As Charlie already knew, Snape had recognised that the Virgo didn’t seem to view coupling between men and women as acceptable, and that her violent hostility towards married keepers was the stuff of legends, as though they dallied in abhorrences akin to bestiality, and that she would not see fit to sacrifice her own purity to ones so soiled. Indeed for many centuries eunuchs and sworn virgins had been the only wizards or witches permitted to handle the Virgos. What Snape wouldn’t know was that more recently, as recently as a hundred years before, the Institute had found it increasingly difficult to recruit wizards of the standard they required, who were keen to lose their balls, on the off chance that they might graduate to handling Virgos, and it had been about then that it was discovered that the Virgos had no hostility to men who lay with men, aside from their natural aggression, or women who lay with women for that matter. It was all conjecture of course, the sum total of experiences gleaned over the Institute of Dragon Research’s thousand year history, the Institute secrets that were never published.
Charlie didn’t know why the Virgo seemed to accept male and female dragons as being different halves of one species, but failed to do the same with witches and wizards, but he was fairly content that it was so, narrowing the research field the way it did. He grinned to himself in satisfaction as he laid the notes aside, pushing away the bitter memories of how his own research had been stolen from him, before he had the spurt of confidence to break away, and how that had stifled his lust for truly making a name for himself. Charlie had always known he could do it; he had just been too young, too trusting, and had fallen foul of what he saw as his own inadequacies. Perhaps if he had been more like Bill… he shoved it away, he’d broken free, or hoped he had, and he was content that Snape’s theory for using dragon milk as the base for his antivenin was sound. It wasn’t so much that Severus had covered the angles and understood the Virgo the way he did that charmed Charlie most though; it was the fact that he had theorised for both treating dragons and wizards, and that he was intending to return the dragons some kind of quid for their pro quo.
He was also quite sure that Snape would be perfectly aware of the one gaping hole in his research programme. ‘This could take years, Severus.’
‘And if Lucius Malfoy carries the strain in his system, he would be dead before you ever got your research complete, let alone tested.’ He nodded to the cauldron, to where he was sure the baby dragon inside the egg was listening carefully. ‘She’s not even hatched yet. She won’t produce milk… not until she’s ready to make her own first egg.’
‘Not necessarily years,’ Snape murmured. ‘I’m sure you are very bit as aware as I am that a mother dragon deposits milk into her shell before the egg is laid, so that the baby can put out any fires it lights by mistake.’
‘Not enough though,’ Charlie replied. ‘There wouldn’t be enough to make a sufficient batch of any antivenin to dose anything as… as large as Lucius Malfoy for any length of time.’
‘Enough to begin to make test batches though,’ Snape reasoned.
‘To test on whom?’ Charlie asked. ‘I’m sure I’m not about to ask Lucius if we can use him as a guinea pig.’
‘You are going to arrange to test it on an infected dragon, Weasley,’ Snape replied, and Charlie could see that he wasn’t finished.
‘And?’ he invited, returning the black-eyed man’s stare, one he noticed had become remarkably less hostile.
‘And you are going to then see of you can obtain some dragon milk for me.’
‘From a Virgo, of course?’ Charlie replied.
‘Of course. We can easily argue that it has to be Virgo milk to allow our antivenin to be universal, a sovereign specific if you like.’
‘And not just convenient for Lucius Malfoy?’ Charlie asked, but he had liked the way Snape had used the word “we”.
‘My reasoning is sound, Lucius Malfoy notwithstanding. Unless of course you want to spin a yarn,’ Snape replied. ‘Although I’m not sure I would want to lie to a dragon.’ And the egg knocked on the side of the cauldron in agreement.
‘Well. We’ll just have to make sure that she doesn’t light any fires,’ Charlie said, nodding to where the egg gave a somewhat mischievous little knock.
‘As good a reason as any for keeping Lucius away from her.’
‘How are we going to do all this without someone finding out, Severus?’ Charlie asked, swept along with the idea of being part of Snape’s research.
‘Lucius would like everything kept secret,’ Snape admitted. ‘However, if that is not possible, which I fully intend to be the case, disinclined as I am to work for ten years for nothing but a pat on the back if Lucius Malfoy remembers, I rather intended to leave that up to him.’
‘Hmmm, he’s got a track record where dragons are concerned,’ Charlie countered. ‘Remember, he was the one instrumental in getting Hagrid’s dragon confiscated.’
