The Last Battlefield
Chapter 5 - Enemy Of My Enemy
"Have you seen my left flying glove?" Harry shouted.
"Yes," Severus shouted back. He didn't remove his nose from his book.
"On your left hand."
Hurried footsteps echoed staccato through the foyer. The top of a messy, dark head appeared in the open doorway. Harry's eyes narrowed. "Git."
"Look in the scullery."
"Why in Hell would it be in the scullery?"
"Ask your frizzy-headed friend. She's the one who deigned to wash your uniform."
Harry sighed and scurried off. A minute later he appeared in the doorway again, bag slung over his shoulder. "Lucky guess."
Severus smirked to himself and licked his thumb. He turned another page, paying more attention to Harry out the corner of his eye than to Where The Red Fern Grows.
"God, where is she?" Harry stormed out of the foyer. "I told her seven forty-five," he called from what sounded like the dining room. "Should I just go ahead and change?"
"Seeing as it's now seven forty-six, I think you can give her at least thirty more seconds."
"Very funny, Snape." The door chimed, and Harry streaked towards it. "You stay put!"
"I hadn't intended to go anywhere." Severus set his book on the table next to him and folded his hands in his lap. The door swung open.
"Where in Hell have you been?" Harry shrieked.
"You're--never mind. I've got to go." He rushed into the sitting room, one Emily Vector close behind. Bending down for a brief kiss, Harry muttered, "Behave yourself."
"Bollocks to you, too." Harry stepped back and Disapparated.
Emily arched an eyebrow at the Harry-shaped vacuum rapidly filling with air. "Is he always like that?"
"Only when it suits him."
She gave him a funny, wrinkle-nosed look. "How often is that?"
"As I said, when it suits him." Severus looked up at her haughtily. "Well? Are you going to leave his fears unfounded?"
She rolled her eyes but bent down and gave him a peck anyway. He smirked; she rolled her eyes at him again and splayed with all the grace of a lumbering bear into the mismatched plum-coloured armchair on the other side of his table. "Are you going to keep dying on me? 'Cause, if you are, I want to be written into your will."
He snorted. "And what makes you think I've got anything for you to inherit?"
She gave him an incredulous stare. "The name 'Malfoy' ring any bells?"
"Ah. Yes." He pursed his mouth, glaring at the floor. "Thought I might turn the house into a home for unwanted half-bloods. Or re-enact the siege on Hogwarts."
"If you don't want the place, why don't you just sell it?"
He gave her a sidelong look, bowed head resting on his fingertips. "Should I ever be in such dire straits that I need to sell anything of my family's, I give you full permission to cast the Killing Curse upon me."
"That's so sweet. I didn't know you'd been that attached to them." Her eyes glazed over for a moment. "Wait. Are we still talking about the Malfoys here?"
"Among others. And, no, I wasn't particularly attached to them. They had a tendency to go quite mad. Became a bit of a bother."
Her lips pulled away from her teeth. "Ugh. And I thought my family was annoying."
"This being the family with the brother you so urgently wished to 'set me up' with?"
"I still think you'd like Keith. He's a little weird, but--"
"But I've already got one husband with insufferable relatives. I don't need two."
"Yeah, but Sirius has a nicer arse than my dad." Emily turned scarlet and sniggered.
"I hadn't noticed," Severus drawled, glowering at the mirthful tears forming at the corners of her eyes. "Do I need to leave you alone with your mental images of that arse's arse for a few minutes?"
Emily shook her head, wiping her eyes on a corner of her sleeve. "No, it's okay." She sighed. "He's spoken for anyway. Sort of."
"Who'd be mad enough to claim him?"
"Rolanda. They've been shagging each other rotten since January. Don't tell her I said anything. She's keeping mum. Doesn't want anyone to think they're serious."
"She's lowered her standards."
"Of course, I wouldn't admit in public to shagging Sirius Black, either."
"Would you admit to shagging him in public?"
"I just--" He groaned. One long, sallow finger pointed towards the door. "Out."
"That's okay. Rolanda won't either, and I know for a fact she had him on the pitch before start of term. Have you had breakfast?" She swept to her feet and was halfway to the door before Severus could even register what she'd said.
"You really are the filthiest-minded little bint I've ever met in my life." He got out of his own chair and followed her towards the kitchen (with far less alacrity, it had to be said - the previous week had left him feeling a great deal better but he was still far from, as Emily would put it in her annoyingly Muggle-born way, "kosher").
"I know," she called behind her. "Harry told me you're not supposed to eat everything in sight. What can you have?"
"Whatever I bloody well want. I've been dead twice already, I don't think a bit of bacon is going to do much more harm."
"So no bacon. Or sausages, I'd suppose."
