by Elsa (elsapphire71 @yahoo.co.nz)
Fandom: Harry Potter
Category: Fantasy, Drama
Spoilers: Though GoF, Post-Fifth Year AU
Disclaimer: Harry Potter and the other inhabitants of the world of Hogwarts belong to J K Rowling and Warner. I am making no money from this.
Summary: At the end of his fifth year Harry is sent to stay with Snape. Same old, same old, but with different scenery.
Author's Note: The chapter titles were nicked from the album "The Piano" by Michael Nyman (score to the movie of the same name).
Chapter One: To the Edge of the Earth
Harry dropped his bag at his feet and stared around the station glumly. He had no idea where he was, but wherever he was, it was raining.
It had been a beautiful twilight when Dumbledore and Snuffles had collected him from Mrs Figg's house, where the Dursleys, who had just left for Spain, had sent Harry to stay. An entire summer with the weird old lady — and her cats — was still preferable to summer with the Dursleys. Harry looked down at the Portkey (an old flea collar) clutched in his hand and sighed. With Voldemort and his supporters becoming stronger he'd hoped to be able to stay at Hogwarts and help... somehow. Hermione had been allowed to stay. Her parents worried about their daughter's safety in the Muggle world. Mr and Mrs Weasley had given strong hints that Ron, Ginny and the twins would be staying over the summer, too. Many other students would be staying from Gryffindor, Hufflepuff and Ravenclaw — and even Slytherin, depleted though its ranks were. Draco Malfoy and his cronies certainly wouldn't have been there. Lucius Malfoy had sent his son off to Durmstrang for the school year just ended, and where Lucius Malfoy's son went, other Slytherins followed.
Mind you, Harry thought with a small smile, from one of the many rumours flying around Hogwarts it was unsure where or even if they could follow Draco; apparently his blond opponent had run away from Durmstrang.
As for the rest of the Slytherins, even Snape wouldn't be there. He had been absent for most of Harry's fifth year, his lessons often filled in by a much more pleasant teacher from Beauxbatons who, being unable to speak much English, had pretty much left the students to their own devices. Harry couldn't say that anyone other than Hermione had learned anything, but he could say that Potions had been much more fun. Snape had barely been seen in the last few months and Harry's godfather Sirius had happily told Harry that the slimy git wouldn't be skulking around Hogwarts. Sirius, on the other hand, would be an important addition to the unofficial summer staff. Remus Lupin would be a frequent visitor. Yes, for once Harry had been looking forward to summer.
Now he was somewhere else. Somewhere cold. Somewhere with wind and rain and a very small shelter by a railway line. Somewhere Dumbledore had told him he would be safe. Harry stopped smiling and wrapped his cloak around him. What could be safer than Hogwarts?
Somewhere Voldemort wouldn't even think of looking, Dumbledore had told him seriously, the usual twinkle in his blue eyes absent. The old wizard had looked... old, Harry thought unhappily, hunching up and sticking his hands in his armpits for warmth. Mrs Figg, of all people, had snapped back to reality for a whole five minutes to explain that as Harry's powers were still unknown and his precise value in the war against Voldemort was (likewise) unknown, he needed to be sent somewhere the Dark Lord couldn't find him. Somewhere safe.
Somewhere someone would collect him and keep him safe. An icy blast whistled through the cracks in the shelter and down the back of Harry's neck. It had been nightfall when he left Mrs Figg's; it could only get darker and colder. Somewhere a dog barked. He heard another set up an answering howl. He shivered and wrapped the summer-weight cloak tighter.
A long way in the distance he thought he heard a rooster crowing ... did roosters crow in the night? He wished Hagrid was here — Hagrid knew these things. Hagrid might even be able to tell him why the sky seemed to be becoming lighter.
Harry squinted, wishing he had a compass. Portkeys were so disorientating. They left you thinking north was south, east was west, and day was night. Then again... perhaps it was an odd effect of the light created by cloud cover, but the sky did seem to be lightening. Had he been sent further north? This was cold enough to be Northern Scotland. He perked up at the thought. Maybe he'd been sent to stay with Professor McGonagall's family? There was gorse over there on the embankment and further down the tracks. Gorse was Scottish, wasn't it? The rain had eased to a light freezing drizzle and the sky was getting brighter, and he thought he could hear cows and sheep. He jiggled up and down to keep warm. Maybe this wouldn't be so bad after all. Professor McGonagall's family were reputed to be powerful wizards and might be able to teach him how to become an animagus. He smiled at the imagined expressions on Hermione's and Ron's faces when they saw him turn into a... what would he turn into? It would be great if he could —
There was the crunch of tyres on gravel. The low purr of a Muggle car engine that was cut off.
Shivering but optimistic, Harry picked up his bag and peered around the side of the 'shelter'.
A dark grey four-wheel-drive, shiny and new-looking in the rain, was parked nearby. Harry didn't know what sort of car it was — it looked like it had some truck in its ancestry and was made for different roads than Vernon Dursley's sedan. Its lights caught the drizzle briefly before they flicked off. The driver's door opened and a tall figure unfolded from within, shrouded by a raincoat. Harry fingered his wand, uneasily reminded of the Death Eaters from the last time he had faced Voldemort. But although he couldn't make out details of the face, there was no white mask and the 'cloak' was a dark brown raincoat. No Death Eater would wear scuffed work boots like those splashing through the puddles, either. Harry grinned to himself.
He walked to meet the figure as it — he: no woman was that tall — glided up the rough steps. Harry shaded his eyes against the rising sun (rising sun?!?) to see the face of the person who would be hiding and protecting him from Voldemort.
All thoughts of the incongruity of the sun rising at night flew out of his head. "Oh no!" Harry couldn't help exclaiming. "You?"
Snape glared down at him with his sourest expression. "Oh no. You."
Harry sat silently in the car as they drove south. He guessed the direction by the fact that the sun was rising on his left. Over in that direction he thought he could see the sea, but with the sun in his eyes it was hard to say for sure, and for sure he wasn't going to ask Snape.
Snape hadn't said a word since he had ordered Harry to pick up his luggage and, at the sight of Harry's pitiful bag of books and Dudley's hand-me-downs, he had raised an eyebrow and asked silkily if Harry had at least remembered to bring a toothbrush. Harry had scowled and nodded, ears burning with embarrassment. On top of his disappointment at being sent to stay with Snape (a bare second to staying with Voldemort) he didn't want the slimy Potions master finding out about how bad his only relatives were. The comments that could lead to about his mother weren't worth thinking about.
By the time the sun had risen enough for Harry to see that the water really was the sea, they had turned inland. Harry was disappointed. Again. He'd never seen the sea.
It was a long drive. The road began winding through steep country dotted with sheep. It was almost familiar, yet alien enough to be disturbing. Harry stared at his hands and brooded on this latest misfortune to come careering into his life. The road became steeper and more winding. He began turning green.
"What's the matter?"
Harry jumped and nearly threw up. "I think I'm getting carsick."
Snape hissed something about Quidditch under his breath and pulled the car over. Harry wound the window down and took in deep gulps of the frigid air.
"It helps if you get out and walk for a time."
Harry wondered fleetingly if Snape meant that he should walk the rest of the way to wherever it was they were going, then realised he didn't care. He got out.
Yes, it was better to get out and stretch his legs. Somewhere overhead a bird was singing. It was silenced as a hawk glided down over a ridgeline and turned lazy circles over the paddocks. Harry breathed deep of air scented with sheep, gorse and snow. He sighed it out, wishing Ron or Hermione — even Neville — were here, and got back in the car. At Snape's raised eyebrow, he shrugged.
"Try looking at the horizon," said Snape, in what was, for him, a civil tone.
Harry was too astonished to answer.
Some time after noon they stopped in a small town. Harry sat in the car while Snape got out. He took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes tiredly. According to his internal clock it should be after midnight.
Harry blinked out the window at Snape, who was regarding him with thin patience.
Snape narrowed his black eyes. "Are you hungry?"
Harry nodded. What he really wanted was a place to sleep, but dinner (a cream bun and a sausage roll a la Mrs Figg) hadn't really filled him. It had merely given his earlier nausea a starting point.
"Then you can start by getting out of the car."
Harry frowned as he swung his legs out the door. Snape was using unfair politeness. He didn't know how to cope with this. "Should I lock the door?"
In that case, thought Harry, he'd take his bag. Ignoring Snape's sneer at his meagre possessions, he swung the bag over his shoulder and followed his teacher down the main — and only, as far as he could see — street.
Snape looked different, Harry mused as he walked behind the man. He'd only seen Snape in robes. In the Muggle clothing of jeans (black, if rather worn), sweater (also black) and shirt (ditto), he looked different. He really wouldn't have fitted into Hogwarts like this, but, from looking at the other people on the street, Snape didn't look particularly out of place. In fact some of the people nodded and even smiled to him as they passed without being glared at for their impertinence. Now Harry knew he really had come to a strange and alien land.
A bell over the door announced their arrival in a clothes shop. Harry had hoped for something from the pie shop they'd just passed but wasn't about to ask Snape for anything, and he hadn't brought any Muggle money.
"This is a Muggle shop," Snape murmured to Harry. "I'll be telling them you're my cousin's son sent to stay with me. And if I find I need to do a memory erase on them because you try one of your little tricks you'll be spending the summer descaling every volcano in this country."
Harry was about to reply angrily but was cut off. "Sev! Welcome back." A burly man with a moustache a bit like Uncle Vincent's was up a ladder at the back of the shop stacking shirts. "What can I do yer for, mate?"
"Clothes for the boy, thanks Alex."
Alex stomped down the ladder. "Okey-doke. What exactly were you wanting?"
