He’d lost a day, an entire day, and he only knew that because he also knew he couldn’t possibly have drunk more than two bottles of whisky in one night, not and still be alive to tell the tale… to himself, he thought sourly. He shaved the two days’ growth without really looking at himself, wondering what depths of self-pity he had stooped to, or why he’d let himself get so low.
It had been a good half hour since he’d swallowed the hangover cure, but he knew it wasn’t enough, and he rummaged about in his cupboards for something to dull what felt a like a monumental headache, about to ambush him if he turned too quickly, one he doubted he had the courage to endure. It was a mercy at least that term ended in a week, and as his only classes on Monday mornings were with seventh years, and the exams were over, he was virtually free until after lunch. It was just as well, the way he felt.
He peered into the cauldron, just to check the egg hadn’t hatched, and the dragon hadn’t flown off of her own accord whilst he had been lying on the floor dead drunk, but it was still there, either asleep or sulking. He tapped the side of the cauldron, but apart from bumping off the side just once, the egg was resolutely silent, and he had a notion that she was voicing her disapproval. That was fine with Snape; he wasn’t too impressed with himself either.
He tidied up the mess with a couple of quick spells, and made his way to the Hall, and took his usual seat between Dumbledore and Minerva. He raised the teacup, sipped at the dark bitter brew and laid the cup back on the saucer, all without noticing, all before glancing at the end of the Gryffindor table where Charlie Weasley wasn’t sitting. Charlie Weasley hadn’t come to breakfast, which probably meant he had left Hogwarts after all.
Couldn’t even entice him with a dragon, Severus snorted in self derision. Anyway, what was he thinking of? A damn Weasley indeed, he must be getting desperate in his old age, the ripe old age of thirty-odd, if his memory served him rightly. The inanities trailed off as he watched the flurry of activity at the door to the Hall, and he found himself almost straining to see who was behind Potter and his cronies, who the boys were talking and laughing over their shoulders to, and the disappointment welled up in Snape’s stomach as he recognised Remus Lupin. He’d just lifted the teacup again, in some sort of self mocking toast, when he heard it clatter back onto the saucer, as the dragon-keeper walked into the Hall, stopping to give him a tight smile, before heading to the Gryffindor table.
‘Severus? Severus are you in?’ Minerva asked, poking an elbow she seemed to keep sharpened especially for digging him in the ribs when she felt it was appropriate.
‘Yes, of course, sorry… what did you say, Minerva?’
‘Just that Albus, and indeed I, were a little put out that you didn’t see fit to share your exciting research with us,’ she said archly, letting her eyes slip to where Snape’s were already glued to the back of Charlie Weasley’s head.
‘Pardon?’ he managed, quite unsure of what mad indiscretions Weasley had spilled, and what the even madder consequences were likely to be, the owning of an unlicensed dragon not being the least, the fact that it wasn’t quite hatched notwithstanding.
‘Mr Weasley informed Albus and me that you and he have acquired something rather exciting, and that he has come all the way from Romania to assist you in your research,’ she replied. ‘It would be quite a feather in Hogwarts’s cap if you were to succeed.’
‘Pardon?’ Snape repeated, quiet bereft of a more sensible response.
‘Oh, don’t worry,’ she assured him, patting his hand confidentially. ‘We are quite aware of the level of secrecy to be maintained. Nobody but Albus and I know.’
‘Quite,’ Snape replied, keeping to the safety of one word answers, until he had the leisure to strangle more appropriate responses from Weasley.
‘Is there room in your own quarters, Severus?’ she asked. ‘Or would you like Albus to arrange somewhere larger?’
This time he didn’t miss the suggestive undertone, and he turned to give her the benefit of his iciest stare. ‘Let me assure you, Minerva, and our esteemed headmaster too…’ he said, turning to where Dumbledore had pretended to have fallen asleep, a trick he used quite often when he felt the occasion merited. ‘Let me assure you both that I am perfectly able to defend myself at close quarters from not only Mr Weasley, but any dragon we may conjure up in the future… should the need arise.’ He lifted his teacup again to signify that the conversation was over.
