The Last Battlefield
Chapter 15 - Playmates
He was doing a fair job of tidying his Gran's lab, if he did say so himself. Severus rammed the tip of the chisel beneath a misshapen lump of shining white metal and pried it from its shelf with a cracking sound. It hit the floor with a heavy clunk.
"Sodding Incendius Solution," he muttered under his breath, crouching to pick it up. "Not as if platinum cauldrons are dear, oh, no, grow on trees, they do..." He trailed off, grumbling.
"Hello? Professor?" Hermione's voice echoed down the stairs. Soft, fussy sounds undercut it. "Shh, Ruby. It's all right. Professor?"
"How dare you bring my goddaughter through those wards?" Severus snarled. He rose from his knees and stormed around the charred tables, not quite slipping on the layer of oily ash still covering the stones. Wiping his hands on his robe, he reached out and snatched a very, very unsettled Ruby from Hermione's arms. "Did the nasty woman make you come through those horrible trees?" he murmured as she whimpered into his neck.
"She was mostly fine until the second wave hit. And could you please take down the glamour on the house? I thought you'd reenacted Hogwarts!"
"I shall take down the glamour when I've burned it to the ground, Mist--Hermione." Severus shot her a glare and snuggled Ruby closer to his chest. She clutched at his sooty hair, still sniffling. Severus cradled her head, resting his face in her silky mess of curls. A strange sense of peace fell over him; whether it was from Ruby herself, or simple, unabashed contact with another human being, he wasn't sure.
"Hmph, finally learned my name then." Hermione folded her arms. She wore Muggle trousers and a dark blue pea coat. She peered at him. "You've got soot all over your face."
"Yes, you have." She fished a small flannel cloth printed with ducks and frogs from the pouch clipped around her waist and spat on one corner. Grabbing Severus' chin before he could turn away, she scrubbed at the bruise.
Severus yanked his head away with a hiss. "Would you stop that!"
"I wasn't rubbing that hard. If you don't get it off, it'll make Ruby sick."
Severus grunted and swept past her up the stairs. Hermione followed him into the kitchen. Kicking the heavy iron door shut behind her, he turned to face her in the sunlight streaming through the window. "Does it still look like soot to you?"
"Jesus Christ," she breathed. Gingerly, she touched the edge of the bruise. "What happened?"
"A slight altercation. You wouldn't happen to have any salve, would you? That idiot cur neglected to fetch mine when he raided my laboratory. I dread to think what he's broken," Severus grumbled. He shifted Ruby closer, letting her lay her head in the crook of his neck, and rested the undamaged side of his face once more in her hair.
"Give me a minute." Hermione opened her pouch again (it reminded Severus oddly of a kangaroo's) and fished through. "I think I've got some of Grandpa Claudius' here someplace."
Severus made a noise.
"Well, it's the best I've got so you're just going to have to make do. Oh, heck." Unclipping the bag, she dropped it on the counter by the sink. "I need to clean this thing out. Doesn't help that Sirius gave me loads of stuff for you two."
"Why couldn't he bring it himself?"
"I stopped by before lessons just in case. I think he was relieved someone was coming to check on you two - acted like it, anyway. Oh, bol--bother." From the small bag she pulled the end of Harry's broom, feeding it up through her hands until, with a tug, its cluster of twigs popped free. She laid it on the counter. "Honestly. Magical spaces are so untidy, don't you think?"
"Hmm." Severus leaned against the pantry to watch with vague amusement, still cuddling Ruby.
"Where is it?" The rest of Harry's Quidditch kit, a nappy bag (which required a great deal of yanking to get free), a coin purse, several days' back-issues of the Prophet, assorted sweets, some quills, a few bits of parchment, one of Ruby's dummies, a windcheater, a handful of Doctor Filibuster's fireworks, some business cards for Weasley's Wizard Wheezes, and a coupon good for a free ice cream at Fortescue's soon joined the Firebolt. With a growl, Hermione shoved her arm in to the shoulder and groped around.
Finally, with a look of malicious triumph, she pulled back, a small metal box in her hand. "Ah-ha! Knew I had it someplace! I was starting to worry Fred and George had nicked the last of it without telling me."
"Wouldn't be a first," Severus muttered. He lifted his chin just enough for some of the offensive pink goop to be smeared onto his jaw.
"What happened?" Hermione asked, her eyes narrowed in concentration.
"Nothing of your concern."
"Sorry, I saw what happened to Harry last Christmas. Neither of you is getting out of it that easily."
Severus turned his head to glower down at her. A small, warm ball of satisfaction rose in his chest when she flinched. "As I have said, it was a slight altercation."
"Are you two speaking?"