Severus barged through the swinging double doors leading to the kitchen. They were slit, like blinds, which made eavesdropping, smelling whatever bland atrocity Harry was putting together, and determining Lupin's proximity to the stove before he set the place on fire relatively simple matters. He leaned against the doorjamb, frowning at Emily as she banged through cupboards. "Do I at least get to tell you how I want my eggs?"
"Harry said if you have to ask for it, you're probably not supposed to have it. Porridge?"
Snape wrinkled his nose. "You first."
"Ah, good." She pulled the tin of flavourless chaff from a cabinet, letting the door bang shut. "I knew there had to be something here you could eat."
"I want bacon."
"You can have bacon when the doctor says it's okay."
"Two bits of bacon isn't going to kill me!"
Emily tapped the stove with her wand and the ring underneath the kettle burst into blue flame. "I know that, and you know that, but just in case I'd rather not have to explain to Harry why I offed you the moment we were left alone. He's not too keen on me at the best of times."
"Only because you can't keep your displays of affection to yourself."
She gave him a funny look. "Can you have butter?" she asked.
"Yes. What was that look?"
"No butter then." She flung open the pantry and began rifling noisily. "Blackcurrant jam? He said you could have sweets as long as they haven't got chocolate in."
"You haven't answered my question."
She shrugged. "Nothing."
"Do I have to Imperius Curse you?"
She pulled her head out of the pantry, mouth gaping in shock. "Severus Snape, don't you dare."
"I bloody well will dare if you don't tell me." He pulled his wand and aimed it in her general direction. He had no real intention of cursing her, but a nice jelly-legs jinx might get the point across with minimal anguish for both of them.
Emily stuck a hand on her hip and looked hurt. "You're in a foul mood this morning."
"I've been treated like a china doll for nearly three weeks now, I can't have anything fit for human consumption, and you're deliberately being a flitty little cow. Of course I'm in a foul mood."
"And we wonder why I didn't visit you in hospital. Fine. That look was because I'm not so sure Harry's upset with me as much as himself."
She shrugged and buried her upper body in the pantry once again. "Call it a hunch, but... I don't know, I just have a feeling he's--" She shook her head. "Hon, I really don't want to say this."
"You think he's had a bit on the side."
Severus blinked. "He hasn't."
"Are you sure?"
"Positive." And if that bastard touches my Harry again, I'll have his tackle stuffed and mounted on the wall.
"How can you be sure?"
"I asked him the same thing once under truth serum. He told me he hadn't," Severus lied. Something shriveled in his stomach over lying to Emily, but it was better than what would happen to Harry if she ever found out about certain happenings. Even the most powerful wizards couldn't always defend against a physical attack, as he knew all too well. Emily had the best part of six inches and two stone on Harry; he knew perfectly well she would only be trying to protect him, but the woman simply didn't know when to back off.
"Well... all right." She still didn't sound convinced. She stuck her head back into the pantry. "Blackcurrant or strawberry?"
"You can't have bacon."
"Severus, listen to yourself. I'm offering you sugar. Here, I'll read the ingredients. Blackcurrants, sugar, corn syrup, glucose - see, that's three out of four already!"
"Blackcurrant. And bacon."
"Why don't I make some for me and let you smell it?"
He growled under his breath.
"You're too stubborn to live, you know that, don't you?"
"Hasn't stopped me so far."
She muttered something.
"Only calling you a grouchy old bastard."
He sniffed. "Glad someone's finally noticed."
"Sad thing is I think you've mellowed out," she mumbled, wiggling her wand until a saucepan of water landed on the stove. A moment later, Harry's SEEKERS DO IT TO WIN mug landed on the counter, and a teabag dropped into its depths. "Not for you," she said before he could move.
"I don't want tea. I want bacon!"
"Well, you can't have that either. Go and sit down. I'll have this ready in a few minutes."
He arched an eyebrow. "There had better be bacon," he growled, and shuffled back towards his chair, slippers cutting the chill of the floor. Settling back down, he picked up his book again. For at least the fourth time, he wondered how many Sickles were in a quarter and how large a bag of candy it could actually buy.
Another page in, and he smelled bacon. "Sadistic bint," he muttered, trying to lose himself in his book again.
Emily finally came back, holding two spoons between her teeth by the handles and carrying a bowl in each hand. She handed him one of the bowls. It held far more porridge than he had ever wanted to see, a good quantity of blackcurrant jam, and a single piece of bacon. He gave her an offended look. "Is that all I get?"
"Shut up and be grateful, or I'm eating it." She plucked the spoons from her teeth and handed him one. With a disgusted sneer, he wiped it on his robe. When she sat down, he noticed she had at least three large, meaty rashers of fried, cured pig flesh sticking from her porridge.
"A bit greedy, are we?"
