complete honesty that he has no idea what it is we’re up to, even if he suspects collusion.”

Nizar rolls his eyes when there is a second knock on his door. “Come in.” He waits until Severus has entered and closed the door behind him. “Do stop knocking! I’ve already granted you permission to enter whenever you like.”

Severus gives him a bland look. “It’s polite. I take it Minerva is informing you of our thoughts this evening?”

“I am,” Minerva says just as a fourth teacup is added to the tray. “And the elves seem to be wishing to assist.”

“Considering that idiotic petition that the Minister is waving about, trying to claim they have the right to re-enslave the elves?” Nizar snorts. “I think they’re in the mood to remove Fudge’s guts and use them for garters, but the elves don’t like leather-working.”

Severus joins them at the table, though he ignores the tea. “I had a thought after we separated for the evening. Why are we limiting our efforts to Wizarding families? Muggle-borns have parents who are capable of writing letters. The British Post sorts them right over to the Owl Post the moment they receive them.”

Nizar leans back in his seat. “Letters from a potential of two-hundred-eighty-one students.”

“Imagine the Howlers.” Minerva smiles, pleased. “Three-quarters of the school will have parents capable of sending those, and some of our students would be able to provide the means for crafting one to their non-magical parents. One does not need to be magical to speak to a prepared Howler, after all. It only captures the voice of the one speaking.”

“I wonder if that would be enough to convince Fudge to resign,” Nizar says.

Severus lifts one eyebrow. “That depends on who else we can convince that this is a worthy venture. There are many people in Wizarding Britain who have no love for Albus, but they absolutely despise Fudge.”

Salazar grins in fierce delight. “I know quite a number of magicians within Britain’s boundaries. I could, perhaps, be asking how many of them dislike the Minister—or would at least be willing to pretend to hate the stuck-up bastard if I asked.”

If you’re so concerned with blood purity, Godric and Rowena were both of Pure-blooded magical lineages.

Needs must. Besides, you’ve given me the answer I sought, what with the easy way the terms Pure-blood and Half-blood fall from your lips. I know I succeed.

Nizar jerks out of the recollection to find the others staring at him. “Uh—sorry. I really need to—I need to sleep. You three may feel free to sit here and plot for as long as you like, but I’m…bed. That.” He leaves the table to an air of absolute silence, and wonders at what sort of expression must have been on his face when that memory shoved its way before his eyes.

 

*          *          *          *

 

Salazar waits until he hears the bedroom door shut. “Fucking portrait,” he says, and slings back the rest of his tea.

Minerva looks concerned. “Was he that bothered by what was discussed this evening, then? Regarding the painting being moved?”

Severus glances at Minerva, thin-lipped. “Yes.”

Minerva glances in the direction of the hallway. “He was downplaying it, wasn’t he? It was ever so much worse than he implied to the students this evening.”

Salazar nods, sighing. His little brother did not deserve what was done, and he shoulders a blame that isn’t of his making. “Yes, Lioness. It truly was.”

 

*          *          *          *

 

Saturday morning brings another moment of brightness in a week that Nizar would otherwise like to forget. The Daily Prophet’s front page is devoted to the Queen’s restoration of magical nobility. The photo is of Draco, Adele, Daphne, and Blaise seated in a neat row, accompanied by Lupin and Black standing to one side of them. It’s a very casual group photo, made formal by their appearances rather than stiff attitude.

Spencer and Dervish had madly wanted for Nizar and Salazar to join the others, but Nizar didn’t want that photograph to be desperately unbalanced. The two adult Gryffindors don’t quite balance the scales, but it shows others that title restoration isn’t just for those of Slytherin’s House. It also has the added usefulness of showing Slytherins and Gryffindors in agreement over something that isn’t spiting each other.

In the article itself, Joyous Spencer is careful to explain that this restoration is open to any magician whose family once held title and can prove it, is willing to become a citizen of both Wizarding Britain and the United Kingdom, abide by the kingdom’s laws, and will protect the land and people attached to their granted title. Then Spencer absolutely loses her verbal mind and fills the rest of the article with excited babble about each magician with a restored title. There is a tasteful biography for each student, their title and the lands it’s tied to, polite recitation of family history, and even details on who last held the family’s title before the Statute. Lupin and Black have longer pieces, especially Black, as Spencer takes the opportunity to go into further details regarding the many reasons why the Queen granted Sirius Black both title and royal amnesty. Nizar thinks that her mentioning his place in the line of succession—minus the bit where Black is ineligible—is a very subtle touch.

Nizar is also pleased that she restrained herself to brief biographies for himself and Salazar, as agreed. She mentions that Salazar was recognized by the Spanish crown until the focus of his allegiance needed to shift to the United Kingdom. Other than that, she lists only their lands and titles in Britain, Nizar’s profession as it’s stood for the last thousand years, and after a bit of owl correspondence, Salazar’s new position as History instructor for Hogwarts.

“You didn’t tell me you were doing that,” Salazar mutters as he spies that part of the article.

“Please, you would be doing yet more whinging if I’d said a word.”

“I think it was quite tastefully done,” Minerva says. They’re all watching a calm sort of chaos unfold in the Great Hall as everyone talks about the article and those photographed. Salazar and Nizar being nobility are not a surprise at this point, but everyone else is.

“Yes, and quite sneakily done, too.” Filius smiles. “Marriage proposals.”

“That was not a lie. There was indeed a meeting between families, as Miss Greengrass’s father really was being that idiotic,” Severus responds, still frowning at the paper. “Madam Spencer was going to space out her articles by a matter of two days each. This is nearly the full week after the first article written against Fudge. They’re having to fight for it.”

“Fudge.” Salazar hisses in Parseltongue under his breath so that he can curse at the staff table without drawing Minerva’s ire. “He must truly have forced their hand to leave the Prophet no choice but to devote nearly the week’s papers to refuting the allegations in the Sunday paper.”

“Not to mention his utter panic over Madam Bones announcing her intentions,” Dumbledore adds without removing his gaze from his politely curious study of the students. “I don’t think he did himself any favors by trying to attack her credibility. I might often play the hapless fool, but she never has.”

“I’m waiting with absolute delight for Madam Bones’s commentary in response to all of Fudge’s nonsense this week. She’s always been fond of letting one dig their own grave,” Sasha declares, grinning at her paper.

“That still does not solve the problem of the free press.” Salazar sips at his coffee. “In the meantime, someone might wish to intervene before certain of our Slytherins are crushed to death by a mob.”

Nizar sympathizes with Daphne, Adele, and Blaise. Draco was raised to understand this sort of attention by his parents, Narcissa in particular. He’s handling the slew of question graciously, even if his words are clipped if the asker is rude. Blaise and Daphne, never expecting any part of their status to be recognized, aren’t prepared at all. They’re staring at everyone else, wide-eyed and mute. Given that Blaise is one of the most talkative, easy-going young men that Nizar has ever met, that is quite a feat.

He’s almost certain that Adele hid beneath the table and then escaped using a Disillusionment Charm the moment she discovered the contents of the morning paper. Nizar approves of that sort of quick thinking, even if the newly titled baroness can’t hide forever. Reaction to her newfound fame will be even worse when the war mage article makes its appearance.

Nizar didn’t want anyone to know he’d gained a new title, either. He didn’t fucking need another title! Bloody Earl over the Heights of Brae—what was Her Majesty thinking?

While Severus stands up to go terrify everyone into giving their titled Slytherins some breathing room, Aurora leans back in her chair so she can speak to Salazar. “The current owner of the Daily Prophet is likely being blackmailed by Fudge,” she says in a low voice. “I wouldn’t know a thing about my cousin’s doings, of course.”

“Of course. I don’t suppose it’s possible for your cousin to counter this theoretical blackmail?” Salazar asks.

“It’s…complicated,” Aurora hedges while Septima steals the coffee pot from Salazar.

“You mean there is money involved. I—” Nizar glances down the table just in time to see Salazar’s eyes widen. “Oh. He doesn’t look a bit like his father at all,” Salazar says.

“To everyone’s great relief,” Aurora replies dryly. “However, if anyone were to find out…”

“Your cousin Amfractus married Celeste Slughorn.” Salazar glances up at the ceiling and sighs. “Greed is more important to them, is it?”

Aurora shakes her head. “Apparently so.”

“Competition would certainly encourage him to pay less attention to one man’s nonsense. The magical world should have more than one bloody newspaper.” Nizar is still not impressed by that lack.

“Well, there is Witch Weekly, but that’s mostly gossip, recipes, the occasional celebrity interview, and some truly dreadful advice columnists,” Pomona says from further down the table. “I did try to subscribe for hope of differing news, but grew tired of it quickly. It doesn’t really count as competition for the Prophet.”

“And there is The Quibbler.” Salazar’s words are met with immediate derision on all sides. “Ah, so judgmental,” he mocks them with a thin smile. “If you put aside the man’s fanciful conspiracy theories, Xenophilius Lovegood has yet to be wrong about anything.”

“There are no such things as those bedamned bloody nargles!” Rolanda exclaims in vexation.

Nizar starts choking on tea and his own laughter. “Oh, do I have some terrible news for you.”

Severus glares at him. “Those fucking things are real?” Minerva is desperately calling for them to stop swearing, but the others are too distracted.

“Yes, they very much are,” Salazar answers while Nizar is still recovering from trying to breathe tea. “As are heliopaths. The rest of the creatures Xenophilius loves to discuss are also real; they just do not bear such ridiculous names as he’s granted them. I knew them by description.” He frowns. “I believe two of them have been extinct for several centuries, though.”

Filius looks excited rather than concerned. “You’re not in jest, are you?”

“Not about this.” Salazar smiles at Filius. “That man married a Greek magician, a woman who then gave birth to one of the only Elemental Magicians currently walking this earth, and you think I’m in jest as to Xenophilius’s subject matter?”

“Apparently not.” Minerva’s brow furrows. “Then what in heaven’s name are nargles?”

“There are multiple species. They like to hide within the differing types of flowers they resemble. Two arms and two legs, black eyes, wings, smaller than hummingbirds.” Nizar tries to decide if he’s going to steal the teapot and clutch at it throughout the entirety of that morning’s Quidditch game. “If you make friends with a piecemeal of nargles, they’re utterly loyal, and will kill anyone who attacks you in their presence. If you anger them…well, you’d best hope you can avoid an entire species of their particular flower for the rest of your life.”

“I still think you’re both pranking us,” Aurora says, scowling.

“Believe what you like.” Nizar stands and swipes the teapot, which is nearly full and makes him suspect the elves snuck a fresh pot onto the table while he wasn’t looking. “By the way, there is still ice on the grass,” he adds, and departs to Salazar whinging about the cold.

 

*          *          *          *

 

“Come on,” Daphne hisses at the stragglers. “Move it, or we’ll miss the game and our opportunity!”

Granger’s hand is plastered to her side as she, Fred, George, and the Weasel catch up. “Sorry,” she gasps out in a loud whisper while the Weasel bends over to rest his hands on his knees. Daphne wonders if he’s going to sick up and wrinkles her nose. Not in front of her, please. “Filch turned up just after you went down the stairs. We had to ditch him on the second floor.”

“He didn’t follow you, did he?” Pansy asks, leaning around the edge of the wall at the end of the corridor.

George shakes his head. “Not us, Parkinson. Made me long for the time Mrs. Norris spent most of the year Petrified in the infirmary, though.”

Ginny sticks her head around the corner to join Pansy. “I did not just hear you say that, George Weasley!” she hisses.

George holds up his hands. “I apologize profusely forever,” he says, and then makes an entertaining noise when Daphne loses patience with their dawdling. “Move it!” she orders Granger, Fred, and the Weasel as she drags George along behind her. The Weasel frowns, but Granger seems amused and the other ginger is laughing.

“Time to trade,” Astoria announces cheerfully when they finally arrive at the entrance to their Common Room.

Draco gives them a serious look. “The password will be changed tomorrow, and no, I won’t tell you what it is, since the seventh-year Prefects handle that. If you’re thinking of getting up to mischief—”

Fred shakes his head. “We’re trading. We don’t abuse trust when it comes to that. Now, if we find out the new password…”

“Not actually my problem. Just leave our belongings alone,” Draco replies in a dry voice. “Aperiam in porta.

The Gryffindors look suitably impressed when the wall for the Common Room entrance slides open. “It also acts like a door if you’re in a hurry,” Astoria says, ignoring Daphne’s warning glare. “But the wall is awfully impressive.”

“It is very cool,” Fred agrees, and everyone nods—except the Weasel. It isn’t that he’s in one of his sulky brat moods, either. Daphne has suspicions, and they started when he was the only Gryffindor not excited by the idea of finally getting the chance to view the Slytherin Common Room.

“Okay, Astoria was right. This is very, very green,” Granger comments, smiling as she looks around.

Ginny is staring up at the ceiling and its glassed-in view of the lake. “Wow. I thought we had a great view, but that’s amazing.”

Pansy looks smug. “The Merpeople like to come and talk to us, too.”

The Weasel frowns. “How can you talk to them with that glass in the way? And what with them shrieking?”

“Mermish isn’t shrieking if it’s underwater, dingbat. Remember?” Granger shakes her head. “Honestly.”

“Sign language.” Draco demonstrates British Sign Language for them, which makes the Gryffindors gape in amazement. “Honestly.” He mimics Granger’s frustrated tone. “It isn’t that difficult.”

“Even if we did have to add a few words on our own for what the language doesn’t have,” Astoria says.

“Mostly I’m just amazed that you were willing to learn something so Muggle,” Granger tells Draco, and then adds in BSL: “I’m impressed!”

Daphne tries not to snort when Draco’s cheeks turn pink. He has such an obvious crush, the stupid sod.

“To be honest, we didn’t know it was a Muggle thing. The Half-bloods and Muggle-borns in our House were smart enough not to tell us,” Pansy explains. “And they were right. It—it took a while. To stop being…”

“Twits,” Astoria supplies, beaming at Pansy when she glares at her. Daphne has no idea when the others are going to figure out that Astoria’s bright-eyed innocent act is exactly that, but in the meantime, Astoria pulls it off very well.

“I see we have guests,” Salazar’s portrait says from its place above the fireplace. All four of the Weasleys cringe with the guilt of being caught before they realize it’s just a portrait, not the man himself. Daphne is going to treasure that moment for a long, long time.

“Hello, sir,” Granger greets him politely. “Are you going to be ratting us out?”

Salazar grins at them. “No, I’ve heard tell of the upcoming trade. Just don’t get caught at it, is my advice.” Then he rolls his eyes. “I remember when Common Rooms welcomed guests of other Houses, not this password shit.”

“Did his portrait just swear?” Ginny asks, eyebrows rising in surprise.

“He does that. Professor Slytherin is a lot more of a stickler for not swearing in front of people who are underage,” Draco explains. “However, when you turn seventeen…”

“All bets are off, is what I’ve heard,” Pansy finishes, smirking.

Fred and George glance at each other. “That does explain quite a bit,” Fred says.

“Now that we’re in a private room, though, as I know Professor Salazar is quite sensible…” Granger ignores it when the portrait of Salazar looks pained by the honorific. “I’d much prefer it if Blaise were here, too, but this morning’s paper is what last week’s politics were about, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” Daphne says in a flat voice. “Why, are you going to tear us a holier-than-thou Gryffindor new one for being titled Pure-bloods?”

Granger seems bewildered by the accusation. “No. If I’d known more of what you were walking into, I could have helped you to be more prepared.”

“You would?” Draco’s gaping would be more entertaining if Daphne were not aware of the fact that she’s doing the same.

“Why?” Daphne asks, her voice sharp with suspicion.

“Oh, for goodness’ sake.” Granger looks to be on the verge of slapping her hand over her face. “It’s basic deduction! If you two, Blaise, and Adele were willing to become citizens of the United Kingdom by royally recognized magical title, then that title’s magic ensures you actually are going to be loyal to the kingdom the title is attached to! If you’re not, the title rejects you, and it obviously didn’t because you would definitely not have been running around this week like nothing was wrong. You might have been a bit too busy with death.”

“Oh. I believe I might have forgotten that part,” Salazar’s portrait says.

“Exactly my point!” Granger throws up her arms and sighs. “Hopeless, all of you. Hence the helping. Your actual self and your brother are very used to how anything Court-like works. If you have an outside point of view, someone is there to see the things you might’ve missed!”

Salazar’s portrait frowns. “Why are you not in my House, Miss Granger?”

“Because the Hat decided I was already good at this part,” Granger retorts in a prim voice. Daphne thinks Draco might actually swoon. “Since your magical titles didn’t reject you, that means you’re serious, which means you definitely aren’t in it for any of that Pure-blooded codswallop. You’re doing it for the right sort of reasons—and yes, I’m aware that personal gain can be a good reason. I mean that you’re willing to embrace people like my parents as not being inferior just because they’re dentists instead of magicians!”

“Please do not make me willingly embrace dentists,” Daphne says after a moment of shocked silence. “I have heard horror stories from the Muggle-borns that make my skin crawl.”

“My parents are very good at their jobs and are not the sort that create horror stories. Well, except for their insistence that my oversized teeth were natural and beautiful, and they weren’t going to do a blasted thing to fix them,” Granger adds, scowling. “If Madam Pomfrey paid even the slightest bit of attention last term, she’d have known at once that I was having her shrink them too much, but I like being able to eat an apple without feeling as if I’m going to become stuck in it.”

“I didn’t know,” Draco blurts out. “I didn’t actually know what that hex did. The—the teeth-enlarging. Thing.”

“Oh.” Granger glances at him. “That isn’t actually why I mentioned it. You sort of did me a favor, really, since it meant a longstanding problem was fixed. My parents attribute their new size to my ‘growing into them.’” She pauses. “Why did you cast a hex if you had no idea what it did?”

Draco puts his hand over his eyes. “My father heard about my teeth needing to be reset, though I didn’t tell him why. He suggested I use that hex the next time I was in need of a good distraction.”

“And you bloody well laughed about it!” the Weasel yells.

Draco drops his hand and glares at the Weasel. “I had to!” he shouts back, and then winces. “And you’re all quite aware of why that is. It’s why all of us laughed like bloody hyenas. If we didn’t…”

“Parents.” Pansy huffs out a breath. “Mine are still arguing. I’m not looking forward to that outcome, and I won’t be going home for Easter break. If they decide to kill each other over You-Know-Who, I’d rather not be the one to discover their bodies.”

“Right. Yeah. Parents.” Ginny bites her lip. “Sometimes I forget how lucky we are that we don’t have parents who are…arguing like this. They either know where they stand, or they don’t care. I’m really sorry.”

“We’ve still got more sympathy for you, Gin,” Astoria says, a nickname that makes Daphne’s eye twitch. “You had to deal with…with him. At age eleven. Even if it was just a—a shade.”

“It was no shade. It was an aspect of magic that allowed Tom Riddle to store a part of himself inside that fucking book,” Salazar’s portrait informs them in an angry voice. “Young Miss Weasley may as well have encountered Voldemort in the flesh.”

“That really doesn’t help! Wait. Do you guys have the feeling we’re forgetting something?” Ginny asks the twins.

George puffs out his cheeks as he thinks about it. “Probably.”

“I just feel like it’s the sort of thing we’re supposed to keep forgetting about,” Fred says. “Like a compulsion?”

“Ah. Yes. That would be the sign of the Deflection Charm, which is far safer than that horrific Obliviation spell. When it’s safe, you’ll stop forgetting what you’ve been asked to conveniently not think about,” Salazar tells them. “In the meantime—stop thinking about it!”

The Weasley twins both hold up their hands. “Not thinking about it,” they say in one voice. Ginny settles for nodding, though she still looks confused. Daphne knows the Deflection Charm sometimes requires assistance for the magic to kick in again. A distraction is called for.

“Now that all of the politics are out of the way, I want the Weasel to cough it up about why he’s not eyeballing everything in this room the way the rest of you are.” Daphne crosses her arms and gives him an icy stare.

“Oh. Uh…” the Weasel puts his hand on the back of his neck as he ducks his head. “I’ve been in here before. With Harry. Second year.”

“How the hell did you manage that?” George asks. “I’m proud, little brother!”

We’ve never pulled it off!” Fred adds. “What ingenious method did you use?”

Weasel points at Granger. “She did it! She made it.”

Granger rolls her eyes. “He means Polyjuice. They were in such a hurry to get in here.”

“You mastered working Polyjuice. A N.E.W.T.-level potion. In your second year.” Pansy stares at Granger. “You are such a swot.”

Granger smiles back, unoffended. “A swot who can brew perfect Polyjuice.”

Draco is starting to frown as he looks at the Weasel. “Second year. You—of all people, you chose Goyle and Crabbe?”

“Because you hung about with them the most!” the Weasel retorts. “You were the one blabbing on about how you knew all about the Chamber of Secrets!”

“Oh, so this is suddenly my fault, then,” Draco sniffs.

“Yes,” Granger says in such an emphatic voice that Draco looks taken aback. That is also going onto the list of moments Daphne is going to treasure.

Ginny’s face is scrunched up. “What did they taste like?” she asks her brother.

The Weasel, already pale green thanks to the light cast by the lake above, manages to deepen that green by a few shades. “You really don’t want to know.”

“I always wondered why they bolted like that,” Draco says thoughtfully. “Where were Crabbe and Goyle?”

“Sleeping off a set of cupcakes that were altered with a sleeping draught.” Granger gives them all another innocent smile when they stare at her. “What? We didn’t make them eat the cupcakes.”

“You’re scary. Let’s keep her,” Pansy says.

Daphne approves of that sneakiness, but she also has to admit, Potter and the Weasel willingly drinking a draught that would taste like Crabbe or Goyle takes intestinal fortitude for more than one reason. She certainly wouldn’t be lining up to do so—and all because they were searching for clues about that stupid Chamber!

“We should get our cloaks. It’s supposed to be cold outside,” Astoria suggests.

“You lot behave yourselves!” Pansy chirps as they head towards the stairwell for the downstairs girls’ dormitories.

“I’m right here,” Draco reminds Pansy in irritation.

“What did you mean, about the Common Rooms and the passwords?” Granger is asking the portrait when Daphne, Astoria, and Pansy return. The Weasley twins are paying strict attention to Granger’s conversation with Salazar.

Salazar lifts one eyebrow as he studies Granger. “What I mean, young Gryffindor, is that in the old days, these were public spaces. They were devoted to the students apprenticed to our Houses, yes, but they were not exclusive, secretive chambers. The passwords and wards were devoted to a student’s sleeping chambers. Eventually it became the dormitories that were warded, not individual rooms or spaces. Then, at some point after my portrait was stuffed into a bloody storage closet, the Common Rooms became like they are now.”

“Then it was…well, forgive the pun, but it was common to host friends from other Houses in one’s own Common Room,” Daphne says in surprise.

Salazar’s portrait nods. “It was indeed. Perhaps with this sort of trading occurring between Houses, it might begin to happen once more.”

“Not until after Voldemort’s dead, it won’t,” Astoria mutters unhappily.

“Don’t say that name!” Daphne snaps. Astoria winces, but she doesn’t nod in agreement.

“Don’t fear the name, Daphne Greengrass,” Salazar’s portrait says, his tone gentle. “Fear the man who bears it…and perhaps laugh at the idea that the fool named himself Vol de Mort. Flight of death.”

George frowns. “That sounds an awful lot like He-Who-is-A-Twit cursed himself.”

Salazar’s response is a wolf-like grin, all bared teeth and delight. “Maybe he did. You should be going. There’s a game on in five minutes. Slytherin versus Hufflepuff, I believe.”

“Five minutes—shit!” Draco yelps. “I have to go, or they might actually kill me for being late!”

“At least he’s already dressed for the game.” Fred slaps his younger brother on the shoulder as Draco races out of the room. “C’mon, you daring and cheeky little Polyjuice fiend.”

The Weasel shoves at his brother’s hand. “Bugger off!”

When they’re all back out in the corridor, with the Common Room sealed behind them, Pansy shocks Daphne by putting her arm around Granger’s shoulders. “Gryffindor’s not playing today. You should come sit with us.”

“Er, well—” Granger stutters.

“We have friends playing for Hufflepuff today. And no offence to any of you, but except for Draco, your team isn’t all that nice,” Ginny says.

“No one said you had to cheer for Slytherin,” Pansy counters. “Cheer for the Puffs all you like. People will make appalled faces and provide all the entertainment our hearts desire!”

“Okay, that part?” Fred begins.

George nods decisively. “Totally worth it.”

“Too bad it’s not the Ravenclaws. We could have borrowed Luna’s screaming eagle hat,” Ginny muses.

Astoria makes a face. “Not the hat. That hat is loud.”

“Wait. This will save us some time,” Granger says, retrieving her wand. “I really have no wish to sit on the risers and freeze just because we’re running late.” She Summons her cloak; the Weasleys catch on and quickly do the same.

When they make it out to the pitch, both teams are already in the air. The rest of their House gives them odd looks for the cluster of Gryffindors they bring up, but except for the twits who’ve sided with Voldemort, no one says a snide word about it.

Most of the Slytherin team all but makes a spectacle of themselves with poor flying, playing, and blatant, inappropriately unsubtle cheating. She’d rather not witness any of it. Instead, Daphne amuses herself during the first part of the game by keeping track of how many times Draco’s eyes veer away from Snitch-watching to look at Granger.

She also keeps count of how many times her own eyes drift over to the Weasel. He’s growing up nicely, and isn’t so freckled in his gingeriness. The Weasel also showed cunning, getting into Slytherin’s Common Room with illicit Polyjuice, and that is a trait she appreciates. If only there was a way to train him into being less obnoxiously irritating.

Daphne is expected to marry well, but most of those her parents think of as being well enough to marry are also…well, they’re either Voldemort supporters, or they might as well be. She now has a weapon on her side that she never had before—she’s the titled Vidame of Magical Northumberland, not her parents. The moment she turns seventeen, the house and its lands are hers. Then her marriage is her decision, and they can say nothing at all. They can’t even withhold money in order to try to starve her into submission, not when the generous stipend attached to her title goes into a personal vault, one which also becomes available on her seventeenth birthday.

The Weasel is as poor as her family, but at least he’s a fellow Pureblood. Her parents wouldn’t be able to complain about that if she experimented with dating a Weasley while in Hogwarts. Daphne isn’t certain she’s all that fussed about bloodlines any longer, herself, but if she decided to keep to the tradition, the Weasleys have been so long separated from the Greengrass bloodline that there is no fear of inbreeding to concern herself with.

Of course, Potter was also part of that Polyjuice plot. Potter is neither ginger nor obnoxious, even if he has an annoying habit of attracting werewolves, mass murderers, and insane Dark Wizards. Potter isn’t poor, and is much nicer on the eyes than the Weasel. Perhaps when he returns…

Daphne is promptly distracted from her musings when she notices how close Astoria is sitting next to Ginny Weasley. The looks Astoria sends Ginny’s way when the other isn’t paying attention—friendship, Daphne’s entire backside! Astoria is crushing on a ginger, hard, even if it looks like the ginger in question hasn’t noticed yet. Worse, it’s a girl. Their parents might claim to be enlightened, but they expect both of their daughters to marry men.

She told the Queen that she wanted Astoria to have the means and opportunity to make her own decisions. This is not how Daphne expected to have to contend with that particular problem.

If Mother and Father discover that Astoria is bent for girls…

Daphne sighs. Astoria is still meek when it comes to their parents, but she knows how to keep secrets. It’s the gossip that would out her.

This, Daphne thinks in resignation, is a disaster waiting to happen.

 

Chapter Text

“Ah, a balmy six degrees Celsius,” Severus says of the weather as they go outside. “I really hope it’s warmer by the twenty-fourth.”

“But that’s almost within the bounds of March. Then it will be the wind we’re contending with,” Salazar comments, ignoring the angry glare that Severus turns in his direction. “I missed the first game I would have been present to witness, given that we were otherwise occupied last weekend. Where do we stand?”

“Ravenclaw lost to Slytherin last Saturday. Today’s game determines who will play the final game against Gryffindor,” Severus explains.

“Oh, your favorite tradition.” Nizar grins when Severus decides to glare at him, instead. “Slytherin versus Gryffindor.”

“It isn’t a foregone bloody conclusion!” Pomona protests as they sit down.

“Ten Galleons that it is,” Salazar says, and Pomona shakes his hand on it. Nizar almost feels bad for her; that was such a sucker bet it almost seems an unfair wager. Then again, she is an adult and knows how her own House has been playing this decade. It isn’t his fault that she refuses to be realistic about it.

Nizar watches the players gather on the pitch, which includes Draco’s late arrival. He has yet to see Slytherin fly—his first game of the year was Gryffindor against Ravenclaw, then Gryffindor against Hufflepuff, followed by Hufflepuff playing the Ravenclaws. He already knows the lineup just from Common Room chatter, but seeing it is almost comical.

Draco Malfoy is perfectly sized for a Seeker, sleek and fast, and though Draco would never admit it, a bit of a lunatic. The others, though—most of them don’t seem to fit. Crabbe and Goyle look far too oversized to be effective Beaters, no matter how hard they can knock a Bludger. Cassius Warrington as a Chaser seems all right, but Graham Montague’s takeoff is wobbly, not good for a Chaser or the team captain. Adrian Pucey was scowling before they even made it into the air, as if he’d rather not be playing at all. Miles Bletchley looks to be using his girth to keep the Quaffle clear of the goal hoops, and that has never been a wise tactic to rely on. Gryffindor is a perfect Quidditch team by comparison.

Hufflepuff looks to be composed of the same sort of shit flying, which means the previous games weren’t flukes. Zacharias Smith and John Cadwallader don’t rise into the air with any sort of grace, though Heidi Macavoy does better. Maxine O’Flaherty and Anthony Rickett seem to work well together as Beaters, though so far their tactics make Nizar want to march right down to the pitch and demand they both get their backsides into his Defence class yesterday. Herbert Fleet is putting his Defence lessons to good use as their Keeper. Nizar has rarely seen Alex Summerby about the castle at all, though he’s flying like he hopes to stumble over the Snitch by sheer fortune rather than actively looking for it.

Worse, three of their team is Marked, which means there are a total of six baby Death Eaters in the air. “For fuck’s sake,” Nizar mutters under his breath. “Six Marked students,” he explains when Severus eyes him in silent request for an explanation. “Also, most of them are terrible at this.”

“Montague is the Slytherin captain. Blame him,” Severus replies in displeasure. “I could not afford to have any say over those decisions until quite recently, but even I’m not fool enough to sack half the team in the middle of the season. They still did well enough to earn their way here.”

“Earn how—oh, there are our late arrivals.” Nizar gestures in the direction of the student section devoted to Slytherin, where Pansy, Daphne, and Astoria are just arriving…in the company of all four Weasleys and Granger.

Severus stares at them for a moment as they sit down. “I do not even want to know.”

“I think it’s quite the improvement, not to mention quite the brave thing. Tensions between Houses are not entirely forgotten,” Salazar says. “I wonder if it’s in response to this morning’s paper?”

“I’m more concerned by the fact that Miss Parkinson and Miss Granger appear to be colluding. I do not need that sort of terror in my life.”

“Think of it as a challenge, Severus,” Nizar suggests, and smiles when that earns him a vicious scowl. “My apologies; I need to ask Salazar about something.”

Severus grimaces as Goyle performs a blatant foul right before Rolanda’s eyes, giving Hufflepuff the opportunity to score by penalty. “By all means.”

What was that bit about Aurora’s cousin at breakfast?” Nizar asks Salazar in Parseltongue.

Oh, that.” Salazar watches the Quaffle change hands before it’s intercepted by Hufflepuff when Pucey bloody well drops it. “Celeste Slughorn was once married to Cornelius Fudge.”

Someone was willing to marry that fucking idiot?”

Believe it or not, he was once a bit more…tolerable. Being Minister went entirely to his head, and he promptly stomped on any good intentions he might once have had in favor of power and politics.” Salazar bares his teeth in a way that reminds Nizar very much of their sister. “Once Celeste realized what sort of man she’d married, she re-evaluated her options and then foolishly went and had an affair with Amfractus Sinistra Macmillan before remembering that one in her position should first file for divorce. Not only does Fudge have that indiscretion to hang over their heads, the young man who is considered to be Amfractus and Celeste’s only child was not sired by Amfractus at all. Celeste would lose her inheritance the moment her family discovered that their money would go to Cornelius Fudge’s only child.”

You got all of that from a few sentences’ conversation with Aurora?”

I pay attention to the doings of magical families on this island, little brother. I’ve had to.” Salazar rolls his eyes as Smith misses an easy goal. “Are they all playing like drunkards today?

Nizar frowns. “But Celeste Slughorn was married to Fudge previously. Why would the inheritance be a concern at all?”

The Slughorn family wrote her out of the will when she wed Fudge at the age of eighteen. The clan then wrote Celeste back in when she left Fudge and married a man related to two families in excellent standing instead of a blowhard from a family of middling importance. They doubled the amount to grant to her when they realized her Heir would also be inheriting the Daily Prophet, possibly hoping young Jericho Macmillan will recall their generosity and never drag any of their ill dealings through the mud once it’s his paper to run.”

This blood prominence nonsense is truly fucking irritating.” Nizar hears Severus growl when Rickett and Pucey decide that a midair collision and fistfight is the best way to settle matters. He stands up and yells, “YOU BE A BIT MORE FUCKING SUBTLE!”

“Like you were just then?” Severus asks in a dry voice.

“That wasn’t in Parseltongue, was it? That was not intentional. I’m so glad no one could hear that.”

We heard you just fine,” Pomona points out while Filius all but cackles with laughter.

“Yes, but you’re not students, so I don’t care.”

Severus’s lips turn up in a faint smile. “Ah, hair-splitting.”

“It’s not hair-splitting. You can happily break each other’s limbs in Quidditch without being a complete prick about it,” Nizar mutters.

Severus gives him a look of disapproval. “I see that certain Quidditch philosophies remain stubbornly unaffected.”

Nizar has no idea what that’s about, so he glances at Salazar again. “How old is Jericho Macmillan? I’ve never heard that name mentioned in Hogwarts.”

The lad’s twelve, but he’s not schooling in Hogwarts. His parents sent him to Beauxbatons in France. Lingering concerns about the war, of course,” Salazar answers.

Nizar sighs. He still has no idea how many British-born children are off at Durmstrang or Beauxbatons. “Of course.

 

*          *          *          *

 

As the morning progresses, Severus finds himself fiercely glad that today’s game is not against Gryffindor. It makes Lee Jordan and Minerva both a bit more sedate when commenting on the game.

It also means Severus does not have to watch this disaster lose to Gryffindor. This is quite possibly the worst game he’s witnessed his Slytherins play this year. It makes him want to strangle the life out of everyone but Malfoy and Warrington, who are at least trying to fly like they’re not imbeciles.

Severus is also seated next to Gryffindor’s former Seeker, a fact that they were both unaware of the first time Nizar finally remembered that student Quidditch existed. The two games played in January have not made the situation any less baffling, even though Severus is fine with Nizar’s identity in every other circumstance. Perhaps it’s merely leftover paranoia that he has no idea how to cope with, fear that remains from the three years (plus one Tournament) Severus spent needing to be concerned about that child killing himself during every single Quidditch match he played in. Nizar’s comment about breaking bones did not help at all.

Then discuss it, he thinks. “You did say you’d played the game before.” Severus keeps his voice bland enough that no one should notice a damned thing wrong.

“It was still fairly new at the time, though it’s older than I’ve heard students claim. We were already calling it Quidditch in 990, so I’ve no idea what’s up with that 1050 nonsense,” Nizar answers in an absent voice, his eyes searching the sky above them for the Snitch. “I was decent at it, though.”

“Lies,” Salazar comments from Nizar’s other side. “He was damned good at it, playing every position except Keeper. That drove Godric to drink on more than one occasion.”

“Oh, do inform us why,” Sasha requests, leaning down from a higher riser. Severus nearly twitches due to her sudden proximity; he had no idea the woman bothered of late to emerge from the rubbish room aspect unless teaching was required.

“It served Godric right for betting on the wrong team.” Nizar grins when Warrington scores. “Better.”

“Formal teams were never declared?” Filius asks curiously. Severus already knows the answer to that question, but decides to wait to hear how Nizar or Salazar will answer.

“No, we didn’t have formal teams. It was something we did to relieve stress,” Salazar says. “Teachers versus students, groups of teachers and students together playing against the same—we filled the positions, played a game, and then swapped around to do it again. We didn’t play for any Cup; we played because we enjoyed it.”

“Sal was a decent Keeper.” Nizar’s eyes narrow as he notices something in the distance. “Draco, it is right there,” he murmurs. “He was better at Chasing, though. I can’t remember who would act as Keeper most often.”

“Anselmet,” Salazar says. “At least for the first few years.”

Nizar glances at his brother. “I don’t recall who that is.”

Salazar’s expression falters into weary sadness. “That, I am truly sorry for. He was a good man.”

“Change the blasted subject,” Severus hears Filius order Pomona, but she seems too flustered to come up with anything.

Severus is busy rolling his eyes over the fact that Goyle and Crabbe have decided to assault Summerby with their bats instead of using the Bludgers. “I would desperately like for Montague to gain sense and replace the Beaters on his team—Nizar, no. Yell at them after the game, please.” Nizar huffs out an irritated sigh.

“Why was Godric Gryffindor betting on games instead of playing?” Charity asks suddenly. “You two don’t speak as if he was playing Quidditch at all.”

Salazar grins. “He wasn’t. That man could not fly to save his own life. Gods know I loved Godric, but if you put him on a broom it was a complete disaster.”

“Rowena, though—she was an excellent Seeker.” Filius beams like a miniature sun at Nizar’s words. “Helga and Helena were good players, as well, especially Helga. She was a vicious Beater.”

“Helga felt so guilty for giving Nizar that concussion—bloody hell.” Salazar stands up. “THAT WAS PATHETIC! Rhowch eich cefn i mewn iddo, byddwch yn idiot!”

Montague looks startled, but then he nods and recovers the Quaffle to try again. This time the Quaffle makes it past Fleet’s guard, scoring Slytherin another ten points.

Yr wyf yn deall hynny. A yw bod Cymbrieg neu Gymraeg?” Nizar asks.

“Bloody Welsh,” Salazar replies, snorting. “I told you that I’ve not spoken Cumbric in eight centuries.”

Nizar looks baffled. “I guess I picked up more Welsh in the Common Room than I’d realized. The Sorting Hat won’t be disappointed, at least. Oh, finally! Draco’s on the Snitch.”

“Summerby’s on him,” Pomona says. Severus observes their flight and thinks that Summerby doesn’t have a chance in hell.

Draco’s catching of the Snitch ends the game with Slytherin over Hufflepuff, two hundred ten to sixty. Nizar is smiling as he applauds. “Good on them—and without sending anyone to the hospital wing this time.”

“And that statement officially makes this one of the oddest experiences of my entire life,” Severus mutters, the comment buried beneath the cheering from the stands.

Salazar hears the words where Nizar does not. The smile Salazar grants Severus holds a wealth of sympathy that Severus doesn’t understand at all.

 

*          *          *          *

 

Hermione has to admit, Draco’s flying as Seeker is a lot more sporting of late. Granted, that might also be because he and Harry aren’t trying to kill each other atop brooms, but she thinks maybe…maybe that wouldn’t be the same sort of issue anymore. Well, not beyond the standard sort of violence Quidditch seems to instigate, anyway.

Pansy and the other Slytherins don’t let them escape, dragging Hermione, Ginny, Ron, and the twins to the Slytherin table rather than the way they’ve been turning to chat with each other from the Gryffindor table. Hermione watches Slytherin faces and reactions throughout lunch, listens to words murmured and spoken aloud, and suspects that Pansy is trying to make her own sort of political statement while Slytherin is partially distracted by their Quidditch victory.

This isn’t about the appearance of civility. This is a group of Slytherins stating boldly that they have invited their allies to the table, and it’s expected that they be treated accordingly.

Gryffindor Tower isn’t devoid of politics—Hermione doesn’t think any dorm truly is—but the level of political intrigue necessary just to exist in Slytherin House seems to be insanely convoluted. Professor Salazar says it wasn’t always that way, stating that the politics came about as the divisions rose with the inflicted notion of blood purity that didn’t begin until the 1200s. Hermione doesn’t disbelieve him, exactly but she’s seen how Professor Salazar and Professor Slytherin treat with each other, the staff, and the students. Some of those Slytherin political behaviors, Hermione believes, came straight from an ancient Spanish court.

The Slytherins convince her to linger at the table to play a game of Exploding Snap with both Weasleys and Slytherins. Hermione abruptly stands up mid-game when she remembers she has an appointment. “Sorry!” she blurts out, trying to put her cloak back on and return her set of cards to Fred at the same time. “I forgot; I promised I’d meet Hagrid for tea.”

“Because Professor Slytherin is going to be there, maybe.” Daphne is not doing a very good job of hiding her smile.

Hermione rolls her eyes. “That,” she says, “is a fringe benefit. I was already visiting with Hagrid for tea on the regular.”

“That’s a thought. I’ve not been doing that like I should.” Ron looks up at her. “Can I come with you?”

“That depends on if you want to learn to levitate,” Hermione replies, knowing exactly how Ron feels about any sort of flying that doesn’t involve a broom or the lost Ford Anglia.

Ron’s eyes widen. “No, absolutely not. That’s just fine, thank you.”

“We’re learning it in N.E.W.T. Defence,” George tells Ron with a merciless grin.

“You’re not doing a bloody thing to encourage me to take N.E.W.T. Defence!” Ron retorts.

“Voldemort,” Fred says without looking up from sorting Hermione’s cards back into their Exploding Snap deck.

Ron groans and lets his head thump down on the table. Astoria bites her lip and gives Ron a hesitant pat on the head while Ginny giggles.

“Going out for lessons on a Saturday.” Pansy grins. “Have fun, Granger.”

Draco frowns. “Would you, er, ask Hagrid and Professor Slytherin if anyone else is welcome to try out these levitation lessons?”

Hermione pauses in the midst of putting her chair back under the table. “I’d start with asking about Hagrid and tea. I think you have to move up to the levitation lessons.”

To her surprise, Draco nods. “That’s fair.”

Hermione hurries out of the castle after that, shivering as she greets the cold air outside the castle. It’s supposed to be warmer today, but it doesn’t feel like it at all.

She freezes in place, a greeting dying on her lips, when she notices who is waiting outside Hagrid’s hut. “Er—”

“Please feel free to pretend that I am not here, Miss Granger,” Professor Snape says without looking up. “For that is most assuredly what I am doing.”

“Yes, sir,” Hermione manages to say without stammering. Snape is reclining on Hagrid’s big wooden chair from inside the house, reading a book whose leather cover definitely identifies it as something pre-1600s. Snape is wrapped in what looks to be an actual fur cloak against the February chill.

That’s Professor Slytherin’s cloak, she realizes, trying not to stare. It’s very odd to see anything obvious about their relationship, as they tend to be very much the opposite.

“Hermione!” Hagrid bellows as he steps outside and sees her. “Glad ter see you! Want some tea?”

“Tea would be nice, thank you,” she replies. “I’m sorry, I didn’t bring anything to trade—”

Hagrid makes an amused sound as he comes back with two large mugs of tea. “Nah, s’no bother. Nizar’s the one who insists. Slytherin thing, like.”

“I’ve heard the others mention that, but their system of trade is really odd.” Hermione does her best to ignore the fact that Snape is no doubt listening to every word. “Is it about…points?” she asks as Hagrid hands her an oversized mug full of steaming tea. It even smells like he got the spices correct for proper chai. Hagrid never forgets those details. “Not the school points, but having something to hold over someone else?” If certain Slytherins are going to decide she’s theirs, or whatever it is they’re doing, she’d like to not botch the…the friendships that might be developing.

It would be nice to have more friends. She really doesn’t have anyone close aside from Ron, Harry, and Ginny. Viktor is nice, too, but he’s busy with his Quidditch team. It’s very difficult to have a friendship with someone who has almost no free time to spare at all.

Hagrid sips at his tea and then his face puckers. “Watch it, still a bit hot,” he advises. “And holding it over another? Mayhap someone like Lucius Malfoy would do that. Tom Riddle, back in his day, he sure enough did. What he wanted in return was never an even trade, but he could sweet-talk anyone into believin’ it were.”

Hermione decides not to dwell on the fact that Hagrid went to school with Voldemort. It leaves her in a foul temper on behalf of her friend. “Then what is it?”

Hagrid sits down on a stump; Fang immediately puts his head on Hagrid’s leg and whines for attention. “What I saw, from folks like Andromeda and Narcissa, Professor Snape there, Professor Slytherin, and the few others who managed to come through this school after Riddle and not pick up on all his awful habits—it’s them not wanting a debt hanging over their heads.”

Hermione frowns. “So, it’s an ‘I loaned you a pencil and now you owe me a pencil’ sort of thing? And the one in debt pays how? Equally, or does it need be a given pencil instead of a return of the loan?”

“It’s Saturday afternoon and we’re discussing politics? This is terrible. I just left politics behind in the castle!” Professor Slytherin is making his way down the path, scowling, but with his usual gift for Hagrid in his hands. Hermione notes with pleasure that it’s a basket, which means something more substantial than tea biscuits.

Snape looks at Professor Slytherin from the corner of his eye. “Politics of what sort?”

“Negotiating a bloody cease-fire on the ground floor.” Professor Slytherin hands the basket to Hagrid and then abruptly sits down on an available tree stump. “Davies and Chambers versus Roshan and Carmichael.”

“Ah. Those politics.” Snape pointedly returns to his book.

“Trade,” Hagrid says hurriedly, which just serves to fuel Hermione’s suspicions as to what caused an altercation between students in the same House to be labeled politics. “It depends, Hermione. An even trade cancels the debt, yeah. But if you give back a bit more than was given, you’re thanking them for the trade on top of paying the debt.”

“So one would repay a trade of a pencil with a…what, a quill? You’d think that would only incur more debt.” Hermione selects a cucumber sandwich and a stuffed date from the basket with relief. She hadn’t been able to stomach breakfast, and not only because Ron still hasn’t mastered the art of chewing with his mouth closed. She’s just felt off for days now, like she’s missing something obvious. Even putting the final touches on her Defence essay before she reads it over again one more time hasn’t helped to make the feeling go away.

“I like the pencil analogy, actually.” Professor Slytherin accepts tea from Hagrid when he brings out another steaming mug. “A bit beyond the original loan is a thank-you, and a simple quill fits that idea nicely. If you loan someone a pencil and they give you a gilded fountain pen, then that is a debt rebounded. You can choose to rebuff their idea of a paid debt, or you can accept and find out just what they’re after. Depends on how nosy you’re feeling, how much you trust the person in question, or if you’re ingratiating yourself because you know for certain they’re doing something they ought not be doing.”

“How does one tell the difference between a debt and a gift, then?” Hermione asks. “Say a Slytherin gives you something without you needing it, or saying you need it.”

“Unless they call it a loan, or say that you’ll owe them a favor later, it’s a gift. Whether you reciprocate with a gift of your own could mean many things,” Professor Slytherin answers.

Hermione glances down at her tea, feeling her cheeks burn. “Oh.”

“Was it an anonymous and expensive gift, Miss Granger?”

Hermione glances over at Snape in surprise. “Er, yes, sir. Green and silver wrapping, though. Either someone is trying to be discreet, or…or really obvious.”

“Sometimes I truly despair that they teach Muggle-born students nothing of magical customs,” Snape mutters. “True discretion would be noted by grey or black paper, Miss Granger. Neutral colors.”

“Not white?”

“White would be Hogwarts’ color within the castle. Outside the school, the seal would be on it,” Hagrid says. “Hogwarts is neutral, Hermione, but not so impartial.”

Before Hermione can ask about how a school system with a House Cup and bloody points can be even remotely neutral, Professor Slytherin is addressing Hagrid. “How goes the levitation?”

Hagrid heaves out a sigh. “Oh, s’not so bad. I can levitate things just fine, and I don’t need to say a word to do it! That just seems to be as far as I can get.”

“Well, we’ve not been doing this for very long. Both of those are steps in the correct direction,” Professor Slytherin assures him.

“What comes after that, then?” Hagrid asks warily.

“Levitating objects without a wand,” Professor Slytherin replies, and Hermione lets out a muffled wail of despair. “Oh, that didn’t sound good.”

“I can’t do it!” Hermione bursts out. “I can finally use Adlevo non-verbally, but it only works half the time! I can’t perform any other spells non-verbally at all!”

“Now, Hermione, that’s not so bad,” Hagrid tries to reassure her.

“No, it isn’t. The only unfortunate thing I’ve just heard is that you labeled a success as a failure,” Professor Slytherin adds, looking perplexed. He sits his tea mug down on the ground, which is somehow already empty. Hermione has no idea how anyone outside of Hagrid can consume that much tea so quickly. “You adore logic. I’m surprised you don’t excel at chess.”

Hermione blinks at the apparent non-sequitur. “Oh, the logic is fine. Chess is just so dull, even if it’s a speed match! I start to overthink it, and then when it’s my turn I can’t decide on what to do!”

“That, I can work with.” Professor Slytherin stands up and bids for Hagrid to remain where he is. “Come here, Miss Granger.”

Hermione hands her tea over to Hagrid for safekeeping, whose hands are more than capable of keeping it warm, and joins Professor Slytherin within the bounds of Hagrid’s pumpkin patch. “Sir?”

Professor Slytherin pulls out his wand and casts a wide shield charm around them, enclosing the garden. “You’ve talked about overthinking your tactics. I’m not going to give you the chance to think. You know your Repelling Charm, yes?”

“Yes, sir.” Hermione gets out her wand, swallowing down nerves. “What are you going to do?”

“I’m going to fling objects at you for two minutes, and during that time, you’re going to show me that you’ve mastered the Repelling Charm by casting it against every single object.” Professor Slytherin smiles. “Then I’m going to tell you to switch to the Levitation Charm, and keep flinging things at you. You won’t have time to overthink the situation. Understand?”

Hermione bites her lip and nods, holding out her wand in the new posture Professor Slytherin insisted she learn. It’s been odd, his version of introducing them to practical dueling forms. Professor Slytherin didn’t want them all to learn a single, standardized form. Instead, he watches them and adjusts their grip, posture, and foot placement into whatever casting position makes them the most efficient. It means unlearning several bad habits taught in books written during the last century, but she can already tell that it’s better.

She is still not much of a duelist, but she isn’t a slouch, either. That’s Lisa Turpin and Ron, which is driving Ron ’round the absolute twist. She suspects the only reason Ron hasn’t screeched and resorted to punching his next opponent is the professor’s comments that Ron is improving.

The real duelists, however—that was a surprise. Neville. Kellah Shafiq. Blaise Zabini. Draco Malfoy. Daphne Greengrass. Susan Bones. Megan Jones. Anthony Goldstein. Isobel MacDougal. Padma Patil. Hermione always suspected Malfoy of being more talk than skill with a wand, but none of the others are what she’d have considered battle material, either. Not until Professor Slytherin gave them the opportunity to prove it.

“Now, Granger!” Professor Slytherin shouts, and then Hermione is facing a clod of dirt flying through the air at her in a high arc.

Repulso!” Hermione yells on instinct, flinging the dirt off to one side. In comes one of last year’s pumpkins, which makes a sickening splotch when it impacts the Shield Charm’s magical wall. A rock capable of giving her a concussion. A tree stump rotten enough to bruise, not flatten. A sandwich from the basket—distracting enough that she nearly misses the tree branch. Another rock. One of Hagrid’s empty mugs. More dirt. A ball of burning green fire. A bloody water balloon!

Hermione is panting, but she only has twigs in her hair. So far, so good. Then Professor Slytherin orders, “Fling them back at me!” and she reacts.

Adlevo!” The tree stump—not rotten, oh my God!—is levitated away from her, even though she drops it before it can hit the professor. A pumpkin that looks significantly less rotten. A mushy apple gets through her guard and slithers down her collar, but she has to deal with incoming mud, fire, and water all at once. Hermione slashes her wand through the air, not caring if it’s a proper wand technique, and sends them high into the air.

“Here, Granger!” Professor Slytherin points at his eyes with both fingers. “This is where your attention belongs!”

Hermione is so used to obeying a teacher speaking in that tone of voice that she simply does so. The chair hovers in the air over her head, its leg nearly touching her wand point, before she sends it back. Another stone. A hail of pebbles makes her flinch back. A distraction, the bloody cheat—she finds poor Fang in the cloud of dirt and gentles the strength of the charm so she won’t hurt him, she can’t—

After she’s sent Fang gently floating back in the professor’s direction, she realizes the assault is over. No more flying debris.

Professor Slytherin smirks at her and points down. Hermione’s eyes follow his fingers…only to realize that the ground is now at least a foot below her. She’s not standing on anything but air.

Hermione shrieks and falls to the earth, bruising her knees and elbows in a botched attempt at trying to catch herself. “Right on there, Hermione!” Hagrid is cheering. “I knew you’d do it first!”

“What was that?” Hermione sputters.

Professor Slytherin takes her hand and hauls her up from the loose dirt of the unseeded garden. “That, Miss Granger, was levitation in the midst of a pitched duel. Now then: listen to me.”

Hermione gulps and nods, aware that Snape and Hagrid are watching from the fading boundaries of the Shield Charm. “I’m listening, sir.”

“There may come a day when age catches up with you, and ‘I can’t’ is the correct answer when someone asks something of you. There may be a day when you’re too ill, and ‘I can’t.’ is the proper answer, just as if someone asks you for something you’re certain you aren’t capable of giving them. But right now?”

Professor Slytherin puts his hand on her shoulder, staring into her eyes with burning intensity. “Right now, you’re a young, brilliant magician in excellent health, one who possesses an incredible intellect. There is nothing I’m teaching you that you cannot do.”

He steps back while Hermione swallows again, trying not to cry. “What makes a good duelist, Miss Granger?”

Hermione stares at him, baffled by the question. “I—they can fight, sir.”

“Yes, but what allows them to be good at it?” Professor Slytherin tilts his head. “More specifically, why is Padma Patil a good duelist and Ron Weasley, an excellent chess player, not? He has the skills that will keep him alive, no doubt there, but he’ll never be great. Why one, but not the other?”

“They—they don’t think about it. They just react,” Hermione says at last. It’s the only answer she can come up with that doesn’t sound laughable.

“Partially correct. A great duelist does think about it, Miss Granger. They just think about it very, very quickly. They can apply the knowledge they have much faster, and far more effectively, than your standard magician with a wand.” Professor Slytherin puts his wand away. “But for three instances, you were casting both charms non-verbally the entire time, and during the second round, you did so while levitating without thought to keep pace with your opponent. You followed me into the air because that was where the fight would be. That’s quite a bit of split focus and sheer instinct being employed at once.”

“But—but—I’m not a fighter,” Hermione protests, overwhelmed.

“Well, I don’t think of myself as a politician, and yet I persevered when Rowena Ravenclaw discovered that I could talk rings around people I disliked and yet still have them joyful of the privilege,” the professor replies. “You have two years of school remaining after this one, Miss Granger. You have time to figure out how to incorporate your skill as a great duelist with your many other talents.”

That seems to be the end of her lesson for the day, which Hermione is grateful for—she’s starting to feel the cold. Hermione uses her wand to clean off the slimy remains of rotting apple; Hagrid brings her a blanket before he lumbers off for his turn, cheerfully asking for the same sort of lesson. His Repelling Charms aren’t so good, which means he ends up covered in quite a bit of pumpkin goo, dirt, and twigs, but Hagrid is laughing.

Hagrid’s Levitation Charms are so much better, and he can send every object flying directly back at Professor Slytherin without hesitation. His feet never leave the ground, but Hermione can watch and see that Hagrid understands exactly how the charm works. She might have levitated while distracted, but Hermione really believes Hagrid will be the first to figure out how to do it deliberately.

Snape’s voice, closer than expected, startles her. “He’ll manage it deliberately first.”

Hermione looks up to find Snape standing next to her chair, the cloak folded over his arms as he watches the flinging duel in progress. “I—I was thinking the same thing, sir.”

Snape nods. “You’ve a good eye for magic, Miss Granger.”

It takes a great deal of effort not to boggle at him. “I’m—I’m sorry, did you just compliment me, sir?”

Snape glances down, his expression shuttered. “If one already knows something, I will not be stroking their ego. However, if one is good at something and lacks the awareness that they are successful, I do tend to tell them so.”

“With a heaping helping of vitriol, maybe,” Hermione dares, and then tries not to cringe. The Gryffindors will be in an uproar if she loses them points on a Saturday.

Snape only raises an eyebrow. “Vitriol does not change facts, Miss Granger.”

“But it isn’t exactly encouraging, either, sir.”

“Perspective,” he murmurs. “That might be useful.”

Hermione tries not to stare at him. Snape is not prone to sharing his thoughts aloud—not with students, anyway. “Sir?”

“This evening, I will be sending you a scroll that is of my own work in my fifth year of Hogwarts. There was obviously a different Potions teacher here at the time.” Snape looks at her again. “I would like you to compare it to one of the essays you’ve received from me this term. I think you will find it enlightening.”

“Er—yes, sir.” Hermione frowns. “Am I to be graded on this, sir?”

“I do not need yet more grading to be doing, Miss Granger,” Snape retorts. “However, I do expect you to be able to discuss the differences with me in an intelligent manner. Is that acceptable?”

“Yes, sir!” Hermione says quickly. She has enough homework to do this weekend. “When would you like to discuss it, Professor?”

“My Tuesday afternoons are free after lunch. I will be in my office,” Snape replies, and turns his attention back to Hagrid and Professor Slytherin. The Shield Charm is coming down; Hagrid is still beaming, and the professor seems pleased. “Nizar, it is freezing out here.”

“And I very much need a shower,” Professor Slytherin says, brushing off his robes. Hermione bites back a smile when she sees a dribble of rotten pumpkin in his hair. “Thank you for the hospitality, Hagrid.”

“Anytime’s fine,” Hagrid responds cheerfully. “All three o’ you are always welcome. I’m off to a bath, m’self. Think there might be several apples sliding down my backside.” Hagrid shrinks his chair to put it back inside his house, and then slides the pink umbrella bit back over his wand to hide it. “Be seeing you at dinner!” he calls cheerfully, and ducks into his house, followed by a tail-wagging Fang.

“Miss Granger.”

“Yes, sir?” Hermione is surprised to have Snape approach her for a second time in the same hour. She is quite used to Professor Snape attempting to ignore her existence.

“The gift. What was it?” Snape asks.

“Oh. It was a—a fountain pen, sir. A really nice one,” she answers, glancing at Professor Slytherin. She wonders if the pen counts as one of the professor’s ‘flashes of insight.’

“What did it look like?” Snape presses. His tone is polite, but he is still demanding an answer. “Gryffindor colors?”

“No, sir.” Hermione tries not to bite her lip when one of Snape’s eyebrows lifts in what is either surprise or derision. “Silver and periwinkle, sir, and it can be converted to hold a quill if I wanted.”

“Silver and periwinkle.” Snape rolls his eyes. “Miss Granger, the giver’s intention is beyond obvious.”

It takes the rest of the walk to the castle for Hermione to realize what he means, and then she promptly flushes in embarrassment.

A courting gift. Someone from Slytherin House is…is asking to court her. A real courtship. That is…that’s actually rather terrifying.

Chapter Text

Hermione wanders the castle in a bit of a daze, only realizing when the flocking begins that it’s time for dinner. She follows the others into the Great Hall and sits down at the Gryffindor table between Ron and Edward, who is staring down at his plate.

“What’s wrong, Edward?” Hermione asks.

“Oh, it’s nothing—well, my sister’s sick,” Edward mumbles. “She’s not bad sick or anything, but it doesn’t really happen very often. She’s got magic, like me. Our cousin Rob, he’s a wizard, too, and he says it’s really rare because magic is usually doing a thing with our immune systems to make us resistant to colds and stuff.”

Hermione’s eyes widen; she thinks that might be the most she’s ever heard Edward speak in one sitting. “I’m sorry. I didn’t even know you had a sister. She’s all right, yes?”

Edward nods, shrugging. “Yeah, she’s fine, Hermione. I’m just still used to being there if anything is wrong. It’s my third year. That should be a thing, right? Being used to not being able to just go home?”

“Not always. If my parents were ill, I’d want to go home to make sure they were okay,” Hermione says, trying to remember that she is a Prefect and she should be acting like one. Being a Prefect includes reassuring those of her own House that things will be fine. “I’m sure it will all blow over.”

“Yeah, your sister will be fine, Edward.” Ginny slings her arm around Edward’s shoulders. “I’ve met your parents. They’re smart Muggles, those two. They’ll have her up and about in no time.”

Dean looks up in surprise. “You’ve met Muggle parents?”

Ginny gives Dean a blank look. “Sure. Why wouldn’t we? Edward’s my friend. Mum and Dad took me to their house, which is a neat flat in London. Edward’s parents have even been to the Burrow, though we all but had to lead them in by the hand so they could find it.”

“My Mum’s never wanted to meet Wizarding parents before.” Dean scowls down at his plate. “Bloody hell, I got the luck of the draw, didn’t I?”

Seamus elbows Dean. “Well, you got me out of it, mate. Can’t be all bad.”

Dean smiles. “Fine. But you’ve got to introduce me to your Mum and Dad.”

Seamus utterly wilts. “Can we, uh—can we pretend that we’re just best mates an’ all for at least another year? They’re Catholic, Dean. I think they might die and swan off to Heaven just from the shock of it.”

“You think being seventeen will make it less of a shock?” Dean asks, grinning.

“Well, no,” Seamus admits. “But at least then I’m legal, so it won’t matter all that much if they boot me out of the house.” He frowns. “Maybe after I’ve put aside enough money to try and cover books and such for seventh year.”

“Seamus, if it comes down to it, I’ll make my parents bloody spot you for seventh year,” Hermione says. “And no arguing. You’ll finish school and go out to terrify Wizarding Britain, or else.”

Seamus salutes. “Yes, Miss Scary Prefect, ma’am!” When he lowers his hand, he says, “And, uh, if that does become a thing—your parents are bloody saints.”

“No, they’re dentists,” Hermione retorts.

Seamus blinks a few times. “Terrifying saints, then.”

“What was all that about?” Ron asks Hermione when Dean and Seamus are distracted by talking about Seamus’s parents, and Ginny and Edward are distracted by telling the others about Muggle reactions to a magical house. “The expression on your face when you walked in, too—is it about Harry?”

Hermione bites her lip before shaking her head. “No, it’s not Harry. Not more than usual, anyway. It’s just…I heard an odd rumor. About me. Nothing bad!” she hurries to say when Ron’s temper kindles in his eyes. “It was just…odd.”

Parvati looks up from her dinner and grins. “Someone likes you. That’s the rumor, isn’t it?”

Hermione blushes, which is all the answer Parvati needs. “I,” Parvati announces, “am telling everyone.”

“Parvati!” Hermione hisses desperately. “Please don’t!”

“Why not?” Parvati asks, treating Hermione to a patient look. “It’s high time someone noticed you were growing up to be a looker, Granger. You’ve caught up to your curly hair so it no longer looks like it’s trying to eat your head, your eyes sparkle, your teeth are great, your skin is a clear, wonderful shade of golden brown, and still it took someone over half the term to notice you’re bloody gorgeous! I’d have propositioned you if I liked girls. Of course I’m going to tell our entire House. It’s like a minor miracle occurred!”

Hermione lets out a quiet, squeaked, “Oh.” She can’t actually think of a counter-argument. She’s too distracted by receiving a string of compliments in a row. She doesn’t think she’s—she is not gorgeous. She is acceptable enough not to hate her reflection in the mirror, and anything else is inconsequential.

“It’s that fountain pen, isn’t it?” Kellah asks, grinning. “The one delivered to you that was wrapped in green and silver!”

“Kellah!” Hermione gasps, feeling herself turn an even darker shade of red. Parvati is giving her an expect look. “Fine! Yes.”

“A Slytherin gave you a fountain pen?” Neville glances over from his conversation with Aamir and Raza. “What color?”

Hermione resists the urge to put her hands over her face. “Perwinkle and silver,” she whispers.

“Oh.” Neville grins. “That’s rather particular, that. Someone definitely remembers the Yule Ball in a nice way! I wonder if Colin has those pictures.”

“There are pictures?” Hermione asks in dismay.

“Triwizard Tournament,” Parvati says, amused. “Of course there are pictures. I’m just glad the one of myself and Harry during that first dance doesn’t make me look ridiculous.”

You look gorgeous, Parvati,” Neville points out. “Harry is the one who looks like he was about to pass out. Not that I really blame him.”

“So, so nervous, and so distracted,” Parvati says fondly, which is a far cry from how much time she spent glaring daggers at Harry until the disastrous end of the Tournament. “Harry would have saved himself so much trouble if he’d just asked a boy, instead. I would have happily gone with Aamir.”

Aamir stops chewing in the middle of a mouthful of mashed potatoes. “You would have?”

Parvati nods. “I was considering it, but then Harry asked me, so I thought it was worth a go.”

“Would you consider dating me now, then?” Aamir asks.

“Not with your mouth full of potatoes, I won’t,” Parvati replies, and Aamir flushes scarlet.

Hermione bites her lip again. She’d passed on the promise that Professor Salazar had given her about Harry being all right to the rest of her House. Gryffindor at large has taken it as a reassurance that Harry will definitely be back, and in the meantime, they’re going to act as if everything is normal. It’s quite sweet of them, at least when it doesn’t make Hermione’s chest ache.

Ron glumly pokes at his own mashed potatoes instead of eating them. “It had to be a bloody Slytherin to notice first, didn’t it?”

“Oh, not that again!” Hermione says in sudden exasperation. “Honestly, Ron!”

“It’s not that! It’s just…well. You’re a girl.” Ron turns red. “I never went and noticed until last year. I always just thought of you as my mate, Hermione, and then you turned up and you were a girl.”

“I’ve always been a girl, Ron!” Hermione retorts. “Besides, when you noticed, you were a complete twit about it!”

“I know, I know, and I’m still sorry about that!” Ron stabs viciously at a kipper. “I just don’t know how to think of my mate and this pretty girl who showed up in my Common Room.”

Hermione rolls her eyes. “Please continue to think of me as ‘my mate Hermione’ because if this is your attempt at trying to gain a date? That would be ruination, Ronald Weasley, and it would be ruination of the sort where I would convince Fellona to make you sleep out in the hall every night until we graduate.”

Ron cringes. “All right, all right! My mate Hermione! Best friend who happens to be a fine-looking girl, who I will never try to date because I like sleeping in my bed!” He lowers his voice. “But whoever this bloke is, sending you fancy pens like that—they’d better treat you like gold, or I’ll sic Fred and George on ’em.”

“Who are we being sent after?” George asks, looking up from a kidney pie. “I ask for posterity, of course.”

“No one, not yet!” Hermione says quickly. “You plan your vengeance after the fact, not before!”

“No, sometimes it’s definitely before,” Fred chimes in. “One should be prepared for any eventuality.”

“Besides, how do you know it’s a bloke?” Hermione asks Ron in a prim voice. “It could be a girl. Or someone agender. We do have a few of them, right?”

“A girl.” Ron looks like he’s on the verge of sputtering. “Hermione, mate, there is only so much one man’s heart can take before it’s just too much.”

“Dating? In that case, one definitely plots the revenge in advance,” Fred says.

Hermione snorts and shoves at Ron, knocking him into Fred. That bumps him into Angelina, who rolls her eyes and reaches up to slap Fred on the back of the head. “How do I signal to this person that I’m maybe interested in their courtship offer? We don’t do things this way in the Muggle world.”

“Oh, that part’s easy enough.” Ron shoves a forkful of pie into his mouth and then speaks through it. Back to normal, then. “Just start using the gift in public, during classes and such, if you’re really into the idea. If you’re hesitant, use it in public places, but not all the time, like between classes or here in the Great Hall when you’re scribbling notes at breakfast and dinner. That sort of thing.”

Hermione thinks about the pen in its box upstairs. The outside might have been Slytherin green with a silver ribbon that slides off and on to keep the box closed, but the inside was lined in velvet with Gryffindor scarlet on top and gold along the bottom. She didn’t mention it to Snape, but that part wasn’t hard to figure out. Whoever this Slytherin is, they’re announcing their affiliation while pointing out that they don’t mind hers at all. It also has to have been someone who attended the Yule Ball to see her periwinkle dress, which at least narrows down the list a bit. All of the seventh-years at the time graduated at the end of the year except poor Cedric. Only a few third-years—now fourth-years—were present. That actually doesn’t give her a very long list of Slytherin students to wonder about.

She looks over at the Slytherin table while keeping her face lowered to her plate, hiding her spying beneath a curtain of hair. She doesn’t suspect any of the fourth-years, since she barely knows them. Greenwood and Shah are both out of the running, since Greenwood is married to academia and Shah has a boyfriend. Parangyo is holding Fred at arms’ length while he tries to fumble his way towards getting a date with her, but Hermione thinks Parangyo just wants to be certain Fred is serious.

Amrish Gupta, maybe. He isn’t a sleazebag, and he’s intelligent to be in both N.E.W.T. Defence and Potions. Kinjal Bhatia is betrothed for a family-negotiated marriage after Hogwarts and uni, but at least she seems really happy about it.

Warrington? Hermione makes a face. No, he’s spouted too much Pure-blood nonsense. Definitely not him. Pucey, Bole, Montague, Peebles, and Melville are all disqualified for the same reason.

Pansy loves boys too much. Millicent has grown from sort of pudgy and bland-featured to looking a bit more like an unkempt Greek goddess, but Hermione doubts she’d be that subtle about trying to get a date. Blaise Zabini is a possibility, as is Theodore Nott. She’s not sure she could tolerate Nott, even though he is definitely not the Death Eater type, but Blaise was courteous even when their Houses were pretty much at war.

Hermione eyes Draco, who is talking to Blaise, Kinjal, Seamus, and Nandini Johar (the latter turned around in their seats, which is annoying Dean since he’s trying to eat). It’s a really expensive pen, not a quill, which means someone went to the trouble of looking up the Muggle equivalent of a fancy writing tool while also making it quill-convertible.

He did apologize, Hermione thinks. If Draco did send the pen…well, his features are no longer so pointy, and he grew tall and lanky over the summer. The haughty mask that Hermione always hated vanished over the winter holiday. Malfoy still has a public mask, but it’s not cold or cruel, just polite—until he starts talking to a friend. Then it’s gone, and beneath is the sort of person that Lucius Malfoy would despise. Draco’s father would also loathe the fact that his son pledged his service to a Muggle, Queen or no Queen. Not even a magical title would be enough to make up for that sin, not in Lucius Malfoy’s eyes.

Hermione knows Draco didn’t do it for power. Professor Salazar and Professor Slytherin would have been certain to inform the other four students how much work is involved in being nobility in Britain. Draco won’t be able to escape the consequences if he broke an important Muggle law—like trying to avoid paying taxes. That would definitely be the fastest way to gain their government’s attention.

She decides that she’s going to use that new pen in class. She really wants to find out who sent it, if only so her curiosity doesn’t drive her mental. She just has to find a nice periwinkle-dyed quill to use with it.

Hermione spends the rest of her evening proofreading Brice deSlizarse’s book. It’s even more brilliant than before. No, it’s the same brilliance, really. It’s just much more obvious when it’s been written out in a linear, instructive-like fashion. Professor Slytherin’s elder son was a genius, but he wrote that book as if it was more of a…of a graduate thesis.

Well, it was exactly that, Hermione remembers. Even without being linear, that thesis text was still more useful than the absolute rubbish that Umbridge—that woman—assigned as their DADA text for the term. Hermione hadn’t needed to read it all the way through to realize it was useless, though she did anyway, just in case. Professor Slytherin does say there are some useful bits in that book, but if so, they must be truly tiny and esoteric, because Hermione isn’t finding them.

She jerks back, startled, when three scrolls pop into existence on her bed. She picks up the smallest one, marked with her name in Professor Snape’s spidery script. Hermione breaks the green Slytherin wax seal and unrolls it to read.

 

Miss Granger,

The essay you’ve just received from myself is a copy of the original, so you may write on it as much as you wish in your effort to develop the perspective I’ve made mention of.

Your work on last week’s paper merits an Outstanding grade for a fifth-year student. For a N.E.W.T. student, it would barely scrape by with an Acceptable. Bear that in mind if you intend to pursue a N.E.W.T. in Potions.

—Professor Severus Snape

 

Hermione yanks open the scroll she now recognizes as hers. Just as Snape said, there is a red O at the top, even though her essay on Runespoors is absolutely slaughtered by that same red ink. The idea of writing only of Runespoor eggs for illicit potions had seemed utterly dull, a topic covered so many times by different Potion Masters that the essay all but wrote itself. She’d veered instead into wondering about the uses of Runespoor venom, skin, and scales in potions, a topic that is much harder to research in Hogwarts’ library. It hasn’t been addressed nearly as often, which incited Hermione to add a critique of potion-makers overlooking ingredients with known traits and values that are easier to come by than illegal Runespoor eggs.

That is where the red ink looks less like a slaughter and more like thoughtful—if still vicious—commentary. He agrees with her points and then lambasts her for not expounding on the ideas further. It’s such a depth of critique that Hermione scowls, gets out quill, ink, and another scroll, and starts rebutting every argument. How would she know what potions those items are useful for when she could find no books in the Hogwarts library that listed potions with those ingredients, anyway? That’s what books are for. That means either no one is publishing their findings after using those ingredients, or no one is doing it at all.

With that done, and Hermione feeling as if she’s justifiably defended her work, she opens the second scroll. It’s perhaps a foot or two longer than her own. The grade at the top makes her frown before she’s even read his name. An A? Professor Snape? Absolutely not. She might not like the man, but he is highly intelligent.

 His handwriting has always been spiky and spidery. What she gets to see on the blackboard and on her returned essays is the refined version, though for a fifth-year, his was not bad at all. She glances at his name, surprised at the inclusion of his second name, which she’s never seen before. Severus Prince Snape. That isn’t the sort of second name a parent chooses; that looks much more like the mother’s name set before the father’s name.

Now there is a topic I should have been researching in the library, Hermione thinks in amusement. Snape’s parents and their attendance at Hogwarts. She wonders what they were like, though she already suspects Snape had more fondness for his mother. Prince is written in darker ink, definitely emphasized over Snape.

The essay is the same assignment, Runespoor eggs and their proper uses in potions, whether or not the eggs are illegal. Snape spends a much shorter period of time on the eggs, listing off their uses in known potions with brisk, almost angry-sounding efficiency. Then he adds another list of potions that has Hermione blinking down at the paper before she flips her own graded essay over to start copying them down. She’s never heard of half of these, and definitely didn’t know Runespoor eggs could help any of the others. If they can really do that to a potion for improving mood, it’s no wonder Runespoor eggs are illegal to import.

Then, like Hermione did, Snape drops the topic of eggs to focus on venom, scales, and skin. She’s about to start writing on her rebuttal scroll again, incensed, when the standard uses fall away and then the ideas begin. Snape took the attributes of each ingredient, ignored the utter lack of information, and made up his own.

Hermione finishes reading the essay and frowns as she hauls the paper back down towards her until she’s looking at that A-grade again. She’s no Potions Master, but those new potions had nothing in them that would cause anything explosive. They might be experimental and potentially useless, but they wouldn’t cause accidents of the sort that Neville used to manage on the regular.

It takes a second reading to realize what’s bothering her, aside from feeling rather foolish that combining ingredients on her own never occurred to her.

There are no comments on this essay. In fact, the only thing left at the end is a brief note about Snape being too ambitious for his skill level. Hermione stares at that unfamiliar script and wonders at how a single sentence can be so infuriatingly condescending.

Ambitious! Snape is a Slytherin; of course he’s ambitious! What is this complete rubbish?

Hermione takes notes on all of her thoughts, bundles everything up, and puts it aside for tomorrow. Tomorrow is Sunday, so she’ll have all the time she needs to read everything again—not to mention raid the library.

Sunday, however, turns out a lot differently than anyone planned.

 

*          *          *          *

 

Severus awakens at six-thirty and groans, rolling over and attempting to bury his face in the pillow. No good. He can’t go back to sleep, and it’s not simply because his bed is empty. That has been consistent for a week now, much as he finds he really doesn’t prefer it any longer. At all.

Why the hell am I awake? he wonders blearily, taking a bath just to dispel the sensation of a Dementor’s fog trying to take up residence in his head. He should not be awake. It is Sunday, and he has no damned reason to be awake at this uncivilized hour at all.

He arrives in the Great Hall exactly at seven, where Nizar, Salazar, and Minerva all greet him with varying expressions of surprise. “Why the fuck are you awake?” he snarls at them, slinging himself into his chair so he can glare at the students who are already attending breakfast instead of people he considers to be—friends.

“Didn’t sleep. Maybe,” Nizar answers.

“I can say the same. One does not really find sleep at the age of one thousand twenty-six,” Salazar says.

“He kept me awake all night!” Minerva snaps, pouring tea into a cup with more vigor than is really necessary. Then again, Severus is doing the same. It’s a good thing the elves learned their lesson a long time ago and provide the staff with far larger cups of a morning.

“I did warn you that I was in no mood for sleep, Lioness.”

“I am going to slip a sleeping draught into your tea, Salazar Slytherin!”

Despite the early hour, Severus has to bite back a laugh. “Please stop. I still have no wish to know those details. Ever. What is your excuse, Nizar?”

“Oh, I just felt like climbing the walls.”

Severus lowers his teacup to look at Nizar. “Tell me no one saw that.”

“Just Peeves.” Nizar looks irritatingly alert for someone who didn’t sleep. “That poor ghost was so fucking confused.”

Albus also looks confused to see them when he arrives in his usual early fashion. “And good morning to all of you. I’m not used to seeing those of us who prefer mornings the least to be at this table before everyone else.”

“Good morning, Albus,” Minerva says politely. Severus just says something rude under his breath, but as Albus is used to that, he just twinkles merrily and goes to sit in his hideous chair.

“Why are you awake so early?” Nizar asks Severus once Albus is distracted by Filius’s cheerful arrival.

“I couldn’t go back to sleep, much as I really wanted to.” It isn’t as if he’s really needed to oversee breakfast on a weekend. The majority of his Slytherins feel the same way about weekend mornings as he does.

Nizar raises both eyebrows. “Severus. The last time that happened, someone had bloody died.”

Severus glowers at him. “Fuck you very much for bringing that up.”

It says a great deal about Nizar’s current state of mind that he doesn’t take the granted opportunity and turn it into a ribald joke. “And yet you trudged out here at seven o’clock.”

“Stop talking about it,” Severus growls. “Maybe whatever it is will fuck off and not come back.”

Minerva slices apart a roll in order to turn it into a crazed collection of breakfast parts. “Gentlemen, there are students who are going to be sitting nearby momentarily who will be able to hear you.”

Severus is beginning to relax when the owls arrive, delivering no mail but for the Sunday Prophet. Nizar snatches up Minerva’s copy, but at this juncture she just rolls her eyes and lets him have it. Severus puts his own aside, as he’d be too tempted to kill someone using a newspaper as a blunt instrument if provoked at the wrong moment.

The next thing he knows, Nizar is on his feet, green and silver sparks riding the air. “SON OF A—”

Minerva leaps up and clamps her hand over Nizar’s mouth, muffling his next word. “That is not what I meant by—oh dear,” she breaks off, staring at the front page of the Prophet.

“Is someone actually dead?” Severus asks. “Because if so, I hope it’s someone we didn’t like.”

“He’s going to be!” Nizar declares after Minerva judges it safe to remove her hand. “The absolutely useless, flesh-wasting, bloody—”

Minerva sighs and clamps her hand over Nizar’s mouth again while the man vibrates in sheer outrage. “If he suddenly disappears, you’d best have an angelic, ironclad alibi!”

Salazar stands up and eyes the newspaper. Severus notes the lack of dramatics and thinks that it cannot possibly be that bad until Salazar says, “Ah. So that’s why the slimy bastard was crafting delays.”

“Oh dear.” Albus has his copy of the Prophet spread out on the table in front of him. “Severus, you’ll definitely wish to see this…though I understand congratulations are in order?”

Now Severus is angry and too damned confused by Albus’s nonsense not to look. His day was already ruined when he woke up too early and alone, anyway.

The Sunday Prophet’s screaming headline is such an affront that for a moment he simply stares at it.

 

Inept Muggle Ruler Restores Unwanted War Mages In Order to Terrorize Wizarding Britain

 

Severus puts down the paper, scrubs at his face, and picks it up again. Yes, the headline is still both insulting and ludicrous. Rita Skeeter didn’t even need to add her name for the article to be so obviously of her making.

 

With Muggle fears growing due to false and unfounded rumors of You-Know-Who’s return, an aging relic of a ruler from a disastrously outdated institution has gone over our beloved Ministry’s head and named new war mages to terrorize British soil. Her choices could not show more bias against current Minister Cornelius Fudge, and demonstrate a blatant lack of respect between our mutual governments. War mages have been banned from Wizarding Soil for centuries, as everyone knows—

 

“Do people actually believe this shit?” Severus hears Miss Parkinson ask. He glances up long enough to see her reading the paper with Miss Bulstrode.

“Some people are truly that stupid, Pans,” Miss Bulstrode replies.

“Nizar! Nizar, give me that newspaper right now!” Minerva orders, and then still has to snatch it out of Nizar’s hands. “You’ve already extinguished half the candles in this Hall. Please calm down!”

Severus glances up, startled. He’d thought clouds had come along to mask the sun, not that there was a sudden lack of candlelight. The ceiling reveals that the sky was already overcast and grey. There are several elves up on the candelabras relighting candles, one snap of magic at a time.

Minerva shoves Nizar back into the chair beside Severus. “Sit down. Calm down. Try not to put out the lights, set anything on fire, or murder anyone for the next five minutes.”

“Fine,” Nizar grinds out, his jaw clenched so tightly it’s a wonder any sound emerged at all.

Severus deliberately turns the paper so that Nizar can’t see the front page before he continues reading. The rest of the article is in the exact same vein as the start, so ludicrous as to appear plausible. The biographies she writes of the five of them are of the worst sorts of bottom-feeding rubbish. Severus had fewer crimes attached to his name as an actual Death Eater than Rita Skeeter is fabricating for this article. He isn’t certain if he’s impressed with her gall, or if he wants to choke the life out of her with his bare hands.

Then he reads her biography about Adele Greenwood. Strangling a reporter to death is definitely the more pleasing option. He leaps out of his chair and temporarily hands the paper off to Mister Zabini as he rushes by to intercept Miss Greenwood.

Miss Greenwood sees him coming and halts in place at the far end of the Slytherin table. “Sir? What is—” She glances around at the other students, most of whom are white-faced as they read the paper. Severus isn’t certain if he’s seeing outrage or terror. If strong reactions were what Skeeter and Fudge hoped to create, they succeeded.

“Do not read today’s paper,” Severus says.

“The paper?” Miss Greenwood spies the headline due to someone’s open copy and pales so quickly that Severus thinks she’s on the verge of fainting. “What did they say?”

“The headline is informative enough.” Severus grips her arm firmly enough to impress the necessity of listening upon her, but not hard enough to bruise. “Trust me as your Head of House: do not ever read that article.”