"What would make you think Harry did it?"
"Well, the fact that I saw him beat Ron senseless while we were still at school was a hint. And I don't know any other men with hands that small. I don't think you'd get in a fight with a witch, either."
"How do you know I wasn't fighting Filius Flitwick?"
Hermione sniggered. "First, he's not here. Second, you'd just upturn a cauldron over him and be done with it."
"Rough sex," he snapped.
Hermione arched an eyebrow at him. "I don't believe that for a second. Harry can barely give you a hug, much less do anything else. Unless..." Her brow furrowed and she took half a step back. "You didn't..."
"I find your accusation both insulting and appalling, Mistress Granger-Weasley!" Severus swept past her. Ruby clung to his hair, making small blubbering noises against it. He shouldered open the kitchen door and made for... He stopped when it struck him there was nowhere in the house where he could comfortably hide. His arms tightened around Ruby.
"Professor?" Hermione, frowning, appeared in his line of sight. "Are you all right?"
"Fine." He rubbed Ruby's back. She burbled against his neck. "Beatam es, mi puellula?" he whispered, if only to say it of his own volition.
"I didn't know you spoke Latin."
"Hmm." Hermione folded her arms. She pulled out one of the chairs from the dining room table and sat down. "You look tired. Sit down?"
"I'm perfectly fine." Severus motioned to a chair with his chin anyway and stole hers when she got up to pull it out for him.
"Git," she muttered, plopping down once more. She stretched, arching. A low series of popping sounds rose from her spine. "Oogh. Want a baby?"
Severus put a hand on the back of Ruby's head. "Are you certain you wish to submit any child to my parental wrath?"
A small smile crossed Hermione's face. "I don't know. I think you'd make a fair daddy. Ruby seems to think so."
Severus snorted. "You are mad. Both of you. And your husband."
"I knew that already. Comes with keeping up with Harry for eight and a half years." She leaned on the table. "Dobby said he's upstairs, hasn't come down all day. Is he okay?"
"He's in better condition than I am." Physically, at least.
"Are you sure?" She gave him a suspicious scowl.
"You're more than welcome to find him and see."
Hermione's mouth puckered for a moment. She stared at him, leaning back in her seat. "I think I'd like to find out what's eating you first, if that's all right. He's not the easiest person to handle of late."
"Mister Potter has never been the easiest person to handle in any capacity."
The back of Hermione's hand flew to her mouth to stifle a snort. "Sorry," she said, trying not to grin. "Brought some interesting imagery to mind."
Severus closed his eyes. "Not right now, please."
"Sorry." She paused. Her chair creaked as she shifted. "Can I ask you something?"
"That all depends on what it is."
"What happened to him, exactly? I heard something about a corrupted Pensieve, but I don't know what went on in it. I've... That vial you had on your bedside table. That's Unicorn Blood serum, isn't it?"
Severus' eyes flew open. "What would ever--"
"I was in at the Prophet over the weekend to help with a few things, and I found a letter from Saint Mungo's. They were calling it Snape's Serum."
"What on Earth was a letter like that doing at the Prophet?"
"Sitting in the 'later' pile. Right now, anything with 'Snape' attached to it is journalistic poison." She slumped, a miserable scowl clouding her eyes. "I did a little reading, and it sounds like you had Unicorn Blood poisoning."
"What's that got to do with Harry?"
Hermione only looked at him in silence.
"It wasn't true poisoning. It was a modified form."
"You'd still have died."
"And you'd still have gone insane. And it was close enough to the real thing to affect your Pensieve. And I suspect that's how Harry ended up with us last year with that bruise of his."
"What's this got to do with anything?" Severus growled.
"Harry's... he's not... he didn't... take...?"
"I'd have already killed him if he had." He fixed her with a tight-lipped glower.
Hermione nodded. She didn't quite look at him. "All right," she whispered. "I believe you."
"So what happened?"
With a snarl, Severus got to his feet. "I do not wish to discuss this with you or anyone else." He marched towards Perditus' study. Ruby made an odd little squealing sound. Outside the door, he shifted her enough to fish his wand from his sleeve.
"Oughtn't you find your friend and make sure I'm telling the truth about him?"
"Harry can take care of himself."
Severus turned to stare at her. His eye twitched. "How dare you say such a thing? He'd have been dead a thousand times over by now if he'd been left to 'take care of himself.' The boy's got no common sense and even less inclination to use it!"
"My name is Severus." He spat a tangled incantation and barged into the office, Hermione close on his tail. "I might be your elder, but as long as your mad little friend is bound to me you might do me the respect of calling me that once in a while."
"Don't talk about Harry like that. It's not nice, and after everything you've put him through you ought to show him a little respect before you ask anyone else to do it to you."