‘Have it you own way,’ Minerva persisted, dipping into her green velvets, and wafting an almost overpowering cloud of lavender in Snape’s direction, one that did little to stifle the nausea that had begun to replace his headache. ‘Arthur Weasley left this for you.’
Snape looked the Ministry scroll, trying to decide if it were disaster, or salvation from the problem he had steadfastly pretended to himself that Lucius would deal with. He unrolled it, taking the time to read the heading, as though to steel himself for the body of the document.
Department for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures, in conjunction with the Department of International Magical Co-operation, and the Department of Magical Law Enforcement.
Snape wasn’t keen about the Law Enforcement part, but he read on.
It has hereby been decreed, after consultation with the Institute of Dragon Research in Romania, that the egg of a Draco Virgo Intacta, in the current possession of Professor Severus Snape, Potions Master of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, and Charles Weasley, dragon-keeper of the Institute of Dragon Research in Romania, who are deemed to have rescued the said egg from the black market, has to remain under their supervision for the purposes of research.
Severus stopped reading for a moment, and let his eyes flit quickly to where Weasley was watching him back. At least one of them had made use of Sunday; Snape just regretted it hadn’t been him.
The purpose of Professor Snape and Mr Weasley’s research has been decreed to be secret, and thus it is also decreed that none other than Professor Snape, Mr Weasley, or any they see fit to enlist in the future, in the furtherance of their research, will be permitted access to the dragon. The Ministry extends its offer of assistance to Professor Snape and Mr Weasley in the finding of secure accommodation for the Draco Virgo Intacta, in a way that befits her, should that become necessary, and also extends its grateful thanks to the Institute of Dragon Research in releasing Mr Weasley from his duties in Romania to continue his research with Professor Snape for an indefinite period.
The foregoing decrees now form a binding Magical Contract between the parties aforementioned, namely Professor Snape and Mr Weasley, the Ministry of Magic, the Institute of Dragon Research, and Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
Ratified by the following officers:
Snape rolled the scroll up, quite unsure if the bubbling feeling in the pit of his stomach were ominous or euphoric, and decided on a combination of the two. He wondered if Weasley had reached out just for the dragon, but that didn’t really make sense; he had left dragons by the score in Romania. He cautioned himself to take things very slowly, instead of making the mistakes he had littered his life with: Lily Evans, Sirius Black, Voldemort, to name but a few. He sipped again at the tea, and laid it back down; it was cold anyway. Once he had warned himself again to tread carefully and slowly, until he knew Weasley’s mind, and his own, he stood and crossed to the Gryffindor table.
‘I hope you don’t think you’re going to be sitting all morning over breakfast, Weasley,’ he snapped. ‘We have work to do.’ He turned away, and stalked out of the Hall, his back ramrod straight, and his hair and robes dancing in his slipstream.
Charlie hesitated at the door, rehearsing the lines he had been rehearing for over a day. It had been a huge relief to him that Snape had kept to his rooms all day on Sunday, although he didn’t know why, and just supposed he was either busy with his research, or final school work for the end of term. It had let Charlie try to take stock of where he was in life; it wasn’t a very good place, and he didn’t think he had the courage to continue what he had begun.
He was just about to knock when he noticed the door was slightly ajar; that made him think of trust, and how his own had been so badly abused.
Snape was sitting at his desk in his customary seat; he was wearing his academic robes, instead of the plain faded black he had worn at the weekend. ‘Do you care to explain this, Weasley?’ he asked, looking down at the Ministry scroll.
He had to do it now, right now; Charlie knew that. ‘I’ll come to back to that, Severus,’ he said, remaining standing. ‘Before I do, I… I need to set you straight on some things… for the avoidance of misunderstanding.’
