He moved to his desk, summoning a book on the Imperius Curse from the back of his bookcase; it was handwritten in a spidery sepia script, and bound in black eel skin, an expensive gift from Lucius. He flicked through the stiff parchment pages until he came to the part he needed, the part that concerned him more than Bill’s skill as a curse-breaker. He stood from his desk, a turmoil of indecision, and crossed to where the egg’s urgent tapping had hardly relented.
‘Will you consent to someone coming here to watch over you until I return, little one?’ he asked, waiting until the egg tapped back just once from where she had fallen silent at the sound of his voice, before throwing a handful of Floo powder into his fireplace.
As he turned to leave the room, he found a vial of seawater in his hand, and he looked across to the cauldron to where he somehow knew the egg was pretending to be asleep. He left his wards down, and walked quickly along the echoing dungeon corridor, passing Dumbledore on the way; the old wizard just nodded once. Snape took the dungeon steps three at a time, wondering what insanity had possessed him to allow them to go off on their own. The only truly decent person who had crossed his path, and stopped to take the time to begin to know him; to look again; to touch something below the shroud of hostility, with which he cloaked himself so effortlessly, that he had forgotten what it felt like to shed it; and he had let him go off on his own, to Merlin alone knew what danger, with only one other man to protect him. Charlie Weasley would not even be able to warn Bill of danger, not once he came face to face with the man who held him under his Curse.
Severus raced across the entrance hall, his sense of urgency heightening, as he scanned it quickly for any sign that Charlie and Bill had lingered, but the only person he saw was Arthur, shambling back in the main door with his shoulders slumped.
‘Arthur,’ he called, hardly breaking his stride. ‘Have they gone?’
Weasley nodded, his face pale and tense.
‘When, man?’ Snape demanded. ‘Can I catch them?’
Arthur shook his head. ‘You’ll never catch them, Severus,’ he said. ‘They’ve got a head start, and even you can’t Apparate from here to catch them before they reach the main gates... so, unless you can fly,’ he said wryly, shaking his head again, with the air of a man who knew he should have gone too.
Severus took a long look at him. ‘Come on,’ he said. ‘And hang on tight when I say so, Arthur, unless you can fly too,’ he added over his shoulder, as he strode out the main door, and anyone looking from the windows would have been forgiven for thinking that the enormous black bird, that flew across the lawns towards the main gate, was Severus Snape, with Arthur Weasley clinging to his shoulders, like a man being saved from drowning in midair.
He landed beside the two Weasley brothers, just as Bill had slipped his arm around Charlie’s waist, and Charlie had put his hand on Bill’s shoulder, to be met by the business end the elder Weasley brother’s wand, as he reacted admirably quickly to whatever had dropped from the sky.
‘Fuck sake,’ Bill gasped. ‘I could have cursed you into next week. Can you fly?’ he asked, narrowing his eyes, without looking to see if Severus had a broom he clearly knew he didn’t have.
Snape raised his eyebrow, to signify that the first remark was unworthy of comment, and the question of flight was rhetorical. ‘Can we get a move on, Weasley?’ he said instead.
It was almost dark when they landed within a few moments of each another, outside the gates of the Institute of Dragon Research, Bill and Charlie having touched down just before Severus and Arthur.
The Institute’s home was a schloss, some eighty miles from the city of Sighisoara in Transylvania, and Severus knew that the current Principal claimed that Arven DeLengho, the chief dragon-keeper to the legendary Vlad Dracula, was one of his ancestors. Had it not been for the urgency of their mission, he would have liked to have spent some time there, perhaps unravelling the legends from the core of truth he suspected lay behind them.
The schloss looked romantically gothic in the fast falling dusk, with candlelight twinkling in a hundred mullioned windows. It reminded Severus somewhat of a small version of Hogwarts, the way the mountainous land seemed to loom over it in immovable protection, and the way Apparition was forbidden inside the grounds, for all but emergency use in the dealing with dragons. He wondered where the dragons were actually kept, until a telltale slight reddening of the deep dusky sky, perhaps a mile away above the dense forest, gave them away. He supposed some charm kept the trees around from being razed to the ground.