Severus snorted. "Of course, how foolish of me. I ought to show pristine Saint Potter every speck of respect in the world while he flounces off and--"
He caught himself. Pursing his mouth, he turned towards the desk. Ruby squirmed and mewled in his arms. "Shh," he murmured. "Settle down, Miss Weasley. I'm not angry with you."
"Flounces off and what?"
"Nothing." Severus glanced back over his shoulder. "Leave me alone, please."
"I don't believe you." Hermione crept up to the desk. She ignored Severus' growl as she picked up one of the photographs. She glanced between it and Severus, frowning. "Who's this?"
She held it out for him. His mother lay sleeping; Eversor cradled him, doing a better job than usual of not strangling his baby brother by accident.
"My brother," Severus clipped. "Put that down."
She did. "I didn't know you had a brother."
"Hmm. Had is correct. I'd rather not get into that if it's all the same to you."
Hermione fell quiet; Severus had just started to set Ruby on the desk when she asked, "What's Harry flouncing off to do?"
He spun with a growl. "Get out."
"You don't think he's seeing someone else, do you? Because, that's just not... Harry."
"Nor is bedding and wedding the Potions master. Perhaps you ought to keep that in mind before you say what is and isn't Harry! Get out of here and leave me in peace with my goddaughter!" He stabbed a finger at the door. The full implication of what he'd said struck like a fist to the stomach.
Hermione stared at him. "He... what?"
"Oh, for..." Severus swept behind the desk and sat down as hard as he dared. Ruby whined. He cuddled her closer. "He did nothing. Absolutely, completely nothing. Now go and bother him instead."
Hermione took a step backwards. "Jesus Christ, Pr--Severus. Why would he...?"
"I already told you, he did nothing. Now go away so I might spend time with one of the few pieces of my life I hold dear." He hoisted Ruby higher on his shoulder. She grabbed a handful of his hair and stuck it in her mouth, fist and all.
"All right. I'll be back down... sometime, I suppose."
He watched Hermione in thin-lipped silence as she hurried out the door. It closed without a sound; a few moments later, the soft thud, thud of her footsteps on the stairs broke the stillness of the room.
Severus sighed. He lifted Ruby from his shoulder and perched her on the edge of Perditus' desk. She squawked when his hair slipped from her fingers. He gazed at her, from the small white trainers to the thick, pink snowsuit covering her from ankle to neck. Her wide eyes, the same brown as her mother's, were fixed on him in something like awe. For a moment, her mouth moved as though she wanted to say something.
"Never trust anybody, mi puellula," he whispered. "It's not worth it."
"That's a naught, Miss Weasley. You've got crosses."
Ruby continued scrawling a meandering spiral on the floor. Her tiny hands were wrapped around the fat red crayon in Severus' left, urging his hand this way and that; he did his best to follow her urgings. All told, as the spiral covered most of the playing grid, Severus was prepared to call it her win and hand over control of naughts.
Ruby leaned forward on one chubby hand, sitting between Severus' legs in her nappy and one of Dobby's mad jumpers. Just to prove a point, Severus reached around with his right hand and placed a single careful green X in the middle of the spiral. Ruby screeched and smacked his hand.
"None of that, now." He tried to take away the red crayon. She screeched louder and clapped her chubby hands over his.
"What's going on down here?" came Hermione's voice from the other side of the cracked door. It opened, and her eyes went wide at the red and green scrawls covering a good portion of the office floor. "Oh, Ruby."
Severus arched an eyebrow. He shook his hand and the crayon once more. They came free. Ruby screamed. "Have you got a problem, Hermione?" Severus called over the din.
"Look at your floor!"
"Quite the improvement, wouldn't you say?" Severus slipped the green crayon into Ruby's flailing fist. She stuck it in her mouth long enough to collect a satisfactory strand of drool before settling in to roll the thing around the floor.
Jaw slack, gripping her hair, Hermione shook her head, eyes running over the floor and its occupants. "Honestly. I leave you two alone for an hour, and you've..."
"If you've got an hour more, we'd be more than happy to take full advantage of it."
"Nuh-uh." Hermione swooped in and scooped up Ruby. (Ruby screeched again.) "I don't trust you not to take over the world. Or worse."
"Oh?" She gave him a cool look.
"Certainly. We'd at least have it hurtling towards the sun in that time."
"Oh, good grief. You're a mad scientist, and you're turning Ruby into your little baby Igor."
Severus stiffened at the name. He pushed himself to his feet. Brushing off his robe, he asked, "You found Harry?"
"Hmm." She gave him a cryptic glance. "He wasn't very chatty at first."