‘Let me assure you, Weasley,’ Snape replied, and Charlie fancied something like disappointment crossed the harsh features. ‘Your past or current romantic associations are of no…’
‘…Let me speak, Snape,’ Charlie interrupted him; he wouldn’t hide, not the way he thought Snape was hiding. ‘I just want you to know that… whatever I’ve led you to assume about me… and I know I mislead you, but I… I’m just not ready for… I’m just not ready… not coming off one terrible mistake.’ He knew he didn’t imagine Snape seemed almost to relax, as though he had been thrown some sort of lifeline, some sort of way of avoiding what Charlie thought he had needed to say himself, but could never have done. ‘I also want you to know, just in case it matters, that that might not always be the case… but I’m just not ready.’
Snape nodded, and Charlie knew he saw relief. ‘No, Weasley,’ he replied, ‘but then, neither am I.’ He’d stood up, and Charlie didn’t remember when he’d done that, but the next thing he knew, Severus’s long fingers stroked his cheek, the beautifully expressive, work scarred fingers he had longed for. ‘But alas,’ Snape murmured, ‘unlike you, I doubt I ever shall be again.’ He looked down for just a moment, and then across to his desk, and seemed to remember the scroll, lying there like a prompt from an awkward moment he had probably struggled to handle. ‘Now, perhaps you would care to enlighten me,’ he said, nodding to the scroll, his eyebrow rising as though to show he was back in control, on familiar territory; he had crossed the hostile terrain and reached the other side, unscathed.
Charlie let himself relax as much as he dared. ‘I think… well, I know it was Dad.’
Snape almost smiled. ‘Much as it may surprise to you know this, but that does not surprise me,’ he said. ‘What did the old rogue do? Con Lucius?’
‘Yeah,’ Charlie replied, grinning as he sat opposite Snape, without feeling any awkwardness. ‘You were right about Lucius though. Dad let himself be caught making an attempt at forging a licence for the Virgo; he said he had to wait for ages for Lucius to get back from lunch to catch him though. He said Lucius played a blinder after that. He dazzled the Ministry into thinking that the Romanian Institute had tipped him off about the illegal egg being sold, and told the Institute the same story in reverse. By the time he’d finished, no one actually knew who had claimed what.’
‘Yes, Lucius is very good at that,’ Snape said, looking to where the egg seemed to be applauding against the cauldron. ‘Well done though. I confess it has been a grave concern.’ He fingered the scroll. ‘And you, Weasley, have you closed the doors that you need to close? Caged your own dragons?’
‘Yes,’ Charlie lied, feeling a prickle of sweat roll down his back.
‘Very well, let us get to work then.’ Severus stood, and was about to cross to the cauldron when someone knocked on the door. He frowned for a moment. ‘Your brother Bill again,’ he said.
Bill Weasley pushed past him, took one long searching look at his brother, almost as though he’d never seen him before, and furiously pointed at where Charlie had moved to the cauldron. ‘Why didn’t you tell me?’ he bellowed like an injured bull.
‘What?’ Charlie replied.
‘Get moving,’ Bill said in way of reply. ‘You’ve got something to do in Romania, and you’re going to do it right now.’
Severus reacted at last. ‘I don’t think Charlie wants to go back to Romania,’ he said, moving between the brothers, not even noticing he had used Charlie’s given name for the first time.
‘Well, he’s going to,’ Bill snarled back, and Snape noticed that the hostility didn’t seem to be directed at either himself or Charlie.
‘I’m not going back. I can’t,’ Charlie replied, and Severus didn’t care for the undertone of something like fear.
‘Yes, you can, and we’re going right now.’
‘We?’ Charlie asked.
‘Why didn’t you tell me?’ Bill repeated.
Snape thought there was something broken in his voice. ‘Sit down, Weasley,’ he said, deciding to intervene. ‘Why didn’t Charlie tell you what? What has happened?’ He sat down himself, and Bill sat in the seat opposite him, as Charlie looked away.
‘He hasn’t told you, has he?’ Bill asked. ‘He hasn’t told you that the fuckhead he lived with has been stealing all his research, and publishing it under his own name.’
When Charlie didn’t reply, Bill went on. ‘Dad just told me, when I asked him what was wrong with Charlie, why he’d left everything I thought he loved. He told me that the Principal wrote to him a couple of years ago to tell him that he thought there was something wrong, that a previously ungifted bully boy suddenly became a brilliant theorist, and a previously gifted man just as suddenly became withdrawn, and didn’t live up the expectations they had had of him.’