Miss Greenwood swallows. “As long as you tell me why.”

“Because then you would be very, very upset, and I would be facing murder charges due to striding right into the offices of the Daily Prophet in order to kill a useless waste of a reporter,” Severus replies in a stiff voice.

“But—but what are people going to think? What are my parents going to think?” Miss Greenwood whispers.

“Miss Greenwood, what other people think or believe is immaterial.” Severus has to take a breath to say the next sentence. “Potter of Gryffindor faced this sort of slander for well over a year. You are seeing but a single article. If Potter can tolerate this without a disgraceful display of behavior, so can we.”

“What did they say about you?” Miss Greenwood asks in sudden horror.

“Miss Greenwood, Rita Skeeter managed to fabricate crimes for me to have performed that I’ve actually never contemplated before, and I have contemplated quite a number.”

“Hey!” Colin Creevey of Gryffindor is standing in his chair. Severus resists the urge to hex a very loud Gryffindor. “You lot have all seen this, right?”

“If we hadn’t seen it, we’ve got you yelling about it, mate,” Mister Thomas says with his head resting in his hands. “What of it?”

“I heard Adele ask what people are going to think of this.” Creevey straightens in place. “So I thought I’d demonstrate.” Then he holds up his copy of the Prophet and tears it cleanly in two, letting the pieces flutter to the ground. “There. That’s what I think of that rubbish, Adele.”

“Oh,” Adele whispers, starting to smile.

“There are five war mages in Britain now. Five of them! And every single one of them is of Hogwarts,” Creevey yells. “I don’t know where this Skeeter bitch gets off—”

“MISTER Creevey!” Minerva shouts in regards to Colin Creevey’s language.

“—but I know Britain’s history, and I know what war mages are! They’re the utter best of us, an’ I’m proud to be in the same school they are!” Creevey finishes, looking as if he’s going to punch anyone who disagrees with him.

Miss Applebee stands up. “Too right.” She rips her paper in half. “And I’m canceling my subscription to this rot.”

“That’s a good idea. Me, too!” Creevey responds, grinning. “In fact, I’ll be writing for my Dad an’ Mum to do the same!”

Mister Roshan decides to do one better and climbs up onto the table in order to demonstrate. “Absolutely.” A third copy of a severed Prophet litters the floor.

Severus glances around as every student in the Great Hall takes it into their heads to make the same exact gesture. Soon there is newspaper bloody well everywhere. Mister Zabini catches Severus’s eye and holds up his abandoned copy of the newspaper. Severus shrugs; Zabini grins and takes that as an invitation to start tearing the paper apart, one strip at a time.

“Hey! One more thing!” Miss Parangyo is standing on the chair next to Mister Zabini, who has just finished throwing newspaper strips over his shoulder. Once she has everyone’s attention, Miss Parangyo turns to face Severus and Miss Greenwood. Then she begins to applaud with all of the grace of a queen.

Severus did expect that those of his House would pay tribute to four Slytherin war mages. House politics would have demanded it, if nothing else. He did not expect them to do it in such a public manner…or for everyone else to join them, students and staff alike.

Miss Greenwood stands next to him and smiles while tears leak from her eyes. Severus is trying to decide why he has been seized by the urge to flee. It might only be his grip on Miss Greenwood’s arm that is keeping him from doing so.

He hasn’t come this close to losing his composure since he began spying in 1980.

Then the flash of a too-bright camera distracts him. Severus turns and glares at Creevey, who is lowering his camera with an utterly unapologetic look on his face. “Mister Creevey, I will confiscate that thing and turn it into its separate atomic components!”

Colin Creevey shakes his head. “Trust me, Professor, you shouldn’t. Not for this.”

“And why not?” Severus is glad that he can still sound threatening while pretending not to be bewildered.

“Because that is going to be a really good picture,” Creevey says. “The right sort of picture, sir.”

Severus hesitates as the realization sinks in. “Very political-minded of you, Mister Creevey.”

Creevey grins back. “Thank you, sir, but you should be thanking our other war mage and Defence teacher. He’s really good at those sorts of lessons.”

Severus looks back at the staff table to find that Nizar is staring at him with no trace of spark or magical fire remaining in the air around him. What? he thinks, doing his best to present the thought as being completely out of sorts.

Nizar blinks twice and then thinks something particular—and familiar—in response. Would it be odd if I said I was proud of you?

Yes! Severus retorts at once. Then he has to swallow as Nizar’s lips curl up in a smile, the first genuine sign of happiness Severus has seen on his face since the funeral. Yes, it’s very, very odd. But it’s nice to hear.

 

*          *          *          *

 

Ron steps into the Great Hall with Lee Jordan and halts in shock. “What the bloody hell happened in here?”

Lee snatches a strip of paper from the air and holds it up. “Oh, hey, it looks like everyone decided they hated the Prophet all at the same time! Come on. Let’s go seek out the best source of news in Gryffindor that isn’t Fred and George.”

Hermione is daintily picking bits of newspaper out of her eggs when Ron and Lee sit down across from her. “What the bloody hell happened in here?” Ron repeats in the place where it will do the most good to ask.

She pulls a full strip of paper out of her eggs, makes a face, and tosses it before reaching for toast that is also littered with newspaper scraps. “I kept my copy of today’s Prophet just to be able to answer that question in a believable manner.” She hands it over to Ron and Lee before picking up the juice pitcher, looking at its collection of soggy paper remnants in the bottom before putting it aside. Some things just can’t be salvaged.

Ron is still reading the front page in disbelief when the twins come along and bracket them at the table. “Lee! Ron! You missed the fun! And by fun I mean the seething anger before a loud Gryffindor decided we needed to turn the Prophet into rubbish,” George says.

“Yeah. I can see why. What am I reading, guys?” Ron asks. “I know I’m not the smartest bloke in this school, but I’m seeing words and they make no sense.”

“Rita Skeeter,” Lee says.

Ron glances back at the nonsense title for the article. “Never mind. Suddenly it makes perfect sense.”

“THEY ABSOLUTELY ARE NOT!”

Ron winces when Ginny’s shout pierces his ear right before she snatches the paper out of his hands. “Gin—”

“I’ll kill that woman myself!” Ginny yells.

“Ginny, the line is so long at this point in Skeeter’s career that there won’t even be bits left to stomp into the floor by the time you get a turn,” Lee points out, hunting for coffee among the bits of newspaper. “Oh, there is my precious,” he coos over the pot. Then he’s off on the hunt for a mug that isn’t buried.

“Don’t tear that up, Ginny! I think it might be one of only two copies left, and I’ll need it to explain why…well…everything,” Hermione says.

Edward peers out from behind Ginny, wide-eyed. “Not that I don’t understand the feeling, but the staff were okay with this?”

Pansy sits down next to Hermione. “Pretty sure most of them helped. Share up, Granger. I think you’ve got the only eggs in school that haven’t been sent to the great hen coop in the sky.”

Hermione unearths an empty plate and hands it over. “Sure, I’ve already been at it.”

Ron glances up at the staff table. “Wow, you’re right. It’s like they celebrated Umbridge leaving all over again, but messier.” He narrows his eyes. “I’m not hallucinating or anything, am I?”

Fred manages to find the bacon while Pansy greedily helps herself to the surviving eggs. “Still not our doing if you are, baby brother.”

Ron feels his eye twitch. “Right. Because Snape’s happy. Or murderous. One of those.”

They all turn their heads to look at the staff table. Professor Flitwick is wearing a wreath on his head made of shredded Prophet; Professor Sprout is busy making another on Professor Willowood’s order. Hagrid and Madam Hooch are throwing the strips about like confetti while laughing. Professor Dumbledore is reading individual scraps of paper and smiling, but that’s just about normal. Professor McGonagall looks like the cat that caught and ate the canary, then hid all the evidence. Professor Salazar is leaning back in his chair next to her with his feet on the table, and McGonagall isn’t yelling at him to knock off with it.

Professor Slytherin has scooted his chair over so that he can lean against Snape. Ron suspects the professor might actually be asleep, which is a bloody amazing feat considering how loud it is in the Great Hall. Snape actually has his arm around Professor Slytherin’s shoulder, his pale hand resting along the professor’s green robe sleeve. Instead of his usual dark-eyed, roving glower of the students in the Hall, he’s only watching the Slytherins…and he’s smiling.

“I’m not really certain I know how to handle three miracles in one day,” Fred says.

“Three?” Ginny somehow gives the newspaper back to Hermione without ripping it to bits. “I’m only counting two—everyone’s reaction to this shit article, and Professor Snape. I mean, that could be murderous,” she says, tilting her head. “But I kind of doubt it.”

Ron shudders. “I don’t want to be thinking about how unnatural it is for that man to be happy!”

Pansy kicks him under the table. Ron bites his lip and somehow doesn’t shriek; Pansy wears some sharp bloody shoes! “Don’t you go off insulting my Head of House, Ron Weasley.”

“Didn’t have anything to do with that!” Ron whimpers, clutching his leg. “Not a Slytherin thing! Just a Snape thing!”

Hermione sighs. “You’re honestly hopeless.”

“I’ll actually give him that,” Pansy says. “I mean, it is a bit odd. We’re all used to Professor Snape being…well…”

“Dour,” George finishes for her, just as Ginny and Edward finally start poking around on the table for undamaged bits of breakfast. “But hey, third miracle—Professor Slytherin is sleeping.”

“In this racket? How?” Ginny asks.

“Because someone spent a week not bloody sleeping.” Fred rolls his eyes. “George asked our Fearless Leader to do us the ‘favor’ of putting the date and time on the notes he sent us for instructions and whatnot, so we’d know how to prioritize, like.”

“Never. Bloody. Sleeps,” George mutters. “Nutter.”

“You’ve got to be a nutter to be a war mage,” Pansy says, digging out the teapot. “Do you know what a war mage’s life expectancy is like? That is not an easy job, or a safe one.”

“Yes, but are you going by the averages created by Hadrian’s Wall, or before that?” Hermione asks.

“Not much difference between them, really,” Pansy replies. “Cheer up, Gryffindors! At least your war mage is a werewolf, and thus is practically indestructible!”

“Right. Werewolf Gryffindor war mage.” Ginny grins. “How much would you like to bet that’s the part in all of this that made Fudge wet his trousers?”

“Oi! Some of us are eating!” Pansy protests. “Go talk about that man’s bad habits elsewhere!”

“Besides, I’m pretty sure it’s an all-of-the-above sort of answer, anyway,” Lee says. “We’ve got a pair of thousand-year-old relic Slytherin Founders, one not-a-Death-Eater ex-spy, one werewolf, and a magically titled baroness who’s going to hold quite a bit of sway in the Wizengamot after she takes her seat. Fudge is going to be yesterday’s news—literally, even.”

“Maybe we shouldn’t all cancel our copies.” Hermione is giving the Slytherin end of the table a speculative look. “Maybe we should all write in to the Prophet and tell them our subscriptions are as good as canceled unless the Prophet prints a retraction. By…oh, tomorrow.”

Pansy drops her spoon and stares at Granger. “I’ll go tell the Slytherins,” she says, and bolts from the table.

“Gryffindor,” Hermione claims, but takes her teacup with her.

“Ravenclaws, my people!” George cries, heading in that direction.

“Puffs!” Jordan declares, but then Fred picks him up and slings him over his shoulder so they can both go terrify the Hufflepuffs.

Edward glances around before he mumbles, “Staff,” and skitters off in that direction.

Ron looks at Ginny. “What just happened?” he asks. She rolls up a ball of shredded newspaper and throws it at him before following Edward.

 

*          *          *          *

 

“It would have been a bit more convenient to have known about my sudden influx of war mages before this morning,” Albus says.

Minerva watches Severus roll his eyes. “And give you that much of a warning? That is no fun at all.”

Albus chuckles. “Of course not. If you’re worried about political manipulation, I’m aware that a war mage’s abilities do not work that way.”

Minerva decides she’d best intervene before Severus throws something at Albus. The dear lad has never liked being put on the spot for doing something extraordinary. “A war mage’s presence is political whether they can access that power or not, Albus,” Minerva reminds him in a tart voice. “The lid was being kept on it for a reason. I didn’t even know until this past weekend, but only because the actual article written by Madam Spencer was supposed to arrive before today’s…today’s…”

“Rubbish,” Salazar supplies for her. He’s still looking remarkably calm about all of this, especially considering the fiery anger he demonstrated on Mister Potter’s behalf. “Actual, complete rubbish.”

“On the other hand, I did get to listen to Sirius recite a lot of words in languages I didn’t know he’d ever been interested in,” Remus adds. He doesn’t look nearly as sanguine about Skeeter’s article, but Minerva suspects he still wants to eviscerate someone for what was said about Miss Greenwood. Remus spoke highly of her during his year of teaching Defence.

“Indeed. I think our students would have helped add to Sirius’s recitation, but I chose to be selectively deaf.” Albus frowns. “I did want to speak to all of Britain’s war mages. Where is Nizar?”

“Off to see Madam Spencer to convince her to sell her article as an evening exclusive to both Witch Weekly and The Quibbler,” Salazar explains, smiling. “The Prophet has already paid her, and she isn’t under exclusive contract. Undercutting the profits of the unworthy is such a time-honored tradition.”

“And no opportunity is spared to make a pun of it, I see,” Severus notes.

“Be that as it may…at this juncture, I believe Madam Spencer’s article may be little more than damage control,” Albus says.

“I don’t actually think so, and I am a consummate pessimist,” Salazar replies. “That woman writing lies about war mages in Cornelius Fudge’s name—yes, there are always the uneducated who don’t know any better, or are fool enough to take a known liar at her word. However, the most educated of magicians in Wizarding Britain in terms of war mage lore are the Pure-blooded Houses.”

“Those who also hold the most power.” Albus folds his hands over his desk. “Then Cornelius may well have let fear guide his actions.”

“And committed a most grievous miscalculation.” Salazar grins. “I do believe that will come in handy.”

“Ah. Is this something I should be aware of?” Albus asks them all.

“No,” Minerva says firmly. “Not at all. One should not give the Chief Warlock of the Wizengamot any reason to be mistrusted if he were to be, oh, restored to office because of a Minister vacating his seat.”

Albus leans back, eyebrows lifting. “I see. Well, then. I trust in your discretion, Minerva.”

Remus departs by the Floo to return to London. Minerva takes the staircase down, aware that Salazar and Severus are accompanying her. They meet Nizar at the statue of Galfridus and find the man grinning like a lunatic. “I hope none of you had important correspondence to see to, because there is not an owl left in this entire bloody school.”

“That is definitely going to set a tone.” Salazar says in a neutral voice that has all three of them glancing at him in suspicion. “My quarters, brother?”

“Oh, I missed something fun, didn’t I?” Nizar disappears with Severus; Minerva accepts Salazar’s arm and finds herself in Salazar’s sitting room a moment later. “Tell me what I missed. I had to go convince a reporter that she was making her career, not destroying it, and those weren’t fun conversations even when I was still having them with bards.”

My war mages.” Salazar’s lack of concern has vanished, replaced by fierce intensity. “Albus Dumbledore did not say Britain’s war mages when he first mentioned us by title when we gathered. He said my.”

“I wasn’t surprised by that,” Severus says. “I’m not certain why you are.”

“No one owns a war mage, Severus.” Nizar sits down on Salazar’s window-facing sofa. “You cannot own one, bribe one, or even truly control them. If the monarch makes the attempt, forgetting that a war mage serves throne and land by choice, then that war mage can break those ties and walk away from their title entirely.”

Salazar looks too grim to leave Minerva with no concerns at all. “If Albus Dumbledore is as knowledgeable about a war mage’s ways as he claims, he would know that. He either does not know as much as he believes, or he thinks he knows of ways to use a war mage’s presence to his best advantage, regardless.”

“And he won’t try to control us.” Nizar glances at Severus. “He’ll go for you, Remus, and Adele.”

Severus’s most ferocious scowl puts in an appearance. “The hell he will. That man will stay the fuck away from my students!”

“Severus!” Minerva stares at him in surprise. “Despite our misgivings in the political arena, Albus is still the Headmaster of this school!”

When Severus gazes back at her, it’s the dark, foreboding gaze of the spy, though whether or not the affectation is deliberate, Minerva cannot tell. “You desperately need to reevaluate Albus’s actions in regards to your missing Gryffindor, Minerva,” he breathes. “Perhaps then you might realize why I would sooner kill that bastard than to allow Albus Dumbledore even the slightest opportunity to try and corrupt a young woman’s strengths for his own mysterious ends.”

“There is no possible way Albus is responsible for all of the mischief that Mister Potter managed to get into,” Minerva replies, startled anew by his vehemence.

“Of course not.” Severus blinks once and that particular mask is gone again. “But of taking advantage of the opportunities given? That, I doubt not at all.”

 

*          *          *          *

 

Salazar takes the Daily Prophet the next morning when Nizar makes no move to steal Minerva’s copy. “Are you ill?”

“What?” Nizar glances at him. “No. I just had a rough night.”

Again. Salazar nods and unrolls his paper, mentally prepared for nigh well anything. He’s lived a long time, and yet still people keep surprising him. It’s a nice bit of reassurance to the fact of existence.

This time, the headline is much more pleasing instead of blatantly inflammatory:

 

The Restoration of Wizarding Britain’s Glorious Past:

The Mages Who Once Protected The Isles Returned

Second in a series of articles by Joyous M. Spencer

 

“Better,” Salazar says, especially when he notes the large-print addendum beneath Joyous Spencer’s name: Originally to Be Published Sunday, 11th February 1996. Our Apologies to Madam Spencer and our Readers for the Delay.

Not quite a retraction, but it is most certainly a concession from a newspaper that realized they’d blundered and chanced losing a great deal of money from a fleeing readership. Salazar will accept it, knowing well that the fools could have decided to sail their rat-infested ship until it sank beneath the water.

This article is as informative as Joyous Spencer’s first one, rife with fact instead of nonsense. There is just a bit of the fantastic woven in to keep an uneducated reader’s attention. It does help that the fantastic is also true. The magical biographies for his brother and himself are again brief out of necessity, political and otherwise. Remus Lupin and Sirius Black’s skills regarding their magic are as they should be, focusing on their accomplishments rather than their supposed failings.

Adele Greenwood’s story, still brief due to her age, lists her title, academic achievements, her descent from two famous Silver Spears, and her continued training in their ways rather than vicious libel. Hers and Severus’s longer sections are together, and it’s immediately clear as to why. Salazar’s little brother did more with his time away from the castle yesterday morning aside from convincing Joyous to sell her article as yesterday’s evening exclusive to other newspapers.

The photograph included with the war mage article is not the original one that Dervish photographed, but of Severus and Adele standing in the Great Hall, surrounded by applauding students of all Houses. “And that sets the best sort of tone,” Salazar murmurs. He’s going to be keeping an eye on tiny Colin Creevey, who just earned his first professional photographer’s credit in three very different newspapers.

You did something,” Nizar hisses softly. “What did you do, Salazar? You’re far too pleased with yourself, and that means you were meddling.”

It wasn’t meddling, little brother. It was bribery. That is far more direct than meddling.”

Nizar rolls his eyes. “What did you do, Sal?

I might have gone into the Department of Records within the Ministry and paid a clerk with far too much debt to alter the birth certificate of one Jericho Cosmos Macmillan. It now reads that Amfractus Macmillan is Jericho’s father rather than a hideous-hat-wearing idiot. I then requested a copy and presented it to Amfractus and Celeste so they could publish articles and letters as they wished without fear of losing Celeste’s inheritance.”

I should really disapprove,” Nizar says, “but I don’t. If forging a birth certificate is the worst thing we do this year, then we’ve done well.”

Forging?” Salazar pitches his voice to mock-offence. “It’s the Ministry of Magic, little brother. Bribery is only penalized if you didn’t bring enough coin.”

“Effective damage control, do you think?” Minerva asks when Salazar and Nizar are done conversing in Parseltongue.

Salazar looks up and lets his gaze drift around the Hall. There are a few Prophets in-hand, but almost everyone is viewing late-delivered copies of last night’s exclusives to Witch Weekly. There are even fifteen copies of The Quibbler, and if that’s an average that holds true throughout Britain, it will be the highest-grossing issue Xenophilius has ever sold. The Daily Prophet will certainly be feeling the monetary pinch from Sunday morning’s blunder.

“Oh, it is definitely that,” Salazar replies, lifting Minerva’s hand. He thinks he could kiss it in full view of their students and she would allow it, but decides not to. His Lioness wanted them to suffer, so suffering it shall be.

Chapter Text

“I do not want to know,” Severus says the moment he sees Nizar. He delayed as long as he could without skipping the potential debacle entirely. Yesterday had been…a kind gesture, but he understands the limits of kindness.

Nizar refuses to stop blocking Severus’s path to his seat. “Yes, you do.”

“No, I don’t,” Severus retorts.

Nizar holds out a rolled-up copy of that morning’s Prophet. “Prove me right, then.”

Severus glares at him and snatches the paper from him. “Fine.” He unrolls it, snorts derisively at the pathetic retraction, and then realizes that the original picture is missing. The Prophet printed the one Mister Creevey took without permission yesterday morning.

“I do not actually look like that.”

Nizar shrugs. “Then you’re a mirage, and Miss Greenwood is a vampiress?”

“Do not insult one of our students, Nizar.”

“Oh. My mistake. She looks as she usually does, then?” Nizar counters, smiling up at him. Severus knows the man didn’t sleep again last night; it’s in the pinched look to his features. A lack of rest has never stopped Nizar from being a complete bastard, though.

Severus glares down at the photograph. “Miss Greenwood looks entirely acceptable, for given values of weeping while photographed.” To be fair to Miss Greenwood, she does seem to be one of the rare types who can cry without making a complete spectacle of themselves. Lily could never manage it, but her solution was to talk about the slovenly red-faced alien in the mirror when her tears were dry.

Perhaps I do look my age, as Minerva insists, Severus finally admits to himself. It is quite possibly the best photograph he’s ever managed, where otherwise he most often looks to be some form of hideous, animated corpse.

“I heard that thought.” Nizar snatches the paper from him and leaves the Hall, scowling.

Severus looks down at his empty hands before he joins Minerva at the table. “Did I miss something?”

Minerva shakes her head, reaches over, and pats his arm. “Yes, you did. Fortunately, I believe you have plenty of time to figure out what it is that you’re not seeing.”

The Chosen One will return to face him, appearing as the spring moon dies.

Damn that prophecy. Severus suddenly doesn’t feel like eating at all. “I’m not so certain of that.”

 

*          *          *          *

 

Nizar does not ignore Severus for the rest of the day. It doesn’t count as being ignored if the other person is spending their entire day lecturing dunderheads on how to not die. Severus thinks it might count as being ignored when Nizar skips both meals, but that could be lingering suspicion.

He doesn’t understand what caused Nizar to storm off in a temper. Not the worst of his temper, no; Severus witnessed that by seeing Nizar turn his fierceness on Argus Filch during the now-infamous alboka incident. Still, Nizar was definitely displeased.

Severus scowls at the fire burning in the hearth of his quarters. Relationships are ridiculously complicated, and it is no wonder he never bothered until he found someone worth the effort.

That is possibly the most annoying part of it all. Nizar is worth the effort. Beyond worth it. For Nizar’s sake, if not his own, he is going to figure out this stupid blunder, fix it, and then…probably move right along to the next massive blunder.

Ridiculously. Complicated.

Tuesday brings some hint of normalcy with it. Most of Severus’s students seem to be treating him with the same wary caution they’ve been exhibiting since his status as a former spy against Voldemort was revealed last month. Aside from feeling the earth beneath his feet as he walks and being able to sense the lives around him if he concentrates, nothing about him has changed at all. If his status as a war mage means his students will behave and not act like imbeciles, then Severus doesn’t care.

One hour of fourth-year Ravenclaws and Hufflepuffs. One hour of fifth-year Slytherins and Gryffindors, in which Longbottom successfully continues not to cause anything to explode. One hour of first-year Hufflepuffs and Ravenclaws, in which three students do succeed in causing explosions. One of them should not even have been possible. Severus glances up at the mess dripping off his classroom ceiling and thinks he will never stop discovering new ways for a student’s pubescent magic to attempt to destroy things. The third-year Gryffindor-Slytherin class is sedate in comparison, but he doesn’t trust the respite. When that particular group blunders, it’s nearly as epic as Longbottom’s explosive failures.

Severus takes lunch in his office rather than chancing the Great Hall. If Nizar is absent, he doesn’t want to dwell on whether or not it’s because they’re at odds. Given the vexed expressions the Weasley twins were sharing during dinner last night, Severus is beginning to suspect not, even if he does still owe Nizar an apology for reasons he cannot yet fathom.

 Miss Granger is exceptionally prompt, arriving when his Tuesday afternoon hours begin at one o’clock. “Sir.” Granger seems to think about it before she shuts the door.

“Wise decision, unless you want others walking up behind you unexpectedly.”

“I thought about that, but I was also thinking perhaps you wanted this to be private, sir,” Granger replies. “Since we’re discussing, er, your work.”

“And yours, Miss Granger.” Severus waves his hand at the seats before his desk. “Did you find it enlightening?”

Granger narrows her eyes. “Actually, I found it entirely infuriating!”

“That is a form of enlightenment.” Severus rests his hands on his desk. “Well?”

“It was easy to see why you chose this particular assignment of yours, as it was the exact same one we just finished.” Granger hesitates. “Did anyone else discuss skin, venom, and scales?”

“Only those students I suspect will score the proper O.W.L. grade for N.E.W.T. Potions,” he replies. “Some wrote of their properties as you did and no further; other students discussed possible new potions. You were the only one to castigate Hogwarts’ library for not having information on potions that might use those ingredients.”

“It should be there!” Granger exclaims. “What’s the point of a library if it’s incomplete!”

“As far as I’m aware, it isn’t possible to own every single book in the world.” Not that Severus disagrees with the motivation behind attempting such a goal. “But you are correct that there is a specific lack. What else, Miss Granger?”

“The grade on your paper, it’s…” Severus can tell that there is a certain word on the tip of her tongue, but not what. At some recent point this term, Miss Granger went from having passable mental shields to very good ones, as many of his properly trained Slytherins do. He’s curious as to what brought about the change, as it’s given him the means to host discussions with someone who really does need a complete kick in the arse to reach her full potential.

“It is what?”

“It’s ludicrous!” Granger scowls. “If there was a grade above Outstanding, your paper would have been capable of earning it easily! Instead, it’s marked with an A! Who was this complete idiot?”

Severus lets out a choked laugh before he can stop himself. “That ‘complete idiot,’ Miss Granger, is Horace Slughorn. He is a Ministry-certified Potions Master of Great Britain, my predecessor as Potions Teacher of Hogwarts and as Slytherin’s Head of House, and he loathes my existence.”

Granger’s expression twists up in bafflement. “Because of an essay?”

“In part. It started long before that time, though the essay certainly became the turning point in regards to outright hostilities.” Severus thinks on what he is willing to admit to. If he balances this particular trade well enough, he’ll be able to claim one of the only Potions-inclined Gryffindors of her year in a useful capacity. If he doesn’t, he’ll be faced with two years of whinging as Granger struggles through the subject. He would prefer to avoid the whinging.

“I take it you have no questions over the grade or the comments on your own essay?” Severus asks first.

Granger shakes her head. “No. I mean, I was arguing with you for the second half after I abandoned the topic of eggs, but I hadn’t read yours yet. I wrote it down and everything.”

Severus raises both eyebrows. “I would like to see that after we’re done speaking. It may not be useful, but I’d like to judge for myself.” He waits for Granger to retrieve a bound scroll and place it on his desk. “Very well. The essay you received on Saturday evening was indeed from my fifth year. Before that point, I’d already proven myself to be a thorn in Slughorn’s side merely by existing. Some people have natural expressions of magic. Mine has been strongly aligned with Potions from a very young age, whereas your compass is still swinging around, trying to determine itself. You’ve heard of Felix Felicis?”

“Yes, sir. The potion of luck. It’s supposed to be very difficult and takes six months to brew.” There is a gleam in her eyes; Granger very much wants to make the attempt, but isn’t certain of her skill.

“I brewed Felix Felicis for the first time in my first year at Hogwarts. I waited until winter break so that Slughorn was not here to stop me. I completed a perfect brew in less than a month’s time after hearing the best and most useful instruction in Potions I’ve ever received. They came from your current Defence teacher.”

“Less than a month.” Granger stares at him, shocked and delighted. “How? Or what were the instructions, sir?”

“The best and most useful instructions in regards to brewing?” Severus eyes her. “Recipes are stupid and fallible. Treat them as suspect at the least, and as guidelines at the utmost.”

“All right.” Severus can’t read her thoughts, but Granger’s expression is still easy to decipher. She’s debating on how to approach the problem she now faces—what to ask next. “How did you apply those particular instructions to the matter of Felix Felicis, sir?”

Severus grants her the faintest of smiles, pleased. “I looked up complete information on every single ingredient in the potion, which falls well outside the bounds of most textbooks. When is an ingredient most effective? When is it least? What is the best way to use an ingredient? What is the worst? Which of course then leads on to further questions: what sort of potions require ingredients to be of greatest, least, or middling efficacy? What are the common substitutes available for every single ingredient in Felix Felicis, and why do they work? What conditions do they work under? Do you see where I am going with this?”

Granger is displaying her particular and peculiar thoughtful frown, the rare one he sees when she is required to actually think on a problem instead of simply allowing rote memorization to provide the answer. “You mean aside from the fact that brewing potions is more complex than our textbooks have ever implied?”

“Aside from that. Do bear in mind that I’ve been telling all of you this from day one.”

Granger winces. “Yes, sir. I’m just not certain any of us had the education to understand the context you were using.”

Severus thinks on it. “Fair enough. Please continue.”

“Every variation possible with a potion’s ingredients will vary the nature of the potion,” Granger says. “Every substitution that is supposed to cause similar affects will vary it even further.”

“Hence ignoring the given directions listed in Advanced Potion-Making, reexamining the ingredients, and formulating perfect Felix Felicis over winter break. It was given as a holiday gift to my best friend when she returned to school in January.”

“Best friend.” Granger’s look of sympathy is annoying. “You mean Harry’s mum.”

“Lily Evans. She had a name, Miss Granger. I dislike seeing it ignored.”

“Right. Wait. That means you knew Mister Potter, too?” Granger realizes.

Severus rolls his eyes. “Why do you think I despise Remus Lupin and Sirius Black?”

“Oh.” Granger blinks a few times. “You mean they were like Draco. They had to, uh, grow out of being…uhm, ill-mannered.”

That’s a level of insight he hadn’t expected, but perhaps he should have. His Slytherins and the Gryffindors have been conspiring since the end of December. “Essentially. However, this is meant to be a discussion of those essays, and of a certain idiot, not of the deceased.”

“Right.” Granger gets out her copy of Severus’s essay, identifiable by the bit of green ink he added to one corner. “This is—I’ve read published potions work, sir. This is definitely of that quality, even if it would have to be re-written for publication to be well-received.”

Severus nods. “I did publish it. It was very well-received by the Potions community of Wizarding Britain and Europe.”

“But—Slughorn—he ignored it!” Granger bursts out, angered all over again. She certainly enjoys embodying a Gryffindor’s fierce intolerance of injustice.

“He did not ignore it, Miss Granger. He stole it.”

Severus seems to have stumbled over Granger’s most-loathed cardinal sin. Her entire expression becomes tight with rage, though her voice is quiet and steady. “What.”

“Horace Slughorn copied this essay, granting me the barest nod of a passing grade while having the audacity to comment that I was being too arrogant. He then rewrote the essay in publishable format and submitted it to the appropriate division within the Ministry.”

Severus’s lip curls in derision. “His mistake was in leaving the publication proof on his desk, wishing to brag about it in front of his N.E.W.T. students. I saw the book during class. When I noticed its title indicated a very familiar concept, I stole it and discovered that he’d barely bothered to put his own turn of phrase on it before claiming all of my work as his own. That is when the enmity truly began, Miss Granger. I still had my original essay, and like any properly paranoid Slytherin, I’d embedded it with magic to mark it as an original, and to reveal its written date to anyone who could cast the proper spell. Slughorn did not think to backdate his submission. I was able to easily and irrefutably prove that it was my work, and I made an enemy of Slughorn by doing so. The Ministry has kept a close watch on Slughorn’s submitted theses in the field ever since.”

Granger raises an eyebrow. “So…when you make an enemy, you’re certain to do a very good job of it, sir.”

“Miss Granger, if one is going to do something, it should be to the best of their ability,” Severus drawls in response. “Slughorn had no choice but to accept me into N.E.W.T. Potions the next year. It would have been very difficult for him to bar an Outstanding-grade student from the class, but he made certain I remained outcast from the others from that point forward. He especially kept me out of his ridiculous Slug Club, but I wasn’t fond of the idea of participating in that self-involved idiocy in the first place.”

“What is a Slug Club, and why would anyone want to participate in it?” Granger asks.

“The Slug Club was Slughorn’s means of feeding his own self-importance using the thin and pathetic disguise of calling it an academic club for outstanding students. However, Slughorn’s standards required that one be from a famous family, or have a connection to another’s fame. Lily Evans was a prodigious Potions student, but she was ignored by Slughorn during her sixth year. It wasn’t until her seventh year, when it became clear to the school that she and James Potter were likely to wed after Hogwarts, that Slughorn inducted her into his ridiculous club. Potter was from a famous and respected family—more importantly, a wealthy one.”

“But that’s just—it’s blatant favoritism, not about grades at all!” Granger is once again infuriated. It’s amusing to watch someone cycle from curiosity to fury and back again so rapidly.

“It was exactly that. It was blatant favoritism condoned by both Headmaster Dippet and Headmaster Dumbledore. Take from that what you will, though if you ask, Professor Dumbledore will say that there was no reason to dismantle a pre-existing school club.”

“That’s…sort of depressing. I’ve been curious as to why Hogwarts seems to have such a lack of student associations,” Granger says. “When did you finally publish that essay?”

“1978. I didn’t have the opportunity to do so in 1976, as I was underage.”

Granger looks at him in frustration. “But it’s not in the library! Professor McGonagall’s treaties on certain types of Transfiguration is in there, and Professor Flitwick’s Charms theories, and even this Slughorn idiot has a book in there! Why don’t you?”

“Partly because the nature of my work until quite recently required that I not publish, lest I hand over a gift-wrapped weapon to the enemy,” Severus answers. “As to why that early publication would not be in Hogwarts’ library? Research on Runespoors in regards to Potions was banned by Slughorn in 1979, citing the need to decrease the illegal importation of Runespoor eggs. That was three years before his official retirement from Hogwarts. The only references to Runespoors you will find in Hogwarts’ library relates to Care of Magical Creatures.”

“That…is petty. That’s just…” Granger’s face twists up as she decides once again not to blurt out whatever inappropriate term she is dwelling on. “Pathetic.”

“Regardless, Professor Dumbledore will not rescind the ban, so that first work lingers in obscurity as far as Hogwarts students are concerned.”

Granger gives him an odd look. “But—maybe I’m overstepping and interpreting this the wrong way, but why don’t you ask Professor Salazar to rescind the ban, sir?”

Severus stares at her in sheer, muted fury. He’d never once considered that, and it’s so fucking obvious that he really should have. “You are entirely correct, and I despise the fact that you thought of that solution before I did.”

Granger smiles. “Sorry, sir.”

Severus growls under his breath. Granger just inadvertently broke the fucking balance of trade, and now he has to remedy it again. He has it a moment later, and it also gives him the excuse to call on someone. “Miss Granger, do you know who my two best Potions students are in seventh year?”

Granger shakes her head. “No, sir.”

“Fred and George Weasley.”

Granger’s eyebrows fly up in a comical manner. “How? From what I’ve heard the others say, I thought they were failing Potions!”

“Whether they fail the coursework for the entirety of seventh year is irrelevant. All that matters is their N.E.W.T. scores.” Severus leans back in his chair and crosses his arms. “They are willing to try new things. Deviations. Experimentation.”

“I always thought their idea of experimentation was to simply throw things into a cauldron until they had a result or an explosion,” Granger says.

Severus smirks at her. “Miss Granger, sometimes the nature of experimentation requires exactly that in order to achieve something that is new. We’ve spent the last half-hour discussing your fatal failure with Potions. You have never once deviated from the listed recipe for a draught or a brew. Your essays for this class often reflect that same lack of imagination. You have never looked at your ingredients beyond their initial face value. You are not yet prepared for the difference in thought that accompanies a N.E.W.T. Potions class…but you could be.”

“I see.” The pause is long enough that Severus wonders if that will be the end of the conversation until Miss Granger seems to brace herself. “Then how do I—how do I gain that understanding, sir?”

“Wait.” Severus casts his Patronus, giving the European iaculus a narrow-eyed look. He’s never had the opportunity to use it to pass along a message. “Deliver this in Parseltongue,” Severus finally decides. “Nizar, I’m in my office. I need that book I loaned you last year, the one with the notations you find so interesting.” The iaculus flies around in its favored tiny loop and vanishes.

“That is an interesting Patronus, sir,” Granger comments, but he can detect no hint of snideness. “I’m not certain a iaculus would have occurred to me.”

“Whereas the fact that yours is a Kneazle surprises no one at all.”

It takes Nizar five minutes to Apparate into the room. “Sorry, I had to bloody well find it—hello, Miss Granger,” he adds when he spies Granger.

“Hello, sir,” Granger replies politely.

Nizar holds out the book to Severus. “I have second-years playing magical tag in the rubbish room, so I was able to convince Sasha to take a few minutes and watch after them. Otherwise, it wouldn’t have been possible for me to bring this to you until four, but it sounded as if it was urgent.”

“Why do you have one of Professor Snape’s copies of the Potions N.E.W.T. textbook?” Granger asks as she recognizes the cover.

“Because it’s fascinating,” Nizar answers.

“Because he’s a Potions Master,” Severus adds, amused when Nizar glares at him. “It isn’t my fault you recalled enough to remember what is needed for a house-elf to recognize that mastery.”

Nizar tilts his head and then grins at Severus in a way that promises mischief—and probably the need to plot vengeance. “Technically, if you hadn’t moved the painting back to the fireplace, I wouldn’t be here for that mastery to be recognized. Therefore, it very much is your fault!” he declares, and then Disapparates.

Severus feels his eye twitch. “You did not just—tu—¿cómo te atreves? Tu es un bastardo absoluto. ¡Te estrangularé en tu puto dormir!”

He remembers more Castilian than he thought, possibly because most if it was swearing. Then he recalls himself and looks at Granger. “You do not speak Spanish, and you heard nothing of that.”

Granger refuses to meet his eyes. “I don’t know what the last sentence means, sir.”

A partial understanding of Spanish, then. He’ll bear that in mind. “Your fatal academic flaw, Miss Granger, it is your absolute faith in a book’s printed word. Any fool can write something down in a book. That does not make them intelligent or correct. I require that you return this book to me at the end of term.”

Severus holds out the book until she grasps it, but doesn’t yet let go. “If you accept this from me, your coursework and homework for the rest of the term will change. Yes, you will still have no difficulty passing your Potions O.W.L. You could take it now and score an Outstanding. The point is this: do you wish to understand the art of Potions, Miss Granger, or would you prefer to coast along, dependent on books with inadequate instructions?”

“I don’t want to coast along regarding anything, sir!” Granger snatches it out of his grip, glaring at him. “Please tell me that the assigned work for essays will be less dull.”

“Significantly.” Severus gives the book a pointed look. “Disregard the written assignment you received from me this morning in class. Your new assignment is to tell me how it is possible to reduce the brewing time of Polyjuice. I do not care about the length of what is written as long as you are specific and accurate.”

Granger hesitates with her hand on the book’s front cover. “Why Polyjuice?”

“If you could produce perfect Polyjuice on your first try in your second year after stealing the ingredients, you do not need to concern yourself with learning the potion as it is written. It’s now time to concern yourself with learning to improve it. There are notes in that book in regards to that potion, but they are not the answer to your assignment. It’s a different variant.”

“How did you—” Granger bites off the last word. It’s too late and she knows it. “How did you know?”

Severus smiles at her, the unpleasant version he perfected to use on certain students, despised Death Eaters, and hated Ministry officials. “Mister Potter was thinking on it last term when I accused him of thieving the ingredients. Alas that it was not him, but Barty Crouch Junior.”

“You—you used Legilimency on him! That’s—rude!” Granger sputters. “And illegal!”

“Not if your intent is to ensure that someone else does not die,” Severus retorts, his tone like acid. “Legalities do not concern me when lives are at stake, Miss Granger.”

She doesn’t argue with him further, possibly because she isn’t certain what sort of argument to make. Instead, she glances down at the book. “Extra credit if I can figure out what your Polyjuice variant does without brewing it first?”

Severus snorts. “Miss Granger, your grade in my class is a perfect O. What would you do with extra credit?”

“You’re about to make my assignments more difficult, sir,” Granger replies. “I’m going to maintain that perfect Outstanding, thank you very much.”

“Be certain that you do.” Severus waits until she leaves the classroom, clutching the book to her chest and looking like she’s been granted the means to find immortality. “And I would very much like to know who the hell taught you Occlumency.”

 

*          *          *          *

 

That is definitely not what Hermione expected to come about from her meeting with Snape. She envisioned far more yelling, insults, and acidic commentary. Instead, it was…well, it was informative.

She doesn’t have class until the double for Care of Magical Creatures at three o’clock, so she finds a quiet alcove on the ground floor and starts paging through the old Potions book. Hermione didn’t do much with Moste Potent Potions when she’d convinced Lockhart to give her a pass to check out the book from the Restricted Section during second year. Most of its contents had just seemed too…intense. However, she did write down the full formula for Polyjuice Potion before returning the book, to Madam Pince’s irritated relief.

Advanced Potion-Making isn’t nearly as daunting to look at in terms of illustrations. It’s the potions themselves. Every single recipe in the book has notations added in younger Snape’s handwriting. Sometimes it’s only a few words, but often there are complicated notes that involve more steps than what is printed—or they contradict the instructions entirely. He’s even drawn lines through steps and ingredients on multiple occasions to replace them with his own alternatives, along with how to use them.

How did you figure this out? Hermione wonders idly, and then decides to keep writing down every question she has. She checks the book’s printing date after writing the question on a blank scroll and discovers that the book isn’t a copy from the 1970s, which would have been Professor Snape’s decade of attendance, but the 1940s. That makes it a hand-me-down, probably from a parent that attended Hogwarts.

Hermione lights up with excitement even as she’s scribbling down the thought that Snape probably had access to this book before he even started Hogwarts. He did say his magic has always been inclined towards Potions, and a lot of brewing doesn’t require a wand. He could have been making potions before school…and that quickly becomes question number three even as she’s plotting her visit to the library’s archives. She really wants to know why he emphasized Prince on his fifth-year essay.

She gets to the back of the book and is about to close it when more of Snape’s spidery writing catches her eye. Written on the inside back cover in neat, firm printing are the words: This book is the property of the Half-Blood Prince.

“All right. You definitely did not like your father,” Hermione mutters, closing the book and shoving it into her bag. Half-Blood. She isn’t certain if that’s simply a rejection of half of his family, or if Snape meant it by blood purity standards.

She probably shouldn’t pry, but she’s always been curious. Snape didn’t say not to go looking for anything about his family, after all.

Madam Pince gives Hermione a stiff nod when she enters the library, and Hermione smiles back, unoffended. It took her a while to realize that she’s on good terms with the librarian; they both treat books the same way.

Hermione taps on the card catalogue with one finger, trying to figure out how to phrase her request. “I’d like to find information on anyone with the family name Snape or Prince who attended Hogwarts.” When she opens the drawer, it’s not a card that flies out, but a list.

She grabs the list, shuts the drawer, and walks away as she reads the references. Most of them are in the Daily Prophet’s archives the library keeps on the fourth floor, though a few are in books. None of them are about a Snape attending Hogwarts or being noted in a magical publication.

Making her way through the Prince references takes a while. They’re an old Wizarding Jewish family, which makes her wonder at the lack of Princes in Hogwarts. The family seems to be nice enough from what she reads in ancient copies of the Prophet. The few books written by Princes are focused on interesting subjects, even if the execution is a bit dull.

Hermione has nearly run out of time before she has to rush off to Care of Magical Creatures when she finally finds evidence of a sole Prince student attending Hogwarts in 1949. It’s a newspaper article from the Prophet in awful condition—they definitely tried a different sort of newsprint that year, and it was a miserable failure.

The Prophet must have been having a dull news week if they were bothering to cover student activities at Hogwarts, but it gives Hermione a picture of a sullen, skinny, unhappy-looking girl with a long face and pale skin. Eileen Prince, fifteen years old, fifth-year student and captain of Hogwarts’ Gobstones Team.

“We had a Gobstones Team?” Hermione wonders aloud. They really are lacking in activities for students that aren’t homework-related. There isn’t much else to do in Hogwarts aside from Quidditch. They still have an informal Gobstones Club, but this old official team competed against other groups in Britain and Europe.

Hermione looks at the photograph again. It’s hard to make out any real details, and the photograph’s magic is so deteriorated that it doesn’t even move anymore. She’s still almost certain that this is Snape’s mother. She rather hopes that Eileen Prince grew out of being sullen and unhappy by the time she had a child. Maybe she did, given Snape’s preference for her.

Or maybe Snape’s father was just so much worse that Eileen looked like a saint in comparison. That’s an unhappy thought.

Hermione pulls out the book again and flips to the back. “You’re not a Half-blood because someone’s magic decided to skip a generation. Your father and his family were all Muggles. But you don’t hate Muggles, or you wouldn’t have been friends with Harry’s mother.”

She closes the book again, pursing her lips. There is a Half-blood as Slytherin’s Head of House. Slytherin House, which always boasted of taking only those of Pure blood. Instead, that’s never been true. There are Half-bloods and Muggle-born Slytherin students that she’s met and talked to, now that it’s safer for them to admit to what they are.

Snape dealt with being a Half-blood in Slytherin House when it probably wasn’t safe to be anything but a Pure-blood. Despite that, he’d still claimed his mother’s name and turned it into a bloody title: the Half-Blood Prince.

Then why join Voldemort in the first place? She’s almost certain he wasn’t always a spy, but if he didn’t believe in blood purity…why?

Hermione had really hoped to find an explanation as to why Professor Snape is—well, Snape. Instead, what she’s found has left her more confused than when she started.

She gets through Care of Magical Creatures almost on autopilot. Fortunately, they’re studying thestrals again, which Hermione can’t see. The class mostly involves keeping an eye on the environment around the place where Hagrid says the thestral herd is gathered, watching for changes on the ground, on trees, or the thestrals’ meat pile. Two of the Slytherins can see the thestrals, which makes Hermione feel badly for them, but at least she can watch Daphne and Richard Vaisey pat the thestrals and feed them. It tells her a bit more about what the blasted things are supposed to look and act like.

She spends her class time in Muggle Studies thinking about Snape and a Potions book rather than anything Professor Burbage has to say about telly. She’s almost always wrong, wrong, wrong, but Hermione needs this class on her O.W.L.s for political reasons. She did enough research to know that witches and wizards—magicians—entering the Ministry tend to be viewed more favorably if they score well in Muggle Studies. It doesn’t matter that the entire course is nonsense. It’s one of the only classes in Hogwarts where Professor Burbage doesn’t set the exam; that’s done by a “Muggle Specialist” within the Ministry, and Professor McGonagall has assured Hermione that they are far more accurate than Burbage. Hermione has the feeling that Professor McGonagall likes Professor Burbage well enough as a person, but is entirely displeased with her teaching. She isn’t bad at it—she’s just wrong.

While Burbage is distracted with slides showing off televisions from the bloody 1950s and calling them modern Muggle technology, Hermione pages through Advanced Potion-Making until she finds its Polyjuice recipe. It looks to be the same, though she’ll need to dig out her copied instructions from Moste Potent Potions to compare them. The variant instructions are there, too, but there is no mention of what those variations do.

Hermione frowns and puts her quill to paper. She’ll be going right back to the library after dinner, but this time she’ll be researching potions ingredients.

 

*          *          *          *

 

On the afternoon of Wednesday the fourteenth, Salazar, Severus, Minerva, and Septima enter the staff lounge after classes to find Nizar already present. Severus is only hiding in the lounge to escape the Valentine’s Day craze of infatuated students, though it is pleasing to see so many samples of Spiritum Veritatis trading hands. Most of the dunderheads desperately need multiple breaths of truth shoved under their noses.

Nizar is leaning back in his chair, staring up at the ceiling. A rather large scroll is resting on the table in front of him.

“What is that?” Salazar asks.

“That, brother, is a deadly weapon,” Nizar answers.

Minerva raises an eyebrow. “Miss Granger, I presume.”

“You would be presuming correctly.” Nizar is still staring up at the ceiling. “Has she always been like this?”

“I had to order her to keep her first-year essays below ten feet, or I would dock points for having to read eight extra feet per essay,” Minerva says in a brisk voice, putting a kettle on for a quick cup of tea. “What did she give you?”

“No, too curious.” Salazar snatches up the scroll before Nizar can respond and lets it unroll. The resulting length of paper is…daunting. “Dear gods,” Salazar says in blank amazement.

“It’s thirty-two feet!” Nizar bursts out. “When I said she could drown her enemies in paperwork, I meant drown them, not beat them to death with it!”

Minerva looks as if she desperately wants to laugh. “If Miss Granger has presented you with a weapon, then she is indeed grasping that you are teaching a Defence class.”

Salazar lets out a long whistle. Severus glances over to find that Salazar is reading the essay, wide-eyed. “No offence, Lioness, but did this one make the Hat cry, too?”

“I haven’t read it yet. What did she do?” Nizar asks, glancing up at his brother.

“The Sorting Hat didn’t delay at all before choosing Gryffindor, actually,” Minerva tells Salazar.

Severus frowns in suspicion and points at Salazar. “Please do not terrify me by saying that walking encyclopedia should have been Sorted into my House.” He will tolerate her in order to have a student in his N.E.W.T. class who isn’t flailing about helplessly, but the idea of Granger as a Slytherin is appalling.

“No. Well, maybe.” Salazar keeps reading. “I’d give her perfect marks based on the first twelve inches alone. Knowledge of a Ravenclaw, ferocity of a Hufflepuff, self-preservation of a Slytherin, and wouldn’t piss on you to put out the fire levels of Gryffindor.”

Minerva gets out a spoon for her tea. “That is still far more Gryffindor over the other three.”

“I thought vindictiveness was a Slytherin trait,” Septima says while glancing over at Severus.

Severus gives her a bland look. “If they’re burning to death, then they’re not suffering long enough for it to count as vindictive. That’s more of a mercy killing.”

Salazar abruptly lowers the scroll. “I will give you all my earthly possessions if you marry my brother.”

“Oh, for—Salazar!” Nizar yells, getting up to snatch Granger’s essay out of Salazar’s hands.

“What?” Salazar spreads his arms wide, smiling. “I’ve been married five times, little brother. You’ve five weddings to catch up on!”

Nizar glares at Salazar as he taps his wand to the essay, rolling it back up into a neat bundle. “Shut. Up. Besides, what earthly possessions? I’ve seen no proof you own anything except a small flat and a moldering Gringotts vault’s mysterious contents.”

Salazar’s expression lights up. “Yes, that! All my earthly possessions and a vault!”

“Salazar Fernan Deslizarse, it is not 996. It is 1996. Please stop trying to purchase me a spouse,” Nizar hisses.

Minerva glances at Severus. “I’m surprised you’re not responding to this.”

Severus gives her an amused look. “Wealth, land, and titles are traditional, not just wealth.”

“Do I still have those properties?” Salazar asks—right before Nizar clobbers him across the face with Miss Granger’s thirty-two foot essay.

“I’m leaving,” Nizar announces, scowling his way out of the room. On his way through the door, he passes by Pomona and Poppy, who both stare after him in confusion.

“What is that all about?” Poppy wishes to know. “Usually if one of us is storming off in a snit, it’s you, Severus.”

Severus glares at her. “Not. Every. Time.” He will lay claim to most of the time, though.

Salazar rubs at his jaw. “That actually hurt. I think beating someone to death with that essay might be possible.”

Severus hears the whisper of “Marriage!” from Septima before she, Poppy, and Pomona all turn to give Severus matching expectant looks. “So! Is there something you wish to tell us?”

“Absolutely not,” Severus replies, deciding it’s wiser to avoid Valentine’s Day chaos elsewhere. He pauses in the lounge doorway to glance over his shoulder. “You might, however, wish to interrogate Minerva as to how enjoyable her nights have been of late.”

“Severus Snape, I’ll have your head for that!” Minerva shouts after him.

Severus ignores the threat while considering where Nizar is likely to be going. He then Apparates directly to the seventh floor corridor in front of the tapestry. It’s an effective place to lie in wait.

Nizar actually halts in place when he realizes that Severus is leaning against the hideous tapestry, doing an excellent job of blending in due to a partial Disillusionment Charm. “Hello?”

“Have you been avoiding me?” Severus asks as he drops the charm and steps forward.

“During the day? Not intentionally. It’s been an interesting week so far. Also, I need to go grade this…” Nizar holds up Granger’s essay. “This weapon. I imagine the words are even worse. She isn’t the only one who turned in an early essay to snatch up that extra credit I offered, either.”

“I wanted to apologize,” Severus makes himself say. “For Monday morning.”

Nizar lowers the essay, his eyes narrowing. “Do you even know why you’re apologizing?”

“Apparently, for once again impugning your sense of taste.”

“Yes. That would be it.” Nizar sighs and steps closer. “Severus. Your intelligence is astounding and your wit is stimulating, but to complement both, you are also a handsome man.”

“Rubbish,” Severus replies. “I am ghastly pale, sullen, sour-faced—”

“Do not describe Eileen Ruth Prince to me, Severus!” Nizar snaps in sudden anger. “I am well aware of what she looked like!”

Severus rears back in shock. They both came to a silent agreement years ago never to discuss his mother, who would have been one of the many Slytherins Nizar kept watch over during his time in the portrait. “I’m not.”

“You very much are,” Nizar retorts. “That woman was never happy, not from the moment she stepped into the Common Room at age eleven and left at age seventeen. She was the very definition of sullen, an attitude perfected by her parents, who were both unsociable, petulant bullies.

“Not once were you ever so unpleasant. You entered that Common Room as a bright-eyed, intelligent child with interest in life, and you had the proud smile of one who knows things others do not. Unlike your fucking grandparents, you never once lorded that knowledge over others, even when you could have. You expressed it, to Slughorn’s intense regret, but that isn’t the same thing.”

“Nizar—”

“I wasn’t fucking finished,” Nizar growls, walking forward until Severus is forced to retreat, his back pressed firmly against the tapestry. “You had a shine that Voldemort took away, but when you came back? You were broken, but you rebuilt yourself. You were more. Even when brooding, even at your most bitter moments, you burn inside in a way that makes your eyes reflect all of the passion of your intellect. When you smile, it’s like seeing a brief glimpse of all the waiting knowledge of the universe.”

Nizar steps back and gives him a brief, tired smile. “What have I possibly got to offer in the face of that?”

It takes a moment for Severus to find his voice. “Are you now impugning my sense of taste?”

“I—” Nizar’s expression doesn’t shutter and hide the whole of who he is, not that like terrible week before the Solstice. He just seems disconcerted. “I’m sorry. I should not have—I shouldn’t have said that. I need to go…” He sighs again. “I need to do my fucking job. I’ll see you at breakfast, Severus,” he says, and Disapparates.

Severus stares at the place where Nizar was standing, trying to figure out what in the hell just happened. A snide response in regards to what Nizar said was probably not the best decision, but it’s still such a fucking habit to be…vile.

He Apparates back to his own quarters and sits down heavily on the sofa. The glowing embers of the fire turn into spreading flame when the elves recognize that he is present and add wood to the coals.

If Severus utterly loathed his father, then he truly resented his mother. Tobias Snape’s memorable moments involved yelling, screaming, terrifying small children with no means to defend themselves, vomiting, and generally being a drunken nuisance whose only real value was pulling in unemployment benefits from the British government. Eileen Snape did not work, not in the Wizarding world or the Muggle one. She spent her time at home, and Severus was the only one there to catch the brunt of her resentment.

You only catch flies with vinegar. Try not to be such a sour child, Severus.

You’re so utterly dour! Why that little girl associates with you, I’ve no idea.

Os and Es on your O.W.L.s, then? I suppose that’s acceptable.

Your temper is the absolute worst! God, but you’re just like your father.

Severus feels his lip curl in angry contempt. “And I hate you too, you old dead bat.”

He gets up from the sofa and decides that he’s going to take a bath before dinner, the better to remove the fumes gathered from a full day of brewing performed by the competent as well as the inept. “I was right, though,” he mutters to himself after washing the worst of the cauldron smoke from his hair. “From one stupid blunder right into another.”

He can’t help but think of Nizar in that moment, the green in his grey eyes blazing as if it were on the point of magical fire. You burn inside in a way that makes your eyes reflect all of the passion of your intellect. When you smile, it’s like seeing a brief glimpse of all the waiting knowledge of the universe.

Severus gets out of the bath, dries and dresses, and then faces the accusatory face in the mirror. “I don’t see what you see, Nizar.” He eyes his straight, stark black hair that has finally grown back to the length he preferred before that damned cauldron incident in the summer of 1991; his gaze is piercing and sharp, not kind at all. There is no mistaking that his skin is ghostly pale, though at least it is clear, and has always done him the favor of not producing noticeable stubble until the day is all but over with.

One day, you’ll believe me.

He doubts that very much. However, that doesn’t mean he isn’t aware of exactly how to handle this situation.

 

*          *          *          *

 

Nizar resists the urge to bang his head against his own desk. Why, why, why does he keep sticking his foot in it? Gods, why? He can charm people he absolutely despises, but he can’t figure out how to stop saying exactly the wrong thing to someone he loves. He said he wouldn’t rush the man, and Severus was not ready to hear that—not any of it.

Job. You have a job. You are a teacher. Please act like one, Nizar thinks, and mentally sets everything aside to deal with later.

He looks up from piling essays on his desk to snatch the piece of paper that appears in the air. “And what are you, then?” He unfolds it to find Severus’s handwriting in black ink, and sucks in a surprised breath when he reads the words.

If I burn, then you are a radiance that never ceases.

That is really not helping him to focus on anything he needs to do this evening. At all.

Chapter Text

By that evening, Nizar has six total essays that have been turned in early. He saves Granger’s for last. If Salazar was that intrigued, there is a very real chance he’ll start reading it, get distracted, and forget to grade the rest of them.

Other things about the twentieth century that are stupid: grading scales and the legal requirement that students have a grade from each course at the end of the year. He understands the purpose of the O.W.L.s and N.E.W.T.s, even if he still thinks they’re ridiculous, but the rest of it is sheer nonsense and extra work. He only has two hundred fourteen students, and he knows how every single one of them is progressing—or not progressing.

Nizar reads Granger’s essay with both eyebrows stuck up near his hairline. Maybe he isn’t quite as aware of it as he should be in one particular instance. “Vicious” might actually be an understatement. He also isn’t teaching the magic she discusses in the latter half of her essay. Granger asked him about Mind Magic, but he hasn’t introduced the concepts she writes of to the fifth-years beyond the fact of the subject’s existence.

He retrieves a blank scroll, sits down with her essay rolled back to the beginning, and begins again. He isn’t even going to be able to grade this properly unless he takes notes.

The elves bring him dinner when it becomes blatantly obvious that he isn’t budging from his office. Nizar notices long enough to sling back a cup of tea that’s already turned cold and then forgets the tray is there again.

“Well, that just helped me finalize several decisions.” Nizar makes a copy of Granger’s essay, followed by several others, and Apparates directly to Minerva’s office to drop the largest scroll on her desk.

Minerva doesn’t jump in alarm, but she does peer up at him without raising her head. “Those who are polite use the door, Nizar. They do not Apparate directly into my office.”

“Yes, but if I’d used the door, others would know I was here, and at the moment I’d like to keep this between us,” Nizar replies, smiling. “Tea?”

Minerva leans back and presses her hands to her hips until her spine cracks. “Oh, that’s a marvelous idea. What time is it?”

“Two hours after dinner. Did you remember it?” Nizar asks.

She sighs and drops her quill. “No. I was caught up in grading and didn’t notice at all.”

“I thought so. I did the same thing.” Nizar calls for Dobby, who is starting to look resigned to the idea that he fetches food for a bunch of idiots who forget to eat. The fact that there are two cups on the tray is a blatant hint.

“Do join me,” Minerva says dryly. “If I am not the only one neglecting such things, better to do it now or be hounded by a great number of house-elves.”

They have tea, which is a green—an interesting change from the usual black. Nizar tries to enjoy the puffed bits of pastries, stuffed with meats, cheeses, or cheeses and vegetables, but there is something about the flavors among several of them that remind him of something he doesn’t like. It isn’t a bad flavor; he just can’t identify it, and it’s off-putting.

Minerva motions to the bound scroll on her desk. “This looks to be Granger’s mysterious thirty-two foot essay. The rest of staff is already whispering about it in horror. Why have you brought it to me, Nizar? I see quite enough horror, I assure you.”

“This is a copy of the original, which I would literally frame and hang on the wall if I wouldn’t need to drop it from the height of a tower just to view it all.” Nizar smiles. “It’s my argument for pushing Hermione Granger up from fifth-year Defence into the sixth-year N.E.W.T. class.”

Minerva frowns. “We don’t really do such things, Nizar.”

“Oh? So we stifle our students and ignore their accomplishments instead of allowing them to demonstrate their strengths?” Nizar rolls his eyes. “Please. That’s the governing board speaking, and they can all go fuck one of those Muggle blenders.”

She puts her napkin to her lips while trying not to laugh. “Nizar, that was a terrible thing to say. At least have pity on those poor blenders! Tell me why Miss Granger should be moved into a higher class when it’s already the second month of the latter half of the term.”

“Her wandwork is improving—and I mean she’s going to be in the very small selection of students who are excellent duelists,” Nizar says. “She still needs a push, but as of last Saturday she is almost there. I do not pity any Death Eater who ever decides to get in her way.”

Minerva nods. “Hagrid has been bragging on her since that unofficial lesson. What else?”

“Granger’s first essay was twenty-four feet, turned in early. Not only was it the best in her entire year, it was N.E.W.T-level work. On the first day that I was willing to accept my February assignment early in exchange for extra credit, she and several others turned in their second essays. Aside from its size, Granger’s is once again N.E.W.T.-level work on a N.E.W.T.-level subject that I’ve introduced in fifth-year by name, but not by concept or use. Not only do I believe it will be the best in all of fifth-year, I don’t doubt it will take top marks for sixth-year, too.”

“You really should set limits, Nizar,” Minerva says, eying the scroll in concern.

Nizar makes a dismissive noise. “I really shouldn’t. Most of them are lazy and barely scrape by with the required sixteen feet. It is not difficult to write sixteen feet over a period of two months.”

“Hmm.” Minerva smirks at him. “But you want something out of this arrangement, too.”

“You’re learning from Salazar.” Nizar smiles back. “My twin Weasley assistants graduate at the end of term. Miss Granger turns seventeen on nineteenth September of this year. She’s my best candidate by far to replace them, as I know she could keep up with both her own courses, anything I might ask her to do to assist me with the lower classes, and any plausible apprenticeship she might ask for. It would be very convenient to have Miss Granger in the seventh-year N.E.W.T. class next term.”

Minerva looks surprised. “You believe Miss Granger to be capable of doing all of sixth-year’s Defence work, as well as taking her Defence O.W.L.s with the rest of the fifth-years?”

“Absolutely. She works better under pressure—she doesn’t have time to panic about it if her hours are already filled with things to do,” Nizar replies. “You’ve noticed it, too, or you wouldn’t have signed off on that Time-Turner in her third year.”

“That’s true,” Minerva admits. “Her only fumble was taking on Divination and Muggle Studies. The former did not suit her, given Sybil’s…er, flamboyant nature. The latter was unnecessary, but she insists on continuing it for career-related reasons.”

“And Salazar says Hogwarts’ Muggle Studies is a load of hogwash. Pun not intended.”

Minerva looks thoughtful. “Salazar would be in the position to know, wouldn’t he?”

“If I thought he could do it without eating his way through a stone wall in frustration, I’d tell Sal to teach both classes just so they bloody well learn something.” Nizar sighs. “We’re digressing, though. I have several students who I need to shift upwards, and I’m not certain how Filius will feel about discussing Miss Chang.”

“Miss Chang is doing that well?” Minerva asks, raising both eyebrows in polite surprise.

“She is, but then, she was given a rather harsh reason to succeed.” Minerva nods in grim agreement. “Miss Chang might be ready to take her Defence N.E.W.T. at the end of term, but I’m not calling it a certainty. What I do know is that Miss Chang’s skills are moving past the sixth-year curriculum—not to Miss Granger’s extent, but she’s still doing it—and she needs to be in an environment where she’ll feel like she can continue to learn. That’s the seventh-year class.”

“You are plotting to restack the deck, aren’t you?” Minerva murmurs, pouring herself a fresh cup of tea. “Well. Only these two? You don’t intend on shuffling any more students about?”

Nizar places a second, twenty-foot essay on Minerva’s desk. “Yes, but it’s a student whose family would take some very careful diplomatic negotiating in order to convince them it’s the right decision. I have no wish to be murdered.”

Minerva unrolls the scroll just far enough to read the name. “Ah, yes. I understand exactly what you mean. Should I intervene?”

“Not yet. I have a few ideas.” Nizar smiles again. “There is also Miss Lovegood.”

“Miss Lovegood?” Minerva asks in astonishment. “She’s succeeding well enough to be placed in a fifth-year course? I can barely keep her focused in class as it is!”

“It’s very hard to focus when no one has ever taught you how to know the difference between what a normal magician can see, and what an Elemental Magician can see,” Nizar says. “Unfortunately, we don’t have any Elemental Magicians aside from her. We can give her the old lectures on Elemental Magical Theory, but that isn’t the same thing as hearing about it from someone who shares in those experiences.”

“I see.”

“Besides, right now that isn’t the point. Academically, Miss Lovegood does still need the push, and I would absolutely not allow her to sit the Defence O.W.L. But in other matters? Yes, she needs this. Thank goodness she belongs to Filius and not Pomona, or I’d have a bloody war on my hands.”

“I should possibly discuss it with Albus,” Minerva starts to say.

Nizar shakes his head. “It isn’t his decision. You’re Miss Granger’s Head of House, Minerva. It’s your decision and yours alone. It’s the same for Miss Weasley—you have final say. Albus Dumbledore doesn’t even sign paperwork on the matter.”

Minerva looks at the scrolls on her desk. “Am I to read these before making a decision?”

Nizar inclines his head. “If it will help you be comfortable with the idea, then certainly.”

His conversation with Filius goes much better than he expected. “Do you truly think Miss Chang can do it?” Filius asks, looking surprisingly hopeful. “I realize the N.E.W.T.s may not be possible, but the rest?”

“If you’d asked me that question in November, I would have said no. Absolutely not,” Nizar says. “Now? Yes.”

Filius nods. “And Miss Lovegood?”

“Not the O.W.L.s,” Nizar answers, and Filius breathes a sigh of relief. He’s seen the same difficulties, then.

“Good lad,” Filius says, patting Nizar’s arm. “Thank you for looking after my Ravenclaws, both of them. Miss Chang has had a rough year of it, and I’m so very glad to hear that she’s beginning to recover. Miss Lovegood, I think, could desperately use the boost in confidence. You have my permission—oh. Should I inform them, or will you be doing so?”

“You’re their Head of House, Filius. I think it best if they hear it from you. Besides, you’re the one in control of their schedules.”

Nizar is still lurking in his office near curfew when Minerva steps into the classroom, shutting the door behind her. “You almost missed me for the evening.” His office hours ended at first curfew, but one of his young Hufflepuffs delivered an early essay before darting off to bed.

Minerva strides right into his officer before waving the larger of the two scrolls she’s carrying in his face. “I know why your brother looked so shocked earlier, and that’s aside from the fact that you could have broken his jaw if you’d hit him harder with this essay!”

Nizar smiles. “I take it you had an enlightening evening.”

“Yes!” Minerva huffs, scowling. “This is brilliant madness.”

“It is, yes. She’s entirely correct, by the way.”

Minerva narrows her eyes. “And she asked no one about this? No one at all?”

“No one. I suspected in early January that Miss Granger was up to something involving Mind Magic, given how she reacted to something I said about it, but this is a lot more thorough than I expected. Now do you understand why I want her in my N.E.W.T. class?”

“Absolutely, yes. If anyone calls you on it, send them to me. I’ll roast their bloody ears!” Minerva declares in a thick rolling burr. “I’ve already confirmed her updated timetable, to be delivered in the morning.” She visibly calms herself, smoothing down the front of her robes. “As to our other Gryffindor—whatever means you attempt in order to convince the family, I’ll support you.”

“I’m glad you said that, because the process has already begun.” Nizar ducks when Minerva tries to hit him over the head with the copy of Granger’s essay. “You said you approved!”

“But you could have waited,” Minerva says in a stern voice, but her eyes are sparkling with amusement. “Presumptive man. Do actually try to get some rest tonight.”

“And you as well…if Salazar lets you,” he adds when she’s almost left his classroom. Minerva turns, delivers one more fierce scowl, and slams the classroom door behind her.

“Dobby?” Nizar waits for the house-elf to show up, brushing crumbs from his spindly fingers. “Can you find Miss Granger and tell her that I need to see her in my office?” Nizar checks his watch. “This may extend beyond the Prefect’s curfew, so if she’s concerned, reassure her that I’ll escort her back before Argus and his insane feline try to attempt anything involving thumbscrews.”

“Dobby will be doing that, and Dobby will remember to leave the classroom door open!” Dobby says, and vanishes.

Nizar is reading through the second half of Granger’s essay for the third time when he hears someone knock on the office door. “Come in.”

Miss Granger opens the door, peering around it nervously. “Sir?”

“Come in please, and yes, definitely shut the door. Considering the entire school is aware of my preferences, I don’t think we need to worry about accusations of improper behavior.”

She smiles a little. “Fred and George wanted to come anyway, but I talked them out of it, sir.” She notices what he’s holding and blanches. “Is something wrong with my essay?”

“No, though it’s certainly dual purpose. If I’d hit Salazar with this any harder, I might have fractured his jaw.”

Granger gives him an odd look. “Do I want to know why you’re hitting your brother with my essay, sir?”

“He started it.” Nizar rolls the essay back up and puts it on his desk. “There is nothing wrong with this essay, and so many things astoundingly correct with it that I wanted to discuss them with you.”

“Okay.” Granger seems to be bracing herself.

“In particular, you go into the specifics of Mind Magic, though you still refer to them as Occlumency and Legilimency. You discuss blood magic links, and then relate them all to your missing friend.”

Granger looks down at the floor and nods. “I did, sir. Should I not have?”

“Why does this school seem bent on encouraging its students not to think?” Nizar sighs. “Dobby?” When the house-elf reappears, he requests tea for two. Dobby glances curiously at Granger and pops out again.

Granger finally looks at him after she’s holding a teacup. “You don’t think I’m wrong.”

“Actually, I think you’re brilliant.”

She flushes. “I wasn’t expecting that. Not from…well. No, I won’t say that. It’s not fair, and I know it isn’t true.”

“Not from a Slytherin?” Nizar smiles when she nods, looking guilty and miserable. “Some concerns are harder to dismiss, though yes, I am aware that you know better. I wouldn’t have extended the offer of being my assistant, much less offering a potential apprenticeship, if you didn’t. I truly do not care about House affiliation beyond desiring to protect those of my brother’s House, children who went without such a thing for far too long.”

Granger frowns. “I don’t see how the Slytherins went unprotected, sir.”

“You don’t.” Nizar thinks about what he’s witnessed in recent months. “Yes, I could see how you could make the connections you did in this essay and still miss an obvious one. The House prejudices will not be remedied overnight. Before I decided to literally fall out of a portrait, Miss Granger, how many Slytherin faculty members dwelt in this school?”

A line appears between her eyebrows as she considers it. “Just…oh. Just one, sir.”

“Exactly. Slytherin House also boasted the smallest student population overall. They were outnumbered, they knew it, and knew they were targets because of it.”

“So they decided to target everyone else first?” Granger asks doubtfully.

“Offence is part of defence,” Nizar reminds her. “They are not disparate concepts, no matter what your rubbish Defence textbooks said.”

“All right.” Granger sips her tea. “You didn’t just bring me here to talk about Houses, though.”

“No. I am absolutely impressed that you took the events of the Triwizard Cup, tied them to dreams your friend suffered from, connected the dots back to Voldemort, and then figured out that Mind Magic would have been your friend’s best line of defence against such a connection.”

“Would have been?” Granger glances down at the floor again. “That sounds more like dead instead of misplaced, sir.”

“My apologies. I didn’t mean to imply that at all. Everything I stated to you before about your friend’s well-being is still true.” Nizar taps his fingers on his desk. This is quickly heading into territory he didn’t yet expect to confront. “You asked me questions about the subject in January, but have you attempted Mind Magic, Miss Granger? Shielding, in particular?”

“It’s a subject of Defence, so yes, though I started when Umbridge—Professor Umbridge—that woman—” Granger winces. “Well—”

“You were studying on your own time to make up for a complete lack of classroom education,” Nizar says for her. “Relax; your opinion of Dolores Umbridge is shared by every teacher within this school, even if the others are being circumspect. Dolores was a terrible person as a student—yes, I observed such—and she never grew out of it. To be quite frank, I’m certain she revels in being horrible.”

Granger nods. “And…at the time, I was doing it to distract myself, sir. Ron was a lot more confident than I was about Harry being…that he would be all right. But everyone said Harry would be okay during the Tournament, and that ended with Harry being kidnapped by a Port Key, Voldemort returning, Cedric dying, and Harry having to duel Voldemort. Harry readily admitted that the only reason he escaped is because their wands met in priori incantatum, like yours and Professor Salazar’s did during that duel at breakfast a few weeks ago.”

“Properly, it’s priori incantamentum,” Nizar corrects her. “Previous spell or enchantment. Incantatum is a declension of incantatus, which means enchantment in the sense of delight, not magic.”

Granger finally looks up, scowling. “Why does everyone keep teaching us incorrect Latin?”

“Centuries of habit,” Nizar replies dryly. “Miss Granger, due to the lovely standards the governing board inflicted, I have been reserving Mind Magic for N.E.W.T. classes, if only not to overwhelm all of you. But if you’re actively attempting to learn it, then I’d really like to know if you’ve had the opportunity to practice.”

Granger shakes her head. “No, sir. I don’t know any practicing Legilimens, and since I wasn’t supposed to be doing this in the first place…”

“Who said that?” Nizar asks in disbelief.

“I had to get the books from the Restricted Section. You’re supposed to have a teacher’s permission to borrow books from that area.” Granger blushes, though to her credit she doesn’t lower her gaze to stare at the floor again.

“And so you forged a pass to gain what you required. Very good,” Nizar says, pleased. “Ten points to Gryffindor for refusing to allow a ridiculous rule keep you from knowledge.”

Granger stares at him. “You just gave me points for breaking the rules.”

“I did, didn’t I? I’ll have to remember to do that more often. I keep forgetting the points system exists,” Nizar explains. “We didn’t concern ourselves with points a thousand years ago.”

Hogwarts: A History claimed that the Points Counters have always been there.” Granger seems to be biting back a smile. “Professor Salazar seemed terribly insulted by that idea.”

Nizar laughs. “I’m still amazed that Sal made it past the second page of that book. In the meantime: Miss Granger, within this school there are at least four dozen students who practice Mind Magic shielding aside from my N.E.W.T. students. As for Legilimency, your imbecilic Ministry has declared that one can only perform that magic if one is seventeen or older. That gives you the choice of shielding practice with myself, Professor Salazar, Professor Snape, or your Headmaster. It’s a shame none of the female teachers have the training, though your Head of House is learning it from Salazar. You could wait and allow her to test your shielding, if you’d prefer, but I don’t know when those lessons will be finished.”

“Practice.” Granger blinks a few times. “I—well. You’re my Defence teacher, aren’t you?”

“And not nearly as terrifying as the other available options?” Nizar asks, curious as to her opinion.

“Professor Dumbledore doesn’t tell us everything, even when there are times when I think he should have.” Granger’s eyes shift over to stare resolutely at the wall. “Professor Snape has, uh, calmed down a bit since his, er, relationship with you, but he was initially terrifying all the time, so calm is a relative term. Your brother is a Founder and is also sort of, uhm…imposing.”

Nizar didn’t expect Granger to have that opinion of Dumbledore. Interesting. “Do you know how I would test your shielding, Miss Granger?”

Granger swallows and nods. “We would face each other and look each other in the eyes. You would raise your wand and cast the Legilimens spell.”

“I don’t need a wand. A wand is used if one prefers to attack rather than simply look.” Nizar waits for Granger to digest that. “I also do not dig through anyone’s memories without permission, never fear. I find it very ill-mannered. We would meet each other’s eyes, yes, and I would merely attempt to slip past your shields. I will try not to pry; this exercise is about keeping me out, not about me trying to discover what Gryffindors talk about between classes.”

“Quidditch,” Granger says in an immediate, despairing tone. “It’s O.W.L. year, and it’s always Quidditch!”

“Not even sex can displace Quidditch?” Nizar asks. “What are teenagers actually doing these days?”

Granger turns an interesting shade of reddish-purple. “Not that. At least, not me. No, thank you.”

“Sorry. However, as I’ve ruffled you, this is an opportune time to test your shielding ability. If you still want to,” Nizar adds.

Granger hurriedly places her teacup back onto the tray. “Yes, sir. Please.”

Nizar tilts his head from side to side until tendons release with pleasing pops. “All right.” He peers into Granger’s dark brown eyes, observing flecks of gold and yellow that others might not be capable of seeing. Then he gently dips beyond that, exploring the shielding she’s created.

“It’s a book. An endless book.” Nizar grins. “That’s an amazing idea.” He turns one of those mental pages and finds the tiny text from one of the Oxford dictionaries, though the words are nonsense patchworks of passages from different books and resource materials.

Granger is frowning while he flips pages. “That feels very odd. I can tell that something isn’t right, but…”

“That’s all that you should be feeling. I did say I wouldn’t pry.” Nizar blinks away the mental imagery. “The next step would be for me to try to find a way in.” He pauses. “Books do burn, you know.”

“Real ones do,” Granger replies, her eyes narrowing at the implicit challenge. “You have my permission, sir. Try. I’d like to know if I could keep out someone who really wanted in.”

It takes a lot of careful mental manipulation of those pages, but he does get past them…just in time to greet the mental image of a sparkling gold wand thrust in his face, held by a child with brilliant emerald green eyes. “Absolutely not,” the child orders, and Nizar gets shoved out so hard that his chair slides backwards.

“Oh.” Nizar takes a moment to breathe. “You even knew to craft a secondary layer of shielding. A person you think of as a protector. That was unexpected.”

“Did it work?” Granger asks. “You seem pale, sir.”

“Dobby!” Nizar waits for the house-elf to appear. “Go kidnap my brother, please. I need his assistance. Also, if you need a break, tell me to ask for Filky or one of the others.”

Dobby looks insulted. “Dobby likes helping his friend Nizar,” he retorts before he vanishes.

“Cheeky bugger,” Nizar murmurs, smiling. He finishes off his tea and shakes off the tingling aftereffects of magic work. Granger’s defences would require a wand if he tried harder, but that was unexpected enough that he’s not sure he can get past it.

“I, er, did say Salazar Slytherin was intimidating,” Granger says in a quiet voice.

“Is the relationship between Ginevra Weasley and the twins intimidating?” he asks.

Granger shakes her head. “Well—no. They’re just siblings.”

Nizar nods. “Exactly. Think of us more in those terms, and he is suddenly far less intimidating. Also, do recall that I hit him in the face with your brilliant essay.”

Granger is smiling when Dobby returns with Salazar. “One kidnapped Slytherin, as promised, Professor Slytherin!” Dobby chirps before leaving again.

“Oh, it’s the girl who crafted the lethal essay!” Salazar greets Granger with a pleased grin. “My face is bruised, I’ll have you know.”

“Is that a compliment?” Granger asks warily.

“Absolutely,” Salazar promises. “Nizar, what did you want? I’m trying to court a Lioness tonight, and you interrupted me.”

Nizar lifts an eyebrow again. “I don’t think what the two of you are doing counts as courtship so much as shagging like cats in heat. Salazar,” he says, noting that Miss Granger blushes again. She knew already; she’s just never heard it spoken plainly before. “Miss Granger here is a self-taught practitioner of Mind Magic who, until tonight, never had opportunity to test her skills. She has some very interesting defences in place, and I’d like you to take a look.”

“A self-taught practitioner of Mind Magic?” Salazar peers down at Granger. “There are not many who can do that. A student usually requires a guide.”

Granger bites her lip. “I read a lot. Some of the descriptions were really detailed, sir.”

“Well, then.” Salazar Conjures a wooden chair from Nizar’s quarters and sits down across from Granger. “Miss Granger, might I have your permission to see what you’re capable of?”

“Siblings,” Granger mutters under her breath before she nods. “Yes, sir. Though, er, if you succeed, try not to pry too deeply? Some of it’s a bit personal.”

“Miss Granger: all of it is personal,” Salazar counters gently.

“You don’t need a wand, either?” Granger asks when Salazar doesn’t produce one.

“A wand is used if you think you’re going to be facing a real mental battle. This is infiltration, not a war.” Salazar rears back in surprise a moment later. “You shortened that blasted thirty-two foot essay?”

“Uhm—”

“No, I’m not in yet,” Salazar reassures her. “I just found pieces of it in your intriguing book shielding, which is resistant to fire, water, ice, rot, and claw. You value books; you protect them. You imbue them with invulnerable properties the moment you claim them as your own. It’s no surprise to me that your barrier works so well.”

“I’m giving her perfect credit for April’s essay, too,” Nizar says to distract Granger. “She’s bloody well earned it.”

“You can’t do that!” Granger blurts out, appalled. “I have to write another essay!”

“Hah! Got past the books!” Salazar crows, and then abruptly falls silent. “Interesting choice.”

Granger winces. “He’s my friend.”

“With some very particular attributes.” Salazar turns his head away, breaking the connection. “I’d need a wand to get past that, and I’m not going to push that hard, not right now. In fact, I’m not certain I would succeed.”

“What do you mean, ‘particular attributes?’” Granger looks torn between curiosity and being miffed by a potential insult.

“You think of your friend as a guardian, and a very good one.” Salazar considers her thoughtfully. “How did you meet your friend, Miss Granger?”

“On the Hogwarts train, but we weren’t friends until Hallowe’en of that year.” Granger looks down at the floor again. “I’d overheard Ron Weasley saying things that were…they weren’t very nice. He was right, but he was still a prat about it. I got upset and hid in the bathroom. That evening, Professor Quirrell let a troll into the school. Everyone was ordered back to their House dormitories, but Ron and Harry both realized I didn’t know. They came to find me, sir, and they saved me. Ron is brilliant at chess, but when it came to helping people…that’s Harry. It was usually him prodding us into doing the right thing, even if it was scary.”