Snape suspected the formation they took as they passed through the main gates was conscious. He and Bill were on the outside, wands drawn inside their cloaks, even though there would be no reason for anyone to suspect their intentions were hostile, and Charlie and Arthur were between them, both men nervous, Charlie much more so than his father.
‘He will probably feel that Charlie has arrived,’ Bill warned across the other two men.
Snape nodded. ‘I think it would be wise for me and Arthur to Disillusion ourselves,’ he said. ‘Just in case the element of surprise is required.’
Bill nodded back, as Snape and Arthur both charmed themselves to invisibility, and Charlie turned to where he knew Severus stood. ‘Don’t go far,’ he said, and Severus could feel the desperation he tried to hide.
‘We’re right here, son,’ Arthur replied. ‘We didn’t come here to desert you … either you or Bill. This is family,’ he said firmly, and Snape felt something warm explode inside him, as though Arthur had deliberately included him.
The nearer they got to his quarters, the more nervous Charlie became. He could feel Zachary now, feel his power, feel himself wondering what he was doing, what had possessed him to think that he could wish him harm. He looked at the man at his side, almost thinking of his brother as a hostile stranger, one to endanger what he felt sworn to serve.
‘I don’t think I want you here. Go home now, all of you, I don’t want you here,’ he said, the words falling off his tongue in a cold torrent.
He could feel someone behind him, someone trying to access his mind, tugging at him, trying to instil a sense of security that he couldn’t even begin to understand. ‘Stop that,’ he hissed, spinning away from Bill, but there was no one behind him, no one he could see.
‘Well, well,’ Zachary said in his heavily accented English, as he flung the door open on the rooms he shared with Charlie. ‘The prodigal returns. Hello, Bill,’ he added, nodding to where the elder Weasley brother stood with his wand pointed below his cloak.
‘Watch out, Zachary,’ Charlie hissed, trying to call the words back before he betrayed Bill, his confusion of his allegiance to his brother, and the power the other man held over him climaxing into panicked bewilderment.
Charlie’s warning came too late though; Bill had used the element of surprise, and shoved Zachary back into the room, and Charlie was at a loss as to which side to take, the one he wanted, or the one he had to.
‘Your wand, fuckhead,’ Bill demanded, as Zachary looked up at him, his eyes blazing with the hate of belated understanding.
‘Take your brother’s wand, Charlie, and give it to me,’ Zachary said calmly, with the confidence of one who knows he cannot be denied, but he was too late again. Charlie had slumped to the ground, Stunned by his invisible father’s silent spell.
‘I said, your wand, fuckhead,’ Bill repeated, pointing his own wand, as Snape watched the other man’s confusion at what had felled Charlie.
‘I don’t think so,’ another voice said from behind Snape, similarly accented to Zachary’s, but not quite the same. It seemed that Charlie Weasley wasn’t the only one who had brought his brother.
Snape spun, still invisible, and found the other man had stripped Arthur’s charm, and had his own wand pointed at the older wizard’s chest. Severus cast his mind quickly about the apartment, satisfying himself that apart from the identified players, they were alone. ‘Expelliarmus,’ he murmured, watching the man’s wand fly up in the air, only to clatter uselessly on the floor below the window. ‘Stupefy!’ he snapped, unconcerned now that his own charms dropped. Zachary’s odds had shortened dramatically with his brother disarmed and disabled, and he knew it.
Snape covered Bill as he dropped and disarmed the big Hungarian wizard, and snapped Zachary’s wand in front of his disbelieving eyes.
‘I should kick fuck out of you,’ Bill said calmly. ‘But I have my brother’s sensibilities to consider… more than you ever did.’
He raised his wand and pointed it to where Zachary’s wand lay on the ground, as Snape bound Zachary in unbreakable cords, and then bound his brother. Charlie was barely conscious, and Arthur was on the ground at his side, holding him, as the dragon-keeper trembled in some unimaginable agony.
Severus watched the cords in the curse-breaker’s neck stand out in effort as he performed his incantations, the sweat rolling down his face, as the curse began to seep from the two broken ends of the wand, to coalesce in an orange ball. The ball burst open, and something almost unseen, but not quite, forced itself back into both Zachary’s mouth and his brother’s. ‘OIREPMI’, Imperio backwards, until they both slumped, eyes rolling back into their heads, so that Severus wondered if they were dead.