She nodded. "He, um, he told me about William. Sort of had to wring it out of him. I promised I wouldn't say anything to anybody."
Severus grunted. "Do you keep your promises?"
"Of course I do! I mean, it's not as if they actually did anything--"
"I think you're confusing the degree with the act itself."
Hermione pursed her mouth. "From what he said, you're overreacting. If Ron kissed someone like Lavender Brown, I wouldn't mind so much."
"Yes, but what would you do if he lied about it?" Severus swept towards the door.
Hermione sighed. "Look, I don't want to get in the middle of this. Only, you two need to talk. Or something. He wouldn't say a bloo--blasted thing to me about what happened to your face. Although, I sort of got the feeling he's protecting you somehow." She narrowed her eyes at him.
"Whatever might have taken place is between us, Mistress Granger-Weasley. I suggest you leave it as such."
"I will. But," she shrugged. "I'm still worried about you two. It's not good for you to be stuck in a creepy old house like this." She glanced around the office, at its dim corners and dark shelves. "I don't know what it is, but it feels... I don't know, it's like something bad happened here, and it's never quite gone away."
Arching an eyebrow, Severus turned his head enough to peer at her. "I thought you dismissed the Inner Eye as claptrap and buffoonery. Rightly so."
"I do. Only, I don't know." She shook her head and slunk towards the hall. "I need to be home soon. Molly and Arthur are coming for dinner, and the house looks like a hurricane went through."
"Given the state of what I've seen of their home, I doubt they'd notice."
"Yeah, well, you lived in a dungeon for half your life. You're not exactly the foremost authority on interior care."
Severus snorted. He followed her out anyway.
"I don't suppose you know where her snowsuit is?" Hermione asked, heading towards the kitchen with Ruby drooling on her shoulder.
"You shall have to ask the house-elves. They were attempting to remove the ink."
Hermione froze. She looked over her shoulder. "How much ink?"
"I believe the inkwell itself was charmed never to empty. I see you still haven't learned enough to make your daughter's clothes impervious to staining."
Hermione whimpered. With a stricken look, she staggered ahead. "I paid ten Galleons for that."
"Then you ought to have taken better care of it." Severus trotted after her, a smug smirk on his face. He found her in the kitchen, biting her lip in obvious chagrin as she held up a small, black snowsuit.
"We is sorry, Miss Hermione," Dobby was saying. "Sissy and Dobby is trying and trying, but we could not make Master Perditus' ink come out. It is being the easiest way to fix it."
"If it is making you feel better, Master Severus is doing the same thing as a boy."
Severus growled. "Dobby..."
Dobby cringed. "I is only telling her the truth, Master Severus! You is ruining five robes that way!"
Clearing his throat, Severus stabbed a finger at the door. Dobby vanished with a crack.
"You need to be nicer to them," Hermione said, still staring at the snowsuit. (Ruby sat at her feet, slurping both hands with happy efficiency.) "House-elves are people, too."
"House-elves are house-elves. The mere fact that a brilliant one like Dobby could be so thoroughly corrupted by the revolution taking place at Hogwarts--"
"Actually, Dobby started it." Hermione sighed and crouched. She started tugging the elf-sized jumper over Ruby's head, much to Ruby's loud annoyance. "Be quiet, Ruby. If you want to blame anyone, blame your git of a godfather."
Severus blinked. A smile twitched at the corner of his mouth, and something warm spread out over his rib cage. He knelt, shooing Hermione's hands away. "You obviously have spent a minimum of time with infants."
"It's not that. She's just a handful." Hermione shoved a bit of bushy brown hair off her forehead. Severus snorted and tugged one of Ruby's arms out of her sleeve.
"She's certainly more lively than Draco Malfoy was, although his tastes ran more towards hurtling his bottle to the floor with the cap loosened."
"You--oh, wait, you were cousins, weren't you?"
Severus nodded. He freed Ruby's other arm, pulling the jumper up over her head. She made a noise and looked up at him like he'd just told her she was to be left for the wolves.
"Settle down, Miss Weasley," he said. "You've got your lovely black suit to put on." He tickled her on her naked belly; she gurgled.
"Hold on a second." Hermione reached up to grab Ruby's nappy bag from the counter. She fished around inside for a moment until she pulled out a green playsuit. "I don't want her catching cold."
"I strongly doubt that shall be an issue. That precious suit she's got could insulate a magical meltdown."
Hermione watched in silence as Severus urged Ruby first out of her shoes, then into her green and black suits. Ruby thrashed her arms and grinned as he closed the last button on the snowsuit. Severus smirked.
"Oh, god." Hermione blanched. "You're twins."