Charlie had denied nothing, admitted nothing, and Severus had an uneasy feeling that he knew why that was, knew what Bill had recognised.
‘Do I understand where you are leading, Weasley?’ he asked, slipping his ebony cigarette case from his pocket, and offering one to Bill.
‘I think you do. Dad thought he was just besotted enough by that fuckhead to throw away his work, but I… fuck,’ he snarled, turning again to Charlie. ‘How do you think I feel about this? About not noticing sooner that the bastard had you under an Imperius Curse for six fucking years?’
Charlie hissed as though he had been scalded, his face twisted in agony at the mention of the Curse.
Snape spun to Bill. ‘Can you break it, Weasley?’ he asked.
‘Yeah, I can break it, Snape… right after we go to Romania and I break his fucking neck.’
‘I can’t face him,’ Charlie replied at last. ‘Do you have any idea of how hard it is to break away?’ He was sweating, trembling in the agony of even talking about what held him.
Bill stood up and grabbed Charlie’s two arms. ‘Of course I do… I’m a fucking curse-breaker.’
‘Could this wait until the end of term… it’s only next week,’ Snape asked. ‘I think I should perhaps go with you.’
‘You can’t leave the egg,’ Charlie said in something like desperation, and the egg knocked on the cauldron in what might or might not have been agreement.
Bill frowned across at the cauldron. ‘Is that thing talking to you?’ he asked.
‘Let us just say that she seems able to voice approval or disapproval,’ Snape replied, failing to mention that the egg had actually spoken to him, although he had really discounted that now as a figment of his imagination, or pretended to.
‘I can’t do it,’ Charlie repeated.
‘You must, Charlie. I’ll be with you, every second, I swear it. You’re my brother, damnit,’ Bill said. ‘Tell him, Severus, tell him he’s got to close this door before he can open another.’
‘He’s right, Charlie,’ Snape said, nodding slowly, refusing to look away until Charlie caught his eye.
‘But… what if the egg hatches?’ Charlie asked, his arguments weakening.
‘I’ll stick it back together again,’ Snape replied, letting his lip twist at the corner, just a bit, just to let him know that he was there for him too, and not just Bill. ‘How long will you be away?’ he asked Bill.
‘I’ve got an open International Apparition License for Gringotts; it allows a passenger,’ Bill replied. ‘A day at the most, less, we’re not going to be socialising.’
‘I’ve got my own license,’ Charlie muttered, looking away again.
Snape turned to where Charlie was stroking the side of the cauldron, as though trying to glean some comfort from his agony of indecision. ‘Charlie,’ he said, waiting until Weasley looked at him, ‘you must go. And you must side-along with Bill; you’re not arriving there on your own, even for a moment. Bill will look after you, but you must go now.’ When Charlie looked away he went on. ‘You must go now, for her sake,’ he said, nodding to the cauldron, to where the egg’s knocking sounded almost like a song.
‘And if I forget to come back?’ Charlie asked, the panic rising in his voice.
Snape crossed the room, to where Bill stood with his head lowered, and he knew how he felt, knew as well as Bill did that Charlie could never have told anyone what held him, not until it was broken, and that he, as a curse-breaker of all things, should have noticed long before. He took two vials from his drawer of vials, where had intended only to take one, and dipped a small ladle into the cauldron, muttering a charm he knew neither of the others could hear or understand, as the egg seemed almost to mutter back, so soft and continuous was her tapping. He filled each vial with a little of the seawater and sealed them, handing one to each man.
‘Now you have to come back,’ he said, raising his eyebrow at Bill’s startled look that he had so easily accepted the vial without asking the consequences of doing so. ‘Oh, don’t worry, Weasley, I give you my solemn oath that I shall release you once you bring your brother back.’