"He'll need to be kitted out for a High Country winter," Snape replied smoothly. "My cousin's son — from England. They sent him out with summer clothes," he added with a sneer.
Alex sucked his teeth as if in pain. "Maureen! Get out here!"
"Whaddaya want?" yelled a woman's voice from out back.
"Sev's got family staying. Needs clothes for a lad."
Harry heard Maureen mutter something along the lines of: "Don't friggin' believe it," but it sounded more like good-natured disbelief than a complaint. A thin woman emerged from the back, wiping her hands on a teatowel. "Sev! Thought we'd seen the last of ya for the winter. And now you turn up with family. You'll be the death of me, surprises like that." She grinned, her leathery brown face creasing into weather-beaten wrinkles. "Time for a cuppa?"
Harry waited for the outburst. He turned, expecting Snape to have grown two feet in hauteur, but saw that he was leaning up against the counter with his arms folded and the hint of a smile on his face. "Been baking?" Snape asked hopefully.
Maureen laughed, showing missing back teeth. "You bet, luv. Chocolate chip bikkies — you kids' favourite. How about you... didn't catch yer name."
"Harry..." Harry replied weakly.
"Harry. Want a cup of tea and some biscuits?"
He glanced up at Snape, whose expression was giving nothing away. "Yes please."
"Good-o. You three get started on the clothes, I'll put the jug on."
By the time they left, Harry was convinced he wasn't just in a different land, he was in a different dimension. He had four new pairs of jeans; shirts, sweaters, a natural-wool jersey knitted by Maureen, socks, underwear, pyjamas, shoes, leather boots and Wellington boots ('gumboots', they were called in this dimension), and to top it off, a woollen hat in Gryffindor red with matching scarf. All paid for in cash by Snape. He was trying to work out when he'd need the black-and-blue 'swannie' jacket and if he could get used to the strange smell of the 'oilskin' raincoat when Snape led him back to the car.
"Put it in the back," Snape ordered, then peeled off some Muggle money from the roll in his pocket. "Go and get yourself some food while I purchase extra groceries. And if you get into trouble..."
"I know, I know... volcano descaling."
Snape's ebony eyes glittered down at Harry. "Do not be impertinent. Volcanoes are currently the least of your problems."
Harry was too hungry to argue. He took the money and headed for the pie shop. Alex and Maureen had been great people, but what they had said had been disturbing. It was winter here in the mountains. Chances were good that he would be snowed in wherever he was going, possibly for months, which was why they'd suggested Snape get extra supplies. He began wishing for a normal summer with the Dursleys instead of being... wherever he was. He selected two pies, a cake, and a bottle of coke. As he was handing the note over to the sullen gum-chewing girl behind the counter he paused.
The money was $20. In New Zealand currency.
He was on the other side of the world.
"Well? Are you gonna pay or not?"
"Um... I just realised I'm in New Zealand."
She gave him a look. "Well done. Did it take you long?"
"To get here?"
"No, to realise." She snatched the money and gave him change. Then, at his mute stare, said, "Anything else?"
"Um. No. Thank you."
She shrugged and looked past him, apparently at nothing, chewing on her gum.
Harry sighed and left.
So this was where Snape had learned his manners.
Harry helped Snape load boxes of groceries into the back of the Toyota. For some reason two dozen white roses had been included, looking out of place lying on the more mundane tins of peach slices and pineapple pieces. Snape grunted as he slung yet another heavy sack of flour down next to one of the sacks of rice, and straightened carefully, mindful of his back. Harry had lost count of how many bags of sugar there were. The sheer bulk of the supplies made him nervous — where were they going that all this was going to be needed? Was there anywhere further to go? Antarctica? How would Hedwig cope with penguins? Then he remembered with a small pain that the snowy owl would be staying in the Hogwarts owlery over summer (their summer, my winter).
"Put your seatbelt on."
Harry knew better than to disobey. "Why do we need so much food?"
For a moment he thought Snape wouldn't bother replying. Then: "Not all of it is for us. Others will get the greater part." He glanced sideways at his passenger as he drove the car out of town and towards the snow-topped mountains. "It's winter here. Although the likelihood of our being completely cut off from outside food sources is remote, prudence requires me to ensure we are adequately supplied on the off-chance we get snowed in." He paused to change gear. "—Or the river rises too high to be forded."
"But we could just levitate over the river, and snow doesn't stop broomsticks, and although I'm not licensed to Apparate you must be..." Harry trailed off at Snape's thin-lipped annoyance.
"Did Dumbledore give you any instructions on the use of magic while you are here?"
"He said I should avoid using my wand, and of course no student is allowed to use magic over the holidays..."
"I seem to recall you being sent several warnings about your... use of magic over the holidays." Snape's lip curled as he carefully enunciated Harry's phrase.
You shouldn't let him get to you... Harry repeated Hermione's advice like a mantra inside his head. "That was different..."
"It always is."
Snape braked as a hawk flew off something dead on the road ahead, then drove on as soon as it was clear the hawk was out of the way. Harry looked at the road behind them as the car went around the next turn to see that the hawk was back tearing at the road kill. He began to feel carsick again. He wound down the window and took a deep breath.
"I know the dangers. I know that Voldemort is tracking me through magic. I know that because his wand is linked to mine and my blood is in him he can find me if I cast a spell. Dumbledore told me all that."
"Did Dumbledore also tell you that you were to give your wand to me to ensure that no 'accidents' occur while you are here?"
Harry took a sharp breath. No, Dumbledore certainly hadn't told him that. "I left it at Hogwarts. With my godfather." There. No way would Snape try to contact Sirius Black to discover that Harry had lied to him.
It was lucky Snape was driving, Harry thought: he hated the way those dead black eyes seemed to bore into him after the truth. "Really," he replied stiffly, glaring out the window. "Do you think I'd've let you look after my wand?"
"Not really," Snape replied, sounding almost amused. "Wand or no, there will be no magic. Not by you, not by me. If it snows and we get cut off, fine. There's a wood burner and plenty of wood. There is food and you have your studies to keep you occupied and out of my way. Your Potions scores in the last exams were quite pitiful and some extra work will do you no harm — quite the opposite, in fact."
Harry rested his head against the window and wished he was in Spain with the Dursleys.
"He's back! He's back! Mum! Maman! He's back and he's got someone with him!" Two boys on a shaggy white pony were cantering alongside the car, waving to Snape and shouting.
Snape ignored them.
The car pulled up before the long, low porch of a long, low, weatherboard house. The horse ambled to a halt in front of the steps, the boy with the reins making an obvious effort to appear like a dashing rider stopping a half-wild steed, and the horse obviously not giving a hoot what the boy wanted so long as he was allowed to stand still and let the damn' creatures get off his back.
"Uncle Sev! Did you get us anything at the airport?" The younger boy had slid off the pony and was jumping up and down like an overexcited house elf. Harry almost fainted as he climbed out of the car and followed Snape up the steps. 'Uncle Sev?' Did this dimension have a name? Oh, that's right. New Zealand.
"No, but I got you some chocolate. Rona?" he called out. "Maman? Anyone home?"
There was no answer, only the younger boy complaining, "Aww... I wanted a travel patch..."
The older boy, who had tied the horse's reins to the rail (unnecessarily in Harry's opinion — the poor thing looked like it was about to fall asleep) smacked the other across the back of the head. "Don't be rude, Eru."
"Oww...! Uncle Se-ev! Chad hit me!"
"Don't hit your brother, Chad. If he doesn't want his chocolate you'll get it."
"Awww! Uncle Se-ev."
"Don't tie Solomon to the house, Chad. Maman will go crook. Where's your mother?"
"They must've gone up to help Uncle Wirimu get the last of the sheep checked," said Chad, following Snape back down the steps. "One had a bit of a cold and Uncle Wiri said he'd be using the last of that mix you made up so if you could make up some more while you're here that'd be really good and Mum said if she's not around when we got home from school she'd be up in the high paddock and Maman had been saying that she wanted to get a bit of exercise in —" he took a breath "— before the snows hit and she must have gone up with Mum so's she wouldn't take a fall and hurt her hip again and 'cos she hasn't come out already she must still be up with Mum. I think. Who's this?" Chad jerked a thumb at Harry.
Snape had already started picking bags out of the back of the car while listening to Chad's chatter. "His name is Harry," he said shortly as he slung one of the flour bags over his shoulder. "He's going to be staying for a time."
"Cool," said Chad. "How long?"
"Until he goes back," Snape replied blandly. "Chad, why haven't you untied that horse?"
"Doing it now. I'll put him in the paddock. Harry, wanna come?"
"Harry will be helping me unload."
"Eru can help you carry stuff in too, Uncle Sev."
Snape sighed. "Eru, go and help your brother with Solomon. Don't forget to put the cover on him — he's looking a bit scruffy."
The two boys were back quickly. Harry was helping Snape put the last of the bags in the kitchen when Chad and Eru burst in.
"Are you and Harry staying for tea?" asked Chad, grinning at Harry. Harry found himself smiling back — the other boy looked to be Harry's age and seemed naturally good-natured. Eru, who had even more freckles than Ron, couldn't have been older than nine and hung back shyly, choosing to watch Harry from behind Snape as Snape (ignoring Eru) put the smaller sugar bags in a cupboard over the sink.
"No," Snape replied, disappointing Harry. "We'll make do up at my place."
Chad shrugged at Harry and Harry shrugged back, sad he wasn't going to get a chance to know these kids better. "Mum'll be mad if you don't stay for dinner," Chad said disingenuously. "And Maman'll just drag you down anyway to cook for you 'cos you brought up all this stuff for us and Uncle Wiri said that Canterbury're going to be playing the Highlanders and it should be a really cool game..."