A wicked grin broke out across Severus' face. "In that case, I believe there's a good deal of ink left. There are too many redheads in the world anyway."
"Don't you dare!" Hermione snatched up her daughter. "Don't listen to him," she cooed. "You're just lovely."
"Hmph." Severus rolled back on the balls of his feet and stood up. He held out his arms until Hermione handed Ruby over. "You can't Apparate with her."
Hermione rolled her eyes. "Tell me about it. I had to take the Knight Bus to get here. The driver's mad."
"You... took what?" Severus took a step backwards. He bit his tongue to stop himself from shouting in front of Ruby.
"Don't worry. I only took it to Hunstanton. I had a Muggle taxi bring me out to Thornham, and I walked the rest of the way."
Severus frowned. "That's more than half a mile."
"Well, it's closer than Holme."
He leaned down, close enough to make her shrink away. "I would rather be set upon by a pack of Dementors than have my goddaughter catch her death because you hadn't the sense to owl us to come to the village."
"She's got her snowsuit--"
"And nothing over her face. I forbid you to return to this house with her. Should I wish to see her, I shall either visit that damnable Burrow, or you shall meet me in Holme. Do you understand?"
"Why not Thornham? It's closer."
"Because there are wizards in Thornham, you stupid girl! Three families of them! I couldn't set foot there if my life depended on it!"
"Well, I'm sorry! What do you want me to do, bring the Knight Bus all the way here?"
"I've just told you what I want you to do!"
"How am I supposed to get her out of here then?"
Severus growled. He pulled himself to his full height, lifting his chin. "You shall wait here while I attempt to turn myself into a Muggle. I shall carry her, and we shall take her to Thornham."
"You just said you couldn't go there."
"I can carry her to the outskirts. After that, I fear you'll be left to your own questionable devices."
Hermione rolled her eyes. "Merlin. I don't see how Harry went so long without punching you."
Severus' fingers curled. "I'm going to pretend I didn't hear that."
"Sorry." She looked like she meant it.
He shot her one last cold glare and turned on the ball of his foot. He had a vague memory of portraits staring at him as though he'd lost his mind, but the only thing that properly stood out was the door to his old room cracking open and two green eyes peeking out. He paused, staring. It took a moment for him to decide if he ought to speak at all.
"Do you want something, Potter?"
Harry shook his head. "Only wondering what all the noise was about."
"Curiosity satisfied then?"
"S'pose." Harry still stood there, though. His mouth opened, forming the beginning of some word or another; it snapped shut. "Sorry. I'll leave you alone."
"I should hope so." Severus sneered and stormed down the hall, shouldering the door and kicking it shut behind him. He didn't even pause to breathe, only yanked his robe off over his head and dragged on those damnable Muggle clothes again. He glanced back at the door, over his shoulder. Half of him screamed for it to open; the rest hoped it never would again.
More to distract himself than anything else, he tried on a heavy woollen overcoat Lupin had brought. It was a bit loose through the body, but the sleeves were the right length, and it gave the overall effect of a short robe. With a grunt at his reflection, he Apparated into the kitchen.
Hermione yelped. "Don't do that!"
"I'll do whatever I bloody well want in my own house." He tapped his foot as she crammed the last of her things into her pouch. The stack of Prophets still lay next to the sink. "What about those?" he asked, pointing.
"I thought you might want to keep up with the world a bit. If nothing else, Harry could stand to see what's going on."
"The last thing we need is to read the lies being concocted about us."
"Sorry." She gave him a mournful look as she shoved them into the bag. "I didn't mean anything, you know. I only thought you'd want to see Ruby. Had hoped Harry would get to, too, but..." She trailed off with a shrug.
"That's all well and good, but I won't have you risking her life."
"Hmm." From the pocket of her pea coat, Hermione pulled what looked like a harness of yellow cloth. She held it out. "Here."
"What is that?" Severus took it with two fingers, sneering at the thing.
"You put it on sort of like a waistcoat. It lets her ride on your chest."
"That monstrosity your husband wears?" He scowled. "Why haven't I been offered it before?"
"Because you've always insisted on carrying her yourself. I just thought you might want it since you'll have to walk further than usual."
Severus snorted. He handed it back. "I think I can carry my own goddaughter, thank you very much."
"That's fine by me." Hermione shed her coat long enough to pull the harness on. Severus shuddered.
"You look like a deranged marsupial."
"And you look like a vulture with a vampire fetish, but you don't hear me complaining, do you?"
"I resent that!"
"Then don't call me a deranged marsupial."
"Hmph." Kneeling, Severus pulled Ruby's hood up so only her face and a few red curls peeked out, and tucked her into his coat. "Are you comfortable, Miss Weasley?"