‘He also has a remarkable ability for wriggling out of tight spots, when his own interests are concerned,’ Snape replied, feeling more relaxed than he had done for… he couldn’t quite recall how long. ‘By the way, Hagrid’s dragon… how did he settle?’
‘She settled very well, once she got over her indignation at being mistaken for a boy and being called Norbert,’ Charlie replied, watching the way Snape had spread his hands in invitation for his reply, the way the long tapered, work-scarred fingers seemed every bit as eloquent as the man who owned them. He dragged his gaze from them, back to Snape, before he wondered what they would feel like. ‘Stupid name for a girl, even a girl dragon.’
‘It was a stupid name for a boy too,’ Snape replied, wondering why he was so enjoying talking about anything as inane as Hagrid’s choice of names.
Charlie smiled, but he still felt uneasy. The Ministry was notoriously prickly on the point of rare magical creatures without licences; added to the fact that the Virgo was also an extremely dangerous dragon, and had quite clearly been illegally obtained, he felt Snape was expecting Lucius Malfoy to jump in, where Charlie thought he was more likely to distance himself. ‘How do we keep her safe, Severus?’ he asked, claiming joint surrogate parenthood for himself. ‘If the Ministry march in here and confiscate her, she’d never survive.’
‘Do not concern yourself with that, Weasley. If the need arises, let Lucius explain things to the Ministry. After all, it’s his dragon.’
Both men sprang to their feet, as the egg broke the surface of the seawater, and flipped over with a splash, and began knocking loudly on the side of the cauldron in indignation.
‘Hush now, little one,’ Snape said softly, not even noticing that once again he felt no self-consciousness at speaking to a cauldron of boiling seawater, and pretending not to notice that Weasley was watching him across its rim. ‘We are only seeking a way to keep you safe.’
‘Go back to sleep,’ Charlie said, stroking the cauldron side, as Severus watched the large but slim, weather-beaten hands caress the hot metal, in a way he wanted them to caress him.
And the egg bumped once off Snape’s side, and once off Charlie’s, in what sounded to Snape suspiciously like encouragement.
‘You’re very good with her,’ Charlie said, and Severus knew he didn’t imagine the way Weasley had leant slightly over the cauldron towards him, or the way the little dragon seemed to crouch inside her egg with bated breath for what might happen next, and he suspected with a wry inward smile of resignation that she would become very demanding if they allowed her to be.
He drew his gaze away from where Weasley’s sea green eyes had widened, unwilling to commit himself, unsure. ‘That is as may be, Weasley,’ he said. ‘It was you she missed when you left though.’
Charlie smiled. ‘After an hour?’ he said. ‘I think you flatter me, Severus.’ His tone was still soft, almost as though he were addressing the dragon egg, or some other object of his desire.
‘I think she sensed your expertise,’ Snape replied, content now not to break the mood any further, confident to let it sweep them where it would. ‘Perhaps your chastity?’ He noticed Weasley’s mouth was slightly open, just a little, like a cautious invitation.
‘About that chastity, Severus,’ Charlie breathed, and the egg gave a hopeful little knock, and someone else gave a louder, altogether more demanding knock, and Weasley drew back, and Severus pushed down the scald of disappointment, and the egg splashed boiling seawater down the sides of the cauldron to hiss angrily at the interruption.
‘Ron said I might find you here,’ he who had to be adored said, taking Snape’s seat, whom he had barged past with little more than an unfriendly nod. Bill drew a packet of cigarettes from his pocket and lit one, before even as much as glancing back at Severus, as though to let him know he didn‘t intend to ask for permission that one such as he should not be required to seek. Charlie took a moment to enjoy the murderous look Snape shot him back, from where he still stood at the door like an unwanted visitor in his own home.
‘What are you doing here?’ Charlie asked as unenthusiastically as he felt.
‘That’s not very gracious,’ the God of the Weasley clan remarked. ‘I had a few days off, and went to see you in Romania, but you’d buggered off again.’
Charlie didn’t like this, but he took another quick look at where Snape had turned away to the cauldron, and Charlie could see he was only feigning disinterest, before his attention was unpleasantly diverted by the disaster that seemed to be looming.
‘Zachary’s furious with you this time, Charlie,’ Bill went on, and Charlie wondered how to shut him up, short of laying him out cold, which was beginning to seem like a reasonable option. ‘You’ll be lucky if he takes you back this time.’
‘I’m not going back,’ Charlie said flatly, avoiding the way Severus looked up sharply, in a way he knew Snape would have hated him to notice, and trying to cut Bill off in a damage limitation exercise he thought might just be too late.
