Severus looked up again. He couldn’t concentrate properly, and he put that down to the way the damned egg kept knocking off the sides and bottom of the cauldron every few moments, instead of the fact that he had ground to an uncomfortable, not to say insurmountable, halt in his research. He had adjusted the cauldron this way and that every few minutes, to see if he could maintain a position that would allow the egg to float freely, and yet not keep bumping off the cauldron, but every time he just got himself settled again, it would begin, just once at first, a little knock as though to remind him that whilst he thought he had control over everything else in his life, he should not presume to have control over the egg.
Severus was beginning to come to the unacceptable conclusion that he was going to have to solicit help, from someone who would not only be willing, but would also satisfy the one criterion he couldn’t satisfy himself. He hoped he could come up with a more tolerable candidate than the very one who had dumped the damned egg in his lap anyway, he snarled to himself, quite forgetting that it he was who had placed the anonymous request in the “Daily Prophet” lost, found and wanted column in the first place. No, no, it certainly would not do for that insufferable oaf Hagrid to know that it had been Lucius Malfoy, via Snape, whose Galleons had been passed under the table to him, not when Severus had taken such pains to be unrecognised.
He checked his notes again, to see if he could add more seawater, to give the egg a bit more room, reason having dictated that the more room the egg had, the less likely it would be to bump off the sides of the cauldron so often, but the notes were quite specific about cauldron size and water content and temperature to be maintained; he had done the calculations himself after all. If he wanted the damned egg to hatch, the baby inside it would have to think it was in a rock pool below its mother, in a wet seaside cave of her choosing. Severus sat back, hardly daring to believe that it hadn’t knocked since he had reread the conditions for making a cauldron a surrogate mother. And then it gave another rattle, as though just to remind him of its presence, and stopped, and instead of the relief from the infernal, out-of-kilter knocking, Severus found himself almost holding his breath as he waited for it to happen again, but it didn’t. He had an uncomfortable notion that it was deliberately trying his patience, or trying to converse with him, neither of which option appealed more than the other.
He dropped his head to his notebook, trying to find something to latch onto that would make him feel more in control of the situation he had thrust himself into, this mess of his own making. It wasn’t as though he would gain financially if he made a dragon-pox antivenin, or receive an Order of Merlin, he thought sourly, or even the respect of the few he considered worthy of being called his peers. He was the expert anyway, the best; what mattered it that his theory remained just that, untested as it was un-testable? Better that way anyway, now that Lucius had extracted a promise that Severus would keep any discovery he made a secret; what was the point of it all if he couldn’t even satisfy his own needs, his own lust for fame and recognition? He should have resisted Lucius’s constant whining, not to mention his threats of cutting him off financially, and just let him bite his manicured fingernails to the quicks, as he waited for the rest of the ten year incubation period of the disease which had slain his father, to see if it would drag him off to the eternal fires of hell too. Another damned knock, a short sharp impatient rap. If the egg weren’t careful he would dump it into the damn Chamber of Secrets and let it hatch there, he snarled to himself, trying to find his place in his unintelligibly angry scrawl of notes, and almost dropped the lot on the floor as he realised it wasn’t the egg that had knocked, but some ungracious unsolicited visitor.
‘Go away,’ he snapped at the door, and the egg knocked on the side of the cauldron, and Severus had to suppress the ludicrous urge the accuse whoever his unwanted visitor was of waking the baby.
He pushed his mind in front of him, just to check it wasn’t Lucius, and even before he flung the door to his rooms open, Severus had managed to refuse to acknowledge to himself that he was as surprised as he was, not quite pleased, of course, but not quite displeased either, at his caller’s identity.
‘Weasley,’ he said, hoping the name alone would suffice as an insult. ‘What do you want? I am busy,’ he snapped, as a myriad of possibilities flashed through his mind in such a way that he had to stifle the urge to usher the dragon-keeper through the door like a long lost brother.
As it happened he didn’t need to bother. The belligerent redhead had placed his two large hands on Snape’s shoulders and had shoved him back into the room. ‘Stop picking on Ron,’ he hissed, grabbing an uncomfortably large fistful of Severus’s robes, just under his chin. ‘Or you’ll have me to answer to.’