Ruby snuggled against him. She snuffled into his chest, and a moment later only soft slurping sounds came from her dark little nest.
A faint smile crossed his mouth. From the corner of his eye, Severus caught Hermione shaking her head.
"I don't understand how you could be such a git to us, and then treat Ruby like a princess."
"By the time I got you, you were all arrogant, set-minded fools with the manners of a murder of hungry crows."
"Or maybe you just wanted to think we were." Adjusting her coat so the pack underneath only made her look a few months pregnant, she pulled on a striped knit cap and a pair of maroon mittens. "Ready to go?"
"As ready as can be expected."
"All right. Be careful with her."
"Ah, yes, parental warnings from the Mother of the Year."
Hermione shot him a look. "Come on, I need to get home."
The frigid wind cutting across the Fens didn't match well with the bright white sunlight turning the dead grass to spun gold. Severus squinted; a flash from the sea, cutting through a hole in the wall of thorns, blurred his vision for an instant, and he found himself forced to look at Hermione lest he go blind. The back part of the property - the side facing Thornham - was more or less overgrown with grass and brambles. Severus urged her towards the cemetery in its perpetual patch of neatly mown lawn.
"I think Sirius misses you," Hermione said.
Severus cocked an eyebrow at her. "You mean he misses Harry, surely."
"Well, both of you. He told me to make sure you're getting on all right. You specifically, I mean. He looked worried when he said it." She looked up at him with a suspicious squint. "Anything I ought to know about?"
"Apart from one Sirius Black's apparent slide into insanity, no."
"Oh. Okay." She didn't sound convinced.
"He didn't say anything else, did he?"
"No reason." Severus twisted his mouth into a knot. Emily, if you're going to make calculated threats, at least go through with them. You're supposed to be Head of Slytherin.
"That's not like you." Hermione tugged at the sleeves of her coat. "Harry said you two went to the pub yesterday."
Severus snorted. "Indeed."
"Is that what happened?"
Severus pursed his mouth. "Not precisely."
"What d'you mean?"
"I mean, he went to the pub, and a while later I went as well."
"That's... different." She frowned. "All right, spill it."
"You went to the villageseparately, you've got the mother of all bruises on your face, and neither of you wants to say a word about it. Something happened." Hermione glanced up at him. "Has it got to do with Harry kissing William?"
"No! And keep that undersized little nose of yours out of my business!" Severus shifted Ruby. She mewled. "Shh, mi puellula. Are you getting enough air?" He adjusted the top of his coat. "You, Mistress Granger-Weasley, ought to be grateful that your daughter is present, lest I lose my temper."
"I think you ought to be grateful she's here or I'd lose mine. You've put Harry through more Hell than anyone's got a right to, and I mean all the way back to first year! Not to mention what you did to Ron, and Neville, and me. I still haven't forgotten that crack about my teeth, Severus." She shook a finger in his face. "There've been plenty of times I've wanted to hit you myself!"
Severus huffed. "What crack?"
"You know perfectly well what crack. After Malfoy hit me with that Densaugeo fourth year? And I had teeth down to my chin?"
"Haven't a bloody clue what you're on about."
"Well, that's because you're a bloody-minded, arrogant, big-nosed, ugly, greasy-haired, stringbean son of a bitch!"
Severus froze. Hermione was panting, hunched, her hands balled into fists, her face twisted into a mask of rage. He stared for a moment before lifting his hand to his mouth. She frowned in confusion at the high-pitched peals of laughter he didn't even bother to stop.
"What are you laughing at?" she demanded. "It's true."
"And yet I never expected to hear it coming from your mouth. You have finally, Miss Granger, lived up to your House."
Hermione's mouth opened. She snapped it shut, though, turning very pink. Looking a bit insulted, she muttered, "Thought you'd have at least noticed the boomslang skin missing from your office."
"Oh, yes, I noticed. I'm afraid Mister Potter already called that ruse, though. You're quite the mastermind when you set yourself to it, aren't you?"
The corners of her lips twitched, although she was still flushed. "Clever, that's all. It helps with reporting rather a lot."
"Not a terrible shock, I must say."
She gave him a wry smile. "I'd hope not. Did enough research for your class. I still have nightmares about it."
"Then I suppose I did my job properly."
Hermione snickered. "Panic! Destruction! Chaos! My work here is done."
"Quite." Severus allowed himself a thin, wicked smile. "Speaking of which, what did you make with my boomslang skin? I assume it had some deliberate purpose if you were masterminding the plot."
"Oh! Oh, um." Hermione put her fingers to her mouth, looking nervous. "Polyjuice Potion."
She nodded, not quite looking at him.
