‘Hush now,’ he said, without noticing he didn’t feel the self-consciousness he would have expected to feel at speaking to an egg, albeit alone in his own rooms. ‘He may have gone, little one, but I am still here.’
He knew he wasn’t mistaken; even before the egg bumped just once off the cauldron side and settled, he knew it had not only heard him, but it had understood too.
He turned his mind once more to the man who had just left, unsurprised to find that he had sat on the seat that Charlie had sat in, the one Severus never sat in, the one for the few visitors courageous enough to darken his doorstep. Had he done that deliberately? He didn’t think so; he wasn’t aware of the decision, it had been unconscious, subconscious. He told himself that he didn’t shift his position just to see if he could feel the contours the other man’s arse had left on the soft leather; best not think about the contours of Charlie Weasley’s arse.
He poured a small glass of whisky, malt this time, and swirled it thoughtfully before sipping at it, letting it warm the sudden chill he felt, pretending he hadn’t enjoyed the company he always saw fit to deny himself. That wasn’t strictly true though, he mused in a rare moment of self-examination. It was the particular company he had enjoyed, Charlie Weasley’s company. He slipped an ebony box from his pocket and slid a slim dark cigarette between his lips, lighting it from the end of his wand, and found himself looking across to the cauldron to see if the egg would knock its disapproval.
He sat for while in thought, letting the past hour or so slip through his mind, before he came to the conclusion of his failure.
Damn, he snarled to himself, he had made a mess of things. He should just have had the courage to ask Weasley if the dragon… damn, damn, if the dragon minded same sex coupling in the same way as it seemed to abhor that between men and women. Hadn’t Weasley hinted as much? Hadn’t he specifically said that the dragon would know if he had lain with a woman? Had he been hinting at something else? Trying to draw him out? Laughing at him?
‘Well?’ Ron asked enthusiastically. ‘Did you belt him one?’
Charlie had taken the time to formulate his story; the question didn’t catch him unawares. ‘No, actually I didn’t,’ he said, looking to where Ron was already halfway through a superior nod of approval to Harry and Hermione, before he registered what Charlie had said. ‘You’d do well to concentrate on your work, instead of trying to better your masters. Anyway, he says he doesn’t pick on you.’
‘You believe him?’ Ron asked, clearly as confused as he was put out. ‘He gave me detention for just forgetting my homework.’
‘Oh, I see,’ Charlie replied, as though just grasping a situation he had really grasped before he ever went to the dungeon. ‘So you want me to belt Snape because you didn’t bother to do the homework he set you. Is that about the size of it?’
‘Bill would have belted him,’ Ron retorted. ‘Anyway, there’s other stuff too.’
‘Like what?’ Charlie challenged, his temper rising at the reference to Bill, he who sat upon an unshakable pedestal, the one Charlie was supposed to look up to, along with the rest of adoring Weasley throng.
‘Like lots of stuff. He’s given me detention before.’
‘For fun… or maybe he likes you company?’
‘For not very much,’ Ron muttered. ‘Anyway, what took you so long? Bill would have been in and out in two seconds flat.’
‘Well, I’m not Bill,’ Charlie replied, much more calmly than he would normally have done when being compared to the incomparable. ‘I’m quite glad about that actually,’ he said, only just admitting to himself why that was.
Ron huffed a bit, before seeming to come to reluctant terms with the fact there wasn’t any blood on the dungeon walls. ‘Come on then,’ he said at last. ‘I’m starving. Let’s have lunch, and then you can watch us having Quidditch practice.’
‘Not today,’ Charlie replied, turning to the Hall. ‘I’ve got work I need to do.’
‘Work?’ Ron asked. ‘What kind of work? I thought you were on holiday?’
‘It’s secret actually,’ Charlie replied. ‘I came here to work with Severus on something.’
‘What?’ Ron replied in a shocked tone, although whether outraged at the prospect of work, or at the said work being with his Potions Master, Charlie wasn’t quite sure.
‘Mind your own business, Ron. This is secret Ministry work. I have more important things to discuss with Severus than justifying some silly grouse you have about the consequences of being too lazy to do your homework.’
‘Ministry work?’ Ron asked. ‘Cool. Does Dad know?’ he asked, his chest puffed out in a way that made Charlie despair at how easy it was to flatter a Weasley.
‘Actually, nobody knows,’ he replied, making a fist below his youngest brother’s chin. ‘And it had better stay that way.’
‘Cool,’ Ron repeated a bit less surely. ‘Poor you though, stuck working with that greasy old bat.’
Charlie watched Ron turn away to follow Harry and Hermione into the Hall, the other two having lost interest quite quickly when realising that Dumbledore wasn’t about to announce Snape’s death over the lunch tables. It had gone quite well, he mused; now all he had to do, apart from thinking up something to ensure Snape wasn’t arrested for owning an illegal dragon’s egg, something he seemed not to have considered, was worm himself a little more under Snape’s admirable defences, just to see what was actually lurking there. But for now he had something a bit more pressing to attend to, something he suspected wouldn’t take too long, something thoughts of the sullen sulky Potions Master had brought to a head again. The boys’ toilets on the ground floor should be empty now that almost everyone was in for lunch; he’d just drop in there for hors d’oeuvre. He wondered if Severus was feeling the same way; the thought did nothing to dampen his ardour.