"Yep." She dipped a slice into her porridge and stuffed it into her mouth. "Eat, tell me what you've been up to," she said, muffled by her mouthful. "I haven't seen you in ages."
He frowned at her, unimpressed. "Inheriting my bastard of a cousin's estate, dying, nearly being assassinated, nothing exciting. You?"
She choked. "Assassinated?"
"Surely you noticed Black's leg."
"I knew he'd broken it. What happened?"
With a sidelong glance, he set into his porridge. He took a delicate bite, wiped his mouth with his fingertips, and calmly told her the entire story (minus a few unpleasant details regarding a certain Animagus' survival).
Emily stared at him. By the time he finished, she'd dropped her spoon into her half-empty bowl, crushing one of the remaining pieces of bacon. Her slate grey eyes were round and so focused they looked crossed. "Son of a bitch!" she shouted.
"I wouldn't know. My mother died before I got to know her."
"And you still don't know who sent it, only that it was from Lancashire."
He nodded and smashed his bacon with his spoon, mixing it with the otherwise barely palatable muck that passed for breakfast.
Emily's eyes narrowed in thought. "Wonder what Dad would say about this?"
"I expect he'd wonder what sort of riffraff his daughter had gotten herself tangled with."
"Hush. You know perfectly well he was with the Yard." Without giving him a chance to comment, she asked, "Have you still got the envelope?"
"No, it disintegrated. Why?"
"Evidence. Hmm. Well, we know it was probably sent from Lancashire, pretty difficult to forge that sort of thing."
"And you would know this how?"
"Long story. Well, first thing to do is get a listing of all witches and wizards living in Lancashire - shouldn't be too hard if you know anyone at the Ministry - and then contact all the Post Offices out there for a copy of their records from... Well, whenever. Unless they Apparated in, which just makes the whole thing turn into a right mess. But there should still be a name on record."
"And how do you know it wasn't sent by personal owl?"
"Too easy to trace. Anyone who knows the difference between a Bonebreaker Hex and a Boneshatterer Hex knows enough to use a public owl and probably a fake name, but between us we can figure a way around that if nothing turns up."
"Bloody Hell, Emily. I think this is the first time in nineteen years I've heard you sound like a proper Slytherin!"
She shrugged. "I sound like my dad."
"Sounds like a good fellow. You'll have to actually get around to introducing us someday."
"Nah, he nearly wet himself first time he met one of my witch friends. I think you'd turn him into a puddle."
Severus preened. "I like him already."
"So do you?"
"Like your father?"
"Know anyone at the Ministry."
"That doesn't want to see me dead?"
She nodded. A small, hopeful smirk had appeared on her face; it sent a chill through his spine.
"Oh, come on. You've got to know someone. Isn't Harry friends with the Weasleys?"
"I will go to the fucking Weasley herd for help on this issue when I am stiff, cold, and dead."
"So anytime's good, then?"
She held up her hands. (Her bowl floated in midair as she did.) "Only stating the obvious."
"I will fling this cack at you if you don't shut up."
"Sorry." She picked at her porridge, finally lifting a blob to her mouth and crunching away at the bacon buried in the mess. Severus watched her a moment before spooning up a dose of his own.
He'd nearly finished when she piped up, "So I should talk to Harry about this, then?"
"No, you should not!"
"So what are you going to do when they come after him?"
Severus stared at her. A moment later he narrowed his eyes, a low growl forming in his throat. "Over my dead body."
"Very possibly, yes."
"Don't even say that, Emily."
"Why not? You're dealing with a terrorist here. They don't follow anyone's reason but their own. You ought to know that already. I mean, you spied on one for how long?"
"Voldemort was not a terrorist. Voldemort was--"
"A homicidal nutter with his own political agenda and no qualms about enforcing it. He killed people because they didn't fall into his view of a perfect world. He was a terrorist, and if you didn't already know that then I don't understand how you survived doing what you did. Believe me, I've seen Dad deal with the IRA enough times that I know what to look for."
Severus glared. "So why on Earth would they want to hurt Harry because I was a Death Eater? He's the epitome of sickening goodness as far as the wizarding world's concerned." He knew the answer well enough already, but he needed to hear someone else say it.
"You're not that daft, hon. You know just as well as I do that the moment he formally revealed that you two are attached at the hip... Well, not everyone knows you like I do, and not everyone read 'spy' after 'Death Eater'. As far as some people are going to be concerned, he's one of them now."
Severus snorted. "The friend of my enemy is my enemy."
"Dunderheads, the lot of them."
"But dunderheads with wands."
"Can't be that different from first years."
Emily snickered but stifled it. "That's not funny," she said. "Whoever this is meant business. There's always a chance it'll happen again."
"I think I'll wait to see what happens if you don't mind."