Severus stared. "You couldn't have been successful. You were only in your second year."
"Oh, no, it worked fine. Only..." She turned a vibrant shade of scarlet. "I accidentally used a cat hair in mine. We told Madam Pomfrey Ron's wand backfired. It, um, that was when he was using the broken one."
An amused smile started quivering on the corner of Severus' mouth. "How awfully embarrassing for you, to have your own illegal potion go arse over tit when you have some."
"Severus! Not in front of Ruby!"
"Were you to find her a tutor rather than subject her to the whims and wafflings of the primary schooling system, you wouldn't have to stifle your own words."
Hermione rolled her eyes. "I'll think about it, all right? Come on, I really need to get home."
Severus set off after her, smirking, Ruby babbling in his coat. (The bit of his jumper under her mouth seemed to be growing quite wet.) Just beyond the cemetery and its surrounding neat patch lay the edge of forest ringing the property. Hermione stopped and chewed her lip.
"You know, I could always Apparate--"
Severus dropped a hand on her shoulder. "Ruby goes through, therefore you go through."
Hermione gave him a venomous look. "Git."
He made sure she was at least two steps into the trees before he cuddled Ruby tighter. "Forgive me, Miss Weasley," he murmured.
Ruby only babbled. Severus tipped his head enough to lay a kiss on top of her head. With his eyes narrowed, he ploughed into the forest.
The wall of desperate need to be elsewhere thundered into him the same moment Ruby screamed. "Shh, tace, mi puellula," he whispered, hurrying between the trees with his face almost buried in his coat with her. "Hic non diu poscat."
Dead branches and dry grass crunched beneath his feet. The wind keened through, even colder and sharper than in the flatlands just off the North Sea. It chewed first through his trousers below his coat, then through his coat, and finally through the back and sleeves of his jumper. He shifted Ruby to keep the winds away from her; she huddled in a screaming ball in his arms. A few more steps and the inner layer of wards eased. Severus breathed a sigh as his panic dwindled to a need to get to some unnamable, urgent appointment. Ruby's screams faded to a steady whimper as well.
"Superbio sum tuo." He rubbed her trembling back. Only looking up enough to get through the trees without falling or crashing into anything, Severus hurried.
He emerged into sunlight; a last vengeful gust of wind wrapped around him and seemed to yank away the senseless discomfort. Ruby still fussed. He shifted her against his right arm and wriggled his left out of his coat sleeve and into the body of the coat so she could grip his finger. A moment later, a soggy, toothless mouth closed around it. Severus smiled.
Hermione was already standing there. The wild hair sticking out from under her hat had gone frizzy, and her skin was pale. "Why do they still affect you on the way out?" she asked in an uneven voice.
"My grandfather wasn't the most pleasant of individuals. From what I understand, he had no great desire for what he considered his property to change its mind."
She gave him a long, grim look. "You mean he wanted the house to be a prison, don't you?"
"Of a sort, yes."
Shaking her head, Hermione muttered, "And I thought it was bad having to brush my teeth five times a day. Can't imagine growing up with that."
"I never knew him. He died before I was born. His legacy carried on for quite some time, though." Severus pursed his mouth. He glanced around until he got his bearings and started walking south through the grass. "Come on, best get this over with."
It was in relative silence they trudged through the long grass. It grew shorter and shorter as they went, a sign of civilisation. "The grounds are unplottable, mind," Severus said. "In case you were wondering."
"I thought as much. It would be a little suspicious otherwise, what with the wards." Hermione went up on her toes, craning her neck at the top of Severus' coat. "How is she?"
"Hungry, I suspect. She's got my finger."
Hermione smirked. "I'll give her a bottle when we get on the bus. She didn't want anything while you had her?"
"Only most of a bottle after she doused herself in ink."
"Don't tell me she was trying to eat it."
"It was rather a telling hint when she aimed it at her mouth. I'm not sure which of us was more thankful she missed. I've tasted that cack before, and it's worse than Hagrid's cooking."
A sad smile crossed Hermione's face. Much to Severus' surprise, she caught his elbow and all but cuddled up as they walked.
"Is there anything you two need?" she asked.
Severus chewed his bottom lip a moment. "Fawkes. Depending if anyone can get in the house, I would also very much appreciate some of my equipment, and Harry would like his Snitch. I believe you bought it for him?"
Hermione laughed. "He hasn't worn it out yet?"
"No, but it's claimed three windows and a vase."
She laughed again, teeth flashing in the sunlight. "Now, why doesn't that surprise me?"
"Because you know perfectly well the sort of chaos that follows that boy wherever he goes."
"Hmm. Too right." She snorted. "What's the equipment?"