Salazar nods before he looks at Nizar. “What are you going to do?”

Nizar shrugs, feeling a bewildered sort of helplessness. “I don’t know. You can go now, though. You did mention a Lioness.”

“That I did.” Salazar smiles at Granger as he stands up and Vanishes the chair back to its previous location. “You did an excellent job, Miss Granger. If you continue like this, my brother will teach you all the ways in which we once used Mind Magic, and why we didn’t consider them separate lessons at all.”

Granger waits until Salazar leaves the office, using the door instead of a house-elf or Apparition. “What does he mean about—about you doing something?”

Nizar holds her gaze. “Can you think upon those memories of the troll? Can you hold them in a linear order and show them to me?”

Her expression twists up. “I—I can try. What do I need to do?”

“Just think on them,” Nizar repeats, and then he can see those events, just barely peeking out beyond pages and pages of shielding.

A lavatory, a girl crying—Miss Granger, twelve years old and still small for her age. Then comes the troll; right behind it are two eleven-year-old boys, also so very young and small. Ron Weasley definitely had one hell of a growth spurt over the intervening years. The green-eyed child did not manage the same. The two boys work together with simple charms, assisted by Granger when she gets over the shock of a sudden case of mountain troll. Between the three of them, the troll is unconscious before teachers arrive.

“You claimed it had been your idea to keep your friends out of trouble?” Nizar smiles. “Cunning magician.”

“Er, yes.” Granger looks to be on the verge of wincing. “You’re not going to tell anyone, are you?”

“No. I wouldn’t be complimenting you otherwise. You recognized that given the situation, no one would believe your friends if they said they’d only come to find you, so you claimed responsibility. That’s a very brave thing to do, no matter your House affiliation. You’re a good person and an excellent student, Miss Granger, and that combination isn’t as common as it should be. You really are well on your way to drowning your enemies in paperwork, and better still, it’s well-done paperwork.”

Granger beams at the string of compliments. “Thank you, sir. Though, you still haven’t answered my question about what sort of decision your brother meant in regards to me.”

Nizar smiles. “Cunning of a Ravenclaw, ferocity of a Hufflepuff, self-preservation of a Slytherin, and the burning fire of a Gryffindor. I can see why you would have been friends with Mister Potter.”

Mention of the child brings sadness to her eyes. “Thank you.”

“Come with me,” Nizar says, standing. “I think this is a decision that I’m feeling out as I go.”

“Where are we going?” Granger asks. “Should I bring the tea?”

“The house-elves will come and claim it the moment we turn our backs.” Nizar pauses. “This is an act of trust. Never do what I am about to show you unless I’ve invited you alone to do so, or it is a true emergency.”

Granger narrows her eyes, suspicious for all of the right reasons instead of the wrong ones. “All right, sir.”

Nizar flips the cast-iron S on his door and opens it. “This way.”

Chapter Text

Granger steps into Nizar’s quarters and stops short. “But—the classroom!”

“I designed this entire section of the castle to be what I wanted, and to provide what I needed.” Nizar gestures for her to shut the door. “That included living space for myself and my children. Having my quarters, office, and classroom clustered together was convenient when they were younger.”

“Oh.” Granger glances at Nygell, who is resting on his perch in a sulk instead of lingering in the Owlery. The two portrait frames for Hedwig the snowy owl are empty.

Then she notices the other three portrait frames. “I’ve seen them about the school, lurking in other portraits! Hello!”

“Hello, young one,” Galiena says, a greeting mirrored by Brice. Elfric twists his face up and finally greets her in Old English.

Granger surprises Nizar by answering Elfric in the same tongue, though her accent is appalling. “You’re studying Old English, but not Latin?” Nizar asks.

She offers an apologetic shrug. “Fellona speaks Old English if you ask nicely, so I’ve been able to practice a bit. She doesn’t know Latin, sir, and I wasn’t sure which portraits I could ask.”

Or which teachers is an obvious, silent addition. “No, Fellona and Latin never did get on. Miss Granger, this is Galiena, my eldest, followed by Brice, then Elfric, who is finding it hardest to adjust to modern English. They’re all Parselmouths, like Salazar and myself, and Elfric prefers the easier tongue over the one that is a melting pot of historical insanity.”

“I get to see them before anyone else,” Granger whispers, her eyes bright with delight. “It’s wonderful to meet you all. Professor Slytherin says you have differing Masteries that you’ll discuss with the Defence classes next month.”

“That we do, Miss Granger. I’ve a Mastery in Magical Art and A Magical Mastery in the Written Word, though I’m no slouch when it comes to defending myself,” Galiena says proudly.

“Er—how?”

“Because she’s a werewolf,” Brice says in a dry voice. “Even when it is not the full moon, she’s very strong, and could break any one of us in half if she’d ever felt like doing so.”

“You deserved being bitten,” Galiena retorts.

“And it didn’t work!” Brice responds with mock-outrage. “Father’s potion worked too well. I had to go to the trouble of learning to become a wolf Animagus!”

“Oh, the difficulties you faced.” Galiena rolls her eyes. “Don’t let his whinging fool you, Miss Granger. Brice still holds the title of youngest magician to master the Animagus form. He was ten.”

Granger is definitely biting back a smile. “I didn’t realize anyone could master Transfiguration so young.”

“He didn’t master Transfiguration. That is actually not quite the same thing,” Professor Slytherin says. “I’ve a Mastery in Metamorph Magic, but not Transfiguration. Animagus Magic is the aspect of understanding the inner self in order to create true shapeshifting ability. Metamorph Magic is about understanding the nature of the self’s physical structure, combined with an excellent ability to focus on an appearance you want to attain. Transfiguration is about an understanding of the physical structure of other things, and changing them from what they are into something new.”

“One can be a Master of Transfiguration and of one of the two shifting disciplines, but not all three,” Galiena decides to add.

Granger gives Nizar a surprised look. “I’ve never heard Professor McGonagall mention anything like that. Is it N.E.W.T. level?”

“I’m not certain Professor McGonagall knows, and when she finds out, everyone who understands Scots Gaelic is going to be looking for a place to hide.” One thing at a time, though. Nizar would rather Minerva master Mind Magic first. “The reason I asked you in here is twofold, and still requires trust. Bear in mind that if I murder you, I don’t have an assistant for next term.”

Granger lets out a startled giggle before she presses her lips together. “Yes, sir.”

Nizar decides that Dobby is just going to have to deal with the potential insult. “Filky?”

The house-elf Apparates into the room only seconds later. “Filky was beginning to think the Professor Slytherin had forgotten Filky today!” she says, indignant.

“No, but trying to placate six hundred house-elves all in one day is not easy,” Nizar replies. “Please go ask Professor Snape if he is available. If so, tell him I need to see him in my quarters regarding a student matter. Please only return to let me know if he can’t do so.” As far as code phrases go, that one is very simple. Severus will know that Nizar is in company that requires professionalism rather than the slight lowering of his guard that he will allow Minerva or Salazar to witness in private.

Granger wanders the sitting room while Nizar waits to hear back from either Severus or Filky. Nygell investigates her fingers without once threatening to peck at them before he scoots over on his perch to demand scratchings and affection.

“Did you bribe my owl, Miss Granger?” Nizar asks, smiling.

“Nonsense, sir,” Granger refutes. “Perhaps he just likes women better than men.”

“Not given what Professor McGonagall had to threaten Nygell with in order to retrieve my mail.” Nizar has never seen the owl act affectionate towards anyone else. Maybe he’ll give Nygell to Miss Granger and find one that’s a bit less spiteful. Or perhaps he’ll stick with his plan to convince a Kneazle to learn Apparition.

“Right.” Granger gives Nygell one final pat, looks at Hedwig’s empty portrait, and then studies his children’s portraits again. “I don’t miss my parents so much,” she suddenly confides. “I like them and all, and they indulge my love of books, and of me being a witch—magician, I mean. But they are both perfectly normal, ordinary Muggle dentists. I wasn’t inclined towards being ordinary even before we knew about magic and Hogwarts. But Harry is…he’s different.”

Granger’s eyes widen when Nizar raises an eyebrow. “Not romance! Not that way! I mean…I miss him in a way I don’t miss them. Like he’s…family. More than my real family.”

“Oh—bloody hell,” Nizar swears, pinching the bridge of his nose. No matter how this experiment turns out, he knows what he’s decided on. “Given that my children were all adopted, Miss Granger, I do understand what you mean. We Slytherins tend to claim things and not let go. Call it a character flaw.”

“I don’t think that’s a flaw at all, sir,” Granger says, but she’s still giving him a startled look over the swearing when Severus Apparates into the room.

Severus glances from Nizar to Granger. “Is the student matter that of unusual detentions?” he asks, giving Granger a cool, appraising look. Granger winces a little under Severus’s regard, but doesn’t retreat. That’s a good sign.

“Not a detention, but it is a student matter, yes. She has some of the most incredible mental shielding I’ve ever come across—well, outside of mine and Salazar’s, but that is not something she would have been in the position to recreate.”

Severus’s voice emerges as that intriguing roll of smoke he does so well. “Does she?”

“What is it?” Granger asks Nizar, ignoring Severus’s displeasure in favor of academic curiosity. “Your shielding?”

“My first layer is not insurmountable, but it is unpleasant. My second layer of shielding is the lethal stare of a basilisk’s unlidded gaze.”

Granger’s mouth falls open. Then she says, “No offence, sir, but you’re mad. Why on earth would you want to do such a thing?”

“Because…” Nizar frowns. “Because I do not like anyone rooting around in my thoughts unless I’ve invited them to do so.”

Severus’s gaze turns sharp. “What was that?”

“There was…something. There is a reason I decided desperate and permanent measures were in order. I don’t recall anything else, though. I’ll ask Salazar later; we’re working on a different problem right now.”

“Such as?” Severus sounds unruffled, but Nizar can hear the wariness that others would miss.

Nizar looks Granger in the eyes. “I said this was about trust? This is also about necessity. You can say no to what I’m about to propose, and that is as far as things will go.”

“What if I don’t say no?” Granger asks.

“Then if you succeed, I will give you something you’ve been looking for,” Nizar replies. “But only if you succeed.”

Granger isn’t foolish. She pales a bit, but doesn’t flinch. “You want him to test my shields, don’t you?”

“Yes.”

“Why would I be doing this?” Severus asks, affecting boredom to disguise what is either suspicion or anger.

“Salazar and I could not get past her secondary layer of defence when she asked us to try,” Nizar explains. “You’re one of the most powerful practitioners of that aspect of Mind Magic I’ve ever known.”

“And of course, safety would be of utmost concern,” Severus murmurs, frowning. “Why?”

“Because I think if we do not control these circumstances, she’s going to figure it out for herself,” Nizar answers. “I’m sure you recall the deadly weapon I used to hit Salazar with this morning?”

Severus eyes Granger again. “What did she spend thirty-two feet writing about?”

“The best way for someone with a blood link caused by a Horcrux to defend themselves from the person who crafted the Horcrux in the first place.”

“How the—how do you know of those things, Miss Granger?” Severus snaps just as Granger asks, “What’s a Horcrux?”

Nizar points at Severus. “You can read that essay later and find out, as it will answer every single question you have.” He points at Granger. “I am so very glad you do not actually know what a Horcrux is, even though I’m also concerned that you do not know what a Horcrux is. However, that can wait. Severus?”

Severus glares at him, a thought lurking behind his eyes. She didn’t overhear it from another?

No. Hence, the dangers involved in guessing.

“Very well,” Severus says aloud, giving Granger a cold look. “I use a wand, Miss Granger.”

“I know what that means, sir,” Granger whispers, but then she thrusts her chin forward and glares right back at Severus. “Try it. You have my permission.”

“This should be fun. Miss Granger has some deep-set anger in regards to you, Severus.” Nizar might be putting it too mildly, but Severus deserves the warning. Hermione Granger is still infuriated with Severus on the child’s behalf, even though it’s in regards to matters long over and done with.

Severus pulls his wand from his sleeve. The incantation is silent, but Nizar can feel it by the change in the air. Granger plants her feet as her glare hardens into a furious scowl.

One to plan, one to scheme, one to defend, Nizar thinks, remembering Weasley’s skill at chess. Granger is definitely the schemer of the triad, though he suspects she would likely deny it to her dying breath.

The connection is broken not by success, but by Severus literally being thrown backwards. He lands on the floor with a muffled curse.

“Well?” Nizar asks.

Severus gets back on his feet, dusting off his robe and trousers. “I will admit it: I’m impressed, and I never want to try to read my way through that first mental barrier ever again.” He notices the wide grin on Granger’s face. “Please do not become even more insufferable over this.”

Granger rubs at her forehead. “Is insufferable some sort of code for telling me to shut up and let others blunder their way through answering a question, since it’s obvious I know the answer already?”

Severus raises both eyebrows and glances at Nizar. “She really has been paying attention in your classes, hasn’t she?”

“I wouldn’t have offered the apprenticeship opportunity if she hadn’t. Besides, one should be utterly ready to defend themselves if one is considering politics.” Nizar gestures for Granger to wait while he goes into his study. He wouldn’t have this to offer at all but for a visit from a foreign elf just the other day, wishing to know if Nizar would like his property returned.

The moment Nizar realized what the elves in Burgos were giving him, he had such an intense feeling of awkwardness that he’d locked all of those letters and scrolls into the box he’d retrieved from the Black Lake. Now he’s glad that the elves were so faithful. Nearly one thousand years is a long time to safeguard something, even for elves.

Nizar returns to the sitting room to find Granger and Severus trading evaluating looks when they each think the other won’t notice. “Hold out your hands, Miss Granger.” When she does so, he places a very large stack of bound letters into her arms and taps it with his wand.

“What is this and what did you do?” Miss Granger asks, staring down at envelopes that are of unfamiliar construction to anyone raised in this century.

“They’re letters, and what I did was to temporarily remove certain pertinent information,” Nizar explains. “However, they are labeled so that they can be read in chronological order.”

Granger spies the neatly detailed number one on the corner of the nearest stack of envelopes and nods. “All right.”

Nizar adds a much smaller bundle of three scrolls bound into one roll. “Don’t lose those. I have no way to create copies because of the magic that was used to make them.”

“Okay.” Granger swallows, as if realizing that she’s being granted an incredible favor. Gods, but she has no idea. “I take it I’m to read them?”

“Yes. Letters first, in their numbered order, then the scrolls. Once you’ve done that, you won’t need that missing information to understand the nature of what you’re being trusted with…but you can then also cast Secreta Revelare.” Nizar gives her a stern look. “Only cast the charm once you’ve read them all. Afterwards, no matter what time it is, you may ask one of the elves to bring you to the classroom so that you may knock on my door directly. Do not attempt to walk here, which can be easily observed. I could tell anyone concerned that you are simply that academically devoted and they would believe it, but I’d rather not have to. Do you understand?”

Granger nods in what looks to be near-overwhelmed agreement. “But Professor—what do they say?”

“That is a very good question. I’ve no idea,” Nizar answers her, and turns to Severus. “Please teach her your privacy charm. Miss Granger, while reading you’re to employ that charm as well as a Protego Charm around your reading area…which I suggest be your bed, since you can use its curtains rather than a third spell to block out unwanted prying eyes. I need to leave the room for a moment. Please do not kill each other.”

Severus rolls his eyes. “I have yet to kill any of my students, Nizar.”

Back in his study, Nizar leans over the desk, breathing in and out a few times until he knows he’s steadied himself. This has the potential to blow up in his face in unpleasant fashion, but right now he doesn’t know what else to do.

He consoles himself with the fact that Granger knows how to keep her silence with a Slytherin’s utmost dedication. Besides, if she does what Fred and George did not do and accepts a formal apprenticeship, it may be much harder to keep this particular secret.

Nizar retrieves one more scroll from the trunk before he rejoins the others. “That’s it?” Miss Granger is saying. “That is brilliant and simple, and now I’m truly angry that I didn’t think of it.” She pauses. “Does it work on telephones?”

Severus seems amused by the question. “It works on normal telephones in the sense that no one on the other end will be able to understand a word you’re saying, and thus is counterproductive. However, it does make mobile phones stop working.”

“Neat!”

Nizar hates to interrupt one of the few times he’s seen those two communicate without any hint of animosity, but it really is getting late. “And now you need to go. Winky?” He smiles at the house-elf when she appears. “Please take Miss Granger directly back to the Gryffindor Common Room, Winky. It’s past everyone’s curfews, and given that this is my fault, I’d rather she not be in trouble for it.”

“And: if those letters contain what I suspect? You tell no one,” Severus instructs in a flat voice. “Absolutely no one.”

“Because of V-Voldemort.” Granger gives Severus a grim nod. “I understand, sir.”

“Winky can be carrying all of that, Miss Granger!” the house-elf chirps. She whisks the letters and scrolls out of Granger’s grasp, making them fit into the magical space of an elf-sized satchel that appears at Winky’s side the moment she has need of it.

“Er. Thank you,” Granger says, and then surprises Nizar by hugging him. At least this time she doesn’t squeak and leap away like she tried to hug a hot coal.

Nizar gives Severus a baffled look. “It’s your own fault you have a clingy Gryffindor,” is Severus’s sardonic response.

“An intelligent and vicious clingy Gryffindor,” Nizar counters after Granger is gone. “You truly do need to read that Defence essay.”

“At this point I’m too intrigued not to, even if I’m not looking forward to thirty-two feet.” Severus looks at the scroll Nizar is still holding. “What prompted you to do what I suspect you’ve just done?”

“The essay, as I told you…well, that and the potential for guessing dangerous secrets. I’d rather she know in advance not to be telling anyone.” Nizar runs one hand through his hair and sighs out tension that keeps trying to build. “Take a look,” he says, handing over the scroll. “I’m going to fetch that essay from my office.”

When he returns, it’s to find Severus staring at the unrolled scroll held in his hands, an undecipherable expression on his face. “Oh, it can’t be that bad.”

“I find I’m dwelling on Salazar’s unwanted implications regarding teachers and students on Compitalia,” Severus replies.

Nizar does his best not to laugh in response. “Severus, no. There is at least one of those for every staff member of this school but for three exceptions.” He waits for Severus to look at him, curious. “Not Eustas, though given how anti-social he is, I’m not surprised. I doubt that child ever met him, or Quintinus Stirling. There is also an utter lack of anything Dumbledore.”

“That last part is very interesting, but not as interesting as the magic itself.” Severus lowers the scroll so that Nizar can easily see it. “How?”

Nizar studies the moving, full-color image again, which resembles a magical photograph of this era, but with much finer detail. Unlike a photograph, the actions are set by the caster, not by the magical impressions the camera records when a photograph is taken. It’s of Severus, which is why Nizar is showing it to him. Nizar isn’t certain of the year, but Severus is inside his classroom, all but gliding along in the front of the room before the blackboard.

He’d stared at this scroll for a very, very long time when he first uncovered it among the others. He has no idea why his younger self made the image, but he certainly appreciates having it now. “When is that, Severus?”

“Given the length of my hair? 1991, most likely. I had an incident with a potion that August which meant trimming it shorter than I prefer.” Severus narrows his eyes. “Trade paid. How, Nizar?”

“This is Recordari. The Recording Charm.”

Severus allows the scroll to snap shut again along its original curl. “I’d call you out on an obvious lie, but I know better. Nizar, the Recording Charm doesn’t work this way, else everyone would be using it!”

“I know. No one ever quite figured out how I took Rowena’s instructions for the charm and created those images, and that includes myself. It’s just something I do, Severus. Salazar tells me that I made a map of our entire planet for Hogewáþ the very same way, but neither of us knows where that map is now.”

“The entire planet.” Severus frowns. “As much as I would like to see that, it only now occurs to me—there are no maps in this school. None.”

“Much like the portraits that do not wake, we’re not certain why no one recognizes the lack until it’s specifically pointed out. I didn’t notice, either, and I didn’t leave the castle for nearly a millennium. No one is certain who is to blame or what is causing that particular blind spot, but hopefully they’re long dead, as Salazar and I would get into an argument over who would have the pleasure of making them become very, very deceased.” He doesn’t even think the lack of maps is Gaunt’s doing. It doesn’t quite fit with what the revenant was trying to accomplish.

Nizar accepts the Recordari scroll when Severus hands it over, trading it for Granger’s essay. “You’ll want to sit down to read that, and not only because of its physical weight.”

“Did you use your version of Recordari to make those tarot cards?” Severus asks before he can return the scroll to his study.

Nizar smiles. “I did tell you that I’m not an artist.”

He puts the Recordari scroll away with the others and realizes only then that he never did eat dinner. The elves weren’t trailing after him in pathetic-eyed droves, so they must have judged him appropriately occupied by the tea tray he shared with Minerva. He calls for their attention yet again to accept a second, very late tea tray. The elves are still not pleased that his appetite has been lacking and would rather he eat more, but grief has always done this to him.

Severus is even less pleased with Nizar’s lack of sleeping, but that, at least, is normal. It’s usually not this bad unless the seasons are changing, but he has no idea why—

Right. Nizar considers slapping himself in the face. He isn’t just dealing with a war mage’s fully returned awareness. He’s been adjusting to holding magical title over the land associated with the Heights of Brae. That would definitely keep him awake as his awareness grew. He wouldn’t even have noticed any strange odors associated with the Heights because he’s already bloody well home.

Nizar wonders if the others that accepted magical title are having trouble sleeping as their lands begin to speak to them. Salazar hasn’t mentioned anything, but Salazar seems to have also adopted Nizar’s habitual insomnia.

Severus reads Granger’s thirty-two feet without pause until he reaches the end. Then he uses his wand to roll it back up. “I’m so very glad that Hat didn’t put her in Slytherin.”

“She would be terrifying, yes,” Nizar says. “Gryffindor is balancing those scales nicely for her.”

“True,” Severus agrees. “Miss Granger will be the only Gryffindor in her year that will make it into my N.E.W.T. classes.”

“Just the one?” Nizar exclaims in shock. “Out of the entire fucking lot of them?”

“Just one from Hufflepuff, as well. Four from each of the remaining Houses, for a grand total of ten.” Severus shakes his head. “I know I’m a harsh teacher, but this group of fifth-years…I don’t know if they’re at fault, or if I am.”

“I really doubt that you’re the problem. You usually average at least twenty, but their year has been worse than most for attracting distractions. Maybe some of them will improve before the term is over.” Nizar feels a sense of mischief that’s been missing of late. “Like, oh, Neville Longbottom perhaps.”

“Please do not deliberately set out to give me nightmares.” Severus puts Granger’s essay on the table next to Kanza’s charmed heated rock, which has been abandoned for the fireplace hearth until the cold and damp season turns warm again. “Is there anything else you needed this evening, or should I remove myself from your company?”

Nizar feels himself tense at Severus’s curt tone. He deserved that, but fuck did it hurt. “No need,” he makes himself reply in a light voice. “I know I won’t be sleeping anytime in the next few hours, so I thought I’d go out and confuse the centaurs again. I’ll see you in a while.” He Apparates in place, arriving in the dark courtyard in front of the Entrance Hall’s double doors. Nizar shrugs out of his robe, leaving himself in only shirt, trousers, and boots to guard against February’s chill. The robe he hangs off an edge of stone next to the doors to keep it away from any potential dewfall.

When he’s run for long enough to be warm despite the freezing temperature, he thinks, You are a coward and a complete idiot. He hadn’t lied when he said he wasn’t going to sleep, and he’d been contemplating running no matter what the weather had in mind, but it had also become a convenient excuse to escape.

Nizar himself is definitely the reason why he’s never managed a successful romance with anyone, and it’s that same fucking cowardice. He can’t cope with the idea of gaining that much ground, that much trust, and then having it crumble. It’s the same reason why Nizar and Peregrine were never more than friends. Peregrine was far too fickle, and Nizar couldn’t handle the inconsistency at all. Fortunately, it was a trait Nizar noticed in his friend at once, so there were no…complications.

No complications aside from Peregrine causing his own death, at least. Nizar hasn’t stopped being angry about that, though possibly some of that is lingering upset at what Peregrine’s death did to Marion.

Fuck it. Nizar uses the Forbidden Forest’s blue-violet pathways to break through Hogwarts’ wards on the eastern boundary. The moment he steps onto Brae land for the first time since the visit to Frogmore, he knows at once that it’s definitely been contributing to his insomnia. If he’d bothered to set foot beyond the school gates to visit Hogsmeade, he would have known already.

It isn’t that far to the Heights of Brae. He used to run that track. There is absolutely no reason why he can’t do it now. He turns north to meet the passage that will let him out of the valley that shelters the school.

It starts spitting sleet a few minutes after he finds the inclined path. Of course.

Nizar never gave up on the madness that is long-distance running because of the way he stops thinking. Sometimes it is a blessing to not think. It’s pounding tread that matches the pounding of his heart, the burn in lungs and muscles, the ethereal colors of night mapped out by his eyesight that leads him unerringly along.

Godric could run at night without stumbling over a single obstacle, too. It was just a part of who he was.

Nizar glares at the roads and scattered houses that dot the landscape before the Heights. It’s enough of a visual change from what he remembers that it disrupts his concentration, and then he’s bloody well thinking again.

He’s not wearing robes. Trousers, shirt, and boots are still normal. His wand is hidden in his sleeve. He’s soaked with sweat and melted sleet.

If there are any locals about, they won’t think him a magician. They’ll just think him insane.

He doesn’t see anyone, though there are lights on in several different cottages. He runs up the side of the Heights without stopping, but by the time he reaches the top, he’s gasping like a bellows.

Nizar collapses next to one of the ancient stones that still jut out of the earth. The stars overheard are muted by the drifting clouds that keep insisting on spitting sleet, even though it’s so blasted dry tonight it shouldn’t be attempting to snow at all. He closes his eyes, resting his right hand over his chest as his heart thumps in angry reminder that he probably should not have run all the way to and then up the Heights.

Cowardly. Idiot.

He has no idea how much time has passed before he hears, “The Heights of Brae? Really, Nizar?”

Nizar opens his eyes to find Severus in the air several feet above him and to his right. It’s so dark atop the Heights that his robes blend in like moving shadows. Even Severus’s pale skin isn’t as noticeable at night. If someone were attempting to search, it would be very, very difficult to locate Severus in the air.

“How did you find me?”

Severus makes a derisive sound. “All I needed to do was look for the cloud clinging to the ground.”

Nizar breathes out, adding another plume of mist to the steam rising from his soaked clothing. “Fair point.”

“Why are you lying on the ground?” Severus asks.

“Originally? I was trying to catch my breath and cool down.” Nizar looks up at the sky again. “Now I’m just waiting for the stars to cease fucking spinning.”

Severus drifts closer. “Similar to the instance with the painting hidden beyond Aurora’s removed wall?”

Nizar thinks about it. “No, I’m not recalling anything—” Oh. “Never mind. I suppose I am.”

“May I ask what?”

Nizar sits up and slings his wet hair back from his face with one hand. That doesn’t help the dizziness, but at least this wave isn’t so intense he’s blacking out. It probably helps that the elves have refused to let him miss more than one meal a day. Stubborn, cheeky buggers.

“The last time I came to the Heights, I ran here with Godric,” Nizar says. “Between certain aspects of his childhood and the number of battles he’d been in before age seventeen, he was another chronic insomniac.”

Severus lands on the ground, though his drop to the earth is silent. “When was the last time?”

“The night before the portrait’s magic would be performed. The eve of Samhain. I couldn’t sleep. I’m not certain any of us could, but the others coped by occupying themselves with things that were not the lunacy of running all the way from the castle to the top of the Heights.

“Godric didn’t say anything. It had already all been said, I remember, even if I can’t recall what or when. They all knew I didn’t want—” Shit. It isn’t enough that the weather is foul. He’s crying, too. “I kept it from the family. They were upset already, and I didn’t wish to make it worse. Godric knew, though. No matter the means, Godric knew that I didn’t want to return.”

“Do you regret it, then?” Severus asks quietly.

“No,” Nizar whispers. “I can’t regret it. If I do, then it means I’d prefer that to you, and I’m not—I don’t—I can’t do that. I’m sorry, by the way. I shouldn’t have kept you at arms’ length for the past ten days.”

Severus lets out a resigned sigh. “Nizar, I came here so that I could apologize to you.”

Nizar gives him a confused look. “What for?”

“You once said you feared pushing too hard?” Severus shakes his head. “Tonight, that is exactly what I did to you—I pushed too hard. I knew you were grieving, and that you’d asked for that time and space, and still I couldn’t resist the urge to speak words that I knew would be painful to hear.”

“They were true words.”

Severus glares at him. “That doesn’t mean they needed to be said. I was…” He hesitates. “I was jealous.”

Now he is not only dizzy, he’s utterly baffled. “Jealous of what?” Nizar asks.

“Of…of Granger,” Severus forces himself to say.

Nizar tries to process that. “I hate to break such terrible news to you, Severus, but she’s a young woman, and I’m gay.”

That earns him a brief hint of silent laughter. “Not of anything so inappropriate.”

“What, then? I have a friendship of sorts with the Weasley twins, and that never seems to bother you.”

“That is different.” Severus retrieves a white handkerchief that shines with many hues in the dark, holding it out to Nizar.

Nizar wipes his eyes, which are still intent on producing stupid tears. “Why is it different?”

“The child was not close friends with the Weasley twins. You might not recall it, but Granger and Ronald Weasley both hold that distinction. The three of you were very close.”

Nizar stares at Severus. “Did you seriously contemplate the idea that if I ever do recall that friendship, it would supersede your relationship with me?”

“I’m sure you’ve had opportunity in your life to observe that jealousy is not logical,” Severus grates out. “And there is the matter of what you gave to Miss Granger.”

“Letters. I gave her letters that I cannot remember writing, all of them addressed to her.” Nizar reaches out and plucks at Severus’s fingers, not certain if he should try to latch hold or not. “I apparently felt talkative one thousand years ago. There are letters addressed to several people in what was delivered by a Burgos elf a few days ago. The elves held them in trust for me,” Nizar explains when Severus frowns. “Those letters and the Recordari scrolls that were of people in this time. All of the others I made were of people in my time, and those are in the trunk Galiena left for me.”

“I see. Not only did you write everything down, you were blabbing about it to others while also capturing images to document it all,” Severus says, a hint of a smile appearing on his face.

“Some of those letters are addressed to you.”

Severus’s eyes widen, causing them to shine in the dark with the metallic hues of blue, green, and violet. “What in the world did you say?”

“I’ve no idea,” Nizar replies. “I didn’t open them. They’re addressed to you, after all, not to me.”

“Ah.” Severus finally claims his hand. “But still—Miss Granger, Nizar?”

Nizar manages a smile. “I did mention that she was going into politics.”

There is a beat of silence before Severus is laughing again. “Politics. I overlooked that. You were plotting right beneath my considerable nose, and I missed it.”

“Do not insult your nose. I happen to like it,” Nizar says. “Politics, yes. It isn’t underhanded to want them to be capable of making sensible decisions before they enter the political arena.”

“You’re grooming allies. You have been from the moment that portrait’s magic ended last Hallowe’en.” Severus smiles. “You have no idea how much I dearly wish to compare notes with Estefania’s portrait right now,” he says, and then his grip on Nizar’s hand tightens. “You’re shivering.”

“Am I?” In truth, he hadn’t noticed anything beyond Severus’s hand being warmer than his own.

“We’re going back. Right now,” Severus says in a displeased voice. “Bath.”

“That’s right. You haven’t seen much of my quarters lately.” Nizar has to wait through the Apparition that Severus initiates before he continues speaking in the warmth of his sitting room. After being outside in the cold for hours, it feels stifling. “I’ve been moving things around.”

Severus looks at the fireplace, which has been shifted from the outer wall of the sitting room to the opposite side, fronting the sofa and chairs. “I had noticed that. Is the hallway even longer, now?”

“No.” Nizar opens the window and Summons his robe from the place he left it, catching it in his hands when it arrives a minute later. Then he eyes Nygell. “I’m not bringing you mice, you spoiled bastard. Go find your own dinner.” Nygell musters a glare before he flaps his way through the window to go hunting. Nizar latches the window behind him; Nygell will most likely return to the Owlery so that he can sulk in company.

Severus waits for him to hang up the robe. “What did you move?”

“Well…it’s both a moving of things and an addition,” Nizar says, leading the way down the hall. He opens the door on the left and waves his hand. “Like so.”

“You changed the entire bathroom,” Severus says, frowning at the blue-tinged grey stone, bath, and sink. “And it’s smaller than the other.”

“That’s because this is now a bathroom for guests, since they keep turning up,” Nizar explains. “I actually didn’t have to put up with half so many visitors in the old days. We all met in public areas of the castle, but it’s not like that anymore.”

“And it’s not really safe,” Severus says under his breath, following Nizar to the bedroom. Nizar feels his heartbeat quicken again and tells it to please stop with that nonsense. He isn’t—that is probably not a possibility right now.

Severus raises an eyebrow at the new doorway and its contents. “You added a room to your bedroom to give yourself a private bath. The same bathroom that was originally in the hallway.”

“It’s magical space, and I can do whatever the fuck I want with my own living quarters. Why not?” Nizar gestures for Severus to go inside. The bathroom is exactly the same as it was but for the expanded space for a single addition.

“A shower.” Severus looks at the single glass panel that rises from floor to ceiling, the only barrier between the shower and the rest of the bathroom. The shower itself is simple open space with a copy of the square showerhead he first encountered in London.

“I fell in love with the idea because of Salazar’s flat. Blame him,” Nizar says.

“Please tell me you can add a shower to my quarters downstairs.”

“It might require adding a touch of magical space to the bathroom so there is enough room, but I don’t see why not—” Nizar halts in surprise when Severus starts unbuttoning Nizar’s shirt. “What are you doing?”

“You need either a bath or a shower so that you don’t blunder your way into being ill,” Severus mutters, scowling. “You’ve skipped too many meals and too much sleep for it not to be a possibility after running over five miles in icy weather, Nizar.”

“That’s…probably true,” Nizar admits. “I—will you—”

Severus looks up from Nizar’s shirt to meet his eyes. “You know that all you need do is ask.”

Nizar feels his throat lock up. Shit. Shit! He can’t. He fucked up, and he can’t, he’s shaking and he can’t even breathe—

Severus briefly closes his eyes before he cradles Nizar’s face with both hands. “Nizar. Do you want me to stay?”

Nizar swallows. “Yes,” he answers. It’s a horrible rasp, but at least it’s a word. With it spoken, he can breathe again.

Fuck, but he panics over some truly stupid things.

Severus removes his robe and then uses the Greek charm that Nizar taught him to deal with far too many buttons. Nizar thinks he must have helped to remove both their clothes, but it’s a blank moment. They’re standing outside the shower, and then they’re within the shower, naked, with hot water cascading down. Nizar almost shrieks at the difference in temperature, which feels scalding until he begins to warm up.

Nizar is also in Severus’s arms, shaking and sobbing with his face buried against Severus’s shoulder. He has no idea when that happened, either, but he’s so tired that he doesn’t care.

“I should have pressed you on this much sooner,” Severus murmurs next to Nizar’s ear. “You really do prefer to bury everything until you reach a breaking point.”

“I didn’t think I was,” Nizar gasps out. If he’s truly been fighting the whole of his grief since Elfric’s funeral, then he isn’t capable of fighting it any longer.

Or perhaps it isn’t just the funeral. Maybe this is everything Nizar couldn’t voice from November onwards, when he couldn’t remember enough of what was lost to grieve.

Severus runs his hands through Nizar’s hair, stroking down his back, long and soothing passes of warmth and touch that ease his shaking limbs. Nizar clings to Severus without shame, letting sensation lull him until his grief feels considerably lighter and he’s no longer weeping.

Nizar steps away long enough to lift his head to the water, washing his face. His skin feels raw from ice and salt both. “Ugh. I probably look to be a complete disaster.”

“But thankfully not a continuous disaster,” Severus tells him, the corner of his mouth turning up in a smirk. “Besides, you were more of a mess when I found you lying on a Scottish hillside like a dying man, soaked to the skin and covered in sleet, yet still managing to create your own personal cloud.”

When put in those terms, that probably did look more disastrous than what feels like swollen eyes and irritated sinuses. “I didn’t mean to worry you.”

“Do shut up.” Severus’s hand traces down his back and then follows the curve of his arse. Nizar sucks in a startled breath, his prick stirring at once in response to the intimate touch.

Severus lifts an eyebrow and then rests his other hand along Nizar’s cheek, his thumb just brushing Nizar’s lower lip. “I should not assume, not right now. It’s your choice, Nizar.”

Part of Nizar is still wondering why Severus would want someone who just finished falling to bits. The rest of him is remembering how cold his nights have been of late, and he doesn’t want to go back to that. Not again.

Nizar opens his mouth and captures Severus’s thumb with his lips, swiping his tongue over the tip. Severus’s eyes lose the multi-colored shine and turn perfectly black. Then he seizes Nizar’s head with both hands and draws him into a hungry, bruising kiss. Nizar’s heart leaps, both in relief and from the thrill of Severus being so willing to demonstrate the strength hiding in his lean body.

Severus bites down on the side of Nizar’s neck, sharp and hard enough to draw blood. “God, but I want to fuck you.”

Nizar gasps, instantly rock-hard. “I don’t have anything in my quarters for that.”

“Later, then.” Severus wraps his hand around Nizar’s prick and strokes him up and down in a grip that is rough, almost painful. It still makes his skin tingle like sparking embers, a rush of absolute pleasure. Severus is holding him in such a way that Nizar can’t even reciprocate. He can only cling to Severus, teeth clenched against the desperate sounds that want to escape.

“Nizar. Look at me,” Severus orders. Nizar swallows and focuses on Severus’s black eyes. “You are mine, and I am very, very bad at sharing.” Then Severus captures Nizar’s lips in another fierce kiss. It’s such an obvious claiming that Nizar whines into Severus’s mouth. Gods, but he wanted—he always wanted this so much.

No. He doesn’t regret at all.

Severus brings him off with rough efficiency that feels so amazing his toes are curling even as he’s groaning out the pleasure of it, coming in Severus’s hand. Severus still doesn’t release his other arm’s tight grasp on Nizar. Instead, he stares into Nizar’s eyes, stroking himself until he’s breathing in sharp gasps. Watching Severus’s face and feeling the pass of Severus’s hand against his skin is so erotic that Nizar’s spent prick stirs anew.

Severus abruptly buries his face against Nizar’s neck, letting out a long, low moan as he clenches Nizar tightly against his body. The warmth of Severus’s orgasm paints Nizar’s hip and thigh before the shower water washes it away.

Nizar manages to get one of his hands free so that he can run his fingers through Severus’s hair. “Severus?”

Severus abruptly releases him, but doesn’t turn away. “Sometimes you frighten me,” he says in a low voice. “I’m not frightened of you. I’m afraid of what it would mean to lose you. I don’t think I would handle it very well.”

“You handled another friend’s loss well enough,” Nizar says, wisely dancing around said friend’s identity. He has no personal attachment to her, but Severus most certainly did.

“That is because I had a goal to focus on.” Severus uses his elegant fingers to remove strands of plastered hair from Nizar’s face. “If you die, I don’t have that sort of…of motivation.”

“Sure you do. You’re a Slytherin. Avenge my death,” Nizar suggests.

Severus’s thumbs come to rest just below Nizar’s lip again. “And what if the one who caused your death is already dead, himself?”

“You’re creative. I’m certain you could think of something that would suit.” Then Nizar makes a startled noise when his knees abruptly give out from under him.

Severus catches him before he can strike the tiled floor. “Nizar?”

“I’m all right,” he assures Severus, but he must not be. The next thing he knows, he’s dressed in his silk, sitting on the edge of his bed and absolutely bewildered.

“Now what?” Severus is asking, settling down beside him, already dressed in his black pyjamas.

“Uh—I have no idea how I got out here. It’s a blank spot from bathroom to bed.” Nizar lifts his sleeve to note the gold embroidery at the cuff.

“But you didn’t pass out. Not like the incident in the Astronomy Tower.” Severus frowns, and they spend the next few minutes in silence.

“Flashbacks,” Severus bursts out, startling Nizar out of a partial doze. “Just like the incident in the Black Lake and your missing time. That was a flashback, and so was this.”

“Oh.” That makes a great deal of sense. “Then I can’t remember some of those flashbacks because my ability to recall things was damaged by Obliviscaris Omnia.

Severus gives him a concerned look, but nods. “I believe so. You carried through with getting ready for bed so well, I didn’t even realize anything was wrong.”

“What do they call it when you do things without thinking about them?”

“Autopilot,” Severus answers.

“That. It was most likely that,” Nizar says. “It’s easy to repeat set patterns.”

“It is.” Severus takes Nizar’s hand in a gentle grip. “Earlier. I—”

“If you’re about to apologize for something I enjoyed profusely, I will beat you to death with that bronze cauldron.”

Severus looks to be biting back a smile as he leans forward, a lock of his damp hair partially obscuring his face. “Please use the cast-iron. It is less likely to be dented in the process.”

“I’ll bear that in mind, but I’d like to focus on other things right now.”

Severus’s grip on his hand tightens. “Like what?”

“How much I love you.” Nizar regrets the words when Severus flinches. Severus’s feelings are true—he’s seen them and felt them—but hearing the words spoken aloud often strikes old wounds. Maybe one day, that will cease.

“I would also very much like for Salazar not to fucking bribe you into marrying me,” Nizar adds in a dry voice.

Severus looks at Nizar from the corner of his eye. “Would that be so bad? Marrying. Me, in particular. Even knowing everything I’ve done, and everything I am?”

“Bad?” Nizar stares at Severus, confused. “No. Not at all. Why? Did Salazar actually go out and dig up someone’s mouldering title to add to his pile of bribery?”

Severus laughs. “Not that he’s mentioned, and I already have to deal with that blasted courtesy title Madam Tyler insists upon using. Besides, what would I do with such a thing, anyway?”

“Lord it over Lucius Malfoy.”

“That was—that was honestly horrible,” Severus manages between fits of near-silent laughter. “Truly.”

“Worth it. I would imagine that Lucius forgot when I made fun of him for not being a real lord when he was a child. Fucker attempted to set my portrait on fire in retaliation. As if no one had ever tried that before.”

Severus tilts his head. “How many people have you managed to incite into attempting to incinerate your portrait?”

“Fifteen or so that I can recall with any detail.”

Severus rolls his eyes. “No sense of self preservation.”

“I just knew it wouldn’t work,” Nizar says, unconcerned. “Then Lucius tried throwing the entire portrait in the fireplace. Oh, was that child angry when that also did not work.”

Severus smiles. “You spent nearly one thousand years doing your utmost to drive students into infuriated rages.”

Nizar shrugs. “It wasn’t as if I had much else to do.”

“I do not recall you ever attempting to do that to me,” Severus says.

“Oh, I did.” Nizar smiles at Severus. “You just thought it was fun.”

To Nizar’s relief, Severus stays with him. He wasn’t certain, despite the pyjamas, until they’re both curled up in his bed with the quilt pulled up. Nizar sighs and refuses to apologize for clinging like a leech.

Severus lets out an amused huff of air. “Nishmati,” he murmurs.

“What’s that?” Nizar asks, yawning.

“It’s Hebrew. It is…a term of affection.”

Nizar opens one eye, knowing an avoidance tactic when he hears one, but decides to let it go. “It has a nice sound to it.”

He’s almost asleep when Severus says, “Yes. It does.”

Chapter Text

Hermione waits for the house-elf to depart, then darts upstairs to the fifth-year girls’ dormitory. She enters and holds her breath to see if anyone is going to make a fuss about her late return. No one wakes up, so Hermione hurriedly stuffs the entire armload of envelopes and the scroll bundle under her bedcovers and then rushes off to the shared bathroom to get ready for bed. If she starts reading now, she might forget, and no one likes to wake up with their teeth tasting bad.

Well, given some of the boys’ morning breath, maybe they do, but Hermione did not need her parents to instill before-bed brushing habits. The one and only time she purposely slacked off left behind such a terrible taste that she never wanted to repeat the experience.

All right, maybe I’m a little bit like my parents, Hermione thinks as she changes clothes, exchanging her uniform for pyjamas. Some of her dorm-mates prefer nightgowns, but she was a trousers girl long before the school uniforms decided to make her life difficult. The fact that Hogwarts will only allow someone with breasts to wear school trousers is if they’ve declared for another gender is—well, utterly backwards.

Hermione recalls Fortunata’s painting, and the fact that the portrait is wearing her clothes in a style that definitely would have been considered unseemly. Perhaps it’s something she can discuss with Professor Salazar. Between Professor Slytherin hitting the man in the face with her essay, and the bit with the Legilimency testing where the elder Slytherin refused to be terrifying…he seems far less imposing now.

She crawls into bed and draws the curtains. It takes a moment before she’s certain she’s cast Muffliato correctly, but Protego is much easier. She does cast a third spell, but this one just leaves a ball of soft white light hovering above her bed so that she can read without resorting to Lumos or candles. Then she puts her wand under her own pillow and the scroll beneath her spare pillow to save for later.

The tie holding the envelopes shut is flat dyed leather, not ribbon as she’d first thought. It’s like silk beneath her fingers, better quality than any leather item she’s ever touched in her life.

Hermione puts all of the envelopes aside except for the one with its elegant number one inscribed on the front, flipping it over. Her breath catches at once.

The print is clean and distinct, but it’s so very familiar. That’s Harry’s handwriting, and that is her name on the front of this odd envelope. She lifts the flap and winces when the paper crinkles, but no one stirs in the other beds. Then she lifts out two sheets of folded paper that is…odd. It doesn’t look old, but it feels like some of the old preserved paper she’s come across in some of Hogwarts’ library books.

Then again, Hermione knows that Salazar Slytherin had something to do with Harry’s removal from Surrey. Maybe he prefers the feel of paper that’s more like what he knew centuries ago, and it’s all that he keeps available.

Oh, now she’s dithering! She hates dithering. She resolutely unfolds the paper and begins to read. The first thing she notes is the lack of date, which Harry is rather diligent about.

 

Dear Hermione,

I’m realizing as soon as I begin that I should have been doing this bloody weeks ago. There is so much that I’m not even sure I could summarize it. No, actually, summarizing this would be a stupid idea. It’s too complicated.

Shit. You’re going to think I’ve lost my mind. Yes, I’m aware of the fact that I am already considered mental, and that it’s not news.

 

Hermione blinks, startled by the language. Harry is one of the few students she knows of who never felt the need to swear—well, aside from the infamous Insomnia Incident in third year. That had been a long, involved litany that proved Harry knew the words quite well. There was applause afterwards, which didn’t help Hermione to feel like any less of an idiot. The idea that Harry wanted to sleep but couldn’t, that he hated his insomnia, had never once occurred to her. It had just seemed so useful! She knows better now, but that tirade also taught Hermione that for as much as Harry told them, there was so much more that he never mentioned at all.

 

I thought about trying to write my way around everything, but really, I’m not that brilliant.

First: it’s possible to travel back in time without a Time-Turner. That being said, I’m really glad you helped me rescue Sirius with your Time-Turner in third-year. This not being my first bit of time travel made it a little easier.

 

“Oh, Harry. What did you do?” Then Hermione reads the next line and has to stifle a laugh.

 

I didn’t do it! All right, I said yes, but I’m not the one who did the thing and this is mostly not my fault.

Second: there isn’t a magical way to send someone forward in time. It doesn’t work, or no one here knows how to make it work. Actually, there is apparently one entire person in the world right now who knows how to travel backwards in time by magic, but it’s definitely confirmed. Not forwards.

Time-Turners don’t go forwards, either. Who invented Time-Turners, anyway? Please tell me those stupid things have limits.

I’m sort of stuck where I am. No, there is no “sort of” about it at all. I am Stuck. And I don’t mind. I keep thinking I should be absolutely losing it, but nope, I am fine with all of this.

Okay, not all of it. I miss you and Ron, Remus and Sirius, and a certain clan of gingers. I can’t really fix that, though, so I can at least write to you. You always told me I never write enough over the summer, so now I’m going to bury you in letters.

I’m not explaining very well, but I’m nervous, all right?

I have no idea what date you’ll receive this letter, but I’m going to take a wild guess and say that it’s definitely not summer anymore, no one has told you or Ron anything, and you’re both going mad with worry. Don’t, okay? I’m actually fine, and for once, I’m not lying.

I met a Healer. A real Healer, someone who definitely outstrips Madam Pomfrey, and probably everyone in St. Mungo’s. She’s also terrifying, but it’s the sort of terrifying that’s comforting because you know she isn’t aiming the Terrifying at you.

Meeting that Healer? Hermione, I don’t need my glasses anymore. I can bloody well see what I’m doing, all the time!

Actually, I can see a lot more colors than about 99.9% of people on the planet can see if I’m guessing the average right. No idea what it’s called, no idea it was a thing, but it’s really rare.

 

“Tetrachromacy,” Hermione whispers, even though he can’t hear her. “You have tetrachromacy. How?”

 

Please do not screech. The colors-thing isn’t something I could see before and it had nothing to do with my glasses. My aunt hit me in the head with a frying pan when I was five.

 

Hermione screeches in fury. Lavender Brown rolls over in the bed across the room and mutters about people needing to stop talking in their sleep.

 

So, the Healer reckons I probably had old damage that was never repaired, since my aunt and uncle refused to take me to a hospital. Just told me to not die and make them look bad.

 

Hermione is very good and does not screech again. She settles for grinding her teeth.

 

I would probably have needed glasses anyway, but not the same way. It’s really nice, not having to worry about being fucking blind if I lose my glasses. Do not miss them at all, even if potions instructions for brewing by color are now rubbish.

Right, still failing at explaining. On my birthday, someone offered to help me survive Voldemort. I thought I knew what they meant, that being an actual education on how to Not Die the next time I have to deal with that arsehole. I was right about that part. I just wasn’t expecting the distance, or the bloody language barriers.

Bugger, must go, late for a thing. Still did not explain properly. Cheers on me, then.

—Harry

 

Hermione wonders if Harry knew that he was dealing with Salazar Slytherin. Maybe he’ll be more specific in the next one…or maybe it wasn’t Professor Salazar at all, just someone he put up to the task.

She puts the refolded letter back in the first envelope, and then takes a minute to count the ones remaining. There are over a hundred letters left to read. Harry really, really meant it about burying her in letters, then.

The next envelope holds another two pages of folded paper. Still no date, but she notices at once that Harry’s handwriting is improving.

 

Dear Hermione,

This is my—wait, I need to count the paper littering the floor. This is my seventh attempt at writing a letter that doesn’t sound stupid. I think it’s going to sound stupid anyway, but I’ve been trying to figure out how to say it for a full month and I’m not getting anywhere. So, fuck it. Here goes.

On my birthday, a strange wizard decides to just turn up in my bedroom after midnight. I didn’t handle it well and pointed a wand at him, but in my defence, he started it.

 

Hermione frowns. That sounds…really familiar, actually, but she can’t remember why.

 

I don’t actually know who he is. He didn’t say. What I do know is that he’s old, he’s really fast, he’s capable of incredible magic, and I think he’s family. He wouldn’t say, but Hermione, he cared. You don’t grow up the way I did and not notice when those things are true.

Yes, Hermione, I do actually think Snape cares, even if he doesn’t know how to do so aside from being a utter bastard about it. You can be a complete dick to someone and still not want them dead. That’s a form of caring, even if it’s, uh, limited? Whatever, it counts.

Sorry, digressed and then had to step away for a few hours. Back to strange wizard in my bedroom, which sounds like a recipe for disaster. But he said he knew my parents. He’s the first adult I’ve ever met in my entire life who told me that my parents would not want me fighting Voldemort. To be fair, no one’s ever outright said that they would want me to be a mythical Voldemort Slayer, but I haven’t exactly heard a lot of arguments against it.

So this wizard who wouldn’t tell me his name gave me a choice. I took the offer.

It’s May now, the eighteenth. Everyone else is off at Pentacoste. I didn’t want to go, so I’m here alone, reading books, writing letters, and realizing that spending a week alone in a completely empty castle is a barmy, stupid idea that I won’t be repeating.

I’ve been here for seventy-nine days if I haven’t confused the rhyme and gotten the days per month wrong. My mysterious wizard family friend didn’t mention where he was sending me.

It’s eighteenth May—

 

Hermione looks closer at the paper. The ink that would list the year is still present, but unreadable. Then she sees the next sentence and realizes at once why it’s missing.

 

It’s eighteenth May ——. One thousand five years ago.

Oh, shit. I wrote that, it’s still unbelievable, and I’m the one sitting here living it. I think that is about all I can manage for now, even though I’d dearly like to whinge about West Saxon English and why grammar is stupid. Outside. Outside is good. I really need to get out of a castle that is far too quiet right now.

—Harry

 

Hermione re-reads the letter, her heart pounding while also somehow managing to be lodged in her throat. She doesn’t need to read the rest of the letters to understand why the need for secrecy is so important.

Fortunata’s portrait said Harry and Salazar were distant family.

She stifles a high-pitched, lunatic giggle. Maybe they were distant family, but she read up on magical adoption just for something to do over the summer after she finished all of the work she missed during second year while Petrified, and the homework…and because she’d already read her textbooks.

Hermione bites her lip and retrieves her wand. She did agree, but she didn’t promise…and he didn’t know what the letters said. He wouldn’t have known that there wasn’t much point to secrecy after the second one.

Secreta Revelare,” she whispers, casting the charm over the stack of envelopes. The letter in her hand immediately reveals the year in that sentence.

“Oh, God.”

Hermione pulls out the first letter long enough to glance at the date: 14th April 990.

“Oh my God.”

Hermione drops her wand and plasters both hands over her mouth, rocking in place for a few minutes. She’s crying. She should be relieved, because Harry is fine.

He is, but he’s not Harry anymore. She’s lost the best friend she’s ever had.

She sniffs and wipes her eyes, growling at herself to be logical. He isn’t lost. He’s older—a lot older—but magical adoptions don’t change who you are or what you look like. She knows from his sun-lightened hair that Nizar Slytherin spent enough time in the sun to pick up the bronze cast to his skin. It probably wasn’t that hard; in the photographs Harry showed her, Lily Potter had pale skin like Harry, but James Potter almost looked like he was from India but for his hazel eyes. She doesn’t know why Harry would use his mastery as a Metamorphmagus to change the color of his hair and eyes, though.

No. Nizar. Magical adoption. She knows better. If that’s what Nizar and Salazar Slytherin did, then he really doesn’t go by that name at all. Then there is the nonsense with the Preservation Charms failing because an idiot moved Nizar Slytherin’s painting.

Hermione starts crying again. Professor Slytherin never said anything outright, but she’s heard enough to piece together that if Professor Snape hadn’t put the portrait back in its original place, Nizar would have died. Not enough magic left to fuel the spells and charms that made the portrait what it was—a way to travel forward in time.

She does wonder why they left it so late, the portrait. It occurs to her a moment later that maybe the portrait took that long to create.

Then she gasps, wide-eyed. Those stupid failed Preservation Charms.

Lying in front of her in letter form is probably more about Nizar Slytherin’s life from one thousand years ago than he can remember, but she can’t just run back to the seventh floor without reading the rest. She has to know.

She needs to know all of it.

Hermione starts reading at speed, voraciously noting the dates as 990 progresses. Given how much information she encounters in Harry’s first year alone, she should probably be taking notes.

 

30th May 990

All right, so it’s a bit easier now that I’ve gotten the I’m Stuck In The Founder’s Era bit out of the way. (Nope, still not that easy, but now I can just whinge about things we were never taught.)

Have you ever heard of Moray before? Because I hadn’t and I’m really miffed about it. That’s where I am, or Moravia if you want to be all Latin-y. Hogwarts isn’t in Scotland; the school Hogewáþ is in Moray. Uh, I don’t know if you’ve ever prodded at Old English, but it’s a really crude way of saying to To Seek Thought. To Seek Learning. I like it. It seems a lot more dignified than hogs and warts.

It wouldn’t be so bad if there was only one language barrier. It’s more like ten, and then Sal makes it worse by adding in two more. There are a lot of languages in Britain that are common right now, and everyone knows at least two, and none of them are anything like our English at all. Nobody here can read this letter but me, and eventually you, even if I don’t know how that’s going to happen. West Saxon English, Latin, Pictish, Gaelic (not Scots Gaelic?), Cumbric, franceis, Danish, Norse, Norn—Britain is currently a language clusterfuck, and that isn’t counting the Castellano, Euskaran, and Bavarian.

Why did we get rid of the letter thorn, Hermione? Why? It’s bloody useful!

 

16th June 990

(I am not writing Iunius. I am not. No. The letter J is useful, Rowena!)

Ron would be utterly bleating about my living with the enemy, but he’s in for a rude awakening. The most terrifying of the four Founders isn’t Salazar Slytherin. It’s Helga Hlodvirsdóttir. I hope I spelled that right. No, it’s nothing like Hufflepuff, but she’s very Norse. Viking. Whatever. She’s the terrifying Healer I mentioned before. I like her.

Salazar and his daughter Fortunata are the only Parseltongue speakers on this entire island. Either I live with them and Sal’s wife, Orellana, and at least have translators, or I wander around without a clue as to what anyone is telling me. No thanks. I like knowing what’s going on. Besides, Fortunata is a neat kid, Orellana is very kind, and Salazar is funny.

History is stupid, Hermione. Nothing we’ve ever been told about any of them is accurate. Maybe a grain of truth, but that’s about all, and it’s infuriating. Orellana and Godric’s wife Sedemai are teachers here, too. That stupid fucking book never mentions them!

I miss you. You’d be losing your mind with joy if you were in my place, I know it. I just try not to exist in a state of constant confusion. Everything is the same, but everything is different. Oh, and people keep telling me I’m intelligent. That’s such rubbish, but Sal keeps tricking me into proving it because he is a complete shit.

He’s only twenty, Hermione. Five years older than I am. That’s it. Salazar is the youngest. Helga’s twenty-two. Orellana just turned twenty last month. Fortunata is eight. Sedemai just had her twenty-fifth birthday. Godric will be twenty-seven in a few days. Rowena is thirty-six. Rowena’s daughters Alicia and Helena are fourteen and eleven.

Everyone is so young. Fuck those Entrance Hall portraits for being bloody inaccurate.

There are only seventeen students, total, aside from me. No, wait, Alicia went off to her apprenticeship in Strathclyde today. Sixteen plus me.

 

8th July 990

Horcrux. Now there’s something I’d really rather talk about going on never, but I don’t have much choice. A Horcrux is a soul jar, and it’s sitting right behind the scar on my head.

That’s right, everyone! The Freak has a shard of Voldemort’s fucking soul stuck in his head.

 

“Oh, Harry,” Hermione whispers, feeling the self-loathing all but rolling off that particular page. That must have been a rough day.

 

Mind Magic sucks. (I cannot use that slang here, it is so misunderstood. Remind me to tell you about the difficulty in regards to neat, oxen, kids, children, and goats.)

All right, it probably wouldn’t be so bad, Mind Magic. Everyone here learns it when they’re young, just starting school things. Which is age 8. Not 11. I mentioned history is stupid, right? Mind Magic is treated as step one for learning magic, and from what I can manage of it so far, they’re right. It really helps. It’s just that the stupid Horcrux has been stuck in my head for over fourteen years. That means I don’t just have to learn Mind Magic. I have to Master it. I’m so pathetically undereducated that it’s ridiculous, but I have to throw myself at a magical mastery to get rid of a soul shard.

Hogwarts, er, Hogewáþ isn’t finished yet. In our time, I could go upstairs at night and walk across the rooftops from one end of the school to the other. Yes I did and it’s too late to stop me, anyway. I couldn’t sleep and it was something to do that had the least likely chance of me being caught and losing us points. Oh, there’s no Points system here. That’s a relief.

There is no Quidditch Staircase, no greenhouses outside, no Hospital Tower, no Gryffindor Tower, no Divination Tower, no Clock Tower, and no Dark Tower, not that we need that last one or anything. The Headmaster’s Tower isn’t called that. Godric lives where the headmaster’s office would be now, but all of the student dormitories are in lower sections of that tower. Did you know there are rooms there? Because I sure didn’t, and I don’t remember seeing them on the Marauder’s Map. Where did those rooms go?

The DADA Tower exists, but it’s only called the Defence Tower, and they mean it literally. Godric showed me how the narrow windows are meant for archers, or for casting long-distance spells to defend the castle with less chance of dying in the process. Rowena’s tower is kind of an obvious one, and Helga does live underground near the kitchens, but there are no stupid barrels. Who was dumb enough to get rid of a perfectly reasonable stairwell and door?

The dungeons are maybe a blip compared to what we have, but the ballroom is here. It’s never used for anything except indoor dueling practice during shit weather, but hey, it’s being used. There is no Prefect’s Bathroom, the library is only on the third floor and it is tiny, you would be insulted. The Armory is a literal weapons-staging area instead of just a room full of armor. Zero secret passageways, too. I checked. Yes, of course I did. Maybe they’re added later.

The Chamber of Secrets doesn’t exist.

 

19th July 990

I have another insomniac for company at last! Well, I learned this back in May, but it’s hard to stay caught up. I’m trying to do things all the time. It’s great, but it doesn’t help the insomnia bit.

Godric is completely mental. He goes running to deal with his insomnia, and I don’t mean little jogs. I mean he runs for miles.

I’m insane, too. I followed him. Regret. So much regret, Hermione.

So of course I went out with him again the next time he was in the mood, because glutton for punishment, that’s me.

Helga told me she wants to change her name to Hugðilepuf. Suddenly I understand where Hufflepuff came from, and I’m fucking angry about it. Hugðilepuf was a careful choice that means fierce, quick-thought defence. Hufflepuff in our time is a joke and I hate it.

The Forbidden Forest is called the Dark Forest for, well, obvious reasons. It’s bloody dark in there, even if the new eyesight/colors thing means I have really great night vision now. I think it’s the West Saxon English Problem.

It is too a problem. I don’t care what you think, stop looking at my letters that way.

Deorc is a synonym for sinister, and then you end up with Forbidden. I can language just fine. (No, I can’t. Help.)

I read that stupid book, Hermione. I really did. I read Hogwarts: A History. It was so dull that I can’t recall a lot of it, but I’m certain that stupid book never mentions anything about the Founders holding the castle’s magic, or that if a land loses its magic, the land dies. I’m pretty sure I would have noticed something about Everything Will Die Without Magic in that dumb book!

I’m a bit freaked out, all right? Godric says that Myrddin (Yep, that Merlin, have not yet met him, not really in any great hurry just based on Salazar’s muttering) created this place because it’s one of the strongest remaining points of magic on the island. If things are already that bad, then shit, what’s happening in our time? That’s bloody terrifying to contemplate, Hermione. I don’t even know if the Heads of Houses in our time are still doing that job!

 

28th July 990

The youngest student here is named Galiena. She’s six.

It’s not fair. She’s English, so that’s one less language to learn, but she already knows Norn and Norse. And franceis. She’s tiny and brilliant, Hermione. She reminds me a bit of you. I told her the story you told me, about Empress Theodora in Byzantium.

I told you I was paying attention. Theodora was a badass.

 

Hermione smiles. She didn’t know they’d met when they were both so young. That’s Harry, claiming people again.

 

The Greeks had way too much time on their hands and they used it to make up some truly stupid rules about grammar. I will not be learning Greek in any great hurry. I like Pictish better.

Gaelic is terrible, why did the Irish have to bring it here with them when they invaded? No, why did they leave it here when they went back to squabble over the western isle and the Hebrides and all of the little bits of land floating between us and them?

The others think I’m mental for learning Pictish. I probably am, but I like their magic. I like the way they think about magic.

I like the fact that the theories of magic taught here make bloody sense.

You know, saying, “What would Hermione do?” is not supposed to be a constant refrain so that I don’t do stupid shit. However, your morals also mean I’m going to be adopted, so, great?

I’m not done panicking yet. Details later. Panic now.

 

Hermione reads until her eyes burn, and then she keeps plowing along. Harry’s next letter does a much better job of discussing the magical adoption and what it means, even though it’s not something that can be completed until the Horcrux is removed. She tears up again when he hesitantly, in his scattered way, admits that he feels like he’s home, and how he’s never felt that way anywhere.

There is also a hilarious recount of Enduring Shopping With A Viking. Eidyn Buhr over Edinburgh. All of the kingdoms of Britain and the closest isles. The way gender roles were nowhere near as restricted as they are now, that history has their progress backwards. (If Hermione didn’t know better, she would suspect Harry had a crush on a female blacksmith.) London in 990, which apparently needed plumbing and sewage in the worst way, while ancient Hogwarts already had both, powered by magic.

Harry’s letter about his theory regarding Snape and spying is so on the nose that Hermione actually stares at it for a few minutes longer than necessary, nonplussed. She knew he was very good about putting just a few bits of information together to figure out a much larger whole, and he’s right, but Harry figured out Professor Snape’s continued role as a spy for the Order because of two things. Just two. While dosed with Dreamless Sleep.

If the letter about Snape is intriguing, then the one about Professor Dumbledore makes her skin crawl. Harry noticing that Dumbledore never tells them anything useful unless they’ve already discovered it for themselves. Harry saying that Snape saved his life repeatedly, but Dumbledore never actually did so. (He’s right, which just makes the gooseflesh worse.) Fawkes is already known to the school in 990 as Merlin’s companion, and Salazar suspects that if Fawkes in their time is loyal to anyone, it would be the school, Merlin’s last project, not to a man. Harry realizing that Dumbledore never claimed to have sent Fawkes to help him in the Chamber against the diary shade and the basilisk—that had to have been Fawkes’s idea. Dumbledore just spoke of it like he’d planned it all from the start.

Harry is still enraged about that month of silence from their arrival in London on first July through midnight on his birthday last year. Hermione, who'd chafed under the order from Dumbledore not to tell her best friend anything, doesn't blame him one bit. He'd been entirely isolated, and that had struck Hermione at the time as being...well, dangerous.

Does that man actually want me dead? Harry writes, and Hermione shivers.

Then there is the entertaining written shouting asking Hermione to send help. Harry didn’t realize that the younger brother of a Castilian Marqués was also nobility.

Non-verbal spells. Family magic. Samhain. The Horcrux, it’s ability to think, and how it starts to fight back. Harry’s first visit to Ipuzko, and how it, like that time period, feels like home to Harry in a way that leaves him half-panicked.

Estefania, Salazar’s sister, who is apparently a political terror. Twelvetide in a Spanish court. Harry telling off a king, which is so perfectly Harry. He never cares about rank and authority if he thinks someone is wrong, but apparently he’d learned by that point to tell someone off and make them like hearing about it, since the entire visit is judged a success.

Then it’s a two-line letter, dated twenty-seventh December of 990, that only says: I’m in Burgos, in Castile. You’d love it here. The grief in those two sentences makes her want to weep, and she has no idea why.

Harry explains his names, and she does cry again. There is such cautious happiness when he does so. Hereweald, West Saxon English—then a word for an army leader, but Salazar liked the Bavarian spelling of Hariwalt better. Being told that leading an army is a lot more complex than simply going into battle. Nizar, a Euskaran adoption from the Arabic that means both little and rare.

A rare leader. Hermione wipes her eyes and nose with the edge of her bedsheet. She wonders if Professor Salazar would be utterly baffled if she hugged him.

The first letter Harry writes about basilisks is absolutely chilling.

The second one just makes Hermione sad. She wonders if this Çinara was Kanza’s mother.

A third letter, dated a few days later, talks about Wizarding Burgos. Every single non-human sentient being openly carried wands. He tells her about the free elves of Burgos.

Hermione hugs that one to her chest. He remembered, and he understood.

Then there is a gap of months before Harry, signing his letter as Hari, is writing again at the end of February. The Horcrux was removed early and the fight nearly killed him. He doesn’t go into detail, and Hermione is sort of glad he didn’t. The end of the Triwizard Tournament haunts her dreams enough as it is. The only thing Harry does talk about, rather viciously, is how glad he is that the lightning-bolt scar on his head is disappearing. The Horcrux was creating it, but the Horcrux is gone.

They move the magical adoption from the planned Summer Solstice to the Lencten Equinox. From that point onward, the letters are all signed the same way. Nizar—or if he seems to be in a mood, he’ll write down every single title attached to his name.

Then Orellana dies, and even though Salazar’s second child survives, it just makes Hermione’s heart hurt. Harry spoke so fondly of Orellana, and she seemed to be such a wonderful woman, a brilliant teacher of woodworking and Alchemy. Poor Salazar, too—Nizar believes that it’s only the responsibility of the new baby that is keeping Salazar Deslizarse anchored to reality.

Nizar’s way of speaking becomes more in line with what she often hears from Professor Slytherin, though sometimes their slang will slip into his letters, or he’ll be so excited over some new bit of magic that his letters become more stream-of-consciousness instead of written summaries of events. Hermione enjoys those letters so much; she always knew her best friend was more intelligent than he’d ever been willing to let on, and he is finally, finally letting that intellect roam free. Some archaic spellings and terms are creeping their way in to the letters, but thankfully, she’s spent a lot of time with old books. It’s easy to figure out the odd words by context.

It’s Nizar who takes battle-weary Godric’s place as Defence teacher in 992, when he’s only seventeen. His list of titles grows as the years pass, and Hermione is so proud of him!

Galiena’s formal adoption (including the full reason why he punched Merlin). Hermione thinks he should have saved the punch for when Merlin dubbed Nizar a war mage and the schools’ Protector without so much as a by-your-leave.

Claiming Elfric and Brice while saying he’d best stop scooping up orphans, or he’ll be trying to parent an eighth of the population of Britain. Learning to parent, panicking about parenting, and enough joy in the words for Hermione to know he loves every moment of it.

Salazar meeting Marion of Inverness on the Autumn Equinox in 995 and being instantly smitten. Nizar being a good sibling and endlessly mocking Salazar for it while also happy to see both Marion and her brother, Peregrine, come to the school to learn. Marion is claimed by Rowena at once, though Peregrine seems to drift between Helga and Salazar. The insisted gifting of the twin cherry wands that Salazar and Nizar wield, crafted by Bernier Ollivander in 996.

Nizar Deslizarse, the man who eventually offers apprenticeships in Defence, Blood Magic, Pictish Magic, Mind Magic, Geomancy, and Metamorph Magic. Because, in his words, he’s an insane person who doesn’t sleep.

His children decide their father’s insanity should be emulated, given that they finish their first Masteries in record time after finding their apprenticeships. All of them choose to Master Mind Magic first, though Galiena is inclined towards art, Elfric to restoration, and Brice to mayhem.

Nizar’s letter about Peregrine’s death in 1004 is so full of rage that Hermione understands at once that he must have cared for the other man a great deal. Not marriage-sort of caring; it’s more like the sort of response Hermione would expect from Harry if Ron died.

Brice’s apprenticeship for Mind Magic is informal, under all of the school’s teachers, but his apprenticeship under Godric is formal for Defence. Then he goes out to find a master for Blood Magic and promptly falls in love with her. Nizar is very, very thankful that Brice’s teacher is firm and proper, insistent that there can be no such relationship until the apprenticeship is done…which tells Hermione that this mysterious teacher must have felt similarly towards Brice deSlizarse.

Hermione giggles her way through the letter that Nizar writes to discuss Galiena marrying someone named Uriel from Winchester, a quiet magician who trained at Hogewáþ under Helga. Nizar thinks he is a very good man, especially after Nizar threatened to break the man’s bones one by one with his bare hands if he ever mistreated Galiena and Uriel insisted that it would be just punishment. That was, apparently, the right answer. Helga being angry that Nizar left her with nothing useful to threaten Uriel with except ripping the soul from his body. Nizar telling Helga to please not actually frighten away his daughter’s betrothed.

Ouen Arturus, born in 1005, and Imeyna Genevote, born in 1008 to Salazar and Marion.

Nizar has grandchildren by 1008, too, twin boys named Drystan Peregrine and Paynel Elyas. Hermione has the feeling that this particular letter was written while Nizar was really, really drunk, given how disjointed it is. His way of writing shifts back and forth between the language structure then, their language now, and is interspersed with Old English, French, and some utterly incomprehensible words Hermione suspects are Latinized Cumbric. Maybe Pictish. It’s really hard to tell.

Brice marries his teacher, a half-Veela named Eithnemael. Hermione feels her eyebrows rise when she reads about how a Veela of any blood knows their mate immediately, because the one meant to be their mate will be utterly unaffected by their magic. Veelas also only choose one mate in their life. Only one.

She blinks a few times. Molly Weasley needs to know this, immediately, before she does anything worse to alienate poor Fleur in regards to Fleur’s relationship with Bill.

Vanora Marion deSlizarse is born in 1011 to Galiena and Uriel. Elfric just thinks both of his siblings are weird about wanting to sex or marry anything and declares they can both have at it, as he will not be doing so. No one in the school seems very surprised by this, but at least it means the castle has a dedicated teacher for Mind Magic and Necromancy.

Hermione has to stop reading and take a break, shaken and heartsick, when she comes across a letter dated eleventh November of 1012, but it holds no greeting or signature. There are only three words: Brice is dead.

The next letter is dated six months later. It’s dry and almost formal, but it’s something. It’s about his third grandchild, Vanora, wandering about with a toddler’s usual lack of grace while babbling in a mix of Parseltongue, Old English, and Cumbric. The twin grandchildren, Drystan and Paynel, are old enough to start getting into mischief, though with a large and watchful family, it’s nothing that ever endangers their lives.

Galiena and Uriel’s wedded bliss. Fortunata’s successful career as a diplomatic magical envoy who offers the services of Defence to those who need help. Zuri, Imeyna, and Ouen’s studies in the castle. Salazar and Marion’s happiness. The joy that Godric and Sedemai take in their four children. Then it’s five, the last they choose to have in fear of risking Sedemai’s health. Alicia having the first of her children with no husband necessary, she is happy as she is, thank you very much.

If there is a common theme through all the letters, Hermione would name it loneliness. Nizar doesn’t talk about courting or dating anyone, or even mention men in any detail as he had in the past in regards to both Anselmet and Peregrine.

“Then why Snape?” Hermione wonders crossly, feeling like she’s staring at another large puzzle with too many pieces missing. “What is it you see that we don’t?”

No, she quickly realizes. That’s the wrong question. It would be more accurate to wonder what Snape allows Nizar to see that he’ll show to no one else.

Hermione sighs. Slytherins.

She doesn’t know she’s discovered that fateful year and stumbles over Elfric’s death. The letter is so messy it’s hard to piece any of the details together.

Nizar was still trying to write it for her, Hermione realizes. He never gave up on the idea that she’d see these letters. Maybe he already knew of a way to see them delivered and forgot to mention it before.

Of course he did. Hermione doubts she would be holding these letters otherwise.

Kanza and Betisa Slytherin brighten the rest of 1015 and 1016, even if grief never stops lacing Nizar’s words. Hermione’s heart aches in her chest, thinking that none of it is fair at all. Nizar had been so happy.

Then it’s 1017. The portrait. The shock of knowing what would need to be done.

Of the passing years finally allowing Nizar to discover the identity of that “strange old wizard” at last.

Nizar writes of how he and Salazar realized they couldn’t tell the other Founders. It was just instinct, not even Divination, but somehow it was understood that the others never knew. Salazar and Nizar inform the existing Founders’ portraits instead, swearing them to secrecy. No one is pleased about it—least of all Salazar, who started it all before he ever had the choice to begin.

Time is a circle, Nizar writes, but there is nothing of kindness about it.

Be well, dearest friend. You won’t know me when we meet again, but I hope I still remember you.

Chapter Text

Hermione lifts the up the last sheet of ancient paper and realizes she’s run out of letters. That was the last line Nizar wrote to her, over nine hundred seventy-eight years ago.

She pulls the scrolls out from beneath the other pillow and removes another leather band that feels like silk, her hands shaking. The first scroll makes her gasp. It’s herself, so tiny and so young, standing just behind an unconscious cave troll in a destroyed bathroom. The image moves like a Wizarding photograph, but it’s a set memory playing across the paper, not magical captured impressions. The next one is also of her, writing on a scroll with a quill while looking up on occasion, as if searching for someone. That was last year; she’s wearing her earrings from the Yule Ball because the sight of them made Ron turn unfortunate colors.

Somehow, Hermione isn’t surprised that the last image is of herself smiling like a mad fiend over a pile of books. Bravery, vengeance, and intelligence. Harry always did have a fondness for those particular attributes.

Oh. Well. That actually explains a lot about why Nizar would be interested in Professor Snape. It was just a bit less odd before she read all of this.

And you had a crush on Nizar for three months. Hermione buries her face in her hands, feeling a hot blush against her palms. That just made everything awkward again.

On the plus side, learning who Nizar actually is has done an excellent job of causing that awkward crush to be very, very dead. She never once thought of Harry that way, and never wanted to, either.

Hermione carefully puts the scrolls back into their single roll, sliding the leather band back into place to bind them. The last letter is put back in its envelope, labeled number one hundred fifteen; the other envelopes are all carefully checked to be certain they’re closed before she uses the leather ribbon to tie them back together again. She gets out her wand and then peeks out between the curtains. The sky is just beginning to lighten in the east, which means it’s almost six o’clock.

She feels utterly wretched, and strangely elated. This is the sort of problem she’d missed dealing with, the delight of a puzzle, and her best friend gave it back to her again. Just in a very roundabout fashion.

Hermione dismisses the Shield Charm, but not Muffliato. “Dobby?” she calls softly.

Dobby appears in front of her a moment later, rubbing at his large green eyes. “Dobby is being here, Miss Granger—Miss Granger is upset!” Dobby blurts in surprise, staring up at her in concern.

Hermione presses her finger to her lips, very glad she hadn’t dismissed Muffliato. Dobby nods his understanding. “I’m not upset. I’ve just been reading sad things.” She grimaces when the elf looks at her in disbelief. “All right, I am upset, but not…I don’t really have the right words at the moment.” She snags her dressing gown from its hook and puts it on over her pyjamas. Then she shoves her feet into her slippers before gathering up the letters and scroll bundle. “Can you take me to Professor Slytherin’s classroom, Dobby? I know it’s early, but he’s expecting me.”

Dobby tilts his head until the tip of sock-clad his ear is dragging on the ground. “Miss Granger is knowing who The Protector is.”

“Well. He sort of. Told me,” Hermione manages, glancing at what she’s carrying. “Wait. You know?”

“All elves of Hogwarts be knowing that,” Dobby says, as if it’s supposed to be obvious. Then he takes her arm in a gentle grasp and Apparates them directly to the Defence classroom. “Dobby must be going to help in the kitchen for morning. Is Miss Granger going to be all right?”

“Yes, Dobby.” Hermione makes herself smile. “Go on. Thank you.”

After the house-elf leaves, Hermione regards the door while biting her lip. The cast-iron S is so simple, and yet suddenly so intimidating. Turned one way, it resembles a serpent, and turned the other, it’s an S. She wonders if she needs to turn it to be knocking on the correct door, but she can’t remember which way the professor twisted it to—

Oh, she is dithering again! Hermione knocks on the door with a firm hand and waits.

She’s almost certain no one is going to answer until she finally hears the doorknob turn. It takes quite a bit to stand her ground when the door opens, revealing Professor Slytherin dressed in what looks like very old-styled white pyjamas from…China, maybe? Not pyjamas, then, not with those sleeves and the embroidery at the cuffs.

“You look terrible!” Hermione blurts out when she sees his face. He looks exhausted, or ill, or maybe both.

“Uh—thank you?” Nizar rubs at his face, attempts to smooth his tangled hair, and opens the door wider before gesturing for her to come in. Nygell isn’t on his perch, and the three children are sleeping in their portraits. “Rough night. Didn’t go to bed until late. Or very early. I don’t actually know.”

“Oh.” Hermione wants to know what happened, but she is still a student and he is still a teacher. “Are you all right?” she asks instead. She wants to hug him, but that also isn’t proper.

“I will be. Ran to the Heights last night. Filky, please, I will love you forever if you bring tea.”

The house-elf looks up from where she is stirring the fire back to life. “Filky be doing so, Professor!” she says cheerfully. Then she reaches out to stroke Kanza’s lifted head before Disapparating.

“Too much cheerful. Too early. No.” Nizar walks over to the table, sits, and then rests his face on the tabletop. “Did you not sleep?”

Hermione tries not to smile. The scowling Professor Slytherin they see in the Great Hall in the morning is the improved version, then. “Er, no sir. I was reading. Uhm. Everything.”

When the tea tray appears on the table with three cups, a steaming pot, and tiny breakfast rolls in dishes, Nizar says, “You can sit down, you know. If you haven’t slept, you need tea as much as I do.”

“You did mention several times that you missed tea.” Hermione gingerly takes a seat across from him, keeping her back to the wall so that she can see the hallway off the sitting room. If there are three cups, there is still a Potions Master in these quarters, and she does not want to be startled out of her wits if he suddenly appears behind her. “In the letters, I mean.”

Nizar lifts his head and pours tea, glares at the cup, adds sugar, and stirs it by moving his finger in a circle to swirl the liquid instead of bothering with a spoon. “Did I?”

Hermione copies him, though she adds cream and uses a real spoon. “Yes. They did finally properly explain what a Horcrux is, too. I’ve been wondering about that since January.”

He gives her a confused look before his expression clears. “Oh! I’d entirely forgotten you’d asked about them during that incident with the Horcrux in the rubbish room aspect. I take it you looked up Horcruxes in the library afterwards?”

“And there was nothing to be found,” Hermione says. “Not a thing about Horcruxes! All I knew prior to last night is that it’s an Old English word that means evil jar.”

Nizar lifts his teacup. “We called them soul jars, actually, though evil is the better translation.”

Hermione nods her agreement. She can’t think of circumstances in which a Horcrux wouldn’t be used for evil. “Uh. The letters. I can’t keep them safe, not in the dorm. And I think you should read them, sir.”

Nizar drains half of his tea before he speaks again, which gives Hermione time to sip at her own tea. The familiar act soothes her rattled nerves. “Are they that informative?”

“Yes, sir,” Hermione replies. “They’re, uh…they’re very you. Wait, did you say you ran all the way to the Heights last night? The Heights of Brae? The hills that are over five miles away?”

“I did, yes.”

“It was snowing last night,” Hermione says in complete disapproval.

“Sleeting, actually. Trust me, after a certain point? The ice doesn’t stand a chance.” Nizar starts to look more alert. “Questions, then?”

“Oh. Yes.” Hermione tries to put her thoughts in order. “I—you don’t remember me at all, do you? Because of the Preservation Charms being interrupted by the painting being moved, I mean.”

Nizar shakes his head. “No, I don’t. I’m sorry. I don’t remember any of you from…then.”

“It’s okay. I understand why,” Hermione starts to say, but he narrows his eyes.

“It is not all right.” Nizar glares down at the cup he’s already managed to empty and pours a second one. “How many terrible revelations can you handle in a single day, Miss Granger?”

“I’ve already read through twenty-seven years of revelations, and not all of them were kind,” Hermione says, thinking of his last written words. “I’ve already cried about it several times. I suppose a few more won’t hurt.”

Nizar smiles at her. “Sorted correctly,” he murmurs. “I’m sure you remember how much of this school’s history has been corrupted between then and now.”