Severus slid to his knees as the last imaginary echoes of Charlie Weasley’s name bounced off the uncaring tiles, and his angry seed washed down the drain hole of the shower. He let the hot spray dance on his back, as his heart returned to a more measured pace and his breathing began to still. At last he dragged himself to his feet, clutching beyond the steamy haze for the towel he had hung slightly further away from where he encountered it… just above a pair of highly polished boots that didn’t belong to him.
‘What on earth were you doing on the floor, Severus?’ Lucius asked, his silver-blond eyebrow all but disappearing into his ridiculous hair. ‘Did you fall?’
Severus snatched the towel and wrapped it quickly around his waist. ‘What do you want, Lucius?’ he snapped. ‘How did you get in here anyway?’
‘The door was open,’ Malfoy replied. ‘A touch careless on your part, Severus,’ he said reproachfully, nodding towards the bedroom, and thence to the study, where Severus sincerely hoped he hadn’t woken the egg. ‘What on earth were you thinking about? Anyone could have come in and stolen my dragon.’
Snape resisted the almost overwhelming desire to tell Lucius that he had been thinking of shagging Charlie Weasley into next week, just for the look he would be rewarded with, just in case… he pushed the thought away, as his nether regions shocked him by reminding him that, whilst he might have given them temporary respite, they weren’t going to be satisfied for long, not without the real thing.
‘What do you want, Lucius?’ Snape repeated, pushing past him, and roughly drying his black hair into a submission of damp, already tangled ropes with another towel he grabbed from the rail.
‘I came to find out how our experiment is progressing,’ Lucius replied. ‘Where is the dragon anyway?’
‘My experiment is underway,’ Severus replied.
‘And the dragon?’
‘It’s in its ruddy egg, Lucius,’ Severus snarled. ‘Even you would have noticed a fire-breathing reptile hiding behind my desk.’
‘And the milk?’ Lucius enquired delicately.
‘In the ruddy egg too, one would suppose,’ Snape replied, throwing the door of his study open onto the draughty corridor. ‘Now, go away, or you’ll upset the balance of what I’m doing here.’
Malfoy drew himself up to his impressive height and flared his nostrils. ‘You were sleeping on the floor of your shower, Severus, with your door open to all callers,’ he said. ‘Now let me see what I have paid so dearly for.’
The egg took that moment to knock loudly on the side of the cauldron, and Severus fancied it was angry at having been disturbed. ‘Now look what you’ve done,’ he snapped. ‘You’ve woken it up.’
‘Don’t be ridiculous,’ Malfoy replied, peering somewhat cautiously into the cauldron, and drawing back quickly when the egg surfaced and flipped over, before diving to the depths of the cauldron and knocking on the side nearest Snape.
‘Hush, little one,’ Snape said soothingly, praying to Merlin that he wasn’t about to make a greater fool of himself than he already felt. ‘I am here, I shan’t let him disturb you.’ He felt enormously gratified when the egg gave a couple of soft, almost timid little knocks.
Lucius peered into the cauldron suspiciously, and the egg surfaced so quickly that it splashed boiling seawater down the front of his leather doublet, as he staggered back in fright. ‘I’ll just let you get on with it then, shall I?’ he asked, backing towards the door with his wand drawn.
‘Are you frightened of an egg, Lucius?’
‘I shall wait outside the Hall for you, Severus,’ Malfoy said in way of reply. ‘Hurry up and get dressed or we shall miss lunch altogether.’
Charlie looked across to the high table again, just to see if Severus had perhaps sneaked in on all fours and he’d missed him, but the two seats between Minerva and Dumbledore were empty.
‘Who’s missing from the high table?’ he asked Ron.
‘Um, just the bat,’ Ron remarked through a bread roll he was attempting to chew into submission with a few spoonfuls of soup.
‘There are two seats empty.’
‘Malfoy’s probably here,’ Harry remarked sourly. ‘He always sits next to Snape.’
‘Come here often, does he?’ Charlie asked.
‘More often than the Ministry,’ Ron replied, swallowing the mess in his mouth. ‘So Dad says.’
‘He’s a governor, Ron,’ Hermione remarked. ‘And stop speaking with your mouth full.’
‘Well, people should stop asking me questions when my mouth’s full.’
‘Yup, there they are, the gruesome twosome,’ Harry said, nodding to where Lucius Malfoy and Snape strode across the Hall, a startling counterpoint to one another.