Snape glared down his nose at the boy. Chad just grinned back up at him. "It's getting late," Snape said, "and Harry's had a long trip. Best to get him settled in." He dug in the pocket of his shirt. "Here. Chocolate. If you're going to eat it before dinner and ruin your appetite then it's in my best interests to be out of the way of your mother."
Chad grin widened. "Fair enough. But Maman'll want you guys down for dinner some time soon. And Mum'll be curious to meet someone from your family."
Snape sighed. "I know."
Harry thought he saw worry flicker through Snape's eyes. It could have been a trick of the light.
The rest of the journey didn't take long. Snape drove in silence, and Harry had a lot to think about. After carefully fording a stream they travelled a little way along a dirt track, and Harry began to appreciate the abilities of the four-wheel-drive. Otherwise, he supposed, they would have had to borrow that horse. He bit his lip to stop grinning at the thought of Snape on the shaggy old pony. He stopped smiling when he realised the car had stopped outside a white cottage. It was as though a piece of England had been picked up and put down in the middle of nowhere. The sun as it sank over the mountains shone rosily off the walls. On the south side ivy grew, stopping just short of the shingled roof with its brick chimney. There was no front lawn, but herbs made good ground cover and short bushes Harry didn't recognise bordered what would be a delightful garden in summer. It was so warm, such a friendly little house, Harry wondered how Snape had managed to get hold of it. Certainly it was at the opposite end of the spectrum to the Slytherin dungeons.
"This is your house?"
Snape twitched an eyebrow. "So I have been informed."
Harry kicked himself inwardly. "I meant that it's so... um..." He stopped before he could dig himself deeper.
"Quite. Get your things."
There was a slight tingle as he crossed the border of the herb garden. For the first time in a long time Harry felt... safe. He sighed in relief.
"Well? Is The Boy Who Lived now The Boy Who Forgot How to Walk?"
"I thought I felt..." Harry didn't want to say safe. That was too intimate to share.
Snape relented a little. "There are wards around the house. They have been here longer than you or I have been alive and it's in both our best interests that you do not interfere with them. I seriously doubt you have the skills to do so, but if you do ..."
"More volcanoes?" Harry asked sarcastically.
"No," Snape said softly, his eyes distant. "If you interfere with them Voldemort and his Death Eater horde will be able to reach in and pluck you from this house and there won't be a damned thing either of us can do to stop them."
Harry nodded. "I understand," he said quietly. Suddenly very tired indeed, he followed Snape into the house.
Chapter Two: Deep Into the Forest
Someone was shaking his shoulder. Harry jerked out of a dream where Hermione was being branded with the Dark Mark and found himself looking up at Snape. This sight was only marginally better than the nightmare. The man had untied his hair from the ponytail and it was back to hanging over his face in a greasy curtain, and he was wearing the familiar black robes of a Hogwarts professor. Harry discovered he must have fallen asleep on the couch. "Wha'...?"
Snape stepped back, looming against the lantern light and casting his shadow over Harry. "Put your robes on."
"There is a ceremonial introduction to be performed."
"Do I need to do anything?"
"Wear your robes. Oh, and you'll want to wear warm clothes underneath as well as good walking shoes."
It was getting dark quickly. Snape handed Harry a lantern. "Remember: no magic."
Harry followed Snape outside into an evening cold and smelling of snow. A three-quarter moon was rising over the trees. In one hand Snape carried a second lantern; the other hand was tucked into his robes. Their breath hung in the air and was turned silver by the moon. They walked along old sheep tracks that wound through stringy grass and tussock that held bits of wool. Snape's path took a sudden turn downhill, and Harry found he had to walk carefully unless he wanted to take a nose-dive. Not a good idea, as wool wasn't the only thing the sheep had left behind.
Tussock turned into scrubby trees that smelled damp and even colder than snow. The trees also had some strongly alien, resinous smell that made him wrinkle his nose, unsure that he liked it or not. Harry brushed up against one of them and something crawled onto his shoulder.
"Aaah!" Harry brushed at it but it clung. Then it stung his hand. "Aa-ow!"?
Snape hurried back up the path. "What the —?"
"There's a giant insect on me!"
"Hold still." Snape grabbed Harry's wrist and peered at the boy's upper arm. "Stupid boy," he spat. "No — leave it alone. You've frightened it enough already."
"Careful — it stung me."
"It did no such thing." He gripped Harry's shoulder while the insect crawled up Harry's arm and onto Snape's hand. He carefully lifted it off Harry. The insect seemed to calm down, and waved its long feelers in the lamplight as Snape lifted his lantern to examine it closer. "It seems unharmed," he murmured, more to himself than to his student.
"I'm telling you, it stung me!" Harry protested, ready to squash the bug.
Snape pointed a long finger at the brown insect's back legs. "It kicked you. Those barbs are its chief defence."
"Then what's that big stinger thing?" Harry demanded, pointing at the insect's rear.
Snape smirked. "That's called an ovipositor. Meaning that this is a little lady whom you have been mishandling."
Harry found himself blushing and wasn't sure why.
With the utmost care Snape replaced the bug in one of the trees with the tiny leaves and strong smell. "Now keep up, keep quiet, and stop wasting my time."
Harry kept his dark thoughts to himself as Snape turned in a swirl of black robes and stalked off down the track.
The track got steeper. No self-respecting sheep came this way, it would seem, because there were masses of ferns covering the track as they went deeper through the tall, thick-trunked trees. The ferns looked soft in the lamplight, but when Harry brushed his fingers along a frond it felt harsh. Then he tripped on a tree root and fell into a bed of bracken. He lay there for a moment, his head spinning, angry at Snape for leading him here, Dumbledore for sending him here, Sirius for not having the time to look after him, the world for...
"Mister Potter? Are you still alive?"
Snape sounded like he didn't care much either way, Harry thought bitterly. Well, what's new? And I've been in worse messes than this and dealt with them with more maturity. He picked himself up and checked the lamp. By some miracle of Muggle technology it hadn't gone out. "Sorry," he said. "I think I'm over tired."
Snape paused. "It has been a long day for you," he admitted grudgingly. "But we're nearly there. Can't you hear it?"
Harry cocked his head, listening. "I... I think I can hear running water."
"Yes. The stream will be low at this time of year — all the water is trapped in snow and ice. But the thermal pool is fed from underground and is never empty."
Thermal pool. That sounded warm. Harry liked the sound of that. Maybe he could come out here tomorrow for a swim.
"Careful. The track gets slippery and if either of us breaks a leg we can't risk magic trying to rescue ourselves."
They slithered down what seemed to be a fern-covered cliff. Harry fell the last few feet, landing with a bump.
Everything went black.
He pushed his robes back over his head and stared around in wonder.
The light cast by the Muggle lamps was almost magical. Bluebells that gleamed like stars were scattered under mossy trees that had been old when Hogwarts' foundations were being laid. The ferns whispered softly in the glade, but there was no wind. Everything was still. The only noise was that of a trickling stream running over gleaming black rocks. Harry lifted the lamp higher to see where the stream went.
Steam rose from a pool in the centre of the glade, turning lazily in the yellow light like one of those dreams that are lost as the dreamer wakes. The water was as black as Snape's eyes. It looked like a hole into the Earth; a gateway.
Snape waded through ferns to the edge of the pool opposite the stream where there was a large slab of creamy rock. He motioned Harry to follow. Snape knelt on the rock, facing the centre of the pool. Harry did the same after an impatient glare from Snape.
"Grandmother." Snape's voice was low and soft, but it started the mist swirling into new patterns. "Grandmother, I have brought the boy for you to see. He is here under my protection. I ask for your acceptance of him and what he means. I do not ask for me — I ask only on his behalf." He bowed his head, his face completely shadowed by his hair, and reached into his robe. "A gift for you, Grandmother," he said as he drew out a wreath. "The new; bound, framed, strengthened and graced by the old. As it always has been. As it shall always be."
He gave the wreath to Harry. "I ask that you accept it from the boy's hands."
Harry fingered the wreath. Roses — he could smell them — the white roses Snape had bought, twined into a circle with ivy.
"Put it in the water," Snape whispered.
Harry obeyed silently, not daring to say a word. He leaned forward to place the wreath flat on the black water that lapped against the stone. With a gentle nudge, he sent the flowers towards the middle of the pond where the steam was thickest. As it neared the centre the water began to ripple. Steam gathered, hiding the flowers. Harry thought he saw the roses glimmer once, briefly, like stars through clouds; then they were gone.
The mist cleared.
The water was flat, black, and empty as Snape's eyes.
Snape sighed in relief. "You have been accepted." He stood up. "We must leave now, and quickly."
"Is it dangerous here?"
"It will be soon. Look."
The first snowflakes were falling.
Harry was later to remember the hike back as one of the worst walks of his life. He was so tired that he kept tripping over his own feet when the ferns and clumps of grass weren't already doing their best to break his ankles. The snow fell thicker and colder and tightened his circle of lamplight to only a few feet around him. He kept his eyes on the tall, thin, black-clad figure before him, half-frightened it would disappear and leave him, half-wishing it would so that he could lie down and get the sleep he so desperately craved.
At long last the wards around the house caressed his mind. He stumbled inside the door and fell into a chair. Just half a minute to rest his eyes and he'd get up again—
When he woke up there was sunlight. It hadn't been the sun that had woken him — Harry could have sworn he heard something sliding down the steep roof directly over his bed. But when he listened all he could hear was the distant song of a blackbird. It must have been a dream. He was in bed up in the attic, dressed in the new flannel pyjamas Snape had bought for him. However he had got to bed was a brief worry — Harry could smell coffee, baking bread and frying sausages. Breakfast was much more important.