Every time he felt the panic rise in his chest, Charlie touched the vial. He wished Bill would just get on with it. He’d been trying to convince Arthur that he couldn’t go with them for a quarter of an hour, and it seemed to Charlie like he had been pacing outside the front gates waiting for him for days. He wondered how he had managed to keep the panic he was feeling at bay for so long, and why it had only manifested itself when Bill had arrived in Snape’s rooms. Of course, he knew that talking about it hadn’t helped, and he also knew that Zachary had not searched for him, probably content that Bill would send him back, just as he knew the sense of security he had felt at Hogwarts, with Snape in particular, would never have lasted, not once Zachary knew he wasn’t going back of his own accord.
‘Come on,’ Bill said, coming to the gates at last. ‘Quick, before he starts on me again.’
‘What d’you mean?’
‘I mean, between ranting about you, and giving me all sorts of grief about not noticing that his immortal beloved Charlie was in trouble, I don’t know how he managed to breathe too,’ Bill replied over his shoulder.
‘What d’you mean?’ Charlie repeated, lengthening his stride to keep up.
‘I mean he never stops going on about Charlie this, and Charlie that, and now I’ve let his precious Charlie down, I’ll never hear the end of it,’ Bill said sourly. ‘You’d have thought it was my fault. Just as well Mum came along, or he’d still be going on.’
Charlie was going to ask him what he meant again, but Bill seemed to be content to keep going anyway. ‘Merlin,’ he went on, shaking his head as they reached the Apparition point outside the main gate, the one that could only be used with permission from Dumbledore. ‘If you knew how I used to envy you. Just as well Mum knew I was alive, or I think he would have forgotten to send me to Hogwarts.’
Charlie found himself smiling.
‘What are you grinning at,’ Bill snapped. ‘It wasn’t funny. I had quite a complex.’
‘So did I,’ Charlie replied, and laughed out loud.
‘It’ll be all right, Charlie,’ Bill said, suddenly serious. ‘We’ll be back before you know it. Back with your little dragon… and Severus?’ he said. ‘Are you and he…?’
‘No.’ Charlie shook his head.
‘Not for long I suspect.’ Bill gave him a knowing look. ‘You seem to have crept under his admirable defences. He seemed quite concerned for your welfare.’
‘You’re looking for something that’s not there, Bill,’ Charlie replied. ‘Anyway, I’m nowhere near ready to let my own defences down again… I… I think I’ve had enough of that,’ he said.
‘Take your time with him, Charlie, with yourself too,’ Bill cautioned. ‘He’s been stung badly a couple times that I know of.’
‘Sirius Black?’ Charlie asked.
But Bill just shook his head. ‘Ask Snape that one, Charlie… or perhaps not. I don’t know it all,’ he said. ‘I only know he lived with Severus for about eighteen months. When Black left he let Severus know, via the rest of the wizarding world, that he had been spying on his suspect loyalties, and that going against his own sexuality had been a small price to pay. He spewed out a lot of other stuff too, personal things about Snape that may or may not have been true, but at the time were easy to believe about a sullen ugly boy.’
‘Black wasn’t homosexual?’ Charlie rubbed his hand over his chin. ‘No wonder Severus hated him.’
‘I think the problem was that he didn’t hate him. Times were bad remember, and it was good for people to have someone to focus their hate and mistrust on, someone who didn’t seem inclined to strike back; Snape was a perfect candidate. I only know he emerged a more bitter wounded man from that little mess than Lily Potter could ever have dreamed of making him. Sirius Black was a horrible person,’ Bill went on. ‘As to why he loathed Snape to the degree he did, well, he was a bully, who began picking on a weaker kid at school, and probably just found out he liked it so much, he just kept going. And as to why Snape never fought back, not really at any rate… and he certainly became powerful enough to so, much more powerful than Black… but I think he was besotted by Sirius… the bad boy syndrome.’ Bill turned to Charlie again. ‘But you’re not like Black… or Lily, and he’s not like Zachary.’ He smiled tightly, and laid his hand on Charlie’s arm. ‘Ready to face it now?’ he asked.
Charlie nodded; he was ready to go now, because he was ready to come back too.