‘Of course you are,’ Bill replied easily, blowing a couple of smoke rings that just managed not to be heart shaped. ‘You always do. I took the liberty of reminding Zachary you always storm off in a sulk, have a fling with some other poor unsuspecting sod, and crawl back.’ He gave Snape a cursory look, as though dismissing him out of hand as a possible candidate.
‘Why don’t you just fuck off back to Egypt, and mind you own business?’ Charlie snarled. He still didn’t know how to stop this.
‘Oh behave, Charlie. You’re not about to sweep six years of unbridled passion under the carpet, and you know it.’ Bill let out a laugh at his own brilliant assessment.
‘I said, I’m not going back,’ Charlie snapped, at last looking again to where Snape seemed to have drawn close to the cauldron, as though for protection, but he had an uneasy feeling he sought it for himself as much as the egg.
‘That’ll be Fleur,’ Bill said brightly, getting to his feet at the sound of a more timid knock, failing to notice the devastation he had wreaked in a few short moments. He flung the door open to be met by Fleur adoring him in her cloyingly ridiculous accented English. ‘Come on, Charlie, let’s go. Mum and Dad are upstairs,’ he said, just to be proved wrong for once, as Molly’s voice hooted down the corridor, bouncing in echoes off the dungeon walls.
‘Weasley,’ Snape hissed to Charlie, from where he stood at the cauldron Bill hadn’t even noticed. ‘The noise… if you would be so kind.’
There was no point; Charlie could see that. He could see Severus refused to recognise the appeal in his eyes; he would read it as he saw fit, as another lie.
Severus stood for a few long moments with his hand on the closed door, thanking Merlin, or whoever wasn’t listening anyway, that he hadn’t succumbed to the almost overpowering urge he had had to take Charlie Weasley: his mouth, his body, and whatever went with them. At last he swallowed the bitter aftertaste of one defeat too many, and crossed to where the egg was knocking somewhat disconsolately at the bottom of the cauldron.
‘Don’t worry, little one, I shall care for you,’ he said, and the egg knocked back.
A Weasley indeed, Severus snarled to himself, trying to square his shoulders from the slump they seemed to have adopted of their own accord, telling himself he had had a lucky escape. It would be a long time before he would be so foolish as to drop his defences again, the way he very nearly had. Love in haste, and repent at leisure, his romantic history to date. It had been the dragon of course, or that was the way he explained it to himself.
He lifted the notebook, the one Weasley had been studying earlier. And he had been studying, that had been something Snape had appreciated; he hadn’t just flicked through the notes with the arrogant confidence of one who knew it all anyway. He laid the notes down in irritation, pushing Weasley from his mind. What had been thinking of, anyway? The man was a good fifteen years younger than he was.
‘So?’ the egg remarked dryly. ‘Were you thinking of starting a family? Anyway, I’m only little, and you’re both supposed to look after me.’
Severus had staggered to his feet, wondering for a moment if he were either drunk or dreaming, and the egg knocked the side of the cauldron, in something he didn’t even want to consider sounded as though it were telling him to pull himself together and give life another go. He peered into the cauldron, but the egg had either fallen asleep, or was pretending to.
He didn’t notice when he finished the last of the malt and started a new bottle, nor when his reflective yet maudlin mood slipped into drunken self-pity, as he relived his few spectacular romantic failures. He was incapable of affection, of casual friendship, the twin passions of love and hate knowing no moderation in him. Sometimes he thought he was naught but the fallout of the shit in his life, with nothing but the debris of humiliation scattered around him, and sometimes he looked closer, if he had a bottle to prop him up, and he knew he was the sum total of his own inadequacies. And the drunker he became, the more self-loathing he became too, the more defeatist, the more pathetic, until he quite forgot where love ended and hate began, because he didn’t know there was anything in between.
‘I see the bat hasn’t come for dinner,’ Ron remarked through a mess of potatoes and chicken.
‘I meant to ask,’ Bill said across the table to Charlie. ‘What were you doing in Snape’s lair?’
‘Why?’ Charlie snapped. He had managed so far not to include himself in the noisy family conversation; he doubted anyone had noticed.
‘Charlie,’ Molly scolded, then grinned her sugary grin down the House table from where the Weasley clan had perched themselves at the very end, almost outnumbering the rest of the Gryffindors. ‘Bill was just asking a nice question.’
‘You answer him then,’ Charlie replied sourly, and stood up.