She shrugged. "It's your leg." She'd gone a little ashen, and her movements were stiff; she gave him a taut-mouthed, wide-eyed look. Severus felt something in his constitution crumble, and he stabbed at the last of his sludge.
"I'll speak with Harry."
She nodded. "Good. 'Cause, as much as you hate it, some of us might actually miss you."
Ruby made burbling sounds, drooling all over her fingers and leaning back against Severus' chest.
"How do I let you talk me into these things?" he growled at Harry.
"Was your idea."
"I didn't mean for you to take it seriously!" He glared at the... Well, he'd never seen a sitting room that looked quite so sat-upon. Ashes had long since ruined the rug in front of the hearth, and the battered furniture scattered throughout the room made his and Harry's conglomeration look like a formal set. Several tall bookcases were stuffed with spellbooks, novels, Ministry regulations manuals, magazines, and a large collection of what looked like old Hogwarts textbooks (some of which predated even his stint in school). Arthur Weasley sat in an overstuffed chair printed with the most hideous flowers Severus had ever seen.
"It's a serious situation," Arthur said. He pulled his glasses off his nose and polished them on his sleeve. "I wish you'd said something to me last week. This is the sort of thing that needs to be sorted quickly."
"Sorry, reckon we were too upset to think about that," Harry said. He reached over to tickle Ruby's chin; she dribbled on his finger. "Ew, Ruby, thanks a lot."
"Not to mention the fact that I'd rather the Department of Magical Law Enforcement were kept out of it," Severus added. "They might try to finish the job, and then who would Miss Weasley have to make sure she's being raised properly?"
Arthur gave him an incredulous look. "She's not exactly an orphan, Severus."
"She still needs proper role models. Don't you, Miss Weasley?"
She blubbered. Her fingers were quite sodden.
"Ignore him," Harry muttered. "He thinks he knows something about rugrats."
"Ah." Arthur looked nervous. "Well. Ah. Wonder where Molly's gotten to?"
"The kitchen," Severus said. "Something about... What was it? Tea?"
"Be nice," Harry said.
Severus glared at him and turned his attention back to Ruby. For once, he had reason to be glad the insufferable Fred and George Weasley had wasted their precious study time devising horrific pranks. Given the choice between leaving Ruby to fend for herself amidst the merchandise while her parents and uncles and whoever else took inventory, and leaving her in her grandparents' care, her parents had taken the marginally safer option. The moment Severus and Harry had arrived, she'd started screaming until she was handed over. Molly had obliged the moment he'd beat the soot away - for such a tiny creature, Ruby's ability to make noise was vast beyond the whims of logic.
"Ah, how are you feeling, Severus? Any better?" Arthur had asked him the same thing at least four times already but hadn't seemed to have gotten the point.
"Oh. Do you need to go back to hospital?"
Arthur blinked at him, pulling back a bit in confusion. Harry shook his head, shooting Severus a weary glance. "Don't listen to him, he's doing spades better. He's only annoyed because I won't let him into his laboratory yet."
"He's supposed to be in bed," Harry snapped, towards Severus. "Not that he agrees. Hermione's been chasing him all over the house."
"And she'll continue to do so until it's understood that I'm perfectly capable of taking care of myself." Severus shifted Ruby on his lap and settled against the back of the couch. "How are your penguins, Arthur?"
"Penguins?" Arthur asked. His face lit up. "Oh! Penguins! It's demons now, but I think I miss the penguins."
"What happened to your open sores?"
"Oh, they're still open sores, just different ones."
"You know," Harry cut in, "I asked Hermione about that and she reckons it's 'open source'. Something about free technology, and--"
"Quiet, you." Severus shot him a look. He turned back to Arthur. "Why on Earth have you got one of those Muggle contraptions in the first place? You set the first one on fire, didn't you?"
"Only the crisp."
"Chip," Harry said.
"Right, chip. They're fascinating, Severus, really! You'd love something called the 'intern net'. I finally managed to find that a few days ago, and you'd be amazed what sorts of things it's got! You can even send false owls through a come pewter. It's bloody amazing what Muggles have done, bless them."
"To what are you referring? The atrocities of nuclear holocaust, or the steadily growing layer of haze covering the entire country?"
Arthur frowned. "That's not the sort of thing I meant, and you know it."
"That doesn't make it any less true. In a century, Muggles have done more to raze the world around them than wizards have in over six thousand years of recorded history. No false owls can make up for that sort of chaos."
Arthur looked a bit uncomfortable. He shifted in his chair; his eyes flickered towards Severus' left arm, then slid away with a twitch of guilt. "Well," he said, "you're only looking at the bad side of things. I mean, Molly and I went to the British Museum once, and it's absolutely baffling the things they've managed to create without any magic whatsoever. Honestly, I've never seen a wizard artist who comes close."