“Given that you speak of it often, and Professor Salazar is throwing an absolute fit about it in History class?” Hermione summons a wobbly smile. “It’s hard to avoid, sir. That and, well, no one has mentioned anything directly, but given what happened to the house-elves’ contract, you and Professor Salazar suspect it was deliberate.”

“No. We know it was deliberate,” Nizar corrects, but he’s staring down into his teacup instead of looking at her. “The Preservation Charms are not the only cause of my faulty memories, Miss Granger. The man who crafted this school’s divisions, its rivalries and its false history—I recalled only recently that he cast Obliviscaris Omnia at my portrait.”

Hermione feels herself blanch. “Forget everything,” she whispers. “Oh, God.”

“Such magic was considered utter anathema in our day, even by those who were inclined to be evil,” Nizar says. “It’s one of the only protections the portrait didn’t bear. I don’t remember anything of the next fifty years after the casting of that spell, and it remains—it’s difficult to recall things with any real clarity until the end of the 1700s. I may never be able to remember things the way that I should.” He snorts. “Even some of the flashbacks I’ve been having are blank spots.”

“That’s…” Hermione bites her lip. “Terrible. It’s awful. It’s not fair!”

He looks baffled. “To who?”

“To you, you—!” Hermione winces. “It’s not fair to you.”

Nizar suddenly grins at her. “I very much want to know what you were about to call me.”

Hermione ducks her head. “I really, really shouldn’t say. It’s not polite.”

“I suppose it depends on who you’re wishing to speak to right now.”

Hermione jerks her head up to stare at him. “But—”

Nizar sighs. “Just because I don’t recall doesn’t mean I do not understand.”

Can we be friends?” Hermione asks hesitantly. “I mean, it’s…not proper, is it?”

“In public? Certainly not,” Nizar replies. “But there was no stupidity about friendship between those of different rank and ages in our day. In fairness to the fact that it’s 1996, however—if you were younger, I wouldn’t consider it at all, but you’ll be seventeen in September. An arbitrary date does not magically make you suddenly more mature, intelligent, or capable than you already are. That does not mean that certain standards of behavior I set for myself will be lessened, and I certainly would expect you to be properly behaved in public.”

Hermione swallows and says, “I was going to call you, uhm, a dingbat.”

“That’s it?” He starts laughing. “That’s the worst of it? Truly? Given the bruise you once left on Draco Malfoy’s face, I would have expected something a bit more fiery!”

“I left a bruise in third-year? You got to see it?” Hermione asks, smiling.

“Of course I got to see it. He whinged about being punched by a word I’ll not be repeating. I told him he deserved worse. Draco wouldn’t speak to me for a week until he finally crept out of the dorms one night and said he was sorry for saying that word.” Nizar seems amused. “I asked if he was going to apologize to you, and he said he didn’t know how. Given how bad the rivalries were at the time, and how long it took me to push you stubborn idiots into seeing each other as people instead of labels…well, I can’t really blame him for not knowing how. Also, he was afraid you would actually remove some of his teeth with your fist if he approached you again that term.”

“I probably would have.” Hermione feels an easy sort of relief settle on her shoulders. She hasn’t lost her best friend. It’s going to be very, very different, but she can adjust to different. She adjusted from being an overachieving swot with no friends in primary school to an overachieving witch who could do magic sent off to a magical boarding school just fine. “Draco did apologize, though. At the end of winter break in January.”

“Took him long enough. I hope it was suitable.”

“It was baffling!” Hermione blushes when he laughs again. “Yes, it was ‘suitable,’ but it was still confusing. Even with things better than they were. I didn’t ever expect Draco Malfoy to do that. I really didn’t expect him to accept partial citizenship in the UK, especially as a noble directly responsible to the Queen! That’s…it’s…”

“That is the sign of a young man who wants to be better,” Nizar says quietly.

Hermione finds herself once again wondering if it was Draco who sent the fountain pen. She’s been using it, but if he sent it, she can’t tell. He hasn’t said a word. “I suppose so.”

“I’m surprised you’re not asking about my hair. That’s what Black and Lupin wanted to know.”

“Remus and Sirius know?” Hermione asks in surprise. “And—er—I suppose Professor Snape would know, too.”

“Never be in close confines with a werewolf within the days before a full moon if you are trying to keep a secret,” Nizar says wryly. “Granted, the first time I met both of them, I didn’t know, either. It was the second visit to Grimmauld Place that let that particular cat out of the bag. And yes, Professor Snape knows. He’s the first person I told after I found out, and it was not by sudden recollection. That was by being sensible enough to write myself a letter.”

“That’s the same day you jumped out of the second floor window,” Hermione guesses, and he nods. “Er, how did Professor Snape handle the news?”

“Like himself. He’s a very particular sort of person, Miss Granger. It was a deep shock.” Nizar rests his chin on one hand. “I’ve mentioned age being no barrier to friendship in my day? In the magical world, if you were old enough to seek an apprenticeship at age fourteen, you were considered to be an adult, one capable of making their own decisions. An intimate relationship between an apprentice-age student and an adult was only considered inappropriate if you were also apprenticed to that same adult. Your teachers do not share those views. Professor Snape especially does not share those views. Fortunately, I am forty-two years old, and thanks to the portrait, most certainly older than he is.”

“Right.” Hermione still thinks it’s odd. She is probably always going to think it odd. “That does explain what you said in your letters about Eithnemael.”

Nizar’s expression goes blank with a lack of recognition. “Eithnemael?”

“She taught me Blood Magic, Father,” Brice’s portrait says, gaining Hermione’s attention. He is awake and giving Nizar a dry look. “Very inconvenient to discover your future spouse in someone you cannot even court until the apprenticeship is done. Oh—God, you don’t remember her at all, do you?” Brice asks sadly.

“No, but it’s probably a minor miracle that I remember Gedeloc,” Nizar says. “Tell me about her later, please.”

Hermione desperately changes the subject back to what it had been. “Sirius?”

“He discovered his son by marriage was safe and contended with the realization that he’d lost him in all legally binding senses of the word on the same day,” Nizar says. “Lupin told me that to say Sirius Black was upset is to vastly understate the case.”

“How do you feel about…uhm, that? We always thought he was your godfather until the Prophet began printing all of this.”

“Oh. Well. The man I’m dating and the man who was once my father by legal marriage tried to kill each other. Often.” Nizar grins. “Aside from the awkwardness, I think that’s funny.”

“You would,” Hermione says, rolling her eyes before her brain catches up to her. “Uh—I mean—!”

He laughs again. “Would it make it any less awkward if I called you Hermione?”

Hermione feels her face heat. “I don’t know. Let’s try it and find out?”

“Fair enough, Hermione,” Nizar agrees.

Her cheeks are still burning, but she’s not going to let that be the end of it yet. Maybe if she’s still bothered in a week she’ll ask him to stop, at least until she’s graduated from Hogwarts. “I don’t need to ask about your hair and eyes. You told me in your letters.”

“Oh.” Nizar looks surprised. “Then they really are informative, aren’t they?”

“Uh, yes. You said one of the reasons that you learned how to be a Metamorphmagus is because you—” Hermione hesitates. “You hated being compared to your father all the time. To James Potter. So you only changed that, and you were seventeen by then, and just doing that meant that you didn’t. Look like him anymore, I mean. Not really.”

“Oh,” Nizar is saying just as Professor Snape declares, “That actually makes perfect sense.”

Hermione squeaks. She seated herself so that she would have some warning, and still Professor Snape managed to appear without her noticing!

Unlike Nizar, Snape is almost dressed for the day but for a missing jacket and robe. “You look abominable this morning, Nizar.”

Nizar smiles. “Beats lying down in dainty repose.”

“That was not dainty repose. That was the ungainly sprawl of a dying idiot,” Snape counters, reaching for the third teacup. “Good morning, Miss Granger,” he says in a far more civil tone, even if it sounds stilted.

“Er. Good morning, s-sir,” Hermione stutters.

“It is too early for me to attempt to bite your head off,” Snape replies in a stone dry voice, sitting down next to Nizar. “I will be reserving that for after seven o’clock.”

“Then I’m safe for at least forty minutes,” Hermione says, and then flinches. “Sir.”

Snape sips tea and glares at her. “Miss Granger, in four-and-a-half years, I have yet to cause you harm despite the fact that you personally set me on fire. Please stop squeaking in terror.”

Hermione stares at him. “You—you know about—you knew that was me?”

“You three were not subtle. I’ve yet to meet first-years who know the meaning of the word.” Snape lifts an eyebrow. “Besides, that incident was useful. It told me that Quirrell was whom I needed to concern myself with regarding the Stone, even if I was not yet aware of what sort of concern it would turn out to be.”

“Those were some carefully worded conversations the two of you had.” Nizar looks to be giving in to the inevitable by eating one of the house-elves’ stuffed rolls.

“Please. Those were not conversations; those were threats,” Snape responds. “The difficulty was in leaving Quirrell to wonder whose side the threats originated from.”

“Which—which one of them was actually afraid of fire?” Hermione asks. “Quirrell, or V—” She grits her teeth. “Or Voldemort?” There. She said it without hesitating. Even Snape looks pleased, for given levels of him ever being pleased about anything.

“Oh, definitely Quirrell. Voldemort didn’t have to concern himself yet with the limits of a physical form.” The smile on Nizar’s face is the feral, vicious one she most often sees when he plays as their enemy during dueling practice.

Filky reappears in the sitting room, but she gives Nizar’s pyjamas a look of complete offence that makes Hermione choke off a giggle. It must be the lack of dressing gown. “Is the professors wishing for breakfast here?” Filky asks. “And does Filky need to bring breakfast for Miss Granger?”

“I think it would be very much remarked upon if you did, so the latter would be a bad idea,” Nizar answers. “Oh, but that updated timetable would not be amiss.”

“Yes, Professor Slytherin!” Filky bobs her head and Disapparates, but not before Hermione catches sight of two tiny silver rings in her left ear.

“Jewelry,” Hermione murmurs. “Oh, I’m so glad.”

“They like it. The elf from Burgos looked to be wearing their own body weight in silver.” Nizar’s hand snaps out to catch the timetable that pops into the air before it can land on the breakfast rolls.

Hermione smiles as he hands the paper to her. “You did say that you kept playing Quidditch.” He also talked about how much he missed the Gryffindor team, but she doesn’t want to mention that right now.

“It was something to do.”

“Why a new timetable, though?” Hermione asks, unfolding it. “We just received one of these on the sixth—why am I being listed for N.E.W.T. Defence?” she gasps in shock. Her eight o’clock block for Monday is now free and empty, just like the rest of the week. Everyone else is in class; it’s the perfect time to do homework.

“Because you are so far beyond what the fifth-years are doing in Defence that holding you back would do you no favors at all,” Nizar replies. “Congratulations: you now have Defence at two o’clock Monday afternoon and at ten o’clock Tuesday morning.”

Hermione can’t tell if she’s excited or terrified. “Professor McGonagall approved this? What will everyone say?”

“They’ll be preoccupied by Miss Chang, who is being shuffled up to the seventh-year N.E.W.T. class. I don’t think she’ll be ready to sit the exam at the end of term. Perhaps halfway through next term, but not now. She shares your difficulty; to keep her with the sixth-years would be to stifle her progress, and I refuse to do that to anyone.” He shakes his head. “I need to move Ginny Weasley into the fifth-year class, but I have concerns about certain gingers attempting to murder me. Bloody sexist rubbish!”

Hermione blinks a few times, startled by the outburst. “Ginny would be—she could do it, though! Easily!”

“Not the O.W.L., but yes, otherwise she could, and I’ve a stumbling block in the way.” Nizar crosses his arms and looks furious.

“While he is sulking, do please review the rest of your timetable,” Snape tells her. “Yours was much easier to rearrange than Miss Chang’s.”

“I still say you should just give in and tell Filius to get her a Time-Turner. It would be easier.”

“No, Nizar,” Snape growls.

“We are not dealing with an unmedicated werewolf, an escaped convict, or Dumbledore convincing children to be his minions right now, Severus,” Nizar says. “Time-Turner. Or just suffer by needing to repeat everything to Miss Chang at four o’clock each Monday instead of not needing to worry about it at all.”

“I hate it when you’re sensible!”

Hermione stares determinably down at her timetable, blushing like fire and hoping no one notices. That does not sound like arguing, for all that they’re very good at making it appear that way. That sounds far more like flirting, and she does not want to know!

There is a note from Professor McGonagall on the new timetable that says she expects Hermione to be able to keep up with the assigned work. That’s not just Professor Slytherin’s approval, that’s her Head of House’s full confidence.

She’s being treated like—like she’s intelligent. It takes quite a bit not to hug her new timetable to her chest.

“Wait. What about exams?” Hermione asks, glancing up at Nizar when there seems to be a lull in the flirting.

“I am absolutely confident that you will have no trouble taking the O.W.L. for Defence at the end of the year, as well as the sixth-year exam, without any difficulty at all.”

“But how?” Hermione asks, trying not to wail in despair. “It’s the O.W.L.s! I’ll have to study—”

“Because there is no end of term exam for anyone in my classes except for those sitting O.W.L.s and N.E.W.T.s” Nizar gives her an innocuous look that utterly fails at being innocent. “My last assigned essay of the term, due in June, is the final exam.”

Hermione gapes at him. Of all the devious—! “Are you going to tell anyone?”

“Oh, certainly. About a week before it’s due. The staff are all in the midst of taking wagers on who will be crowding the library in a panic because they thought to skive off on the last essay, thinking good marks on the final exam would give them the means to pass my class.” Nizar grins like the Cheshire Cat from the animated Disney film Hermione saw as a child. “That sort of chaos is always fun to witness.”

Hermione frowns as a niggling suspicion she’s had all night suddenly blooms. “You were almost a Hat Stall because you were arguing with the Sorting Hat, weren’t you?”

Nizar glances at Snape, who is rolling his eyes. “I told you. Dangerous guessing.”

Snape sighs. “I’m still so very glad you argued with that sodden Hat.”

Hermione is, too, though for what are probably very different reasons. “Uh, you know, if you told Ginny about wanting to move her up a year…she would probably be able to convince her parents. Probably via guilt.”

Nizar grins again.

“You—you already have!” Hermione forgets herself and kicks him under the table. “You utter Slytherin!”

“Thank you for noticing,” Nizar says dryly. “And I’m very glad you don’t seem to be able to kick people as hard as you punch them.”

Hermione does not hide behind her timetable when Snape scowls at her. “Uhm. Is anyone else being moved about?”

“Miss Lovegood is also about to inflict her charming company on the fifth-years you’re leaving behind.” Nizar smirks. “They deserve what they’re getting. Dobby!”

Dobby pops into the room in the spot where Filky vacated from a few minutes earlier. “It is still being breakfast,” he says sternly, but then he spies Hermione. “Does Miss Granger need to be taken back to Gryffindor Tower?”

“Yes, please. Be subtle. No one needs to know that she was anywhere else but her bed for the entire night and morning,” Nizar instructs. “You need to get ready for class, Miss Granger.”

Hermione nods, standing up and hastily putting her empty teacup back onto the tray. “Yes, sir. Uh—you really should read the letters,” she says, and then Dobby has Apparated her right back to her curtain-enclosed bed. This time it’s Dobby who puts his finger over his lips before he Disapparates again.

She lets out a breath and flops down onto her bed, staring up at the canopy. “Oh. Oh, dear.”

“Are you awake early again, Granger?” Blishwick asks in a testy mutter.

“As always,” she replies in a sweet voice, rolling her eyes when Blishwick swears at her. Honestly.

Hermione sits back up and slips out of bed, grabbing clean clothing for the day before retreating into the bathroom. None of the other girls will be up until the lure of breakfast drags them out of bed.

She’s running a brush through her hair when she realizes that she’s already plotting ways to convince Ron to learn Occlumency. It won’t be the first clue she’s ever shoved under his oblivious nose.

Maybe it’s a good thing the Sorting Hat never hesitated with me, Hermione thinks, and bursts into tears.

Chapter Text

Severus sits in uncomfortable silence for a few minutes after Miss Granger departs via house-elf. Nizar is eying the pile of ancient letters on the table as if they’re a potentially lethal puzzle, but he doesn’t seem to mind Miss Granger’s newfound knowledge. Severus is still not convinced that informing her was the best idea. Obliviation would suit his paranoia, but he has to admit, Granger did prove that she could withstand the harshest Legilimens he knows how to cast.

“I’ve been thinking about something.”

Severus glances at Nizar to find that the other is studying him in concern. “What?” He grimaces at the sharp tone of his voice and tries again. “What are you thinking about?”

Obliviscaris Omnia,” Nizar says. Years of spycraft keep Severus from flinching. He never thought he would encounter a spell he disliked more than Crucio, but the Cruciatus Curse sounds merciful in comparison. Even Lockhart was not affected by his backfiring Obliviate to such an extent. “I was wondering if another practitioner of Mind Magic could see that damage if they were looking for it.”

Severus frowns. “I’ve encountered Obliviate markers in a mind before, but for this—would Salazar not be the better choice?”

Nizar shakes his head. “No. I trust him, truly, but this would…all of those gaps, all of those missing memories, Severus. Sal would know what isn’t there, and it would upset him. You’ve already been in my head without finding it traumatic. Entertaining, maybe.”

“You’d just had a panic attack. It was not entertaining.” Severus considers the idea. He doesn’t know if it would be of assistance or not to point out those markers to Nizar, but he can’t think of any reason why it would be harmful. “When?”

“Now, if you aren’t opposed.”

Severus glares at him. “You’ve only just mentioned it. Why do you want to do this immediately? Please tell me you have a reason that isn’t ridiculous.”

“I’m not sure if the reason is ridiculous or not.” Nizar smiles. “Hallowe’en of 1991, the evening you had an encounter with a fluffy Cerberus.”

“I’m tempted to refuse outright because of that fucking pun, Nizar.”

“My apologies,” Nizar says in a way that means he isn’t sorry at all. “Whatever happened to Fluffy, anyway?”

“Dumbledore sent him back to Greece rather than allow a dangerous Cerberus to roam through the Forbidden Forest,” Severus replies.

Nizar scowls. “Oh, so it’s all right to have a forest full of fucking man-eating giant spiders, but a Cerberus born and raised on British soil by Rubeus Hagrid is too dangerous? Please do keep giving me reasons to dislike Hogwarts’ Headmaster.”

“We would be sitting here all day, Nizar.” Severus gives him a pointed look. “You were talking about Hallowe’en in 1991.”

“Right, yes—the troll. Granger lied,” Nizar says.

Severus blinks a few times and pinches the bridge of his nose. “Please continue to explain so that this conversation will make sense.”

“I asked Granger to mentally show me the incident with the troll when she brought it up. It was also an excellent means to determine her understanding of projecting thoughts with Mind Magic. She’d…” Nizar looks discomfited. “Miss Granger had hidden herself in that particular bathroom for the whole of the afternoon and evening due to someone’s thoughtless words. The child and Weasley realized that she wasn’t present at dinner to know that there was a troll in the castle and went to go find her. They were right to do so, as the troll had already gone right into the bloody bathroom. I don’t know if their telling any of the available staff of the danger would have been enough to save her, as they rushed and still barely made it in time to create a decent distraction. When you and Minerva arrived, Granger realized that even if her rescuers told the truth, they would be in trouble, so she claimed all responsibility.

“Miss Granger desperately seeks approval from authority figures, and the only way she knows how to attain it is by her academic knowledge and her good standing in authority’s eyes by proving herself to be a responsible student. She was willing to discard that approval out of loyalty to those who’d risked their lives. She’s always been willing to discard that desired approval when it comes to doing the right thing. Even if I never recall anything else of those years, Severus, I’d like to remember her.”

Severus narrows his eyes. “What is the other reason?”

Nizar doesn’t seem surprised by the question. “Miss Granger once told me that she thinks of that child as family, more so than her actual family. Given that the stack of letters meant for her far outweighs those written to anyone else? I think I must have felt similarly.”

“Slytherins and claiming things.” Severus tries to sound derisive and can’t quite manage it. What Nizar just described—Severus once thought the same of Lily. “Is that why you’ve asked her to earn a mastery in Defence with you?”

“No, I was trying to claim Miss Granger for my own nefarious purposes before I ever read that stupid scroll,” Nizar says with an amused smile. “I still find it funny that Sal’s portrait remembered that I wrote myself a letter, but Salazar himself forgot it existed.”

Severus raises an eyebrow. “Funny is not the word you were actually thinking.”

“True,” Nizar admits. “I was actually thinking that it was fucking depressing.”

“Nizar—” Severus bites back useless words. “Fine. I’ll do it.”

“Thank you.” Nizar lowers his eyes; when he looks up again, there is an openness to his gaze that tells Severus there is no mental shielding in his way. A silent Legilimens casting became easier for him as his time as a spy progressed, as if prying into the dark corners of Voldemort’s life made it easier to pry into the minds of others.

The very first difficulty Severus faces, something he observed in December, is that there are so many empty spaces where memory should be. Here, Nizar’s voice whispers. The sensation is similar to being taken by the hand, and then he is standing in the memory of Utredus Gaunt’s 1234 visit to the Slytherin Common Room.

Severus lingers only long enough to observe that Nizar has not been exaggerating in order to spare his own feelings. Gaunt’s appearance is nothing like Elfric deSlizarse. Even the corpse taken from the Gaunt tomb did not look like that. There is something eldritch about that reanimated body, a strong impression of wrongness.

He has no wish to witness this memory. It’s merely a starting point that shows him what the first and possibly worst Obliviscatur point looks like. There is a bright light that has to be the flare of the spell, and then nothing but a few connecting lines that look like…

Severus peers closer. Static on a telly’s screen when the antenna loses the signal. That is what it’s most mindful of. He skips past Gaunt into earlier memories to find other gaps. The static lines are also present in those places, evidence of the spell’s widespread damage.

He pages through wisps of memory, as if finding his way through a card catalogue, until he discovers something coherent enough to be considered an intact recollection of events. Nizar is sitting at a slanted desk in a part of the portrait Severus never saw—and he knows it’s the portrait, not a misplaced memory. Nizar looks close enough to himself that it’s difficult to see a difference, but while Nizar’s surroundings are three-dimensional, they are quite obviously composed from skillfully applied paint.

Severus wanders closer out of curiosity and finds Nizar gritting his teeth as he attempts to write a sentence. It’s not the handwriting of a child lacking muscle control, but that of an adult who still learning how to use quill and ink.

“Well, that is terrible, isn’t it?” Nizar murmurs, smiling down at his own shoddy work. “Yes, it is,” he says in response to unseen hissing. “I have other books for comparison, Kanza. This is truly gods-awful.”

That isn’t French, Spanish, or Middle English. That’s modern English. By accent and vocabulary, possibly the mid-1600s.

Four centuries after Obliviscaris Omnia, and Nizar was still relearning how to write. God.

Kanza raises her head, revealing that she was curled around the black inkpot. As with Nizar, the basilisk looks very much like herself, right down to the expression of serpentine offence.

“Did I say I would cease making the attempt? Did I?” Nizar picks up a bit of stained cloth and cleans the pheasant quill, which also doesn’t look like it’s made of paint. Nizar carried it into the painting with him, perhaps, though the quill didn’t survive the painting’s destruction. “I do not know why you insist I do this. Why must a portrait learn how to write?” He smiles and rolls up the scroll while Kanza hisses in response. “‘Not a portrait,’ she declares. You are very much offended by the idea, aren’t you? My vain girl.”

Severus abruptly abandons the memory. It’s far too mindful of the many times Severus had chided himself for his friendship with a portrait, something that would definitely be seen as a character flaw among others. It was a foolish thought of youth, still unwanted; the flaw did not lie with the friendship, even if Nizar had never proven to be anything more than paint and canvas.

He keeps going, searching for those static markers, but it’s a hopeless task. They’re numerous, far more markers than memory. Too many times, Severus finds those static markers connecting blank places to blank places.

Memory isn’t linear, which makes things so much more difficult when he has no specific event to search for. He intended to go backwards, to the time when Hogwarts was Hogewáþ, only to find himself in the wrong era entirely.

He is standing in the portrait’s stone sitting room, watching Nizar watch himself. Severus’s hair is long, hanging halfway down his back and thus able to fly out along with his robes as he paces back and forth.

This is a memory from 1982. Severus had used his meager savings to change his wardrobe, abandoning anything that reminded him of life as a Death Eater. He’d not yet cut his hair to the length he now prefers, which just brushes the top of his shoulder blades. Mid-July, perhaps?

“Did you really think Slughorn would be useful?” Nizar is asking. Severus is standing next to Nizar, and can see now what he could not in 1982. There is such relief etching Nizar’s features that it makes Severus’s chest hurt.

Not mid-July at all, then, but the last week of June. This is perhaps his third visit to the Common Room since finally daring to enter its confines after the term ended the previous week.

“No, but I was rather hoping someone would make him dead in the interim,” Severus’s younger self growls. “Preferably a student he’d been ignoring in favor of sniffing for money.”

“Horace is one of those types who will probably inconvenience everyone around him by insisting upon dying of old age,” Nizar responds dryly. “What are you going to do?”

“I don’t know.” Severus feels a bit of amusement at watching his younger self flop down on the sofa like a sulking teenager. “Perhaps I’ll simply make something up and place a wager on how long it takes to get myself sacked from this ludicrousness.”

“If you decide to make up your lesson plans without reference or guide, please do take me to your classroom so I can watch that disaster unfold,” Nizar says. Severus glances at him, and despite the mocking tone he’d heard that day, long ago, it’s not being reflected on Nizar’s face. His younger self is too busy staring at the ceiling to notice.

You survived. There had been such utter relief in those two words.

“Suggestions?” His 1982 self asks in frustration.

“Hello, nice to meet you, I’m a fucking teacher and I did this job for…a while.” Nizar shrugs. “I recall enough to be a resource, at least.”

“A resource that is one thousand years out of date!”

“I was painted in 1017. I’m not one thousand years old yet,” Nizar mutters. “Find someone among the staff who isn’t a complete imbecile to emulate when you discover a need for information that I lack.”

Severus’s younger self lifts his head and ends his useless contemplation of the ceiling. “I didn’t think of that. Granted, I doubt any of them want a thing to do with me.”

“None of them have stabbed you yet,” Nizar says. “Or was there a staff stabbing attempt and you were cruel enough not to inform me?”

Severus watches himself attempt to hide a smile. “Nizar, I would have been bragging about that during my last visit. How are you going to act as a resource, then?”

“First? By telling you to go to bed. You’re not a useful instructor if you’re falling asleep while sitting upright,” Nizar says. He sounds normal, just as Severus remembers, but there is a very odd expression on his face. “We can talk about setting Slughorn’s old curriculum on fire tomorrow. You can start over with something that isn’t stupid.”

“I don’t have the best luck in sleeping right now,” his younger self retorts.

Nizar rolls his eyes. “Did I or did I not teach you the basics of Mind Magic? Or have you forgotten both that and how to brew Dreamless Sleep?”

“You don’t have to be so bloody sarcastic about it!”

“If it gets a rise out of you, then yes I do,” Nizar says as Severus’s younger self stands up.

“That—that was not funny!”

“Absolutely it was. Good night, Severus.” Nizar waits until his sputtering evening guest departs the Common Room before letting out a frustrated shriek, one followed by a great deal of profanity in Castilian and Latin.

I do believe I just learned at least six new words, Severus thinks, bemused by the tirade.

“I didn’t need that sort of complication!” Nizar shouts. “No one needs that sort of complication!”

Kanza lifts her head out from Nizar’s collar and hisses a question.

“He was walking and talking and waving his hands about and being very expressive and he has nice hands,” Nizar says in a rush, leaning forward to rest his head against the painted wall. “This is terrible! He’s just—well, no.” Nizar lifts his head. “Severus is twenty-two now, isn’t he?” Then he groans and thumps his head against the wall again.

Kanza hisses out laughter, a sound Severus has become quite accustomed to translating. Then she climbs down Nizar’s arm and leg to drop to the floor, slithering away.

“Shut up!” Nizar yells after her. “That did not help! At all!” He pauses to listen. “Yes, I do think whoever decided portraits needed to worry about that sort of thing had completely inappropriate ideas, and they should have been stabbed before being allowed access to paint!”

Severus finds himself blinking away disorientation as he is abruptly ejected from the memory. “Sorry, sorry!” Nizar is holding up both hands, a wide grin on his face…and he is blushing. “That was about to be so much more awkward than it already was.”

“You realized it then?” Severus asks in disbelief. Without Mind Magic’s distance, he is now uncomfortably aware of what he was witnessing. “We’d only just begun to converse again!”

“To be fair, I did tell you the year of that particular realization before, if not in any detail. Twenty-sixth November, the same day I retrieved a certain trunk from the Grindylow-infested depths of the Black Lake.” To Severus’s confusion, Nizar is still blushing. “Why did you linger in that memory?”

“Curiosity. Unlike other memories I observed, you were very much the man I know now.” Severus hesitates. “You are that fond of my hands?”

“I’m very much fond of all of you!” Nizar ducks his head. “But—yes. They were quite distracting at the time. Revelatory, even.”

“What else?” Severus asks, caught by prurient interest.

Nizar gives him a bewildered look. “You’re not going to let this go, are you?”

“Absolutely not,” Severus replies, smirking. “Anything that leaves you this flustered is bound to be worthwhile.”

“Worthwhile,” Nizar repeats. Then he smiles, but there is hard-edged mischief to it that Severus learnt meant trouble long ago. “Only for a trade.”

Severus leans back. “You’re not serious.”

“It’s embarrassing, Severus. I refuse to pass along those sorts of secrets for free.”

“And if I were to simply go looking if we were to continue this Mind Magic experiment?” Severus reaches out to touch Nizar’s face, letting his fingers follow the fine plane of cheek to chin.

Nizar’s eyelids flutter, but he doesn’t give in to the teasing. “I would be a pathetic master of Mind Magic if I couldn’t keep you away from a specific memory, Severus. Besides—is there a reason to continue? Was there anything useful at all?”

Severus rests his thumb over Nizar’s lower lip. “Possibly. I think Salazar may still be correct in his belief that you’ll recall everything, though it will take quite a bit of time due to that damned spell.”

He drops his hand to consider the problem without distracting himself. “The connections between memories still exist, even if those pathways resemble…incomplete signals,” he finally settles on as a descriptor, not certain he’s ever discussed television concepts with Nizar in regards to how the devices actually function. “It would be helpful to know what those connections looked like immediately after the spell. I’d know if there had been improvement.”

“Unfortunately, I didn’t view my own thoughts during those centuries, so I don’t know if that impression has changed at all. I didn’t remember Mind Magic was a concept that existed until Aberforth asked me about it during his fourth year. I needed…” Nizar waggles his hand in the air, searching for words. “Prompting. There is a great deal that never snapped into place until I heard a word spoken or was asked a question.”

“Why did Aberforth wish to learn Mind Magic at age fourteen?” Severus wanted to learn it at a similar age, but he grew up in terrible conditions, endangered and paranoid.

“Because he didn’t trust his brother,” Nizar says.

Severus frowns. “He already distrusted Albus? At that age?”

“It wasn’t always like that. Not when Aberforth first came to school. He loved his brother.” Nizar looks troubled. “By his fourth year, something had definitely soured their relationship. I’ll not speak of that further; those were words granted to me in confidence. It’s Aberforth’s story to tell if he wishes to do so. What time is it?”

Severus reaches for his pocket watch to check the time. “Fifteen minutes until seven, and you’re still not dressed for the day.”

“Then we have almost an hour to ourselves before we would need to dedicate a bit of time to being decent for the students,” Nizar says.

“Or we could go to breakfast.”

Nizar gives him a look of exaggerated innocence. “We could do that, too.”

Severus realizes that he’s fighting a smile. “We’re not going to breakfast, are we?”

“You’re the one who keeps the lubrication in his quarters instead of leaving it in more convenient places.”

“That is a convenient place,” Severus counters, grabbing Nizar’s arm and Apparating them both downstairs.

 

*          *          *          *

 

“You missed this morning’s news,” Salazar says, tossing the Prophet down on Nizar’s plate as he walks past on his way to his seat at the staff table. Nizar is glad he hadn’t yet put food there. He has no desire to eat newsprint for lunch.

“I’d like to think if someone we didn’t care for dropped dead, you would have informed me before now, which means we haven’t been nearly so fortunate.” Nizar ignores Minerva’s attempt at making a disapproving noise in favor of unrolling the paper. The headline is a changing banner announcing that both Rufus Scrimgeour, Head Auror of the M.L.E., and Pious Thicknesse, a barrister within the M.L.E., are declaring their intent to run for Minister for Magic.

“They’re declaring their intent to run against Madam Bones, yet Fudge is still in office. I wonder if the Ministry knows something about Fudge that we don’t,” Nizar says.

“Doubtful. They’re both idiots,” Severus mutters under his breath as he joins them at the table. “Scrimgeour just happens to be a ruthless idiot who is good at management.”

“I would imagine Scrimgeour is furious that Madam Bones named Kingsley as her successor. By senior ranking, it should have been Scrimgeour.” Poppy directs a grim little smile at her lunch. “But then, Amelia was always far more sensible than that.”

“Who is Rufus Scrimgeour?” Nizar asks when the Prophet’s article discusses the man as if everyone should know everything about him already. They’re too busy waxing vicious poetic over the three contenders waiting “like vultures” to take Fudge’s seat.

“A complete wanker,” Salazar replies. Filius, Aurora, and Sasha do their best not to laugh outright in response, though Sasha fails at the attempt and hides her face with her napkin to muffle the sound.

“While educational, something more definitive than wanker would be useful,” Nizar says. Minerva stops glaring at Salazar for swearing at the staff table and grants Nizar the honor, instead.

Pomona leans back in her chair so she can see beyond everyone’s backs to look at Nizar. “I think the difficulty here, Nizar, is that the term is accurate.”

“Oh. Great.” Nizar sighs. “Shared opinion, then?”

“God, yes,” Rolanda says, stabbing at her plate while rolling her eyes. “He’s good at his job, and no doubt there. He wouldn’t have made Head Auror otherwise. But I’d rather spend three weeks speaking to nothing but a potted plant rather than be forced to engage that man in conversation for two minutes.”

Salazar puts a heaping spoonful of sugar into another cup of liquid compost coffee. Nizar has the experience of London to know that sugar is not an improvement. “He’s quite a bit like Brian Wulfric, little brother.”

Nizar, in the midst of trying to spear some bit of vegetable, accidentally obliterates it as his knife shrieks across the plate. “What.”

“Behave,” Salazar tells Nizar while lifting his coffee cup. “The fens of this island have enough pollution bubbling away in their depths.”

“I thought Brian Wulfric was not nearly as bad as the two of you hinted at, else the field carrion bit would likely have become reality.” Minerva lifts her eyebrow, glancing at first Salazar on her left, and Nizar on her right. “Well?”

“Brian came to the school a mostly-trained magician already—which was excellent, as we desperately needed more teachers,” Salazar explains. “The first difficulty was in finishing his education so that he could teach others proper, as that is the path he wished to pursue. However, Brian didn’t believe he had anything left to learn. Rowena was the only one with the patience not to strangle an eighteen-year-old upstart, but first we had to convince him to sit for lessons beneath her wing in the first place. Play on words not intended.”

“How did you fix that difficulty, I wonder?” Minerva asks, eyeing Salazar again.

“I dragged him up to the western battlements, hung him over the side by one ankle, and asked if he knew how to fly.” Nizar smiles at the memory. “Brian said that he could not. Then I asked him if, in all his wisdom, he had ever learned to levitate. He admitted that he had not. I told him there were no benefits in claiming skills one didn’t have, especially since I could have chosen to test his supposed perfect knowledge by dropping him without asking questions first.”

“Solved that difficulty quite nicely.” Salazar eyes his coffee and adds more sugar. The staff who overheard Nizar’s part of the tale are staring at Nizar and Salazar in displeasure intermixed with vague horror. “Brian was an excellent student after that, and a loyal teacher of Hogwarts, though he never learned how to stop being an utter prick.”

 Nizar glances at Severus. Unlike the others, Severus is regarding Nizar with a smile that too many mistake as malicious. “Yes?”

“Just admiring the efficiency of such a tactic,” Severus says in a bland voice, making a show of turning his attention back to his tea.

“I’m relieved to find he wasn’t irredeemable.” Dumbledore is bloody twinkling again. Nizar has not rested enough in the past few days to have any tolerance for twinkling. “I am named after him, after all.”

Nizar frowns. “How?”

“My full name is Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore,” Dumbledore replies.

“Parents couldn’t make up their minds, then?” Nizar asks blithely.

Dumbledore twinkles more brightly as he smiles. “I was their first child. I do believe that making the decision did give them some measure of difficulty, yes.”

Nizar shakes his head. “At least they didn’t do that shit to Aberforth.” Mention of Dumbledore’s brother does dim that irritating twinkle nicely.

“For the record, I’d like to state that I never want to be hung by the ankle from the battlements if my behavior or teaching is found wanting,” Aurora says.

Nizar grins at her. “Agreed!”

Aurora recounts her words and scowls. “Drat it, Nizar! I never want to be hung by the ankle from any height sufficient enough to cause me to splatter to death on the ground!”

Nizar mock-sighs. “Why must you be so particular?”

Pomona gets up from her chair, chin lifted in the air. “I’ve afternoon classes to prepare for, and you’re all bloody terrifying.”

“You’ve a greenhouse full of lethal plants. That is most certainly a matter of perspective, Pomona Sprout,” Salazar counters. He looks amused when Pomona huffs and leaves the table.

Nizar keeps the newspaper unrolled, leaving it on the table between his plate and Minerva’s, and stares at it when he isn’t trying to eat. Something about the image is bothering him, but it isn’t until the students are beginning to clear out of the Great Hall for afternoon classes that he realizes what it is.

“For fuck’s sake,” Nizar mutters, but has no time to act on the realization. Severus is snatching a small scroll out of the air, one with far too many green, scarlet, blue, and gold ribbons attached. Nizar scowls at the excess of ribbon. That isn’t even the correct shade of blue. Or green, for that matter.

“Albus is asking to see us during the last ten minutes of the lunch hour,” Severus murmurs. “The others received their own warnings. That man has never yet learned to be subtle.”

Nizar quietly disagrees, thinking that Dumbledore has chosen to be subtle for all the wrong occasions. “Where?”

“Staff lounge, first floor.”

Nizar nods, stands, and slugs back the last of his cooling tea. “I’ll be there. I need to do something first.” He exits through the rear door and shuts it before Apparating directly to his office. The scroll he selects is from the school’s unmarked supply, though he uses Bertram’s gifted quill and his own jar of ink, a deep green splashed with blue and gold undertones. The letter he writes is addressed to Madam Bones, but Nizar does not place his signature on it. Instead, he rolls it up, heats an ancient, preserved stick of green wax, and seals the scroll with the Deslizarse family crest. If that isn’t sign enough for Bones to realize who sent the warning, then she can join the idiots. “Winky!”

Winky appears immediately. “Yes, Professor Slytherin?”

He hands her the scroll after making certain the wax is dry. “I know you’re capable of subtlety. Please take this to Madam Amelia Bones, though I’m not aware of where she is currently working within the Ministry after her retirement as Head of the M.L.E. Just be certain that no one sees you deliver this to her.”

The elf beams at him and tucks the scroll into her favored pouch. “Winky likes doing bad things for good reasons!”

Sneaky things for good reasons,” Nizar corrects, smiling. “Thank you, Winky.”

Nizar Apparates from his office to the back stairwell that leads to the first floor, and nearly opens the door directly into Poppy’s face. “Oh! Well, I certainly have good timing.”

“Certainly not,” Poppy retorts, but then she smiles and hooks him about the elbow with her arm. “Staff meeting, dear?”

“Apparently so.” Nizar glances at her. “I ate breakfast.”

Poppy sniffs in disdain. “I said not a word.”

“You’re hauling me about by the arm. I do not believe words were necessary.” Nizar grins. “If I fall on my own face again, I’m certain you’ll be among the first to know.”

“It had best not happen at all, Nizar!”

All right. Perhaps he can learn to tolerate another Healer aside from Helga.

“I will be brief,” Dumbledore says when Nizar and Poppy enter the staff room. Aside from themselves, the only other occupants are Minerva, Filius, Aurora, Salazar, Hagrid, and Severus. “There has been another attempt by Voldemort’s followers to free imprisoned Death Eaters from Azkaban.”

“Another attempt.” Aurora narrows her eyes. “I heard nothing about a first attempt.”

“And there hasn’t been a hint of it in the Daily Prophet, Witch Weekly, or even Xenophilius’s Quibbler,” Filius says.

“The first attempt was made while Cornelius held his full authority, before certain accusations were made,” Dumbledore replies. “Nizar was kind enough to warn me that it was a possibility, thus Kingsley and several others—all Aurors not attached to the Order—thwarted the first attempt in January. With a second attempt made, this one halted by the Dementors themselves, Kingsley is making contingency plans. Fudge has obviously given the Dementors new instructions, but if he is driven out of office by this burgeoning turn of public opinion, we will have a new Minister who will need to be convinced of the danger. We both feel Madam Bones will listen to reason and prove herself capable of acting on policies to ensure that Azkaban remains secure.”

Nizar keeps his expression impassive, though inwardly he is grimacing. He isn’t certain about Bones yet, but she is still infinitely preferable to someone like Scrimgeour. One Brian Wulfric was enough to deal with. He’d hate to discover that Scrimgeour is Brian reincarnated.

“Rufus Scrimgeour is a harsh man, but he also would insist upon maintaining Azkaban’s security. He fought in the last war and helped to put several Death Eaters behind its walls.” Dumbledore pauses. “I’m afraid I know very little about Pious Thicknesse beyond witnessing his excellent service as barrister during trials of the Wizengamot. His sudden ambition regarding the office of Minister is a surprise. Thicknesse was never an Auror, so whether he will take these attempted prison escapes in the same serious vein as his contenders is unknown.”

Dumbledore glances at each of them in turn. Nizar meets his gaze with the proper amount of projected concern. The moment Dumbledore looks away, Nizar taps his hand against his robe pocket. Salazar looks at him from the other side of the room and nods, gaining Severus’s attention after Dumbledore dismisses them.

Nizar ducks into the first floor stairwell after waving off Filius, claiming it a shortcut. Filius chuckles at Nizar's attempt to keep his Apparitions within the castle to himself, but wanders off. The smile on Nizar’s face is genuine as he sits down on the first stairwell landing, ignoring the dust. Filius is almost ready to ask to be tied into the castle’s magic. Almost there. Nizar doesn’t know what the last nudge will be, but it won’t take much.

Then he casts a specific set of spells for listening charms, and his good mood vanishes as three bricks crack and a particularly thick cobweb falls from the ceiling. “You must be joking,” Nizar growls. Black wrote to him of finding similar in Grimmauld Place’s basement kitchen. It really does seem as if Dumbledore cannot cope with going through life without knowing fucking well everything, and with no thought in his head at all as to whether he should.

Severus joins him first, but Salazar ducks into the stairwell just behind him. “Why are we meeting in a cobweb-filled corridor when there are perfectly reasonable rooms elsewhere?” Salazar asks.

Nizar holds up the copy of the Prophet that Salazar gave him at lunch. “Did you not notice? If you didn’t notice, then you are sorely out of practice and I’m ashamed of you, brother.”

“Notice what?”

Nizar debates the merits of hitting Salazar with a rolled-up newspaper and decides it wouldn’t be nearly as effective as Granger’s essay. He flips the newspaper open and holds it up. “Take a very good look at Thicknesse’s photograph, idiota.”

Salazar casts a silent lux and peers closer. Severus is just behind him, staring at the photo with narrowed eyes as he tries to determine what Salazar was supposed to notice.

“Oh—oh for—gods, I am a terrible excuse for a fucking spy!” Salazar fumes. “Fuck! It didn’t even occur to me to look, and it damned well should have!”

“What am I not seeing?” Severus asks crossly. “And I will not be impugning my own talents as a spy, since I am very much not dead.”

“Thicknesse is under the Tempero Curse, Severus,” Nizar says. “It’s particularly noticeable in his eyes.”

Severus studies the photo with his lit wand. “I believe it must require training and observation to notice the Imperius Curse if it’s been well-cast. I don’t see anything out of place except to observe that he seems to be…” He grabs the Prophet from Nizar and scowls down at the page. “No, not dull. You’re right. It is the eyes. There is something peculiar about his gaze.”

“And that is one of the ways to know. The other is in how he moves, as if he’s not quite sure how to accomplish it. That means his actions have been dictated by another. The command is strong enough to maintain control, but it’s in direct conflict with what Thicknesse might actually want to be doing. I rather doubt he wanted to run for Minister for Magic against Scrimgeour and Bones.”

Severus lowers the newspaper. “They’re infiltrating the Ministry.”

Nizar nods. “Or attempting to, at any rate.”

“And you don’t want Albus to know.”

“But my little brother does want the Underground to know.” Salazar leans against the wall, ignoring a spider that scurries across his shoulder in sulky offence at having its home disturbed. “We’re not in the habit of jumping as if we’ve been goosed the moment we learn something of import.”

Severus extinguishes his wand, leaving the passage in near-darkness. “You think Albus would do something rash.”

“I think Dumbledore would claim to take such news under gravest advisement and then not tell anyone else,” Nizar counters. He takes back the paper, if only to use it as a teaching guide later. “I already sent word to Madam Bones. What the M.L.E. does with this attempted infiltration is now up to them.”

 

*          *          *          *

 

Amelia reflects often, with gratitude, that Kingsley was willing to exchange offices until there is an election. She is even more grateful that Ila Patil decided to join her in ‘exile,’ returning to Amelia’s post as mere Wizengamot member and advocate in the courts. Both Scrimgeour and Kingsley now outrank her, but neither are foolish enough to act upon that technicality.

She glances up when there is a pop of displaced air to find a house-elf standing in her office. As the entirety of Britain’s population of elves now houses itself in Hogwarts, there are a limited number of people who could have sent the house-elf. “Yes? Might I help you?”

“Begging your pardon for the interruption, Madam Bones,” the elf says, curtseying. She has a clean white towel and a leather pouch, but there is a flash of silver at her neck. Amelia thinks it jewelry and then dismisses the notion as ridiculous. House-elves do not wear such things. “I have a message for you.” The house-elf holds out a scroll with an expectant look.

Amelia retrieves her wand and casts several bits of magic to determine if the scroll is safe to handle. There isn’t a hint of trouble attached beyond the potential message it bears. “I recognize you,” she says to the house-elf after taking the scroll. “You’re the house-elf that Bartemius Crouch foolishly sacked for that business during the Quidditch World Cup.”

The house-elf blushes violet and stares down at the floor. “Winky didn’t do anything wrong, Madam Bones.”

“You were caught with another wizard’s wand,” Amelia says in a brisk voice, pausing when she notes the seal of green wax. A rearing horned serpent before a rowan tree. She has vague thoughts of seeing that seal before, but what it most reminds her of is the Slytherin crest at Hogwarts. “Per Ministry law, non-human beings in Britain are not allowed ownership of a wand.”

“If Winky was ordered by a wizard of her old family to hold a wand, Winky would be having no choice,” the house-elf says.

Amelia looks up in surprise. The elf is still staring at the floor, but that was most certainly atypical behavior for a house-elf. “Were you ordered to do that, then?”

The house-elf nods. “Master Crouch told Winky to hold the wand while he cast the Imperius Curse on Master Barty for being a naughty boy and misbehaving.” The elf pulls on her ear and sniffs. “Naughty, naughty boy. Winky remembers when Master Barty was a good boy.”

House-elf testimony is considered inadmissible in court, Amelia thinks in displeasure. Bartemius Crouch had most certainly not been adhering to Ministry law before his death. If Fudge hadn’t panicked and ordered that Barty Crouch, Junior be given the Dementor’s Kiss without due process of law, perhaps they would not now be facing an impending political disaster. She should inform Kingsley—

Kingsley Shacklebolt has Dumbledore’s ear, and Dumbledore was claiming all of this last June. She is the fool who wasn’t paying proper attention.

“Please wait for a moment, Winky,” Amelia says, unrolling the brief missive. The handwriting is distinct, a refined hand intent upon being easily legible rather than ornate.

 

For the Madam soon to be Minister in place of a trio of idiots,

Pious Thicknesse is suffering from the Tempero Imperious Curse. Discretion is probably called for.

 

Nizar Slytherin, Amelia realizes, frowning. The seal on the scroll was the same design on the silver ring he wore when visiting her office in January.

Then the letter’s full import strikes her. “Oh. Good God.”

“Is Winky to be taking a message back to Hogwarts, Madam Bones?”

Amelia shakes her head. “No, thank you. Merely let the sender know that it was received and understood.” The house-elf nods and vanishes.

“Ila!” Amelia grabs her robe and pulls it on as she steps out of her office. “If I’ve any appointments at all, cancel them for the rest of the afternoon. If there is an emergency that absolutely must have my attention, I will be with Kingsley Shacklebolt.”

Ila blinks a few times, startled, before nodding. “Absolutely, ma’am. I’ll take care of it.”

Amelia enters Kingsley’s office without knocking and locks eyes with Rufus Scrimgeour. “Shut the bloody door,” she hisses. Rufus, startled, does as asked.

“What is it, Amelia?” Kingsley asks in his perpetually grave voice.

“We have a problem. Perhaps a security breach, or perhaps someone’s ill-conceived prank, but the result is the same,” Amelia says. “Pious Thicknesse is acting under the effects of the Imperius Curse.”

Rufus scowls. “Here now, Amelia! You cannot simply go about accusing your new political opponents of being Imperiused simply to rid yourself of the competition!”

Amelia rolls her eyes. “Please,” she says in complete disparagement. “Thicknesse is a relatively unknown barrister. If I was going to attempt to rid myself of my competition, I would be doing away with you, you old fool.”

“A very good point,” Rufus admits with a toothy smile. “You’ve proof of this, I assume?”

“Only someone’s educated observation.” Amelia looks at Kingsley. “And I find them to be an honest, useful source of information, even if that information is sometimes very much unwanted.”

“You’ve never once been wrong, Amelia. If Thicknesse is cursed, then it will not be a bloody prank,” Kingsley says. “That will be infiltration—” He breaks off in surprise. “You’ve changed your mind. You believe he is back. You-Know-Who.”

“Victoria Bluebell changed my mind, Kingsley,” Amelia snaps at him. “A seventeen-year-old girl with a confirmed Dark Mark belonging to the followers of You-Know-Who! A magical mark that cannot be given to anyone underage!”

Rufus nods. “I came to realize that myself a few days after her trial concluded,” he says, surprising her. “I’m ashamed it took me that long, to be honest. I used to be much sharper than that. It’s why I’m bloody well running for Minister. I thought I was running against someone who was still firmly of the belief that You-Know-Who was bloody well dead!”

Amelia gives him a terse smile. “I was doing so for the same reason. I wasn’t expecting to have you for competition, Rufus.”

“That’s both of us fools, then,” Rufus says amiably, though to anyone else it would still seem nothing more than an angry growl. He never was good at being personable. “Well?” Rufus looks to Kingsley. “You’re now head of the M.L.E., boy. What are we to do about this?”

Kingsley doesn’t bat an eyelash at being referred to as a boy. He’s also used to Rufus, and Alastor Moody often makes Rufus seem genteel. “We can cast the spells to detect the curse discreetly, but I don’t believe we should act to remove it. Someone went to a great deal of trouble to successfully cast the Imperius Curse on Pious Thicknesse, an exceptionally stubborn individual. I suggest we should use the granted opportunity to find out what, exactly, our unwanted corpse is hoping to accomplish. The Unspeakables would be pleased to assist; Thicknesse would not even notice their presence.”

“Not as satisfying as hexing the blazes out of Thicknesse for leaving himself vulnerable,” Rufus mutters, “but it’s a good, solid plan. If Thicknesse speaks to anyone, or curses anyone else, the Aurors will need to know. It’s educational to leave Thicknesse Imperiused for the time being, but I won’t destabilize our Ministry by allowing others to assist him, no matter how willing or unwilling they are.”

“I’m not fond of the idea of leaving an innocent cursed just to know the motives of others…but it’s him. This problem is too vast, too deadly, not to take the risk.” Amelia nods. “I agree, Kingsley. Would you like to request the Unspeakables’ assistance, or shall I?”

“You’re both running for Minister. Beyond your knowledge of Thicknesse’s cursed state, you have to remain as neutral as possible,” Kingsley responds, frowning at Rufus. “At least Amelia resigned, Rufus.”

“That she did, but I had no intention of doing so until I knew if I was going to need to move office,” Rufus replies. “And now I know that I won’t be doing so at all.”

Amelia glances at him. “I beg your pardon?”

Rufus grins, showing off his yellowed teeth from his unfortunate tobacco habit. “Cornelius will lose his stomach for the complaining sooner rather than later. When that happens, I’ll continue my campaign for Minister until the day before the vote, when I shall graciously bow out and speak of how I’d rather continue to remain Head of the Auror Department within the M.L.E. The thankless task of cleaning up this shitheap of a Ministry will fall to your capable shoulders, Amelia.”

“Thank you so much for your generosity,” Amelia says dryly. “Then the vote will only be between Thicknesse and myself. That could still prove interesting.”

“We know exactly why You-Know-Who would want an Imperiused agent running the Ministry.” Kingsley inclines his head at Amelia. “Thank you for bringing this to my attention. If there is nothing else, I have counter-intelligence to plan.”

Amelia and Rufus leave Kingsley’s office and walk past his secretary, who gives them a baffled look when they remain together. In Finkle’s world, political opponents are not meant to be on civil terms.

She matches pace with Rufus as they make their way through the M.L.E.’s maze of offices. She doesn’t yet know where they’re going, and she doesn’t much care. “Bugger,” she finally declares.

“That’s far too mild,” Rufus growls. “This is a dangerous game, Amelia. I wonder if we’re not both too old for it.”

“Speak for yourself. I’m only forty-three years old.”

“But I’m seventy-one.” Rufus halts and leans on his cane, gazing at the sea of desks in the open atrium that houses many of their junior Aurors and their assistants. “I’ve lived a hard life in service to our Ministry, Amelia. If there was a young one capable of replacing me, I’d retire in truth, but you went and stole the best man right from my department and enthroned him in your office!”

Amelia smiles. “I’m not sorry at all. Kingsley is the best man for the job, after all.”

“He is that, yes,” Rufus agrees before sighing. “I fought in the European War and in Britain’s Wizarding War, Amelia. I didn’t want to see another war on this isle.”

Amelia looks around at the atrium, seeing the young faces of far too many innocents who haven’t yet realized the sort of danger they’re in. “Neither did I.”

Chapter Text

Ginny is bloody nervous. She’s a bundle of nerves, a catastrophe of nerves, a flaming pile of nervous. She knows she’s being underhanded, going about it this way, but Ginny knows full well what Mum would say. She’d say no. She’d weep about protecting her baby girl.

Sod all that, Ginny thinks, and reminds herself to sit up straight in Professor McGonagall’s chair. She is not a baby, and after Tom bloody Riddle, she has done an excellent job of learning to defend herself!

Mum would skin them if she ever found out that George and Fred are helping her. More than anyone else in the family, the twins looked at what happened to Ginny in her first-year and decided: never again. They might tease her like ruthless cretins sometimes, but they never treat Ginny like she’s fragile, or like she belongs in a bloody box.

When Fred and George learn new spells, charms, hexes, and jinxes, they demonstrate them for her. They teach her how to be charming when appropriate, which is far too often for Ginny’s taste. She definitely has a preference for being as fiery as her hair, but those lessons have kept Ginny out of trouble at times when she was certain a detention was lurking just around the corner.

Professor Slytherin has also been amazing. Ginny never thought any teacher would ever look at her, ignore her Weasley name and red hair, and see her true potential, but he did. Hermione, too—Hermione who is completely insane to be happily heading into sixth-year N.E.W.T. Defence while still taking the Defence O.W.L. at end of term!

“You’re fidgeting again, Miss Weasley,” Professor McGonagall says without looking up from the scroll she’s grading.

“Sorry, Professor.” Ginny stills her bouncy leg and wonders what’s taking so long. At this rate, she’ll miss dinner.

Finally, the flames in Professor McGonagall’s fireplace turn green. Ginny springs to her feet and smooths out her skirt as Arthur Weasley enters the room. He never fumbles a Floo exit, even though she always half-expects him to. “Dad!”

Arthur glances over and smiles. “Ginny.” Then he looks at her professor. “I received a letter from Ginny this morning by owl, but I had to wait until I was finished dealing with some interesting problems at the Ministry. Is something the matter?”

Interesting problems is probably some sort of Order code, Ginny thinks. Or maybe it really was a clutter of inbound complete nonsense; her dad’s department sees some very odd things.

“Nothing is the matter at all,” Professor McGonagall assures Arthur. “Ginny wished to see you regarding an academic matter and merely asked for permission to greet you at my Floo. Now that you’ve arrived, I would very much like it if you would conduct your business elsewhere, Arthur. I’ve a great deal of grading to do.”

“Certainly, Minerva.” Arthur follows Ginny from the room while she does her best not to start fidgeting again. “Ginny?” he asks the moment the office door is closed.

“Er, not here. Can we go upstairs, Dad?”

Arthur frowns. “Are you in trouble, Ginevra?”

Ginny tries not to wince. He doesn’t do the Dad Voice very often, which is why it’s still so bloody effective. “No! Absolutely not. I am in the opposite of trouble.”

“All right.” Arthur takes off his robe and folds it over his arm. “If this is about the twins, your mother will hand me my head.”

“It isn’t about the twins!” Please, just once, can’t something be about her? Something that isn’t about the stupid diary, or how she’s everyone’s darling baby girl?

Arthur gives her a quiet, curious look. “All right. Let’s go, then.”

Ginny leads the way upstairs, alternating between biting her lip some more, feeling horribly guilty that she snapped at her father, and angry that she felt like she had to. The worst of it is knowing that even if there hadn’t been a stupid cursed diary in her first year, things would be exactly the same. Well, maybe Fred and George wouldn’t be so helpful, but the rest of the family? Business as usual.

By the time they make it to the seventh storey, Ginny has turned herself from a pile of nerves to an anxious bloody wreck. This is definitely not the way to prove that she can handle fifth-year’s Defence class, and the thought makes her stomach churn.

Ginny takes a deep breath and knocks on the open door of the Defence classroom before stepping over the threshold. The near-silence of the corridor gives way to music, just loud enough to be audible without losing the thread of the lyrics.

Her dad lights up at once. “Oh! I remember this song! It’s Muggle, Ginny. I heard it on the radio while I was courting your mother!”

Ginny frowns. “I didn’t know you’d ever listened to Muggle music. Or that Mum did.” The sound is very much fifteen years ago—at least by Wizarding Wireless standards.

She feels her face heat. Her parents were married in 1969. Hermione has made a point of saying that Wizarding rock music is a bit behind compared to Muggle music, and…well, maybe she needs to be paying a lot more attention to Hermione’s vinyl collection.

Worse, her dad is humming along to the song. Maybe the floor will open up and eat her. It does sometimes create random pits during practicals.

 

When the men on the chessboard get up and tell you where to go

And you've just had some kind of mushroom, and your mind is moving low

Go ask Alice, I think she'll know…

 

“Oh!” Ginny smiles. “It’s about Alice in Wonderland, isn’t it?”

“Unfortunately, yes,” Professor Slytherin says, stepping out of his office with three different books in his arms. “Hello, Arthur. I wasn’t expecting you.”

“You weren’t?” Arthur gives Ginny a brief glance of muted suspicion. Ginny looks back at him with an air of sublime innocence. Fortunately, it’s her version rather than any of her brothers’ used-up innocent expressions, and tends to earn a bit more belief.

The professor puts down the books and reaches out to clasp Arthur’s extended hand. “No, but I imagine I know exactly why you’re here.” He frowns and then raps on his desk with his hand; two of the desks at the front of the room Transfigure into proper chairs. “Have a seat if you like.”

“You did that wandless!” Ginny exclaims in delight. “How?”

“We’re in my classroom. If I did that elsewhere, it wouldn’t work anywhere near as well,” Professor Slytherin says in a wry voice. “Tea?”

“Yes, please,” Arthur replies. “I just left the Ministry, and it’s been an absolute madhouse today. Three very different people declaring their intent to become Minister of Magic, and all of them from the M.L.E. The entire place is in an uproar.”

Ginny thinks she notices some odd thought captured in the professor’s expression, but it’s gone before she has time to consider what it could be. Bloody Order secretive nonsense. Then the elves are deliver tea, and her dad loses his mind for a good five minutes exclaiming over house-elf jewelry and generally being himself. Ginny loves him for it, even if she makes a show of rolling her eyes. Her father loves everything around him in a way that’s just so genuine, and she’s come to notice there isn’t a lot of that floating about.

“Dad. Dad, drink your tea,” Ginny reminds him. The song about Alice in Wonderland has ended in the meantime, and the professor has flipped the vinyl record over. She doesn’t much care for the first song, but the second one, about wanting somebody to love, is sort of…nice.

Ginny blushes again. Finding somebody is definitely not the problem. Deciding what to do about it is going to be the difficult part. Especially when she has a mum who is busy planning Ginny’s wedding to Harry Potter.

She likes Harry. She does. The horrible crush died a noble death about the time she woke up in the Chamber of Secrets, covered in muck, with Harry covered in worse muck and blood and looking sort of bewildered by everything. He saved her, but something about that moment also made him seem completely normal.

Ginny focused on getting to know what this mental bloke who came to the Chamber by his nutter self was really like. The answer was something she should have noticed all along: Harry was so busy shoving “This is me!” into everyone’s faces, all the time, that Ginny knows exactly know who he is. There is no mystery. He’s barking mad; he’s the opposite of a swot; he’s fierce about looking after the rest of them; he likes stupid jokes; he likes George and Fred’s good ideas; he’s vowed to beat Ron at chess; he has the worst rotten luck in regards to pretty much everything.

Ginny likes having Harry for a friend. She doesn’t think she would cope very well with trying to date someone who gets into life-threatening situations every five minutes on accident. Convincing Mum that she does not want to marry Harry might require the rest of the family to run interference while Ginny flees the country.

Maybe Harry will find another bloke to marry in the meantime, and Ginny won’t have to worry about it.

Arthur gets three more sips of tea into him before he has to ask a dozen questions about the professor’s vinyl player, what he calls a turntable. Ginny thinks it looks a bit more compact and manageable than a bloody gramophone, and the sound is better—no, the sound is coming through the walls! That’s awesome. She’s asking about that charm later.

Ginny is on her second cup of tea by the time her dad finally gives up on the turntable so he and the professor can sit down again. Thank Merlin the elves brought nibbles with the tea. She is now beyond late to dinner.

“I’ll confess, Nizar, I don’t actually know why I’m here,” Arthur says.

“No?” Professor Slytherin glances at Ginny, who beams at him. “Someone has been plotting. I approve.”

“Plotting?” Arthur repeats, but at least he isn’t giving Ginny the Dad Look.

“I’m asking you first because if I’d asked you both Mum’d say no before I even said half a sentence!” Ginny bursts out.

“Slowed down and translated, Arthur: I have four students who have progressed far beyond the limits of the standard year’s curriculum—and I do mean my standards, not the old nonsense,” Professor Slytherin explains. “Miss Hermione Granger will be taking her Defence O.W.L. while also spending the rest of the term in the sixth-year N.E.W.T. Defence class. Miss Cho Chang will be joining the joining the seventh-years, though I don’t believe she’ll take the Defence N.E.W.T. until winter break of next term. Miss Luna Lovegood is joining my fifth-years for their practical set every week. The fourth student capable of making the jump due to their exceptional academic and practical Defence performance is sitting right next to you.”

Both of Arthur’s eyebrows fly up. “You’re doing that well?” he asks Ginny. “Even with everything that’s, er, happened?”

Ginny tries not to wince. “Uh…yes?”

Arthur suddenly lunges over and hugs her, so tight it feels like it’s hard to breathe. “My brilliant baby girl,” he whispers in her ear. Ginny blinks several times and tries not to cry.

Brilliant. Dad called her brilliant.

“I understand completely.” Arthur straightens in his chair and looks for all the world like everything is still normal, and Ginny’s world isn’t sitting at a sideways angle. “You knew how Molly might feel if Ginny accepted your invitation to join the fifth-years, and would shuffle her right back to the fourth-years without proper consideration of the matter.”

“And I believe Ginny felt that if you heard the words from me, it might be easier on all of you.” Professor Slytherin leans back in his chair. “Might I say something in confidence that will not see me hexed beyond an inch of my life, Arthur?”

Arthur smiles and sips at tea that Ginny suspects has to be stone cold. “Please.”

“Molly is quite lovely, but she has some very set ideas about the proper ways her children should spend their time. Those strict standards are not the slightest bit healthy.”

Arthur puts his teacup down on the tea tray and sighs while nodding. “I know.”

Ginny stares at her dad. Wait. What?

“When we had our eldest, Bill, the war was just starting,” Arthur says. “None of us knew how long it was going to last, or what the cost would be. Three children, we’d decided. That was what we thought would be best. Then we had Charlie, but the war was still on, and it was no longer just strangers who were dying, but friends. Then came Percy—”

Arthur halts, coughing, before continuing. Ginny again contemplates the joys of punching Percival Ignatius Weasley.

“When Percy was born in August of ’76, Molly and I both had lost a great deal of our extended families. Molly was at home with the boys, and I was active in the Order of the Phoenix, worried about what would happen to my family if I died. There is still a rich goblin-certified Gringotts life insurance policy on me if the worst happens.”

“Dad,” Ginny whispers.

Arthur reaches out and pats her shoulder. “Don’t you worry, Ginny. I’m not going anywhere.”

Ginny nods, biting her lip. She has to believe him; she doesn’t really have a choice.

“The fourth time Molly got pregnant, it was an accident. We’d just had one of our biggest victories of the war so far, got a bit tipsy, forgot the proper charms…” Arthur smiles just as Ginny groans and buries her face in her hands. “We took it as the right sort of sign, that maybe we should attempt to put back what the war stole from our families. Neither of us expected…well. The day we received the news about Gideon and Fabian is the same day we learned that Molly was to have twins. Then, of course, came Ron, and then Ginny, but Molly never really got over how much the war took from us. It’s no excuse, it’s really not, but all she can think about is that having a job in the Ministry means that our children will be safe.”

Professor Slytherin gives Arthur an odd look. “Did Molly miss the part where Voldemort successfully infiltrated the Ministry’s Department of Mysteries this past December? Because I certainly haven’t.”

Arthur grimaces. “Molly thinks it’s a one-off. A fluke that won’t repeat itself.” He abruptly stands up, leaving Ginny scurrying to get out of her chair. “Ginny, take the class. Learn what you can. I’m proud of you, and don’t you concern yourself with what your mother will have to say. I’ll take care of it, all right?”

“I—okay, Dad.” Ginny accepts his hug. “I’ll talk to you later?”

“Of course! Easter break will be here soon enough, you know.” Arthur smiles, ruffles her hair, shakes the professor’s hand again, and leaves the room.

Ginny stares after him, nonplussed. “What just happened?”

“I think that might have been the first time in a very long time your father has discussed any of that, if he’s ever mentioned it at all,” Professor Slytherin says.

“Probably not. I mean—there aren’t any other Weasleys,” Ginny manages to say around the lump in her throat. It’s part of what makes Percy turning utter prat so hard on them all. “Dad had two brothers, but they didn’t have kids and they died in the war. There are a few Prewetts wandering about still, but otherwise…it’s just us.”

“And that is why I believe your father has never made the mistake your mother is making right now. He never forgot the lesson of the last war.”

“Which is?” Ginny asks, feeling her skin crawl.

“You can minimize risk and make provisions for those who may survive you, but that is all.” The professor glances at her. “Safety is an illusion. There is no such thing. You’ve known that since you were eleven years old.”

Ginny nods and rubs at her arms, chilled. “Yes, sir.” She hesitates before asking, “You don’t think I could pass the Defence O.W.L. at the end of term, do you?”

Professor Slytherin studies her. “You know, when Professor McGonagall asked me that, I said no. However…maybe I’m making a similar mistake. Maybe I’m also trying to decide what you are and aren’t capable of without giving you the chance to prove otherwise. Wait here.”

Ginny shifts in place as the professor goes into his office, rummaging around on the shelves. She hopes she hasn’t just opened another floodgate that will keep her from dinner entirely, but if she gets desperate, she does know how to tickle the pear to get into the kitchen.

The professor comes back out holding a copy of the fifth-year’s unofficial textbook in his hands. The swots in fifth-year wax poetic about it on the regular, and Hermione is editing the version Professor Slytherin put together that will become an official book for others to buy. “Here.”

Ginny accepts the book and stares down at it. “I—does this mean I have more homework?” She might be smart, but she does not have a love affair with homework.

Professor Slytherin laughs. “No. Not unless you really feel the need to write four essays for the rest of the term instead of two.”

“Okay.” Ginny hugs the book to her chest. “Now what?”

“You read the book, or not, as you choose,” Professor Slytherin says. “If you read it and feel confident enough about what you learned, come and speak to me at the end of Maius—May.” He shakes his head. “Sorry, I’ve not blundered that way in a while. Come speak to me in May. We’ll review what you know, or what you think you know, and I’ll tell you if you should attempt to sit the O.W.L. or not. Fair?”

Ginny thinks about it before nodding. “Okay. Yeah. That’s fair, sir. Uh—thank you, sir. For the book, and for believing I can do this.”

He just smiles. “Go complain about your faintness of hunger to the elves, Miss Weasley. I’ll see you on Monday morning for fifth-year’s lecture class.”

 

*          *          *          *

 

Hermione enters the library at five o’clock and tries not to bite her lip at what she finds. Her usual table up front is occupied by Tracy Davis and Ramsay Urquhart of Slytherin, who are snogging like their lives depend on it. All of the other tables nearby are filled with students from various Houses, but at least they’re not snogging in public. Hermione takes note of the books piled up on every table, the desperation on so many faces, and suspects the lot of them are still trying to take advantage of the promised extra credit. When most students missed the extra credit deadline of noon yesterday, Professor Slytherin was kind enough to extend the deadline until just curfew tonight.

Nizar. Her friend. She keeps reminding herself of that and promptly tries to panic. For the moment, it seems safer to think of him as Professor Slytherin.

She shakes her head and wanders further into the stacks. Rushed work tends to be shoddy work. She’d rather take her chances with not having bonus points than turn in a paper so awful that those extra points won’t do any good at all.

She checks the books on the shelves as she walks past. Nothing catches her eye—she’s already read it, or picked it up and discovered it was utter rubbish. In some ways, Hogwarts’ library is so bloody useful. In others, it is so irritatingly limited.

“Granger!”

Hermione glances over to see Pansy giving her a furtive wave from one of the tables in the central part of the library. She hesitates at first, but it’s just habit to do so after four years of open war between Gryffindor and Slytherin. Hermione shakes off the old thoughts and goes to the table Pansy is sharing with Millicent, Draco, Blaise, Daphne, Theo Nott, Padma, Susan Bones, and Megan Jones. “Hello.”

“Granger!” Blaise stands up and pulls out a chair for her with a dramatic flourish, grinning. “Join us in our academic misery!”

“Misery?” Hermione asks as she sits down. She puts her bookbag on the floor, knowing from experience that the whingy tables will tilt to one side or groan in agony if she puts her bag on the tabletop. Some things were just not meant to be enchanted.

“Most of us are trying to finish our Defence essays before the two-week limit ends at curfew this evening. I want those bloody points!” Susan declares, flipping pages through a book that is wafting clouds of dust into the air. The dust isn’t because Madam Pince is bad at her job; some of the old books in the library create their own dust and cobwebs. For dramatic effect. Because some things are really not meant to be enchanted.

“Same,” Theo agrees. “If I’d realized trolls were this complicated when I first started, I would have chosen a different topic!”

“Which ones did you choose?” Hermione asks, curious. “British trolls, Iberian trolls, Western European trolls, Scandinavian trolls, Icelandic trolls, Russian trolls, North African trolls, or…?”

Theo makes a noise rather like one of the tables meeting Hermione’s bookbag and puts his face down in his book. “I just chose trolls! I thought Lupin was an excellent instructor, don’t get me wrong, but even he never mentioned how many different types there were!”

“Quirrell did.” Daphne doesn’t have a hint of sympathy for Theo’s plight. “Granted, most of us were desperately trying not to breathe in during his classes, so it’s not as if it was easy to retain information from that year.”

“Oh, God. So much ruddy garlic,” Padma mutters.

“I’m bloody allergic. Those were not fun days,” Megan adds.

“Quirrell doesn’t count as a decent instructor!” Theo says plaintively. “How was I to know?”

“Granger knew,” Millicent points out, looking a bit smug.

“Yes, but Granger has also read everything in this library,” Malfoy drawls in response.

“I have not!”

Draco smirks at her. “Not for lack of trying, at least. I would imagine you know where everything in this library is.”

Hermione puts on a disapproving frown. “Please tell me that you did not invite me over here merely to be your card catalogue.”

“Oh, I know they didn’t, but I might take advantage of that,” Padma says at once, looking hopeful. “I’m researching house-elves outside of Britain. Any pointers?”

“You’re not going to make the curfew deadline; there is nothing useful in this library,” Hermione answers. Padma’s face falls into academic despair. “Sorry. I went through everything in this library in third-year, trying to prove that the house-elves’ treatment was wrong. The only things I could find all support what everyone used to think was correct. There isn’t a thing here regarding the Brae Elves’ original contract with the Founders. I’m not certain about Ireland, but I do know that all of the elves in Spain are free elves. If I were you, I’d send an owl to a book shop in a country that doesn’t adhere to the Statute of Secrecy.”

“Free house-elves is still a weird concept.” Blaise takes a glance at his book before copying something down about fighting off a vampire’s controlling gaze. “Granted, Professor Slytherin mentioned that other countries where elves were never subjected to the Statute think our elves are weird for putting up with it. He says they’re more powerful than we are.”

“Well, they are.” Hermione notes with amusement that Padma is taking diligent notes. “They’re Fair Folk. Green Folk. Fae—well, no, the Fae are their own people, ignore that part. The house-elves are still Green Folk, though. So are goblins, trolls, gnomes, pixies, boggarts, ghouls, redcaps, dwarves, leprechauns, kelpies, Merpeople, brownies, and sprites. The ones we have here on Earth are the ones who can tolerate iron, so they don’t mind living on a planet rich with it.”

“Let me guess: you read that in a book that came from outside Britain,” Daphne says. “Like you suggested to Padma.”

Hermione nods. “I bought it, actually.”

Padma looks ready to lunge across the table. “Tell me I can borrow it! Please!”

“Well, it’s at home. I left it there during the holiday so I could bring other books back, instead. I really need to figure out how to create Wizarding Space inside my school trunk,” Hermione says, thinking aloud. “Oh, I suppose I can owl my parents for it, but I don’t know when it would arrive.”

Padma smiles in relief. “That’s still a lot more than what I’ve got right now, and that’s bloody rubbish. Thank you!”

“What are you going to trade for it?” Pansy asks Padma.

Padma looks flabbergasted before she grins at Hermione. “Have you ever wanted to learn anything about ancient Punjabi magic?”

Hermione’s eyes widen. “Absolutely, yes!”

“Hah!” Padma smirks at Pansy. “See? Easy trade.”

Pansy rolls her eyes. “Swots!”

“Pans, everyone at this table is a swot,” Megan says dryly. “That really is a pathetic excuse for an insult.”

“Oh, look. It’s Granger in her natural habitat!”

Hermione feels her shoulders try to hunch inwards and refuses to let that happen. Instead, she lifts her chin as Lavender Brown, Fay Dunbar, and Bernicia Blishwick approach the table. “Hello,” she says, keeping her tone even and utterly polite. “Are you having a good afternoon?”

“We were.” Dunbar smiles in a way that Hermione hasn’t liked since they first met. Fay Dunbar and Bernicia Blishwick joined Hogwarts in their third-year, transferring in from Beauxbatons. Dorm life has been hell ever since. They make Parvati cry because Lavender used to be her friend, Kellah doesn’t want to get involved, and Hermione never fit in with the other girls in the first place.

“I was just saying to the others that it seems proper to see you in among the rest of the snakes,” Blishwick says. Hermione fantasizes about hitting Blishwick with her bookbag.

“I think it’s entirely proper, actually,” Daphne says in a voice like ice. “Hermione is intelligent, cunning, resourceful, ambitious, and already on her way to gaining an apprenticeship under Professor Slytherin. Can any of you say the same? I rather doubt it; I’ve seen your grades.”

“Granger’s just trying for an apprenticeship because she wants to fuck him,” Dunbar retorts, color rising in her cheeks.

“He’s gay,” Hermione replies flatly. Even in the worst depths of her silly crush, it was never about that. “Or didn’t you notice?”

Blaise snorts. “I don’t think they’re that observant.”

“Or they’re just distracted.” Pansy rests her chin on her hand and smiles at Dunbar in the same way she used to smile at Hermione—pure, delightful malice. “Dunbar has been too busy spreading her legs for Cormac McLaggen beneath the Quidditch stands.”

Dunbar turns bright red, grabs Blishwick’s hand, and yanks her away from the table. The others snicker when Blishwick careens into the nearest bookshelf as Dunbar all but drags her out of the library.

Lavender blows Hermione a kiss. “Have fun with the snakes, Granger. You belong with them!”

Padma lifts up her Ravenclaw tie as Lavender follows the other two girls. “How odd. This isn’t silver and green at all!”

Susan glances at Megan from the corner of her eye and smiles. “I didn’t realize that being a twit made someone colorblind. Did you?”

Megan flings her Hufflepuff tie over her shoulder. “Maybe they were dazzled by too much intelligence seated at one table.”

Hermione forces her jaw to unclench. “You—you didn’t have to say that to her, Pansy. It was cruel.”

“She was cruel to you first,” Pansy says dismissively. Then she looks at Hermione. “Merlin, Granger! You’re shaking!”

Draco stares at her in concern. “Granger?”

Hermione wraps her hands together and hides them under the table. “I’m fine. Really I am.”

“My arse,” Megan says in disbelief. “I’ve always wondered why I never saw you hanging out with the Gryffindor girls in your year.”

“Parvati and Kellah aren’t bad. We’re not close friends or anything, but they’re good people.” Hermione blinks several times, feeling like she’s going to cry. Please, no. She doesn’t want to cry in front of anyone here, and it has nothing to do with the fact that most of them are Slytherins. “Even Lavender was okay before—well, this year,” Hermione realizes. “But Blishwick and Dunbar, they’re…”

“Twats,” Millicent says in her dry and thoughtful way. “Throwing around words like snake as if it’s an insult. Why would it be such an insult to be a Slytherin?”

“Some people aren’t getting over the House prejudices at the same rate as others.” Susan sighs. “My year in our House isn’t so bad—all of the girls are on the same page, at least. The boys could maybe stand to have a few stones cast at their heads, but they’re getting ever so much better. The upper years might require entire bricks.”

“You don’t have to stick up for my sister,” Padma says to Hermione. “I know she doesn’t do anything to help them, but Parvati doesn’t stop them when they start in on you, either.”

Hermione shakes her head. “Then they’d just turn around and go after her, and they made her cry last time—shit!” It’s too late; the damage is already done.

Padma’s frown is melting into an expression of cool anger. “They made my sister cry?”

Hermione nods miserably. “I wasn’t supposed to say—Parvati wanted—”

“To be a Gryffindor?” Padma rolls her eyes. “She can be a Gryffindor all she likes, but I’m going to be a Ravenclaw. Parvati told me what topics Brown, Dunbar, and Blishwick chose for their Defence essays. I do believe all of the relevant books are about to be checked out of this library.” Padma packs up her belongings and smiles. “Who wants to help?”

Susan grins. “I’m so in for this. I usually don’t get to participate in the mischief. Megan?”

Megan waves them on. “I’ve got to get this last bit finished before dinner. Grab an extra bit of reference material for me, yeah?”

“I’ll help. I’m not getting any work done tonight, anyway. Might as well participate in inter-House revenge!” Pansy cheerfully follows after the other two.

“Chin up, Granger. We like you, even if you are the Gryffindor swot,” Blaise says when he notices Hermione biting her lip.

“He’s shortcutting my quote.” Daphne rolls her eyes. “We like you because you’re intelligent, cunning, resourceful, and ambitious. The Gryffindor bits about bravery and insanity are merely pleasant icing.”

“And you’re not a berk,” Theo adds, trying to wipe a sprouting cobweb off his book. “That last part is especially important. But you wouldn’t have been a berk to us in the past if some of us hadn’t started being so in the first place.”

Hermione’s throat feels too thick. “Professor Slytherin did say that offence is part of defence. It’s okay. I get it.”

Blaise smiles at her, but it’s the genuine one, not the smile he uses when he’s flirting. “Forget all that. Let’s just worry about this year, hey?”

“You think I’m smart, and you don’t…you don’t mind?” Hermione asks, hating that she sounds pathetic.

Draco and Daphne give her near-identical blank stares. “Mind?” Draco sounds incredulous. “Why would we mind?”

“Because—I—I turned in my Defence essay on Tuesday evening. Professor Slytherin read it, gave me top marks, and is placing me into sixth-year N.E.W.T. Defence because he thinks otherwise I’m going to stagnate,” Hermione blurts out in a rush. “It means I’ll take the Defence O.W.L. and the N.E.W.T. end-of-term exam both, but he thinks I can do it and I want to do it but I—”

“Whoa. Breathe, Hermione,” Blaise interrupts, putting his hand on her shoulder. “Deep breath.”

Hermione manages a whistling deep breath and lets it out in a whoosh. “I’m sorry, I’m, uhm—”

“A swot,” Millicent says, but she’s smiling. It makes her dark eyes seem gentle, even if there is always a fire lurking behind the kindness. “That’s incredible, Granger.”

Hermione stares at Millicent. “What?”

“That’s incredible,” Megan repeats in awe. “Professor Slytherin is offering you an apprenticeship, and he’s jumping you up a year because he thinks you’re that capable? That’s bloody well amazing.”

Draco nods. “I certainly wouldn’t be able to manage that, even if I had turned in my essay early. It will be quite good, but even I know this isn’t N.E.W.T.-level work.”

“Mind you, I think you’re completely mental for wanting to take the Defence O.W.L. and sit the sixth-year exam at the same time,” Blaise says, bright-eyed and grinning. “Hermione, it’s a Slytherin professor who’s saying you’re intelligent, and he’s doing something about it on behalf of a Gryffindor. How badass is that?”

“We like you, Granger. You’re funny, and even better for us stuck-up swots, you’re smart.” Daphne smirks at Draco. “And we like you because you punched Draco when he deserved it.”

Draco lifts his chin and sniffs. “That,” he says, “is a fringe benefit.”

“None of us would ever hold being smart against you,” Millicent says, as if the very idea is ludicrous. “That’s what friends do. They support each other—even if they are mental for wanting to take two exams at once.”

Hermione tries twice to say something. Then the dam breaks, and she bursts into tears. “I’m so sorry,” she chokes out, getting up from the table. “Loo run.” She bolts from the library, ducking her head so her hair will hide her face.