‘Charlie Weasley,’ Molly hissed, ‘come right back here and answer your brother.’ She gave another grin, this time to where Fleur had herself draped across Bill, in a way that made her look as though she had no bones in her body, as though she were an article of his clothing. ‘Oh, whatever must you think of him, Fleur? Such a sourpuss he is.’
‘That’s enough, Molly, all of you,’ Arthur broke in, in a voice that made Charlie turn round from where he had begun to walk away. But Arthur had already stood, and was walking towards him, cocking his head to the door of the Hall, as the rest of Weasleys stopped eating and talking at one another to watch.
‘In here,’ Arthur said, nodding to the Library.
Arthur listened, saying very little as Charlie told him as many of his problems as he was able to. At length he sat back. ‘I never liked him, son,’ he admitted. ‘I never said as much to you, but I was never comfortable with him, and I sometimes got the uneasy feeling that that was because I didn’t think you were either.’
‘It wasn’t like that. I just had to get away, and start fresh on my own,’ Charlie replied, the lie rolling easily off his tongue.
‘He manipulated you, Charlie,’ Arthur said. ‘If you had been younger, not a grown man, I would have stepped in; maybe I should have.’ He shrugged. ‘You were never the same once you got together with him. I’m glad you’re back.’
They were quiet for a while, each man lost in his thoughts, but neither uncomfortable with the silence.
‘And now?’ Arthur ventured. ‘Are you going to stay here and work with Snape?’
‘I’d like to,’ Charlie replied. ‘It’s what I want to do. It’s an opportunity I never expected.’
‘And you and Severus?’
‘I’ve only been here for a day,’ Charlie objected, where he knew he should have issued a denial.
‘Perhaps,’ Arthur said, nodding the way Dumbledore nodded, so that Charlie found himself wondering if it were a generational thing, and one day he would find himself nodding in the same way. ‘An honourable man though, a difficult man, but honourable.’ Arthur gave his son a long look. ‘Not one who would exploit you.’
‘I don’t know what you mean,’ Charlie said hotly, searching for something to throw his father off a path he didn’t want to walk down, couldn’t walk down. ‘You know Severus is…?’ He trailed off, unsure of how frank he wanted to be.
‘That he’s homosexual?’ Arthur asked. ‘Of course. That was why he split up with Lily Evans. Acrimonious it was too. Severus adored her, but for him it was only a profound platonic friendship, and Lily, unsurprisingly, wanted more. He was very bitter about it, which is a bit unreasonable, and he resented James deeply.’
‘I didn’t know that,’ Charlie replied. ‘Not that bit.’
‘No reason why you should. It wasn’t anyone’s business but Lily and Snape’s. I just happened to be around at the time, doing work with James’s father at the Ministry. Anyway,’ Arthur went on, ‘he lived with another man for a while, after he left school, but that ended badly too.’
‘Who?’ Charlie asked, doubting his father would tell him. ‘A Death Eater?’
‘It turned out that he wasn’t, although a lot of people thought he was… some still do,’ Arthur replied. ‘It was Sirius Black. I’m not sure I would let Snape know that you know that though.’
‘Shit,’ Charlie muttered; that slipped a lot of missing jigsaw pieces into place.
‘Oh, they had already split before the Potters died, but Snape was bitter about that too. Black wasn’t a very nice person, and he was less than discreet about things that were none of anyone’s business. And yet, I always got the feeling that Snape wasn’t a naturally bitter man; I think he was the victim of circumstances… many of which he brought on himself.’
Charlie watched his father nod again. He knew most people regarded him as the kindly fool he was, but he was a wise kindly fool, was Arthur.
‘Anyway, I’d better get back before someone actually notices I’m not there.’ Arthur began to haul himself to his feet. ‘Let me put my thinking cap on about the dragon. I think you’re right, I think Severus is relying too much on Lucius bailing him out of trouble, if there’s any with the Ministry.’
Charlie smiled, then felt a lump swell in his throat as Arthur pulled his shoulders to him, and kissed the top of his head, as though he were a small boy with a skinned knee.
‘And you’ve got a man to see about a dragon,’ he said, winking at Charlie.
‘I don’t think I’m brave enough tonight,’ Charlie replied ruefully.
‘Don’t wait too long, son.’
Charlie watched him go, thinking about his family, and whilst he might not have been Molly’s blue-eyed boy, Charlie knew he was Arthur’s. That warmed him, as did the knowledge that he loved his brother Bill as much as he loved his other brothers and sister, and that Molly would drain her veins for any one of her children, even if it would always be handy if Bill were first in the queue.