Severus' eyes narrowed. He pulled himself up, lifting his chin. "We'll see about that," he snapped. Glancing at Harry, he asked, "Fancy a trip to Muggle London?"
"Er, right now?"
Snape sighed. "This isn't the hospital wing, Potter. Things aren't as urgent as all that." He suppressed a wicked smirk. Harry sniggered.
"Git, get my hopes up, why don't you?" His cheeks went pink. Severus loosened a hand from Ruby (who screeched until he gave her a finger to hold) and laid it on Harry's shoulder. Harry's smile softened, and he leaned into it just the slightest bit.
Arthur looked a bit confused. "Am I missing something here?"
"Inside information," Harry said without missing a beat. Severus' smirk broke free.
The look they received said quite clearly that Arthur didn't want to know.
Unfortunately, before they could find out if the rest of Arthur's balding head went as red as his ears, Molly came back with a tray laden with tea things. She set it down, handed Harry and Arthur mugs, Severus a bottle of formula (the nipple of which was promptly grabbed by Ruby's pudgy, saliva-soaked hand; she screeched until he guided it into her mouth), and sat down with her own tea. "Have you got anything sorted?" she asked.
Arthur shook his head. "Nothing yet." His ears were still red. Molly glanced at him, taking a sip.
"Well," she began, eyes on Harry and Severus, "I assume you don't want the Aurors to have any part of it. After what they did at your cousin's house, I wouldn't blame you." She reached across to the sofa and patted Severus' knee. He flicked an eyebrow at her. She smiled in a sickening, motherly way.
"Believe me, you've no idea how much I'd like to avoid that lot for the rest of my life," he snapped with more venom than he'd intended. Harry rubbed his leg.
"Settle down, you'll make yourself sick."
"Should I even ask?" Molly said.
Severus started to give her a simple "no". Something low in his stomach twisted, though. A wave of fatigue rushed over him at the thought of simply closeting his past yet again; Harry's warmth beside him drew out some of the pain of admitting even a hint of the truth. It also reminded him without words of what had happened the last time he'd kept his mouth shut. Torn between slumping relief and a glut of acidic nausea rising in his throat, he clipped, "You will promise that neither of you will ever speak a word of this to anyone else."
Arthur blinked but nodded. Molly said, "Of course we do. Anything you say won't go any further."
Harry's hand settled on Severus' upper thigh, near his hip where the Weasleys couldn't see it. It held back some of the terror forming in his pounding heart; still, some part of his brain demanded to know when he'd started trusting every fucking Gryffindor who looked his way with his most heinous secrets. He opened his mouth, closed it, let go a sharp breath through his nose, and finally dropped his eyes to the table in front of the couch.
"When I turned twenty-one, the Death Eaters - including a particular cousin I shan't name - decided to give me a," he paused, "unique gift."
"What was that, dear?" Molly murmured.
"My brother. Trussed, tortured, and terrified. I was given no choice but to put him out of his misery, something that gave the Aurors who spent the next seven weeks interrogating me a great deal of macabre entertainment."
"Sweet Merlin," Arthur said under his breath.
"You poor dear." Molly leaned forward and started to wrap her plump arms around his shoulders. Severus growled low in his throat, and she let go but re-settled closer to the edge of her chair than she had been. "It must have been... To have to kill someone you loved--"
"There was no love lost between Eversor and I." He shifted in his seat. "There are things I wouldn't wish on anyone, though. I should have--I'm," he pursed his mouth. "Things happened the way they had to." He shivered. The hand on Harry's shoulder squeezed, and the other held Ruby closer.
Harry tilted his head close. He whispered in Severus' ear, "I'm proud of you, love."
Severus nodded - more a twitch of his neck. A lump of nausea had solidified in his belly. "As you can imagine, I've been less than fond of Aurors on the whole ever since."
"I believe it," Arthur said. His eyes were dark behind his glasses, brow furrowed. He slumped in his seat and gripped the arms of that godforsaken chair. "I don't suppose you remember who interrogated you?"
"Not all of them."
"Moody and that Uden bitch. His little shadow."
"Oh." Arthur's eyes went round, and his fingertips looked like they would puncture the upholstery. "I've heard some stories about her. She gouged out her own eye when Alastor lost his. Said it was a show of solidarity."
"Ugh!" Harry's jaw dropped. "Y'know, I knew she was a nutter, but I didn't know she was that bad."
"Doesn't surprise me in the slightest." Severus snorted. He shook his head, shifting against the memory of the bitch's twisted, sated smile. "My lot called her the Gryffindor Bitch From Hell."
"At least you won't have to worry about her anymore."
Severus arched an eyebrow. "Pardon?"