Severus looked on in a grudging mixture of envy and admiration, as Bill grasped the remaining aura of the curse in his hand, from where it floated in the air in front of him, sizzling like a malignant orange comet, and plunged it into the cracked stone floor at his feet, and sealed it closed again. At last he dropped his wand to side.
‘Done?’ Severus asked.
‘Done,’ the curse-breaker replied, his voice low from strain and exhaustion. ‘That was a bitch of curse,’ he said. ‘It was the two of them.’
‘I couldn’t tell you,’ Charlie said tiredly, rousing himself to some sort of guilty explanation of a crime not committed.
‘He knows that, Charlie,’ Severus replied, wishing he could shove Arthur away, and drop to Charlie’s side in his place. ‘We all know.’
‘What about them?’ Arthur asked, nodding to the two prone wizards, and Severus admired how well the older man had stood up.
‘Perhaps we should leave the Institute to tidy up?’ he suggested. He thought Bill looked almost as exhausted as Charlie, and he wanted to be away from Romania; that aside, he wasn’t sure the egg wouldn’t be playing Dumbledore up, or worse still, having a conversation with him, he had forgotten to tell it to be discreet.
‘You get Charlie back, Severus,’ Bill replied, nodding to where his brother had seemed to have become even more aware of his surroundings, trembling slightly still, but from fatigue now, instead of fear. Snape didn’t fail to notice that Bill had used his given name again, and suspected that it had been used more by Weasleys in the last three days than it had ever been used by anyone before. ‘I’ll go to the Principal with Dad and explain things,’ Bill went on, ‘and we’ll meet you back at Hogwarts. Your rooms?’ he asked.
Charlie was asleep; he had neither commented nor objected when Severus had helped him undress to his underwear, and helped him into his bed, and by the time Snape got back into the room with a Dreamless Sleep Potion, he was sleeping anyway.
Dumbledore didn’t tarry. He had taken a long look at Charlie, the searching look no one had given him until the last day, and seemed to satisfy himself that whatever had needed to be done, had been done; then he sat at the fire, waiting for Snape to come back into the room.
‘No trouble?’ he asked, as he heaved himself to his feet in a puff of dusty robes.
‘No. Arthur and Bill are speaking to the Principal though. Just to tidy up,’ Severus replied. ‘The Institute is under his sole jurisdiction.’
Dumbledore nodded, and Snape suspected he was trying to hide his surprise, and perhaps envy, that Arthur had gone along for the ride. The old man cocked his head to the bedroom. ‘Look after him, Severus,’ he said, without the absurdly annoying twinkle he let pass over his eyes, when he thought he was being mischievous, but was really only irritating. ‘He will be feeling… slightly bereft, for want of a better word. Something has been ripped away from him too, remember; something bad, but even that leaves an odd void.’
Severus nodded his understanding. ‘Did the egg behave?’ he asked.
‘Behave?’ Dumbledore asked, as though it were not the place of eggs to behave or misbehave.
Severus decided not to reply.
‘Fuck,’ Bill gasped, looking at the cigarette he’d just lit, ‘what are these? That’s not what you gave me last time.’
‘Contraband, I suspect,’ Snape replied lazily. ‘Lucius brings them.’
‘I don’t think he’s supposed to confiscate them for his personal use,’ Bill replied, taking a much longer drag, and letting the smoke trail thinly from his lips.
‘Why don’t you tell him that? I’m sure I do not intend to explain it to him.’
Charlie was still asleep, and Arthur had gone to relate the night’s events to Molly; Snape suspected that thought was more daunting to him than what he had so far gone through. Severus and Bill sat at Snape’s table, and he found he was re-evaluating Bill Weasley the same way he had re-evaluated both Arthur and Charlie. Severus could see he was tired though, and he knew the tremendous power he had expended. He also knew Bill wanted to go and get some rest, and was unsure of just how to leave Charlie alone asleep in Snape’s bed, or even if he should do so.
‘I’m not about to force my attentions on a virtually unconscious man, Weasley,’ he said. ‘You may seek your own bed.’
‘I thought you’d never get around to it,’ Bill replied, dragging himself to his feet. ‘Me going to my bed, I mean.’