Chapter Text

Blaise and Draco both attempt to stand up, but when Granger goes somewhere, she’s bloody fast. They can’t chase after her now without drawing even more attention to Granger’s exit.

“Damn,” Draco whispers. Granger’s quick escape has nothing to do with a sudden need to visit a toilet.

“What the hell was that about?” Blaise wonders, baffled.

Daphne growls and crumples up the paper she’d been taking notes on, glares at the mess, and uses her wand to straighten the page back out again. “I think I know.”

Blaise huffs out a breath as they sit back down. “Then please don’t keep us in suspense, Daph. I’m still learning to translate Granger-speak.”

Daphne glances around before gesturing for Draco, Megan, Blaise, Theo, and Millicent to lean in close. “Granger is the smartest witch in our year,” she says. “That hasn’t been in doubt since the end of our first term at Hogwarts. At this point, it’s a safe bet to say she’s the smartest magician in the school. We’ve seen Granger be sly and cunning. She can defend herself with a wand or without one, and once you push Granger that hard, she pushes back harder.”

Draco thinks of his ridiculous attempt to boast on the train at the end of last term, Greg and Vince at his back, and tries not to grimace. That had not gone well, and it wasn’t only Potter and Weasley who’d done the hexing.

It also hadn’t helped the fear to go away, the terror bubbling in his stomach at every waking moment. The Dark Lord returned. Diggory dead. Potter wandering around that last week of term looking like a ghost himself. The celebratory letter from his father—written with handwriting so uneven that Draco knew that Lucius Malfoy had suffered the Cruciatus Curse. He’d been well-educated in regards to its side effects even before a Death Eater had impersonated their DADA professor for an entire year.

“You deserved that, too,” Daphne says, correctly interpreting the expression on Draco’s face.

Draco nods. “I’m aware, believe me.”

“Can we get back to Granger, please?” Millicent requests testily. “I’d like to know the point of this.”

Daphne looks irritated. “Granger understands the social graces, both wizard and Muggle, even if she doesn’t observe them for herself most of the time. Potter didn’t stop Quirrell from stealing the Philosopher’s Stone by himself; Granger was right there with him. She’s the one who realized that there was a basilisk in the Chamber of Secrets, even if she was Petrified before she could tell anyone. She used that Time-Turner to take all twelve classes in our third year, even if she ditched Divination.”

“I wish I’d bloody well ditched Divination,” Megan says glumly.

“Trelawney is getting better,” Blaise points out. “I’m thinking Professor Salazar might be kicking her arse into teaching shape on the sly.”

“Shut up,” Daphne hisses at them. “Let me finish! Before this year, when it finally felt like it was safe to adopt from the other Houses, who were the only two people Granger spent time with?”

“Weasley and Potter,” Draco says, feeling uneasy. He’s seen Granger with Ginny Weasley and Longbottom on occasion, but it always seems like a casual thing. They’re likely friends, but it’s not the sort of close friendship that involves sharing secrets. That honor always went to Potter and Weasley, and right now, Granger only has Weasley.

“Perhaps the other Weasleys, too, I suppose,” Theo says.

“Possibly,” Daphne agrees, inclining her head. “I’ve heard that Granger has been to the Weasley Burrow, so it’s a reasonable assumption. But otherwise, it’s Potter and Weasley. Now, she adores Potter, and vice versa—”

“Sweet on each other?” Jones asks, raising an eyebrow.

“No, Potter was off on Chang last year,” Blaise says.

Millicent rolls her eyes. “You all need to pay more attention to Pansy. Cho Chang was not where Potter’s eyes kept wandering during the Yule Ball.”

“But who would—oh.” Draco feels the bottom fall out of his stomach. That just made the end of the Tournament so much worse, and Draco had taunted Potter about that on the train…

“Cedric Diggory.” Jones brushes the feathered tip of her quill against her lips. “Well, I can’t fault Potter for taste. He’s got bad fucking luck, but good taste.”

“Back to the point.” Daphne sounds annoyed, but there is a hint of vague disappointment on her face. Draco immediately discerns two things: he isn’t the only one who overlooked the obvious, and until thirty seconds ago, Daphne had been plotting to ensnare Potter. Draco hopes she has good contingency candidates in mind if she’s already considering marriage alliances.

“Granger got onto Potter a bit about his homework habits—not a swot, that one—but I never once heard Potter say an unkind word about Granger’s intelligence,” Daphne says. “I did hear it from the Weasel, though, and it was far too often from someone who claims to be her friend. Weasley is getting better about that nonsense this term, but that’s still four years when he wasn’t. If Granger’s own friend mocks what she’s good at, how does the rest of Gryffindor treat Granger? Or the entire school, for that matter?”

Theo winces. “Well, we all know how Professor Snape used to handle it.”

“Yes, but Professor Snape doesn’t do that anymore.” Blaise makes a face. “It’s weird. He’s not been nearly caustic enough to keep to standard. I feel like I’m waiting for a bomb to drop, especially when he’s not been giving or taking points for weeks now.”

Millicent shakes her head. “Professor Snape still gives points, or takes them, but he does so after class. When I asked, he said he’s more concerned with what we’re brewing to bother during class time.”

“He did absolutely rip into Richard and Tracey for not paying attention to their cauldron,” Blaise says. “They nearly started a bloody fire this afternoon.”

“They deserved it.” Draco is still angry with those two idiots for losing them points, but they can suffer their House’s wrath and enjoy the privilege. He has other concerns right now.

Pansy declared that Granger was scary, and Granger took that as a compliment well enough, but smart—that, they’ve never really said. Not until today. Draco has heard Hermione express frustration with others’ failings so often that he never realized that she might be…

Oh.

Granger is fighting back. Not by meekness or by subtlety (which probably doesn’t work very well in Gryffindor) but by being loud. By her refusal to apologize for who she is.

Draco groans inwardly. He is supposed to admire Slytherin traits! Granger does have a number of those, but he also seems to have a weakness for publicly executed, spiteful stubbornness.

“Daphne, you’re saying that you think no one outside of Potter has ever told Granger that she’s intelligent in a nice way. Right?” Draco asks, just to be certain.

Daphne shrugs. “Oh, her parents might have, though I’ve never heard her discuss them. The only thing anyone knows about Granger’s parents is that they’re Muggle dentists. Healers for teeth,” she adds when Jones and Theo look confused. “Professor Slytherin has definitely noticed; he’s serious about that apprenticeship offer. I believe the only reason Granger hasn’t accepted yet is because she’s having trouble convincing herself that it’s legitimate recognition.”

Blaise nods. “Hermione did come unglued when we were fine with it all.”

“It’s different if you’re hearing it from friends,” Millicent says thoughtfully. “Parents are supposed to tell us that we’re brilliant. Friends don’t have to do that, even if they should. The only reason I have any confidence at all is because you lot decided to adopt an overweight blob of a Pure-blood.”

“You were not fat. You were growing into your height,” Theo says in a prim voice. “Six feet bloody tall.”

Millicent smiles. “Thank you, Theo.”

Draco makes a decision and hopes he won’t regret it. “I’m going to find Granger.”

“Mate, you can’t just go traipsing into the girls’ bathrooms looking for her,” Blaise reminds him as Draco stands up.

“That depends upon the bathroom,” Draco replies. “Moaning Myrtle lords over the closest girls’ toilet. Hopefully I’ll be back with Granger before dinner.”

Blaise rolls his eyes. “Never go anywhere alone, remember? Megan and I will make sure you get to Myrtle’s place without taking a hex to the arse. After that, you and Granger can watch each other’s backs.”

“I’m going with you, am I?” Jones asks, giving Blaise a calculating smile.

“Sure. You’re good with a wand.” Blaise looks pleased with himself. “Besides, how am I supposed to flirt if I never take granted opportunities?”

Jones drops her quill and closes her book. “We’ll be back in ten minutes, then. If it takes any longer, please come save us.”

“No promises. Fucking trolls,” Theo mutters at his work.

Draco leads them to the staircase that meanders up to the second floor of the library. From there, they can exit out into the fourth floor corridor. There is a stairwell close by that takes them down to the second floor, and Moaning Myrtle’s haunted bathroom is just down the hall. Draco knows from experience that it’s an excellent place to hide.

“All quiet,” Jones says after peering around the opposite corner.

“Same on this side,” Draco mutters, but he doesn’t let go of his wand. Some of the younger students made the mistake of ignoring the warning they spread at the beginning of the resumed term in January. No one knows which batch of idiot baby Death Eaters got the drop on them, but the results were nasty. Rachel Condor’s prosthetic leg had to be replaced entirely, half of it melted to slag. Atsushi was burping up clouds for a week—after the administered potion made certain the yellow clouds would only smell like sulfur instead of emerging as toxic fumes.

It did drive home the point, though. None of them go anywhere alone.

Draco clenches his wand in his hand. Granger went alone, and Draco almost did the same thing. Merlin, he’s glad that Blaise is more sensible than both of them today.

“All right,” Blaise says when they arrive within a few feet of the bathroom. The floor in front of the door is wet again. “Good luck with whatever nefarious thing you’re planning.”

“I am not snogging anyone in a toilet, Blaise. I have standards,” Draco retorts.

“Hah! Then you did send Granger that fancy quill!” Blaise crows. He and Jones even slap hands over it, the complete idiots.

“No, I didn’t. I still have to find whoever did so and strangle them for thinking of that before I did. Now go away!” Draco orders, pushing open the door.

Draco waits for the door to swing shut behind him, cutting off whatever Blaise might be thinking of saying next. At least he’ll be distracted by Megan Jones in short order. She’s quite the Viking Hufflepuff; she won’t put up with any of Blaise’s nonsense. If he wants a date or a snog, Blaise will have to earn it properly.

“Oh, hello, Draco!”

Draco smiles politely at Myrtle as she pops up over the door of her favorite stall. It sends a fresh wave of water around his feet, but as no one ever uses these toilets, he has no concern for something foul attaching itself to his shoes. “Hello, Myrtle. How are you this afternoon?”

“Oh, you know, it’s been the usual sort of day,” Myrtle says, floating upwards so she can seat herself atop the door. “I gossiped with the mermaids in the Prefect’s bathroom for a bit. It’s not been nearly as much fun since everyone started wearing brassieres and shorts to enjoy the bath.”

“I’m very sorry to hear that,” Draco replies. When Moaning Myrtle came giggling out of the pipes in the Prefect’s bathroom the first week of term, Draco convinced her to leave without causing offence, pulled on his clothes, and then warned Pansy. After the House truce was officially declared in January, they then warned everyone. The girls weren’t terribly concerned, but Rivers, Boot, Weasley, Kartik, Cadwallader, Higgs, Chambers, and Randall were all horrified.

Draco could have tried to warn them in September, but on the scale of revenge for slights granted in previous years, Myrtle’s spying on them was relatively minor retribution—if also highly satisfying.

“I don’t suppose your day has included any wandering Gryffindors, has it Myrtle?”

Myrtle rests her chin on her hand. “It might have done. You’re not going to be cruel to her, are you, Draco? Goodness knows I used to come in here all the time for much the same reason she did.”

“Absolutely not. No one was cruel to her, Myrtle. Well, we weren’t being cruel. God’s truth and Merlin’s pledge on it,” Draco promises, holding up his hand. “I was worried about her.”

Myrtle smiles and peers into the next stall. “Did you hear that, Hermione? He said he was worried!”

Draco hears Granger let out a loud, bubbly-sounding sniff. “I heard,” she says. “Th-thank you, Myrtle.”

“Granger?” Draco hesitates and tries again. “Hermione. Would you come out of there? If you’re not indisposed, I mean.”

“If she were indisposed, I wouldn’t have said anything!” Myrtle protests. “I’m a pervy excuse for a ghost, Draco Malfoy, but not that sort!”

“My apologies.” Draco offers her a half-bow. He refuses to ever earn bad marks in Myrtle’s book. It isn’t wise to anger a ghost who can emerge from any pipe in the castle. Draco never wants to lift the toilet lid for a late night piss in the dungeon to discover Myrtle’s head floating in the bowl.

“Give me a moment, please.” Hermione noisily blows her nose and then pushes the stall door open. Her nose and eyes are both swollen and red from crying, but she still lifts her chin, as proud as any Pure-blooded witch. “I’m fine, Draco. You don’t have to worry, honest.”

“People who are fine don’t usually flee from their favorite place in the school.” Draco glances around, pretending not to notice when Hermione’s shoulders hunch again. Spying a dry spot on the floor next to the wall where Myrtle’s spills never reach, he goes over and sits down before treating her to an expectant look.

Hermione stares at him. “You want me to sit there.”

Draco nods. “I assure you, it’s quite dry. The floor has a bit of a tilt. I think it’s because the entrance to the Chamber of Secrets is just over there,” he says, nodding at the next bank of sinks.

Hermione cautiously sits down next to Draco. “How did you know that? They never told anyone.”

“Rumor got around that the Chamber’s entrance was in a bathroom.” Draco refuses to be distracted by the fact that Hermione sat close enough for their shoulders to brush. “I went looking for anything obvious and noticed that those faucets have a few unusual features, like the silver snakes. I can’t open it, of course, but I do like knowing where things are.”

“Of course, if anyone had asked me, I could have told them,” Myrtle says with a sniff. “But no one ever asks poor Moaning Myrtle…except Harry. He asked.”

“Yes, Myrtle, and I did apologize for that. Several times.” Draco gives her a significant look before glancing at Hermione.

Myrtle grins. “I’ve just recalled I’ve an appointment in the Prefect’s Bathroom. Kartik likes to go for a swim right about now, and if he’s put in a long day, he forgets his shorts!” The ghost giggles and then flings herself into the toilet. Draco watches in amusement as a fresh wave of toilet water goes rolling across the floor.

“I didn’t realize you were so familiar with Myrtle,” Hermione comments.

“No one comes here. It’s been a nice place to go if I want to be alone.” Back when he had no idea if his friends were really his friends, or if their parents were all conniving together to raise good little Death Eaters. Back when he could only take so much of Vince and Greg marching along behind Draco before he desperately needed to be alone.

“Oh, I agree. This is where I brewed Polyjuice in second year,” Hermione says.

Draco turns his head to eye Hermione in disbelief. “You brewed Polyjuice in a toilet. In a girls’ toilet!”

“Well, as you just said, it isn’t as if anyone comes here.” Hermione is wiping her eyes again, but she’s smiling. “I put the cauldron up on one of the toilet seats and floated the heat source beneath. It worked wonderfully.”

“That is mental brilliance,” Draco decides. Needs must, after all. “Would you consider showing me how it’s done? I don’t think Myrtle will mind the return of a Polyjuice cauldron.”

Hermione lets out a sigh. “Certainly, but it will have to be after I complete my new assignment in Potions.”

“New assignment?” Draco asks. Professor Snape has never once handed out extra credit.

“Oh, I said some magic combination of words that caused Professor Snape to ask me to compare our last essay about Runespoor eggs to the one he did in fifth year. It was—Slughorn was so useless!” she suddenly fumes.

Draco is startled into laughing. “You have no idea how often I’ve heard Mother say exactly the same.”

“Yes, well.” Hermione blushes, which he doesn’t understand at all. “Professor Snape asked me if I wanted to continue to rely on a book and never give Potions a further thought, or if I wanted to understand what we were doing. I said I wanted to understand, so he’s changing my work for the rest of term. The first assignment is to tell him how to shorten the brewing time of Polyjuice.”

“That’s easy enough,” Draco says without even stopping to think on it. “Brew it by the lunar calendar of twenty-eight days instead of the solar calendar.”

“But—that—that—” Hermione buries her face in her hands to muffle an indignant screech. “I’m an idiot! I kept trying to figure out how to shorten it by at least a week or longer, but he didn’t say how much time I was to shorten it by! He just asked for a shorter brewing time!”

Draco grins. “How can you be excellent at politics and yet miss something so obvious?”

“Because I thought it had to be a difficult answer,” Hermione mumbles into her hands. “If school isn’t hard, then you’re obviously not doing it correctly.”

“What? That is complete rubbish!” Draco exclaims. “Who told you that?”

Hermione drops her hands, looking utterly dejected. “My parents.”

“They’re masochists, then,” Draco says.

“You don’t understand!” Hermione bites her lip. “They’re doctors and they’re dentists! You don’t have to be a doctor to be a dentist in England, but they went to school and became both. The only reason they keep to a dental practice is because it makes more money through those who are paying privately instead of coming in through NHS.”

Some of those words did not make sense, but Draco will figure them out later. “Is that why you tried to take all twelve classes in third year?”

“It wasn’t hard! Nothing about our first or second year was hard at all except for the bloody Petrification!” Hermione sniffs and wipes at her eyes with a demolished handkerchief. “It wasn’t even difficult to catch up with all of the second-year work, or read the textbooks for our third term. I was done before Harry’s birthday that year!”

Draco shakes his head and passes over his own handkerchief. Hermione thanks him with a desultory nod. “Hermione…have you ever stopped to consider that what you’re doing isn’t hard because you’re highly intelligent?”

“That’s the entire problem!” she bursts out, surprising him. “I turned in a thirty-two foot essay for Defence, Draco! I did it because I wanted to do it right and there is just so much and I just—I had to stop working on it in the Common Room in the Tower. All the others ever did was mock me because I wasn’t slacking off at a perfect sixteen feet! Isn’t that just like Granger?” she quotes in a bitter, mocking voice. “Such a swot, Granger! Such a suck-up. You do know you’re supposed to actually suck on a teacher instead of giving them paper cuts, right?”

Draco clenches his jaw. “How entirely crude.

Hermione throws her hands up into the air, nearly sending his handkerchief flying. “I’ve been listening to that rot for five terms now!”

“But what about…” Draco makes himself ask. “Potter? And the Weasleys?”

“Oh, Harry never did,” Hermione admits, dabbing at her eyes. “Ginny, Parvati, and Neville aren't terrible about it, and a number of the younger year students just think I’m terrifying. But I was always supposed to be doing something else rather than waste my time, you know?”

“Actually, I’ve no idea,” Draco says, realizing his eyebrows are raised in complete consternation. “I don’t think it would ever occur to anyone in my House to act like that regarding our education. Greg and Vincent aren’t the smartest wizards ever to attend Hogwarts, but even they don’t mock us for doing well. We return the courtesy and don’t mock them for doing poorly.”

“That’s…that sounds rather nice, actually,” Hermione whispers, sniffing. “It’s just—my parents expect me to do well. They’re brilliant, so I’d better be, also. They learned just enough about Hogwarts to understand the grading system, and I know what my summer will be like if I bring home anything except straight Os for the O.W.L.s. They don’t care what I do unless I bugger something up.” She sniffs again and wipes her nose with his handkerchief.

“I do know what that is like, however,” Draco says. “My father. He is…very much of that sort, but unlike your parents, he has the distinction of also being a Death Eater.”

“I’m not reassured. The other students think my parents are just as terrifying as Death Eaters because they’re dentists,” Hermione replies.

Draco feels his lip twitch. “You know, after hearing Sebastian discuss his first root canal in explicit detail, I did have to stop and ponder which I’d rather deal with—Death Eaters, or Muggle dentists.”

Hermione lifts her head and looks at him. The moment their eyes meet, they both burst into inane-sounding giggles. “Oh! Oh, goodness,” Hermione gasps, wiping her eyes for an entirely different reason. “Can you imagine how many students in Hogwarts might actually choose the Death Eaters over an appointment with my parents?”

“Sebastian says that drill makes your entire skull vibrate like it’s going to come apart!” Draco wheezes, pressing his hand to his side. “So many! It would be so many of them!”

They slowly calm down, though Draco embarrasses himself by hiccupping several times before giving up and casting the charm to get rid of them. Hermione doesn’t seem to mind, but given what she’s doing to his handkerchief, maybe a few hiccups really aren’t quite the social gaffe his parents always claimed.

“I haven’t told anyone in Gryffindor,” Hermione says after balling up the handkerchief in her hand. “About Professor Slytherin moving me into the sixth-year N.E.W.T. class.” Then she surprises him by leaning against Draco’s side, resting her head on his shoulder.

Draco tries not to freeze. He snogged Pansy a few times last year, mostly for fun, not out of any need to date. Archana was kind enough to give him proper lessons in kissing when he was in third-year and desperate not to make a fool of himself the first time he approached a girl. In this case, he probably shouldn’t jump right to snogging.

“I don’t blame you,” Draco manages to say, hoping his voice doesn’t sound squeaky. “You’ll be letting Professor Slytherin explain it on Monday, I take it?”

Hermione nods. “I’m not the only one who was shuffled, so it’s the opportune time for it. Thank you, Draco.”

“Er, what for?”

“I’ve never had anyone except Harry just accept me for who I am, swottiness and all. He doesn’t expect me to be better or worse at something. He just…success or fail, it was fine. I didn’t have to prove anything to him, even if he sometimes made me feel like I had to, but that’s because he’s mental.”

“Potter flew against a Hungarian Horntail on a broom last year. We all noticed that he’s mental,” Draco says while trying to ignore the sharp flush of guilt. He said some truly terrible things about Potter last year, and while Hermione seems to have forgiven him, Potter himself is another matter. Draco isn’t looking forward to that conversation at all.

Hermione giggles again. “Well, yes. It’s just—it isn’t just Professor Slytherin. It’s you and the other Slytherins who aren’t berks, to use Theo’s word. It’s the people in other Houses who are looking around at the rest of us, as if finally realizing we’re here in the first place. It’s nice, you know?”

Draco swallows. “Yes. It is nice.” He isn’t only speaking of the inter-House awareness, but it doesn’t seem polite to mention it. Muggles probably have a very different view of this sort of close touching. He really needs to figure out a situation in which to ask without it seeming too forward.

“Hermione?” Draco gives her a gentle nudge with his elbow. “Might I ask you something?”

“Certainly.”

All right. In for it, then. “The next Hogsmeade Weekend is the first weekend of March. Would you like to accompany me?”

Hermione sits up and looks at him. “Accompany you? Well, I don’t mind…” She trails off, eyes narrowing. “You’re not the one who sent the fountain pen, are you?”

Draco grimaces and glances up at the ceiling. “No! And I very much would like to know who did, because they beat me to it!”

Hermione is biting her lip when he looks at her again. “Okay.”

“Okay?” Draco repeats, confused.

“I’ll go with you. To Hogsmeade,” Hermione clarifies when Draco keeps staring at her like an imbecile. “But we should probably find out who sent that pen. I’d like to know why they never said anything, or if I need to give it back, or…or whatever the proper response is meant to be. I don’t actually know.”

Draco decides that’s a very good opportunity. “Ah. Yes. I’ll, uh, help with that. If you like. You see, this leaning thing you did? In Wizarding circles, you’re signaling that you want to, er, snog me.”

Hermione clamps her hand over her mouth, but what spills out is brilliant laughter, not more tears. “Oh my God! That’s why everyone in Gryffindor is so convinced that Ron, Harry, and I were dating!”

Draco is outraged. “Weasley didn’t warn you?”

“I don’t think he realized, actually,” Hermione replies, still laughing. “I did wonder why he abruptly stopped doing that after the Yule Ball. I thought he was still sour over Victor Krum. Instead, he’d just gotten it through his thick skull that I’m a girl!”

Draco reminds himself that not all Weasleys are hopeless. The twins are loyal and intelligent. Ginny Weasley is smart, and one hell of a Seeker. He’s never seen any of them muck it up that badly in regards to Pure-blood customs. “Perhaps we should…trade. Information.” Draco swallows again when his throat feels too dry. “During the Hogsmeade Weekend. I do need to know more about the—the non-magical world.”

“And I apparently need to strangle several dead authors for not being more useful when it comes to writing down Pure-blood customs,” Hermione says. “Oh—bugger it. It’s nearly time for dinner. We should go back to the library so no one thinks we’ve drowned in here.”

Draco is suddenly, acutely aware of their lack of chaperone. He doesn’t need to sully either of their reputations before they even take their O.W.L.s. “Right, yes. That sounds like an excellent plan.”

 

*         *         *         *

 

Hermione isn’t certain what she’s more nervous about—returning to the library to face the Slytherins (and Susan, Padma, and Megan) she abandoned because of her ridiculous crying, or of the Gryffindors finding out about her placement in the sixth-year class. Maybe a Hogsmeade weekend spent with Draco Malfoy will help things seem less strange.

She can’t believe that thought just crossed her mind.

Millicent, Megan, Blaise, and Theo are still at the table; Padma, Pansy, and Susan have come back. Everyone is packing up to leave for dinner. “There you are!” Pansy greets her. “How is my favorite swot?”

Hermione musters a smile. “I’m okay. They told you?”

“Of course they did.” Susan gives Hermione the expression of concern and good humor that Hufflepuffs master so well. It’s a very nice way of asking if she’s all right without saying a word. “You’re our friend.”

“I’m sorry,” Hermione tells them as she retrieves her book bag. “I didn’t mean to have a stupid meltdown at the table. It’s just—”

“It’s fine,” Padma interrupts her. She has a very firm, set smile on her face. “It’s just stress, right?”

Hermione blinks a few times as the others all nod along with Padma. An out. They’re giving her a choice on whether she wants to talk about it or not…and she doesn’t. “You’re right, Padma. It’s—well, it really is stress,” she continues, realizing that it’s still the truth. “Thank you all for being so understanding.”

“So! Did anything exciting happen in Moaning Myrtle’s bathroom?” Pansy asks, grinning like the utter fiend she is.

“Er—well.” Hermione glances at Draco, who for some reason is flushing scarlet. “Draco asked me to go with him to the next Hogsmeade Weekend, and I said yes, but I feel guilty about it. I still don’t know who sent me such a wonderful pen. It doesn’t seem as if I’m being fair.”

“Oh, that’s all right,” Millicent says. “I sent the fountain pen.”

Hermione stares at Millicent. “I…you did?”

Millicent nods. “I noticed you using it, but I’ve been trying to figure out if you were interested in girls before I said anything. If you’re leaning towards Draco, I suppose that you aren’t.”

Hermione begins competing with Draco for who is turning the darkest shade of red. “I, er, no. I’m sorry, I’m not…I think you’re very pretty, Millicent. I even thought just last week that you look like a Greek goddess. But I don’t think of girls that way.”

Millicent’s staid composure cracks around the edges. “You think I’m pretty?”

“Of course I do!” Hermione exclaims, glad that the others chime in with equal insistence. “Why wouldn’t I think so?”

“Used to be fat,” Millicent mumbles. “Still hear it often enough at home.”

“Yes, but now you’re bloody tall, like I keep telling you,” Theo says in a patient voice. “And I’ve mentioned that you’re gorgeous, too.”

“Yes, but you’re boy,” Millicent retorts. “I like girls! It’s different, hearing it from a girl!”

Daphne does an excellent job of competing with Professor Snape for dry delivery: “You’re pretty, you idiot.”

“Love, I’d date you if I weren’t straight as an arrow,” Padma says in frank admiration. “You could pick me up and sling me around like a twig!”

Hermione begins to wonder how many of them are going to be standing around blushing before dinner. Millicent’s face is highlighted red in a way that perfectly emphasizes the line of her cheekbones. Oddly enough, Susan is blushing, too. “Millicent, should I give you back the fountain pen?” Hermione asks. “I’m not really certain how that sort of thing works.”

Millicent finishes packing up her books. “We’ll trade for it.”

Hermione braces herself. She’s still getting used to the idea of trading. “All right. What sort of trade?”

“Three conditions for the trade.” Millicent’s blush fades, but the pleased glimmer in her eyes is still present. “If the conditions are met, you may keep the fountain pen. First, please tell me if you’re aware if Katie Bell is into girls.”

“Er…” Hermione frowns. “I’m not certain. I’ve never heard Katie say that she’s opposed to the idea, though. Ginny might know. I could ask.”

Millicent smiles. “I’ll consider that condition met, then. The second condition is that Draco must reimburse me for the cost of the pen.”

“Gladly, Millicent,” Draco says while blushing again. Hermione desperately wants to know why. “Write down the sum and deliver it to me this evening. I’ll make certain you receive exactly what you ask for.”

Oh—Draco is allowing Millicent the means to ask for extra money as payment for the favor. That part, Hermione understands.

“If you do both of those things, you and Draco may tell everyone outside of our particular circle that he bought you the fountain pen, so he can demonstrate proof that he initiated a proper sort of courtship before asking you on a date,” Millicent adds. “That’s my only other condition. If he’s going to court you, one of us has to make certain he remembers to do it properly.”

“Is this what you had in mind in the first place?” Hermione is intrigued by both the setup of the trade, and the idea that Millicent would look after Draco’s interests this way. Of course, it could be yet another Slytherin thing. “You seem to have planned this out already, Millicent.”

“A good Slytherin plans for any contingency,” Millicent replies. “It was about fifty-fifty, though. If you’d said yes, I would have the pleasure of dating someone highly intelligent and beautiful, if a bit unkempt. If you said no, then I would try my luck at courting the smartest, prettiest witch in sixth-year.”

Hermione can’t protest the unkempt part, but she thinks it’s a bit funny that she thought of Millicent in the very same terms. “Well. Er, thank you then. For the trade. Even if Draco claims the pen plot from now on, it was still a very thoughtful gift.”

“Pen plot.” Blaise snickers. “I love that.”

“I did my research,” Millicent says airily. “Come on, Pans. We need to make certain we’ve taken over our end of the table properly before the firsties try to call dibs.”

“Did you really ask Hermione to go Hogsmeade with you?” Padma asks Draco in an excited whisper as they all leave the library. Hermione already knows what the Gryffindor table is going to be gossiping about through the entirety of dinner. She resolves to hide between Neville and Ron.

“Of course I did.” There is a faint echo of Draco’s old haughtiness in his voice. Then it’s gone when he says, “You can tell the overprotective types in Gryffindor that I have a genuine interest in Hermione Granger’s company, though I do have an ulterior motive.”

“What Slytherin doesn’t?” Megan smirks. “What’s the secondary plot, then, Malfoy?”

Draco smiles at Hermione. It isn’t his usual smile at all, but a bashful, lingering look. “I’d very much like for her to tell me more about the non-magical world.”

Hermione feels an odd curl of delight beneath her breastbone. “You didn’t say Muggle.”

“No, I didn’t.” Draco resettles his bag over his shoulder and straightens his shoulders, lifting his head. He doesn’t appear arrogant in that moment, nothing like Lucius Malfoy. Draco looks confident, brave…and maybe happy, too. “Professor Slytherin has been saying for a while now that Muggle is a slur. If I can stop saying the other one, then I can stop saying this one, too.”

Chapter Text

Severus awakens sometime around ten in the morning on Saturday and immediately curses the fact that he overslept to such an extent. He doesn’t like being parted from his weekday schedule during the school year, not when he needs to be awake and aware, fueled by spite and tea, as his first class begins.

Nizar has already abandoned the bed for the day, though he left a note. It’s the note’s contents that make Severus scowl.

 

Was asked to check that 12 Grimmauld Place is not going to fall down around certain ears due to the removal of a noisy wall. Will bring back gossip without mold or spiders. Taking Lupin his next three doses of Taming so he has no excuse.

This potion desperately needs a new name that is not Wolf Poison.

—Nizar

P.S. If things are truly that dull during the rest of your morning, meet me in Godric’s Hollow at noon. I’m trying to find a door.

 

Severus thinks about it while dressing for the day. He is in no rush to go to Godric’s Hollow. Once was quite enough.

In September of 1980, he had once stood in the rain on a walkway, disguised by a Disillusionment Charm while he stared at the place where he knew a hidden house lurked. The others might be baffled by the Fidelius Charm’s effects, but Severus could think and remember James Potter’s origins. He hadn’t been to the village before that evening, but all it took was a few scant minutes of listening to gossip in the pub to discover that the other residents of the village were still trying to figure out when the house with that nice young married couple had been torn down. One of the grandmother types was fussing because she’d knitted a blanket proper for a newborn baby, and now there was naught to give it to.

There was nothing to tell anyone else that a house with a wife, child, and husband was hidden on that quiet street in Godric’s Hollow. Not a hint of magic. He’d turned away and foolishly decided it was enough to save them.

Maybe it would have been, if not for a rat’s cowardice.

Filky doesn’t need to do much to convince Severus to take tea or breakfast, but the idea of Godric’s Hollow bothers him throughout the morning. It’s distracting enough that he almost doesn’t care that Nizar willingly returned to that vile townhouse in London without Order business prompting the visit.

Five minutes before noon, Severus lets out a stream of profanity, fetches a winter cloak, casts the Invisibility Charm, and then Apparates directly to Godric’s Hollow. It’s a much longer Apparition than he should have undertaken, but for once, he feels no lingering ache in his chest or tiredness pulling at his limbs. If that is a side effect of the war mage title, he’ll gladly take it.

Severus looks around to be certain no one is staring in his direction before dismissing the charm. It’s easier to find Nizar than he expected; he’s standing in front of the old statue in the village square, gazing at it in angry bafflement.

At first, Severus doesn’t understand why. It’s a weather-darkened stone obelisk that lists war casualties from World War I for that region of England, erected by the people of Godric’s Hollow decades ago. Severus had looked at it for a moment or two during his last visit, thinking on how long the casualty lists for the Wizarding War would be if all its victims were accounted for.

It’s only as Severus steps closer that the statue shifts, becoming metal, oversized statues of James Potter, Lily Potter, and an infant Harry Potter. This would be where the Ministry decided to put that nonsense. He’d heard the news of its creation and then promptly ignored everything else.

Good God, it’s an ugly statue. Lily would be so offended.

So, apparently, is her son, who is too busy scowling at the statue to greet him. “I take it you’re not impressed,” Severus says.

Nizar’s scowl deepens. “Do you have any idea how many paintings and triptychs I’ve viewed in my life of the infant Jesus that are framed in exactly this fashion? Granted, the space James is occupying is usually taken up by the angel who was nice enough to go tell that poor woman she was going to give birth to a god’s child, but it’s exactly that. I’m not even Christian, and I find this to be sacrilegious.”

“And how long have you been staring at the sacrilegious statue?” Severus asks. Now that Nizar has pointed it out, he can see the religious similarity.

“What time is it?”

Severus glances at his pocket watch and puts it away. “A minute after twelve o’clock.”

“Oh. Then at least ten minutes. Sometimes sheer outrage certainly eats up your day.” Nizar shakes his head. “I approached it because I was told it was a memorial for the Great War—well, World War I, now. Then it shifted into this nonsense.”

“And the fact that you’re a permanent fixture of this nonsense is having no sway over your opinion?”

“No.” Nizar puts his hands in his robe pockets. “It doesn’t even look like them. I might not have memories, but I have photos. This statue wasn’t made for them. It was made for everyone else, and it is beautified ludicrousness. That isn’t—”

Nizar sighs. “I understand that perhaps someone got the idea into their head that the Ministry should honor the sacrifices of others, but this isn’t how you do it. You do not place dead people up on a pedestal that puts on the appearance of everything being normal. It isn’t normal. There is no happy family wandering off into history. They’re dead. Fuck the idiots who approved this nonsense. The obelisk with all of those names, that dark stone marker without a hint of ostentatiousness—if you want to honor those who fell, that’s how you do it. You don’t make it a fucking spectacle!”

Severus agrees with Nizar, but he can’t resist the urge to prod at him. “Have you been composing this particular rant while waiting for me to appear?”

“No, I spent most of that time being appalled.” Nizar scowls again. “Is anyone looking?”

Severus takes a surreptitious glance around the small village square. “No. It’s the lunch hour. Most of them are at home or in a pub.”

“Good.” Nizar lifts his leg and stomps hard the ground. Severus winces when the sound rings out like a sharp crack, followed by the fainter, echoing ring of a gong. The ugly statue vanishes, replaced by the original obelisk. Severus isn’t certain, as he couldn’t make out details clearly from fifteen feet away, but he suspects the obelisk’s names are carved out in starker relief than before.

“Not that I’m complaining, but what the hell did you just do?” Severus asks.

“That is a trick I must have picked up from Salazar—using the magic of the earth to disrupt an enchantment. I made it so that the obelisk can never be replaced by that appalling bronze bullshit ever again. Anyone who comes here is going to see the casualty list from a horrific war. They can honor those sacrifices, instead.”

Severus glances at Nizar. “You do realize you’ve done away with the only war memorial for the previous Wizarding war against Voldemort on this entire island, yes?”

Nizar finally looks at him, his eyes a bright emerald green with hints of silver as his magic flares along with his temper. “Fucking what?

“The only one. Just that one. There is nothing anywhere else.”

Nizar plasters his hand over his eyes. “The fuck—fine. If I can be plotting the creation of an actual, useful museum, I can throw gold at erecting a real war memorial. Maybe place it inside the fucking museum so people can’t avoid it.”

“Museum,” Severus repeats. “I take it there are plans for the detritus in the rubbish room aspect?”

“Given that the magical world in Britain has no museum except for Hogwarts, which isn’t exactly open to the public?” Nizar nods. “It’s definitely something needed, though the school may lose Sasha over it. She wants to be this potential museum’s curator.”

“I really do need to recalibrate my scale in regards to how much plotting I should expect from you,” Severus says dryly. “Have you seen the house yet?”

“Yes.” Nizar rolls his eyes. “They left it as is, yet another lovely monument to murder, and the Ministry confiscated it. I’m not certain, but I’m pretty sure that confiscating another’s legal property without due cause is a crime in Wizarding Britain.”

They begin walking away from the statue. “You would want back a murder monument, then?”

“Me? No. I can’t legally inherit it, anyway. If it belongs to anyone, it would be Sirius and any potential descendants he may eventually father,” Nizar replies.

Severus knows there is a look of intense distaste on his face. “Please do not mention that man and possible children ever again. I have made my peace with his first marriage, but I don’t need to dwell on that man breeding.”

“He’s actually intelligent, when he’s not being an idiot.” Nizar glances at a sign marked Church Street and steers them in that direction. “Yes, I’m aware of your opinion on that ratio.”

“Did he manage to get rid of that portrait of Walburga Black without removing an entire section of the house?” Severus asks when Nizar doesn’t volunteer anything further. It was a plot to make Severus ask the question himself, and he willingly fell for it because he rather hopes Sirius Black did muck it up that badly.

“No. He did all right.” Nizar smiles. “Granted, Black has absolutely no idea where he put the wall or the portrait, but as no one can find it anywhere else in the house, he’s calling it a success. Now Tonks can trip over that taxidermied troll’s leg all she likes.”

After they pass by a church, Nizar pauses in front of a blackened gate. Above it is a wrought-iron plaque that reads St. Jerome’s Cemetery, and beyond that…

Everything inside of Severus freezes up. He knows who is buried inside that graveyard, and he is not going in.

“You don’t have to. I was just curious,” Nizar tells him, swinging open the gate on hinges that shriek with the need for maintenance. “I’ll just be a moment.”

“I’ve never wanted to see what that mistake wrought.” Severus clenches his jaw and follows Nizar. “Perhaps I should.”

“Not if it’s bloody self-flagellation,” Nizar mutters.

“You are not one to talk about that right now,” Severus retorts. “Not after the way this month has progressed.”

“That isn’t self-flagellation, that’s depression,” Nizar argues. “It’s sort of funny, though. I was taunted by one walking corpse in 1234. I’m taunting another walking corpse now, and both of them are family. It’s like a terrible joke.”

Severus grimaces. Those sorts of jokes are only amusing to people like Voldemort.

Nizar skirts a large stone, pauses, and turns around to look at the inscription. “You were curious about Dumbledore’s sister. Here she is.”

Severus joins him on the other side of the large stone. It isn’t marking a single grave, but two—Ariana Theodora Simmonete Dumbledore and Kendra Rose Blishwick Dumbledore. The inscription meandering along the bottom of the stone reads: Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.

“It seems Albus wasn’t the only one to be saddled with more than two given names.” Severus frowns over the choice of Biblical verse. It’s in a New Testament passage regarding the falseness of earthly wealth that Severus found to be contradictory as all hell. That was one of the reasons he gave up trying to read the battered old library discard copy of the King James Bible and put it right back into the library’s book return slot. He still feels a bit badly for that poor Cokeworth librarian.

“Ariana was granted better options than Dumbledore. Theodora, a famous intelligent Empress, and Simmonete, renowned magician and Headmistress of Hogwarts in…” Nizar frowns. “I do believe she was Head of the school when James I became King of England after Elizabeth’s death. She did quite a bit to safeguard Hogwarts and her students from the anti-witchcraft laws of the time. I imagine Kendra would be their mother, given the dates.”

Severus nods. “Died at fourteen years old,” he says of Ariana. “I wonder how. I’ve never heard a damned thing about it.”

“There is probably a gossiping old biddy or crusty old bastard out there in Britain who knows.” Nizar smiles at the stone. “Aberforth, you complete liar. I wonder what other names your parents saddled you with that you’ve never admitted to?”

“I’m wondering at the lack of Percival Dumbledore’s grave, myself,” Severus says when he realizes that there are no other stones bearing the Dumbledore name nearby.

What does surprise him is coming across the marker for Ignotus Peverell, the dates and inscriptions all but washed away by the centuries. Severus didn’t exactly disbelieve Salazar’s story of the three brothers, but finding a grave for a man considered by most of Wizarding Britain to be a myth certainly drives the point home—the Peverell brothers were real, and so are the Deathly Hallows.

“And here would be an ancestor of yours.”

Nizar walks over to join him. “I imagine that with time travel and the adoption in play, it’s more as if he’s a descended distant cousin, not an ancestor. Or maybe it’s both.” He tilts his head at the condition of the stone, glances around, and then gets out his wand to fix it. “Salazar would be so much better for this. All I can do is restore what remains, not rebuild what once was. This stone used to be massive.”

With the remainder of the stone restored, the name, dates, and epitaph easily legible once more, Severus can see the shadow of what was once a truly massive square of marble. “Either he was well-liked, or someone wanted to be very certain a large rock would keep this man from digging his way out of the ground.”

Nizar chuckles. “I rather doubt it’s the latter. Let’s see…oh, those dates are nonsense.”

“Are they?” Severus does think that a wizard hiding from Death only managing to attain the still youthful age of seventy-six does seem a bit…off.

“When I started to recall things again, there were students in Slytherin who discussed Ignotus Peverell in…oh, the 1330s, I think,” Nizar says. “He was still spry at the time, doing creative work with Charms. They gossiped about how he took on so many apprentices to make up for the fact that he only ever managed to father a single child. Envious, the lot of them. He’d built quite the reputation for himself, and they wanted to be a part of it.”

“Slytherin students wanting to apprentice themselves to a Gryffindor.” Severus can hardly imagine the idea that such cross-House alliances are possible, though he is witnessing several of them unfold in Hogwarts right now. Even Andromeda is still often looked at on the sly, as if she’ll turn as vile as Bellatrix Black Lestrange at any moment.

 “I would imagine certain ideas hadn’t entirely polluted the isles yet.” Nizar sighs but points at the dates again. “Cadmus’s birthdate is correct, at least. Antioch graduated in 1227; Cadmus and his lovely dour face graduated in 1232. Ignotus was the youngest, graduating in 1234.”

Severus feels an unsettling chill that has nothing to do with the temperature. “The brothers were all present in Hogwarts while Utredus Gaunt was teaching Alchemy.”

“It makes me very glad to remember that Cadmus never bothered with those lessons.” Nizar’s brow furrows. “Maybe I’m right. Maybe this really is all my fault.”

It takes Severus a moment to realize what Nizar is saying. “Your fault? How in the hell is Utredus Gaunt your fault? If you refuse to allow Elfric to hold any sort of blame—”

“That’s just it, though.” Nizar scrubs at his cold-reddened nose and shoves his hair away from his face. “I still don’t remember the year. I just remember the event. I recall that Elfric was four years old, and Brice was five.”

Severus wills himself to patience. He has a feeling that a full two weeks of truly uncharacteristic moping are about to be explained. “That is when you adopted them?”

“Yes.” Nizar swallows. “There was a village somewhere near here—I don’t actually think it survived the centuries unless it now bears a different name. Godric might no longer have been Magical Earl over Somerset thanks to an idiot, but he still tried to look after Somerset’s people as best he could, especially the magicians. He knew there were two magical children in the village of Linden’s Woe, but the last message he sent with Hardwin was never answered. Godric’s falcon returned in a foul damned mood with the missive still attached to his leg. I had the spare hour where he did not, and told Godric I’d see to whatever mishap occurred.

“When I arrived in the village, I found that there had been an outbreak of some sort of disease. It wasn’t the Black Plague, but it wasn’t the pox, either. Perhaps it was some sort of precursor to the Black Death, but whatever the cause, the villagers had lost half their number and were terrified they would lose the rest.”

There are green and silver sparks dancing around Nizar’s eyes again. “I met some truly wonderful priests and monks during that time, Jonathan being one of them. The priest of Linden’s Woe, on the other hand, convinced his flock that to spare them the wrath of an angry Christian God, all they needed to do was lock up all the remaining families who were ill into a single building. Their entire families, whether or not anyone else showed signs of illness. Anyone who lived in those households. They imprisoned twenty-three people in that building and set it ablaze.”

Severus realizes his jaw is hanging open in shock. He knows, historically, that utter foolishness like this occurred, but this is a first-hand account from one who witnessed it.

“I had to choose between killing a willful murderer, or attempting to save those I could. That was a terrible temptation.” Nizar wipes at his eyes with his gloved hands. “I Apparated directly into the building with a Breathing Charm in place just to save time. It didn’t take me long to realize that smoke had already felled most of them. There were only three of those villagers left alive—a young woman named Joyse who’d been recently wed to a man who fell ill, and the two small boys she was sheltering. I Apparated them out of that burning home, taking us all straight back to Hogewáþ.

“I don’t think I had ever seen Godric so angry,” Nizar says. “I know he visited Linden’s Woe himself afterwards, but I never asked what he said or did.

“Once Helga helped them to recover from their time trapped in a burning house, all three of them became our students. Joyse had no idea she was magical, but it was magic she instinctively used to keep herself and two innocents from the suffocation deaths the others suffered.”

“Those two boys were Elfric and Brice.” Severus waits for Nizar to nod. “And somehow you’ve gotten it into your head that if you hadn’t saved them, Utredus Gaunt would never have existed. You truly have worked yourself into a foolish mess if you are willing to disregard the lives your sons were able to live because of you.”

“Not entirely foolish, Severus,” Nizar says quietly. “I wasn’t supposed to be there. Fate exists. What if they were meant to die, and I only created the very circumstances that warped our world?”

“Fuck fate,” Severus retorts in a flat voice. “I refuse to believe in fate. It’s complete fucking rubbish. If it truly were some sort of ridiculous fate that Elfric and Brice were to die at a young age, you wouldn’t have been able to save them. Logic, Nizar. Do please retrieve yourself from the gutter long enough to recall it.”

Nizar sniffs and wipes his eyes again. “Fuck you, too. As long as there is to be guilt and self-flagellation, let’s go round it out, shall we?”

Severus glares at him. “I was hoping you would conveniently forget.”

The marker is at the rear of the cemetery, almost invisible despite it being daylight. The utterly nondescript nature of the stone makes it difficult to notice. It’s a single plain square of drab grey slate for both graves, just wide enough to touch two burials in the earth instead of being large enough to cover both. It bears only James and Lily’s first and last names with their dates of birth and death, accompanied by a ridiculous inscription. It doesn’t mention Potter’s middle name or their birthplaces. It doesn’t list Lily’s middle name or maiden name at all.

Severus expected to be dealing with old guilt. Instead, he wants to murder someone. “Petunia,” he spits.

Nizar looks unimpressed. “Even families will play at politics. I imagine that was the cheapest option possible for Petunia to buy without the risk of others taking notice.”

“Are you going to do anything to this stone, like you did the other?” Severus asks. He would consider the option himself, but his hands are shaking. He’s so enraged that Petunia could still be so utterly spiteful towards Lily after she was murdered that he might destroy anything he points his wand at.

The last enemy to be destroyed is death.” Nizar frowns. “Is that also Biblical, Severus?”

“If so, I’ve no idea where. It’s not in the T’nakh.” Severus also thinks the inscription is fucking stupid and desperately inappropriate, but it sounds very much like the kind of thoughtlessness Lily’s sister is capable of.

Nizar’s expression twists before it becomes an unreadable mask. “Leave it,” he finally decides. “If anyone is going to fix that level of disrespect, Petunia Dursley should do it.”

Severus raises an eyebrow. “Are you going to make her do so?”

Nizar retrieves his wand long enough to conjure a bouquet of violets before he bends down and places the unwrapped bundle over both graves. “I might pay her a visit after Voldemort is dead. Or I might have a proper magical stonemason correct it and then send her the bill through non-magical means.”

“And destroy her credit rating within the United Kingdom when she refuses to pay.” Severus smiles. “Vengeful Slytherin.”

“I know of no other kind of Slytherin to be.” Nizar straightens and then nudges Severus’s arm. “Let’s go.”

“Why violets?” Severus asks once they’re free of the cemetery and its countless, cheerless markers.

“In Greek lore, violets are the flower said to grow in the Elysian Fields, a part of the afterlife reserved for those who died heroic deaths.”

Severus glances at Nizar from the corner of his eye. “Honoring a sacrifice properly.”

Nizar shrugs. “I like violets.”

“Did you find this mysterious door you claimed to be looking for?” Severus asks when they’ve walked back through the square, using the footpath to proceed down the narrow lane where the Potter residence used to reside. Severus resolutely does not look in that direction, using the length of his hair to ensure that he can’t even catch a glimpse of it. He didn’t want to know then, and he doesn’t want to know now.

“Not yet. Got distracted by that statue.” Nizar pauses as the footpath ends a few meters away from the village’s last house. “The problem with trying to find a specific door one thousand years after the fact is that nothing is the same. The village that was once Griffon’s Door? Godric’s Hollow looks nothing like it. It isn’t even arranged the same way.”

“Then you are…”

Nizar glances at him. “I’m not guessing or wandering aimlessly, if that’s what you’re wondering.”

“I was not,” Severus says.

Nizar smiles and ignores the obvious lie. “I’m not an Earth-Speaker, like Salazar, but I learned on my very first visit to the Giant’s Dance—wait sorry, it’s Stonehenge now—that I’m particularly sensitive to the flow of magic. The stronger it is, the more I’m inclined to notice it.”

“That sounds either useful or distracting. Similar to an Elemental Magician, like Miss Lovegood, then?”

Nizar shakes his head. “An Elemental Magician is called that because they can speak to any element of the earth, and I do mean any of them.”

“Not just the four considered to be the primary magical elements. You mean anything on the Periodic Table,” Severus realizes. “Miss Lovegood never needs to speak with any of the radioactive elements, then.”

“Some of those words made no sense,” Nizar grumbles. “What is a Periodic Table, and please define a radioactive element in a way that is not me trying to discern how a non-magical radio could be active in what seems to be a dangerous way.”

“That definitely depends on some of the music it’s broadcasting,” Severus comments as they resume walking again—straight into the woods. Of course they are. At least his boots are sturdy, and he is not wearing anything made of silk today.

He nearly gets distracted from explaining when he can feel a faint sense of magic beneath his feet, like the distant chiming of tiny bells. Odd. Much like his Apparition to Godric’s Hollow, that is not an ability he had before the war mage title was bestowed. “A Periodic Table is the non-magical listing for all the known scientific elements, those substances that cannot be broken down any further than they already are because they’re already in their simplest structural atomic form.”

“I want one of those tables, even if I would have no idea what most of it said.”

“I haven’t seen one in a while,” Severus muses. “I wonder if it’s been updated.” He follows Nizar around the hollowed-out bore of a large dead tree, ducks under an overhanging branch, and discovers that they now seem to be on a path. It has no tracks, no sign of human or animal footprints, and is covered by ground moss and dead leaves…but there is still a clear sense of it being an area that will never become overgrown. “What is this?” he asks. The sense of chiming bells in the ground is much, much stronger.

Nizar turns around in a circle, his head cocked as if listening. “It’s a pathway. A very strong magical line.”

Severus frowns as he looks behind them. “What the hell?” The tree they avoided is not there any longer. The path ahead of them is now a path behind them, as well.

“They do that,” Nizar says, unconcerned.

Severus reminds himself that he is not lost; he can bloody well Apparate away from this place. “A ley line. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen one before.”

“You’ve probably walked along one and never known. Many of the ancient roads were built over them. It was already cleared land, so why go to the trouble of building a road elsewhere?” Nizar makes a decision and begins walking in the direction they originally came from. Sort of. Severus rather doubts it’s the same direction at all. “What’s a radioactive element?”

“Certain elements break down over time. The amount of time it takes depends on the element involved, but all of the elements release varying forms of radioactivity when they do so. Some of it is entirely harmless…and is possibly used for dating ancient materials, if I’m recalling some natter in primary school correctly. Other types of radiation are generally harmless in short doses, while that same exposure to similar small doses from specific radioactive elements can kill you.”

Severus pauses as he realizes that he is still not defining this well enough. “Radioactivity being…emissions. Waves of that elemental breakdown. It can affect everything around it. Remind me to tell you about Chernobyl when I am not preoccupied by the fact that everything around us now feels like it is staring at me.”

Nizar slows down and takes Severus’s hand. The sensation of eyes boring into Severus from all sides abruptly eases, though it doesn’t disappear completely. “It’s all right. They don’t mean any harm. It’s a deterrent to keep away the foolish. Even the non-magical can feel that.”

“Who are they?” Severus asks, not certain he wishes to know. This is the most intense discomfort he’s ever experienced in his life outside of physical pain. Then his attention is caught by the hill rising before them. It looks like an old barrow that’s been completely overtaken by ground moss. No grass, leaves, or even dead branches litter the hillside. A tall oak tree is growing from the very top, its roots visible here and there as if the hill is being gripped and held by gnarled brown hands.

“Oh, just nosy neighbors,” Nizar answers his question in a blithe tone. “They’re probably curious about two visiting war mages.”

Nosy neighbors. Severus is choosing to ignore that. “That’s a door?” He’ll admit that he was picturing something rather like Stonehenge’s three-stone balanced construction, if on a smaller scale.

“It’s rather more like it has the potential to be a door.” Nizar sighs. “A long time ago, there were many active doors. Humans in my time could not use them safely, but humans are not the only beings dwelling here. This door shared the fate of so many others.”

“You’re talking of fate again,” Severus says in annoyance.

“Yes, but not the same way. When magicians began to shrink in number, so too did the number of available Door Guardians—those with the skill and knowledge to guard an active door from those who really didn’t need to be messing about with one. Either some fool would figure out how to trip their way through a doorway and die messily, or they would invite something here that really didn’t belong out of complete, utter stupidity,” Nizar explains.

Severus rolls his eyes. Of course they would. He sees examples of that dunderheaded type of curiosity five days a week.

“Godric and his wife Sedemai were both of this region, and they were both Door Guardians, though they didn’t share the same tasks. When Godric no longer held this land under his direct protection, he and Sedemai had to turn an active door into an inactive one, as there was no one else who could take on the role. It wasn’t even safe to do so after they finally had their own children. Between the Church’s paranoia and the raiding, it was too dangerous.”

Severus stops staring at the hillside to glare at Nizar. “If that is supposed to be inactive, why is there such a presence of your unidentified they here to convince others to leave?”

“Because sometimes idiots are just intelligent enough to figure out how to make an inactive door active.” Nizar sounds incensed, but Severus doesn’t think he is the cause. “Let’s leave.”

“You had no plans other than finding the door?” Severus asks in confusion.

“I’m not a fucking Door Guardian. I’m not about to try to fuck with that!” Nizar looks appalled. “Just—no. Absolutely not. I only wanted to know if I could find it again.” Before Severus can say anything else, Nizar Apparates them both to the outer bounds of Hogsmeade.

It’s such an abrupt change of scenery that Severus feels a rare moment of dizziness. “Is there a reason why you were in such a hurry?”

“All right. Let’s go back and talk about fucking with a door in front of a lot of beings who would be very upset by the idea. Then we’ll linger and wait to find out exactly how they’d respond to a perceived threat, shall we?” Nizar retorts caustically.

“We absolutely fucking well will not be doing so.” Much like Helga’s mysterious spell, Severus no longer has any interest in finding out who that door’s they are. “Why Hogsmeade?”

“I missed lunch, and we have an appointment at two,” Nizar replies. “Besides, I want to bribe or blackmail Aberforth into admitting what ridiculous names he’s been hiding from the world.”

Lunch does sound appealing. At least Aberforth has proven that he is willing to feed them food that is not of dubious origin.

“Wait. What appointment? I’m not recalling any such thing.”

Nizar smiles. “I might have committed you to an act of tea.”

“Nizar: no. Not again.”

Nizar keeps walking in the direction of the Hog’s Head Inn, unconcerned. “Just think on how you’ll be able to witness two very different people attempt to learn how to levitate and most likely fail at it, over and over again, all while pretending not to be watching them.”

Severus struggles to keep frowning. “There are times when I really regret that you understand exactly what to say to convince me to do something I’d otherwise avoid—” He reaches out and grabs Nizar’s shoulder when Nizar tilts sideways. “I would also like to avoid witnessing you eating the dirt beneath our feet.”

“Oh. Yes. So would I. Is there somewhere to sit?” Nizar asks. “I need a moment.”

Severus steers him over to a bench. “Sit,” he orders, pleased when the instruction is obeyed without argument. “If you skipped breakfast, you will be running in terror from Poppy, because I will be the bastard who tells her you did so.”

Nizar leans over and rests his face in his hands. “Good news, then: I will not be running in terror from a healer today. That wasn’t the problem. I did just confirm a hypothesis, though.”

Severus glares at Nizar the moment he realizes what sort of hypothesis was tested. “Any sort of strong magic, not merely the resumption of a magical title. Any strong magic will attempt to fuel the Preservation Charms that still linger.”

Nizar nods without looking up. “That’s going to be annoying in short order. I live above one of the strongest concentrations of magic in Britain!”

“And you were going to visit another strong place of magic by yourself?” Severus asks in a scathing tone.

“What?” Nizar finally lifts his head to look at him in surprise. “No! That’s ridiculous. If you hadn’t chosen to join me, I wasn’t going to hunt for a fucking Door. I’d much prefer for everyone on this island to continue to think me intelligent.”

Severus releases a long sigh and leans back against the bench. “My apologies. That was an unfair assumption to make.” He glares at a pair of passing men in terrible copies of Fudge’s bowler hat until they hurry their steps and get the absolute hell away from Nizar.

“No, that was an entirely reasonable assumption to make. I really do insist that I’ve done truly stupid things. I just try to avoid them when they’re obvious.” Nizar clasps his hands together, elbows resting on his knees. “I didn’t expect to have a memory flash from something within the portrait. I didn’t even realize I’d forgotten Findláech’s death until I was recalling it.”

“Findláech?”

“Findláech mac Ruaidrí, Mormær of Moray and High King of the North,” Nizar replies. “He was murdered by his own nephews in 1020 when they decided they wanted the throne. Findláech’s son Mac Bethad didn’t appreciate that very much. Findláech’s brother Máil Brigti had enough sense to flee the kingdom, but his idiot sons remained and thus didn’t last for long.”

“Mac Bethad?” All it takes is repeating the name aloud for Severus to realize who that must be. “You’re speaking of Macbeth’s father.” Shakespeare has dominated Britain for so long that it’s still easy to forget that Macbeth was a real king—

Severus feels his eye twitch. “You knew Macbeth. The actual Macbeth.”

Nizar begins to smile. “I should tell more people that. The face you’re making right now is really entertaining.”

“Please just let me be present when you inform Minerva that you knew one of the most famous rulers of Medieval Scotland.” Severus resists the urge to ask the question before giving in. “What was he like?”

“Mac Bethad was Findláech and Donada’s only child,” Nizar says. “He was loved and adored, and he loved and adored his parents in return. He could have been a spoiled child, but Findláech and his brother Máil Brigti were so unlike each other that Findláech felt like an only child himself, and thus understood what it was like to grow up that way. But I last knew Mac Bethad at age twelve, Severus. He was a good person then, but all I know of what he was like as a man came to my portrait on the lips of others. I do know that he married the widow of a man he killed and raised their child as his own son and Heir, which doesn’t speak of evil to me. At worst, it could be labeled convenience.”

“What was it you recalled about Findláech?”

“Oh.” Nizar sits up and runs both hands through his hair. “Partly how much Findláech’s death upset Godric. They’d been friends since childhood. Godric spent several nights alone in front of my portrait drinking, but that was before the others realized where he kept disappearing to in the evening. Then it was practically everyone drinking in front of my portrait. Findláech was our patron, and he was loved by Hogewáþ, too.”

Severus smirks at him. “Is that when you first decided to turn your potions laboratory into a liquor still?”

“Well, it’s not like any of them were sharing,” Nizar replies. “The other part I recalled is how the Founders were able to move the portrait. I remembered that they did so, but I didn’t know why it was so different when Gaunt did the same. They knew how to keep the magic tied to the frame—to me—without disrupting any of the charms, but…” Nizar’s brow furrows. “I think they could only do it because they were properly tied to the castle’s magic. I might be wrong, but I don’t recall anyone moving the portrait after Godric’s death. Not until he showed up and decided to ruin the next several centuries of my life.”

Severus decides that it’s definitely time to change the subject. “We’re going to be late for lunch. Are you ready to go taunt Aberforth?”

“That sounds infinitely preferable to wallowing.”

Severus rolls his eyes. “That is still not wallowing!”

Nizar stands up when Severus does, but he reaches out to claim Severus’s hand. “I’m glad you’re here.”

“Why?” Severus asks, sensing that the words were spoken for more reasons than mere sentiment.

“Because you grant me so many reminders as to why I refuse to regret.”

Chapter Text

Lunch is again a simple, filling meal laid out in that clean, warm, and well-lit back room. Aberforth is happy to see them right until Nizar starts to grin and prod the man about his other names. “Nizar, I’m not going to be talking to you about any of that.”

Nizar points at Aberforth with his fork. “That is the response of a man who does indeed have something to hide.”

“Do fuck off,” Aberforth says with gracious politeness.

Nizar smiles in response. “Nope, too nosy. It can’t possibly be as bad as Dumbledore’s collection of nonsense.”

“He’s right proud of them, too,” Aberforth grumbles.

Nizar tilts his head. “Not of Percival, he’s not. He’s very good at hiding it with that bloody twinkling, but he’s not fond of that part of his name.”

Severus gives Aberforth an intrigued look when the man glowers at Nizar. “That’s cheating. You gave me something I didn’t actually know about the smug pillock.”

“Did I?” Nizar stabs his fork into his minced pie in apparent unconcern. “How kind of me.”

Aberforth scowls the entire way through lunch, nursing a single bottle of mead and an apparent Slytherin grudge. “All right!” he finally bursts out. “My second name is bloody Kendrick!”

Nizar just looks at Aberforth. “And why is this a problem?”

“It’s me being named after my mother, that’s what!” Aberforth retorts. “It’s disgraceful, naming a son after a mother. Supposed to be the father and son, mother to daughter.”

Severus leans back in his chair when Nizar narrows his eyes. “Ah. Didn’t you once tell me that you were fond of your mother?” Nizar asks.

Aberforth isn’t stupid. He already knows he walked into a trap of his own making. “Aye, I did. Meant it, too.”

“And she was a clever magician? A good woman?” Nizar presses.

Aberforth glares at Nizar. “Yes, she was both.”

“Then do stop being both sexist and ridiculous,” Nizar bites out. “Honestly, you have spent too much time hiding in this fucking inn if you’re falling for that nonsense. You used to know better.”

“Still doesn’t mean I’m all that fond of it,” Aberforth mutters. “Who the hell has the name Kendrick, anyway?”

“Well, there was Cynric, second king of the House of Wessex in England,” Nizar replies. “Hard to do worse than to be named after one of the first ancestors of the royal family.”

Aberforth scowls again. Severus is beginning to wonder how many times Nizar caused Aberforth to lose his considerable temper. “Blasted walking talking bloody historical reference guide. How do you know that, then?”

“I needed to know the entire lineage. Cynric’s name was Old English, and might’ve been defined just for him, given it means royal power. Knowing the lineage made things in the English Court a thousand years ago a bit less fraught. Granted, the idiot on the throne had to pretend in front of his nobles that I wasn’t a magician, but that was not my problem,” Nizar says. “Him refusing to heed my advice? Also not my problem.”

“The entire lineage. At that time, you’re speaking of five hundred years’ worth of kings.” Severus raises an eyebrow. That sounds like an excessive bit of memorization for someone who wasn’t English nobility. “Why?”

“Because memorizing the male line for political clout was far easier than trying to figure out how I could possibly explain to the Council that yes, killing the King of England would be entirely justified,” Nizar replies.

Aberforth’s booming laugh drowns out Severus’s quieter, near-silent chuckle. “Now that is the man I once knew as a lad, speaking his mind proper.” Aberforth wanders off long enough to retrieve a tray for tea, though there is a distinct lack of biscuits. “All right, then. You win, Nizar. My third name is Wieland. What do you make of that?”

“Firstly, that you’ve been taught all your life to say it bloody incorrectly,” Nizar says. “Vee-lund. Germanic word, originally veh-lund. In Norse, it was Völundr. It meant one who was an unequaled smith or craftsman.”

Aberforth pours tea before he lights up a long pipe, but at least he casts a minor charm so the smoke floats backwards to escape up the chimney. “All right then. Aberforth. I’ve not once ever heard it as a name but for myself, so I’ve never known what it might mean.”

“That’s because it was spelled it wrong. Aberford.” Nizar picks up a cup of tea, blows across its surface, and takes a sip. “Wow, that kicks.”

“One hell of a black leaf,” Aberforth says proudly. “I go out to India at least once a year and bring it back myself.”

Severus picks up his tea and discovers that yes, it does indeed have quite the bite. Tea with Firewhiskey in it might be tamer. “Magical tea-growers?”

“Damned good ones, too. Figure out a decent trade, and maybe I’ll share a bit.”

“I’d rather find a trade of enough worth so that you’ll take me directly to the source,” Severus counters.

“Kill my brother and I’ll consider that a worthy trade,” Aberforth says.

Severus gives Aberforth a flat stare. “I’m not murdering the Head of Hogwarts just because the two of you have some sort of long-standing, ridiculous grudge.”

“Aberford?” Aberforth asks in clear dismissal of the current topic.

Nizar is staring at Aberforth in a way that Severus finds familiar. It’s the studious gaze of a man who has already picked apart a puzzle and is now trying to decide what to do with the completed picture. “It’s Old English as well. Eadburgh was the name of a village, and of course, ford was a bridge. Ead meant wealth, while burgh meant fortress. Altogether, your name means wealthy, protected stronghold of a powerful, unequaled craftsman.”

Aberforth snorts his opinion of that. “Well. That’s a bit more tolerable than I always thought.”

“It’s certainly more impressive than Dumbledore’s listings, especially as he was named after a twit,” Nizar says.

“Oh?” Aberforth straights in his chair, smiling. “Who is that, then?”

“Only for a trade, Aberforth.”

“Trade, hmm?” Aberforth looks at Nizar. “Is it worth it?”

“You’re the one who could use it to mock him. I suppose that depends on how much you value that sort of trade,” Nizar replies.

“Worth it,” Aberforth decides at once. “Go on, then.”

“Brian Wulfric might have been Hogwarts’ second Headmaster, but he was also a complete arsehole,” Nizar says bluntly, and Aberforth laughs. “To break it down further: Albus is Latin for white, or bright, and to this day I cannot stand that word.”

“Why?” Severus asks, though he suspects he knows.

“I’ve no idea. I don’t remember.” Nizar takes another sip of tea, making a face over its sharp bite. “Wulfric is a more modern spelling of Old English’s Ulric, and to be fair, that was a term for the power specific to a wolf. Brian is from a Brittonic word, bre, and it means hill. Percival…” Nizar smiles. “Percival was completely made up by a French writer in the 1100s. If it means anything at all, it’s franceis for piercing a valley. Dumbledore’s name is thus not only contradictory, it actually implies he’s a werewolf.”

Severus nearly snorts tea up his nose as Aberforth all but roars with laughter. He wipes his face with a napkin. “If I didn’t know better, I would be concerned.”

“I’m just wondering why parents stopped bothering to look up what these names bloody well mean before they slap them onto a—what did you call them? Oh, yes. Birth certificate,” Nizar remembers. “Though I did like Ariana’s.”

Aberforth goes still. “What about it?”

“Well, Ariana spelled properly is the Italian name Arianna, a translation of the Greek name Ariadne. It means most holy.” Nizar continues drinking tea as if Aberforth hasn’t gone utterly stone-faced. Severus never realized the term could be so apt. “In Greek mythology, she was the princess of Crete, daughter of Minos, and helped that utter idiot Theseus escape the Labyrinth. Then there is Simmonete, intelligent and respected Headmistress of Hogwarts in the 1600s, but Simmonete is also from the name Simon, which is most often thought of in regards to the Apostle now called Peter. Then there is Theodora, the most influential empress of the Eastern Roman Empire, and the feminine form of a name that means ‘gift of God.’”

Aberforth finally forces words past his clenched teeth. “That was a bribe and a gift, since I didn’t know quite a bit of that, either. What is it you’re wanting to know, Nizar?”

“Why did you never mention your sister?” Nizar asks quietly. “Neither of you do. We’re still not certain why Dumbledore chose to finally bring up her existence during my son’s funeral.”

“Did he?” With Aberforth’s grey beard and hair, he manages an excellent impersonation of a thundercloud. “He’d no right. None at all. It’s his fault she’s dead, and I’ll punch his lights out for a second time if he ever utters her name again!”

Nizar ignores Aberforth’s shout. “But you never spoke of her while you were at Hogwarts. She was still alive then, Aberforth. Why was she not in school?”

Aberforth stomps away. Nizar doesn’t move, so Severus waits. Nizar is very good at reading another’s body language; he’s convinced Aberforth is going to return.

He does indeed come back, bearing a bottle of corked Firewhiskey in his hand. “Anyone else?” he asks gruffly.

Nizar shakes his head. “Not me. I’m returning to Hogwarts at two o’clock.”

“I’m not drinking something that strong during a school term unless it’s in the privacy of my own quarters,” Severus says in refusal.

Aberforth pours a full serving of Firewhiskey into his teacup and then swallows half of it in one pull. “We were all fine, once, the three of us. Parents had us all at once, so we grew up together, grew up close.”

He finishes the first cup of Firewhiskey and pours a second. “Albus left for Hogwarts in autumn of 1892, was Sorted into Gryffindor, and immediately made a big success of himself. Most promising student Hogwarts had seen in a century, the Headmistress at the time wrote to our parents. We were all proud, but I knew I wouldn’t do half so well. Decent at Charms, but we knew who had the smarts in our family, and that was Albus and Ariana.”

“You. Aren’t. Stupid,” Nizar says in a low, angry voice.

“No,” Aberforth admits after a moment. “But I’m not brilliant, Nizar. Not…academically.”

“There are differing and useful types of intelligence,” Nizar insists, intensely displeased. Severus is suddenly and uncomfortably reminded of the few times Nizar chastised him for similar statements.

Aberforth looks just as discomfited. “I went to Hogwarts in autumn of 1894, and Sorted into Slytherin. Albus was quite pleased back then. Said that when Ariana joined us, she’d be in Ravenclaw, and between us all, we’d have three-quarters of the school conquered by Dumbledores. He meant it in jest, but it did make me feel a bit better. That maybe things would still be all right.”

The second teacup full of alcohol is swiftly ingested. “Ariana was ten years old in 1895, just one year before she would’ve come to school. She was…all our parents would ever say is that Ariana was attacked by older Muggle boys. No details. Just that she was attacked, but—Nizar, it had to be worse than that. It destroyed her. My parents were so terrified of what would happen if they took her to St. Mungo’s that they all but retired from the world. Moved the entire family from Scotland to Godric’s Hollow down in Somerset. Mother and Father told everyone that Ariana had taken badly ill and would need to be schooled at home. Wasn’t uncommon in those days, of course, so no one else thought much of it.”

“Rape,” Severus says, the word dropping into dense silence.

Aberforth nods. “Aye. Probably. I never dared ask her. Ariana was all right most of the time, so long as no boys or men she didn’t know came near. No sudden noises. No one in a temper.”

“What was so terrifying about taking an injured child to a hospital?” Nizar asks.

Aberforth looks surprised. “They’d never have let her go, Nizar. Ariana couldn’t control her magic proper anymore. She couldn’t produce spells on command, and if she was upset, it was…it was often violent. They would have considered her an Obscurial and locked her away in the secure ward on the fourth floor of St. Mungo’s.”

“Locked away. Secure ward.” Nizar puts down his teacup and pinches the bridge of his nose. “What the fuck is an Obscurial supposed to be?”

“A witch or wizard believed to have suppressed their magic so that it manifests in uncontrolled, dark, parasitic-like ways that are a danger to everyone around them.” Severus recites the definition in a dispassionate voice, well aware of Aberforth’s continued upset. “Being locked away would have been considered a kindness in those days. The older methods of dealing with a witch or wizard who bore an Obscurus was to simply kill them and call it mercy.”

“All I am hearing,” Nizar says in an icy voice, “is that Wizarding Britain has forgotten how to care for those who have been wounded in body, mind, and spirit. That it is easier to lock them away for the rest of their lives than to, oh, talk to them. Treat them with kindness and dignity. Fucking help them.”

Severus resists the urge to scoot his chair back from the table as the air in the room turns heavy and thick. He has seen Nizar in full temper, and he knows exactly what to expect. “An Obscurus is considered a highly dangerous magical working.”

“There is no such fucking thing as an Obscurial!” Nizar shouts.

Aberforth crushes his teacup in his hand, spilling only a last remaining trickle of alcohol. “What?”

“No. Such. Thing.” Nizar takes a breath, and some of the weight in the air eases. “By the definition you’ve given to me, any magician who has suffered from a severe traumatic event, or repeated trauma, should be an Obscurial. Yes?”

“That’s generally considered the way of it. Fortunately, Obscurials are…they’re rare,” Aberforth says.

“They’re rare because the entire notion is complete bullshit,” Nizar retorts. “There is a seventh-year in Hogwarts right now who was sexually assaulted before she came to school. She isn’t an Obscurial. I’ve seen countless—and I do mean countless—children come through Slytherin House who should have been one of these so-called Obscurials, and they were not. They were hurt, scared children who needed help, and when I could, I made certain they received it.”

Nizar sighs. “Fuck, think of the most recent example. If ever a student existed who should most certainly have been an Obscurial simply based on Hogwarts events alone—if the idea wasn’t complete horseshit—that is Harry Potter.”

Severus flinches, unable to help it. He’d never once considered the idea that the child could have been an Obscurial, and it’s not a pleasant thought.

“Thought maybe that Horcrux bit might have prevented it,” Aberforth ventures, tapping on the right side of his forehead where the child’s famous scar was located. “Now that it’s known in the Order, I mean. Didn’t know it afore the locket incident in January.”

“No. Different magics.” Nizar rests his face in his hands. “Of course a traumatized magician, especially a child, is going to lash out if no one ever tries to help them in the way they need. If they lose too much of their own sense of self, their magical core will begin to manifest in ways that reflect the child’s feelings. It isn’t parasitic or evil. It’s the sign of someone who is suffering.”

Aberforth puts shards of his teacup onto its saucer and then brushes his hands clean of lingering bits of ceramic. “You’ve seen it, then. Magic lashing out like that.”

“Yes. When a magician has lost control to that extent, getting them back is difficult. Unless you know exactly what happened to them so you know what needs to be said to gain their attention?” Nizar drops his hands, his expression a blend of fury and grief. “Sometimes they’re fortunate enough to have a magician around who is capable of performing a powerful Stunning Spell that can break through the manifesting core of the one who is suffering. If they’re calm when they wake, we have a chance. Sometimes they die anyway.” He leans back from the table, crossing his arms over his chest. “Not without the attempt made to prevent it, but there are times when there is nothing you can do. That suffering magician commits suicide by means of literal self-destruction.”

Nizar looks at Aberforth. “When your parents hid your sister like that, keeping her away from everyone but family—that didn’t address the problem. Isolating someone who is in pain is one of the worst things you can do to them. I’m sorry she died. I’d have told you all of this if you had ever mentioned her.”

Aberforth nods and then swipes his sleeve over his eyes. Severus politely pretends not to notice. “Parents didn’t really help, no. My father, he lost his temper and went off after those Muggle boys, attacking them. Got sent to Azkaban for it, since he’d never admit to why he attacked them. Died there a few years later. I suppose he’s buried on that island, but I’ve never gone to Azkaban to see it. I think Mother tried too hard, though she meant well. Albus—he didn’t know how to speak to Ariana anymore. He did try, I’ll give him that, but Albus never really never treated myself or Ariana the same ever again. We slowly lost our closeness until it was like such had never existed at all. But me, I’d just…I’d talk to her, Nizar. Ariana liked that. She liked it when someone talked to her as if everything was going to be all right.

“Then came the year Albus was to graduate. I was in my fifth year. Ariana was with our mother, and something went wrong. We went home for Easter break to find Ariana a complete sobbing wreck and Mother dead on the kitchen floor. The accident had happened just that morning. All I could ever get from Ariana is that she’d wanted to go outside, and…”

Aberforth sighs. “My mother was probably upset, but she was still fool enough to tell Ariana that she wasn’t meant to go out, and Ariana shouldn’t ask for that, as look at what had happened the last time she’d gone outside.”

“Reminded her directly of the attack.” Nizar aims his wand at Aberforth’s shattered teacup and repairs it. “Gods.”

“Ariana was so frightened after our mother’s funeral. She believed she’d go to Hell for killing our mother. She was convinced she was damned.” Aberforth sniffs and drags his sleeve over his face again. “I asked if she’d meant to kill Mother, and she said no. Ariana only wanted to go outside. I told her that if she didn’t do it on purpose, God knew, and he’d sort it out when it was time. I promised her it would be exactly like that while Albus tried telling me off for lying to her. He was such a rotten Protestant in those days, believing in that eternal damnation shite the church likes to spin. I told him that the nonsense he was spouting wasn’t said anywhere in the good book, and he could go stuff it.”

“Who looked after Ariana after your mother’s death?” Nizar asks.

“That. Well.” Aberforth glances at the repaired teacup before decisively corking the Firewhiskey bottle. “Albus was seventeen, and that made him Ariana’s guardian, but he was all-fired about finishing school. I didn’t really blame him for that, not when there wasn’t much left to do but take the exams. I dropped out to take care of our sister. Never took those blasted O.W.L.s and never had to consider any N.E.W.T.s. I figured that when Albus came home, we’d take care of Ariana together. The three of us, just like it used to be.”

“And it wasn’t like that.” It isn’t difficult to see that being the result of a truly horrific mess. Severus’s parents were awful, but this is almost Shakespearean levels of dramatic disaster.

He regrets that thought just one minute later.

“Albus had fallen in with another boy named Gellert Grindelwald the previous summer, and I mean fallen as in fell into bed with the lout.” Aberforth scowls. “I couldn’t stand the prig, but Albus thought Gellert hung the fucking moon.”

“Albus. Dated Gellert Grindelwald. Scourge of the Wizarding World until his defeat in 1945,” Severus says in disbelief.

“That’s something they’ve most certainly left out of magical history textbooks,” Nizar says in a dry voice. “Albus Dumbledore was once shagging the man who took advantage of World War II to wage a European magical war.” He glances at Severus. “If I ever hear you begrudge my taste in men again, I will attempt to smother you with one of Salazar’s silver-embroidered pillows.”

Severus grimaces. “Please pick something less ostentatious to murder me with.”

Aberforth rolls his eyes at them and continues. “Albus came home at the end of June after graduating, Gellert with him, and says that he and Grindelwald are going to off and travel.

“I bloody well saw red. I shouted at my idiot brother that his place was at home. I wasn’t even sixteen years old yet. What did I know about running a house? I still needed him, and Ariana definitely needed him!”

“Came to blows, did you?” Nizar asks, though he seems to have buried his rage. Severus wonders if they can find a convenient Death Eater for Nizar to obliterate later. God knows that Severus would find it therapeutic to do the same.

“Fight of the ages, seemed like at the time. I still couldn’t tell you who cast the first hex, and then it was all three of us going at it like rabid badgers,” Aberforth says. “But…it was all of us, losing our temper, right in front of Ariana. She lost control of her magic, and—” He halts, struggling for words. “Maybe it’s what Nizar said. Maybe it was that self-destruction bit because she lost her sense of self, but I’ve long thought that those two idiots panicked, and one of them cast the spell that killed her. We couldn’t tell, you see.”

Aberforth lowers his head. “There was so much magic in the air, and everything had been so fierce. The only thing I knew for true was that I hadn’t pointed my wand at my sister. Never had, not ever would.

“Point in Albus’s favor, he changed his mind about going off with Grindelwald. Gellert left in a snit while we were still in shock, trying to figure out how to tell someone that we needed to have a funeral for our sister. Then on the day we buried her, Albus said—hell, I don’t recall what he said. I punched him over our sister’s casket, breaking his beak of a nose, and left home. I’ve only ever spoken to him since then if it’s been about Order business regarding You-Know-Which-Twat.”

“I am truly sorry,” Severus says while thinking uncomfortable thoughts about Shakespearean drama. “Ariana sounds like she would have outshined her eldest brother easily.”

“Aye. She would have.” Aberforth glares at Severus. “I know you’re capable of keeping secrets. This is one of them to be kept.”

Nizar looks irritated. “But if the truth came out, he would not be able to use certain rumors against you. You turned a non-magical farmer’s goat bloody purple for a lark and paid the fine for it, and that’s been turned into perversion!”

Aberforth shakes his head. “Albus would say Grindelwald killed our sister, and there would be a lot who’d believe him, but there would be just as many who would wonder if it were Albus who’d done the deed. He may be a complete pillock, but he’s still my brother. I’ll not do that to him, Nizar. Not without a damned good reason.”

“And I hate that Dumbledore has never recognized your kindness in that regard, and has instead repaid it with cruel words and crueler rumors,” Nizar says. “You’re a good man, Aberforth. You deserve better.”

Aberforth’s smile is slight, but not grim. “I’m fine with my life, Nizar. I have a home to keep me warm, a business to keep me clothed and fed, and I’ve got Charlie and our family. Don’t need much else.”

Severus lets his lip curl up in amusement. “Charlie, the invisible one whom we never meet.”

“Bet you’re thinking Charlie’s a goat,” Aberforth rumbles.

“Of course not,” Severus scoffs. “In my experience, goats can’t cook.”

That startles Aberforth into laughing. “That’s true enough. CHARLIE!” he yells. Nizar winces at the sudden shout. “COME IN HERE!”

Severus will admit that he was expecting a man. He spends time in both worlds, but there are presumptive thoughts about gender correlating to names no matter where he goes.

Instead, a woman who is about three inches over five feet tall enters the room. Her hair is solid gray and stacked atop her head with multiple thin sticks shoved into it to keep it pinned in place. She’s Asian, perhaps fifty years old, and has a scowl that Minerva would absolutely envy.

“Professors Nizar Slytherin and Severus Snape, this is my wife, Charlie Dumbledore.”

“It’s nice to meet you, if strange. My husband, he does not socialize,” Charlie says. “My name is Chao Li, but I prefer Charlie. No one bothers Mister Charlie,” she adds, smirking.