Snape must have heard him moving around, because by the time Harry, yawning and attempting the impossible task of combing his hair into order with his fingers, came out of the trapdoor and down the ladder from the attic, Snape was putting breakfast on the table. "It's lunch, actually," Snape said conversationally. "You needed your sleep. I would have woken you soon, however, as I'm expecting visitors."
"Oh? But I thought it was snowing last night? Can people travel through snow without magic? Thank you," he added, belatedly remembering politeness as he sat down at the table while Snape put a plate of fried sausages, tomatoes, eggs and French toast in front of him. Harry dug in.
Snape settled at the table with a cup of coffee and some French toast. Harry still found it disturbing not seeing Snape in his familiar robes. "It snowed, yes," Snape said. "But not heavily. A bit of snow keeps the river low, and curiosity does the rest. Besides, Chad and Eru have a pony to ride. Horses can go where cars can't, and the boys are very interested in meeting you."
"Oh?" Harry wasn't sure if this was good or bad. It was impossible to tell what Snape thought — his eyes where back to being dead black tunnels. They reminded Harry of... "What happened last night? At the pond, I mean."
Snape frowned, but not at Harry. "This country is... well, young and old, is the best description. Many of the ancient energies and genius loci associated with particular areas and phenomena are still very much in evidence. Humans — Muggles and otherwise — have made a great impact, but the land retains a multi-strata quality..." His frown deepened into annoyance at Harry's blank look. "Basically," Snape said acidly, "Humans live at one level of reality, and elemental creatures live at another. Occasionally there is interaction between the two levels, usually when a human does something stupid — and that's the lowest common denominator of what being human entails — or, and what is extremely rare, an elemental has a level of awareness that allows it to perceive the humans in its surrounds. That," Snape said after a sip of coffee, "is the situation with the elemental in the pool. She slowly became interested in humans over the course of several hundred years." He paused, thinking. Harry waited. "It took that long for us just to get her attention. And now we have it, it's not something to be squandered or lost through disrespect." He glared at Harry, and continued in a low, menacing tone, "And with elementals, respect is key. You will remember that while you are here. You have been introduced to her. She has noticed you. More than that, she has accepted you on my behalf. She has extended the aegis of her..." Snape paused, searching for a word... "her power, in a sense, over you. Those wards around the house you felt, she made those before I was born." He stopped as he coughed and poured himself more coffee, and Harry felt that somehow his Potions master was withdrawing further into himself. "Even I haven't been quite so stupid as to remove those," Snape muttered.
Harry began to feel quite uncomfortable with the tone of the conversation. He was used to Snape's anger being focussed outwards — at Harry in particular. Seeing the bitter rage turned in on itself was... disturbing. He needed Snape to be strong — right now Snape was the only person Harry had and here, in this strange land, he would have welcomed the snarky, slimy git of the Potions classroom. Well, maybe 'welcomed' was a little too strong, but... "You called her Grandmother." He very carefully did not look up, but the sudden look Snape flashed him was tangible enough to make him flinch.
Harry almost bit through his fork when there was a knock at the door. He got up, the tension over breakfast reminding him so strongly of the Dursleys that it seemed like his job to answer the door, but Snape reached over and clamped a hand on his shoulder, forcing Harry to stay in his chair.
"Stay there," Snape hissed. "You do not open this door for anyone while you are here." He stood up and whirled, not needing his robes to appear predatory, and stalked over to the door. Harry watched as the man pressed his palms flat against the wood, eyes closed. Then Snape nodded slightly and the tension seemed to drain out of the room.
It was Chad. "Hi, Uncle Sev." He peered past Snape into the room and grinned. "Hi, Harry!"
Harry waved back.
Snape stood in the doorway, arms folded in a posture that would have made Neville Longbottom wet his pants. "Aren't you meant to be at school?"
Chad's grin grew so wide it seemed like the top of his head would come off. "Snow's closed the roads. Try saying that ten times fast."
Snape refrained. "Yet you could still ride up here."
"Mum sent me to check on you and give you some messages. Breakfast?" Chad asked hopefully.
"Lunch for you, I suppose." Snape let the boy in. "Help yourself. I'll go and put a blanket on Solly."
"Cool. Ta, Uncle Sev."
Snape disappeared out the door.
"There's a place I wanted to ride out to. We call it Grandmother's Pool," Chad said as Solomon cantered along the river bank. Harry kept his arms tight around the other boy's waist — being doubled on a pony was not like riding a broomstick! "Has Uncle Sev taken you there yet?"
"Unc- ah, he took me there last night."
"Roses or lilies?"
Harry clutched tighter as the pony took the curves in the river bank like a dodgem car. "R- roses."
"When Mum brought me and Eru back for the first time she got Uncle Sev to take us up to the pool with her. She put lilies in. That was to, like, say that she was back home. Lilies for girls, roses for boys. Dunno why. But apparently Grandmother has her quirks. She..." Chad wrapped his hands in the thick white mane as Solomon decided to charge up a bank. The pony stopped at the top, puffing and admiring the view down the valley while the boys pulled themselves back up towards the head end of the horse. "She likes the flowers to be white, that's all."
"How do you know all of this?"
Solomon shook his head and snorted great gusts of steam.
"Mum told me."
"Is it true?"
"Dunno. But if it is then the world's a better place, and I get to be one of the special people." Chad flashed his trademark grin back over his shoulder as he nudged Solomon into a walk. "You too, now. Grandmother Taniwha has accepted you, so that kind of makes you family, bro'."
"Cool." Harry grinned.
"Mind you, you would've been family anyway, seeing as how you're some sort of cousin to Uncle Sev."
Harry didn't know what to say to that. "Um..."
"...But you're not really, are you," Chad said with a shrug. "Don't worry, if he wants people to think that you're family then that secret's safe with me. I know he seems a bit weird sometimes, but Uncle Sev always has his reasons and they've always been good ones."
"You trust him?"
Chad tensed, his shoulders squaring — for the first time taking offence. Solomon tossed his head and snorted again. "You don't? Then what the hell are you doing here?"
"No, I don't trust him. But he's looking after me for... for a friend of ours." Although Snape and a friend of ours together in the same thought was enough to give Harry a headache. "I can't tell you why, Professor Snape'll get really mad and..."
"'Professor Snape?' Geez, now I know you're not related. If you call him Professor, that must mean you're from that weird school of his, um... something to do with pigs?"
"Hogwarts," Harry replied stiffly.
"Sorry, didn't mean to rubbish your school. I'm sure it's a great place and all..."
Harry didn't like the unspoken implication. "But...?"
"But Maman and Mum and Uncle Wirimu all say that it was the biggest mistake ever when Old Snape sent Severus away to school. They reckon it changed him. He used to be really quiet and guarded when he came back for holidays, even with Maman and Mum, and then one year... one year he didn't come back at all. Didn't come back for ages. Not until his father died about eight years ago. Then he came back and tidied up the cottage. Maman told me all about it — Mum was living up in Auckland at the time, you see, and I was just a boy. So what's your school like really?"
Harry shrugged. Chad obviously knew about Hogwarts and had a strong opinion on it. Not an opinion that Harry felt was justified, but he had spent enough time around Ron in a prickly mood to guess that Chad was being negative about Hogwarts as some sort of payback for Harry's subtle objection to Snape. That there were people here who took a bad word against Snape as a personal insult was yet another strike against any normality this country might want to lay claim to. Harry tucked that away for further consideration because he wanted to be friends with Chad. And he wouldn't make a friend out of Chad by insulting his friends and family.
Even though Snape had warned Harry against talking about his background, Harry decided that there wasn't that much more trouble he could get into. Besides, apart from the fact that Chad already knew quite a bit, he had the feeling he could trust the other boy, and he desperately wanted to talk to someone. "It's the best place in the world," he said truthfully. "What do you know about it?"
"I know that it's where Uncle Sev was sent to be a learn to be a wizard..."
"You know about... um...?"
"Magic?" Chad snorted, sounding briefly like Solomon. "Maman's a witch. Mum got a letter inviting her to Beauxbatons, and so did I — oh, and I got one for Hogwarts seeing as Dad's a pom — but she reckoned that after a foreign school turned Uncle Sev so sour there was no way any others in the family were going to go. Uncle Wiri went to Beauxbatons for a few months, but when he got home at Christmas my Gran took one look at him and said, 'Boy, you're going back to France over my dead body.' Eru and I have mostly been home schooled."
Harry opened his mouth, but Solomon started to walk again. How Chad was controlling the animal was a mystery. The reins were held loosely in Chad's hands and Harry had the sense that the pony was finding its own way. "You don't want to go to a magic school? Not even Hogwarts?"
"Nah. I'm happy here. The school we go to teaches normal stuff as well as a bit of magic stuff depending on what tutors are around. And I'm learning heaps. We have our own magic in this part of the world, and Uncle Sev tutors me and Eru when he's home."
"Isn't Eru too young?"
Chad threw a surprised look over his shoulder. "You mean you don't learn early?"
"How early is early?"
"Ummm... let's see... When I was Eru's age I could summon stuff — y'know, accio this, accio that? I was learning some chants to summon some of the basic land spirits — tell you what, those are great when you get lost, aren't they?" Luckily he didn't wait for a reply: Harry had no idea what he meant by 'chants.' "And I could make some of the medicines for the sheep — although Uncle Wiri won't use them, 'cos I made a batch that turned the flock purple — and I was resisting Imperio, and ..."
"It was an accident... well, maybe I just wanted to see how Uncle Wiri would react if I turned the sheep ..."
"No, not the sheep, the Imperious!"
"Can't you shake it off?"
"Yes, but who taught you to?"
"Uncle Sev, of course. Mum said he should do it. She said that if she ever started using Imperio on us kids she'd never stop when she wanted the dishes done."
Harry was shocked, furious and disgusted, all at once. How dare Snape use one of the Unforgivables, and on a child? He was also a little jealous. Chad had been learning magic years longer than Harry. "But Imperio's illegal."