Arthur shook his head. Molly murmured, "She was killed in a training accident at the end of last month. Don't mention it to anyone, the Ministry's still keeping it under wraps. We don't really know the details."
"They're keeping unusually mum," Arthur added. "Molly and I aren't even supposed to know, but an Auror friend of mine mentioned it in confidence. We wouldn't have even told you if you hadn't brought her up specifically." He cemented it with a look.
Severus nodded. Some of his nausea melted to smug contentment as the bitch's death sank in. "Insurance then?"
Arthur looked thoughtful for a moment. His brows lifted suddenly. "Ah, I see what you mean. In a way, I suppose. A promise for a promise?"
"No question what House you were in," Arthur said with a touch of wary amusement.
"I don't know," Harry said. "He can be awfully Gryffindor sometimes."
"Quiet, you," Snape growled. "Twee brat."
Severus bristled. "Molly, would you be terribly opposed if I left him here?"
"Oh, I don't know. I think you'd get lonely."
Severus snorted. "Not bloody likely." His fingers stroked lazy trails on Harry's back as he said it.
"You can do all your own cooking from now on then," Harry said.
Harry smacked him on the arm. "Git."
Ruby looked up from her bottle and blew her rather moist lips at Harry.
"Thank you, Miss Weasley," Severus chuckled while Harry wiped his glasses on his robe. "It's always a benefit to have a translation to one's native language."
"Mrs. Weasley, d'you want a house-mate? He's a little petulant sometimes."
"Er, no thank you, Harry," she said, eyeing Severus with something between confusion, shock, and amusement.
"I'll talk to some people in the census office," Arthur said, apparently trying to steer things back to the subject. "They ought to be able to get me a list of wizards in Lancashire."
Severus nodded. "Thank you."
"What about the post?" Harry asked.
"That I don't really know." Arthur scratched the back of his head. "It's not regulated by the Ministry, and they're normally pretty strict about who they let into their records. You said the envelope disintegrated?"
Harry nodded. "Sirius thought it was charmed to burn up with the spell."
"Hmm. Molly? Any ideas?"
She shook her head and took a thoughtful mouthful of tea. Severus eyeballed the mug, mouth watering for the day Doctor Westing would come to his senses and allow him caffeine again. "None, sorry. Hold on." She paused, brow furrowing. "Didn't William mention something about his sister's husband working for the post?"
Severus stiffened; he felt faint threads of tension creep through Harry's back.
"He doesn't anymore," Arthur said. "He's breeding owls now."
"He might still have some friends that way."
"I'd rather not involve anyone else in this, thank you very much," Severus snapped. "It's a fairly personal situation."
"You've already got the Godric's Hollow office screening everything you get, though, and you know most letters don't even go through an office," Arthur pointed out. "It's going to find its way around sometime. Anyway, this won't stay silent in the Ministry for long. You've already caused quite a stir."
Snape flicked an eyebrow. "Explain?"
"Oh, ah," Arthur took a hurried sip, "The Marriage Office is about to form a revolt. They've been absolutely swamped with owls from all over the country. Some for, some against, a lot of requests for formal licenses. That sort of thing. Been word of some bill to that end being drawn up, too, but you don't know about that." He took another mouthful. "And Law Enforcement's not too keen on you. Cornelius is about to have a stroke, what with Harry up in arms against him. You read his statement to the Prophet?"
Harry nodded. Severus quoted, "'I have done the best job I possibly could as Minister of Magic. My decisions were based on what I felt were best for the wizarding population of Britain, and I wholeheartedly regret any errors I made in judgment. Mister Potter of all people should be able to understand this, including the fact that Severus Snape did indeed bear the Dark Mark, which proves without a doubt his willingness to show his allegiance to certain Dark forces. While I cannot speak for any Auror, I am certain they simply did not understand the seriousness of any situation that arose.' The words of a frightened man, wouldn't you say?"
Arthur nodded. "It's turning into a real tempest in a teapot. When it gets out, I think we're going to be in for a few reforms." He shifted in his chair.
"Sorry," Harry whispered. "You're not...?"
"Oh, no, nothing like that. Only, this sort of thing always shakes everyone up. I think we may be looking for a new Minister soon. Cornelius knows, too, and he's not very happy about it."
"How not very happy?" Harry drew back, scowling in suspicion.
"Er, Molly, you're better with this sort of thing."
"Hmm. I suppose." She took a long sip, brow furrowing. "I think what Arthur is trying to say is that Cornelius would rather destroy your reputation than let his get any worse. He's not terribly popular right now, and the fallout from You-Know-Who and the Ministry's reluctance to deal with him all those years is starting to hit. I think he'd actually convinced himself he could avoid it, but that article of yours, Harry, has left a lot of people looking to the Ministry instead of..." She trailed off and cleared her throat. "Well, not so many people see the Death Eaters as the worst of the problem anymore." She gave Severus an apologetic little shrug. "The fact that one of the so-called enemy is a war hero is making things more difficult than they might have been."