“They would be fool to mess with a beautiful flow of water, regardless,” Nizar says.

Charlie beams at him in sudden adoration. “You speak Mandarin, Professor?”

Nizar looks embarrassed. “Sort of. I used to speak something from that region, Mrs. Dumbledore. It comes back here and there, but I don’t think I could converse with you properly.”

“That is too bad, and please. Charlie!” she insists. “You will come back and visit again. Aberforth is always in a much better mood when you do.”

“Charlie!” Aberforth protests, his cheeks turning an interesting shade of red. Severus files that bit of information away, amused.

Nizar glances at his watch and frowns. “Buggeration. I’m truly sorry,” he says as he stands up. “If we don’t leave now, we’ll be late for an appointment, and I’d hate to disappoint those waiting for us.”

“It is no trouble,” Charlie says, reaching out to clasp Nizar’s hand in a firm shake. Then she startles Severus by doing the same to him. He tries not to draw back in alarm; the idea of being touched by strangers is still very much ingrained revulsion.

“She’s right, though. Come back for a meal, every Saturday if you can. I get better information that way,” Aberforth says.

Severus leans close to Aberforth when Nizar asks Charlie something in hesitant, potential Mandarin. “Do the two of you, perchance, have children?”

Aberforth snorts. “If we do, Albus will be finding out when he’s off meeting our Maker, and not a moment before.”

 

*         *         *         *

 

While Severus has office hours on Sunday for the Slytherins, Nizar occupies himself with trying to do something about his benighted bloody memory difficulties. In the applewood trunk from Galiena came the scrolls from what he may always think of as his time. Rowena, Godric, Sal, Helga, Orellana, Marion, Peregrine, Fortunata, Galiena, Elfric, Brice, and gods, so many others, all captured as moving images that look like paperbound Pensife memories. However, the Burgos elves brought him the Recordari scrolls of those he has no memory of at all, the people of this time. Aside from Severus, Nizar has been curious who the child would have wished to remember by recording their images.

It doesn’t take long for each scroll to be pinned to the walls of his sitting room, scattered about like so much moving artwork. He recognizes most of those captured in moving memory, but others remain unfamiliar. Perhaps he once knew them all, but some likely graduated previous to this term.

Nizar finds the two scrolls of Lily Evans and James Potter right away, as they are so very different from the rest, faint and barely moving at all. He frowns at the scrolls before retrieving the leather-bound book of moving photographs, flipping through it until he finds exactly where the images came from. Those were not direct memories of events, but the recollection of two different photographs.

He can find all of the Weasleys easily enough. Ron Weasley is in many images, often captured with Miss Granger, who has a large collection of her own. The twins feature in several scrolls, but not as many as he’d expected. Nizar recognizes Bill and Charlie because of their presence in the Order of the Phoenix. Arthur and Molly Weasley are sharing a scroll, a memory that occurred in their home’s kitchen. The remaining red-haired young man must be the mysterious Percival Weasley, who ostracized himself from his own family because he didn’t wish to follow Dumbledore. Nizar wonders what young Mister Weasley is like in person, and then has a twitch of premonition in the back of his mind. He’s going to find out, but he isn’t certain when. Interesting.

The child must have felt strongly about his Quidditch team. There is a scroll devoted to a recreation of the entire pitch and features six of the Gryffindor players flying about; Nizar assumes the man marked as Oliver Wood must have graduated. There are individual scrolls devoted to each player, too, a glimpse of them all when they were several years younger.

There is nothing of Miss Lovegood, which is disappointing and makes him judge his childhood tastes. Almost the whole of Gryffindor is represented, though it’s a single scroll with multiple people, or one individual on one scroll—nothing of the same sort of Recordari devotion that the Weasleys and Miss Granger earned. Longbottom has his own scroll, as does Lee Jordan, Parvati Patil in brilliant pink dress robes, and tiny Edward Black, who has grown a great deal since that particular recorded memory.

There are students of other Houses in the child’s year, such as Padma Patil, Susan Bones, Terry Boot, and Hannah Abbott, but not many. The Slytherins are a pleasant surprise; Daphne and Astoria are in one scroll together, sharing a table in the library. Blaise features in another one, flirting shamelessly with Adele. Nizar remembers that crush, an event that took place two years ago and was cause for much gossip in the Slytherin Common Room. Alas that Blaise was trying to compete with Adele Greenwood’s first love of academia, and never stood a chance.

Draco is another odd discovery. It isn’t the sort of image that implies a rivalry. Instead, his younger self seems to have caught Draco with his guard down. Nizar highly doubts Draco was aware of being observed by his favorite hated rival. At least now he doesn’t think Draco would mind so much, discovering that the child had chosen to remember him kindly. It makes Nizar tempted to deliver the one letter in the applewood trunk that bears Draco Malfoy’s name.

Cedric Diggory is recognizable because one of the public student boards was converted into a shrine of newspaper clippings and photographs in his memory. The scroll shows a young man who looks surprisingly Welsh, captured wearing the robes worn by a participant in the lunacy that was the Triwizard Tournament.  He’s in a room within the castle, grinning at someone not pictured. There is also a scroll of Fleur Delacour in the same outfit, revealing how much she has matured in a year’s time. She’s pictured with a much shorter blonde child that looks too similar to Fleur not to be family. Viktor Krum is easily recognizable for not being able to keep his photograph out of the Quidditch-devoted section of the Daily Prophet.

Nizar is still sitting on the rug, observing the scrolls, when a belligerent yowl gains his attention. He glances over his shoulder to discover an oversized orange cat sitting in front of his closed door, regarding him with smug disdain. “Hello. And who might you be?”

The cat trots over and climbs directly into Nizar’s lap, butting his head against Nizar’s hand in clear demand. Nizar snorts and begins petting the cat, who purrs in satisfaction. There is a faint tingle of magic beneath his fingers, so this oversized orange beast is not just a housecat, but half-Kneazle.

A half-Kneazle who can apparently teleport through closed doors. “You must be Crookshanks,” Nizar says. Crookshanks’s purring gets louder. “I don’t suppose I could bribe you into teaching a litter of Kneazles to teleport as you did to gain entry here, could I? Or did you simply decide the door was in your way and ignore it? That’s what fucking Myrddin would do. That man had no notion of privacy at all.”

Crookshanks looks up at him and meows out a definite question. “What am I doing?” Nizar glances around at the scrolls again. “I’m confirming that there has to be a memory lurking about in the first place in order for an image to trigger recollection. I don’t recall these people in any context except what was afforded by the portrait, and by teaching them now.”

The cat nips at his fingers and glares at Nizar. “Oh, I’m sorry,” Nizar drawls out, amused. “I don’t recall you, either, though you don’t seem to suffer the same difficulty.”

The cat resumes purring. It seems acknowledgement was called for. “You know, Miss Granger is likely to be looking for you,” he says, and is ignored. Nizar rolls his eyes, retrieves his wand while still petting the stubborn cat, and casts his Patronus. “Miss Granger, please see me in my office. Your cat has wandered in and refuses to wander off again.”

“There,” Nizar says after his Patronus slithers away. “I win.”

Crookshanks thrashes his tail in a clear sulk, but he doesn’t attempt to bite Nizar. That still counts as a victory.

When there is a knock on the door about ten minutes later, Nizar checks the magic within his classroom. Granger is alone. Excellent. “Come in, Miss Granger.”

“Hello, Professor. Where is—oh!” Granger closes the door to his quarters and stares around. “I didn’t realize it wouldn’t be your office. There you are, Crookshanks! I’ve been looking for you all day!” Crookshanks continues to look smug, as if he accomplished a grand feat by avoiding his bonded magician.

“He turned up,” Nizar says, smiling. “By teleporting into the room.”

Granger huffs out a sigh and rolls her eyes. “Cats.”

“They do tend to be laws unto themselves, yes.”

Granger looks around at all of the wall-mounted scrolls, mouthing names as she identifies each person. “You made these?”

“Yes. Probably one thousand years ago,” Nizar says, watching as Granger bites her lip. “I only recall them in modern context beyond the portrait.”

Granger nods sadly. “You mean they don’t mean anything to you.”

“They’re interesting,” Nizar says, “and it’s nice to know more about how I used to think. But no, they only hold meaning for me because of why I know them now. I’m sorry.”

“Don’t apologize, Nizar. That’s still not your fault,” Hermione says while studying the Quidditch scroll. Nizar doesn’t think she realized she called him by his given name rather than his title.

“Hermione.” Nizar smiles when she starts in place and looks at him in surprise. “I do believe your cat is plotting.”

“I…I did say I wanted to be friends, didn’t I?” Hermione says in a soft voice. “And then I didn’t say a single word to you outside of the levitation lesson on Saturday afternoon. I’m sorry—”

“And you also have nothing to be sorry for. I glanced at those letters, Hermione.” Nizar scratches Crookshanks’s ears when he is treated to a demanding yowl. “They would have been a greater shock than I realized, and there is no shame at all in needing time to adjust.”

“Needing time to adjust to everything,” Hermione murmurs. “Did they—did they help? Reading them, I mean.”

“They gave me a clearer idea of who certain people were,” Nizar says. “As for true recollection? There were some interesting flashes of events, but I think too much might be gone. Much of it was like reading about a stranger, though it was still nice to have more of an idea of how my life progressed.”

“I’d hoped it would be more helpful, but I suppose that isn’t completely useless.” Hermione’s eyes light on the portrait of the snowy owl when she lands on the branch in her frame. “Oh, my God—is that Hedwig?”

“It is. Go ahead. She’s not had her memory tampered with and will remember you.”

Hermione all but skips over to the frame, smiling at the owl. “Hello, Hedwig. You make a very good portrait.” The owl hoots in response and tries to butt up against her own portrait’s boundaries for attention. “It really is unfortunate that you can’t scratch a magical portrait, isn’t it?”

“Sometimes it does seem that way.” Nizar decides he should probably warn her. “There are two portraits of myself in this castle.”

Hermione turns away from the owl’s portrait, wide-eyed. “Two?”

“Two,” he confirms. “Painted in 992 and 995. There are supposed to be others, but they’re missing. Misplaced. Destroyed. I don’t actually know.” It seems as though those first portraits were fortunate finds. Their count is only up to twenty-four, and not all of them are identifiable. One is half-burnt, its magic destroyed, its occupants stilled and silenced forever. Considering the protections that were added to all of Hogwarts’ early portraits, Nizar suspects Fiendfyre to be the culprit. “There was one already in Salazar’s quarters, told not to wander about, and Salazar had the 992 portrait with him. I thought you should be aware, in case they decide to begin following you about.”

“That would be…that might be dangerous, though, wouldn’t it?” Hermione asks.

“No. They both know the Invisibility Charm. If you gain the sense that someone is following you and there is nothing but canvas about, it might be one of them,” Nizar explains.

“Invisibility Charm?” Hermione perks up a bit. “As perfect as an Invisibility Cloak?”

“Better, since you don’t have to worry about carrying a cloak everywhere you go,” Nizar replies. “Both portraits have been updated to be aware of what I know, but they were never erased of anything that came before.”

“That means they would remember me. Like Hedwig. It would be a bit like talking to you.” Hermione bites her lip. “I’m not certain I like the idea. I’d rather get to know who you are, not try to…to hang on to the past.”

“I did say I updated them. It would be a bit of a blend,” Nizar says. “If one of them finds you in an empty part of the castle wishing to talk and it doesn’t go well, you can ask them not to bother you again. They’ll respect your decision on the matter. They’re only portraits, Hermione. They might be curious, but they’re not as needy as real people.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” Hermione decides, but she still doesn’t seem cheered by the idea. “And I’ll try to…to be better. About coming to see you, I mean. If I’m going to be your assistant next term, I should get used to that sort of thing, shouldn’t I?”

Nizar bites back a smile. She’s already set on the Defence Mastery, even if she has yet to admit it to herself. He isn’t certain if he’s capable of teaching her the whole of what she would need for a Magical Mastery of the Spoken Word, but it’s definitely something to think on.

“Your cat certainly seems to think so. Why else would he be here?”

“Probably because I’ve been mulling something over, and he decided to find the best person to help me figure out the answer,” Hermione replies. “Can I sit down?”

“Anywhere you like.” Nizar is not really surprised when Hermione chooses to sit on the rug across from him. “What is it, then?” he asks as Crookshanks abandons his lap and curls up with Hermione.

She bites her lip. “So, I did something sort of illegal last year.”

“The horror. Do continue.”

Hermione looks startled, and then frowns. “Well, Rita Skeeter. We’d just spent the entire term wondering how she was getting all of the information for her articles after Professor Dumbledore banned her from the school grounds. You—well, you know—you’d mentioned something about non-magical spying gadgets, electronic bugs, and I realized what she had to be doing.”

“Animagus,” Nizar guesses, and Hermione nods. “A small one, then, to avoid notice.”

“A bloody beetle,” Hermione growls. “A large blue beetle!”

“A beetle?” Nizar stares at her. “An actual beetle. An insect.” Hermione nods. “How?”

“How?” Hermione blinks a few times. “It’s in one of the Transfiguration texts in the library regarding Animagi. It says insects aren’t impossible, but they’re rare.”

“No; bloody how?” Nizar repeats, scowling. “Insects and humans do not have the same brains or nervous systems, blood, eyesight, survival methods—any of it! How the entire fuck has anyone managed to Transfigure themselves into an entirely different phylon?”

“Oh.” Hermione looks thoughtful. “I wouldn’t know, then. The book didn’t say how it was possible, or even imply that it shouldn’t be. Maybe you have to Transfigure each physical aspect? Or maybe she’s not fully human, and it makes for easier Transfiguration into her Animagus form?”

“I’d wager on not fully human,” Nizar says. If Skeeter is full human and managed a fucking insect, he is going to be truly annoyed.

Hermione bites her lip before smirking at him. “You’re swearing in front of an underage student again.”

“Too angry, don’t care,” Nizar replies. “How does Rita Skeeter’s unusual Animagus form go along with your illegal activity?”

“Well…I caught her,” Hermione admits, “in the middle of spying on everyone right after the, uh—the third Task. After what happened in the cemetery.”

“Go on.”

Hermione nods, a bit more resolute. “I crammed Skeeter into a jar spelled to be Unbreakable, so she couldn’t change back to human. I told her that I’d let her out once she swore not to write another defamatory article for an entire year, beginning on twenty-fifth June 1995, or I’d tell everyone she was an Unregistered Animagus. She might be a famous reporter, but those fines were designed with rich Pure-bloods in mind. She can’t afford to pay them. I didn’t let Skeeter out in London until the first evening in July. When she was human, she agreed to my terms. Skeeter wasn’t happy about it, but she did agree.”

“And by writing the war mage article, she violated the terms.” Nizar leans back to prop himself against the front edge of the sofa. “You don’t know whether to bring up the consequences of that violation now, or wait to see if she does something worse to earn the privilege.”

“That’s about the size of it, yes,” Hermione says, scratching Crookshanks’s ears. “If I get her in trouble with the Ministry now, though…”

“Fudge may well ensure she gets out of it. That may be why she was brave enough to write the article in the first place,” Nizar concludes. “It’s hard to enact proper bribery when the corruption allowing it favors your target. I’d suggest giving it time. There is a chance Rita Skeeter might write more nonsense, but you have until twenty-fourth June. That’s almost four full months to make up your mind.”

“I suppose it’s a stupid question, but you’re not upset that I blackmailed a reporter?”

Nizar sighs. “Do you recall what this reporter wrote about Miss Greenwood?”

Hermione flushes and drops her gaze. “It was awful.”

“Exactly,” Nizar says. “Your choice of blackmail is far closer to being legal than my desire to murder Rita Skeeter. Libel is also a crime in Wizarding Britain. I don’t know if that would be as satisfying as your blackmail, but once there is a different Minister for Magic in office, simple prosecution through the M.L.E. might be enough to rid us of Skeeter’s lovely writing. It might also reveal her status as an unregistered Animagus if the M.L.E. were thorough enough, and that solves both problems at once.”

“Would that work?”

“Possibly.” Nizar glances down at Crookshanks, gives the cat a significant look, and tilts his head. Crookshanks twitches his tail, somehow manages to appear even more smug than before, and gets up to trot a few paces away. “I mentioned that I took a look at those letters you read?” He waits for her to nod. “I wasn’t swearing in front of an underage student. I was doing so in front of a friend.”

Hermione jerks her head up to stare at him. “Oh!” Then Nizar is bowled over by Hermione’s lunging hug.

Chapter Text

Nizar’s class of fifth-years on Monday morning is churning with gossip regarding Granger’s absence, along with Miss Weasley’s presence, until he explains what’s been done. “What? But—what about the rest of us?” Ron Weasley asks, looking put out at not joining Granger with the sixth-years. “We’re not doing well enough to be N.E.W.T.-level?”

Nizar smiles, amused by the question as well as the source. “Mister Weasley, do you wish to take your O.W.L.s and your sixth-year exam for Defence at the same time?”

Weasley blanches. “No! No sir, absolutely not, I am fine where I am, sir!”

“Anyone else?” Nizar asks, and receives many horrified headshakes in response. “I didn’t think so. Many of you are doing very, very well, but you aren’t ready to face that sort of increased workload.”

“And Granger is,” Draco says, looking speculative. That sounds less like a young man asking a question and more like someone who wants those reasons to be known.

“She is, yes. Miss Granger turned in proper, advanced N.E.W.T-level work for your first two essays. Both of those assignments were turned in early and both were many feet beyond the minimum sixteen feet requirement. Her dueling excels at a prodigious pace; her defence of herself and others is above fifth-year standard. Miss Granger is ready for N.E.W.T. class now, just as Miss Chang is ready for seventh-year’s studies, if not the N.E.W.T. itself, and has been moved accordingly.”

“So, I suppose that’s why Ginny is lurking in the back of the room grinning like a lunatic.” Thomas glances over his shoulder at the Weasley in question. She is indeed grinning with rather maniacal good cheer. Her seatmates, Longbottom and Padma Patil, look exceptionally proud of her.

“You would be correct, Mister Thomas,” Nizar says. “Miss Lovegood has also been moved to the place that suits her skill level, and will be here for your two-hour practical session on Wednesday mornings. For lecture, Miss Lovegood will not be present, as she’s in the midst of being tutored to learn how to grasp an entirely different form of magic than most magicians ever experience.”

“Because Lovegood’s an Elemental Magician,” Finnigan says, his brow furrowed. “What does that mean, exactly?”

“In magic—proper magic, not the watered-down nonsense you lot have heard about most of your lives—there are some who feel the elements. Salazar is an Earth-Speaker; he knows the earth beneath his feet, and he’s always been able to draw upon that strength, even when he didn’t realize he was doing so. There are also Water-Speakers, Wind-Speakers, Fire-Speakers, Lightning-Riders, Wood-Speakers, Sun- and Moon-Dancers, and other elemental recognitions that vary by culture. One with the title of Elemental Magician can sense all of those aspects. They can speak to all of the elements in the same way Salazar can speak to the earth. Miss Lovegood can literally see things you cannot, which is why some of you find her to be so very…different.”

“Not so Loony, then,” Miss MacDougal murmurs.

Nizar shakes his head. “No, and very few of you ever bothered to get to know her enough to find out. Assumptions are dangerous things to make, even among your allies, and especially those you think harmless. If Miss Granger is one of the most intelligent students in Hogwarts right now, then Miss Lovegood is one of the most powerful magicians in this entire school.”

Parkinson and a few others are wide-eyed. “That’s mental,” she whispers.

“At least she has more manners than Myrddin,” Nizar says, grinning at them. “He was the last Elemental Magician I met, and you’re well aware of his reputation.”

“Luna could be the next Merlin?” Richard yelps in shock.

“Fortunately for every single one of us? No,” Nizar emphasizes, and attempts to direct the lesson for the day back where it belongs. If Miss Lovegood adapts to her tutoring and decides to begin walking across the Black Lake, that is not Nizar’s fault and he will not be responsible for the number of jaws hitting the floor. Salazar is the one who told Miss Lovegood that she would be able to do so if she wished. Everyone can rightly blame him.

“Just one more thing, and then yes, we’ll all sit still and behave for whatever you’re about to throw at us,” Macmillan says after Nizar acknowledges him. “And I swear to every lady in this room, I’m not asking this to be gender-prejudiced.”

Nizar tilts his head, curious. “All right then.”

Macmillan looks a bit less likely to try to hide under his desk. “The only students you’ve shifted up in class levels—they’re all girls. I doubt you’d be the sort to ignore the rest of us, but I was just wondering why it’s all girls that are doing so well, but no boys.”

“I didn’t say that there were no young men doing well. They’re simply not quite where they need to be to succeed if they were to advance a year. Some of you are close, and no, I won’t tell you who.” Nizar smiles as several of his students groan in dismay.

“As to why those who are ready for such advancement are all female-gendered? Both in my time and in this one, there is an unfortunate aspect of our culture that many of us wish would kindly hurry up and die out. Women have to fight for everything they have from the very start, Mister Macmillan. Either they are coddled to the point of suffocation and stagnation, or their accomplishments are ignored in favor of male-gendered peers who performed second-best at the same task. Miss Granger, for example, has been fighting for her entire academic life for every acknowledgement she’s ever earned, and is still often derided for it.” Nizar glances at Blishwick and Dunbar, who at least have the grace to flush or look away. “Miss Chang, Miss Weasley, and Miss Lovegood are also used to fighting that battle.

“When the young men in my classes prove to me that they know the material at an advanced level and can keep to that pace, then I will happily place them in the class that is best suited to their skills. Until that time? Yes, you’ve been outdone by girls,” Nizar says dryly, grateful to hear laughter that holds no trace of mockery at all.

The letter he’s expected to receive since last week’s meeting with Arthur arrives when he’s having lunch in his office, painstakingly transcribing  one of his books—not a journal, but spell work—from Cumbric into English. Granted, he’s doing more writing than eating, but better than no eating at all.

A great grey owl does a decent enough job of navigating their way into the classroom, makes it through the office door, and then crashes into a bookcase before landing in the floor. Nizar gets up in alarm and finds a bird of advanced age flopping about woozily on the stone, a message attached to an arthritic-looking leg. “Dear gods, who is still torturing you by sending you out to deliver mail?” he asks, rightening the owl and checking it for damage. Except for exhaustion brought on by a long flight—and its age—the owl is fine.

Nizar carries the owl into his quarters and settles him onto Nygell’s empty perch before he opens the letter. “Oh, hello, Molly. I wonder if you tried to send me a Howler first.”

 

Dear Nizar,

It took me a while to be able to write this properly. I inherited the Prewett temper, and it takes me a bit to calm down if I get angry.

I was, too. Exceptionally angry.

Fortunately, I am married to a man who is patient enough to wait through my temper, and who will explain things sensibly once again when I no longer want to take my wand to someone’s backside. I could only see a teacher who was putting my daughter in danger. It’s been such a habit of Hogwarts to put our children in danger—all of our children!

Again, bless Arthur’s patience, and my apparent inability to send you a Howler. (You cheat.) He helped me to recognize that you intended quite the opposite. You aren’t trying to force Ginny into a situation that would endanger her. You’re doing more to ensure she can protect herself than anyone else I know, and sadly, that does include me. I’m too often intent on just bundling up my chicks and keeping them cooped up in the house, away from anything that can harm them, but life is not so kind as all that. They’ll all leave the nest one day, and all the coddling on Earth won’t stop the world from being there, waiting for them.

It won’t stop him from being there. She met that thing too soon, and I panic at the thought that she’ll ever have to do so again.

If I worry about anything, I suppose I will now fret that you’ll ensure that my daughter is more terrifying than most anything else. I’m not sure a girl who also inherited the Prewett temper should ever be that capable, but I’ve had four children all write to me complaining of how you plan to smother them with Ethics and Morality. I don’t think they were pleased when I wrote back telling them it sounded like an excellent lesson.

Please feel free to give extra portions to Fred and George.

—Molly Weasley

 

“I’ll be damned,” Nizar murmurs. He feels like he might have just beheld a written miracle.

 

*         *         *         *

 

Salazar has forced himself to rise early every day to accommodate the school’s insistence at having breakfast during a singular hour. It’s nonsense, treating everyone as if they’re meant to have the exact same schedules: eat at the same time, learn at the same time in the exact same fashion, be bedbound at the same time, sleep at the same time. He loathes this industrialized, militaristic idea of life, but changing that will likely prove to be a greater task than merely restoring Hogwarts’ original teaching structure and available lessons.

Maybe he should plan for that, regardless. Have the idea ready for next term. The late risers would bless his existence forever more.

“What are you thinking about, sir?” Luna asks him politely as she approaches.

“How much I’d rather still be abed, Miss Lovegood.” Salazar stretches his arms over his head and breathes in as a cold breeze blows in across the Black Lake, bringing the mineral tang of good water with it. “I hope you don’t mind that our private lessons will oft take place outside.”

“Not at all, Professor Salazar,” Luna replies, smiling. “I like to be outside. Many of my friends live out here.”

“Such as the Nargles you’ve befriended.”

Luna nods as the breeze catches strands of her pale blonde hair. “Most of them are sleeping right now. They’re waiting for the flowers to bloom in the spring—well, not the ones living in the mistletoe. They’ll be napping when the weather warms, I expect. What shall we do today, sir?”

“Whatever you like. The difficulty in lessons such as yours, darling Ravenclaw, is that you can see much of what I can’t,” Salazar says. “I can tell you of the Earth, and teach you what Earth-based magic is capable of, but for the rest? I can only repeat the words I’ve heard spoken by others like Myrddin, who saw the world the way you do. I can also tell you the words of my mother, a Water-Speaker, and of my dear Orellana, a Wood-Speaker. Perhaps it would be better to ask: do you have questions for me?”

“Questions for you.” Luna gains her peculiar little frown that is never an expression of displeasure. “I suppose I am curious about the magic attached to your brother, Professor Slytherin.”

Salazar grins. “There is quite a bit of magic attached to my brother, Miss Lovegood. You would need to be more specific.”

“Oh. Well, I can see the war mage magic. It’s attached to the land, just like it is for you, Professor Snape, and Adele. That’s how I figured out what I was seeing when you all came back to Hogwarts with bright new threads of magic. Then there is the magic individual to the nobility titles, like your connection to the Highlands, your brother’s connection to the Heights, Draco’s thread that leads to Wiltshire, Daphne’s link to Northumbria, Adele’s link to the Yorkshire Dales, Blaise’s thread connecting him to Worcester, Mister Black’s ties to London, and Professor Lupin’s link to Powys. Once I could look beyond all, that, there is also Professor Slytherin’s attachment to Hogwarts, which is different from yours, sir. His is white, while yours is green…or maybe it isn’t white at all.” Luna tilts her head. “White is supposed to be composed of all the colors we can see.”

Salazar may have to contemplate swooning. Luna Lovegood is the first Pure-blood student he’s encountered with a solid grasp on non-magical sciences. It reminds him so much of the old days, when such concepts weren’t separate at all. “That is correct, yes.”

Luna looks startled, then pleased, as if she expected to hear otherwise. “Beneath all of those magical ties, there is a different sort of magic. It’s the same color green as your link to Hogwarts.”

Salazar raises both eyebrows. This is the most he’s ever heard Miss Lovegood speak in a single conversation. “And what do you think that green represents? He is of my family. Is it a surprise that our magic would shine the same?”

“Oh, it does that, too,” Luna responds, her eyes drifting up to regard the sky in dreamy delight. “But this is different. If you ignore the color, it looks like the same sort of magic attached to Hermani, and he was magically adopted. Is Professor Slytherin adopted, sir?”

Salazar shakes his head, smiling. “Elemental bloody Magicians. Yes he is, but that is the sort of thing we prefer to keep quiet. We were already related by distant blood before that adoption, but there are still too many fools who would claim that we aren’t brothers at all.”

Luna nods. “I know, sir. It’s why I’ve never said anything about Hermani’s adoption. If he doesn’t know, it would be quite rude of me to say. Oh, the Blibbering Humdingers are about!” she exclaims, offering the sky a wide smile.

“Blibbering Humdingers.” Salazar refuses to laugh, as it’s the only term she knows. “Describe them to me. What do they look like?”

“They look like wisps of air that can smile. They’re fog and mist, and they love stirring things up and about. They can make themselves into so many different sizes, too.”

That is a description Salazar knows well. “Those, darling Ravenclaw, are properly termed as wisties. They are Air Elementals.”

Luna’s peculiar frown returns. “Wisties. Wasn’t that word also used in a film starring many short bears dressed in leather?”

Salazar laughs. “Even filmmakers have to get their words from somewhere, Miss Lovegood.”

After Miss Lovegood’s private lesson, Salazar is off to find Minerva to deliver a gift the elves completed only that morning. His Lioness has a full schedule, but she always chooses to rest in the staff lounge after her second-years are done mauling objects instead of Transfiguring them. It’s an excellent means of calming herself before she faces her sixth-years and the odd feats that lot often get up to.

His brother still wins that contest for turning poor Leofric into a tree on accident. Salazar is waiting for the right moment to impart that lovely detail to Minerva, but such has not yet arrived.

Salazar catches Minerva’s eye before she can vanish into the staff lounge and beckons for her to follow him into an unused room off the corridor. He notes the window, the dust, and lack of furniture, and thinks it might once have been guest quarters, though the bathing room and privy are gone. Now, though, it is an excellent place to gift an item to someone who can be rather shy about that sort of thing.

“And just what are you up to, Salazar?” Minerva asks after pushing the door closed behind her. “I hope it’s not clandestine snogging. Ten minutes isn’t nearly enough time for that, I’ll have you know.”

Salazar grins. “I’m quite happily aware. I’ve a gift for you to complement your role as Head of House, Lioness, and thought you’d prefer to receive it in private.”

“You thought correctly.” Minerva smiles as her hand automatically reaches up to touch the watch hidden beneath her sleeve. “What sort of plotting have you been up to this time?”

“Truly, it was more the elves than myself, though I did need to remind them that such a thing was appropriate.” Salazar retrieves the silver crest from his coat pocket and holds it out to her with both hands.

“Oh!” Minerva’s eyebrows fly up as her eyes widen. “I’ve only ever seen that in a painting of my great-grandfather. Our family’s copy was lost a long time ago.” She takes the silver crest from him, holding it up to the light cast by the window to see it properly. “But this is not quite the same.”

“Well, one does recognize it when two powerful clans unite,” Salazar says. “While it might be traditional to claim the crest of your father’s House, the Irish Mac Conmhaoil line that migrated to Caithness is non-magical. That makes your mother’s magical branch of Clan Rôs just as important as the former.” Instead of one or the other, the elves conspired to make it proper: the crest is wrapped by the belt and buckle of the Scottish clans, but instead of an eagle or a lion, it is now a rampant griffon holding the four gold-plated annulets in each of its talons. The griffon is silver, like the crest, but its eyes are ruby. A twisted torse is just above the griffon, supporting a dexter hand holding aloft a juniper laurel that’s been crafted from vert-colored beryl. Upside-down silver Scottish thistle leaves wrap the belt and buckle from top to bottom. The upper part of the leaves above the juniper laurel host the Ross motto of Spem Successus Alit, while the lower leaves hold the Mac Conmhaoil motto of Nos A In Aeternum.

“It’s beautiful, and almost as ostentatious as the Black family crest,” Minerva says as she runs her fingers along the inscription. “I thought the McGonagall motto was Age In Aeternum. Do Forever.

“With this island’s shoddy Latin?” Salazar shakes his head. “It’s meant to say We Are Forever. Age In Aeternum translates as At Age Forever.”

“That doesn’t sound nearly as impressive,” Minerva agrees in a dry voice. “And the stones?”

“You hold Hogewáþ’s Southern Seat as Head of the House of Gryffindor, Minerva. That would be the seat’s scarlet ruby. The opal is for your dual Transfiguration Masteries. That particular stone is Slovakian.”

“Not an eagle or a lion, but a griffon.” Minerva looks pleased. “A heraldic symbol of courage, strength, leadership, and intelligence. Given my position, that seems coincidentally appropriate.”

“There are no such things as coincidences, Lioness.” Salazar feels a sharp pang as he says the words. He’s spoken them often enough, and always to those he cares for.

“I suppose not,” Minerva agrees quietly. “This, though—this crest is far too ostentatious to be wearing all the time. I notice you’re not wearing that crest of yours!”

Salazar flips open one side of his jacket, where the silver crest for his House is pinned in place on the inside. “One never knows when it will come in handy, especially these days. I simply choose not to share its presence with everyone else.”

“That sounds agreeable. I suppose if you carry through on your threat to introduce me to Queen Elizabeth, I might have need of it,” Minerva muses.

“She does truly wish to meet you.” Salazar smiles at her. “I think the two of you would find that you have quite a bit in common.”

Minerva nods and drops the new crest into her robe pocket. “Perhaps during Easter break, Salazar. For now, we both have classes to teach.”

“That we do.” Salazar follows her from the room, already contemplating the class of fifth-years awaiting him. They proved themselves to be his prickliest group of students, and it’s been great fun to rile them up.

“How is Miss Lovegood progressing in her new private lessons in learning more of how to adapt to her elemental magic?” Minerva asks.

“She’s proven an apt student as long as one keeps in mind that her distracted nature has due cause,” Salazar replies. “But I am beginning to suspect there are a few others who might benefit from such things. Not necessarily with myself, but they need that sort of personal instruction from someone.”

Minerva frowns. “Who?”

“Miss Applebee, your Hufflepuff Head Girl. She isn’t foundering academically, but in terms of what sort of magic or life she should indulge in after Hogwarts. Mister McLaggen could use many lessons in deportment and diplomacy before he utters the wrong thing to the wrong person and ends up dead for it. Seamus Finnigan should spend time with an instructor to determine why his accidental magic persisted for so long. That speaks of talent not being recognized and thus expressing itself any way it can—yes, even with his newfound method of dispelling that extra energy,” Salazar adds when Minerva smirks. “Mister Thomas is a distraction, not a teaching method.”

“Very well. Anyone else?”

“I worry very much about Mister Crabbe and Mister Goyle, magically, academically, and socially, but unless they are willing to consent to tutoring, there is little to be done. Zubeida Khan is silent in her classes due to a speech impediment she is desperately trying to hide, fearing Wizarding Britain’s lack of acceptance for such things. We’ve no one here qualified to assist her and would likely need to send for that sort of help beyond Wizarding Britain’s fucking borders.”

“Public hallway. Language, Salazar,” Minerva reminds him tartly. “You think we need a counselor who is neutral for the school.”

“A trained one. Albus Dumbledore is old and has seen much, but that does not mean he understands best how to deal with the things I’m speaking of. We especially need to think of those students in the school who have close family members as enemies. That is not an easy life to live.”

Minerva nods. “I’ll think on it, and pass word on to the other Heads of House. Go terrify your history students, Salazar.”

Salazar bows. “And off you go to make certain your N.E.W.T. students don’t turn each other into new and interesting forms of life.”

To his surprise, one of his students has arrived early, and it’s Miss Granger. “Ah, crafter of the lethal essay,” Salazar begins to say—just before the young woman leaps forward and nearly breaks him in half with a hug.

“Thank you,” she whispers as Salazar tries to figure out if this is an embrace he should be returning, or if he should be fetching a crowbar. “For what you did for Nizar. Thank you.”

Ah. Salazar judges it safe enough to return her hug, albeit briefly. There are too many fools about who would misjudge the act and say terrible things of her if it were witnessed. “I didn’t know he’d made a decision. What did my brother say?”

Miss Granger takes a quick look at the classroom doorway, searching for overhearing ears, before answering. “He gave me letters. That he wrote…then,” she says in a low voice. “I read them all and gave them back for him to read, and he did, but I don’t think they were as helpful as I’d hoped they would be. I think it was like reading a book about someone else.”

Salazar resists the urge to sigh. He’d wondered if anything delivered by the Burgos elves would help, but it seems as if one of the best resources was as effective as the two portraits. Miss Granger is correct; rather than prompting any true recollection, Nizar says it’s like reading about someone else’s life. “I didn’t realize he’d done so. I was away for the weekend, Miss Granger. Business in London to tend to. But I’m glad he did.”

Miss Granger bites her lip. “You are?”

“I am.” Salazar smiles at her. “Time can steal away memory, too. I’ll admit to being a bit panicked when we first met on the eve of fifth January, but once that crisis was past, I recalled how often my brother spoke of you. Nizar missed you very much.”

Miss Granger lets out a brief sniffle before she flings herself into Salazar’s arms again. Salazar pats her shoulder and thinks it excellent that the rest of her classmates decided that today was a fine time to dawdle.

Or perhaps the staircases decided to have their fun and run distraction. That’s been known to happen, too.

 

*         *         *         *

 

Severus watches his N.E.W.T. classes closely on Monday afternoon, studying their brewing habits, the research they indulge in, deviations, experimentation, any hint of recognition for the why the whole of their work comes together from its individual parts—things that make one not merely a good brewer, but a student capable of mastering the art of Potions.

Miss Fairboune, Fleet, Rickett, Belby, Miss Edgecombe, Miss Johnson, Miss Applebee, Gupta, Miss Randle, Miss Fawcett, Kartik, Miss Bell, Miss Johar, Miss Chang, Carmichael, and Urquhart claimed places in N.E.W.T. Potions, but only because it is required for their planned careers. Miss Shetty, Miss Peebles, and Ichijoh selected Potions simply because Severus is their Head of House, and expected an easier workload because of it. They’ve since come to regret that decision, one they cannot alter until they bloody well graduate.

Some of them are just bloody Death Eaters in waiting.

The Weasley twins understand experimentation, the need to deviate from expectations, and Severus thinks they might even understand the why, given the things they’ve crafted from their horrifying imaginations. However, it’s beyond obvious that they’re not devoted to Potions as a craft, but to what Potions can do for them through the full scope of their endeavors.

That leaves him with Adele Greenwood and Ona Parangyo in seventh-year. Since it’s already mid-February, he dismisses their candidacy. Given the mad fervor both have already displayed when it comes to studying for their N.E.W.T.s, they wouldn’t give up their free time even if they were inclined towards Potions.

Hermani Roshan and Kinjal Bhatia are both in sixth-year, with this term and the rest of the next term remaining. Roshan isn’t seventeen until April, but Miss Bhatia turned seventeen a few weeks prior. Both of have shown an aptitude for Potions that goes beyond mere rote performance, and both show the beginning of understanding why potions work as they do. Without concerns for N.E.W.T.s in their paths, they are ideal students to approach in regards to an apprenticeship for earning a Potions Mastery. If they can tolerate him long enough for it, that is.

I’m making plans to continue teaching, Severus realizes, and is immediately, utterly confounded. He is contemplating continuing teaching next term, and he is bloody well apprentice-seeking.

Severus comforts himself with the idea that Bhatia and Roshan are equally wise enough to flee from the idea of an apprenticeship with him, even if he were to ask.

He isn’t going to ask.

He will probably ask them. He’s lost his bloody mind.

Severus also has no idea what possessed him to look for sympathy for his plight in Nizar. The man laughs at him. For far longer than is bloody appropriate.

“I’m—well, I’m not sorry,” Nizar finally gasps. He’s stretched out along the sofa closest to the fireplace, a wide smile on his face as he looks up at Severus. “But you brought up the subject as if it were a fucking beheading about to take place, and you were the one choosing the executioner!”

“I have no idea how to teach an apprentice, Nizar!”

“No one does.” Nizar rights himself and curls up on the end of the sofa, patting the cushion next to him. Severus grudgingly sits down after a moment’s deliberation. “Students are individuals, and apprentices require a greater acknowledgement of that than is needed when teaching a group. The biggest difference between teaching a class and teaching an apprentice is that you can’t go into the situation with lesson plans at the ready. You won’t know what that apprentice will need from you for weeks, if not months, after the arrangements have been formalized. They may know things you don’t expect, or have questions you don’t actually know the answers to. My only real advice is to choose someone whose company you can tolerate for long stretches of time.”

Severus tries not to grimace. That is a very, very short list. “I’d thought on Kinjal Bhatia and Hermani Roshan.”

“I don’t know as much about Hermani Roshan as I’d prefer, as he’s not in my N.E.W.T class. Kinjal…” Nizar frowns. “I don’t know if she has plans after Hogwarts beyond her arranged marriage. I know her culture often prefers for a married woman to become the head of the household rather than continue any sort of career, though I think the latter bit is becoming less expected. The Patil twins certainly aren’t in any hurry to follow that path, but then, they were born in Britain.”

“You’re saying this is far more complicated than I had yet to contemplate.”

“It can be.” Nizar slumps down against him and lets out a pleased sigh. “Try to get to know Kinjal a bit better. You’ve seen that she has the magical potential. The rest requires personal interaction.”

Severus growls under his breath. “I’m bloody terrible at personal interaction!”

“I don’t think so,” Nizar says quietly. “And I’m not saying that just because I’m courting you.”

“Oh?” Severus asks, his voice caustic to his own ears. “And what do you think it is, then?”

“I think you’ve encountered too many instances where it’s turned out to be a fucking trap,” Nizar says, “and too few instances where that sort of interaction has proven itself to be safe.”

His first reflexive response is to flinch as if he’s been struck. After that, he refuses to move, because he honestly fears he might run and never stop.

He does not like self-introspection. He does not like having parts of himself pulled out and held under torchlight for examination.

Because what does Albus do when he’s done the very same? Severus finds himself thinking. He uses it against you, even if it seems to be done for all the right reasons.

Severus draws in a deep breath. Nizar is not Albus.

“I’m certain you’re already aware of this, but you’re right.”

Nizar reaches over and takes his hand. “I don’t say it to be right.”

Severus swallows hard, hating the fact that his eyes are burning. “I’m aware of that.”

Chapter Text

He thinks his classroom has emptied of students on Tuesday morning until he turns around and discovers that Miss Granger is lingering. “Is there something you need, Miss Granger?”

Granger glances behind her to see if anyone is at the door. Severus scowls and flicks his wand to slam it shut. “Any time now, please. I have first-years to deal with in less than five minutes.”

“Er, yes, sir,” At least Granger has been squeaking less if he addresses her. “I suppose I was just wondering if you were going to do to me what Professor Slytherin did. The shuffling me forward into N.E.W.T. classes.”

Severus gives her a cold stare. “Absolutely not. You aren’t ready.”

“Oh, thank God.” Granger breathes out a sigh of relief. “I just wanted to be certain. Next year is still just fine with me, sir.” She then leaves him in blessed silence, which is excellent, as Severus is a bit busy with being horrified. The idea that Granger might try for two apprenticeships during her final years in Hogwarts is terrifying. If she does so, he has only himself to blame by challenging her with that damned potions book.

His Ravenclaw and Hufflepuff first-years behave themselves for the hour. Then his third-year Slytherins and Gryffindors arrive. The pairings seem to be getting a bit more random: Astoria Greengrass and Edward Black have joined forces; Romilda Vane has traded off for Sebastian Daley; Atsushi Takagi is sitting with Raza Mohammad; and Yuvraj Suri has somehow crafted an alliance with Reiko Sibazaki, whereas last term the two couldn’t stand each other’s existence.

The Carrow twins are, as usual, fucking infuriating.

He tells them all to clean up, leave the contents of their cauldrons alone, and return to collect the emptied cauldrons after lunch. It’s a relief when they depart, chattering like young students who still do not have to concern themselves with horror or death—except for Hestia and Flora, who scowl at every living being as if they’d personally like to murder them.

Severus checks their cauldrons as he walks along the workbenches, examining their contents before Vanishing them. He knows Pomona’s new curriculum has not had a chance to make any sort of improvement, but it seems as if he is discovering more successes than failures of late. Perhaps the lack of outright hostility is encouraging them, or time has made the others immune to the Carrow twins’ ineffective attempts to glare other people out of existence.

He goes back to his office to put away anything that won’t be needed until he returns to the room after lunch. He finds three numbered envelopes waiting on his desk, each bearing his name. He picks up the first one, curious, and finds it to be the same type of envelope that Nizar gave to Miss Granger. The printing of his name is neat and clear, but most certainly that of the child, not the adult; the second is similar. The third envelope’s handwriting is like the printing in Nizar’s journals, not his writing as it is now.

Severus gestures both of his office doors shut and sits down at his desk to open the first letter. Nizar did warn him, but Severus wonders why Harry Potter would have any reason to wish to speak to him. The letter begins with no explanation, not even of its date—something he would have found highly unusual if he’d received this missive with no foreknowledge at all.

 

4th January 991

 

Professor Snape,

I did something last year I was convinced I couldn’t do. You absolutely wouldn’t believe it.

So, just to be a contrary shit, I shan’t tell you what it was.

—Harry Potter

 

P.S. Oculus is bullshit. Throw out the damned turmeric and try again.

 

“I see,” Severus murmurs in amusement. “You felt the need to write to me just to be an irritant.” There is no doubt as to what the child is referring to. This is his creation of Sana Visio. It’s still galling Severus to know he wouldn’t have recognized the perfect substitution for turmeric on his own first attempt.

Removed from its envelope, the second letter is much thicker, seven pages long and covered in the child’s handwriting from the very first page to the very last. Severus frowns, feeling a hint of something lingering on the paper. Panic? No, not that. Potter was not the sort to panic even when he was tragically outnumbered, crashing a car into a tree, facing a werewolf, a dragon, or even Voldemort himself.

 

16th April 991

 

Dear Professor,

You have no reason to read this at all, but I hope you’ll at least consider it.

Look, I was right about that stupid Stone, I wasn’t eaten by a basilisk, and Pettigrew is the arsehole to blame for everything that wasn’t done by Crouch Junior. Just hear me out, please?

I think there is something very wrong happening in Hogwarts, but I’m definitely too far away to be able to do anything about it.

I don’t know how to get these letters delivered when I’m writing to someone over a thousand years into the future. Maybe the Burgos elves might help me. They live a long time, and they like my family.

Okay, yes, there’s a lot here that I’m not explaining, but one problem at a time. Worry about the date on this letter and the family bit and the elves thing later. I’m worried about 1995, or whatever year it is when you receive this.

Please do not let that be before 31st July. That would be so awkward.

Last year, I wrote to Hermione, even though that letter is right here on my desk. I discussed some of this in that letter, but I wasn’t really setting out to prove or disprove anything. I was tired, and it was mostly just mind spew. Idle thoughts.

I haven’t been able to let the idea go. If it’s paranoia when you only think they’re out to get you, except they’re always out to get you, that usually means you’re right.

I don’t want to be right about this.

I want you to read this letter, dismiss it as complete imbecilic nonsense, and carry on with your day. I just think, for varying reasons that happen to be related to, oh, keeping an eye on someone who is missing his own fucking nose, that you might be the best person to judge whether or not this is a stupid question.

Does Dumbledore actually want me dead?

 

Severus drops the letter onto his desk, staring at that sentence. He’ll wonder how the child could possibly have known about his task regarding Voldemort at a later time, but for now, those words are like an accusatory shout.

 When he thinks he has control of himself, Severus picks up the letter again.

 

I’m not just pulling that out of my arse. I do want it to be, but when I try to write down reasons why it’s utter rubbish, all I seem to be writing down are reasons why it’s not.

1. It took me a while to pin this down, and I don’t think I would have been able to do it if I hadn’t bothered to master Mind Magic. No idea what it might be called in 1995, if it exists as a concept, but it’s bloody useful.

Anyway: Dumbledore gave me to the Dursleys before the sun came up on 1st November. It was still dark—I can remember that, all right? It was the same night my parents died.

No one knew Sirius had supposedly done anything wrong until that afternoon.

Dumbledore had hours to track Sirius down before Sirius found Pettigrew. Hours. Did he do anything to search? Because if he was in such a hurry to shove me off to live with a bunch or arseholes, I rather doubt it.

1.5. Dumbledore says he believes us about Peter Pettigrew still being alive. He made certain Sirius didn’t get kissed by Dementors, but Dumbledore is also Chief Warlock of the Wizengamot. The Magician’s Council. Why didn’t Dumbledore insist Sirius get a trial, then or now? Whether you like him or not, Sirius is an Animagus, and he is used to hiding, being overlooked, surviving. That’s useful spy material. Isn’t a spy more useful if they don’t have to hide from their allies, even if their allies don’t like the spy very much?

2. Something has to have been done to that blood protection from my mother’s death. Voldemort would never have been able to hurt me, Horcrux or no Horcrux, if that protection had been left alone.

2a. Sirius Black was my legal guardian, and Dumbledore had already foisted me off on the Dursleys. Dumbledore can claim that blood protection crap all he likes, but everything I’ve read on Blood Magic here? It doesn’t work like that. I didn’t need to be living with a blood relative. That blood magic protection was attached to me, and it would have gone everywhere I went, including with Sirius.

2b. When I got here, a really good Healer could tell that there was some of that protection remaining. After discussing it, the conclusion is that the creepy necromancy ritual Voldemort used in Little Hangleton shouldn’t have been able to damage an untouched blood protection to that extent. He shouldn’t have been able to hurt me. That means it was already damaged by something else.

2c. Dumbledore didn’t even bother telling me about the sacrificial protection until after I used it to kill someone. That’s convenient, right?

2.5. Who is powerful enough to have altered that sacrificial magic? Between being dropped off on the Dursley’s front doorstep in the dark and left behind, I didn’t come into contact with a single magician between then and Hagrid coming to find me on my eleventh birthday. Given what the intervening years were like, it definitely had to have been damaged before I came to Hogwarts.

3. Oh, yeah, the lightning bolt scar was a Horcrux. I have no idea if you know anything about those, but suffice to say, it is gone and that part of Voldemort is very, very, very dead.

Yes, I am still angry about the Horcrux!

3.5. I think Dumbledore knew about the Horcrux. I don’t have evidence to back that up. Sal says it’s Divination talent, but I can’t prove that. I’ll say it because the idea won’t leave me alone, but I can’t prove it.

4. I don’t know if you know anything about Vernon and Petunia Dursley, but—

Okay. This is still very hard to think, let alone write down, but if I’m listing out evidence to support a hypothesis, then I have to. I really, really don’t want to.

My childhood was a fucking nightmare. Lucius Malfoy treats house-elves better.

 

Severus feels a sharp pain in his hand. He’s clenched his left fist so tightly that his fingernails pierced seven sheets of paper and are jabbing into his palm. He can’t read any more of this without distancing himself from it.

Occlumency helps him feel like he can finish reading this letter without murdering anyone. Better.

 

An untouched sacrificial magic based on death (which, yes, is Blood Magic) doesn’t just protect the recipient from being harmed by the arsehole that the person doing the sacrificing was fighting against. It safeguards the person with that sacrificial protection from all forms of true harm until the magic reaches a point of being able to recognize that the recipient is able to safeguard themselves. The point at which that happens is different for everyone.

Leaving a toddler to cry for an entire day without seeing to their needs is harm. Starving someone is harm. Beating someone is harm. Making someone into a literal slave is harm. Hitting someone in the head with a fucking frying pan is harm. Withholding medical treatment is harm. Making them reside in a cupboard is harm. Only giving someone cast-off clothes that do not fit, that are not warm enough, is harm. Shoes with holes in the soles that let glass slice your feet is harm. Imprisoning someone in their room is harm, and yes, I mean that literally. Trying to prevent someone from going to the school their dead parents already paid for is harm. Taking away someone else’s rightful belongings is harm. Screaming at someone constantly is harm. Referring to someone by the word Freak all their life to the point where they don’t even know that Freak is not their name until a really concerned primary school teacher corrects you? Harm.

Trying to starve an owl to death is definitely considered animal abuse, but I just gave Hedwig most of my food. That summer sucked.

I think Dumbledore knew about every single bit of this.

That leaves me with three options.

A) He really is cracked enough to think that I had to live with Petunia to keep me safe from Voldemort.

B) He didn’t care.

Or C) Dumbledore wanted me to have the worst childhood imaginable so that Hogwarts would look like paradise, and Dumbledore would look like a benevolent savior. What’s a little bit of manipulation to make sure your war weapon will do everything you say when all of your war weapon’s other experiences are horrific in comparison?

What’s frankly terrifying is that I think C is most likely. He wants to win a war, after all.

5. Everyone in this time knows who Fawkes is. The phoenix belongs to Merlin, or Merlin belongs to the phoenix. One of those. Sal is certain that when Merlin dies, Fawkes wouldn’t give his loyalty to another man, not after spending the last five centuries with Merlin. Sal thinks Fawkes would give his loyalty to the school Merlin built. That means Dumbledore’s claims about Fawkes being his are utter rubbish. Who would be able to argue with him, anyway? Dippet’s dead, Tom Riddle avoided the Headmaster’s office like it was a plague container, and of course anyone alive in 1995 who also attended Hogwarts would be used to seeing Fawkes around the school.

6. Why was it always you? Wait, that sounds rude. I didn’t mean it to be rude. I actually like being alive. Let me try again.

6.5. Quirrell/Voldemort and his stupid attempts to steal the Philosopher’s Stone. You saved me from falling from a jinxed broom. Not Dumbledore. You were in the air for the next Quidditch match to make certain Quirrell wouldn’t do it again. Not Dumbledore. You pried me off Quirrell. Not Dumbledore.

7. Chamber of Secrets: Dumbledore acted like he sent the Sorting Hat with Godric’s Sword to me using Fawkes’s help. At the time, I didn’t realize he never actually said that. He just implied it, and I went along with it. Why wouldn’t I? Young, trusting, and stupid.

7.5 How would Dumbledore even know there was a problem? Obliviated Gilderoy (good riddance) and Ron were stuck in the tunnel with no way to get anyone’s help. No one knew how to get into the Chamber but Ron and myself. And Ginny, I guess, but that wasn’t her fault. Dumbledore had zero ways of knowing where in the school I was.

I think Fawkes knew. I think Fawkes chose to do what he did on his own. Otherwise, why wouldn’t Dumbledore have come with Fawkes?

8. Dumbledore seems to be conveniently absent a lot, doesn’t he?

9. Third year, when everyone believed Sirius was out of his mind. Yes, he was actually out of his mind, but not trying-to-kill-his-godson out of his mind. If Dumbledore really doesn’t know that the many secret passages in and out of the castle exist, I will eat my new boots. He’s over a hundred years old. He went to school here. He’s lived here since ever. No one who has lived in this castle that long could possibly be that numb about passageways that are easy to find. He knew Sirius could get in, and he knew how, and he did nothing.

Why? Either Dumbledore knew already that Sirius wasn’t guilty, or he was assisting someone in helping me end up dead. If he knew Peter was in the castle and was letting me sleep in the same room with the actual murderer, then that was another method of helping someone make me dead.

10. Then there is the stupid shit with the Dementors on the Quidditch Pitch.

(There are no Dementors here. Not anywhere. No one has heard of them by name or description. It’s creepy.)

Everyone on my team said that Dumbledore saved me from falling, and then Dumbledore made the Dementors go away. I believe the second half—the Headmaster would be the one with that authority. But the first half? If he couldn’t be arsed to do that in my first year, why would he have bothered then? Yeah, I still think that was you. Hate me later, okay? Still writing.

 

“Actually, I would be telling you that you were correct,” Severus murmurs. The child is piecing things together in a way that is giving him chills. On their own, these incidents were suspicious, but otherwise seemed coincidental. At most, Severus thought Albus was using those circumstances to give the child harsh lessons that might prepare him for Voldemort. When put together, even in such haphazard fashion, with the lines drawn from one event to the next…

 

11. Dumbledore doesn’t do a thing to save an innocent man when he finds out (or knew?) the truth. He makes children do it. Again: did he even do anything to search for Pettigrew? The bastard rat had been living in Hogwarts every term for thirteen years! I could have found him based on what I know now, and I’m just sixteen years old.

12. The Triwizard Tournament is old. Really old. The rules-already-exist-here old. We all took Crouch Senior at his word when he said I had to compete. We took Dumbledore at his word when he agreed with Crouch.

I didn’t put my name in that goblet. Therefore it was not a legally binding contract. It’s in the rules, even if they’re really dull to read. What turned it into a legally binding contract is that the goblet assumed I was participating on bloody Barty Crouch Junior’s behalf by performing the First Task. That’s what it took. A legally recognized stand-in. At any point before the First Task, I could have gotten out of it if anyone had bothered to read the stupid rules.

12.5. Dumbledore knows those rules, Professor. I mean, I could be assuming more about his intelligence than I should, but if I was going to host a tournament known to make people dead in the past, I’d want to know its rules backwards, forwards, upside down, and sideways.

He wanted me to be in that Tournament. I don’t know if Dumbledore believed Voldemort to be the ultimate problem, but it bloody well turned out that way, didn’t it?

13. My arse those were not real spirits during priori incantamentum in the cemetery. Ghostly impressions cannot erect Shield Charms. I’m not sure why Dumbledore wants me to believe otherwise, but he does. What point does that even serve?

14. For someone who claimed to be so concerned about “Moody’s” behavior on the 24th when Cedric died, it certainly took an awfully long time for Dumbledore to turn up to save me from that insane bastard. I’ve seen you and Professor McGonagall in a hurry. You two do not linger. It wouldn’t have taken any of you ten minutes to catch up to “Moody” dragging an injured, spell-damaged kid back to the castle…unless Dumbledore deliberately waited until it had been long enough for Crouch to either kill me or do—

Okay, I don’t think Crouch Junior had enough sanity left to do much aside from making me dead. Going to Voldemort never seemed to occur to him.

14.5. Moody and Crouch must not act that differently if no one noticed that “Moody” was a Death Eater all along. What the hell is the real Mad-Eye Moody like? Because if that’s the same behavior, why would Dumbledore want him near kids?

15. We have a really disturbing trend of shit DADA teachers at Hogwarts. I thought another Defence teacher was going to eat his way through the table when I recited the credentials of everyone but Remus, but then he wanted to know if Remus has a Defence Mastery, and I have no idea. That didn’t really make him any happier.

16. Right, sorry, forgot: Riddle’s Diary was another Horcrux. Good thing basilisk venom destroys those.

17. My brother thinks there were six of them, me included. Six Horcruxes. Six ways for Voldemort to not fucking die. We just don’t know what they are, though we suspect that Helga’s Cup is one of them. Rude.

If you never see me again, at least you know that there are five left. Basilisk venom and Fiendfyre are your friends. Unless it’s another living being you’d prefer not to make dead, then it’s Mind Magic removal.

18. Isolation, literally and figuratively. If you want someone to be able to fight Voldemort, you’d want them informed, right? You’d want them to know what they’re doing. You’d want them to be aware of what their enemy is doing. You’d want them to know that they have allies, and that those allies are safe. You’d want those allies just as informed, because that’s how allies are of the most use in a fight. If you take away all sources of information and isolate your weapon, what good is it doing anyone? What good does it do for the weapon, especially if your chosen weapon is a person?

You can fight someone blind, but you’re not going to do a very good job of it. People who go into battles blind usually die.

Dumbledore made certain that I was completely isolated after Voldemort’s return. No information. No contact with anyone. It isn’t as if I wasn’t still suffering or anything.

It makes no fucking sense at all to have done that.

19. If I hadn’t been rescued on my birthday, I—well. Shit.

If Dumbledore really does want me dead, the rest of that summer would have solved the problem for him nicely.

20. Why was Dumbledore happy when he learnt about Voldemort stealing my blood to lessen the sacrificial protection? It isn’t something Dumbledore said aloud, but I’ve reviewed that memory a lot and… Triumph. That’s a better word than happy. It was like Voldemort’s success was also his success, and that’s pretty much terrifying.

21. Dumbledore says he wants to win this war. To destroy Voldemort. From my point of view, I have to wonder if he really wants that at all.

There. Now you can crumple this up and toss it.

By the way, the more you terrify Neville, the more things around him tend to explode. Maybe aim that at Crabbe instead. At least Crabbe wouldn’t notice. Fewer explosions are preferable, right?

 

I just realized I can’t sign my name to this. That’s really funny.

 

Severus doesn’t find it funny. He’s a bit preoccupied with being infuriated.

He has to make himself open the last letter, which is not as ominously thick as the previous. Inside is only a single sheet, but reading it makes him feel like the world has turned to ash.

 

23rd Aprilis 1,015

The Kingdom of Muireb under the Reign of Findlaích mac Ruaidrí, High King of the North

 

I used to be happy here.

Maybe I will be again. I just can’t see that possibility from where I’m standing right now.

Staring into a mirror of late, I think I understand you a bit better than I did before. I know this expression, even if it’s been long years since I’ve seen it.

You know exactly what the worst sort of loss is like. It’s on your face, in your eyes, and snaps like lightning in your voice.

It’s sarding awful. No one should have to feel this once, let alone—well, I think I must have lost count by now.

I haven’t. I just like to pretend that I have, as the number is so very much unwanted.

I once asked Myrddin if I’d lost enough yet for his liking. I need to learn not to say shit like that. He’s five years dead and I think my next task after writing this letter is going to be wandering out to scream at his grave marker.

I should not be writing this, not given the gap of twenty-odd years that separates this letter from the last, but I’m utterly sloshed, pissed, far into my cups, whichever term you would like to use, so I don’t care.

Not certain I’m recalling modern English properly, either.

Tonight is perhaps the fourth time I can recall that I’ve dreamt of you, of all people. Not…that way. Not in a way that would make you uncomfortable, believe me.

Then again, maybe it would. I dream of you being happy. Gods know you never seemed to be fond of the idea.

I hope they’re not just dreams. I hope it’s that Divinatory spark.

Someone should be happy after everything that’s gone wrong, then and now. There is no reason why it can’t be you.

 

—Nizar Deslizarse

 

*         *         *         *

 

If Salazar were a younger man, Severus’s sudden arrival, combined with the palpable anger radiating from him, would have caused him to scramble for both his wand and a higher vantage point than a mere desk. Instead, he restrains himself to simply looking up, wondering what the bloody hell could have happened in the last few hours to turn Severus Snape into a storm cloud. “What’s wrong?”

Severus removes three ancient-looking envelopes from his robe pocket and gives them to Salazar. “These. Please ensure that no one else sees them until I return.”

Salazar frowns down at the first envelope. It’s Severus’s name and title, but in Nizar’s script. “What is in here?”

“Enlightenment,” Severus hisses, and then Apparates again. Salazar can tell by the way the castle’s magic changes that Severus has left the school grounds entirely.

“Yet when I ask for the same…” Salazar shakes his head. His little brother hadn’t mentioned that any of the letters he wrote one thousand years ago had survived, or that they were in such fine condition. Not until he’d also said that Miss Granger had received all of hers. Fortunately, such an act of trust came with the knowledge that not even a master of Mind Magic with a wand could best Miss Granger’s shielding. When Nizar chooses allies, at least he has always selected intelligent ones.

 Nizar said nothing to Salazar about not reading those letters. Severus did not tell Salazar to keep his eyes to himself, either. Loopholes are loopholes and he will take advantage, every time.

The first letter is amusing. It’s very much his brother in a playful mood, and at a time when that was a rare thing, too.

The second letter causes the bottom to fall out from his stomach and land somewhere in the dungeons. “Oh, fuck me,” Salazar mutters, tucking the pages back into their envelope.

He casts his Patronus and addresses the Gorgon: “Minerva McGonagall, I’ve an emergency to attend to. Please inform my three afternoon classes that it’s their lucky day, as I will not be here to torture them with facts.”

He hopes he isn’t off to be preventing several murders.

Chapter Text

Severus once chose to remain deliberately ignorant of Harry James Potter’s whereabouts, so he has never been to Little Whinging before now. If he did not know, then there was no means for Voldemort to discover the information. If he didn’t know, Severus would not need to lie to the Dark Lord if asked.

If he didn’t know, he didn’t need to think about Potter at all beyond Albus’s reassurance that the child was safe and cared for.

Which is it? Severus wonders as he stares at Number Four Privet Drive. Is Albus thoughtless, or was it all a deliberate plot to ensure that Trelawney’s prophecy was a success?

Does Albus actually want to win this war, or does he want to use it to his advantage in order to gain power?

That is a very Slytherin thought, but as he is dealing with a man who seems hell-bent on acting like one, Severus needs to give it utmost consideration. He isn’t certain how Albus would gain power from the events of this year, not after Fudge sacked Albus from every powerful position he held in Wizarding Britain’s society but for Hogwarts.

Except: they’re in the middle of crafting Fudge’s downfall. Albus may well have predicted that very outcome, and if Fudge is ousted from the Ministry, what does Albus gain? What does Albus gain by letting Potter die, whether it be at Voldemort’s hands or those of another?

Severus continues to stare at Number Four from the walkway on the other side of the street. If I took all the numbers off these houses and mailboxes, no one would know which residence is theirs. It’s an amusing thought, something he might actually indulge in when there is no one around to witness it.

Most of those walking through the irritatingly precise neighborhood ignore Severus, or offer him cautious greetings that he barely acknowledges. At one point, Arabella Figg wanders past, giving him a cautious look.

“Not. Albus,” he mutters.

Arabella pauses and lifts her shoe, as if curious to find out if she’s stepped on a pebble. “Blood in the water?” she murmurs.

“Absolutely not.” Severus hasn’t dwelled on his desire to make Petunia Dursley dead in some months, but he won’t murder her or Vernon Dursley. He’s visited Azkaban, and has no desire to rot there. “Truth on the wind.”

She puts her foot back down on the ground, her expression tightening into a brief flash of anger. “Good,” she whispers, and hurries on her way.

Arabella knew Potter was not safe. She would have told Albus.

Either must die at the hand of the other, for neither can live while the other survives.

The implications of that line of the first prophecy have always been clear, granted to Severus along with the knowledge of the child’s carrying of a Horcrux. Albus believed Potter had to die to make Voldemort vulnerable to death.

Nizar has never trusted Albus. It’s clear from that second letter that he once remembered why. He also wanted Severus to prove him wrong. If Severus is going to do so, then this is where it starts.

He already suspects that he is going to fail.

At five o’clock exactly, vehicles start arriving at Privet Drive. Like clockwork, they each turn into their respective drives to park. Their owners, male or female, emerge from the driver’s side looking weary or relieved, glad to see the end of their daily exodus from London.

Severus feels his lip curl up in derision. He has never understood why anyone would wish to live this way, beholden to an unchanging job, unchanging schedule, living in houses where each matches the other. Even the gardens vary not at all. He might be beholden to an unchanging job with a consistent schedule, but his students definitely make certain that Severus’s life is not staid in any sense of the word.

The last car to arrive turns into the drive for Number Four and parks in front of the house. Vernon Dursley emerges, red-cheeked and sour-faced—and indeed, as Nizar noted, the size of a British cave troll, though Severus has never witnessed a cave troll bothering with pleated trousers, collared shirt, and a necktie before. Dursley was not a handsome man when Petunia began to date him, but he might have been considered pleasant if his thoughts and behavior were not so damned vile.

Severus waits for all of the commuters to enter their homes before he crosses the street and walks up the path to Number Four’s precise and too-perfect front door. He debates for a moment before deciding that the shining brass doorbell will be more efficient than knocking.

Dursley must not have wandered very far into his own house. He is the one to open the door, already sans necktie. He gives Severus’s black trousers, black jacket, and high-collared white shirt a brief up-and-down glance that seems to satisfy some odd part of his brain. It’s the length of Severus’s hair that seems to throw Dursley off-balance, as if he can’t equate one to the other.

“Good evening,” Severus greets him while thinking, Imbecile.

“Yes, it’s that. Can I help you?” Dursley asks, managing to sound gruffly polite instead of overtly hostile. There isn’t even an angry spark in his eyes to suggest that he recognizes Severus at all.

“I am here to speak with Petunia Dursley,” Severus answers. “It is a matter concerning her sister.”

That gains him anger, if still not recognition. Dursley scowls and tries to slam the door in Severus’s face while yelling, “My wife has no sister!”

Severus puts his boot in the doorway, preventing the door from closing. Before Dursley can try to bruise his foot with another attempt, Severus slides his wand free of his sleeve, just far enough for Dursley to recognize the wand for what it is. “Yes, she did. Open this door, Vernon Dursley, or this house will soon be lacking a door entirely.”

Dursley’s eyes widen as he backpedals, throwing the door open so swiftly it thuds against the inside wall. “PETUNIA!” he bawls. “IT’S ONE OF THEM HERE AGAIN!”

“Oh, yes. Advertise it to the entire street.” Severus steps over the threshold, unimpressed. “Then again, considering the volume of your shouting, the entire neighborhood must know of your doings all the time.”

Dursley slams the door shut. “Now see here—” he begins to bluster.

Severus glances at him from the corner of his eye. “Shut. Up,” he hisses. Dursley rears back as if struck, thumping against the wall, mouth hanging open in wordless outrage.

Petunia emerges from a brief passageway along the stairs, presumably from the kitchen given the scents in the air. She’s dressed well, for non-magical styles of clothing, but is as rail thin as ever. “Vernon, what is it—you!” she spits, the hatred in her voice twisting her features from ordinary to utterly sour. “What are you doing here?”

“Having it made very clear to me that neither of you have any sort of grasp on basic courtesy or hospitality,” Severus replies. “I am here to speak to you of matters pertaining to your sister.”

Dursley finds his voice again. “Why—you’re that little Snape brat from down the road in Cokeworth! What’s filth like you daring to step foot into my house?”

“Thank you for proving my point in regards to your lack of courtesy.” Severus stares at Petunia. “Well?”

Petunia’s jaw is working, her eyes narrowed in revulsion. “Very well,” she finally says. “If it will see you away from here that much sooner. This way.”

“Dudley!” Dursley yells without leaving his place at the door. “Stay upstairs, boy!”

Severus hears a vague noise of unconcerned agreement. Dudley Dursley seems far more interested in whatever he is occupied by at the moment than in coming downstairs to greet a guest.

He doesn’t know if it’s a war mage’s senses or not, but lately he finds himself more aware of lingering magical impressions. The cupboard built into the underside of the stairwell, which has a lock on its door, absolutely radiates misery. It’s a tiny space that a child over the age of five wouldn’t be able to stand up in.

The ride to Frogmore was only seventeen days ago. It is no difficulty to recall what Nizar said to them while his hand was clenched around Severus’s fingers hard enough to leave deep bruises: I do not like being confined in small spaces. I was fine until they darkened the bloody windows.

Why are small, dark spaces a problem?

I don’t recall.

Severus clenches his jaw. That is one mystery easily solved.

The kitchen Petunia leads him into is spotless perfection, almost overwhelmingly white from ceiling to floor. It makes Severus recall Jane and Malcolm’s kitchen, which was clean but always held just a bit of clutter, signs that a family lived there and used the space often. Petunia’s kitchen looks as if it belongs on the telly as a stage backdrop.

Petunia makes a slight motion to indicate a chair. Severus declines without saying a word; he has no wish to touch anything in this house. It feels as if he’s attempting to swim through a slick of burnt oil just to stand inside this residence. It isn’t just the Dursleys, but a sensation of magic gone wrong. If that is part of the blood magic protection that Albus took from Potter and attached to the residence, then Nizar is correct. Once the magic’s ownership changed, it became as foul as the Dursleys.

Potter was never safe here. Intentionally or not, Albus ensured it.

“What do you wish to discuss?” Petunia asks with a sniff, putting a casserole dish on what looks to be an electric warming plate. She doesn’t offer any hospitality beyond the implied notion of sitting, but Severus would have refused that, also. “Be brief. I want you out of my house.”

“The day after Hallowe’en in 1981.” Severus takes a moment’s brief satisfaction in the fact that Petunia flinches. “I promised I would see to the welfare of Lily Evans Potter’s child, and protect him from harm. I trusted in another when he said that this had been done.”

“Dumbledore.” Petunia mutters Albus’s name as if it’s a curse. “We did exactly what he asked of us. Took him in, put a roof over his head, and dealt with his freak magic all the while. Why? Why would you care about that useless brat? My sister told me full well what you think of our kind,” she sneers.

“Albus Dumbledore is not the cause for my visit, and Lily was not entirely correct.” Though I certainly hate you and your troll-sized husband. “Harry James Potter was the child of my best friend. Why would I not be concerned about his welfare?”

“Best friend. Hah!” Petunia reaches over to adjust a setting on the warmer. “She broke it off with you. Cried about it all summer.”

If Petunia is hoping to hurt him, her attempts are pathetic. “Friendship does not work that way, but I doubt you would understand that. You and my mother are very much alike in that regard.”

Petunia glowers at him. “I’m nothing like your hideous freak of a mother!”

“But for the lack of magic, the resemblance is uncanny,” Severus replies in a bored tone. “However, she has the distinction above you of actually attempting to parent, even if she had no idea how to do so.”

“Get out of my house!”

“No.” Severus stares at her, letting frost wrap his words in a way that once sent lesser Death Eaters scurrying from his path. “Today I discovered just how little you valued that child, and that you did not keep your word to Albus Dumbledore. You did not safeguard Harry James Potter.”

Petunia crosses her arms. “We made him a part of this family, just as we were asked.”

“A part of your family.” Severus raises an eyebrow, letting the frost thicken. “Even I am aware of the fact that safeguarding a child includes caring for the physical, mental, and emotional well-being. You did none of those things. In fact, from what I can see in your eyes, you treated him like the lowliest slave.”

Petunia takes several steps back until she’s trapped against her own kitchen countertop. “You stop it with that freak magic right this instant!”

Severus smiles and doesn’t react when she tries to take another useless step backwards. “I did not do anything. You hold no remorse, Petunia. No regret. There are some days when I truly do dislike the fact that I somehow developed ethics.”

“Ethics,” Petunia repeats in disgust. “You? I’d never believe it!”

“As you have none yourself, I am not surprised you would refuse to believe it possible of others.” Severus lets his expression go blank as he glances upwards. The bedrooms of the home are all upstairs. If there was an incident with bars on the windows, then at some point the Dursleys had to have conceded an extra measure of space to their nephew. “I at least had the decency to apologize to Lily, even if she was not willing to hear it at the time. Can you say the same?”

Petunia continues to glare at him in silence. That is answer enough.

Severus lowers his voice. “You have not even asked if Mister Potter is still alive. You are his aunt, and you have not asked. What sort of person are you, Petunia Dursley?”

Petunia averts her eyes. “He took off with that owl of his. He ran off, that’s all. That is what boys who are nothing but freaks and troublemakers do.”

“That does not change the fact that you did not ask.” Severus takes a step forward, amused when Petunia quails, her hands gripping the countertop in white-knuckled fear. “Show me his room, Petunia. Refuse, and I will make you.”

Petunia looks at him in mute fury before she leads him back to the staircase. Dursley is still standing by the front door, as if guarding it against other potential intruders. Severus grants him a disdainful sneer before mounting the stairs.

“If you’re here trying to get some idea of how to find Harry, I don’t know what you might notice that those blasted Aurors didn’t.” Petunia sniffs. “It’s beyond obvious that he isn’t coming back. We’re about to give the room back to Dudley, just as it was before those terrible letters came. It was Dudder’s room first, but we had to make…concessions.”

“Concessions,” Severus repeats, and then halts in shock at the sight of the bedroom door at the end of the upstairs hallway. An entire line of locks seal the bedroom door from the outside; a small cat flap has been installed near the bottom. The Aurors who’d investigated Potter’s disappearance had voiced disgust with the Dursleys’ behavior, but hadn’t mentioned anything about locks or flaps. It’s possible they simply didn’t recognize what they were seeing—or were foolish enough to forget that Potter’s wand, subject to the Trace, would not be of use for opening that door.

The second letter had mentioned literal imprisonment, but Severus hadn’t expected anything like this. He has no idea why the ridiculous number of locks used on this door is worse than the cupboard downstairs.

Petunia pushes the door open after she slides back the last bolt. “I’m not going in there until the cleaners arrive. It still reeks of that blasted owl.”

Severus pauses before he enters the room, strengthening his Occlumency barriers until they’re equivalent to dealing with Voldemort. “You do realize that if you attempt to lock me inside, I will simply undo the locks. There is no restriction on my wand.”

Petunia’s voice is getting shrill with impatience and anger. “Just get this over with! I need to serve dinner to my family.”

Severus gives her one more brief, warning look before he steps into the bedroom. Flipping on the light switch casts harsh yellow light cut through by shadow; the fixture is missing at least one bulb, if not two.

It is immediately clear that the Dursleys have touched nothing in this room since the Auror’s investigation concluded. Dust gathers on the three sparse pieces of broken furniture. The nightstand looks to have been scavenged from a rubbish pile. The chest of drawers is tilting to the side with one of its drawers missing. The bed is broken and slants at an angle from head to foot; the mattress on it is a castoff that even Severus’s own horrible excuse for a father would have found unacceptable. A threadbare quilt is balled up at the foot of the bed; the pillow is flat and ancient. Not even a bed sheet covers that soiled and spring-broken mattress. There is no carpet, just bare and unfinished floorboards. He sees no books, decorations, toys, knickknacks, or any other sign that a teenager lived in this room at all.

The only sign of occupation is the abandoned quilt, a sealed school trunk, and an empty owl cage sitting atop the chest of drawers. The door is hanging open, the water dish long evaporated of its contents. There are bits of dried owl treats left, but no container for them in sight—as if the child didn’t trust even that to be safe if he left it within reach of Dursley hands.

Observe. Only observe. If he does not restrict himself to the mindset he’d once employed to witness death without flinching, he might actually slip and kill these people.

Severus uses his wand to open a drawer rather than touch anything. Petunia lets out a derisive sound that does nothing to hide her sudden fright. The clothes within the drawer would not have fit that child in any of the four years Severus knew him. He levitates one of the massive shirts into the air, eying it speculatively. Goyle could wear that, or perhaps a few of the other students who insist on being the size of overgrown rugby players. A quick sweep of the drawers with a Sorting Charm does indeed prove the letter correct in another aspect, as none of those clothes are proper for a southern English winter, let alone a northern Scottish one.

He frowns. He knows that child had clothes that fit. He recalls seeing them on more than one occasion, even if said clothes were not of the best quality.

Were you Transfiguring these rags? Severus wonders, and immediately dismisses the thought. The only thing Severus and Minerva had ever publicly agreed upon in regards to Harry Potter during those first four years had been the fact that the child had been just like James Potter in a way that made Minerva wished to tear out her hair—he’d been terrible at Transfiguration. How James Potter ever became an Animagus is beyond their comprehension.

Nizar now excels at Transfiguration, even if he only bears a Mastery in the Metamorphmagus aspect. Severus wonders what particular lesson, or perhaps teacher, gave him the means to overcome James Potter’s lack.

There is a very good jinx on the school trunk’s lock to repel intrusion, excellent work for a student who had yet to begin his fifth year. It takes Severus a full minute to get past it.

Inside the trunk are school robes, scrolls, some textbooks from previous years, drying pots of ink, broken and intact quills, pencils, the missing owl treats, and Muggle clothing that would have fit during the child’s fourth year, all of it hidden away from the Dursleys. That child was purchasing his own clothing, most likely with Galleons converted to pound notes. He did so in a very frugal manner, buying it second-hand; none of it is even remotely new.

Severus clenches his hands on the edges of the trunk, fury temporarily overwhelming his own Occlumency. Damn Petunia Dursley and her holier-than-thou attitude, and damn this family. Thanks to Albus’s insistent meddling, Severus always knew more than he wished to about certain aspects of Potter’s welfare. A stipend was sent to this household once a month to cover the cost of the child’s living expenses, and it is beyond obvious that the Dursleys never spent a pence of it on their nephew.

He can’t decide if he is more enraged that the Dursleys stole from the child under their care, that they stole from the dead—that they stole from Lily—or if he is completely drowning in anger over Albus considering anything about these conditions to be acceptable.

Severus ignores Petunia’s toe-tapping signs of impatience and takes a brief glance at the scrolls, each holding the previous summer’s homework. Potter had completed every assignment already, most of it dated for the first week of July. That is quite a bit of effort for a single week, but he suspects neither of them did much sleeping after the night of twenty-fourth June unless potions were involved.

No. Even he is making the same blunder as the Aurors. The child had no access to potions for sleepless nights, not after leaving Hogwarts.

Isolated is not the correct term. Abandoned is far more suiting.

That is not helping to distract from his anger. Severus opens the last essay, the one he assigned to his departing fourth-years. He has to admit that it’s well done, especially as the child had no access to magical information unless it was already in his school trunk. This is at least an Exceeds if Severus were able to grade it in the manner he is free to do now.

No access to the magical world but by letter. There are no letters in this trunk.

Severus stands up and paces backwards until his shoulders are pressed against the dingy wall. He is familiar with the concept of hiding things. A jinx might keep a Muggle from opening a latch, but it will not save a trunk from the fury of a crowbar.

There. One floorboard near the bed is a mere hairsbreadth taller than its neighbors.

He kneels down and easily pries up the loose board, aware that Petunia is watching in utter disapproval. The available space holds the rest of the child’s textbooks from previous school years—nothing of Lockhart’s—a wooden flute, a torch with a pathetic, dying beam of light, two books on Quidditch, and a penknife that is definitely of magical make. Next to the textbooks are three wrapped Muggle protein bars, the sort one would find if they dared the overbright lights of a convenience store.

Severus has to calm his breathing before he collects letters, books, flute, and knife, dropping them all into the open school trunk. He isn’t leaving anything behind for the rot living in this house to claim, not when he is aware of the fact that the child will never be returning.

Salazar Slytherin, you have the forgiving tolerance of a saint, Severus thinks. The man had one thousand years to forget what his brother’s childhood was like, but still he came into this room, faced the harsh, unforgiving reminder, and did not leave the Dursleys dead and strung up on lampposts as a warning to others.

The trunk is sealed, shrunk down, and pocketed before Severus glances at the owl cage. He decides against it; when that bastard of an owl is in Nizar’s quarters, Nygell does not reside in a cage of any sort. Petunia can have the delight of disposing of the old cage.

Before Petunia can realize his intent, Severus is upon her, his wand touching the exposed skin at the base of her throat. “Every living thing you touch will wither,” he whispers, all but baring his teeth at her in restrained rage. “Everything, including your own son—unless your intentions are pure. Do you understand me?”

Petunia stares down at his wand, wide-eyed with terror. “D-define…define pure.”

It’s a very wise question to ask, a reminder that except for her hatred, Petunia had once possessed a modicum of intelligence. “You can harm a child with overindulgence just as you can harm them with utter negligence.” If Dudley Dursley once had two large bedrooms while his cousin had a cupboard, it’s an easy supposition to make. “Think carefully on your intentions, Petunia. This curse will last for the rest of your miserable fucking life.”

Petunia swallows. “You—you aren’t killing me? It would be just like you, freak.”

“If you are still attempting to anger me by using that word, it was a very pathetic attempt.” Severus takes a step back. “Withering Curse, Petunia Dursley. If your child falls ill after you embrace him, the fault is your own.”

Severus brushes past her when Petunia remains frozen in the doorway. He ignores the closed bedroom door and the sound of a blaring telly behind it. Dudley Dursley is probably as unpleasant as his parents, but he is still only a child. Children are more likely to choose to grow and change.

Adults, however…

Severus descends the stairs in his usual brisk manner. “Hello again,” he greets Dursley, and then jabs the man in his significant gut with his wand before Dursley realizes he’s trapped himself in the corner between door and wall.

Dursley freezes, beads of sweat already standing out on his face. “What do you want?”

“Petunia and I have already spoken,” Severus says, “though the tour was far more enlightening. I thought I would depart, but not without first making my opinion known.”