Snape dragged himself free. ‘Kindly keep your hands to yourself, Weasley,’ he growled, wondering amongst other things, why Charlie Weasley was in his rooms instead of in Romania, and why his own nether regions had puddled in alarming warmth at the physical contact with a former pupil, one whom he recalled only as a redheaded befleckled upstart, and not as the swarthy weather-beaten man before him. He only remembered his mouth was still open, when he felt it snap shut. ‘And I do not pick on your brother,’ he went on, belatedly reminding himself to gather his wits from where he had allowed them to be scattered.
But Charlie Weasley seemed to have lost whatever fleeting interest he had had in Snape, and indeed his brother Ron’s assertions that his Potions Master was picking on him. He was looking across the study to where the cauldron sat rattling away on top of the ring of fire Severus had so carefully conjured for it. There was something reverential in Weasley’s look, something almost religious in its fervour that made Severus wonder if the condition he had almost been tempted to ignore, more for its inconvenience than from any true belief that he could fool the egg, were indeed true. He knew that some Muggle branches of Christianity required their priestly acolytes to be abstemious, and found himself wondering if it also required them to be unspoilt, if not only their future pledges but also their past records were taken into account. That rather left him wondering if Charlie Weasley’s adoration of his dragons were as religious as he had been led to believe it was required to be, and if so, if he were a virgin, a thought Snape pushed firmly to the back of his mind, stopping only to tag it as ‘useful information which may be needed in the future’.
‘Is that… is that a…’ Weasley trailed off, as though to mention the name of the only hermaphrodite dragon in the known world was sacrilege, and Severus fancied he only just stopped himself from genuflecting. ‘Is it?’
‘Is what?’ Snape replied blandly, enjoying his moment of superiority. ‘Try to be more succinct than your brother.’
Charlie seemed to remember himself suddenly, as though reminded of why he had seen fit to come to Snape’s door, and drew himself up. Snape thought he looked a touch dangerous, perhaps even deliciously so. Weasley’s eyes flitted back to the cauldron though, to where the egg had begun to knock somewhat insistently against it. He crossed the room and knocked the side of the cauldron back, without as much as wincing at what must have been the enormous heat of the pewter, leaving Severus feeling slightly inadequate, as he wished he had hidden the dragon hide gloves he had to use for handling the hot metal.
‘Where did you get it?’ Charlie asked, looking up from the odd physical conversation between his knuckles and the egg, which was now rattling the sides of the cauldron in a way it had never rattled at Snape.
‘It was a gift,’ Snape lied smoothly, but it sounded a lot better than saying he had placed a tacky advertisement in a newspaper, and bought the egg from Hagrid in a Knockturn Alley pub, with Lucius Malfoy’s gold.
‘From an admirer?’ Weasley enquired, with an annoyingly arch look that Severus couldn’t quite understand. ‘Or someone who wants you dead and doesn’t care to soil his own hands?’
‘Let us go back to your brother’s impertinences, shall we?’ Snape replied, steering his way to more comfortable ground.
But Weasley wasn’t to be sidetracked, or re-sidetracked, as the case was. ‘Is it genuine?’ he asked, knocking the side of the cauldron again, to be rewarded seconds later by what Severus could only describe as a sleepy knock back. ‘How have you managed?’ he went on, transferring his awe from the dragon egg to the man who held it under whatever power he held it. ‘A baby, an egg from the Draco Virgo Intacta,’ Charlie breathed, as though he were referring to some deity known only to the men who knew dragons.
Carpe diem, Snape thought rashly by his own standards, as they were on Latin anyway. ‘Not without a little difficulty, Weasley,’ he admitted, hoping the man opposite would take that as honest assessment, instead of the failure it was likely to be, unless he got help from someone who knew his dragons, someone like Charlie Weasley, he thought, bringing himself round in a neat circle. ‘In fact, it is perhaps opportune that you happened in to see me.’
Snape narrowed his eyes in thought as he watched Weasley seem to come to some sort of decision. He was walking an uncharted path he didn’t care to walk, and apart from the uncomfortable certainty he had that Charlie Weasley knew that, he was beginning to wonder if he would leave himself open to being made a fool of too, something he had done altogether too often in his past. There was one thing he hadn’t failed to notice, apart from the extreme discomfort of having Charlie Weasley just so close without being able to obtain any relief from his presence, and that was the undeniable fact that since he’d arrived the damned egg had settled, almost as though it were content that someone more attuned to its needs had arrived. No, he hadn’t fooled the damn egg at all, it had just been marking time until someone better came along; Severus just hoped he had fooled Weasley better than he had fooled himself.