"But not everyone believes that," Harry muttered.
"I know." She patted Severus on the knee. "People don't know him like we do. Then, I've got to admit, Severus, your reputation as a teacher isn't helping that any."
"I'm rather proud of my reputation, thank you. They learned, didn't they?"
"To be afraid of you, yes. I must admit, you've given us all quite a shock over the last few months."
"Your daughter seems to have done fairly well with my teaching methods."
"Yes, but you have to remember that Ginny's stubborn. She takes challenges. Lord knows she beat up her brothers enough times before we managed to convince her she shouldn't fight when they started teasing her. Knocked Ron's front teeth out three times."
Severus' mouth twisted in a wry smirk. "Good for her."
"For knocking out Ron's teeth?"
"I was referring to her attitude towards taking on difficult situations. If you insist, though, yes."
Arthur narrowed an eye at him. "You're a very odd man, Severus."
Ruby threw her half-empty bottle to the floor with a fussy sound. A warning mewl started in her throat. Molly held her arms out. "Give her here, Severus."
"I'm capable of feeding a child, thank you very much." He glowered at her as he snatched a burping cloth from the table, threw it over his shoulder, and propped Ruby up to rub her back.
"No wonder you're upset, Miss Weasley," he murmured. "As much as they're feeding you? Really, Molly, how do you expect her to be healthy if you insist on giving her so little to eat?"
"That's her third one since she got here. She takes after the twins. They nearly ate us out of house and home." Molly rubbed her eyes. She jumped when Ruby belched. "You're perfectly welcome to give her some more if you want."
Severus re-settled Ruby in his lap and tossed the less-than-pristine cloth back onto the table with his thumb and forefinger. She looked up at him; he looked down at her. "Would you like some more, Miss Weasley, or would you be happy with your dummy?"
She blinked, giving him a pleading, dazed look. Her little mouth moved as though she wanted to speak.
"Hmm. We shall have to work on your language skills, I fear. You still lack some levels of subtlety." He balanced her on one of his legs, leaned forward, and exchanged the bottle for a dummy sitting on the table. Ruby strained for it; once she had it in her mouth she leaned back against his stomach with heavy eyes.
Severus folded his hands across her midsection. She let her own wriggle about until each had found something to hold onto. (One grasped his thumb, the other a bit of his sleeve.) She yawned, nearly lost the dummy, and a few moments later went slack against him.
"About that time for you, too, I think," Harry said, rubbing Severus' leg.
"Hmph. I think not."
"Harry's got a point, dear," Molly said in a helpful tone. "You're not supposed to be out of the house just yet."
"Molly, in my life I have spied on the most dangerous Dark wizard in a millennium, taught Potions to Neville Longbottom, blown seventeen cauldrons to shrapnel and walked away, recovered from the most lethal toxin in the wizarding world, died twice, and spent a year and a bloody half with this parasite." He motioned his head at Harry. "Comparatively, I think two hours out of bed is rather tame."
"Toxin?" she asked.
He slumped. "You're joking."
She shook her head. One fleshy hand hovered over his knee.
"Bloody Hell," he muttered, rubbing his face and cupping it in one splayed hand. He glared at Harry. "You might have said something."
Harry shrugged. "Not as if you're chatty about it."
Arthur patted her other hand. "Unicorn Blood, honey."
Her head turned so fast her neck popped. "Bollocks, Arthur."
"Well, how else would you describe it? Nobody recovers from Unicorn Blood. I mean, at least Manticore Venom--"
"Is known to be occasionally treatable and doesn't include flashback hallucinations," Severus said, still glowering sidelong at Harry.
She narrowed her eyes at him. "How on Earth did you recover from Unicorn Blood poisoning?"
"I happened to be Potions master for the best part of twenty years. There are some requirements for the position."
"What, miracle working?"
"A damned good education."
"Who was your Potions master?"
She snorted. "I had him, too, but he wasn't that good."
"But I was trained by my grandmother."
"Who was she? Philia Westin?"
"Yes." Severus realised half a second later that he'd said it out loud. He raised his eyebrows in silent challenge, cursing himself inside. You empty-headed fool. Philia Westin's Nepos wouldn't dose himself with Unicorn Blood! You sound like a first-year one-upping himself.
Molly stared at him. Her lower lip had gone slack. Arthur looked a bit shocked himself; his ears had gone red again, and he looked as though forming a coherent sentence was beyond him at the moment.
"Come again?" Molly asked. "I think I just heard you say that--oh, very funny, Severus." She glowered at him, mouth pinched.