‘Of course,’ Snape replied dryly. ‘You may leave the cigarettes,’ he said, nodding to where Bill had not quite inadvertently slipped the ebony box into his pocket. ‘The box at least, if you don’t mind.’
Bill grinned, emptying the box before laying it on Snape’s desk, and slipping the cigarettes carefully into the breast pocket of the soft black shirt he wore. ‘You’re a surprise, Severus Snape,’ he said, giving him a long knowing look. ‘Then again, maybe you’re not.’
It was well into the middle of the night, perhaps almost dawn, when Severus felt a hand on his shoulder, and started awake to find himself slumped uncomfortably at his table, with his head on his arms.
‘You should come to bed, Severus,’ Charlie murmured. ‘You can’t sleep there.’
‘You need to rest,’ Snape replied, pushing down the flood of trepidation, wondering whether Charlie were issuing an invitation, or if he were just on the point of leaving. He decided not to turn round until knew.
‘I won’t take advantage of you, I promise,’ Charlie said, his hand squeezing lightly.
‘Nor shall I,’ Severus replied, turning at last. ‘But I think you know that.’
Charlie nodded. ‘We never did finish that conversation properly… or honestly,’ he said. ‘There’s something you need to know, Severus.’
But Snape had already guessed, already guessed that the first fleeting notion he had had of Charlie Weasley had been the correct one. ‘Not Zachary?’ he asked, just to let Weasley know that he knew.
Charlie shook his head. ‘He sought only to fool the dragons,’ he said, ‘and when he realised he couldn’t…’ He trailed off, and Snape found he could relate only too easily to what he was trying to say, given his own bitter experiences with Sirius Black.
‘And the succession of men you dallied with, on the occasions you broke away?’ he asked, content now that the question was safe, and that the answer would be truthful denial. ‘The ones your brother mentioned?’
‘It’s easy to let people believe what they assume,’ Charlie replied, moving closer. He raised his hand to Snape’s pale hollow cheek, the way Severus had touched his. ‘That said,’ he breathed, ‘my ultimate chastity aside, I have found to my pleasure that there are many ways of skinning a cat, so to speak.’
‘Chastity,’ Snape repeated, the word sounding like the ultimate triumph of good over evil in the cesspool of life. ‘Undefiled?’
‘Yes, but…’ Charlie moved even closer, until his body was touching Snape’s.
‘And so you shall remain,’ Severus breathed, ‘in all the ways that matter to you.’ He pulled the dragon-keeper to him, and held him like the precious rare gift he was, and knew he didn’t imagine that Charlie slumped in some kind of relief that he understood, and that he would remain inviolate, inviolable.
And the baby dragon peeped over the top of her shell, just to check that things were moving along in an appropriate manner, before she crouched back down into her bath of mother’s milk, and mended the cracked shell above her, and went back to sleep for a day or two.
‘This is a proud day indeed for Hogwarts, and for our friends in the Institute of Dragon Research,’ Dumbledore said, addressing the crowd of dignitaries and academics and selected pupils in the Great Hall. ‘If you would?’ he invited, nodding to where a tall wizard of proud bearing had stood from the front row.
His face was heavily scarred, and his left eyelid drooped slightly, but he made no attempt to disguise his disfigurement, wearing it with arrogant self-esteem. Lucius Malfoy, the only man ever to have survived dragon-pox, strode to the podium. He smiled his superior smile in turn to the two men who flanked Dumbledore, one on either side: a tall redheaded man with an open smile, and a black-haired man with harsh features that cast unkind shadows on his face. Lucius pinned the Orders of Merlin to Severus Snape and Charlie Weasley. He stepped back, as though to admire his handiwork at the gleaming orders, his pale grey eyes flashing unspoken, unspeakable thanks.
Deep in a charmed seaside cavern in the middle of the Forbidden Forest, a young Draco Virgo Intacta looked up from admiring her first egg. She paused for a moment, then dropped her scaly green head to knock her beak against the cauldron of boiling seawater that held her issue, and the egg knocked back.
Footnote: This was a short fic for Pittwitch’s ‘Seven Deadly Sins’ challenge (thanks so much, Pitt, for the irresistible gauntlet you threw my way). Having taken them to Romania though, I am very tempted to take Severus and Charlie back there one day, perhaps to unravel the mysteries of Vlad Dracula.