"Really? Maybe where you come from. We don't tend to classify spells the same way down here. Our magic's a bit different, and you're damned well expected to cope with the crap it can send you. What are the other illegal spells?"
"The Cruciatis and Avada Kedavra."
"Can't do Cruciatis. I know about it, but I don't want to learn it. No point, really, as I'm not a sick son-of-a-bitch; and I can't see Sev trying it out on anyone just to teach them to get used to it. Not Uncle Sev, especially after... ah, what was the other one... I forgot."
Harry doubted Chad had forgotten, but respected his right to change the subject. "Avada Kedavra? The killing curse."
"Oh, really? Uncle Wiri can do that one. Green light. I saw him once after a sheep had been ripped up by dogs. Nasty stuff."
"Yeah. It's such a simple-looking curse..."
"No, I mean the sheep. It was in agony. Wiri's the best when it comes to vet magic, but this one was beyond him. It was dying anyway, so Wiri just... put it out of its misery. Avada Kedavra's nifty like that. Hey, what's wrong?" Chad gasped, finding it hard to breathe.
Harry loosened the hold that was suffocating Chad, but he could hardly speak to explain. "Um... that was the curse that killed my mum."
There was a brief but heavy silence. "Oh, hell. I'm sorry. Here I am yapping on about sheep and 'nifty' curses and you've... God. Sorry, Harry. I'll just shut up now."
"No. No, it's not your fault. You didn't kill them, it's just that..." Harry took a deep breath. "It's not considered a nice spell where I come from."
They rode on without talking. After a few minutes the silence became awkward; Harry was remembering things he didn't want to, and by the set of Chad's shoulders, Chad was feeling wretched. More to break the silence than from actual curiosity, Harry asked; "But you could learn Crucio if you wanted to?"
"I guess. I could ask Uncle Sev; but can you imagine the look he'd give me?"
Harry could imagine quite a few of Snape's darker expressions.
"He'd be so disappointed that I'd just ask."
Nope, that wasn't a Snape-look Harry was familiar with. "Yes, I suppose so. Do you know Imperio?"
"It took me a while. Eru can do it — he's a really quick learner. We practise on each other. Such a laugh. You put the Imperious on your brother and make him do stuff and he's got to guess what or who you're imagining. Mum and Uncle Wiri love it when we imitate celebrities."
Harry was trying not to go into culture shock. "But you can fight it?"
"Sure! The trick to the game is to know that you're under the spell and go along with it until you can't be bothered anymore."
"So it's just a game?"
"Hey, don't sound so scandalised. It comes in handy."
Harry found that hard to believe, and said as much.
"Okay," said Chad, "Here's an example. Last winter Eru was riding Solly back from school alone because I'd come down with bronchitis, and some guy in a car stopped and asked him if he'd like a ride. Eru's not dumb, and he said no, piss off. The guy turns out to be a wizard, and puts Imperio on Eru to get him into the car. Eru had just learned to cast off the impulsion, luckily. So he acts like he's stunned. When the guy gets out of his car Eru spins Solly around and Solly kicks him back into the car. Guy gets knocked out and Eru boots it for home. He was too freaked out to say anything for days, but when he did, hoo boy. Mum hit the roof. She sent out Sev and Wiri to track the bastard down. Don't know what they did to him, but it must have been something pretty good, because Mum calmed down again. We were really proud of Eru, aye."
"I bet," Harry said softly. After a while spent in heavy thought, he added, "It's weird hearing about anything good to do with the Unforgivables, though. We're not allowed to learn them."
"No? Uncle Sev could cast all three before he went to Hogwarts. I don't think he was interested in the Cruciatis, but his dad made him learn."
Harry had never thought of Snape having a father. It was easier thinking of him emerging fully-formed from a bottomless pit. "That's a bit weird, isn't it?"
"His dad was a certifiable loony. That's what Wiri reckons. Sev never talks about his parents. Mum neither — I don't think she liked Old Snape much. Maman said that the most time Sev spent with him was at his funeral. Uncle Sev spent most of his time running around in the hills. Didn't you know that?"
"I... don't know much about his background, only that he came to Hogwarts knowing more about the Dark Arts than any other student and most of the teachers."
"Then I probably shouldn't be talking about him so much. He's pretty private."
"No kidding. But if he was running around wild, what did he eat? Raw sheep?"
"Maybe he did. Nah, look, that was a joke, Harry. He'd come to our house. Sometimes. Sometimes he wouldn't be seen for days. One winter Maman got really worried about him, and when she asked where he'd been staying when the snow fell, he said that he went and stayed with Grandmother."
"Yup. That's where we're going now. The only way to find the pool is to go there with either Uncle Sev or Solomon. They're the only ones that can find the place."
"I'm not sure. I think it has something to do with Sev's mum. His dad was English, of course; that's why he got packed off to your school after the police brought him back from the West Coast one year. His dad must of got sick of people noticing him being a crap father and decided to get Sev out of his hair the best legal way he knew how, so sent him off to boarding school. But Sylvia was a local, even if her ancestors were mainly English. She met Old Snape when she went to Hogwarts. Got married, came back here, had a baby, and she died. Old Snape was really upset. He sold her pony, but Sev tracked him down when he got older and got him back."
"Solomon?" Harry asked, grabbing at a sentence before he could get completely lost in Chad's topsy-turvy narrative.
"Yeah," Chad said, slapping the pony affectionately on the wither. "Solly used to belong to Sylvia, Sev's mum."
"He must be bloody ancient. How long do horses live?"
"Normally only to thirty if they're lucky, but this one... hold on..."
The pony in question slithered down a muddy bank. The ferns were growing to the height of its chest, and Harry and Chad lifted their feet away from the clinging snow. Tree branches swept at their hair and they ducked. Harry was a bit slow. "Ergh. I got snow down my neck."
"Don't worry, we'll be there soon. It always seems to be a different way, though, so... Ah-ha!"
They had arrived.
Across from them was the steep slope Snape had brought Harry down last night. Harry was glad the pony hadn't chosen that way down — they would have broken their necks. In the middle of the clearing, looking just as mysterious in daylight as at night, was Grandmother's Pool.
Harry slid off Solomon. Ouch. Riding a broom wasn't good preparation for riding a horse. Chad landed next to him. "Hey," Harry exclaimed, "what're you doing?"
Chad was taking the bridle off the pony. "What does it look like?"
"It looks like you're letting the pony go and we don't know how to find our way back from here!"
"Relax," Chad chuckled. "He's not leaving us. I'm just letting him have some kai — uh, that means food."
Indeed, the pony began scraping away the snow with a shaggy forefoot, uncovering the dry grass underneath.
"Come on, I've got to give Grandmother a present."
Any snow that had fallen here was a thin covering that disappeared as they reached the pool. The two boys knelt on the rock. "Here we go," said Chad. He took a folded piece of white paper out of his jacket pocket and pulled at it a little. It curled and shook itself into shape.
"It's a swan!"
"You like it?" Chad was ginning.
"It's cool! Did you make it?"
"Yup. I promised Grandmother that if it snowed just enough to get me out of school I'd bring Solly up to visit her." He leaned forward and gently placed the swan on the black water. "There we go. I hope you like it, Grandmother."
Small eddies drew the paper swan into the middle of the pool, where it swam around as if alive.
Harry dipped his finger into the water. "Mm, warm. Can we swim here?"
Chad looked shocked. "You've got to be joking!"
"No. Why not?"
"Um. It's... it's not something we do."
"Look, it's just not a good thing to do, okay?"
"But the horse is drinking from it." Harry pointed to where Solly's velvety nose was ruffling the waters.
"He's Solomon. He's allowed."
"What about Snape?"
Chad tucked his knees up to his chest and scowled at Harry. "I think I've said too much about him. And if you're calling him 'Snape' then I'm not sure how friendly you are to him."
"We're not best friends."
"Then why are you here?"
"Not by choice. Because I have to be. Because it's safer here than... um.... Harry felt like he'd suddenly become Hagrid: I prob'ly shouldn't'a said that.
"If he brought you here then he must really want you to be kept safe," said Chad. "You must have some powerful enemies."
"Um," Harry said miserably. He felt like he was losing his one friend in this weird country.
"Not that crazy old bastard... what's his name... Mouldy Wart?"
"Muh — Mouldy...?"
"Yeah. Some mad bugger who wants to take over the world."
Harry burst out laughing. "Mouldy Wart! I love it! It's so, so... it's so him."
Chad chuckled, and then everything was alright again.
Harry trailed his fingers in the inky water and watched his reflection. "This water is so dark. Last night I thought... well, I thought that it was just dark because it was night. But it's more than that."
"Uh-huh. It's always like this." Chad scooped some water up in his hands where it glimmered clear as crystal and let it trickle back through his fingers. "And it's always the same temperature. Uncle Sev says it's really hot towards the middle, so hot you feel like you're being cooked. But if you dive down it suddenly turns cold."
"He's swum here?"
"When he was a kid."
"So if it's okay for him to swim in the pool, why not us?"
Chad grinned slyly. "Say out loud: 'I want to go swimming here'."
"Well, I do. I want to go swimming here."
The waters rippled. There was the sense of an inhuman displeasure sweeping out of the mist. Despite himself, Harry couldn't help cowering down on the rock. Next to him, Chad was doing the same.
"Sorry, Grandmother," Chad called out quickly. "I was trying to teach Harry about you. We meant no disrespect!"
The mist swirled. There was a feeling like something had growled, and all the hairs stood up on the back of Harry's neck, then the pool stilled.
Chad mimed wiping sweat off his forehead and grinned. But his face was pale under his freckles and the grin was a bit shaky. Harry felt just the same.