“N-now, see here,” Dursley starts to bluster, sounding remarkably like Cornelius Fudge.

Silencio,” Severus mutters, not in the mood. Dursley’s mouth opens and closes a few times like a comical goldfish. Then he glares at Severus in mute, red-faced rage.

“I’ve been considering what would be appropriate even before I stepped foot into this foul house,” Severus continues. “The Curse of Incorruptibility is fitting, a bane for men like you.”

He gives Dursley a sharper prod. “Any work you perform, any project you build, any liaisons you attempt to make—all of them will fail unless you are utterly honest in your dealings. If you steal, if you cheat, if you are false, you will not prosper. I know it must be habit already, given that you stole the whole of your nephew’s living stipend and used it for your own purposes.”

Severus smiles at Dursley, who is also doing a very good job of mimicking Fudge when he looks to be on the verge of apoplectic heart failure. “You have a wife and child to support, Vernon Dursley. You should be cautious in every business or social venture you undertake from this day forward.” He lifts the Silencing Charm.

The blustering returns at once. “Now look, you! You can’t just go and do that!” Dursley shouts. “I know from that freak’s time here that performing magic in front of normal people isn’t permitted by your Ministry!”

Severus almost laughs in his face. “You were the caretakers of a magical child, Dursley. Underage magic performed by wand is not permitted outside of school. I am no student, and you’ve just been given a curse that will never end. No one will come from ‘my’ Ministry and remove it, as it is a curse that encourages improved behavior rather than the sorts of magical maladies or inappropriate actions the Ministry concerns itself with.”

“You can’t,” Dursley insists, as if those words mean anything at all.

“But I already have.” Severus steps away, wanting to avoid the reek of terrified sweat Dursley is starting to exude. “I’ve found that the best revenge is the sort that infuriates the recipient in a way that allows them to live with the results until the day they’re placed in a grave. Death is far kinder.”

Petunia makes it to the top of the stairs, wailing. “I did the best I could for him!”

Severus gives her a baleful look. “You did nothing,” he responds, frost returning to his voice. “Your parents were good people, Petunia Dursley, as was your sister. If they’ve ever observed you from the afterlife, I know with absolute certainty that Malcolm and Jane Evans would be completely ashamed of how you treated their only other grandchild.”

Severus turns his attention back to Dursley. “I wish to leave. Get the hell out of my way, or I will make good on my threat to remove your door.”

Dursley retreats backwards up the stairs so quickly he trips and lands on them. Severus gives the man one final, dismissive glance before he opens the door and escapes this foul house.

He doesn’t stop walking until he’s well away from Number Four, standing in the walkway at the junction of the next street. He feels like he’s on the verge of hyperventilating, but forces his lungs to patience, breathing until his chest no longer feels constricted. Then he belatedly remembers to return his wand to his sleeve, but no one seems to have noticed its existence.

He witnessed utter horror during the last Wizarding War. He instigated some of that horror himself. He can cope with the reality of Number Four Privet Drive, even if he is still struggling with his desire to wipe that house off the fucking map.

“I thought I might find you here.” Severus glances to his right to find Salazar standing on the walkway, close to the next house’s mailbox. “Feel better?” Salazar asks.

“No.” Severus swallows hard. “But neither do they. I would really like a drink.” He should not. He still fears a habit set one generation before him, but in this instance, drinking is something to do that is not performing murder.

Salazar walks over and slings his arm casually around Severus’s waist. He doesn’t flinch, though it’s a near thing. Severus has no idea when Salazar became one of the only people whom Severus not only trusts, but will allow the familiarity of touch without hexing them blind. Aside from Nizar, only Minerva and Poppy hold that honor, and that is by a dubious, scraping margin.

“Come on, then.” Salazar guides them both down the walk, away from Privet Drive. “There is a decent pub a few blocks from this cloned suburban hellhole. I would imagine you’ve not eaten since this morning.”

“Fuck.” He hasn’t; those letters arrived when the lunch hour was just beginning. Afterwards he was quite distracted from the idea of anything as mundane as a meal.

Salazar nods. “The pub it is, then. Don’t concern yourself with eavesdroppers; I’m employing that delightful privacy charm of yours.”

They’ve reached the next block when Severus thinks he has found words again. “How did you stand going into that foul fucking house last summer?”

“How did you stand it?” Salazar counters.

“Occlumency,” Severus replies, trying not to grind his teeth. “I haven’t had to employ it to such strength outside of dealing with Voldemort.”

“Mind Magic is exactly how I managed it, too, and still it nearly broke me,” Salazar admits. “The feel of that home and the condition of that bedroom were terrible enough. Be glad you did not see the weight he’d lost since Little Hangleton. My brother was justifiably concerned that I might be there to murder him, but I was a bit preoccupied with the idea of murdering the Dursleys.” His smile is not pleasant. “Alas, someone else has first claim on making that decision.”

That is probably for the best. Severus still stands by his words; death would be kinder than what he just granted to those two idiots. “Did you read those letters? The second one in particular.” It’s what Severus would have done if granted the same opportunity.

Salazar’s smile drops away. “I did, and fortunately it was not until I was away from the castle. Nizar and I both have a temper, Severus, but when mine is finally riled, I tend not to stop until it’s too late and there are bodies underfoot.”

“I almost feel as if I do not need to ask what you think of what was said.”

“It must be discussed, but later, and in specific company,” Salazar replies.

The walk to the pub gives Severus the time needed to sort through his own thoughts, putting things away to deal with at another time. By the time they’re seated in a booth in a dark corner, he feels some semblance of calm again. Being a master of Mind Magic has always been one of his strengths, and one of his greatest weapons.

The waitress who approaches their table is a natural blonde with stark black stripes dyed into her hair; she seems inordinately fond of eyeliner. “You’ve not been here in a while, love.”

“I’ve a job that takes me out of the country now, darling. Two pints of a good stout, if you please,” Salazar requests, glances at Severus, and adds, “Two baskets of fish and chips as well. I’m trying to keep it simple.”

“I’ll be sure and have the cook toss in a few extra chips in each basket, Saul.” She gives Salazar a wink and walks away.

The Muffliato is restored when they’re not dealing directly with their server. Death Eaters understand the nature of Polyjuice, even if most of them would disdain to enter a Muggle pub. “You seem to have been here often.”

“I was all but camped out here for a time.” Salazar’s smile appears wistful. “I was waiting for Nizar to come along and step on a lovely Caterwauling Charm I left on the walk at Number Four Privet Drive. I didn’t know when he would appear, but I knew it would be after Hallowe’en. I stayed local, made a few friends, had more than a few pints…and tried to ignore the fact that I hadn’t seen my brother in nearly one thousand years. I didn’t know what would happen when that time finally came.”

Severus waits until the waitress drops off two pints of a very black beer. The taste is a blend of bitters, caramels, and fresh bread. Not his usual preference, but not entirely unpleasant. “I’m not certain how you could stand that, either.”

“Because I had to,” is Salazar’s simple, stark answer. “When you have no choice, you keep going. Keep walking. Keep breathing.” He tilts his head at Severus. “Had that charming family changed anything?”

Severus shakes his head. “Petunia confessed they were on the verge of reclaiming the bedroom, saying it belonged to their son.”

“What child needs two bedrooms in this age?” The smile that appears on Salazar’s face is too grimly pleased to be labeled a smirk. “What did you hit them with? I know there was magic involved, but not what.”

Severus lets out a long breath when the alcohol hits his body like a sack of bricks. “The Curse of Incorruptibility for Dursley. A Withering Curse for Petunia.”

“Oh, I like the sound of that.” Salazar’s grim smile has been joined by bright, gleeful anger in his eyes. “Lifelong?”

“Yes. Improve, or cause others to suffer and know that it’s your own fault. I could think of no better punishment for two people who’ve prided themselves on perfecting vile behavior.” Severus manages a terse smile of his own. “I wonder if Petunia will still be fool enough to give her son that unnecessary second bedroom.”

Salazar lifts his glass. “Clever man. I’ll drink to that.”

Severus knocks the heavy pint glass into Salazar’s, listening to the chime of good glassware. “I took his things. I don’t know if Nizar will ever want them, but leaving them would have meant their destruction.”

“That’s probably for the best. Better to let Nizar have the choice than to let idiots make it for him.”

Severus wonders if Nizar read today’s letters before delivering them. “For now, I doubt there will be interest. Later, perhaps. I’m far more likely to find Nizar with his nose shoved into a book written in Cumbric than I am to find him digging through an unfamiliar school trunk.”

Salazar chuckles just before their food arrives. “That would surprise me not at all. Nizar developed that habit with books at a young age and refused to ever discard it.” He takes a moment to flirt with the waitress again, expressing regret over the fact that he is now formally involved with another and thus unavailable. The waitress grins, unoffended; she tells Salazar to behave himself and treat the other lady like gold.

“My word on it,” Salazar promises, and then picks up their conversation as if it hadn’t been interrupted. “Eat a damned chip, Severus. You’ll fall on your face if you don’t feed that stout.”

Severus obliges him, amused. No one has needed to remind Severus to eat since he formally left Voldemort’s employ.

“What’s really on your mind? Aside from a quenched need for revenge,” Salazar finally asks.

Severus reaches for more food and finds an empty basket, a firm reminder that he missed lunch. A late tea after returning to Hogwarts might be a good idea. “I’ve still been adjusting further to what was, and what is. You believe Nizar may one day need to do the same if there is ever a restored whole of his memories. I’m trying to prepare myself for that, as well.”

Salazar gazes at him, the dominant green in his hazel eyes picking up a faint shine in the dim lighting. “It won’t change who he is.”

“No. That is something I do understand. But it might distress him,” Severus emphasizes, “like it did the first time.”

Salazar leans back in the booth with a second pint. “It might, yes. That’s a proper mindset to have on the situation.” He sighs. “If it wasn’t for what Gaunt did, I’d tell my brother to go sit on a surviving magical node to fuel the Preservation Charms into doing their jobs proper.”

“Nizar’s response to strong concentrations of magic tells me that is probably not the wisest solution,” Severus replies.

Salazar smiles. “He always did have to be a special pain in my backside.”

Chapter Text

Severus returns to Hogwarts in Salazar’s company, though Salazar quickly veers off in the direction of Minerva’s quarters. Severus finds it entertaining to contemplate the number of students who would still be appalled by their relationship—enemy sleeping with enemy. Minerva has no plans to inform anyone, though, and neither does Salazar. They’re enjoying the gossip too much.

Nizar told him that Miss Granger finally gave in and asked, in private, how a relationship between two people who used to hate each other was possible. Granger handled the explanation astonishingly well, but Severus is still of the opinion that Minerva has the right idea about letting others suffer their curiosity.

The classroom door has been behaving itself of late, at least where Severus is concerned, and appears as he approaches. He knocks when he finds the office door is already set with the S in the correct position.

A basilisk Patronus answers him instead of an opening door. The Patronus tilts its head to look at Severus, an identifying measure he didn’t realize Patroni were capable of. He has always sent a Patronus directly to a recipient, not used one as a butler. “Come in,” it invites in Nizar’s voice, and then vanishes.

The sitting room is empty of everyone except Kanza, who is once again stretched out in front of the fireplace, moping over the weather. He sympathizes; he left behind warmer weather in the south and returned to the north’s insistence on being bloody freezing.

He hangs his jacket, leaves his boots by the door, and walks down the hall, noting that every door is closed but for the added second bathroom. He goes into the storage room long enough to retrieve the shrunken school trunk from his pocket. For lack of any other idea, he leaves it resting on top of the storage trunk. Nizar can choose to store it as is, unshrink it, or set it on fire, to his preference.

When he leaves the room, Severus catches the sparkle of emerald out of the corner of his right eye. He walks back to that row of new doors, facing the very dark wood of his own door. They haven’t discussed its presence in Nizar’s quarters since Nizar placed it there, but there is a new addition that Severus cannot recall seeing before now.

It’s very small, hiding in plain sight, and Severus has to peer close to make out any detail. The metal is burnished dark, the same color as the door. The design is still shaped like an S, but is of two intertwined basilisks in profile, one whose head faces up, the other whose head faces down. The green that caught his attention are two emeralds, not much larger than dust motes, serving as the basilisks’ eyes. It’s far more subtle than the metal on Nizar’s office door; no matter which way this one is turned, it will always look exactly the same.

“I can still get rid of it.”

Severus turns and glares at Nizar, who is standing there in only his shirt and trousers. He doesn’t even wear socks against the chill of the castle’s stone. “I’ve only just looked at the fucking thing. Are you in a rush to be rid of the potential for intrusion?”

Nizar tilts his head. “No, but I am well aware of how you feel about your privacy. That’s why the offer stands.”

Severus rolls his eyes. “How does this work, Nizar?”

“Only your hand or mine on that emblem will cause the magic within it to function,” Nizar says, which means Severus’s primary concern has already been addressed. “Even on this side, you’ll need to flip the basilisks for the door to activate. There is a match for it on the other side of the door, and it works in the same fashion.”

Severus nods. “Can others see this? Is it visible in the dungeon corridor?”

“They would definitely have to be looking for it. You’ve walked past it without notice for ten days now.”

He drops his hand from the basilisk design and scowls at Nizar. “I have not.”

“Oh, so you weren’t just ignoring it, then? I wasn’t certain.” Nizar grins. “Yes, it really has been there since the tenth.”

“God dammit!” Severus lets his head thump down on the door with a muted thunk. “I’d really prefer that I not be that fucking unobservant.”

Nizar sighs and walks over to him. “Severus, the past few weeks have been unbelievably hectic. When have we even had time to breathe, let alone observe changes to safe surroundings? If I thought you’d miss a danger on a foreign road, I’d be concerned, but you do tend to trust that nothing in my quarters will bite you. Well.” Nizar leers at him, bright-eyed. “Maybe not for instances of approved biting.”

Severus lifts his head from the door. “Yes, that is an approved exception. You cannot possibly have read those letters you sent me today.”

Nizar raises an eyebrow. “Of course not. They’re not addressed to me; they’re addressed to you. Why? Wait—where have you been today, and do I need to come up with an excellent alibi for your whereabouts?”

“I do like that you would be willing to provide such without question,” Severus drawls. “I went to Little Whinging, but no, an alibi isn’t necessary. Salazar would be willing to provide one.”

“Little Whinging,” Nizar repeats. “Why would you want to go there? Why would Salazar want to go back there? It’s like vileness personified by perfection!”

“Damn, I knew I forgot something! I was going to steal those fucking house numbers!”

Nizar bursts out laughing. “You know, I had that very same thought, but Salazar distracted me.”

“It’s dark. No one will notice if such a theft occurs.” Severus isn’t certain if he is actually serious about this. It sounds…fun. It also might be too much temptation, given the way he spent his afternoon.

“That depends entirely on you telling me why you decided to skip lunch and dinner to spend your entire afternoon and evening in that overly measured village.”

That’s fair enough. “I needed to speak to Petunia and Vernon Dursley.”

Nizar’s expression goes oddly flat and wary. “I see. Would this be the sort of discussion that involves, oh, a Withering Curse?”

“Did Salazar send a Patronus ahead to warn you while my back was turned?” Severus asks.

“No. Come here. There is something you need to see.” Nizar leads Severus back to his bedroom, where a pile of perfectly preserved but very old books are on the bed, along with a stack of paper and several of the Weasley twins’ Self-inking Quills.

“You own a desk, Nizar.”

“Yes, but sometimes it helps to think about a problem in varying locations instead of remaining rooted to one place.” Nizar retrieves a worn-looking book from a second stack. All of his journals are marked by the dates on the spine; this one has no writing whatsoever. Its only distinguishing characteristic is a strip of parchment marking a place near the beginning. “Take a look.”

After three vastly different letters, Severus isn’t certain he wants to know, but accepts the book. He flips it open to that marked place, noting the date. “Nineteenth February, 991. That’s earlier than the memory you showed us in the Pensieve.”

“That isn’t one of my standard journals—in fact, there is exactly one of these. It’s not of much use after 993, nor the journals either, as I started writing everything down in Cumbric.”

“Cumbric.” Severus tries very hard not to laugh at the vexed look on Nizar’s face.

Nizar shrugs. “I think it’s funny, too, if currently frustrating. However, this entry is early enough that it’s still written in modern English. The journal was Salazar’s attempt to prove that I had a minor talent for Divination. It was my attempt to prove him wrong. I didn’t succeed.”

“Writing down those flashes of insight?” Severus asks.

Nizar gazes at the journal, that odd expression appearing on his face again. “It’s not always flashes of insight. Sometimes it’s inspiration. On some occasions, it’s been images in my head. Sometimes it is also by dreaming, though that is very rare.”

Severus feels his grip tighten on the journal. “I see.”

Tonight is perhaps the fourth time I can recall that I’ve dreamt of you, of all people.

Someone should be happy after everything that’s gone wrong, then and now. There is no reason why it can’t be you.

“Severus?” Nizar is watching him carefully. “Please do not rip that book in half. I can repair it, but I’d rather not have it be a concern in the first place.”

Severus breathes out and gentles his grip. “My apologies,” he says, and reads the brief entry.

 

19th February Februarius (stupid Latin) 991

I’m writing this down because someone who I shall not name makes Such Faces if I don’t record potential Divination dreams. I still say this one is not Divination, but the person making the Faces doesn’t agree because logic.

I should really not be writing anything down I’m still this fucking tired. Fuck Horcruxes, anyway.

 

He lowers the book to stare at Nizar. “Then this was just after—”

“The soul jar’s removal?” Nizar nods. “An entry in another journal mentions it happened on the fourteenth. Everything is a bit scattered, though. I’ve written clearer passages when drunk.”

“God,” Severus mutters, and keeps reading.

 

So: one dream from someone who has no business doing magic anything right now. I dreamed of Snape, of all people, visiting Number Four Privet Drive in Little Whinging. Why he would want to go there is beyond me. Why he would care is beyond my comprehension, even if I could think in a straight line right now.

Well, no, I do think he cares, but there is not wanting someone dead and actively doing something about it. This seemed rather, uh, proactive.

I hope I spelled that correctly. Right now that looks like a nonsense word.

Salazar thinks that if I’m right about the spy thing, then the spy is the most useful person to search for someone who suddenly went missing. (And didn’t even leave a note. I’m sure that went over very well with everyone. If they noticed.) That’s the logic part, but I’m still not convinced.

The idea of Aunt Petunia dealing with a Withering Curse, though—I’m probably a terrible person, but I really liked that. It’s too bad I didn’t get to see anything interesting happen to Uncle Vernon. Then again, Salazar is far too in love with the idea of the Withering Curse. Probably best not to give him any other Snape-levels of creativity. Salazar can learn to be terrifying all by himself.

He probably already knows how to be terrifying. He scared off the Moors when he was twelve years old because he turned a hill into a valley by accident, and Estefania repeated that story no less than three times over the holiday just so Salazar would either blush or flee the room.

I like my almost-sister.

I still say this is complete rubbish and my brain is taking a bender because of a Horcrux’s death, but there. One dream recorded that will probably prove to be of no use whatsoever, since I think I’m stuck here.

 

“You dreamed that.” Severus closes the journal, not certain he’s willing to read further.

“Apparently. I don’t actually recall doing so.” Nizar takes the journal back, holding it in his hands. “Granted, given how that reads, I’m not certain I would remember it even if I did suddenly recall everything. Again: clearer passages when drunk.”

“Ignoring the second letter for now, which would be the reason why I felt a dire need to visit Little Whinging…” Severus has to swallow against a dry throat. He isn’t sure why the idea of speaking these words makes him nervous. “The third letter you wrote to me also mentioned that you’d dreamed of me, for what you suspected was the fourth time. Unlike this entry, you admitted to being utterly pissed. You also said that you’d dreamed of me being…happy.”

Nizar looks baffled. “I’m glad you were happy, but why would I write you a letter while utterly pissed?”

“The date was twenty-third April of 1015.”

Nizar flinches. “Ah. Yes. That would do it. Was it anything more specific than that?”

Severus shakes his head. “I’m not certain you were capable of specifics, even if you were capable of legible writing.”

“Right.” Nizar flips the book back open and starts skimming through pages. “Dates do not change in Cumbric if you’re using Arabic numerals,” he mutters, and finally comes to a halt about two-thirds of the way through the journal. “There. Twenty-third April. Oh, Cumbric, why did you decide to be such an utter bastard to me?”

“Nizar—”

“Shhh. I might be able to read…most of this, at least.” Nizar frowns and drops down to sit on the edge of his bed. Severus realizes after a few minutes that there is no point to standing in place like an idiot. He sits next to Nizar and watches him trace lines of unfamiliar text with his finger.

“Sometimes I think I have it back, but then I’ll stumble over a passage that proves me wrong. Tell me about Little Whinging, Severus.”

Severus glances at Nizar in surprise, though Nizar is still staring at the text. “Why?”

“As you’ve just read, I only know a fraction of it,” Nizar answers. “Besides, sometimes I think better if I’m trying to focus on more than one thing at a time.”

“All right.” Severus considers how to best summarize the visit without reawakening the vast rage he’s set aside. “You said the magic felt foul from across the street. It is far, far worse on the inside of that house. Your theory about the protective magic’s altered state was correct. Given what you’ve said, I think it might have protected the child from external threats while he was considered a member of the Dursley family, even if he was an unwanted family member. It would not have been useful for much else.”

“And Dumbledore did so.” Nizar isn’t asking a question, merely stating the truth of what they both heard Albus admit to doing.

“The child’s aunt and uncle were without remorse or regret for the way they had treated their nephew, and do not care that he is still considered to be missing.” Severus feels a growl try to build in his throat. “Petunia is convinced that her nephew ran off and refuses to concern herself any further.”

“Well, he most certainly did leave,” Nizar says.

“That isn’t the point. After seeing the conditions that child lived in, Petunia Dursley earned a lifelong curse that means anything she touches will wither unless her intentions are pure.” Severus is aware that his smile is not kind. “She was at least intelligent enough to ask me to define pure.”

“That sounds like a minor miracle.”

Severus hesitates, trying not to feel like he pried into someone else’s life uninvited. “I rescued the child’s things from that house. Another month and the Dursleys would have destroyed it all. I don’t know if you want any of it, but the trunk is in your storage room if you ever decide to investigate its contents.”

“I expect it will all be meaningless, but I do appreciate the gesture.” Nizar’s finger goes back up to the top of the page, retracing the words. “Anything else?”

“Vernon Dursley now has the absolute joy of bearing the Curse of Incorruptibility.”

Nizar lifts his head. “Cannot lie, cheat, or steal, or everything he attempts will fail?”

“That would be it, yes.” If Dursley is as much of an imbecile as Severus suspects him to be, Dursley may well bankrupt the family in short order. At least their child, one month older than Potter, will be seventeen in June of next year and thus capable of escaping a failing household.

“That’s a nice one. You’re punishing them with good behavior.” Nizar’s brow furrows before he turns to look at Severus. “Wait. You’re punishing them with enforced good behavior. You. What the fuck were these people doing, Severus?”

“You mentioned the whole of it in your second letter addressed to me,” Severus replies. “You wrote it down for a different purpose, but even summarized, it was…not pleasant.”

“Then the incident with the bars over the window needing to be removed by flying car was…what, a standard?” Nizar asks.

“No. That may actually qualify as one of the lesser incidents.”

Nizar nods and then places his finger back down on the dated passage. “Sometimes I wonder if I deserve everything that has ever happened to me,” he reads. “In my youth I left behind a responsibility, even if it was an unwanted one. Then I dream of a man who always seemed angry, always on the verge of rage and hate, and he’s smiling. If Severus Snape can find reason to be happy when anger follows him so closely, then I have no excuses for misery save for those which are pathetic.”

Severus takes the book from Nizar and closes it. “I am really not meant to be a gauge for another’s misery, especially when the circumstances are so very different.”

“I know.” Nizar leans against Severus to rest his head on Severus’s shoulder. “If I said I was pissed in the letter I wrote to you, then I was utterly sodden when I wrote in that journal. There is Old English, Catalan, Norse, and Latin intermixed with the Cumbric.”

Severus would very much like to avoid dwelling on a journal entry almost one thousand years old that mentions him by name. “Why not just apply the updating translation spell to everything you wrote in Cumbric? Unless the same magical restrictions against tampering with the library books are also attached to what you own?”

“No, there are no restrictions. That isn’t the difficulty.” Nizar sounds annoyed. “The problem lies in the name of the spell, Severus: Updating Translation Spell. It was designed to do its work over time as means of communicating changed. The spell supplies copies of existing texts in the dominant languages of the land where the books are housed. I could apply that spell to the Cumbric texts, yes, but no one is currently speaking Cumbric. There is nothing for the magic to latch onto in order to update the text. If I want these copied into English, I need to remaster Cumbric and bloody well do it myself.”

“I find it vastly amusing that you have all of your knowledge of Pictish back, and yet Cumbric, the dominant language you wrote in, continues to elude you,” Severus says.

Nizar sits up and rolls his eyes. “I learned that language once before, and I will learn it again. What else is in the other letter that has you so upset?”

“I’m not upset about this part, merely intrigued, as it’s in both the letter and that first journal entry,” Severus says. “By age sixteen, you had already discerned that I was still a spy for the Order. Unfortunately, you did not inform me of what leaps of logic you made to come to that conclusion.”

“I mention horrific things about the Dursleys in the same letter in which I discuss you being a spy.” Severus is treated to a narrow-eyed look of suspicion. “Where is this letter now?”

“With Salazar.” Severus glances down at the nail marks biting in to his left palm. “I’m really not certain if you should read it, Nizar. If I found it upsetting, then you might…I have concerns about the flashbacks that have been plaguing you.”

Nizar frowns. “Better that I have them in your presence than alone, yes?”

“You and your damned logic.” Severus gets out his wand and casts his Patronus. “To be delivered in Parseltongue: Salazar, I need those three letters returned, please.” His Patronus makes its favored flying spin in the air before vanishing. “I’m growing fond of the change, but some days I still miss my old Patronus.”

“Why was it a doe? You don’t really strike me as the deer type.”

Severus glares at him. “Yours used to be a stag. You have no right to cast aspersions on deer Patroni.”

Nizar looks confused. “Why a stag?”

That question makes Severus hesitate. “Because it was also your father’s Patronus.”

“Oh.” Nizar pinches the bridge of his nose before dropping his hand to his lap. “Hers was a doe, wasn’t it?”

Severus tries not to clench his jaw, but his shoulders still tense. “Yes.”

Nizar is silent for a moment. “My Patronus was not always a basilisk. It has changed twice, now that I know of that stag. What I thought of as my first Patronus is a creature we could never identify: a feathered serpent.”

“But not a iaculus,” Severus says, disturbed.

“No, not at all, though it was most certainly a draconic speaker of Parseltongue. It had no wings, but it did have feathers from snout to tail. It was very large as well, about half the size of my basilisk Patronus.” Nizar stares directly at the wall, his eyes focused on the silent ticking hands of the clock. “It changed to a basilisk after Elfric died.”

At least their Patroni ceased trying to mirror each other. “Because basilisks are protectors.”

Nizar nods. “All of my children were either dead or married, capable adults. I had no apprentice at the time. I didn’t even have Kanza yet. That was later in the spring. I devoted myself to my role, because that is what focus I had left.”

Severus is relieved when Rubinny Apparates into the room, the three letters clenched in her hand. She is also blushing like the brightest green flame of ignis fatuus. “Rubinny is sorry it be taking so long,” she says. “The Professor Salazar and the Professor McGonagall were—”

“Please don’t tell me,” Severus requests, holding out his hand. “Please never give me those details. Ever.”

Rubinny is quick to nod, causing the tiny silver chain around her neck to jingle. “Yes, Professor Snape!” She places the letters into his hand before Disapparating.

Severus hands the thickest envelope to Nizar, who accepts it warily. “What am I about to read, Severus?”

“The list of reasons why you do not trust Albus Dumbledore.”

Nizar gives the letter a baffled look. “Then I’m not reading it tonight. I might be tempted into killing a Headmaster, and then Minerva would flay the skin from my bones for forcing her into the Head’s role when she doesn’t want it. I’ll also need to speak to one of my portraits after I read it. I have no idea what I would have felt when writing something like that, and I suspect that might be just as important.”

Nizar tucks the envelope into the journal to hold it in place and then rests his hand on the cover. “It bothers me that I don’t know the person who wrote these letters and journals, Severus. The only thing that makes it clear that he is me and I was him are the events involved. A few days after that dream of your visit to Little Whinging, Galiena’s family was attacked by a Tempero-cursed werewolf. I did a much better job at recording the events of that day than I did of one random dream I didn’t believe was worth writing down.”

Severus would like to say that it doesn’t bother him, but it does. Not Nizar himself, but the nature of the arrangement, the vast amount of time involved—even if it was time used to return someone to the place he came from.

Instead of an attempt at consolation that would fail miserably, Severus gently turns Nizar’s head, feeling the rasp of stubble on his fingertips. Some of the tension bleeds out of Nizar when Severus kisses him, but Severus is surprised at how much better he feels, as well. Perhaps Little Whinging is still grating on his thoughts more than he would like.

“May I stay here tonight?” Severus asks, stroking Nizar’s temple, cheek, and jawline.

Nizar blinks a few times as he collects himself. “Of course. Any time you like. I’m not ready to sleep yet, but…”

“That’s fine.” Severus strips off his clothes for the day, discarding them on the floor. He would prefer a bath to wash off the lingering feel of being in a foul oil slick, but exhaustion strikes all at once. He slips beneath the quilt and then curls up around Nizar, who absently caresses Severus’s hair until Severus falls asleep.

 

*         *         *         *

 

“Ah, Salazar,” Dumbledore greets him cheerfully, despite the nature of their meeting place. “Quite the interesting choice.”

Salazar glances around poor dead Myrtle’s favored bathroom. Some things he has forgotten; others he has not. He still recalls the very first time he saw this room while scrying in a silver bowl. “Given the reason I asked you to meet me this evening, I thought it quite appropriate.”

“I see.” Dumbledore’s irritating twinkle fades a little, allowing a bit of solemnity to show through that mask. “I suppose it has something to do with the Chamber of Secrets?”

“It does. Would you accompany me?” Salazar asks. “I realize it’s a bit late of a Tuesday evening for underground exploration…”

“Not at all. A man of my age does not find sleep easily.” Dumbledore peers at him after Salazar opens the passageway with a hissed request. “I do not think it finds you easily, either.”

“Some nights it’s easier than others.” Salazar puts his hand out when he realizes that there is a drop-off beyond the edge of the floor. “Wait. If this is the only way in or out…”

Dumbledore smiles like a commercialized St. Nicholas when Salazar’s hand on the stone and another bit of Parseltongue causes stairs to sprout from the walls, descending in a circular stairwell down to the bottom. “That does explain how Miss Weasley was able to return while possessed by Tom Riddle’s diary.”

“It does.” Salazar decides to admit to one truth, given he is on the verge of uttering a multitude of falsehoods in order to see a question properly answered. “This isn’t the original entrance.”

“I did think it quite odd that it would be so high above ground,” Dumbledore says as he edges his way down the stairs.

“I still find it odd.” Salazar sends a brief hint of magic ahead of them to light the stairs and the passage beyond. “The original entrance was in the first underground level. At some point after my leaving, the tunnel was utterly destroyed, caved in. This must have then been constructed to take its place.”

“Fascinating.” Dumbledore looks around with interest as they leave the stairs behind and enter the passage. “Then you must know of this particular location from Harry speaking of it.”

Salazar doesn’t need to fake his smile. “I did. I wished to come here to…to see to Jalaf. It isn’t right that the bones of an ally to this school should moulder in this cavern. However, there is a problem.”

Dumbledore doesn’t seem perturbed by the idea of a man wanting to give funerary respect to a basilisk. He chooses odd times to be properly observant of others’ feelings, and even worse times to forget such courtesy. “Oh?”

“Most of the things that respond to a Parselmouth in this school were designed by myself or Nizar, and have very simple commands. Open and close are the two most common instructions. With so few Parselmouths, why complicate things?” Salazar waves his hand at the doors ahead, locked and barred against further progress. “By contrast, these doors are not so simple.”

Dumbledore studies the emerald serpents, which are twined together to bar the doors. “I assume you’ve tried.”

“Oh, yes. I’d not have asked for your company if I were successful.” Salazar doesn’t volunteer to try again in Dumbledore’s company, and Dumbledore doesn’t ask it of him.

Salazar hasn’t actually asked those doors to open yet. He hasn’t been able to stand the thought of entering that room alone, and would prefer to wait until Nizar is able to accompany him. The idea of Jalaf’s sacrifice still pains him too much, especially once he could recall its necessary.

Only the Heir of Slytherin can open the Chamber of Secrets, my arse,” Salazar continues, forcing a bit of irritated cheer into his voice. “I built the Chamber beyond, but in my day, not only was the entrance in another location, there were no doors. There did not need to be. This was not a prison.”

“If it does not open with that simple request, how did Harry enter?” Dumbledore asks, but then he frowns. “I see. You believe Tom Riddle’s diary shade wished for Harry to enter the Chamber.”

“Young Mister Potter did relate that the young shade liked to drone on almost as much as the corpse-like version wandering about now,” Salazar confirms. “It wanted the challenge. It was too much like Voldemort not to see another Parselmouth as a threat.”

Dumbledore nods. “Then why am I here, if a Parselmouth cannot open these doors?”

“We’ll come to that. I also wished to speak with you in utmost privacy, and this is one of the most private places in the British Isles without chartering a boat and dropping anchor in the middle of the Atlantic.” Salazar turns around so that he can lean against the rough-hewn wall next to the doors. “You already know I retrieved Harry Potter the previous July. I wish to tell you what I found, and then I am going to ask you a question.”

Dumbledore’s eyes narrow. “I see. Go on, please.”

“At midnight on thirty-first July, 1995, I discovered a boy who was locked in a bedroom every evening after the dinner hour, whether or not that boy had been fed. The furniture was cast off and broken before it had ever been passed into his possession. He had no access to a washroom, so visiting the privy between the hours of eight at night and seven in the morning meant pissing in a bucket. He was literally being starved—and I am not exaggerating that in the slightest. He was suffering from the aftereffects of untreated damage from the Cruciatus Curse, which leaves numerous fractures in the victim’s bones, and that is aside from the lingering effects of the curse itself. He had severe post-traumatic stress that was being completely ignored by both the family he lived with and the magical world that was supposed to be looking out for his well-being.”

Salazar meets Dumbledore’s gaze, trying to keep the anger in his eyes to a dull simmer rather than flaming rage. “Knowing that you left a young man to suffer and starve, can you explain your lack of action to me?”

“People can change,” Dumbledore says at once, though he looks troubled. “It was my hope that Petunia Dursley would overcome her childhood selfishness and look after her nephew in a caring manner. I knew she was not performing her duties as she should, but before Harry vanished, I was not aware that their neglect was so severe. Harry never spoke of it aside from voicing his desire not to return to Number Four Privet Drive.”

“And a boy’s desperate desire not to return home was not warning enough?” Salazar shakes his head. “Nothing I’ve heard excuses your neglect in this matter.”

“No, and it should not.” Dumbledore lets out a heavy sigh. For the life of him, Salazar can’t tell if it’s artifice, or genuine regret. “You are correct. I should have been more proactive in regards to Harry’s welfare. Though you did not inform us of your actions at the time of his retrieval from Little Whinging, I truly am grateful that you’ve protected Harry, even if is in an unorthodox manner.”

“And that’s why you’re not a smear on the wall,” Salazar replies. “You regret. You attempt to learn from previous mistakes.”

No matter if true or false, he will treat Dumbledore’s words as truth for now. If Salazar does otherwise, he will not accomplish the true purpose of this evening’s subterfuge.

“Some days I’m not so certain if it is ever really possible to learn, or if we keep making variations of the same mistakes over and over again,” Dumbledore murmurs.

Salazar nods. “Sometimes we do, but in this instance, I think it otherwise. I asked you down here because of the wand you carry, Albus Dumbledore. I want to know if the power you wield in secret can gain us entry to this Chamber.”

“I’m not certain what you mean,” Dumbledore begins to say, which includes a return of that infernal twinkling. It’s the most maddening method of guarding one’s thoughts that Salazar has ever encountered.

Salazar ignores Dumbledore’s protest. “It’s odd, the things you can see more than once over the years. Ignotus Peverell’s line is unbroken to this very day, and the Cloak he passed on to his descendants I saw once again with my own eyes on Harry Potter’s fifteenth birthday.”

He looks at the barred doors instead of keeping his eyes on Dumbledore. “The Stone with its unusual marking was held by a Peverell descendant named Fawcett who married a Gaunt, but it hasn’t been seen or heard of since the goblins fashioned it into a ring in the 1800s. Even they have no idea where the ring is now, and you know how goblins are in regards to keeping track of their crafts. The wand, though—the wand I last saw in the hand of one Gellert Grindelwald during the European Wizarding War.”

Dumbledore looks surprised, and perhaps a bit awed. Salazar has never been fond of the combination. “You’re aware that the Deathly Hallows are real.”

Salazar shrugs, smiling. “I’m older than the Hallows, Albus Dumbledore. They hold no surprises for me. How did you gain the Elder Wand? Did Gellert lose it to someone else before his final defeat?”

“No. No, not at all.” Dumbledore retrieves the Elder Wand from his sleeve and studies it under the light of the green-tinged torches. “I won it from Grindelwald himself. We dueled, and I won. I think, perhaps, that sentiment might have stayed his hand…or perhaps it is not as undefeatable as legend says.”

I would wager on sentiment. Salazar experienced the wand’s power firsthand, and he never wishes to repeat the experience. “Then you claimed the Elder Wand without the death of its previous master. As far as I’m aware, you’re the first to ever do so.”

“I did not want Gellert dead. I only wanted him to stop.” Dumbledore sighs and steps back in order to aim the Elder Wand at the barred doors. “Do you know of anything in particular I should attempt?”

“Given the lack of instructions for later Parselmouths? I suggest sheer brute force. Hence the wand,” Salazar replies. He mentally digs in his heels; he has no idea what he is about to witness.

“Very well.”

Dumbledore does try. He makes such an excellent attempt that Salazar’s ears ring, his bones vibrate, and all of the hair on his body stands upright just from the sheer amount of magic in the air.

There is more than one reason why Salazar hates the Elder Wand, but that is an excellent example of why its existence is a terrible idea. This much power is not meant to be held by human hands.

That power enabled Dumbledore to blithely strip away part of the protective blood magic Harry Potter was given as an infant. The Elder Wand granted Dumbledore the means to attach that magic to the Dursley family’s residence in complete disregard of a dead woman’s final gift to a beloved child.

Salazar feels a stir of unease. What else has Albus Dumbledore done with the Elder Wand’s power?

Dumbledore eventually concedes defeat by lowering his wand. “My apologies.” He draws in a ragged breath. “I don’t believe that is going to help.”

“No. Apparently not.” Salazar breathes out a sigh that is perfectly misinterpreted.

“Is there not another way inside?” Dumbledore asks. “Can you reform the stone down here as you do the castle above?”

Salazar raises an eyebrow, aware that Dumbledore asks because he also wishes to see the Chamber. “I can do that, but it will take a very long time. If I form a new entrance too quickly, there is an entire castle above us that would suddenly be residing down here, and not in a pleasant fashion.” Salazar reaches up to brush one of the serpents guarding the door, feeling cool metal move beneath his hand as it reacts to his touch. “For now, it was enough to have made the attempt. I will simply have to take the long path on this matter.”

“I am sorry that I could not assist further,” Dumbledore says, sounding contrite.

Salazar nods. “You have my thanks, regardless of the results.”

“It was an interesting experiment, at least.” Dumbledore returns the Elder Wand to his sleeve. A great deal of the sense of lingering, weighty magic leaves the air. “Now, as we walk back to the stairs, might I ask you something?”

Salazar turns away from the doors and inclines his head. It’s to be a trade, then. “You may.”

“You said that you took a personal interest in Harry’s education,” Dumbledore says. “Do you think Harry is now capable of defeating Voldemort?”

Salazar clenches his right hand into a fist, out of sight of Dumbledore’s prying eyes. “I think the proper question to ask is this: should Harry James Potter defeat Voldemort?”

Dumbledore glances at him in surprise. “Of course he should. That is why Lord Voldemort chose him in the first place.”

“That mysterious prophecy.” Salazar gestures for Dumbledore to precede him up the stairs. “Prophecies can be tricky, you know.”

“This one was rather specific, but I will rephrase,” Dumbledore says. “When do you think Harry will be capable of defeating Voldemort?”

Oh, the many ways Salazar could answer that question. “I think, Albus, that when Voldemort next acts directly against Harry Potter, he will come to regret the decision.”

Chapter Text

Adele Greenwood considers herself an excellent student, if not stellar. She doesn’t often take top marks in her year, though she’ll readily admit that she’s usually distracted by learning the material, following along the paths that stem outward from a single lesson, and then suddenly she’s missed a deadline. She used to fret about not being top of her year until Nizar Slytherin’s portrait talked her down from a panic attack one night in her second term and explained that it wouldn’t be her marks that mattered from year to year, but those stupidly named O.W.L.s and N.E.W.T.s.

That caused her to stop sniffling and muster a smile. The names of those tests really are quite stupid.

“I don’t understand why the Sorting Hat didn’t just put me in Ravenclaw,” she’d said that same year, bemoaning her fate as a hopeless academic.

“Because you already love learning for learning’s sake,” he’d replied patiently as Kanza twined around his fingers. “You needed to learn other things, and the Hat put you in the best House to learn them.”

“But I don’t have any friends!”

Nizar Slytherin’s portrait had raised an eyebrow. “You keep looking to the family names your parents insist you socialize with. Alas, much as I love my Slytherins, most of those bearing those names in your year are utter twits.”

“Then…who?” Adele asked.

“Amrish Gupta. Poonima Shah. Manami Ichijoh. Ona Parangyo.”

“They’re all—foreign!” she’d sputtered.

“And you’re a black magician who is fortunate enough to never have experienced the racism that is apparently rife in the non-magical world,” he’d countered. “I doubt they appreciate the racism they receive for daring not to be British-born magicians, but Indian, Japanese, and Kenyan.”

Adele had bitten her lip. “My parents won’t approve.”

“Whose life will you be living, Adele Greenwood? Yours, or theirs?”

The portrait asked harsh questions, but they were useful questions, too. Every time they had a rubbish DADA teacher—all of them except Lupin—Adele went to his portrait for lessons. She was raised and trained as a Silver Spear, but there is more to life and defence than dueling. Adele learned that lesson the hard way before she even made it to Hogwarts.

In the meantime, she hates Sir Isaac Newton. He wasn’t the first non-magical to understand these laws, but he gets the credit, so she’s stuck with him for the moment. He’s the place to start comparing his three Laws of Motion to Golpalott’s three Laws of Brewing. They’re annoyingly similar, and yet different enough to make her think Golpalott and Newton used to get pissed in the same pub and compare notes. Newton published his work three years before the International Statute of Secrecy, so it isn’t outside the realm of possibility.

“Given that Golpalott was a Slytherin? No, it’s actually quite likely.”

Adele has her quill flipped around in her hand, point out for stabbing, before she realizes that Professor Slytherin has joined her at her favorite table in the Common Room. “Oh.” She breathes out and turns her quill back around to proper writing form. “How long have you been sitting there, sir?”

“About five minutes.” The professor smiles. “I didn’t want to interrupt.”

“I shouldn’t get so lost in what I’m doing,” Adele murmurs, trying to re-sort her notes into an order that makes sense. “Especially if I’m to be a war mage.”

“You already are a war mage. There is no if involved.” The professor tilts his head at the book. “Not from Hogwarts’ library, I’m assuming.”

Adele pats the two-hundred-year-old reprinting of Principia Mathematica Philosophiae Naturalis. “I asked Professor Snape, and he suggested I request a copy through non-magical sources. I sent an owl to Madam Tyler, and she was kind enough to send this back to me on loan from the library at Frogmore. It already has a number of protective spells attached. I think there must have been at least one magician working for the royal family when it was purchased. I’m also not sure who taught Madam Tyler about owls, but I’m glad she knew how to respond. We don’t exactly have telephones here.”

“Which is quite ridiculous, as there is nothing that would prevent a telephone from working in this castle. Mobile phones, however…those might be problematic.” Professor Slytherin smiles again. “Salazar and myself made certain that Madam Tyler was versed in owl delivery, though in response, she is demanding that Sirius Black have a telephone line installed in the Black townhouse in London.”

“The Black family townhouse. With a telephone.” Adele imagines that her parents would react in utter horror at the idea. At least His Grace only has to contend with angry portraits. “I hope the lot of them are spinning in their crypts.”

“It’s a pleasing mental image, isn’t it?” That was, and is, another lovely thing about the professor. He’s never minded that Adele’s sense of humor sometimes veers odd or inappropriately dark.

“I hope His Grace thinks so, too.” Adele frowns as she realizes she’s being rude. “I’m sorry. I know you didn’t come down to the Common Room just to check on me.”

“In a sense, I did exactly that.” Professor Slytherin glances over at the fireplace, where a cluster of Baby Death Eaters from several different years are doing a very poor job of pretending not to be spying on them. “I’d like to speak to you privately, if you have the time.”

“Oh—Professor Snape is already expecting that this particular essay might be late,” Adele explains, trying not to blush. “He said that he’s far more interested in reading what my thoughts are on the matter of Golpalott versus Newton than in receiving work that is perfectly on time. I can speak to you now, sir. Where?”

“Your Head of House’s classroom is currently empty, and I have standing permission to borrow it when needed. Is that acceptable?”

He is always so polite—so considerate. It took Adele too long to recognize that his behavior is normal, and that her parents’ behavior is…not.

She is deliberately not thinking about the letter she received from them just that morning. It will keep until tomorrow, when her classes end early in the day and she will have time to devote to its contents. She doubts her parents wrote of anything pleasant.

“That sounds quite all right, sir.”

Professor Snape’s classroom is quiet at night, even if there is a detention taking place. To Adele, it often feels as if the room is breathing, a deep hush of expectation. It makes her think far too many potions have decorated the walls.

Professor Slytherin circles the room once, his eyes alighting on seemingly random things. “Somehow, I’m not surprised.” The professor retrieves his wand from his sleeve and beckons for Adele to join him at one of the workbenches in the center of the room. “Más allá de los límites de este círculo, ningún oído debe entender nuestras palabras.”

Adele watches as a blue-lit circle of mist forms around them on the floor, rising upwards to become a globe that rounds over their heads. Once the globe is intact, it vanishes. “Beyond the limits of this circle, no ear must understand our words,” she translates.

The professor nods in recognition of her correct translation. “There is something I need to discuss with you, and I’d actually rather not. The need for extreme secrecy is one of those reasons.”

“But not a lack of trust in me, or I wouldn’t be here,” Adele surmises, and is granted another nod. “It can’t be that bad, sir.”

Professor Slytherin grimaces. “It’s very unusual. Ridiculous, really.”

“You don’t have to tell me, then.” If he can grant courtesy, so can she.

The professor selects a chair and sits down, so Adele does as well. “When I became a war mage, I was always the only one. Myrddin didn’t grant me an additional title; he passed his along to me. Salazar had been a war mage for Castile in his youth and understood the nature of the responsibility, but in regards to what it means to be a war mage of this isle, I was always alone.

“Now there are five of us, Adele. Five. Perhaps one day there might even be more. While there will always some truths we keep to ourselves, other secrets, if withheld, can destroy trust. We five war mages cannot afford a loss of trust in each other…so yes, I do need to tell you, especially as this is a truth the other three are already aware of. I must also ask you to give me an oath upon your magical title that you will not speak of what I reveal to anyone other than those few I declare are safe to converse with.”

“Can I refuse?” Adele asks, even though her academic curiosity is screaming to hear more.

“Of course.” Professor Slytherin hesitates. “I’d rather you did not, but that is not my choice to make. It’s yours.”

“What else is at stake, then? It isn’t just about my not revealing what you’ll say to me here. This is about something else,” Adele says.

Professor Slytherin smiles. “And that is why you needed Slytherin, Adele. That is a realization you wouldn’t have been capable of in your first years, and now it comes to you easily. Yes, there is more at stake. If you agree to that oath, then you’ll discover the whole of what we’re puzzling through on Friday evening.”

“Then it must be a difficult puzzle.”

He rolls his eyes. “If three Slytherins can’t bloody well figure it out? It’s one hell of an irritating, annoying mess. Friday will involve expanding the circle in order to see if anyone else can see what we’re so obviously missing.”

Adele realizes she doesn’t have a reason to hesitate. There is nothing, absolutely nothing, that her Defence teacher could say that would make her violate her oath. “I, the Lady Greenwood, swear upon the noble title linked to the Barony of the Greenwood that whatever secrets you entrust to me will be kept and upheld, else the title be sundered from my line forevermore.”

The professor gives her a miffed look. “You didn’t have to take it quite so far, you know.”

“Did so,” Adele replies sweetly. “You were saying, sir?”

“Right now, it isn’t sir. It’s Nizar. We are equals in rank, Adele.”

Adele feels her eyes twitch at the invitation. “All right. Nizar.” She still nearly chokes on his name. It seems entirely improper, even if he’s correct about their ranking. “Tell me what you need to discuss. I want to know about this puzzle!”

“And that is why I think it so important that you be there. I’ll risk this because I think we need you.” Nizar glances away while Adele’s face heats from the implied compliment.

“I’m listening, sir.”

Nizar places his hands on the tabletop, which causes the torchlight to catch on his silver family ring and turn it to flaming gold. “Imagine that one day you wake up to discover that you were once someone else, someone you cannot remember at all.”

Adele shudders. “I’d rather not imagine it at all. That sounds bewildering and terrible.”

“I hated it,” Nizar whispers. “I still do. I just can’t change it.”

“Nizar?”

“I’m adopted,” he says abruptly. “Salazar and I were not born as siblings, though we are blood family. He formally claimed me by magical adoption when I was sixteen years old.”

Adele’s eyes widen. “I would never have guessed that. Never at all. He might be older than you, but you look so much alike!”

Nizar nods. “We always did. The resemblance is even more acute if Salazar shaves off the beard. He claims that we were always meant to be brothers. I don’t recall anything that would cause me to disagree with him.”

Adele pictures Salazar Slytherin’s appearance if he were to shave the beard and realizes that yes, she still has a crush on a man who is far too old for her, and possibly involved with Professor McGonagall besides. It’s harmless, though, and if she indulges a bit, that is no one’s business but her own. “Who were you before the adoption, then?”

“That’s one of the current difficulties. Due to the adoption contract, I can’t claim that identity—I can’t think of myself by that name or refer to myself that way.” Nizar gets a photograph out of his robe pocket and slides it across the table. “You have no idea what sort of bribery it took to acquire this from the Prophet.”

Adele places her fingertips on the edge of the Wizarding photograph and pulls it closer. The image is of a very famous boy—or infamous, depending on the Daily Prophet’s mood. It’s a facing shot used for the Triwizard Tournament in the press last year; Potter is wearing the tournament uniform. She didn’t know Potter very well beyond seeing him in the halls, but Adele always thought he looked rather unhappy for someone who was dubbed a glory-addicted attention-seeker.

Then she looks closer, peering at the intensity of Potter’s gaze captured by photograph, the line of his forehead, cheeks, nose, and the shape of his chin. “Wait.” Adele glances up at Nizar. “You’re not serious.”

“I did warn you that it was ridiculous.”

“But—I—” Adele stabs at the photograph with one finger. This is—this is amazing! “But—but who sent you back in time?”

Nizar sighs, a wry smile on his face. “Guess.”

“Your brother.” Adele feels an upwelling of pure glee. “He turned your timeline into a circle. Your brother did it, because he’d already done it! You’re you because you were already you!” she exclaims, and then starts laughing.

“I have to admit, that is not the sort of reaction I expected,” Nizar says.

Adele wipes at her eyes, still giggling. “Why? Who else knows? What did they do?”

“Professor Snape blew up a table,” Nizar says, which only sets her off laughing harder. That is very much her Head of House. “Remus Lupin and Sirius Black.”

“Because—oh.” Adele’s laughter abruptly dies. “The magical adoption. Sirius Black was your father, and now he can’t be.”

“Not legally or magically, no.” Nizar looks saddened by that. “Sirius didn’t take it well, not at first, but then he decided to be glad I was alive at all. It was…I’m told it was a very near thing. His—my surviving, I mean.”

“How bad—was it him on thirty-first July last year?” Adele asks, trying not to shiver. “Was it Voldemort?”

Nizar shakes his head. “No. It was the child’s surviving family.”

“The child’s?” Adele repeats the term, curious.

“It’s better to keep to that sort of distinction…and it’s easier,” Nizar admits.

What he then tells her in regards to last summer makes Adele’s blood run cold. It also makes her want to kill two adult idiots in as efficient manner as possible, but her Head of House already cursed them. Now she’s angry with Professor Snape for getting to them first, and being so creative about it that she can’t even argue with the results. There is far too much proper vengeance about it all.

Adele slides the photograph back across the table. “Are you ever going to say something? I mean, are you ever going to tell everyone?” The school has been in an odd sort of holding pattern in regards to Potter’s disappearance, especially the Gryffindors.

Draco is going to be so disappointed. With the prospect of having a good Slytherin Quidditch team in the air next year, he wanted to fly against Potter as Seeker again, but without the intense desire to smash each other to bits on brooms. Draco wanted to do it right.

Nizar shakes his head. “I’m not that person, Adele. I was that child for sixteen years, yes, but even without being able to recall everything, I’ve been myself for over one thousand years. I don’t yet know how that child’s disappearance will be resolved, but I’d really rather it not be because they are equating him to me.”

“I understand,” Adele says, and she does, if not perfectly. She wouldn’t want to claim to be someone she couldn’t remember, either. There is so much time between them, too! Professor Nizar Slytherin is Hogwarts’ Defence Teacher, her Protectoris, a war mage forged one thousand years ago. There is no true way to compare that lost boy with the portrait-preserved man.

Well, she did watch Potter fly on a broom against a Hungarian Horntail last term. She can be perfectly polite and still recognize that Nizar is insane enough to do exactly the same thing, if circumstances were to require it.

Adele puts aside the whirling academic possibilities regarding time travel and pre-performed actions. “You wouldn’t tell me this unless the puzzle you mentioned is tied up with your previous identity. What have you stumbled into that is so baffling the three of you can’t figure it out?”

 

*         *         *         *

 

Wednesday is often the busiest day of Severus’s teaching week. He attends dinner to find that Nizar isn’t in the Great Hall. “And how was your day?” he asks Minerva and Salazar.

“I’ll kill them all myself,” Minerva mutters under her breath.

Seventh-years, Severus surmises. It was most likely the Weasley twins who led the charge into idiocy, but none of Minerva’s N.E.W.T. students seem disfigured or damaged.

Salazar glances at Albus’s chair, which is empty. “I had such the interesting conversation last night. I’ll tell you about it later. Nizar?”

“No idea,” Severus replies. Nizar was gone from the bed when Severus awoke that morning, a note left behind informing Severus that the lunatic he’s dating went for a run—not to the Heights this time—and would find Severus after classes in the evening. He doesn’t know if Nizar has read any of those letters yet, but if Albus’s chair is empty because the man is dead, Severus will shed no tears.

He starts on the seventh floor in his attempt to find Nizar after dinner, and much like seventh January, makes a full bloody tour of the castle before it occurs to him that he should have checked the Marauder’s Map from the start. He does get to scare the life out of a trio of first-years attempting to bully a smaller child from a non-magical home in a different House, assigning them separate detentions with Filch, Minerva, and Filius respective to their various failings. Filch will enjoy having the Pure-blood in his clutches tomorrow evening.

Nizar is in his sitting room when Severus returns to consult the map. “Fucking finally,” Severus growls out. “I’ve been searching for you for an hour.”

“Were you?” Nizar looks surprised. “I wonder if that privacy spell has a side effect we never noticed.”

Severus regards him in silence for a moment. Nizar is seated in one of his chairs near the hearth, his bare feet resting on an edge of the coffee table. The three ancient letters addressed to Severus are separated from their envelopes; the most damning of them has been placed along the length of the table, page by page. “You’ve read them.”

“I did, yes. Before dinner this evening.”

He expected a bit more of a reaction than this quiet contemplation. “Is he dead?”

Nizar raises an eyebrow. “Do you mean Dumbledore? Not unless someone else decided they couldn’t stand the spangled prick and strangled the life out of him.”

Severus frowns. “After witnessing your reaction to Dolores Umbridge and her Blood Quill, I suppose I expected a similar response.”

“Yes, well, Dolores wasn’t master of the fucking Elder Wand,” Nizar replies. He props his elbow on the chair and rests his chin on his hand. “Though if it was foul language you were looking for, my portrait certainly voiced enough of it.”

Severus gives up and sits down on the sofa opposite Nizar. “Then what’s the problem?”

“A lack of information.” Nizar glances down at the letters. “Don’t hear me wrong. These were quite informative, but the situation is different.”

“You mean Albus isn’t actively torturing anyone,” Severus says, feeling his lip curl in derisive humor.

“Only mine and Salazar’s eyes when he wears those damned bright green robes.” Nizar turns his head to contemplate the fire. The light casts his features in sharp relief, painting his face in warmth and shadow. Instead of emphasizing his resemblance to the Potter line, or to Salazar, it’s a stark reminder that Nizar has always been his own person, with his own Slytherin way of viewing the world that even Salazar sometimes admits can be difficult to keep up with.

It’s also a sight that Severus finds…distracting. It’s as much Nizar’s features as it is the sharp intelligence burning in his eyes. “Your speech patterns are shifting again.”

“Are they?” Nizar blinks a few times. “Sorry. I suppose I should be upset, but instead I find myself thinking on what we need to know before we proceed. I refuse to confront Dumbledore until we’re certain on the why as well as the what.”

“If he meant you to be a disposable weapon, there is little he could say that would justify it in my mind,” Severus says flatly. “Not who you were then, and not now.”

Nizar smiles. “You don’t win at chess by charging blindly for the king. You watch. Wait. Observe. Learn the tactics on display. Search for meaning.”

“You mean to dethrone him,” Severus realizes. It’s something they had previously discussed, and Severus is still not opposed to the idea.

“Only if necessary,” Nizar corrects, shaking his head. “If we’d dethroned every useless ruler we encountered, there would have been such the power vacuum across Europe and Asia that it would have made the fall of Rome look like a bit of harmless dust blowing away in the wind. Powerful people have their uses, Severus. Sometimes it’s far more useful to discover the whole of their objectives and then…” Nizar wriggles his fingers in the air. “Neutralize the harmful plots, whether or not the harm is intentional, while allowing their beneficial plans to continue.”

Severus shifts in place, trying to cope with sudden, unexpected, ill-timed lust. That might have been the most inspiring bit of scheming he’s ever heard. “Do you think Albus falls into that category?”

“That depends entirely on what it is he’s actually doing.” Nizar abandons the chair to get up and straddle Severus, a wide grin on his face. “You do realize that I’m going to be required to plot aloud more often if I earn this sort of attention.”

Severus threads his fingers into Nizar’s curling hair, drawing him down until their lips brush together. “I very much look forward to it.”

 

*         *         *         *

 

There is no opportunity to discuss the very long letter that Nizar once wrote to Severus in regards to Albus Dumbledore’s actions—or the lack of them. After a quick comparison of schedules by Patronus, it’s determined that none of them will have the chance to gather without other responsibilities getting in the way until Friday evening after dinner. Then Sirius Black and Remus Lupin can join Salazar, Nizar, and Severus.

Salazar knows that Nizar is contemplating the idea of inviting Miss Granger to join them. She has a perspective they lack, both in her youth and her earlier friendship with Nizar, and has voiced discomfort with Dumbledore’s methods.

All of them, even the girl of the thirty-two foot essay, are capable of excellence in regards to unraveling plots, but Minerva McGonagall is the woman who has stood at Dumbledore’s side the longest as a teacher, Head of Gryffindor House, and Deputy Headmistress of Hogwarts. Salazar desperately wants her in attendance, but first Minerva has to prove herself capable of keeping her thoughts away from Albus Dumbledore. Fortunately, when they discuss his Lioness’s progress with Mind Magic on Thursday eve, the news is excellent.

“I left the ‘bait’ dangling out for anyone with Legilimency skill to discover if they attempted to get through the shielding I’ve created,” Minerva tells him as they lounge on the sofa in his quarters. “It’s practically a shout: I know where Harry Potter is. I even did my best not to think of it as the lie I know it to be. No one noticed, Salazar. I even asked Severus to push for it, though I did ask he not yet use a wand. He admitted that he found my shielding bewildering.”

“Given what you chose?” Salazar feels his stomach try to turn over at the mere thought. Countless Quidditch players in the air, all of them flying in indiscriminate ways and patterns. Salazar had to excuse himself, retreat to the bathroom, and be ill the last time he’d tried to cope with Minerva’s shielding. “I shudder to think of what ideas you’ll have for your secondary layer of defence.”

“I’m still dwelling on the notion,” Minerva replies, frowning. “I believe Albus might have tried to read my thoughts on Tuesday afternoon when both you and Severus were absent from the castle for several hours without explanation. He seemed quite baffled by what he saw. I, however, am extremely angry!”

“That Dumbledore attempted to read your mind without so much as a by-your-leave?” Salazar nods. “He attempted to do the same to Nizar. My brother was kind enough to warn him rather than outright killing him for attempting such violation. He also did not let the old man look at his second layer of shielding, which is fatal to anyone trying to view it, as is mine.”

Minerva looks at him in surprise. “How can a layer of shielding be fatal?”

“It’s a basilisk’s unlidded stare, Lioness.”

“Oh.” Minerva seems intrigued. “That sounds like an excellent idea.”

Salazar laughs. “You and Severus are such delightful overachievers, Lioness. Severus thought the same, but I refuse to leave either of you in a state of Petrification for months while we wait for mandrakes to mature.”

“Then it requires looking at a basilisk’s unlidded stare by mirror.” Minerva purses her lips. “Because one must be able to visualize it to show it to another. How do you not then Petrify yourself if it works so well on an invading mind?”

Gods, but Salazar loves this woman’s intellect. “It’s your mental landscape, not another’s. Your own mind is not dangerous to yourself unless you allow it to be. Your mind is dangerous to others because you tell it to be.” Salazar puts down his goblet of wine. “Severus needs to try to break past your shielding with a wand. You need to be able to withstand harsher interrogation.”

“Why must it be Severus?” Minerva asks.

“Because, Lioness, in terms of ruthlessness? Severus is the best man for the job, and it is another’s ruthlessness that we most need to guard against.”

Minerva thinks on that before nodding. “Then see if Severus is available. I know you’ve a plot afoot regarding tomorrow evening. I’d like to be involved, if possible.”

“Beautiful Lioness.” Salazar leans over and kisses her before retrieving his wand. “I want the very same. I’m such a fortunate man.”

“If you are fortunate,” Minerva says quietly, “then I am blessed.”

Salazar can’t respond to that. They’ve discussed their time together exactly once since he revealed his fate to Dumbledore’s Order on Compitalia. He would rather give her more—give her everything—but she does not wish to dwell on what will be.

He never expected to fall in love again, especially not in the final year of his life. Perhaps the gods feel he reached too far, asked for too much, and this pain is to be his punishment.

Severus arrives ten minutes later, looking angered beyond his usual dark-eyed irritation. “My apologies,” he says stiffly. “I was trying to reassure Miss Greenwood, and it was a process.”

“What’s wrong?” Salazar asks as Minerva straightens up in her seat in concern. “Is it the magic still settling?”

“No. That part is thankfully done with. The problem is her fucking parents,” Severus growls. “They are very upset that their daughter is the legally titled and of-age Baroness over the Greenwood, and they have no title or control over her doings at all. They are attempting to…” His eyes narrow. “The phrase they used was ‘Bring her to heel like a proper Pure-blood girl.’”

Salazar raises an eyebrow. “Are the complete twits dead yet?”

“Don’t tempt me.”

Minerva scowls. “Is Miss Greenwood actually reassured, Severus? She is doing too well in school to let such backwards ideas affect her life, especially given the responsibilities she has accepted.”

Severus sits down on the other sofa once Salazar makes it clear that he is welcome to do so. “Assuring females from Pure-blooded families is not an easy task, particularly those Sorted into Slytherin. Their families tend to hold onto the oldest ideas the longest, even if they are foolish ideas that are not nearly as old and traditional as those idiots like to believe. However…yes, I believe Miss Greenwood will be fine. She was not cowed; she was greatly angered. She now has the right to declare them banished from the Greenwood, and I think she is sorely tempted.” He shakes his head. “I expected the worst of interference to come from the Greengrass patriarch, but he has been surprisingly silent on the matter.”

“Perhaps he will be less silent if he discovers where his youngest daughter’s affections lie,” Minerva says, smiling. “Or have you noticed how often Miss Greengrass spends time with Miss Weasley?”

Severus makes a derisive noise. “I hadn’t noticed, though I think the more important question would be: has Miss Weasley noticed? The Weasley clan does tend to be a bit oblivious in that regard.”

“I’m not certain,” Minerva admits.

“Though given Miss Weasley’s proclivities and Mister Black’s constant presence in their lives, Miss Greengrass might be claiming a Blood Traitor and a Muggle-born.” Severus looks contemplative. “I always did want to see Geronimus Greengrass drop dead.”

Minerva tries not to laugh. “Severus, that isn’t very nice.”

“That man was an unMarked Death Eater whose activities meant his first wife and eldest child were killed during the last war, and not once has he done a damned thing to attempt to make up for those losses,” Severus retorts. “I would not be offended if he decided to conveniently die and save everyone else the trouble.”

“Based on your own words, he hasn’t returned to Voldemort’s side,” Minerva chooses to say.

Severus rolls his eyes. “Neither has Igor Karkaroff. I rather doubt bravery is motivating Geronimus’s decision.”

The face Minerva makes in regards to mention of Karkaroff is a treasure. “I’m surprised Voldemort did not simply reach through the Dark Mark and cause his death, then. We know he bears it,” she says.

“No.” Severus’s anger turns grim. “No, Voldemort wants him found. He will be making an example of Karkaroff.”

“As if we didn’t see enough of that mess during the first war,” Salazar mutters, and then notices that Severus’s expression hasn’t changed. “Severus. He will not be doing such to you.”

Severus jerks his head up. “What? Oh, not that. I was dwelling on another thought.”

“Well, pray do not keep us in suspense,” Minerva says. “Is it a concern for the Order?”

“Possibly, if they can be convinced to concern themselves at all,” Severus responds in a return of his biting tone. “Geronimus is not the only unMarked Death Eater who refused to return to the fold. Since they did not return, I’ve no idea what their motivations for staying away are other than the obvious.”

“Fear would be my first guess, as well,” Salazar says. “I suppose between the two of us, we would be able to compose a list of those who might be in danger.”

“List.” Severus scowls at the reminder. “That fucking list!”

“Have I missed something since this was last discussed?” Salazar asks.

“Only the fact that it keeps growing longer.” Severus abruptly changes the subject. “Why did you invite me here this evening?”

Salazar tilts his head at Minerva. “I need you to properly test the Lioness’s mental shielding.”

Severus’s eyes widen. “You’ve come that far in only twenty-eight days?”

“Well, I do not yet have a second defensive layer,” Minerva says after a glance at Salazar. “However, Salazar finds my first defence to be, er, displeasing. Through his training, I also know what it is like to feel another’s mental attempt at intrusion, and if they’ve succeeded or not.”

Severus bares his teeth. “Albus made the attempt, didn’t he?”

“He did.” Minerva lifts her chin. “He did not succeed, else that man would never have stopped attempting to invade my thoughts. The bait that I placed behind that shield wall would be too tempting.”

Severus rises and retrieves his wand. “In that case, I simply must see what you’ve crafted.” He pauses. “Please tell me it is not like Miss Granger’s blasted books.”

Minerva stands up, surprise crossing her face. “Miss Granger knows Mind Magic?”

“Miss Granger, as in all things she attempts, is terrifying,” Severus says in a flat voice. Then, without warning Minerva at all, he points his wand and casts the incantation in silence. Salazar’s Lioness glares at him, but quite wisely stands her ground.

Minerva is sweating by the time Severus lowers his wand, but Severus looks just as fatigued. “Salazar, you poor fucking bastard,” he gasps.

Salazar is feeling nauseous just from his awareness of what Severus faced. “Motion sickness is no man’s friend.”

“Indeed.” Severus eyes Minerva. “Did they all need to be flying Firebolt Fives, Minerva?”

Minerva smiles. “It means they are all equally fast.”

“Of course.” Severus returns his wand to his sleeve. “You need a secondary layer of defence. I was able to break through the first, though I will admit, it took persistence. I could also determine why Albus would be all but cornering you if he’d seen that particular baited thought.”

“I don’t actually know where Mister Potter is, of course.” Minerva picks up her abandoned teacup and refills it from the tray that Winky brought earlier. “It would not have been ignored if it had been noticed.”

“No. It would not have been.” Severus stares at her until she lowers the teacup. “Venomous Tentacula.”

Minerva blinks at him. “Excuse me?”

“Your second layer of shielding. Use a wall of Venomous Tentacula,” Severus repeats with a remarkable veneer of patience. “You are well aware of what it can do, as you are one of the very few who has seen a death resulting from the plant’s venom. That means you are capable of making your secondary layer of shielding fatal to anyone who attempts to break through it.”

Salazar is very glad that he was not the one to suggest such a thing. The fire in Minerva’s eyes would have caused a lesser man to shrivel where he stood. “I should break this entire tea set over your head, Severus Snape!” Minerva puts the teacup down with a clatter. “However, I am also aware that you are correct. As much as I dislike the idea, it would be quite effective.”

“Work on it tonight, then, and throughout tomorrow,” Severus suggests. “Goodnight.” He Disapparates without speaking further.

Minerva sits down on the sofa and crosses her arms. “I am infuriated that he’s correct, you know.”

“I’m aware, and relieved the idea had yet to occur to me. I’d rather you not be setting me on fire unless it is by far more pleasant means,” Salazar replies.

“Does this mean that I’m to be invited to join in tomorrow’s mysterious shenanigans?”

Salazar rubs at his face. “It does indeed, but we’ll be performing one aspect of it tonight, as tomorrow needs to be reserved for other things. Follow me, please.”

Minerva sounds excited as he leads the way down the hallway in his quarters. “I’ve never been down here before but to visit the loo. Are you certain, Salazar?”

“Very much so, though my brother might strangle me for doing this without warning.” Salazar pauses with his hand on the door to his study. “Please do not kill my brother. He does not actually recall anything you’re about to witness beyond the facts of it, and even that did not occur until well after your association with him began”

“Will I be tempted to beat him with anything?” Minerva asks.

Salazar smiles. “I do need him to be capable of thinking tomorrow, Lioness.” He pushes open the door before gesturing for her to precede him.

Minerva steps inside, glancing about. The very first thing she sees is the older portrait of Nizar hanging on the wall opposite the door. “Oh! Nizar looks very young in this painting. I didn’t realize you had one, Salazar. What year was it painted?”

Salazar is glad that by the time this portrait was painted, Nizar had already altered his hair and his eyes. He prefers being able to do this in stages. “That was painted in 995. It’s technically a match for the set of the four of us Founders that Nizar has in his quarters but for the fact that I was the one who had it commissioned. Nizar tried to refuse to have another portrait done. He claimed it to be too soon after the last one.” He’d been correct, but Salazar hadn’t wanted to wait the usual amount of time, not when his brother had changed so much in those three years.

The family resemblance is the next thing Minerva notices. “You both looked so very much alike, even then, and it’s delightful work. I do like magical paintings for their realism, especially as it was not a favored method of painting until much later.” She smiles. “Do you have others?”

“I have only one other of Nizar, though there is meant to be one of him with those portraits that were painted in 1015. He told me to sod off for the 1005 set—which may not matter, as there has yet been no sign of those portraits at all.” Salazar takes her hand and turns Minerva to face the wall near the door, where his brother’s other portrait is waiting. Unlike the 995 portrait, this one is awake…while apparently deciding to lounge on his own bloody ceiling. It’s quite a feat, given that there is no such thing painted on the canvas at all, but Nizar’s portraits have always treated paintings as if there are no rules but his own whim.

“Minerva, this is my brother in the summer of 992, painted when he achieved his Mastery of Defence.”

“Hello,” Minerva says to the painting, a bemused smile on her face. “Young enough not to have the sense to remain in your chair, are you?”

“One can only sit on a piece of furniture for so many centuries before it is exceptionally dull, Professor McGonagall,” Nizar replies.

“And so formal, too,” Minerva adds.

“Formal?” Nizar considers it. “Yes, I suppose that habit is still set for this portrait, isn’t it?” He pushes off the ceiling and lands in a graceful crouch on the bottom of the painting before standing up, brushing off the black robes he chose to wear for the portrait’s painting. “I take it we’ve achieved a desired end, Sal?”

“We have. I think you should demonstrate why I’m introducing the pair of you,” Salazar suggests.

“Hmm. Yes, better me than myself, since I recall the feel of that disastrous bird’s nest hair and he doesn’t remember it at all.” Nizar’s eyes are already changing as he shifts the length and color of his hair. “I am not bothering with my skin. I earned this color by virtue of sunlight and genetics."

As much as Nizar looks to resemble Salazar, it takes very little to make it obvious that he resembles another just as much. He has his famous father’s similar features and stark black hair that always seemed to do whatever it wished, but it is his brilliant emerald green eyes that always made Nizar unmistakable.

“Hello, Professor.”

Minerva clasps her hands to her mouth, wide-eyed and silent. Then she swallows and says, “A personalized education was necessary, you said?”

“Well, it did turn out to be exactly that,” Salazar answers, “though neither of us knew of what I’d done. Not in the year 990.”

He didn’t bloody tell me,” Nizar says, pointing at Salazar. “He didn’t lie, but he did conveniently neglect to tell me of his identity. To be fair, he had to.”

“But—why, Harry?” Minerva whispers.

Nizar shoves his hands into his robe pockets. “Because I’m his past, and he was my future. You can muck about with quite a bit, Professor, but this was not one of those things. And it’s Nizar, please. I can’t answer to my former name by the terms set forth in the adoption contract.”

“Salazar Slytherin.” Salazar winces; Minerva is usually kind enough not to use his butchered family name as a weapon. “Do you mean to tell me that you went to my Gryffindor on his birthday and sent him into your past without so much as a—a bloody by-your-leave?”

“No.” Salazar feels his eyes burn. “I did not.”

“He asked, Minerva.” Nizar raises both eyebrows when she turns her steely-eyed glare back to him. “Salazar did what was done because it had already been done. Even knowing what the answer would be, he still asked. I recall this where myself does not—well, there was that bit of a flashback, but otherwise, I’m a proper record and myself is a broken one.”

Salazar frowns at the portrait. “Please do stop referring to yourself as broken.”

“Then you’ll want to take the matter up with myself, as that is what his updating of this portrait told me,” Nizar’s young portrait replies with a cheeky smile.

Minerva reaches out, her fingers trembling, but they stop just shy of touching the canvas. “It really is you. Harry.”

Nizar sighs. “I literally cannot say yes to that question, Minerva. Magical adoptions are binding, and someone forgot to leave in a loophole that would allow me to lie about my name.”

“Are you going to be letting that bit with the contract lie peacefully at any point, ever?” Salazar retorts.

Nizar smiles again. “Not ever! It’s far too much fun.”

“You overlooked that pertinent detail, as well, hermanito!”

“Yes, but I’d just had a Horcrux yanked out of my head a month previous. There could have been wording in that contract that would guarantee me to spend one-quarter of my life as a cat and I might not have noticed—Professor, please don’t cry. I’m not bloody dead!”

“But you’re not my student any longer,” Minerva says, wiping at her eyes with one hand. “And I did not get to see you become the man you are. I wanted that, you know—I would have adopted you in an instant if Albus had not insisted I leave you in safety.”

Nizar stares at Minerva. “Bloody Albus fucking Dumbledore!” he yells, kicking the chair in his portrait and sending it skittering beyond the bounds of the frame. “Please tell myself to kill that fucking prick!”

“No, Nizar.” Salazar has to take a moment to settle his thoughts. Much like the Dursleys, another has first claim to killing Albus Dumbledore. “Granted, we may need to prevent Minerva from doing such after tomorrow.”

Minerva wipes her face again. “You cannot possibly mean to tell me that there are worse things than this!”

“Still not dead,” Nizar says in a flat voice.

“Oh—I’m sorry.” Minerva sniffles and then retrieves a handkerchief from her robe. “I didn’t mean to—dear boy, this is very upsetting!”

Salazar is relieved when Minerva allows him to draw her into his arms, though she continues to face the portrait. “He missed you as well, Minerva. Very much. Nizar thought you’d be quite pleased to discover that he mastered the Transfiguration of mice without creating terrible and unnatural mutations.”

Minerva releases a watery chuckle. “Yes. I am quite pleased by that, and the Metamorphmagus ability…but not an Animagus, Nizar?”

“You can be one or the other, but not both. I desperately wanted to be able to change my hair and my eyes. Reminders,” he adds when Minerva makes a curious sound. “Unpleasant ones. If I wanted to view my parents, I’d recorded their images on scrolls to serve the purpose just fine.”

“I didn’t know that,” Minerva says quietly.

“I’m aware. After you go speak to myself, he has a book in his possession you should ask for.” Nizar grins. “Formar La Magia, though you need to be able to read Old Castellano, Latin, and Greek. Translation spells really don’t help very much.”

“Nizar, you are the only one who found that book to be of any real use whatsoever,” Salazar reminds him.

Nizar shrugs. “Yes, but not one of you were inclined towards a mastery in Transfiguration aside from myself. Our first devoted Transfiguration instructor understood it just fine.”

“That is because they were also insane,” Salazar replies. “Minerva, you may stand here and argue with this version of my brother, or you can go and greet the other one with a bit more knowledge than you previously held.”

“Er. Yes.” Minerva dabs at her eyes again with the handkerchief. “Harry—Nizar. My apologies, dear. I absolutely do promise I will not make such a slip in front of others.”

Nizar shifts his hair and eyes back to his preference. “It does help if you’re not staring at a much more blatant reminder.”

Minerva nods. “Yes, I do think that will be helpful. Does—does Severus know?”

Nizar’s grin is wide and near feral. “Oh, he knows. Severus does prefer the version of me that isn’t capable of taunting him with four years of Hogwarts teachings, though.”

“I cannot begin to imagine why,” Minerva replies dryly.

When they go upstairs, Nizar is still dressed for the day but for his robe and a lack of socks. Salazar must have lost what tolerance for the cold he gained in those early days, as he can’t stand the idea of walking about barefoot on these stones unless he’s cast Warming Charms on every single one of them.

Minerva spies Nizar and opens her mouth, as if to start chastising him. Instead, she bursts into tears before clinging to him.

Nizar stares at Salazar over Minerva’s shoulder while holding Minerva in an awkward hug. “What did you do to go and break the Gryffindor, Sal?”

“I am not the one who did the breaking. That would have been you,” Salazar says. “Specifically, your 992 portrait.”

“Oh! We’ve reached that point with Mind Magic.” Nizar looks baffled. “I’m having the realization that I actually prefer Severus’s response to this over crying.”

Minerva resolutely steps back and wipes her face down with a handkerchief that is swiftly becoming an abused bit of cloth. “And what reaction did Severus have, then?”

“Oh, he yelled at me and then Apparated downstairs to blow up a table,” Nizar answers. “Then he didn’t speak to me for two days. I can handle that. Crying just implies terrible things.”

“Lies,” Galiena’s portrait says. “You were a complete wreck and you know it, Father.”

“Shut up,” Nizar says. “Please let me keep my wreckage to myself, dearest.”

Minerva smiles. “I’d wondered what had Severus in such a foul mood the week of the Winter Solstice. I thought it was Voldemort.”

“Oh, it was the noseless walking corpse, too. The timing on that week could have all been so much better.” Nizar shakes his head. “Have a seat, please. If there is going to be more crying, it may as well be done in comfort.”

“Nervousness. That is when your vocal patterns shift so obviously,” Minerva exclaims in triumph. “I’ve been trying to figure that out for months!”

“Being really angry will do it, too.” Nizar calls for an elf and a tea tray for three, plus a bottle of brandy on the side, purchased with his coin if there is none in Hogwarts. Salazar sits down on the sofa next to Minerva in relief, glad that so far he has survived this revelation with his teeth still properly within his head.

Nizar waits until everyone has tea, though Minerva has poured straight brandy mixed with cream and sugar into her cup. “Bearing in mind that I only remember you in the context of our first meeting this past November onwards, is there anything you’d like to know?”

Minerva slips off her boots so that she can curl up with her feet resting on the sofa. “Are you happy?”

“I’ll be happier when Voldemort is dead and Salazar is not, but otherwise? Yes,” Nizar replies.

“Nizar—” Salazar begins to say, truly displeased by what he’s just heard.

“Shut up, Salazar Deslizarse. If you can make deals with Death, then I can bloody well attempt to come up with something that means I can counter your badly worded fucking contract so that you do not drop dead when Voldemort does!”

“Now that sounds like my Gryffindor,” Minerva says while Salazar is busy gaping at Nizar.

Nizar smirks. “Your Gryffindor argued with the Sorting Hat, Minerva.”

Minerva inclines her head. “It still would not have changed your protective nature. I’m staring at that very proof right now.”

“Fair. Sal, relax. I am not going to volunteer to die in your place,” Nizar adds.

Salazar lets out a loud sigh of relief. “Thank the gods for that, then. There were times in the past when you’d have considered such!”

“It wouldn’t be an even trade, at any rate,” Nizar continues blithely, ignoring Salazar when he glares at Nizar. “Seriously, relax. We don’t have to worry about it until summer, anyway.”

“You know it will not work that way,” Salazar murmurs. Minerva reaches out to take his hand in a tight grasp.

“And I’d rather you not endanger yourself needlessly. Salazar is quite insistent on the idea that you deserve to have your life again, even if it is quite different than what anyone would have expected of Harry Potter,” Minerva says.

“As it should be.” Nizar sips at his tea, frowns, and pours some of the provided brandy into it. Then he looks up at the portrait frames in the sitting room. Galiena is present, if sleeping, but Brice and Elfric are absent, no doubt off attempting to convince other portraits to join them in mischief. “This is not to be repeated in front of my children, Minerva. The lack of recollection isn’t just the failure of the Preservation Charms from the painting being moved, but magical spell damage when someone cast a permanent Obliviation Spell against the portrait. Obliviscaris Omnia.

“Oh,” Minerva whispers, and quickly drains the rest of the creamed brandy.

“My recollection of my time in the portrait is spotty as hell until the end of the 1700s. I can recall my life after the magical adoption to a certain extent. I remember how I received my titles, I remember my family, and I remember teaching here, if not in specifics. But for Helga’s lack of children, the Founders are literally my family, if still distantly removed in two cases out of three. Myrddin was a complete prick.”

Minerva muffles laughter with her hand. “Two of his teeth, hmm?”

Nizar smiles and glances at Galiena’s portrait. “My daughter witnessed the event. Galiena, please wake,” he adds in Parseltongue, gaining the portrait’s attention at once. “Minerva wishes to hear about the time I punched Myrddin on your behalf.”