"The platinum cauldron, the centrifuge, the inert crystal stirring rods - not the ones with the silver cores, the two sets of microgram-graded scales, and a pair of goggles if you'd be so kind. Can you repeat that?"
After three successful tries, he gave a satisfied grunt. "And my paint set, if the mutt can find it," he added as an afterthought.
"Things you're not supposed to be doing, right."
She shrugged. "Only the truth."
"Hmph." Severus glanced around. The encounter in the pub the day before tickled at the back of his mind. Pursing his mouth, he asked, "How much informational access does your journalistic status grant?"
"What do you need to know?"
"Might you be able to look up a name for me?"
Hermione frowned. "Probably. What is it?"
"Pyotr Mosevich. How do you spell that?"
"Your guess is as good as mine."
"Oh, one of those. I'll see what I can find. Why?"
Severus said nothing for a long moment. Finally, he murmured, "I have reason to believe he may be related to certain 'accidents'."
Hermione jerked to a stop. "You think he sent the--?"
Severus pursed his mouth. "No, but at least one other."
"Jesus." Hermione's eyes focused on something on the horizon Severus couldn't see. She looked up at him. "How do you know about him?"
"I believe he once went by the name Igor Karkaroff. I overheard him yesterday afternoon."
"Does he know you're here?"
"I don't believe he even knows about the house. I only ever saw him at my cousin's home."
Hermione nodded. "All right. I'll look into the European wire, too. With a name like that he might have been hiding someplace like Russia. I know the eastern European wizards are pretty tight about their security, but," she shrugged. "I've got a few contacts."
"You wouldn't be referring to a certain Bulgarian Triwizard Champion, would you?"
Her cheeks went scarlet. "Hush," she mumbled. "That was a long time ago."
Severus snorted. "Truly a sordid affair. But perhaps it's all for the best?"
"I hope so." She thrust a finger in his face. "And don't you dare tell Ron I've been owling Viktor. He's sulky enough as it is, what with Harry being all the way out here. It's almost as bad as when they weren't speaking last year."
"I promise. I shan't breathe a word."
Severus nodded. Under his breath, he said, "Thank you for this. I owe you more than you could imagine."
"Just take care of Harry, all right? And talk to him. He's going mad, locked up in that place. Between that and whatever he saw in your Pensieve I'm worried he's going to end up in Saint Mungo's." The corners of her mouth jerked down. With a shake of her head, she glanced away. Several houses were visible to the south, as was the dark blotch that was Thornham. "You'd best stop here," she murmured.
"A wise decision." With as much gentleness as he could, Severus pried his finger from Ruby's mouth and stuck his arm back in its sleeve. Ruby whimpered.
"Now, now, Miss Weasley. We'll have none of that. If you keep it up, one day I'll send you away, and I mightn't want you back." He hugged her, resting his chin on his chest just above her head as Hermione undid her coat to get to the harness. "Fortasse quando occumbatus," he added in a whisper.
"What did you just say?"
"Nothing of any importance." Severus loosened the top two buttons and lifted Ruby out of his coat. She reached for him, tiny fingers curling at the air. A pitiful string of whimpers filled the air. "Go on, Miss Weasley. Be good, and perhaps in time you may decorate another house with me."
"And you go on about how horrible we were. Honestly, teaching her to draw on the floor. Come on, Ruby, sweetheart." Hermione took her and cuddled her to her chest before manoeuvring her into the yellow monstrosity. Ruby leaned in against her, three fingers in her mouth and looking back at Severus with wide, pained eyes. (Severus got the feeling he looked in a similar state.) "Time to go and make dinner for Gran and Grandpa."
"Take care of her, or I'll hunt you down."
"Only if you take care of Harry. And I'll hunt you down if it comes to it. You don't want me to do that."
"Given who and what I've been hunted by in my life, I'm afraid you pose little threat."
"Hmm." Hermione shot him a worried look. "Take care of him anyway. And yourself. It's ironic, really. He hated your guts from the first day of lessons, and now I think you're the only thing keeping him alive."
Severus snorted. "Only goes to prove his lack of taste."
Hermione went up on her toes and pecked him on the jaw. (Given that she was even shorter than Harry, Severus found this quite a feat in itself.) "Say goodbye, Ruby."
Ruby mewled and rubbed her eyes. She still had her head craned 'round, gazing at Severus as though he were the whole of the world. He took the tiny hand still squashed against her cheek. She squeezed his finger. With a stabbing pain each time one came free, Severus pried her fingers loose one at a time.
"Until next time, Miss Weasley." He gave a short bow, and waited until they had turned away and gained a respectful distance before he readied himself for another mad dash through the wards. He Disapparated.
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