"So why do you call it Grandmother Taniwha?" Harry asked as they rode away from the pool. The two boys had spent most of the early afternoon trailing sticks in the water and talking about soccer, which Chad loved, and Quidditch, which Harry loved. Harry had had to explain about how to ride a broom, Chad never having ridden one. After the earlier scare from the mist Harry had been pleased to talk about sports. But now, with the sun shining down and sparkling from the ice crystals in the trees, it was easier to talk about strange creatures and mysterious pools. "What does 'taniwha' mean, anyway?"
"A taniwha is a water monster. Usually. Sometimes they can live in the air or the rocks or even in a volcano. There are lots of them in this country."
"Sna- Pro- ah, Severus—" now that felt really wrong, calling Snape by his first name "—he said that it was an elemental."
"Yes. Elementals, fairies, monsters— all boils down to the same sort of stuff. Non-human intelligences or beings with emotions that predate human colonisation."
"Wow. That sounded technical."
Chad grinned back at Harry. "I've been reading books. Me speak good England."
Harry laughed. "Me reckon."
"Now you're getting the hang of it. Anyway, a taniwha is a particular kind of elemental. You get good ones and bad ones, but mostly you get ones that don't really give a stuff about us so long as we leave them alone. Then you get the curious ones."
"Like Grandmother Taniwha?"
"That's right. We call her Grandmother because there's a legend about how she decided to become human once. She turned into a beautiful woman — of course, I mean you never get stories about a good person who looked like a dog's bum, do you? — and went for a walk. She walked over the hills and through the valleys until she got hungry. Then she sat down and lit a fire and cooked some pigeons to eat. A man saw the fire and went to see who it was. He tried to talk to her. I guess if you saw some gorgeous naked chick who could cook you'd stop and say hi too. Anyway. She didn't know any human words, so he spent the night teaching her to speak. Not all they were doing, though, 'cos by the next morning she was pregnant." Chad snickered. "Luckily the bloke was really keen on her, even if she was a bit weird, and they got married. They lived together happily to the end of his days. When he died, she went back to her pool and turned back into a taniwha. Legend has it that she still looks after the people she chooses to, like my family."
"Of course. His mum's people lived in this area for generations. Kind of shy about their wizardry, though. Tended to keep themselves to themselves. Sev's the last of that line, which is a shame, as he's pretty powerful. My family's been around for years — French and Maori blood, as well as Scottish. More French than Scottish, I guess, or Mum'd have been sent letters from Hogwarts instead of Beauxbatons."
"The families must have been pretty close if you call Snape — uh, Severus, your uncle."
"No, that's because him and Mum are sort of like brother and sister. Mum's only a few hours older. After Sev's own mum died, my granny was his nurse. Mum calls Severus her milk brother and Wiri her stupid brother. Uncle Sev lived with my family until he was about three, and then his dad took him away. Granny was really upset. Mum still remembers her crying."
"That was a bit mean of Old Snape."
"Sour old bastard by all accounts. Glad Uncle Sev takes after his mum. She was a sweetie, Maman says."
Harry wisely changed the subject before his tongue could get him into trouble. "Who's Maman?"
"My mother's mother's mother."
"Wow! You have a great-grandmother? That's so cool!"
"Don't you? Wizarding families usually live for yonks."
"My family's all dead."
Harry felt Chad tense up again. "Geez... me and my big mouth... again. Sorry Harry. Um... if it's any help, my family's always keen on having new honorary members...?"
Harry blinked away tears. Chad reminded him so much of Ron. "Thanks. I've already kind of got one, but I'm always open to more offers."
"Cool. Tell me about your honorary family."
Chad was a good listener. The rest of the ride was spent with Harry talking about the Weasleys and Hermione.
Chapter Three: Little Impulse
"Uncle Sev! Uncle Sev! We're back!" Chad pushed Harry in through the door of the cottage and bounded in after him.
"I would never have guessed." Snape was sitting in a chair next to the stove with an open book in his lap, feet in socks up on a coffee table. The chair was ragged up one side, suggesting that Snape had a pet cat that used the chair for a scratching post. Given the way the stuffing had been pulled out in places, Harry wouldn't have been surprised to find out that Snape had a pet leopard.
Chad grinned. "Solly took us over to Grandmother's Pool. Harry said he was going to have a swim, and Grandmother got annoyed..." Chad trailed off.
Snape's expression was a familiar one to Harry: barely restrained fury. "Did I or did I not give you a talk about respect for elementals?" he said in his silkiest voice, the one that meant Harry was about to send Gryffindor into minus points.
"Uh, it was my fault," said Chad, shuffling his feet. "I was trying to explain about how it's a bad idea to go swimming there and I told Harry to—" He stopped talking and looked down, his cheeks going red. "Sorry," he muttered. "It was a stupid thing."
"Then why did you do it?"
Harry didn't envy Chad the piercing glare the other boy was getting from Snape.
"I wanted him to know that Grandmother was real, I guess."
"And do you, Mister Potter?"
"There's certainly something there. I felt it." Harry tried to deflect some of Snape's anger from his friend. "But as soon as Chad apologised it calmed down."
Snape's eyes pinned the two of them to the spot for several long seconds. "I suppose—" he began grudgingly "—that it was an effective lesson. And you, Mister Potter, you will not be doing anything so foolish again during your stay, will you?" It was a statement, not a question.
"I am disappointed in you, Chad. I had thought you would know better than to provoke a taniwha, especially when someone ignorant of their ways and purposes is in your care."
Chad was almost in tears. "I'm sorry," he whispered. "I won't do it again, I promise."
"I should hope you wouldn't. Now, if you two are quite finished with playing around in the snow, there is some work to be done. Chad, we could use your help. Have you put a blanket on Solomon?"
"I'll do it now." Chad shot out the door like a cork from a bottle.
"Mister Potter, it may be wise to put on your school robes. This could get messy. And aware as I am of your skills, I amend that prediction to will get messy."
Harry groaned inwardly. This was going to involve potions, he just knew it. He climbed into the attic and got changed into his robes.
His scarf was disappearing out the window. He made a grab for it. Something pulled at it. "Give it back!" He yanked and fell backwards as the scarf was suddenly freed. There was a scrabbling on the roof.
"What's going on up there?" Snape shouted.
"Something tried to take my scarf!" Harry poked his head out the window and got hit with a face-full of snow.
"Do you require help dressing yourself, Mister Potter?"
Harry shook the snow out of his eyes. "Something was stealing my scarf! Then it threw snow at me!"
Muttered curses came from Snape's direction. Harry heard the door open and Snape yelling: "Chad! What are you playing at?"
Whatever Chad's reply was, it came from the other side of the house to Harry's window. There were more mutterings from Snape, then, "Potter, stop wasting time, close the window, and get down here!"
Slamming the window harder than necessary, Harry obeyed.
It was almost like Potions class again. The one important difference, to Harry's mind, was that Snape couldn't take points off Gryffindor. He wasn't his usual snarky self, either, although his sarcasm hadn't completely abated.
"Chad, did I say boil those comfrey roots?"
"Sorry." Chad turned down the Bunsen burner.
Another important difference was that there was no magic involved. The only thing that came close had been the entrance to the laboratory. Snape had tapped on a tile in the kitchen floor in a particular way, and blue light had shimmered up and into a door. When they walked through it, Harry had found himself in a new room that couldn't possibly have fitted into Snape's cottage using known laws of physics.
They were making medicine for sheep. Chad seemed to be enjoying himself, not taking Snape's comments as anything other than constructive criticism. Harry was astonished, but not so astonished that he forgot to pay attention. Maybe Snape liked Chad (as much as he was capable of affection, that was), but he sure as Dumbledore had a beard didn't like Harry. It was a fairly easy potion, so much so that Harry wondered why Snape hadn't made it himself. The only tricky bit was the fine paring of the skin from the pennyroyal roots. That required nimble fingers as the presence of any vascular tissue would ruin the medicine. Snape's fingers were certainly clever — Harry had seen them at work often enough to have a grudging respect for the Potions master working his craft. Today Snape seemed reluctant to even touch a knife and kept his hands tucked inside his robes.
Before it cooled they had to bottle it and seal the lids with wax, carefully melting the sealing wax with the Bunsen. They filled six bottles, and Snape looked pleased. "That should take care of any epidemics Wirimu decides to have this winter."
"He said he's trying to cut down on epidemics this year," Chad said with a grin.
Snape smirked. "After last year I certainly hope so. Did he have much trouble with facial eczema?"
"That's a sheep thing," Chad said to Harry. Harry guessed he must have shown his revulsion. "Uncle Wiri doesn't get any kind of eczema."
"No," Snape said, "but we live in hope."
Chad laughed. "You're so mean."
Harry nearly choked on his tongue.
"Well," Snape replied calmly, "I do have to keep my skills honed, and Wiri may not be much but he makes an adequate whetstone."
Harry was looking forward to meeting Chad's family.
An hour later, Harry's hopes were fulfilled. He was sitting in a cosy room with a blazing fire nearby. The logs on the fire were giving out a pleasant resinous smell, and crackled. It was a comfortable reminder of the Gryffindor dormitory. Eru was slowly overcoming his shyness and Chad had to keep the young boy from demonstrating his magic skills. "Uncle Sev says us kids have a No Magic ban on us this evening," Chad hissed.
Eru looked downcast. "Aw-ww... why not?"
"Maybe another time," Harry said to keep the peace. Why not, indeed? And why was it just Chad and Eru who couldn't use magic here? Could Voldemort trace Harry through someone nearby using magic? That was a new and disquieting thought. Harry decided to ask about that later.
Snape had disappeared into the kitchen with Rona, Chad and Eru's mother. From the plaid-blanket covered couch by the door, Harry could hear one of the strangest conversations he'd ever heard in his life.