Charlie Weasley sat back, musing to himself over what he had heard. He was little bit tired of the second brother syndrome anyway, of living under the shadow of Saint Bill: he who deigned to allow the sun to shine from his arse each morning, if the gospel according to Molly Weasley were to be believed. He wondered what she would think if he ended up with an Order of Merlin for finding a cure for dragon-pox; not much he supposed wryly. It would be a case of her whispering to her neighbour at the ceremony something along the lines of: “That man, the one who is receiving the Order of Merlin; his brother is a curse-breaker.”
‘That’s madness,’ he objected in a way he thought Snape would expect, tossing back the last of his Firewhisky, and tipping the bottle to refill his glass, pretending not to notice Snape’s raised eyebrow. ‘You can’t raise a baby dragon to adulthood, and expect it to allow you to milk it.’
‘There is no such thing as can’t, Weasley,’ Snape replied, replenishing his own glass, and Charlie suspected it was more to demonstrate that he could drink any man under the table and back again, even before lunchtime, than from any real desire.
‘But why a Virgo?’ Charlie asked, as though he hadn’t already guessed. ‘Why not something less restrictive… like a Hebridean… or a Black Caspian? I could get you dragon milk… at least, I think I could,’ he lied, carefully closing his mind down from the little push he felt from the scowling black-eyed man across the table.
‘It has to be a Virgo,’ Snape replied evasively.
Charlie thought he sounded gratified that he had confirmed his suspicions about the specific criteria that applied to handling the Draco Virgo Intacta. He smiled to himself at that; that fact that whilst Snape knew quite a lot about dragons, he certainly didn’t know quite as much as he thought he did, and not nearly as much as Charlie did. ‘Has this something to do with Abraxas Malfoy having caught dragon-pox from a Virgo?’ he asked, squinting across the Potions Master’s table.
Snape seemed to sigh to himself; as though he supposed it was only to be expected that even a Weasley would eventually make the connection. ‘Abraxas Malfoy is dead,’ he replied.
‘I’m quite aware of that, Severus. I was in Romania, not Mars,’ Charlie replied. ‘But Lucius isn’t dead. And I also happen to know, as I’m sure you and Lucius do too, that the incubation period of dragon-pox from a Virgo can be as long as ten years.’ He smiled across the table at Severus, who seemed to be gamely pretending that he hadn’t noticed Charlie had used his given name. ‘Old Lucius getting nervous?’ he pushed, rather intrigued by the man opposite him.
‘Not for himself,’ Snape replied, and Charlie didn’t think he was wrong in thinking Snape had thrown a little of his caution to the wind. After all, he appeared to have already decided to enlist Charlie’s help, something Charlie was feeling quite pleased about, for more reasons than he cared to admit just then. ‘He has his family to consider though,’ Snape added.
‘Crap,’ Charlie replied. ‘The only thing Lucius has ever considered is his own reflection.’ He gave Snape a long look. ‘It was Malfoy who gave you the Virgo egg, wasn’t it?’
‘Have you any idea of what is going to be involved in raising that thing?’ Charlie asked, nodding to where the egg seemed to have fallen asleep. ‘That’s assuming it even hatches. You have been talking to it, I hope, haven’t you? It seemed a bit lonely when I came in.’
‘No, I don’t talk to it,’ Snape replied eventually, just in case the egg would tell Charlie as much. It was one thing to lie, as Severus could do as glibly as the next man, but quite another to be caught out. He was unsure of just how long he had been looking at Weasley’s blue-green eyes; they were the colour of shallow seawater washing over sand, and neither reminded him of a green-eyed woman nor a blue-eyed man, both of whom he spent most of his few unguarded moments trying to forget anyway.
It was Charlie who broke the contact, something that made Snape uncomfortable, as though it confirmed the scrutiny had been too long, or perhaps just too intense. ‘How long are you in the country for?’ he asked in a rush, as though he had been assessing something quite different about the man to what he hoped Charlie hadn’t guessed. ‘I only ask because I think you know I may need a little assistance here.’ He tried to make it sound reluctant, instead of hopeful.
‘I was going back today actually,’ Charlie lied every bit as well as Snape, looking back to him. ‘However, I now have to consider the wellbeing of an extremely rare, not to say vulnerable baby dragon.’