"He's not lying, Mrs. Weasley." Before Severus could stop him, Harry had his watch out and open and was handing it over. "See?"
Molly read. Her shoulders went limp, and she slumped forward. "My lord," she whispered. "I had to write a twelve-foot essay about her for my seventh year honours project." She glanced up. "You should have been a researcher, not a teacher."
Severus sniffed. "I made my choice."
"You know, you're still young--"
"And I would like to spend part of my life doing what I wish, not locked in somebody else's laboratory playing junior research assistant. Unfortunately, the world today seems to value certificates over experience, no matter how extensive that experience may be." He glanced at Harry and added a bit more quietly, "There are more important things than what I 'should' be doing."
"Are you sure?"
"All right, then," Molly said with an edge of hesitation. She closed the watch with a reverent motion and handed it back to Harry. "Is there anything else we can do for you?"
Severus shook his head. "No, thank you."
"Thanks so much. You've been a lifesaver--" Harry yawned. He stifled it against Severus' shoulder. "Sorry, was a hard match yesterday."
"I thought you looked tired," Arthur said.
"You'd best get him home," Molly told Severus. "Otherwise, I'm not sure you'll get him out of here without a nap."
"Hmph. Not my fault he decided to spend twelve hours on a broom yesterday." Severus petted Ruby's hair. "Miss Weasley?"
She squeaked and stirred. Her eyes cracked open.
"Your godfather is being demanding again. I'm afraid I shall have to leave you with your grandparents."
Ruby made a small grunting noise and dug her tiny fingers into his robe.
With a little sigh, he bent to kiss the top of her head, and, with no real desire to do so, urged her to untangle her grip. The sleepy, fussy sounds she made sent an empty, icy bolt through his innards. Still, Severus handed her to Molly. "Tomorrow, Miss Weasley?"
Ruby mewled but remained calm and limp. Her droopy eyes stayed fixed on him when Molly leaned the little girl against her shoulder.
Several minutes later, Severus staggered out of the Floo. He leaned against the mantel for a moment, catching his breath and trying to ignore the strained feeling in his chest. Harry murmured an incantation and ran his wand over Severus' robes. "Come on," he said when the soot had vanished, "into bed with you."
"I thought the purpose of leaving was to make sure you got some rest."
Harry shrugged. "As if I'll get any anyway," he muttered as he put an arm around Severus' waist and let his head fall against a thin shoulder. Before Severus could comment, Harry was tugging him towards the stairs.
"If you would allow me into my own laboratory for five minutes, I could make sure you do," Severus said.
"I don't want a potion."
"You'd rather enjoy my brother's company again?"
A sharp shudder coursed through Harry's body. "Not really, no." He urged Severus towards the stairs anyway. "Rather have nightmares than you make yourself sick, though."
"I'd rather be sick than have you suffer that particular Hell."
Harry paused. He almost looked as though he was thinking about it. His pink lips parted to a pinker tongue, and he said, "Five minutes. And you're working sitting down."
"Very well." Severus tugged at a soft cowlick. "Would you care to join me?"
"You bet your arse. I'm not leaving you alone down there, no telling what sort of trouble you'll get into."
The potion took twenty minutes in the end. Harry stood behind Severus, watching as ingredients were measured out and mixed with fanatical care. The cool stone walls of the cellar - the only part of the original house to survive Voldemort's mistake and if appearances held had survived at least four centuries before that - wept, the humidity kept in check by a dizzying network of spells. The close, cool walls forged a relaxed feeling of being home deep in Severus' belly. Not a home like Hogwarts had been, or the home he'd found in Harry's arms during the long, quiet hours between twilights, but his first real home: Gran's laboratory. With Harry watching over his shoulder, now and then asking a soft question, he could almost imagine himself in her place.
When all was taken care of and Harry had carried the large pewter goblet of milky liquid to bed with him, Severus stayed awake as long as he could. Harry looked peaceful, lost in his dreamless sleep. His fringe had parted, leaving his scar a naked, pearly pink fault on the smooth plain of his brow. Severus leaned forward and kissed it, then Harry's lips, which as ever returned the affection even in sleep. When Severus pulled away, the air on his face felt sickly and cold.
Hating himself, hating Eversor and the Death Eaters more, he took Harry into his arms. The mess of black rabbit's fur came to rest under his chin, and one of Harry's wrists draped over his waist. Severus' thoughts were torn in the few minutes he allowed himself the luxury: half of his mind insisted on pretending that none of their private Hell had ever happened, and the other half set in a loop, grasping for a cause, a cure for Harry's nightmares. Only when his eyes refused to stay open did he rearrange Harry's pliable body back in its place beside him.
Much to his disgust, he dreamed about unicorns.
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