"No, 'dunderheads' is my stock insult. Yours is 'bottom-feeding mouth breathers.'"
"I need some variety."
"Well, tough. 'Dunderheads' is out of character for you. Admittedly 'mouth-breathers' would neatly encompass the majority of my students, but it wouldn't be credible as part of my lexicon."
"Anyone who uses 'lexicon' in a sentence wouldn't suit using 'mouth-breathers.' Besides, that's too mean to use on children— Oh, Sev, don't tell me that's giving you ideas! Stick with 'dunderheads.' It's served you well, and I can't really use it on advertising executives. Not modern enough. Plus they probably wouldn't understand it, or would think it's a reference to their hair-cuts. At least your students don't require you to speak with the latest buzz-words."
"I believe that it would give the student body a collective apoplexy should I start a class by 'getting down with my homies from the hood.'"
Chad nudged Harry. "Don't worry about them. Every year, it's the same. They rehearse their insults, try out new ones, and divvy up the best of the new between them. Sev takes the more traditional-sounding ones and Mum takes the ones better suited for a business table."
"Chad! Eru! Set the table."
"Can I help?" Harry asked.
"Bless you, lambikins, you're a guest!" Maman was elderly, as Harry had expected, with a face creased, browned and weathered by High Country weather and smiles. Unlike the older witches Harry had met, she seemed to prefer wool trousers in dark charcoal with a cream silk shirt. There was a small gold locket around her neck, heightening the image of a standard grandmother. She was arranging jonquils in a vase. Their perfume filled the room. "But if you want to, you can put out the knives and forks. Chad, show him where they are."
The good table settings were in a massive oak sideboard, tall and dark and imposing, that was probably even older than Maman. The silverware was real silver ("Yeah, and I have to polish it," grumbled Chad) and the porcelain was Wedgwood. All of it old, all of it serviceable, and all of it in perfect condition. "I'm scared I'll break something," Harry whispered to Chad.
Chad snorted. "The number of times I've smashed this plate —" he waved one around for emphasis "— and Wiri or Sev have fixed it before Maman could notice, you can count on the fingers of the hands of everyone in your school. Sev said we couldn't use magic— I dunno about Uncle Wiri—"
That was a relief. Snape probably wouldn't care if Harry got in Maman's bad books, but Wirimu was as easy-going as Chad and, despite Rona calling him her "stupid brother", didn't seem at all stupid. Harry decided that if something happened, he would ask Wirimu.
There was a crash from the kitchen. "God-dammit, Wiri, will you go and wash up in the laundry where you're supposed to?" Rona.
"The water's all cold in there." Wiri
"Stop being such a wuss." Snape. "You can shield your magic and warm some water. Are you or are you not a wizard?"
"You don't seem to think I am."
A snort from Snape. "So prove me wrong."
"Children! Stop fighting!" Maman, from where she sat by the fire cutting up flower stems to the length of her liking. "Don't make me come in there, or there'll be tears before bedtime!"
"Sorry Maman!" chorused the three in the kitchen.
"Table's ready. Where's my dinner?" Now Maman sounded like a querulous old woman, an act Harry didn't believe for a moment.
"Coming, Maman!" Rona called out. She muttered something else and Snape snickered.
"I heard that," the old woman said sternly, winking at Chad, Eru and Harry as she put the vase on the sideboard. "No respect amongst the younger generation."
"Tell me about it," grumbled Snape but, to Harry and Chad's relief, he didn't follow that comment up with the story of the boys' visit to Grandmother's Pool.
Because Harry managed to snag the chair furthest from Snape, he had a wonderful dinner. Over the roast lamb, sweet potatoes and minted peas, Wiri told them the gossip from Harridale Station. He had just spent the past week up there helping gather in and treat strays that had been missed in the autumn muster, and the meat on the table was from one that had been caught in a snowdrift and been deemed better to eat than nurse back to health. But because he told his stories about the various people up at the station in a way that turned gossip into proper narrative, Harry didn't feel excluded.
However Rona's gossip about people she knew in the cities of Christchurch and Wellington was slyly malicious in a way that reminded Harry of Snape in a quixotic mood, and most of it went over Eru's head. But Harry and Chad caught most of Rona's innuendo, and managed to laugh at most of the right places. When Rona talked about catching one of her staff standing on the middle of the boardroom table singing "You Are So Beautiful," Chad nearly choked with laughter when some roast potato went down the wrong way. Snape had to slap the boy on the back.
"You're looking much better, Severus," Maman said as the dessert was served. "The rest has done you good."
"Will you be staying into spring?" Wiri asked. "It's been ages since you've spent enough time home to catch some sun, and I could use some help through the lambing season."
"I'm not sure..." Snape busied himself with dessert, obviously uncomfortable with the line of questioning.
Rona asked Harry to pass the fruit salad. "I was talking to Maureen today. She mentioned you had a nephew or cousin or something staying with you. What do you want us to tell people?"
"Tell them that it's none of their damned business," Snape replied silkily.
Snape sighed. "Sorry, Maman. But I've already told them that Harry's my cousin's son. They're just fishing for information."
"Because they care about you," countered Rona.
Snape glowered at his bowl.
"Well," Wiri said before the silence could get uncomfortable, "seeing as how Grandmother Taniwha has accepted Harry, it doesn't matter if he's kin or not. You're welcome here any time, lad," he added kindly to Harry.
"Thank you. I, I really appreciate it."
"Great. So come down some time and I'll teach you some real magic, not that rubbish Sev's been teaching you."
"I seem to recall that it was my 'rubbish' that re-grew your hair after your 'real magic' turned you bald and green."
Wiri sighed. "You know too many stories about me, Sev."
Rona grinned, her dark eyes gleaming. "And he'll use them, too, if you annoy him too much."
"Really'" exclaimed Eru. "Can you tell us some, Uncle Sev? Please?"
"If you're good."
Wiri groaned again. "Not the one with Penny McKinley, Sev. For the love of God. They're too young for that one."
Snape leaned over to Eru. "I'll tell you that one when you turn sixteen. Tonight I'll tell you the one about the time Wiri tried to juggle eels."
Harry woke up early the next morning. Saturday. Chad had promised to teach him snowboarding today. But it was still way too early to get up. And cold. Harry snuggled back down under the duvet. What had woken him?
A scratching on the window.
Bracing himself against the cold, Harry opened the window.
A flurry of white flew into the room.
"Hedwig!" It was a shame owls couldn't be cuddled, thought Harry. He wanted no more than to wrap his arms around the beautiful Snowy, but knew she wouldn't like it. He let her perch on his arm and stroked her feathers instead. "It's so good to see you. You must have come a terribly long way — all the way to the other side of the world."
She nibbled tiredly on his finger. Something brushed Harry's bare wrist. A letter. It wasn't addressed, but if it was tied to Hedwig there was no-one else it could be meant for than Harry. Maybe it was from Sirius! He opened it, the seal snapping and letting out a few sparks as it broke.
The letter read:
To: Professor Severus Snape, (Harry's face fell) C/- Mister Harry Potter (that put an evil grin back on Harry's face).
Dear Severus (bleah, thought Harry — obviously the letter hadn't been written by Sirius Black), I regret to inform you that your most recent batch of Wolfsbane potion has been destroyed by Peeves the poltergeist. As Remus Lupin's skills are a vital part of the Order of the Phoenix, his continued involvement is vital. Unless he is rendered harmless by the potion he will not be able to stay at Hogwarts due to the presence here of so many children over these holidays. Please send replacement by return owl as soon as possible.
The letter was unsigned, but Harry recognised Dumbledore's writing. Oh no! Poor Remus, he thought. "Stay here, Hedwig, I'll get you some food."
The owl chirruped, turning her head half a circle to watch him as he shot down the ladder.
At the door to Snape's bedroom, Harry hesitated before knocking. Snape was probably still asleep, but... How long did it take to make the potion, anyway' Snape might get mad if he was woken, but then again, maybe he would get mad if he wasn't told about this.
Actually, Harry reasoned, Snape would get mad regardless. And if Harry woke him up then it meant that he, Harry, wouldn't be the one worrying about Remus any more. Something moved out of the corner of his eye. Had he really seen it? It had been something small. Harry bent and peered under the table, but the curtains were still drawn and it was hard to see anything. Rat? He shivered, more in anger than in fear, at the thought of Wormtail being inside the cottage. He knocked on the wooden door.
He knocked again, louder and longer. Given how easily Snape picked up the slightest whisper in the classroom, he shouldn't be so hard to wake up.
Harry knocked again. Still no answer. He was starting to grow worried. If something went wrong with Snape, what was he meant to do?
Summoning up all his Gryffindor bravery, Harry opened the door.
It was dark inside — no surprise; the curtains were drawn and it wasn't really sunrise yet anyway. Snape was asleep, not dead like Harry had at first feared. He seemed to be dreaming, his head moving slightly. Harry could hear him breathing, short and fast like he was running.
"Professor? Wake up. You're dreaming. Professor!" Snape seemed stuck in his dream. Harry went over and put his hand on his teacher's shoulder, shaking the man lightly. "Professor Snape! Wake up!"
In a flurry of movement, Harry was on the floor with Snape's hand gripping his throat.
"P- P- Professor..!" Harry couldn't believe how strong Snape was. He could hardly breathe. Snape's eyes were as wide and bottomless as the monster's pool, looking straight through Harry and into horrors Harry couldn't guess at. "Professor!" Harry struggled, pulling at Snape's wrist. He struck out against the man's forearm, and a sharp pain stabbed from his scar. The pain must have resonated in Snape, because his black eyes suddenly snapped back to reality, seemingly bewildered to find Harry lying on the floor and being choked to death by himself.