‘And are you…’ Snape trailed off, cursing himself for not having prepared his words before he opened his mouth. ‘Are you able to satisfy the particular conditions for looking after this particular baby dragon?’
Charlie let out a bray of laughter. ‘Oh, Severus, if you could only see yourself. Two ‘particulars’ in one sentence. I would never have believed you could be so tongue tied.’
Snape flared his nostrils in anger, as much at himself as at the openly honest man opposite him. ‘Are you attempting to make a fool of me, Weasley?’ he hissed.
‘Not at all, you’re doing fine all on your own.’ Weasley sat back, somehow more at ease than he had been since he had arrived, as though his relaxation and Snape’s tension had been jostling with one another for supremacy. ‘Are you asking me if I’m celibate, because you’re not, and you think the baby dragon will know?’
‘No. I am asking if you are able to justify your absence to your employers for long enough to do what requires to be done here,’ Snape replied. ‘For the good of the dragon, of course.’ He didn’t need the answer to the other question now anyway; Weasley knew his dragons, it was enough of a confirmation.
‘I could,’ Charlie replied, picking his words carefully. He had begun to realise something he had never known about Snape, something he suspected very few people would know, and yet he reflected, it was really quite obvious when he thought about it, and he wondered why there had not been speculation about Snape’s sexuality when he had been at school, or if there had been and he just hadn’t noticed. A single childless man, entrenched in the thankless task of being a schoolmaster, without even the hint of affairs with female staff members; of course he would be homosexual, either that or celibate, and had he not as near as admitted the lie of that to Charlie? Then again, he could be pining after a lost love; the Lily Evans rumour had been rife about the time when the Potters had died. But Charlie had known the truth of that; he had overheard his parents discussing the fact that it had been some kind of odd adolescent love that had just not had the chance to bloom and flower and wither of its own accord. Severus Snape was a closet homosexual; Charlie was quite pleased with the conclusion, being as it was one obstacle less in his way.
‘As to the other… the condition you have been so delicately skirting, Severus,’ he said, enjoying dragging the Potions Master’s discomfiture out for as long as he dared. ‘You suspect correctly that the Virgo would not react too kindly to a fornicator. She would know if a man had lain with a woman, Severus… it would not be wise to tempt her wrath,’ he said, hardly noticing the way he had repeated his name, and the way it felt good rolling off his tongue, and the odd reaction it seemed to stimulate from Snape, something like surprise, but not quite.
He watched carefully as Snape looked away when he mentioned women, almost as though his automatic response had caught him unawares and he had been unable to stop it, as though he had only just managed to stifle the obvious next question that had sprung to his thin mirthless lips. Charlie thought he’d keep the rest of the knowledge he had to himself, for a while at any rate, just to see how things panned out. He was rather pleased that he had left Romania anyway, having hastily excused himself to the Institute Principal as needing extended leave, and reminded himself to Obliviate the fact that he had told Ron he was on holiday, from his brother’s mind. Ron didn’t know why he had taken the step of distancing himself from Romania and his beloved dragons; he didn’t know he was running away. Anyway, noble sacrifice would be far more appealing to Snape than attempting to make virtue of necessity, and now it seemed as though he had run away from what he needed to escape, and had found a little dragon to look after anyway. Suddenly the world was full of exciting possibilities, he mused, pretending to himself that he didn’t mean the thorny scowling attractive, yet undeniably ugly man opposite him, as much as the fearsome little un-hatched reptile fast asleep in her egg.
Charlie stood up; enough was enough, and he needed to think. ‘I’ll call back later… if I may,’ he said, nodding to the cauldron. ‘It might be an idea if you drew a veil of silence over this part of the corridor… just so no one wakes her.’ He saw Snape’s hard flat look, one that warned him that the Potions Master suspected he was making a fool of him, and cautioned himself that the hostile demeanour seemed to cover a very fragile ego. ‘Suit yourself,’ he said with a shrug. ‘Keep it awake if you don’t mind it driving you nuts. It’ll probably batter off the side of the cauldron for attention.’
Severus didn’t seem inclined to reply, but that was better than telling him not to come back. Charlie had already begun to regret the lie, the one he had told by omission only; it was a lie all the same, and he had a feeling Snape would think so too. He wondered how to go about un-telling it.