Charlie watched Snape scan the Gryffindor table, catch his eye for a moment and look away. He felt a knot of something icy lying on his chest, as he watched Malfoy sit and then look up at Severus, something to do with the fact that Snape’s hair looked damp, and Malfoy looked smug enough to drink his own bathwater. He came to the uncomfortable conclusion that the two men were more than just good friends. He stood up and left the Hall, ignoring Ron’s enquiry, and not even noticing the frown Severus sent to his retreating back; he was too disappointed, and couldn’t think why that was, after all, he had only been in Severus Snape’s presence for little more than an hour since he had left school. It was a pity about the dragon though.
Severus made his way back along the dungeon corridor. Lucius had left for the Ministry, seeming disinclined to meet with his reptilian investment again. He closed the door quietly, but not quietly enough; the egg knocked against the side of the cauldron.
‘Go back to sleep, little one,’ he said quietly, and sat down at his desk, wondering why Weasley had left the Hall so abruptly. He tried to push it out of his mind; he had more important things to do with a weekend than wonder why a man he had only just met was having such an alarming mental, not to mention physical effect on him.
The egg knocked again. ‘Go back to sleep,’ he repeated, searching for the tone that had seemed to soothe it before. But the egg wasn’t to be soothed. He even tried knocking gently on the side of the cauldron with his stirring stick, to see if he could quiet it that way, but apart from knocking back at the same spot, the egg seemed not too interested in pleasing him. It began the patience testing irregular knocking it had been doing before Weasley had arrived on the scene, and by the time a frustrating hour had passed, Severus was disgusted with the romantic idea that he had ever been able to commune with it at all. It had just been tired and had gone to sleep of its own accord, and now it had had a nice nap it had decided to go back to driving him insane instead. Damnit, he would never get anything done if it didn’t ruddy well shut up, and if his calculations were correct, it would be another ruddy week at least before the damn thing hatched. And then it went quiet again, almost as though it had gone into a sulk, and Severus lifted his book, refusing to cross the room to look at it.
He had just got himself settled, just run his current fantasy through his mind again, when someone knocked his door; at least this time he recognised it wasn’t the ruddy egg. The egg woke up, of course, and even before Snape pushed his mind out to identify his visitor, the egg had recognised the dragon-keeper and was rattling the side of cauldron. For some odd reason he didn’t care to identify, that almost made Severus smile.
‘Come in, Weasley,’ he called, without bothering to stand. ‘The wards are down.’
He watched Charlie close the door, and even before he turned, Snape knew something had changed him back into the hostile brother of Ron Weasley who had called earlier in the day. That shocked him, that it had only been that very morning.
‘I just called in to let you know that I’m going back to Romania after all,’ Weasley said, and the egg splashed water out of the cauldron, causing the ring of fire to hiss in what sounded like anger.
‘But… what about the dragon?’ Snape asked, finding himself on his feet. Weasley was already heading back to the door; he hadn’t even acknowledged the egg. ‘Damnit, Weasley, you can’t leave me in the lurch.’
‘In the lurch?’ Charlie replied over his shoulder, seeming reluctant to meet Snape’s eyes. ‘You were doing fine until a few hours ago; I’m sure you and Lucius will manage very well.’
‘Lucius?’ Snape asked, as Charlie put his hand on the door handle. ‘What are you talking about, Weasley?‘
‘Lucius… Lucius Malfoy. The man who gave you the dragon egg in the first place.’ Charlie turned at last to look at Snape; there was something challenging in his glare. ‘Expensive gift, Snape.’
‘I wouldn’t let Lucius Malfoy anywhere near the egg,’ Snape retorted, and the egg obligingly knocked its agreement on the cauldron. ‘Anyway, it doesn’t like him.’
‘How do you know?’ Charlie challenged again. ‘I thought you said you wouldn’t let him near it.’
‘He tried to look in the cauldron, and it spat boiling seawater at him actually,’ Snape replied, not bothering to hide his satisfaction, not now that he had begun to understand some of Weasley’s apparent hostility. ‘I didn’t bother to mention to him that it was salt water. It should dry to a nice white ring on his black leather. I confess I’m rather hoping the rest of the Ministry thinks he dropped his lunch down himself before he notices.’
‘Come here often, does he?’ Charlie repeated the question he had asked Ron, appearing to be trying to find a way to back down a little, but still get what information needed.
‘Altogether too often. However,’ Severus said, ‘he seemed reluctant to linger once the dragon let her feelings be known.’
‘So…’ Charlie began, and then hesitated, and then appeared to feel that discretion was not perhaps the better part of valour after all. ‘So, you’re not having an affair with Lucius Malfoy?’
‘Lucius Malfoy is the last man on earth I would have an affair with,’ Snape replied testily, in an attempt to hide his confusion, and yet make it clear that, whilst he perhaps did not consider Lucius Malfoy to be a worthy suitor, that didn’t rule out any other men, or man in particular.
‘That’s all right then,’ Charlie grunted. ‘I wouldn’t care to fall over the fat tart every time I came to see the dragon.’
‘Stop loitering at the door, Weasley,’ Snape replied. ‘You’ll upset the egg. It’s been very trying this afternoon.’ And just to prove him wrong, the egg bumped once off the side of the cauldron, and fell silent.