Galiena smiles at them. “Oh, yes. I stopped crying in a hurry when my father did that. It was amazing. That was when I knew I wanted him to adopt me in truth, rather than the informal way we’d gone along with up until that point.”

“He protected you from someone who was behaving dreadfully. That seems a sound reason in my book,” Minerva says staunchly. “And I do have to admit, it is very difficult to think of you in any other terms aside from who you are now, Nizar.”

“Good.” Nizar lifts his legs to sit cross-legged on the couch, cradling his tea in his lap. “That’s how it must be. Tomorrow you are going to meet the few others who know of my past. If I have it my way, they are the only ones who will know that with certainty until Voldemort is dead. I’ve no wish to out myself in any manner afterwards, either. I don’t like that sort of attention.”

“And if it happens, regardless?” Minerva asks in concern.

“Then I get to have fun baiting reporters and driving them mental.”

Salazar snorts. “Joyous Spencer is ever so fond of my brother already, him and his evasive ways. Granted, I don’t think I scored many points with her, either.”

Nizar looks directly at Minerva. “And…if I could safely bottle Voldemort up and keep him hidden away until the end of your time on this earth, I’d do so in a heartbeat.”

Minerva bites her lip. “Nizar, you must not delay his defeat on my account. Not when so much depends on it.”

“It isn’t just you. Salazar loves you,” Nizar counters, and Salazar feels his eyes burn with tears for the second time that evening. “He’s loved very few. Of course I’d attempt to grant you both that time together. You deserve to have it.”

“Speaking of things one deserves…” Minerva pours herself a second cup of mere tea, leaving the brandy out of it, before she bluntly changes the subject back to prurient gossip. “It does interest me that a one-time Gryffindor and a Slytherin, two beings who spent the first four years of their association completely at each other’s throats, have managed to arrive at this point without death, dismemberment, or severe property damage.”

“Severus did blow up a table,” Nizar reminds her. “I’ve known him since September of 1971, Minerva. Putting aside the fact that I don’t remember being that child, the first twenty years of our association had nothing to do with that child at all. Dwell instead on how Severus might have reacted had that child not argued with the Sorting Hat, and Severus had to live with the indignity of a Potter in Slytherin House.”

Minerva leans back, blinking a few times, before she starts laughing aloud. “I think Severus might have honestly attempted to eat a textbook in sheer outrage.”

“And then contend with the fact that he would have been unable to keep spying,” Nizar says, and Minerva stops laughing. “If he’d treated that child any differently than he treated his other Slytherins, he would have lost all of their trust, not just the child’s. Dumbledore would have been without his leashed spy that much sooner. Such might very well have gotten Severus killed.”

Salazar grimaces, empties his teacup of tea, and recreates Minerva’s mix of brandy and cream. “I’m so glad you told that fucking Hat not to Sort you into Slytherin.”

“Contingency measure.” Nizar looks pleased. “It’s good to know I actually planned for that, then.”

“Please give me back the brandy,” Minerva mutters. After she’s topped off her tea, she says, “You do not trust Albus, do you? Either of you.”

Salazar meets Nizar’s eyes; his brother shrugs. “Yes and no, Minerva,” Nizar says.

“Fair enough. I feel that way some days, myself.” Minerva frowns. “What is inspiring this lack of trust?”

“For now…call it a character flaw.” Nizar sips at his tea and makes a face. His brother was never very fond of brandy, preferring the sweet wines of the coast or the chilled drinks in the south crafted outside of Moorish circles. “From one former Quidditch player to another, think of it in terms of tactics.”

“Tactics,” Minerva repeats. “Go on, then.”

“You of course do your best to keep your tactics hidden from the other team until you’re acting on them, preferably to the other team’s detriment,” Nizar says. “But you do not hide those tactics from your own teammates.”

“I am very used to trusting my allies, Nizar, and I’ve known Albus since I was a student.”

“It is nice to be able to trust one’s allies, yes.” Nizar smiles at Minerva. “And know that they can protect themselves from one’s enemies. In this case, however…Dumbledore knew about the Horcruxes, Minerva. He even knew that the child was a Horcrux. He was not pleased when I revealed the Horcrux’s existence, and especially displeased when I mentioned the child’s predicament. Why did he not tell anyone else in the Order?”

“You’re right.” Minerva’s lips thin as she thinks on Nizar’s words. “Not telling anyone about you—the child—that I can understand, at least until a certain point. It makes no sense to keep the rest of the Order ignorant about the rest of the Horcruxes though. Not when we could then be taught how to discern and destroy them, as you demonstrated with the…” Minerva glances at Salazar, who merely inclines his head. He can cope with its mention. “With Marion’s locket.”

“Until I understand why he refused to share pertinent tactical information with his allies, there are certain things I will not trust to Albus Dumbledore,” Nizar says. “He has gained points by responding positively to Salazar, but there is a literal list of reasons why I am cautious.”

“A list. The same one Severus mentioned, I presume.” Minerva puts down her empty teacup. “Is this what tomorrow evening’s discussion will revolve around?”

Nizar nods. “Yes, and I don’t think it’s going to be a pleasant one.”

His brother escorts them from his quarters not long afterward, claiming that he really is going to be sleeping that night rather than wandering around like a sleepless ghost. Given the tired cast of his features, Salazar believes him.

Salazar Apparates himself and Minerva back to his own quarters. “You’re all right?”

Minerva hesitates before nodding. “I am. I am still…I’m still saddened to lose my boy, but I also feel so very grateful that you decided to be such a Slytherin meddler.”

Salazar smiles and kisses her forehead. “Lioness, it’s quite literally in the blood to be such.”

Chapter Text

“You sure you want to go alone, mate?” Remus asks him for the sixteenth time.

Sirius knows because he can remember every single instance, all of them in the last two bloody hours. “Yes. I’m really certain. I’m not going to the house, Remus. I was there on Hallowe’en night in 1981, and that was enough for me.”

Remus is still giving Sirius a look that says he doesn’t believe a word of it. Joke’s on him; it’s all true. “All right. Send a Patronus if you do something stupid, all right?”

Sirius nods. He’s only made the mistake of not doing so one time. Never again. “I will. See you at Hogwarts after dinner.”

Sirius Floos out of Twelve Grimmauld Place to the public Floo hub at King’s Cross for the Hogsmeade platform. The train running north has already gone for the day and the southbound won’t be in until after dark, so security is nothing more than a bored Auror trainee who half-heartedly points at wand at Sirius.

“Should, I, uh, arrest you?” the kid asks. Sirius thinks she’s nineteen if she’s a day, and already signed up to fight wars.

He really can’t comment on her life choices. He was just as stupid.

“What does your boss say about that, kid?” Sirius asks, refusing to move in any way that would signal going for a wand. He isn’t in danger; he can Apparate faster than this poor trainee can cast spells.

The kid looks miffed. “My name is Penelope Clearwater, thank you very much. I was a student when you were…visiting Hogwarts.”

“Visiting. Nice euphemism for being out of my skull, I suppose,” Sirius replies cheerfully. “Tell Kingsley I said hello, all right?”

“Er.” Clearwater blinks a few times. “Certainly. Sir. Your Grace. What do I call you?”

“Sirius,” he answers her, and then Apparates straight to Godric’s Hollow. It’s a bit farther than he wants to Apparate in a single hop, but he also doesn’t want to be stopped by every magician roaming around the safe Apparition zones in England.

Sirius leans against the tree and breathes out a sigh of relief when the non-magical villagers nearby don’t notice his arrival. The Disillusionment Charm on the tree held up pretty well, then. He was taking a chance by using it, but he, James, and Lily meant it to be permanent, a way for everyone to come and go without having visitors Apparating into the back garden while hoping nosy neighbors weren’t peering over the hedge.

Sirius glances at the piece of paper he’s holding. “Bathilda Bagshot, Door’s Lane, Number Eight. All right, writer of my most hated school textbook. Let’s give you a ring and see if you’re at home. In any sense of the word.”

He walks down the street and turns onto the lane. The daffodils are sprouting along with spring grass, adding a bit of color to what is otherwise a very drab part of Godric’s Hollow. Sirius recalls walking this way once with Lily and James when they were still engaged, exploring the place they were going to live in together. There wasn’t yet a prophecy to worry about, a Fidelius Charm, or a fucking traitorous rat. Just the three of them, living in a village as utterly unlike London as one can get without running off to live in Hogsmeade. Sirius loved Godric’s Hollow immediately, like a feeling ringing happily in his bones. This was Godric Gryffindor’s home, and Sirius was proud to be of that man’s House.

“Thank God,” Sirius mutters as he finally makes it to Number Eight, which is further down the lane than he expected. He didn’t come here for that sort of introspection. He doesn’t want it, not right now. He would run right over to his spouses’ broken house and sob over the threshold.

Number Eight of Door’s Lane looks ramshackle and unkempt. The garden isn’t too bad, but the house needed a spot of paint at least twenty years ago. If that roof weren’t tin, the shingles would all be lying in the grass. Sirius counts it good that the windows are all intact and the pile isn’t tilting to one side.

“Someone forgot their Structural Preservation Charms,” Sirius murmurs as he mounts the front step, two layers of old, weather-rounded marble. There isn’t a chime, but a string attached to a bell. He shrugs and pulls it. The bell rings far too loudly right next to his bloody ear, but the sound also repeats just as loudly throughout the house. If the lady is home, she’ll know she has a visitor.

Please be home. He’s so curious at this point about Albus’s fucking motivations that he might be too tempted to break in and rifle through everything.

After a good two minutes, Sirius hears someone shuffling their way towards the door. Then the weathered grey door swings inward on squeaky hinges, spilling sunlight into the foyer of the old house. The light illuminates Bathilda Bagshot in unforgiving detail: she has coarse, thick white hair messily piled up onto her head, piercing brown eyes that look borderline unfriendly, and enough wrinkles gathered on her Irish skin that it might be possible to hide Galleons in those deep folds. Her clothes needed to be updated about the same time as her house’s paint, and she’s wearing two different shawls, all of it drab.

When Sirius was a young arsehole, he would have mocked her for being so shabby. Now he just feels fucking awful for her. “Madam Bagshot?”

That gets him a bit more animation than the blank stare she’d been offering. “It’s Professor Bagshot if you’re being polite, young sir. Might I help you?”

“I was rather hoping you could help me, but I’m not selling anything,” Sirius quips, and earns himself a smile. Door-to-door salesmen; Lily used to complain that they were the absolute worst. “My name is Sirius Black—”

“Oh!” Bagshot’s voice rises in shock and joy. “Oh, I thought I recognized you, young Mister Potter!”

Sirius feels the bottom fall out of his stomach. “No. Uh, er. It’s still…it’s Black, Professor Bagshot.”

“But you did marry him, didn’t you dearie?” Bagshot cackles and waves for Sirius to step inside. Sirius steels himself and does so, hoping the floor is solid in the house. He doesn’t want to discover what Bagshot’s basement is like. “When blokes and ladies marry, they take the other’s name!”

“We never could decide what to do about that, actually.” Sirius hangs his jacket on a free wooden peg. There’s a spot of dust here and there, but the house smells like lemon, beeswax, and a healthy dose of sage. “Lily solved the problem for us by taking both our names. Lily Juniper Evans Black Potter.”

“Isn’t that quite the mouthful!” Bagshot marvels. She neatly hooks him by the elbow and steers him into her small sitting room, which is a straight shot from the door. From there, a hallway leads to what looks like a narrow staircase for the second storey. A clean, airy kitchen is visible through an open archway; another room is marked by its closed door. “I haven’t had a proper visitor in too long. Can you eat cake, or do you have one of those conditions that make it difficult?”

“I—tea is fine. Biscuits. I can’t recall the last time I had…” He trails off. Right. Cake. He’d last had a cake with Harry during fourth-year, when Harry could get away from that damned Triwizard Tournament nonsense to visit the cave in Hogsmeade.

Sirius pulls himself together. “I imagine your cake is divine, but perhaps another day.”

Bagshot nods, appeased. “Tea and biscuits it is, then. Feel free to look about, if you like, but don’t you go invading my privacy, young Mister Black!”

“Cross my heart,” Sirius promises, smiling his most charming Black smile. She bustles into the kitchen, but it’s a slow sort of bustling that definitely speaks of advanced years. Sirius doesn’t know how old Bagshot is; he only knows she published Hogwarts: A History in 1936. One of the first printings of her book is in the Black family library, signed by the author herself in a firm hand.

Bagshot has a lot of pictures on her walls in expensive gilt frames, the first sign of wealth he’s seen in the house. Many of them are old Wizarding black-and-white photos, or the sepia tone that the magical world adopted well before the Muggles did. The paintings are more interesting, vibrant and colorful. He thinks one of them is a portrait of Bagshot herself, who was already white-haired when it was painted in 1942.

Sirius peers closer at one photograph that is of two young men in something closer to color, but not quite there yet. One is tall, thin, blond, and looks like a bit of an arrogant tosser. The other is not quite as tall, red-haired, delicate hands. They both have blue eyes. Body language—definitely a couple.

“Oh, I see you’ve noticed my great-nephew and his young man,” Bagshot says as she returns to the sitting room with a tea tray. True to her word, there isn’t a bit of cake to be seen. The biscuits might give him blood sugar issues, they’re so covered in icing, but he’ll cope.

“Great-nephew and his young man.” Sirius always likes seeing reminders that Wizarding Britain remembered to keep some aspects of the old gender considerations alive, even if they did a shoddy job of it for a long time. “Why don’t you introduce me?”

“I’d like to.” Bagshot’s expression falls into muted dismay as she settles down on the armchair across from the table holding the tray. “He’s in Nurmengard. They’ll never let me see him, and they’ll never let him out. I blame myself, some days.”

Sirius stares at her. “You mean that this is Gellert Grindelwald.”

“My great-nephew.” Bagshot lets out a great sniff and pours tea with shaking hands. Nothing sloshes or spills, but he can tell it’s hard for her. “My youngest nephew’s son. My brother, he was Elemer Grindelwald, married to dear Soffia Blau, and they had Keve, Gellert’s father. Our mother’s family was Austro-Hungarian, but father’s family was from Imperial Germany. My mother and father knew there would be tensions between our families due to the way things were at the time, so they eventually moved us all to England. Godric’s Hollow was such a nice place to settle…”

Sirius sits down on the sofa across from her. He considers the dull cast of her eyes, picks up her teacup, and presses into her hand. “Drink this, all right?”

Bagshot sips at her tea like a robot in one of Remus’s spooky Muggle science-fiction novels. A bit of life comes back to her eyes, at least, and Sirius breathes out a sigh of relief. Merlin, this woman needs to be in a care home. If that isn’t possible, she needs someone here. She’s already a bit dotty, possibly well on her way to being truly senile.

“Do you like your tea, dear?” Bagshot asks, her desire to be a good hostess causing her to snap all the way back into being present.

Sirius smiles and takes a sip. “It’s excellent,” he lies. She boiled the leaves too long. “You were telling me that you were from Hungary.”

Bagshot nods, selecting a biscuit with a heaping helping of marzipan slathered over it. “It was still an empire back then, dearie. Father had left Germany to live with our mother in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. I was Bathilda Panka Grindelwald in those days. I’d married a good Hungarian man, Lél Bagshot, before we came to Britain. Lél bought us this house, and we lived here until he died. Spanish Influenza,” she says sadly. “It didn’t do much to us witches and wizards, but my darling was a Muggle. It took Lél from me before we’d even had children. After that, I found myself looking into history, or looking after the family’s young ones.”

“I’m very sorry. I—I do know what it’s like. To lose your loved ones too soon.”

Bagshot reaches across the table to pat his knee. “I know, dear. Gellert wasn’t always trouble, you know. None of them ever are, not at first. Even children choose if they’re going to be misbehaving little louts.”

Sirius tries not to wince. “Yes, they do.” He’d chosen to be a complete prick.

“Gellert was a very intelligent boy,” Bagshot says. “Good head on his shoulders. Hogwarts was a good school, but my nephew Keve insisted that Durmstrang was the school for all of his children. I didn’t much like the idea. Even in those days, Durmstrang had a certain reputation. Alas, I was merely Keve’s aunt, not his dearly departed mother, so off to Durmstrang Gellert went.”

Bagshot sighs. “Durmstrang wasn’t good for Gellert. It was a cold place, and I think it made him cold, too. He was expelled at age sixteen.”

Sirius whistles. “I’m—shocked to hear that.” From what he overheard as a child, it takes a hell of a lot to convince Durmstrang to eject you.

“It was a terrible blow. Poor Keve, he never recovered, thinking his brightest son was now a failure. I took Gellert in that year. I thought maybe he might need a nice change of scenery.” Bagshot chews on a marzipan horror-biscuit for a bit. “There were two other magical boys in Godric’s Hollow that summer, Albus and Aberforth Dumbledore. Albus was about to begin his seventh-year in Hogwarts. Such a bright, clever lad, that one. Aberforth and Gellert didn’t seem to get on well, but Albus and Gellert…”

Bagshot gives Sirius a heartbroken smile. “They were meant for each other, they were. They fit like marble puzzle pieces crafted by that Muggle artist, Michelangelo. Gellert was smiling again. He was shining again, and I thought, ‘Maybe he’ll be all right. Maybe Durmstrang hasn’t broken this one yet.”

Sirius stares at her before jerking his thumb over his shoulder. “The boy in that picture of Gellert—that’s Albus Dumbledore?”

Bagshot nods. “It certainly is. His family lived here in Godric’s Hollow for quite a while, you know. They moved here from Scotland back in…oh, 1895, it was. I was hosting Gellert during the summer in 1898, so I introduced Gellert to Albus on his seventeenth birthday. Oh, they were both smitten at once. I still have some of the letters they wrote to each other. Then they had a terrible spat the very next spring when sweet Ariana died. Gellert left England, and I never saw him again until he was in the newspapers, the declared enemy of all Magical Europe.”

“Christ.” Sirius sips at his ruined tea, uncaring of the taste. Grindelwald and Dumbledore? A couple? Grindelwald was supposed to have had designs on becoming a Dark Wizard while still attending Durmstrang, let alone afterwards!

“I tried to stay in touch with them both, Albus and Aberforth. Such nice boys. Such a sad, small family by then. Aberforth is a bit standoffish, but Albus still speaks to me. He was a good resource regarding Hogwarts when I wrote my book. You’ve read my book, haven’t you?” Bagshot asks.

Sirius manages a smile. “Of course. It’s very good.” That lie is a bit harder to force through his teeth than the one about the tea. “My family has a copy that you signed yourself. We value our history.” Nizar and Salazar are busy tearing the book to shreds for being inaccurate, but he doesn’t need to tell this poor woman that her research was all based on history that was manipulated and falsified back in the thirteenth century.

“Oh, bugger!” Sirius puts down his teacup. “I almost forgot one of the reasons I came to pay you a visit, Professor.”

Bagshot isn’t willing to let things continue until she’s fed him another of the marzipan-coated biscuits. He hopes his teeth forgive him. “What did bring you out here, then? Not my tea and biscuits, certainly.”

“No, ma’am. It’s…I found a letter from one of my spouses. From Lily. It’s dated September of 1981.” Sirius fishes an altered version of her letter out of his pocket and hands it over to Bagshot. This one omits Lily’s ranting about Dumbledore’s odd choices. It only mentions that Dumbledore wished for Lily to meet with Bagshot. “I was hoping you might remember what this was all about.”

Bagshot pulls a pair of tiny spectacles out of her robe pocket and drops them onto the end of her nose. “Oh! Yes. Albus mentioned that he thought it would be nice of me to provide the Potter family with a friendly face. It wasn’t to be, alas; Lily never came to the house, and then that terrible business with You-Know-Who occurred.”

“Yes, but—the house was under the Fidelius Charm.” Sirius chews up the biscuit to be rid of it. “No one was supposed to visit the house except for their Secret Keeper, and even that was dodgy work, Professor. Why was Albus risking my family’s safety for you to go and visit them?”

“Oh, I don’t think it was such a risk as all that,” Bagshot says airily. “A young couple like that with their first child, they need a good matronly figure in their life. Albus was just being neighborly, same as I once did for him. Oh! Did you know that Albus and my Gellert were good friends?”

Sirius sits back on the sofa, biting back several dozen inappropriate words. This isn’t like that robotic distance. Bagshot’s eyes are still bright and merry, but it’s obvious she’s no longer sitting with him in 1996. Fuck. “I didn’t know that, no. I don’t suppose you kept any letters of theirs, did you? I’d love to see what old Albus was like back in those days.”

He doesn’t know if it’s going to work until Bagshot smiles and gets to her feet. “I certainly do, young man! You just wait here. I’ll fetch them for you.”

Sirius waits until she disappears into that closed room before he turns around and uses his wand to duplicate the photo of Gellert Grindelwald and Albus Dumbledore. He has no bloody idea what he’s just stumbled into. To be Grindelwald’s great-aunt, Bagshot has to be at least one hundred forty years old. If she’s dotty now, she might have been dotty in 1981, too. Given how much she’s carried on about Gellert and Albus, Bagshot could have rattled off the Fidelius Charm’s secret to any fucking Death Eater who complimented her biscuits. Asking Lily to take that risk makes no fucking sense at all.

“Here you are, young man,” Bagshot says proudly as she returns, carrying a worn green pocket folder in her hands. “It’s not all of what they wrote, of course, but when I cleaned out the Dumbledore cottage after both Albus and Aberforth moved away, Albus left quite a few of these behind. I kept them in case he ever wished to have them back. You’ll see to it that he gets them, won’t you, Sirius? You’re on the school governing board. It won’t be too hard to get a meeting with Hogwarts’ Transfiguration professor!”

Sirius tries not to feel entirely creeped out over being mistaken for his dead grandfather. “I can certainly do my best, Professor Bagshot. Thank you very much for your hospitality today.”

“Oh, it’s not trouble at all, Sirius, you old flirt! What would your wife say?” Bagshot teases him.

Sirius is not going cringe. He isn’t. No. “I imagine Hesper would throttle the life out of me. You have a good day now, Bathilda.”

“Oh, off with you!” Bagshot shows him to the door and then gives her garden a confused look. “Botheration. The elves haven’t gotten it right yet! DISSY!” she yells as she turns back around. “Where are you hiding, you fool of an elf?”

Sirius pulls the door shut, cutting off Bagshot’s voice mid-rant. Someone definitely needs to get this woman into a Wizarding home for the elderly. Ten bloody years ago.

He finds the Gilded Iron Pub in the village square looking exactly the same as it did in 1980. He had good pints here with James and Remus when Lily told them she was pregnant. Maybe the beer will still be good.

“Can I get you anything?” a young man with a pencil behind his ear asks Sirius after he sits down.

Sirius rubs his face with one hand and sighs. “Stiffest beer you’ve got on draught that’s not liquor or illegal, and perhaps a good meat pie. Anything on special?”

“The mutton’s excellent today,” the waiter says with a bright smile. Sirius notices the tattoos climbing both sides of the kid’s neck and approves. He has a lot of those, himself. He’s still trying to remember which ones he got for good reasons, and which ones he has for bad ones. Fucking Dementors.

“Mutton it is, then. Thank you.”

Sirius waits until he’s downed half a pint of beer strong enough to escape the glass and crawl down his throat on its own before he opens up the worn green folder. A cloud of dust puffs up right into his face. Sirius coughs, glances around, and then uses a quiet charm to get rid of it. That was rank dust, proving that not all of Bathilda Bagshot’s house is as clean as her sitting room and kitchen.

There are only five letters in Bagshot’s old folder. They’re all completely fucking horrifying.

This was Albus as a seventeen-year-old? The champion of the downtrodden, the leader of the Order of the Phoenix? Defeater of Grindelwald to end the European Wizarding War? Coordinator of the only real defence for Wizarding Britain during the last war? This?

He shouldn’t have drunk that beer so fast, not without the pie to go with it. He feels like he’s going to vomit.

 

18thJanuary 1899

Hogwarts School of Witchcraft & Wizardry, Scotland

 

Gellert,

Your point about Wizard dominance being FOR THE MUGGLES' OWN GOOD - this, I think, is the crucial point. Yes, we have been given power and yes, that power gives us the right to rule, but it also gives us responsibilities over the ruled. We must stress this point, it will be the foundation stone upon which we build. Where we are opposed, as we surely will be, this must be the basis of all our counterarguments. We seize control FOR THE GREATER GOOD. And from this it follows that where we meet resistance, we must use only the force that is necessary and no more. (This was your mistake at Durmstrang! But I do not complain, because if you had not been expelled, we would never have met.)

—Albus

 

“Albus, you complete prick,” Sirius mutters under his breath. For the Greater Good was Grindelwald’s rallying cry during the European War, and Albus coined it.

How many times has Sirius heard Albus Dumbledore say that they were acting for the Greater Good? How many fucking times, and yet he never put the pieces together? Sirius has a bloody eidetic memory, and he never noticed.

For the Greater Good.

Sirius shoves the letters into the folder, the folder into his jacket, and then bolts for the men’s toilet. He barely makes it before he’s losing beer, bad tea, and two horrific biscuits to a commode.

He washes his face and rinses his mouth at the sink before scrubbing his hands. It isn’t quite enough. Scalding himself in the shower at home for six hours might not be enough.

Sirius gazes into the smudged bathroom mirror. “Albus, you were going to use my son to win this war. I don’t know if you meant for Harry to survive or not, but you were still using a child as your tool. For your damned Greater Good.”

Nizar told him this in January, and Sirius heard him, but the belief wasn’t there. Not really. Saying it aloud makes it real, and it doesn’t help at all.

Right now, there is only one thing Sirius knows to be true. Dumbledore has shown by his actions on many occasions that he wants Tom Riddle defeated. Albus Dumbledore wants to end the war.

The question to ask now is daunting in its false simplicity: why?

Sirius returns to his booth, finds his tattooed server waiting for him with the pie, and asks for it to be bagged up for takeaway. He can’t stand the thought of trying to eat lunch right now.

“You all right, mate?” the waiter asks in concern as he brings back a properly folded, stapled sack.

“I was reading my mail and got some bad news. Thanks.” Sirius takes the bag, pays his bill, and leaves a decent tip behind for a server who barely waited on him at all.

Sirius exits the pub, folder in his jacket and the bag clenched in his hand. He means to walk straight to the Apparition point, but he isn’t thinking about it beyond letting his feet carry him.

Too late, he realizes that a different habit took over. He’s standing on the walkway, right before the gate for the house on Old Oak Row.

Despite the damage it took in 1981, the cottage is holding up all right, even though it’s nearly buried in ivy. The stone walls were old when Lycorus Black was still young, the mortar magically reinforced when the cottage was built.

Sirius looks at the second floor, where the window and part of the wall was blown apart by the force of Voldemort’s rebounding Killing Curse. No repairs were ever done. The wind, rain, and snow have probably destroyed Harry’s old nursery. Someone did try to repair the blasted-open front door, but it’s a bad job. The wood is buckled, fit back together poorly, and the door hangs crooked on its hinges.

He tells himself that he isn’t going inside. He’s seen it. He doesn’t want to see it again.

Sirius puts his hand on the gate. The moment he does, a sign sprouts up from the tangled weeds covering the stone path leading to the front door. He stares at it, nonplussed, until the letters on the sign begin to make sense.

 

On this spot, on the night of 31st October 1981, Lily and James Potter lost their lives. Their son Harry remains the only wizard ever to have survived the Killing Curse. This house, invisible to Muggles, has been left in its ruined state as a monument to the Potters, and as a reminder of the violence that tore apart their family.

 

“The fuck is wrong with you?” Sirius hisses at the sign. That is one of the most sanctimonious bits of false sentiment he’s ever read in his life, and he’s a fucking Black. It must have been approved by Cornelius Fudge, though it definitely wasn’t Fudge who wrote it.

He does appreciate the graffiti, though. He was Muggle punk in the 1970s and he loved every moment of it. All of the messages and well-wishing carved and inked into the sign and signpost appeal to his loathing of rules created by and for “proper” society.

“I always did wonder what took out the Fidelius Charm, what with you still being alive.”

Sirius flinches and starts to draw his wand as he turns around. Rufus Scrimgeour is standing alone, leaning on his cane, no wand drawn. He’s not looking at Sirius, but regarding the Potter cottage.

He makes himself put his wand away. He isn’t going to be making friends with the Aurors if he starts hexing them just because the bastards make him nervous. “Rufus.”

“Sirius.” Rufus nods at Sirius before his eyes return to the blown-out second storey nursery. “What brings you here?”

“I was in Godric’s Hollow to visit the pub I used to go to with—with James and Lily.” And Remus, and Peter, when they could manage it, all five of them together in those rare moments before the war got so much worse. “Then I was going to leave, and I just…” Sirius tries to unclench his fist and can’t quite manage it. “Why are you here?”

“You put your hand on the gate. There is an old warning charm on it, placed back when you first escaped Azkaban,” Rufus explains. “I thought it’d best be me to come investigate.”

“To arrest me?” Sirius asks. He again reminds himself that he can Apparate faster than most people can draw their wands, and that does include Rufus Scrimgeour.

He hopes it does. Rufus was always a sly bastard.

Rufus shakes his head. “I won’t be arresting magical nobility. I’m not in the mood to commit political suicide.” He hesitates. “I should have asked.”

Sirius frowns. “Asked about what?”

“Asked you about what happened then.” Rufus finally stops looking at the house to regard Sirius, a vaguely puzzled expression on his face. “You don’t remember, do you?”

“Not until you decide to become a hell of a lot more specific, I don’t,” Sirius retorts.

“Oh.” Rufus sighs. “I was one of the Aurors who arrested you. Mid-afternoon of first November, 1981. I didn’t ask you a single question, Sirius. You looked to have lost your bloody mind, so it didn’t seem worth the effort.

“I didn’t do my job proper at all. I let my anger at all those wrongs we’d seen do my thinking for me. I always told myself afterwards that it didn’t matter. We were all dead certain you were guilty…right up until Queen Elizabeth granted amnesty and a war mage’s title to a fugitive. Everyone in the M.L.E. heard my swearing in response to that, and it was swearing I kept at until I stopped to think on it.”

“Right.” Sirius is glad the house is at his back. The cottage has ancient, immobile one-way Apparition wards on it that keep anyone from hopping into the garden or just appearing in the house—one of the old Potters had a thing about manners. “And your thinking resulted in what, exactly?”

“Her Majesty’s no fool, is what I know. I’ve never met her, but I served during World War II, same as she did, even if my service was on the magical side of things.” Rufus adjusts his grip on his cane. “If she thought you were innocent, there must have been a good reason for it. Well—that and magical titles won’t accept someone who’d violate others the way the Potter family was violated.”

“And the fact that I married them?” Sirius asks, feeling anger bubbling just beneath his heart.

“That, too,” Rufus admits, grimacing. “Don’t think much of that sort of marriage, but it’s not my business.”

Sirius grits his teeth. “No. It’s not.”

Rufus ignores his temper. “Kingsley told me that we’re all on the lookout for a dead rat. Course, no matter which of you it was, the Secret Keeper is still alive. I always wondered why the Fidelius Charm wasn’t still hiding this house. That’s part of the reason I was so damned certain it was you who’d done it.”

“You don’t know much about the old loyalty charms, do you?” Sirius can’t help a bitter smile when Rufus glares at him. “It isn’t that Peter told someone else the words for the Fidelius, Rufus. It’s that he told the enemy how to get in. It’s the betrayal that breaks a Fidelius Charm.”

Rufus spits on the walk. “Betrayal. Yes, I suppose that would do it.”

Sirius nods. He isn’t surprised in the slightest that Rufus has yet to apologize for any of it, but that’s the way the man works. He’ll explain himself and that’s all he feels is necessary. Rufus’s way of doing things used to drive James mental when he was still an active Auror. He always claimed that Alastor was easier to work with, and Alastor was already out of his God damned mind in 1978.

“I know you were here first. Hagrid told us so, back then.” Rufus is looking at the house again. “That was part of the evidence trail we were so blindly certain of. How did you know?”

“Albus didn’t tell you.” Sirius rolls his eyes. Somehow, he isn’t surprised. “Albus sent a Patronus to myself and Hagrid, Rufus. We were together at the time, looking into something one of the Macnairs had done. Hagrid told me to go on ahead. He’d catch up on the bike I’d lent him the moment Hagrid got more involved with the war, what with it being true that giants don’t Apparate. I Apparated straight here, found the Fidelius Charm gone and the door blown open, and…”

Sirius’s throat clamps shut. He can’t say it. He didn’t lose these memories. The Dementors could feast on this pain. It’s so clear in his head that he can see it as if it’s all happening again.

“I’ll be having a word with Albus, then,” Rufus says in annoyance. “We know it must have been fast. What with the wands being where they were, the bodies…that’s the other thing that seemed so damning. You were here first.”

The bubbling temper is gone, replaced by cold rage. “You mean Pettigrew had to have been here with Voldemort when he gave the fucking bastard the words to the Fidelius Charm. Peter would have seen it happen.”

Rufus spits again. “James was a smart lad, Sirius. He would have known the moment the Fidelius was broken, and he still wasn’t prepared for it. Too fast. All of it happened too damned fast.”

Sirius realizes he’s tearing a hole through the bag of takeaway with his fingers and tries to loosen his grip. “I have to go. Talk to you later, Rufus.”

“If you see Pettigrew—”

Sirius turns and offers Rufus a snide look that Snape would be proud of. “Don’t worry. I’ll leave Pettigrew to you.”

The Apparition back to the public hub at King’s Cross makes his stomach churn. Clearwater is still on duty, but at least this time she doesn’t draw her wand. If anything, she looks worried.

“Look like shit, do I?” Sirius asks.

Clearwater nods. “Like you’ve suddenly taken sick. Are you all right, sir? Er, Sirius?”

“Had a spot of bad news with a bad biscuit. Terrible combination, don’t recommend it.” Sirius takes a breath. “Is there powder available?”

Clearwater points at the smaller Floo and a jar of waiting Floo Powder. Sirius thanks her and then casts his Patronus. The sight of his own Animagus form has always bolstered his spirits, and God, but he needs that right now.

The words are harder, given that Nizar might be in company. “Nizar, I’ve stumbled over something that fits under the purview of your brother’s special project.”

The Basilisk Patronus is swift to appear. “The Floo’s not warded. Come through.”

Sirius sighs in relief, tosses in the powder, names his destination, and hops into the flame, hoping he won’t arrive and start dry heaving all over his son’s hearth. He stumbles out in one of his less elegant exits and is caught by Salazar before he can fall directly to the floor.

“Good gods, what have you gotten into? You smell like a dust bin,” Salazar says while taking the bag. “And you’ve brought bribery!”

“Have at it. I’ve already vomited once today, and I don’t think the pie would help.” Sirius flops down onto the nearest sofa and closes his eyes until everything stops spinning. “I thought Nizar would be here.”

“You’re early, and you mentioned needing to speak to me. If you wish for Nizar to be present…”

“No—well, actually, I just want to borrow the bathroom and scald myself in hot water for a while. Oh, fuck me.” Sirius gets the folder out of his jacket and passes it over, glad to be thinking of batty fucking Bagshot again. “An innocent visit to Bathilda Bagshot to discover why Albus was trying to convince Lily to let Bagshot visit the cottage in autumn of 1981? That part didn’t go so well. The rest of it was worse.”

Salazar pulls out the thin sheaf of letters. He reads them quickly, a dark frown growing on his face with each one. “My brother is fond of saying that seventeen-year-olds make mistakes. Do these words read as if they’re mistakes to you, Sirius Black?”

Sirius shakes his head. “Albus has sounded like that for as long as I’ve known him—well, without the Wizarding supremacy bit. The rest of it, that fucking Greater Good shit? That’s Albus all over.”

Salazar shoves the letters back into the folder. “I’m not certain if I should allow Nizar to see these. There are very specific rules that accompany his title, and some of what is written here violates what he must uphold as both Protectoris and as a war mage.”

“You think it’s that bad, then?” Sirius asks. He’d very much like to be told he’s overreacting.

Salazar settles onto the other sofa and stares at Sirius. “I still don’t know what Dumbledore’s ultimate goal is beyond winning the war against Voldemort. As to what these letters will come to prove? I’ve no idea, though if it makes you feel better, Helga would have killed the man already.”

Sirius drops his head back and stares up at the ceiling. That doesn’t actually make him feel any better at all.

Chapter Text

Nizar resists the urge to beat a third-year with an essay. Again. “Miss Ollivander, I’m telling you that if you insist upon turning in this essay as it stands, right now, I will fail you and make you write it again. You may wish to reconsider your decision.”

“But why?” Miss Ollivander asks, her lip pushed out in a ferocious scowl. He’s seen some excellent Pure-blood scowls in his time, but when she is offended, Miss Ollivander excels at them. “My great-uncle is the best wandmaker in Britain!”

Nizar rolls his eyes. “I don’t care if he’s the best wandmaker in the entire world. Your great-uncle is still only one source. How many sources are you meant to be using when writing these essays, Miss Ollivander?”

Miss Ollivander looks to be pondering drowning Nizar in the Black Lake. “Four sources aside from our original Defence textbooks,” she finally grates out.

“Four is not one.” Nizar holds out the scroll. “Find more sources aside from Garrick Ollivander.”

Miss Ollivander snatches the essay out of his hands and flounces her way out of his office. Nizar contemplates banging his face against his own desk. He’s never met anyone as stubbornly spiteful as a Pure-blood teenage girl who believes she’s in the right—unless they happened to be a Black and a teenage girl. That was always worse.

Speaking of Blacks.

Nizar checks to see if anyone is lurking in his classroom or out in the hall before he retreats back to his office, flips the cast-iron S, and enters his quarters. Salazar is pacing the length of the room, looking distinctly unhappy. Sirius Black is resting on Nizar’s sofa, bemoaning his lack of being pissed.

“It’s two in the afternoon,” Nizar says. “What can you possibly have done that requires that much alcohol at this time of day?”

Sirius removes his gaze from his contemplation of Nizar’s ceiling to stare at him. “I didn’t do it! I’m not a—a bloody Wizarding Nazi!”

“Your parents would be so disappointed,” Nizar responds dryly. Walburga and Orion both had been far too fond of Grindelwald’s nonsense, though Regulus always claimed that Orion became a bit more sane in later years. “Why are we discussing Wizarding Nazis?”

“I went to Godric’s Hollow before lunch to see Bathilda Bagshot regarding that letter I told you about,” Sirius explains. He looks pale, as if he’s recently been ill. “She’s Gellert Grindelwald’s bloody great-aunt.”

“Oh. You would have found out about Grindelwald and Dumbledore’s past association then,” Nizar realizes. “Aberforth told Severus and myself about it this past weekend, though it took bribery to get Aberforth to admit it.”

“I have a bloody photo of them in my robe pocket.” Sirius holds it out for Nizar to take. “Copied it while gaga Bagshot was off fetching evidence for me while thinking I was my own bloody grandfather.”

Dumbledore is easily recognizable in the photograph. He isn’t much older than the red-haired Gryffindor scamp who once snuck into the Slytherin dormitories for a midnight tryst. Grindelwald has sandy blond hair in a cut that wasn’t fashionable at the time, and his face looks like it was chiseled in granite. Nizar supposes Grindelwald might have been considered handsome to someone ignoring that deep-set frown and the ice in his gaze. “Charming.” Nizar gives the photograph back to Sirius, who grasps it only long enough to drop it on the nearest table.

Salazar holds out a green folder that smells as if it murdered dust and then mouldered in the remains. “You’ll want to read these.”

“These being…” Nizar opens the folder and leans back when a worse odor strikes his nose. The mouldering dust is kinder. “Letters. I see. It’s to be a theme on the day, then.”

“I liked yours better,” Salazar mutters, and resumes pacing.

“That is not encouraging me to want to read—” Nizar breaks off when he notices the signature on the first page. “Never mind. Give me a moment.”

Nizar closes the folder after reading all five letters. Dumbledore’s enthusiastic agreement with Gellert Grindelwald’s plans for the world is…unsettling. If these letters had not been written nearly one hundred years ago, Nizar would right now be tossing this school’s Headmaster from his own tower. “I need to leave for a bit to speak to someone. If you hear an explosion originating from Hogsmeade, it’s probably safe to ignore it. If an angry Scotsman storms the castle, just give him Dumbledore and he’ll happily depart.”

“Aberforth?” Sirius asks without rising from the sofa. Salazar has stopped pacing long enough to approve of the idea of consulting with Aberforth.

Nizar nods. “Sal, I know you have class at three. Please cover my remaining office hour and shut the classroom door afterwards. Back soon,” he says, and Apparates after tucking the folder under his arm to secure its contents. Aberforth mentioned nothing of this regarding his brother but for the youthful indiscretion with Grindelwald. Nizar needs to know if Aberforth was aware and said nothing, thinking it unimportant, or if Albus Dumbledore hid the whole of his original post-graduation plans from his younger siblings.

Hogsmeade has its usual quiet flow of magicians wandering about the village, which has a scrim of ice on the ground and makes Nizar wish he’d brought a cloak. At least Kanza is in front of the hearth, not wrapped around his neck in a stranglehold of protest.

Nizar still wants to see Hogsmeade when the students visit, hoping they grant the place a bit more life. Castleview had been lively, all the time. Hogsmeade is almost dull in comparison.

Nizar reaches the Hogs Head Inn and pushes open the door to step inside, knocking the frost from his boots before crossing the threshold. Aberforth is at the bar, glaring at Mundungus Fletcher and an apparent partner in literal crime. There is only one other patron, a blonde woman with crystal-studded spectacles sitting at a table, glaring sullenly at a half-full bottle of Firewhiskey. Nizar has a brief moment of thinking he recognizes her, but then it’s gone. Someone he noticed within the Ministry, perhaps. Her lime green jacket is rather distinctive, but fortunately it’s not an eyesore.

“Hello, Nizar,” Aberforth greets him, his eyes still pinned on the other two. “Bit late for lunch, if that’s what you’re seeking.”

“I needed to speak with you, actually. You may break those two in half afterwards.” Nizar smiles at Fletcher and company as they hurriedly break off their meeting and escape the inn. “Or not. That’s too bad.” He notices the sullen woman give him a brief, assessing look before pretending to ignore him.

“Skeeter!” Aberforth yells at her. “You behave yourself in my inn, and remember the rules!”

Nizar raises an eyebrow. That is the woman who wrote a year’s worth of defaming articles about the child, and who then worked with Fudge to write a fictitious, damning article about Britain’s war mages? He expected someone a bit more vivacious.

“Of course I do,” Skeeter snaps at Aberforth. “Nothing I’ve heard or seen leaves this inn, even if it supports my writing,” she adds, glancing at Nizar.

Nizar smiles at her, an expression closer to the borderline snarl that Ratier Gibbon experienced at Malfoy Manor. “I’m a war mage, Madam Skeeter. Killing the deserving is part of the job. It’s simply too bad that the crime of libel is not punishable by death.”

Skeeter lifts her chin and sniffs haughtily. “Everyone likes a good bit of embellishment.”

“Tell that to the seventeen-year-old young woman you maligned, not to mention all the others who’ve suffered due to your lovely embellishments,” Nizar replies in an icy voice. “Please do my friend the favor of departing from his establishment.”

Skeeter narrows her eyes, but she snags the bottle of Firewhiskey, tucks it into her handbag, and makes her way from the inn with a decent attempt at courtly grace. “I will see you next week, Aberforth!” she chirps as she opens the door.

“Spare me the honor,” Aberforth mutters. “Did you have to frighten the lot of them off?” he asks in a growl after gesturing for Nizar to follow him into the back room.

“I only wished for Skeeter to leave, but that’s because I also wanted to fucking kill her,” Nizar replies after the door closes behind them. The fire burning in the hearth is pleasant, warming him after his trek over the frosted ground. “The other two made up their own minds.”

“Fletcher might have been getting useful information out of that other twat!”

“Might? Then you weren’t certain, and you usually know by the third word spoken.” Nizar sits down with Aberforth, placing the green folder on the table that normally holds their Saturday lunch. “I’d like for you to look at these. I need to know if you were aware of it.”

“That’s auspicious, then.” Aberforth takes up the folder and opens it, scowling the moment he spies the first letter. “I see.” He taps his wand on the tabletop, summoning a bottle of Firewhiskey and two glasses. “You’ll want a shot of that to finish warming you, Nizar.”

Nizar would really rather not, but it’s something to do while waiting. Aberforth is not a fast reader, but it isn’t because his thoughts are slow. He likes to mull over the words, absorbing nuance and meaning that others might miss at first glance.

Drinking Firewhiskey still feels like attempting to drink a bonfire. Nizar has given up trying to become accustomed to it.

When Aberforth finishes reading all five letters, he closes the folder, but says nothing. Nizar tries to wait him out, but given the circumstances, his patience has limits. “You know, I’m really not certain how to react when you don’t respond at all.”

Aberforth puts the folder down on the table. “To answer your question: I didn’t know, not the whole of this. I can’t say I’m all that surprised, but I didn’t know.”

Nizar studies him. “Yet you don’t seem angry.”

“Angry?” Aberforth looks visibly startled. “I’m a bit preoccupied with terror, thinking on how those two would literally have taken over the entire bloody world if they hadn’t broken it off!”

“You really don’t think your brother would have abandoned that Wizarding Supremacy nonsense?” Nizar asks.

Aberforth shakes his head. “The only thing that stopped Albus from following after Gellert like a lovesick puppy is all down to what happened with Ariana. Well, and that utter twat Gellert not showing a bit of remorse or regret that our sister was dead. Had the bollocks to stand there and say that Albus didn’t have a thing to tie him down any longer—as if I didn’t matter.” Aberforth snorts. “Mayhap I never did.”

“No. I believe that you did matter to him, and that is ultimately why Albus Dumbledore stayed,” Nizar says. “I don’t think that makes him a good person, but he’s at least several steps away from mad wizard bent on conquering the Earth.”

“There is that,” Aberforth admits, but he still doesn’t look happy. “When it finally came down to it, Albus was the one to stop Grindelwald. All but had to threaten him into it, we did, but the shiny pillock succeeded where we’d failed.”

Nizar frowns. “I didn’t know you were involved in the European War.” There hadn’t been a hint of Aberforth’s presence during the war when it was discussed by students in the Slytherin Common Room.

“Aye, and on both sides of it, too, fighting alongside wizards and Muggles,” Aberforth replies. “The English, Irish, and Scottish groups of wizards didn’t work together very well, but we all fought in Europe just the same.”

“What about the Welsh?”

Aberforth snorts. “Wasn’t no problem there. The Welsh are a bit more polite about things, even if they hate you. I was with one of their groups when we saw that famous damned fortress of Grindelwald’s from a few miles off. Thought he’d gotten a bit too big for his britches, thinking he needed a place larger than Hogwarts all to himself.

“Only credit to Grindelwald I witnessed is that I’m certain he didn’t want to kill Albus. He didn’t want to lose that duel either, mind you…but he didn’t want my brother dead. That might be the only bit of goodness the man had left to him.”

“And Albus didn’t want to point a wand at a former lover either, even if he was a former lover turned Wizarding Nazi.” Nizar sighs. “If he was truly against what Gellert meant to accomplish, he would have been there at the very start of it all, wouldn’t he?”

“Albus always claimed he had duties to Hogwarts that came first.” Aberforth gives Nizar a suspicious look and taps the folder. “Where did you find these old letters? Nonsense like this isn’t just lying about. My brother keeps mum about him and Gellert for a reason, and I do the same.”

“It wasn’t me,” Nizar says. “Sirius Black paid a visit to Godric’s Hollow to speak with Bathilda Bagshot regarding a different matter, and the subject came up.”

That finally sets off Aberforth’s temper. “THAT DAMNED OLD BUSYBODY BIDDY!” he roars. “SHE’D NO RIGHT, NOT AFTER PUTTING THAT BLASTED PILLOCK NEPHEW OF HERS IN OUR LIVES IN THE FIRST PLACE!”

“I have no idea why she is handing out your brother’s personal correspondence!” Nizar snaps, wondering if he’s about to be ducking flung chairs. “To be Grindelwald’s great-aunt, Bagshot would have to be at least twenty years older than your brother. Perhaps she’s developed senility and thought she was doing as she should?”

“Twenty years older? No.” Aberforth heaves out an irritated sigh. “Bagshot must be at least one-sixty by now. Come to think on it, I’m surprised to hear she’s still living.”

“And not likely to be living well, given the scent of that folder,” Nizar points out.

“Probably not,” Aberforth says in a grudging tone. “I imagine Grindelwald might be the only living family she has left, and they won’t be letting his arse out of Nurmengard to look after her.” He pours a shot of Firewhiskey swallows it down. “Half the Order would never work with Albus if they knew even a hint of this, Nizar.”

“I’ve no plans on telling them, either.” Nizar studies Aberforth, who looks sullen. “Aberforth, do you refuse to come to Order meetings, or does Albus simply not tell you when they’re going to happen?”

“Both,” Aberforth answers at once. “Being fair, those invitations became less and less until I told Albus to stop bothering back in the spring of ’81. I imagine if there is any sort of official list, my name’s on it, but when things reconvened last summer…no. Wasn’t worth the guesswork, I decided, even though Charlie would have supported me if I’d gone to join the fools in person. I send along anything useful I overhear, but I let the others get on with sorting it out themselves.”

Nizar nods, thinking that Sal probably won’t mind if he issues the invitation. “How would you like to unofficially quit the Order of the Phoenix and join an Underground, instead?”

“That Underground of your brother’s?” Aberforth fetches his pipe from his pouch and crams in far too much tobacco compared to what he usually smokes. “Why would I want to do such a thing?”

“The Underground has just as much reason to see Voldemort defeated as anyone, and they value intelligence from those credible enough to provide it without ever being noticed.” Nizar debates for a moment, suspecting he might be igniting another powder keg of outrage. “And…I don’t trust your brother.”

“Interesting, that.” Aberforth lights the pipe in a brief burst of wandless magic, which always happens best when he’s well and truly angered. “Then you don’t think the Order is the best way to defeat Voldemort?”

“I simply don’t equate Dumbledore and the Order as being one in the same. One is a leader and the other is a group, and while the leader might have founded the group, there are others who could do the job just as well,” Nizar says. “Just because they’ve never been granted the opportunity doesn’t mean the potential isn’t there.”

Aberforth blows out a jet of smoke. “There are plenty who’d say that the Order would fall apart without my brother. That he’s the only thing holding that bunch together.”

“In that case, we may well already be fucked if Voldemort decides to start his war in earnest,” Nizar responds. “Albus Dumbledore isn’t bloody Charlemagne. The Order shouldn’t be in such a hurry to emulate what happened to Charlemagne’s Empire after his passing.”

“I feel similarly.” Aberforth glances at the old folder before eyeing Nizar. “That bit your brother claimed, about fetching that boy from his home to keep him in better circumstances. Is that true?”

“Of course it’s true. Salazar wouldn’t have reason to lie about that.” Nizar considers Aberforth’s expression. “Did you argue against the Little Whinging decision?”

Aberforth nods. “Thought it was a stupid idea to isolate a boy who might still be in danger, and it wasn’t like the tot had a wand at that age. Albus insisted it had to be that way. Took me a while to get him to admit why, and then my brother nattered on about sacrifices and protections. Once I realized the sort of magic he was talking about, I told him that it wasn’t supposed to work that way. Potter didn’t need to be living with a blood relative at all, not if we were discussing the same sort of magic. Albus insisted that he’d fixed it so it did need to be that way, but would never say how. Claimed I wouldn’t understand.”

“I really want you present in my quarters for something a few of us will be discussing this evening.” Nizar slowly spins his empty glass, watching the varying shades of reds, oranges, yellows, blues, and golds spin off the crystal to highlight the old wood of the table. “I want your perspective because I respect you. I’m just concerned that it may cause you to see your brother as a terrible man, and that isn’t a kind thing to do to anyone.”

Is he a terrible man, Nizar?” Aberforth asks.

“I truly don’t know. I don’t believe he is. I think Albus Dumbledore is an imperfect being, just like the rest of us, who has made questionable decisions on his own while believing there was no one else to share the burden of making those choices,” Nizar replies. “You could argue that I’m a horrible person easily, Aberforth—I cursed a man to at least two millennia of living death in a burial mound because of the terrible things he did to others. It’s probably safe to say that your brother has never done anything so vengeful.”

Aberforth frowns. “How terrible, Nizar? Is this back to those Christmas Day rumors?”

“It is. Years ago, there was a magician named Drugo who understood the whole of how Horcruxes were made, not the partial knowledge Voldemort possesses. He found a village named Baile Cholgain, home to one hundred fifty-odd souls. Drugo murdered half of them, splitting his soul in careful increments with each murder to turn the other half of the village’s population into living Horcruxes. Living slaves. Then Drugo killed my son when Brice fought against him.”

Nizar idly considers another glass of Firewhiskey, but Mind Magic has always helped make this recitation easier. “There were ultimately only nineteen survivors of Drugo’s massacre. Those were not his first murders, but they were certainly his last.”

Aberforth narrows his eyes. “Bit extreme on both parts. What did the Wizengamot of the time say about your stuffing this Drugo fellow into a burial mound without making him dead first?”

Nizar tries reaching for memory and finds nothing. “I don’t recall, Aberforth. I don’t believe I was imprisoned for it. The Council might have considered it a balanced scale…or perhaps they considered Brice’s loss to be punishment enough. I will say that you asked if I was punished, whereas when I related this story to your brother, he didn’t ask that question at all.”

“Not sure it would occur to him. Albus is used to thinking himself the ultimate authority on things,” Aberforth mutters. He Conjures a small basin and uses it to tap out the remains of tobacco from his pipe, filling the ashy bowl with gleaming, smoky embers. “I’ll be honest, Nizar: I’ve gotten into more than my fair share of nonsense where things went to shit due to my trusting the wrong sorts for the right reasons. I want you to show me that Potter is all right. I want to see him. You prove he’s safe, and I’ll be with your brother’s Underground. God knows his lot might be more inclined to listen to the things I have to say.”

“Safe is a relative term, and you know it.” Nizar narrows his eyes. “All right. You prove that you’ll never utter a word of that child’s current status to Albus Dumbledore—or anyone else not named by myself and Salazar, for that matter—and we’ll see about accommodating your request.”

“Proof.” Aberforth grins and gets out his wand. “I vow on my own wand that I’ll keep the Potter boy safe from my brother, Albus Dumbledore, and anyone else who’d like to harm him, no matter the reason or the means, else this wand I’ve carried since age eleven will shatter.” He tucks his wand back into his sleeve. “I’m a mite fond of that wand, Nizar. I won’t be seeing it shatter easily.”

Nizar isn’t surprised that Aberforth was quick to make that sort of vow. Aberforth has always cared for others, even if he later began burying it under a gruff, foreboding exterior.

He straightens in his chair, trusts his instincts, and hopes he isn’t about to make a disastrous blunder. “Salazar went well and beyond his task of making certain that child was safe, Aberforth. You’re looking at him right now.”

Aberforth doesn’t react but for a narrowing of his eyes. “And how does that work, then?”

“I was adopted into House Deslizarse in 991,” Nizar answers, “an event that happened because it had already taken place. I would think the rest would be easy enough to figure out.”

“Huh.” Aberforth’s expression doesn’t change. “Yáng de yīfú!

Nizar doesn’t recognize the words, but he recognizes the feel. Household magic. An invoked defence—

—and then everything is ice and the stiffness of frozen limbs, but he isn’t cold. This is…this is…

He can’t remember. He knows this spell, but he can’t remember.

Nizar can open his eyes, though. He blinks up at the ceiling, baffled. Same room in the inn. Same fire behind him, but he can’t feel its warmth. He’s lying on the floor, not seated at the table.

What the fuck? Floor?

“So, before you off an’ kill me…” Aberforth is sitting on the floor next to him, shamefaced, his cheeks flushed a dull, unhappy shade of red. He’s holding up the end of his wand, nothing more than part of the rosewood handle with jagged splinters where the rest should be. “I do believe you now.”

 

*         *         *         *

 

Severus is halfway through his office hours before dinner when Filky Apparates into the room, startling Miss Dolohov into crushing her essay between her hands. “Miss Dolohov, it is merely a house-elf,” Severus says in a dry voice as his first-year gingerly starts trying to smooth out her scroll. “Hogwarts is full of them. What is it, Filky?”

Filky wrings her hands a bit, which is concerning. She has always been the least prone to dramatics. “The Professor Salazar is needing to see you upstairs, Professor Snape,” she says. “He is asking you to bring Fire in the Blood and Calming Draughts.”

Severus frowns. Fire in the Blood is a fairly common potion stocked in the hospital wing, used for frostbite treatment or potential hypothermic situations, but Salazar has his own Calming Draughts. He wouldn’t need more unless he’d just depleted his own store of them. “Very well. Tell him I’ll be there shortly.” Filky nods and vanishes. “Miss Dolohov, we’ll need to speak again at a later time.”

“That’s okay, sir,” Miss Dolohov says, but she bites her lip as she looks at her abused scroll. “Should I turn it in as it is or re-write it, Professor? I don’t want it to be late.”

Severus puts on a brief display of pretending to consider it. Seraphina Dolohov has been nervous and easily startled since returning in January, especially as rumor of Death Eater activity increases. He doesn’t wish to discover what condition she would be in if her uncle was free of Azkaban. “Re-write it. I do not need to attempt to read that unfortunate mess. Turn it in tomorrow morning. If I’m not in my office, you may leave it on the desk.”

“Thank you, sir.” Miss Dolohov quickly packs up the rest of her belongings and rushes out. Hopefully she will rewrite that essay with their discussion in mind. She has potential in Potions, as does her fellow first-year Cameron Boyle. He’d like to see them both recognize it.

The moment the door is shut, he casts his Patronus. “To be delivered in Parseltongue: Salazar, what am I treating?” None of them should have had opportunity to be dropped into a snowbank: Nizar is supposed to be in his office; Black was merely visiting Godric’s Hollow, which is far to the south; Lupin is a werewolf and doesn’t know how to be hypothermic; Minerva would be in her office right now. Unless a young idiot with a wand cast Glacialis improperly…

Salazar’s Gorgon Patronus is always startling, even if Severus refuses to react to the sight of it. “Not literal hypothermia, though I would not be offended if you brought the lot. Apparate directly to the seventh floor classroom if you would, please.”

There are three Calming Draughts already in his office, waiting to be used on panicked students. Severus has four Fire in the Blood potions from his own stores, on the off chance that Voldemort decided to have the Death Eaters meet on top of a fucking mountain—an event that thankfully never occurred.

Those collected, Severus Apparates directly to the classroom to discover Salazar waiting for him, but no one else. The classroom door is shut, a clear sign that students are not currently welcome. “Please explain to me why I’ve brought Calming Draughts when I know full well you brew your own.”

Salazar looks displeased. “Because I used all of mine, and it’s barely enough.”

“I see. You’re feeding Calming Draughts to someone in hopes that they become comatose.”

“I will happily settle for stoned.” Salazar reaches out and grips Severus’s shoulder. “I need you to keep your bloody head on your shoulders, or if you can’t, then you damned well will bury whatever it is you’re thinking about the same way you’d have buried it before Voldemort’s lot.”

Severus narrows his eyes. “Why? And who am I about to wish to kill?”

“Aberforth, but Nizar asked us not to do so. Black and the delightful Chao Li are still in Hogsmeade, tearing the poor bastard a new arsehole. Besides, Aberforth managed to shatter his own fucking wand, and I’d judge that to be punishment enough.”

“How the hell—” No, Severus will wonder what Aberforth did to shatter his wand later. “What did Aberforth do?”

“He invoked a home defence spell called Yáng de yīfú. It’s Mandarin for Sheep’s Clothing, from the idiom a wolf in sheep’s clothing.” Salazar releases his grip on Severus. “It’s a hex meant for shape-changers.”

Severus meets Salazar’s hazel eyes and catches a brief glimpse of how much concern Salazar is actively attempting to bury. “Where is he?”

“In front of the fireplace,” Salazar replies. “Oh, and one of those bloody Calming Draughts is for me.”

Severus nods and gives Salazar one of the spare phials. “And what is his limit, as you’ve already given him several?”

“Only two more, else Poppy Pomfrey will try to kill us all.”

Salazar sends him into Nizar’s quarters on his own, which is not pleasing. If Nizar is going to have the same reaction to Fire in the Blood as he did to Potissima Sanguine Purificationis, Severus would rather have assistance in trying to cram a potion down the man’s throat. Salazar merely shakes his head in response to the silent request, but Severus doesn’t understand why until he’s standing in the sitting room with the door closed behind him.

Vibrating. Everything in Nizar’s quarters, including the floor beneath his feet, is vibrating. It isn’t like standing on the ground during a minor earthquake, no side-to-side movement. It’s far more mindful of electrical current suddenly being introduced to stone.

Only one of them at a time. One element of interaction. Salazar doesn’t wish to overwhelm someone who is already distressed to the point that the castle is responding in kind.

He thinks on Occluding to remain calm and then realizes he would rather not. That is a crutch he doesn’t need to rely on. He knows the man in this room, no matter what Aberforth’s hex has wrought.

Severus approaches the quilt-wrapped lump huddled in front of the fireplace. Upon closer inspection, he realizes that Nizar is also wearing a grey hooded jumper. “I didn’t realize you owned one of those.”

“It’s Sal’s.” Nizar’s voice is a halting whisper. “Sorry. Can’t speak well.”

Severus debates a moment before sitting down next to him. Kanza is curled up on the hearth, staring at Nizar from between two of her own coils. Nizar is hunched over, leaning towards the fire; his hood is pulled so far forward that all Severus can see of Nizar’s face is the end of his nose. “Can you swallow a potion without assistance?”

Nizar slowly lifts his hands, which appear normal but are wrapped in clean strips of bandage. Then he attempts to flex his fingers, revealing he can barely move them at all. “No.”

Severus shakes his head. He reaches out to take one of Nizar’s hands and draws in a hissing, shocked breath when he encounters icy flesh. “Is Salazar certain this isn’t hypothermic?”

“Yes. Side effect.”

“And the bandages?” Severus asks.

Nizar’s answer is slow and stilted. “Aberforth is lacking a mirror.”

Severus thinks on what he’d overheard Granger say about the child’s fierce desire not to resemble either of his parents. Between that and the name of the hex, Severus understands what he’s dealing with now. “Are you going to allow me to assist you, or will I be forcing potions down your throat?”

Nizar makes a faint sound, but Severus can’t determine the emotion behind it until he says, “Either.”

No matter what, make me drink it, Severus translates. He glances down at Kanza, whose snout has peeked out further into view. How the basilisk can make such a gesture seem hopeful, Severus has no idea.

The hex doesn’t just cause slow movement, but literal stiffness to accompany the chill. It’s difficult to help Nizar tilt his head back just enough to keep the phial from spilling. Nizar still loses the first dose when it’s almost immediately spewed back out in a sudden fit of coughing. “Hex,” Nizar rasps. “Try again.”

Severus nods while using his wand to clean up the mess. The only hint that any of the potion was consumed at all is a brief warming of Nizar’s skin.

Nizar keeps down the second phial, and then the third. Only when his skin is warmer does Severus dares to try one of the Calming Draughts. It’s tempting to use both, but he would prefer not to dose Nizar to the point of senselessness.

“Isn’t that enough of those?” Nizar asks after drinking it, this time managing to hold the phial on his own. He’s speaking more easily, but his voice is still terse.

Severus rests his hand on the floor. It feels significantly less like amplified power, but the stone is still vibrating. “Apparently not, but I’ll ignore that if you drink another of Fire in the Blood.”

“Fab,” Nizar grumbles, but drinks the potion without complaining. “Happy?”

“No. Stop hiding beneath that stupid hood,” Severus says flatly.

“Fine!” Nizar shrugs the quilt off his shoulder and yanks the hood back before crossing his arms over his chest. “Now are you happy?”

Salazar was right to warn him. It’s still a bit of a shock, even knowing what to expect. Nizar’s hair is stark black, with no hint at all that the sun ever lightened it, as are his brows and eyelashes. His hair seems shorter, but it’s those odd, spike-like curls that make it appear so.

Nizar’s jaw is clenched, his brow furrowed in utter resentment. “Well?”

Severus refuses to blunder. Not for this. “May I touch you?”

Nizar’s shoulders twitch as he visibly startles. “I—” He swallows before nodding. “All right.”

Severus reaches out and runs his fingers through Nizar’s hair. The feel of it is exactly the same, though the odd curls act as if they’re trying to trap his fingers. There is definitely some sort of magic at play, one Nizar had tamed to silence with his Metamorphmagus Mastery. “It does like to cling, doesn’t it?”

“I think it reflects mood,” Nizar mutters under his breath.

“How so?” Severus raises an eyebrow and pulls his fingers back from strands that are suddenly doing a much better job at grabbing hold. Interesting.

“When the hex was first cast. That mirror above Aberforth’s fireplace.” Nizar glances down at his hands. “Ex-mirror, anyway. My hair looked entirely normal but for the color. It didn’t start to curl like that until I realized I couldn’t change any of it back.”

Severus picks up a single lock of Nizar’s black hair, letting it curl around his finger. It seems almost entirely natural, that motion, but for the fact that it happened in reverse direction. “That child’s hair was a continuous disaster.”

“I’m really in no mood to be a continuous disaster.” The vibration in the floor lessens further. “Given the living conditions that letter describes, I’m surprised the child’s hair was not standing straight up from his scalp all the time.”

Severus thinks it safe enough to chance a request. “Nizar. Please look at me.”

Nizar turns his head, glaring at Severus. His eyes are a luminous emerald green, the color so bright it resembles the flame of the Deslizarse family magic.

It’s as Salazar has said, as the portraits all claimed. Nizar changed those two things about himself, and those two things alone.

Severus reaches out and traces Nizar’s cheekbone with his thumb. “You still resemble Salazar far more than anyone else.”

Nizar’s eyes narrow. “You aren’t just saying that?”

“Just saying—” Severus scowls. “Have I ever been the type to just say anything? You look like you,” he insists. There is no doubt that Nizar and James Potter would have looked quite a bit alike, but even his emerald green gaze isn’t as mindful of Lily Evans as it once was. Too much of Nizar’s personality burns in his eyes. “I would like to think that with far too many Calming Draughts in your system, you would be capable of seeing this.”

Nizar gives him a quick glance before his eyes slide down to Kanza. She is slowly uncoiling from her anxious pose to approach the edge of the quilt. When Nizar holds out his hand, she curls up in his palm and immediately looks indignant about the presence of bandages. “There was a mirror. In the portrait. Just one.”

“Was?”

“After Gaunt.” Nizar slowly spreads his hand apart so that Kanza can resume one of her favorite activities of threading her way through his fingers. “Kanza doesn’t know the year it happened, as she was more concerned with me at that time than with life beyond the portrait. Every day I would wake up and not recognize the person in the mirror. Every. Day.

“There is a limit to how much you can stand of that sort of experience before you simply can’t take it any longer. I destroyed the only mirror in the portrait. Turned the pieces to dust beneath my feet. Buried them in the back garden. I didn’t see a mirror again until…”

“My quarters,” Severus finishes when Nizar trails off into silence. “In the bathroom.”

“I knew my reflection when I first saw it. I didn’t know my reflection at all.” Nizar breathes out a long sigh. “I know this is not terrible. But that is why I panicked.”

“And it had nothing to do with me at all?” Severus asks in a dry voice.

Nizar shrugs and glances at him again. “A bit, perhaps? I never had any wish to be that sort of reminder.”

Severus rolls his eyes and yanks Nizar forward until he’s wrapped Nizar in his arms, both of them stretched out in front of the fireplace. “Idiot.”

“Yes, we’ve established that.” It takes Nizar a few minutes to relax, but between the Calming Draughts and the heat of the fire, he’s fighting a losing battle. “You’re truly all right with this?”

“I was far more concerned with your causing this entire tower to vibrate,” Severus replies, glad that vibration in the stone has finally stilled. “If I can tolerate random appearances of a Gryffindor named Ozymandias, I do believe I can tolerate your hair trying to eat my fingers. I’ll no doubt be used to it just in time for you to return it to its proper color.”

“When this hex wears off in two days, I could turn it pink,” Nizar offers.

“Please,” Severus scoffs. “If you’re attempting originality, choose something metallic.”

“Mm. Bronze. There’s a goal,” Nizar murmurs while Severus thinks about varying forms of revenge against Aberforth.

Two fucking days. Severus has read enough material on Metamorphmagi by now to know that a Metamorphmagus has a natural inclination to hate stillness. Nymphadora Tonks is always moving, always fidgeting, or repeatedly altering her appearance if forced to remain seated. It was a constant distraction for other students (and for Severus) in those early Potions classes until everyone became accustomed to Tonks’s constant flux. Nizar especially does not like to be idle—he proves it often enough by going outside to literally climb the castle walls.

He realizes a moment later that Nizar has fallen asleep, lulled by warmth and by over a half-dozen potions competing to do their work. Then the door opens; Severus is already in the process of drawing his wand when Black drops the Invisibility Charm and reveals his raised hands.

“It’s just me,” Black says in a low voice. “Is he all right?”

“Too many Calming Draughts,” Severus replies, lowering his wand. He refuses to feel embarrassed for being caught on the floor, trapped beneath a sleeping man trying to tangle himself up in a damned hooded jumper. “I know your repertoire. Please tell me that you hexed Aberforth Dumbledore within an inch of his fucking life.”

“Didn’t have the chance,” Black says in clear regret. “His wife beat me to it. That woman is terrifying; I like her. Pretty sure she might actually be giving Aberforth a new arsehole rather than just threatening it.”

Severus scowls and puts his wand away. “He deserves it.”

“I’m not arguing.” Black stares down at Nizar, an odd expression on his face. “When he was still Harry, he would ask about James. I didn’t really want to talk about James—about either of them. I always told Harry how much he looked like his father. Remus says I’m not the only one. He couldn’t name anyone who hadn’t done that. It was easier, right?”

Severus feels a flare of intense disquiet. “Or necessary.”

Black only nods in recognition of Severus’s former task as a spy instead of sneering at him. Disappointing. “We weren’t really looking at him. At Harry. Fuck, but if someone had done that to me for my entire childhood, I’d hate to be reminded of it, too.”

“I don’t think that is the only…difficulty.”

“Probably not.” Black shoves his hands into his robe pockets. “But we didn’t help, either. How many doses of Fire in the Blood did it take to beat back that fucking hex, Snape?”

Severus frowns. “Three. This will need to be treated again?”

“Salazar claims every four to six hours, about like non-magical ibuprofen. Whatever the hell that is.” Black sighs. “He went to brew more of it. I’ll go let him know how much we’ll need. You’ll…you won’t hurt him. I know you won’t, but…”

“Black.” Severus glares at him. “Hair and eye color does not change the fact that these are Nizar’s features, his personality, and his bloody temper. There is no mistaking this man for James Potter.”

Black lets out a brief, hollow-sounding laugh. “No. No, there’s really not.”

 

*         *         *         *

 

Nizar is feeling a hell of a lot more balanced by seven that evening, even if he still refuses to look into a mirror capable of returning his reflection. Fortunately, the mirror he moved from his office to the mantel above the fireplace has never done anything so mundane as reflect what’s right in front of it.

He breathes across the glass. “Great Hall.”

The pale grey fog clears away like ink spreading out and disappearing into water, revealing the Great Hall as the dinner hour ends. He doesn’t see Miss Granger or Miss Greenwood, though Minerva is still trying to escape the staff table. She looks to have been waylaid by Pomona, Charity, and Poppy, so he expects she won’t arrive until just before eight. Dumbledore is showing off his bloody blinding robes for a group of first-years who aren’t yet old enough to know that their Headmaster’s taste in color is abhorrent.

“I’ve been meaning to ask how that thing works,” Severus says as he exits Nizar’s study, holding the stack of papers meant to be duplicated for the others. Nizar is quite willing to let Severus handle that task, as he still feels completely fucking awful.

“You have to be keyed to the mirror for it to do anything at all.”

“It doesn’t reflect anything. Calling it a mirror is inaccurate,” Severus points out.

Nizar glances at him, but there is no sign of hesitation on Severus’s face. No hint at all that Severus is distressed by Nizar’s appearance.

That makes exactly one of them.

“Whatever you want to call it, then.” Nizar returns his attention to the Hall. The Weasley twins are being attacked by Lee Jordan, whose braided hair is currently striped like a rainbow. That isn’t the charm attached to their magic brush; that’s the jinx they used on Severus’s hair last November.

Jordan’s hair is wet. No wonder he’s trying to kill the twins. He hopes Minerva enjoys handing out that particular detention—actually, he hopes it becomes a detention before it becomes a slaughter. Jordan will never be an exceptional duelist, but that young man is creatively vicious with a wand.

“If you breathe over the glass and request to see something by name, it will appear unless there is magic blocking it.” Nizar breathes on the glass again and says, “Salazar’s quarters.” Unlike the first time he’d tried that, he can now see Salazar’s sitting room instead of murky blackness. The torches are dim; Salazar must be off in whatever place he’s chosen to use for brewing. The latest doses of Fire in the Blood were brought while Nizar was having an unexpected nap, and he could tell just by a slight difference in flavor that they weren’t made by Severus.

“That’s an operating mechanism. You still haven’t explained how it works,” Severus says.

“Oh.” Nizar hasn’t thought on how he built the mirror in quite a while. “I don’t think I could create another right now. I don’t recall enough. I do know that it’s a bit of Scrying Divination, a bit of Blood Magic, some Geomancy, and possibly the obstinate stubbornness of me wanting the fucking thing to work as intended.”

“In similar fashion to your Singing Pensieve and the Recording Charm, then.”

“Probably.” Nizar blows across the glass again without voicing a location, which cancels the scrying aspect and returns the mirror to its grey-fogged state.

“How many Calming Draughts did Salazar give you before my arrival?” Severus asks him, holding up a single phial. Nizar suspects that it would have been the last dose he could have taken, though instead of a nap, he would have been bloody oblivious for several hours.

Nizar digs around in the hooded jumper’s front pocket, which seems to have been magically expanded, before he comes up with four empty phials that have a faint residual scent of a Calming Draught. “That many. It must have been five, then.”

“For someone your size, two should have been more than enough,” Severus says in disapproval. “Why five?”

Nizar places the empty phials on the mantelpiece for Salazar to collect later. “I worked up a tolerance. You can imprison someone with a Calming Draught. You stop caring what is being done to you because you can’t feel it the way you should.”

Severus sounds disturbed. “Was that done to you?”

“I don’t recall. It might have been a part of my Defence training, or perhaps paranoia.”

“Or your insanity with the bloody Cruciatus Curse,” Severus returns in a dry voice. “I’m surprised you’re still wearing Salazar’s jumper,” he says in a blatant change of subject. Nizar is glad; he doesn’t really want to speak of either things.

“It isn’t his,” Nizar says, holding up one arm so that the sleeve drapes over his hand. “Or it wasn’t originally, at least. It’s too big—more your size. It’s larger than anything I own outside of that fur cloak. Thus, it’s perfect for bloody hiding in.”

Severus makes an annoyed sound. “Nizar. I’m a cynical bastard, but there is no one who will be entering this room this evening who will have any concern about your appearance beyond Aberforth’s fucking hex.”

Nizar blinks a few times and stares at Severus. “The others? Who said anything about them? I’m fucking well hiding from me!”

Severus frowns. “Why?”

“Does the color of your own arm hair currently make you feel panicked?” Nizar asks.

“I wouldn’t know. I’d burnt off most of it by age sixteen through various incidents with potions,” Severus replies in his favorite dust-dry tone.

“Lucky,” Nizar mutters, tugging the left sleeve down so that it’s fully covering his hand. He’d rather…not. At all. He will bathe fully dressed if need be just to avoid this feeling of intense dysphoria.

“Nizar.” Severus steps close to him. “Calm down.”

“I’m dosed up on fucking Calming Draughts!” Nizar protests. “I am calm!”

“You’re not.” Severus grasps Nizar’s face with both hands and kisses him.

“Okay,” Nizar whispers when he is eventually released. “I wasn’t calm. I’m also now very much distracted.”

Severus smirks at him. “That was the idea.”

It’s probably for the best that the Floo activates at that moment, forcing Nizar and Severus to step back, or Nizar might have blocked off his quarters and told everyone to bugger off until tomorrow. Sirius emerges first, dusting off his robes. “I warned Remus,” is all he has the chance to say before Remus joins them.

When did I start thinking of them by first name? Nizar wonders. He has no idea when he started doing so, or what changed to cause it. Last names were easier. Less confusing.

Remus is bloody well staring at him. “What?” Nizar snaps.

“Sorry.” Remus shakes his head. “I just had this odd moment of wondering what caused Salazar to shave that beard of his before I realized who I was actually looking at.”

Sirius looks far too pleased with himself. “I wasn’t specific.”

“You fucking wanker,” Remus retorts fondly. “Thanks a lot for that. Nice jumper, Nizar.”

Nizar rolls his eyes and goes over to answer his own door when there is hesitant knocking. “It isn’t mine.” Even if he is kidnapping this jumper for the entire weekend.

His hand doesn’t want to grip the doorknob. Nizar grits his teeth and forces his fingers to curl properly around it.

It occurs to him as he’s opening the door that he could ask one of the others to do it, but that is the sort of hiding he’s never been fond of. It’s one thing to try to control his own stupid feelings, but backing down from someone else? No.

Adele’s eyes widen when she sees him. “I thought you weren’t—”

“It’s a hex,” Nizar interrupts her. “An ill-timed one. Please come in.”

Adele walks through the doorway when he steps aside. “Oh! Hello, sirs.”

“You outrank me,” Remus says while Severus and Sirius try not to gape at her unexpected appearance. “I don’t think that counts.”

“It’s good manners, at least,” Adele counters. “You didn’t warn them, did you, Nizar?”

“No. More fun that way.” Nizar smiles when Severus glares at him. He’s been hexed; that doesn’t mean his brain ceased to function or his sense of humor obliterated itself. “If the other four war mages of Britain are present, the fifth one should be, also.”

“Nizar has explained it all properly.” Adele removes her robe and hangs it on a free peg. “About who he was before the incident last summer. I’m fine with it, of course. Professor Slytherin has been one of my instructors since I came to Hogwarts, if mostly by portrait. I barely knew Potter.”

“I see,” Severus finally manages, his eyes still narrowed. “I trust your Occlumency is superb, Miss Greenwood.”

“Of course, Professor,” Adele replies, and proceeds to glance around Nizar’s quarters with polite interest.

When Nizar next opens the door, it’s to admit Hermione. “Not a word,” he warns her.

Hermione’s eyes grow comically wide. “But you look—what happened?”

“That’s five words, not zero words!” Nizar shuts the door after making certain no one is waiting behind her. “It was caused by a hex designed for shape-changers. Metamorphmagi. It takes two days to wear off.”

“I was wondering what had happened,” Adele says, which causes Hermione to begin staring at her instead of Nizar. “Who hexed you?”

“A Slytherin idiot friend of mine. You’ll meet him properly in a short while.” Nizar looks between Adele and Hermione. “Please tell me we’re not about to have an academic standoff.”

“What—no!” Hermione looks startled. “I was just—because she’s a war mage, right?”

“And you’re here because…” Adele frowns. “No offence, but I don’t think you’re here merely because of that past friendship, not when he doesn’t recall. Is it the apprenticeship offer?”

“It’s both, actually,” Nizar answers. “She might know of things that happened that we don’t. Though, yes, I’d rather not need to continually hide part of my life from my assistant next term. It’s bothersome enough doing so when it’s the Weasley twins.”

Adele tilts her head. “I’m surprised they haven’t attempted to break into your quarters.”

“They have tried. They can’t figure out what they’re doing wrong. I’ll tell them after they graduate,” Nizar replies.

Salazar arrives next, though he simply Apparates into the room rather than use the door. “I’ve already warned Minerva, so that is one less difficulty to be facing this evening.” Then he halts mid-step and stares at Nizar, an undecipherable expression on his face.

“What?” Nizar asks. “I had enough of the staring on the first day of November, Sal. I’m not enjoying the extra attention now.”

“It’s that bloody jumper.” Salazar strides forward and hugs him. “It’s a bit of a reminder, is all.”

Nizar hugs him back, confused. “A reminder of what?”

Salazar releases him but rests his hands on Nizar’s shoulders. “There is not much difference between a hooded tunic and a hooded jumper. Granted, Helga always claimed it was a rather dull shade of brown, but it was the only bloody jumper you owned not made from polyester.”

Nizar blinks a few times before he leans back, gripping the sleeves of the jumper protectively. “I remember that tunic. Don’t you dare attempt to turn this one the same color!” He will cope with the idea that Salazar chose that fucking tunic and sent him off with it at a later date.

Much later. Preferably never.

“And yet it took us how long to convince you to be rid of it? You nearly drove Helga to despairing screaming,” Salazar replies.

Hermione lets out a sudden, choked-off laugh. “Enduring Shopping with a Viking,” she quotes from the letters.

Salazar grins at her. “Miss Granger, believe me when I say that the experience required endurance, else you were left behind in the dust.”

Chapter Text

The official start of the evening meeting begins, bafflingly enough, with the Floo arrival of the barman from the Hog’s Head Inn. The big, grey-haired, bearded man notices Nizar and flushes almost violet. “You look like hell.”

“And whose fault is that?” Nizar asks, but Hermione thinks he sounds more resigned than angry.

“A man I’ve known for a century suddenly claimed to be someone else,” the barman mutters. “I take no chances, not when it comes to my family’s safety.”

Hermione is surprised by the mention of family. The man looks far too old to be having children…but then, magicians are odd for that. She’s still trying to figure out if the longer lifespan and fertility range will apply to her, as well.

“Proper Slytherin paranoia,” Professor Salazar says, even if he still looks unimpressed by the results. “I don’t blame you for your caution, though others will be less forgiving.”

The barman sighs. “Aye, well—I’m still sorry as hell, Nizar.”

“I’ll forgive you when the fucking hex wears off, and not a minute before,” Nizar responds. “For those who’ve yet to meet him properly, this is Aberforth Dumbledore, Albus Dumbledore’s younger brother of two years. He’s the owner of the Hog’s Head Inn, and was a Slytherin known to me when he attended Hogwarts.”

Hermione stares up at Aberforth Dumbledore. She didn’t know Professor Dumbledore had a brother, but now that it’s pointed out, she can see the family resemblance. It’s the eyes, really. Aberforth’s eyes are exactly like Professor Dumbledore’s, but not nearly as good-humored and twinkly. “Er, nice to meet you, sir.”

“I’m not a sir,” Aberforth replies gruffly. “I’m just Aberforth to you and Miss Greenwood there.”

“It’s Adele, please,” Adele says.

Hermione nods. “Yes, the same for me. I’m Hermione.”

“All right, then.” Aberforth goes and sits down in a chair without another word. That seems to be a quiet signal for everyone to do the same. Hermione finds herself seated next to Adele and Remus on the sofa furthest from the fireplace. Sirius takes the other chair, slumping down in it like he expects an inquisition. Professor Salazar, Professor Snape, and Professor McGonagall share the other sofa.

Nizar sits down on the hearth right nex