He let go of Harry.
"Mister Potter," he hissed, pale and sweating, a vein throbbing in his temple. "You will have a good explanation for this, this... intrusion."
Harry sat up, rubbing his throat, glaring back at Snape. "And you will have a good explanation for trying to kill me?" He regretted his outburst immediately at the cold expression that settled over Snape's features, making him seem uglier than ever. He sighed. "I just got this letter. Hedwig woke me up with it."
Snape looked him over, and Harry was aware of how his hair must be standing up in all directions, and how he was sitting on a sheepskin rug in a teacher's bedroom in pyjamas and dressing gown, and with bare feet. Hardly proper. He handed Snape the letter, almost defiantly. "It's from Dumbledore."
Snape scanned it quickly. "It's not signed by Dumbledore."
Thinking back to the note that had accompanied his invisibility cloak, Harry decided not to comment about how Dumbledore didn't seem to sign many letters. He rubbed at his scar.
"Is your scar bothering you?"
"Not at the moment."
"Then at which particular moment did it bother you?"
Snape's patience, probably already on a short fuse, wasn't something Harry wanted to test further at this precise time. "When I hit your arm."
Snape twitched. "Yes," he said tonelessly, rubbing his left forearm. "You must have woken me properly when you hit the Dark Mark."
Harry shivered. "I'm sorry. I tried to wake you but... um."
"Quite." Snape closed his eyes and wiped at his forehead tiredly. "I... apologise for my outburst. Now go and put the kettle on."
Harry shot out into the kitchen. Snape had apologised.
The world was coming to an end.
The world was coming to an end, complete with bossy parrots.
At least, Harry thought it was a parrot. The bird, a little smaller than Hedwig, was sitting on the wood basket next to the wood burner stove. It wasn't colourful like a parrot should be, although it was a dull olive green and had some red feathers under its wings which he saw when it flapped them at him. But it did have a wickedly curved beak. Harry had never before thought of parrots as being particularly threatening birds, but this one gaped its beak at him in a manner that couldn't be seen as anything other than a warning. Funny that he had never noticed just how big parrots' beaks looked before. Or how strong. Or how sharp. If this one didn't bite right through his finger, it looked capable of stripping the flesh from the bone with one swipe.
"Shoo, you stupid bird!"
Harry tried moving closer to the stove, but the bird hissed at him, and moved to jump off its perch.
As if the day couldn't get more complicated. How had it got inside? Had it come in through the window Harry had left open? If he didn't get the jug on, Snape wouldn't get his coffee. If Snape didn't get his coffee, the world, as far as Harry Potter was concerned, could end and good riddance to it. Even the Slytherins went in fear of a coffee shortage at Hogwarts. Rumour had it that it was traditional for that House to give Snape a year's supply of Blue Mountain Troll blend for Christmas. Dobby the house elf had told Harry Potter Sir that Dumbledore had given them strict instructions that, even in the midst of an attack by You-Know-Who, the Potions master must have his coffee. Harry privately thought Dumbledore had been joking, but this morning he didn't want to test the theory. Especially since he had once overheard McGonagall telling Hagrid that, in the event of Voldemort attacking the school, they could withhold coffee and use Snape as a grenade. Hagrid had countered that it sounded more like Muggle biological warfare, and would be against the Geneva Conversation.
Flapping a tea-towel at the feathered nuisance didn't shift it either. Harry stepped back to assess the situation.
The situation was, as far as he could see it: Harry Potter, bane of Voldemort's existence, Quidditch seeker par excellance, was in a stand-off with a parrot.
I am the human here. I can out-think a feather-duster. He managed to snag a twig from the pile of kindling and poked it at the bird, who grabbed it in the powerful beak and bit it into two, spitting out the pieces in front of Harry as if to say, "Well?"
Maybe he could throw a blanket over it. That way he could wrap it up and throw it outside before Snape got up and demanded coffee. There was a thick blue-and-white striped blanket over the couch — Ravenclaw colours should be appropriate for dealing with birds, Harry thought wildly, although why Snape had it in his cottage was up for debate. Holding the blanket in front of him like a matador's cape, Harry advanced on the bird.
It jumped off the basket and scuttled towards him. Harry yelped and jumped, throwing the blanket. The blanket missed the bird but did a spectacular job of wrapping itself around his ankles. Harry hit the ground with a thump that shook the crockery in the shelves on the walls.
When he got his breath back, he opened his eyes.
There was that bloody bird — right in front of him. It cocked its head quizzically, staring at him from out of dark eyes. It chirruped doubtfully. "Happy'" Harry gasped angrily.
"Chirrulirrul." It ground its beak and strutted around on its funny parrot-feet, claws clicking on the bare wood, and staying just out of reach. "Chirril'"
Harry sat up and unwrapped the blanket. "Whatever. I suppose you thought that was funny!"
"No. But she is worried that you've hurt yourself."
Damn. Snape was up. Harry looked over to see that the professor had managed to get dressed in the time Harry had been playing Intrepid Bird Baiter. "Well, you can tell her I'm fine."
"Stand up and she can work that out for herself."
Snape strode over to the stove and crouched down to open the door. After shooting a cautionary look at Harry, the parrot waddled over and began to tug at the cuffs of Snape's jeans. Harry grinned.
Snape picked up the bird with both hands and placed it back on the basket. "I'm not going to burn myself," he said to it. The bird muttered darkly, grinding its beak as Snape put fresh wood into the stove and poked at the embers to stir the fire back into life.
When Harry stood up the bird bobbed up and down uneasily but settled down again when he moved away from the stove. "It seems to think that it owns the stove."
"No," said Snape as he stood and dusted off his hands. "She knows that it's dangerous. She didn't want you getting burnt."
Snape gave him A Look. "I hardly 'kid'." He filled the jug with water and put it on the hottest plate. "Her name is Burd Helen. That's B-U-R-D. And she's not meant to be wandering around inside unsupervised."
"She must have come in when I left my window open after letting Hedwig in. Oh — do you have any owl food?"
Snape reached up into a cupboard and pulled out a bag of owl treats.
Owls have excellent hearing. From the attic Hedwig must have heard the rustle of the bag being opened, because she swooped gracefully down through the open trapdoor and landed on Harry's shoulder, pecking his ear when he was too slow. "Ow! Here you go."
Burd Helen flapped up to land on Snape's shoulder, ruffling her feathers at the owl. "Aark!"
Hedwig flapped her wings and hooted.
Harry and Snape grabbed their respective birds before a fight could break out. Hedwig continued to screech angrily from Harry's hold, while Helen squawked between bites at Snape's fingers. But Harry noticed that she didn't draw blood — apparently that fierce-looking beak wasn't necessarily as nasty as it appeared.
"Helen, no," Snape commanded. The parrot subsided, still shooting nasty looks at the owl. Snape smoothed the feathers on her head until she calmed. "Leave the owl alone. She's only visiting. Take your owl outside for a little while and give her some food," he added to Harry.
Standing outside, Harry watched the sun rise from out of the mists on the horizon. Somewhere over there was the sea. Somewhere, a long way away, would be Hogwarts. Not just over the horizon, but over on the other side of the world. "Ow, Hedwig." She had nipped his finger. "Too slow with the owl treats, am I?" But Hedwig was home in a way, and it was like a piece of Hogwarts was here with him now. The Snowy owl flexed her wings and flapped them, her feathers taking on a translucent platinum quality as they filtered the sunlight. Harry exhaled a long plume of steam. Some time soon he would be back on the Hogwarts Express, heading home, and he'd be back with his friends. In the meantime it was a glorious winter morning and he had the most beautiful owl in any country with him. He couldn't wait to show her off to Chad. "You'll like this place," he said to Hedwig, stroking her feathers softly. "There are owls here, Chad says, so there must be good hunting for you, and I think all the owls are smaller than you so you can boss them around." Hedwig started to preen her ruffled feathers. That was a good sign — she was calming down. Harry decided to take her back inside. The morning was beautiful, but it was also very, very cold. He could feel the snow through his boots.
"Can I come back in now?"
"Yes. I've calmed Helen down. How is your owl?"
Harry came inside, shutting the door quickly to keep the heat in. Although by the way the wood stove was roaring away, it was likely that the small room would warm up again rapidly. "I think she was a bit unsettled. She's very tired — you can see that in the way her wing-tips are drooping a little. I never knew an owl could fly so far."
"She's not an ordinary owl otherwise you wouldn't have her as a familiar. I expect it only took her a few hours to get here. Put her up in the attic — there should be perches a-plenty for her. And give her some warmed water in case she's thirsty."
"Okay. Should I leave the window open?"
"Might as well. Owls don't like being penned-up and it's meant to be a fine day today."
Harry only wished the Dursleys were so knowledgeable concerning avicare. Hedwig sat on his shoulder as he climbed up the ladder and arranged a comfortable perch for her with some newspaper underneath. "Have a good sleep, Hedwig," he whispered as she settled down over her feet. "You deserve a good rest." Hedwig meeped at him in a friendly way, yawned, and closed her huge, beautiful eyes.
Downstairs, Snape had a pot of porridge heating on the stove as well as a frying pan. The cast-iron pan was filled with sausages, tomatoes, and bacon. Harry's mouth watered as the aromas hit him.
What didn't bode so well was the sight of Severus Snape sitting at the table, letter in hand and an inscrutably dark expression on his face. His face looked flushed, but that could have been from his usual mood of barely-suppressed homicidal rage.
"What is it, Potter?"
"Can you make the Wolfsbane potion here?"
Snape sneered. "It is one of the most difficult potions in existence. The ingredients are rare and difficult to obtain, let alone store. Luckily, however, I keep in mind that as I am the only credible potions maker available to Hogwarts, and that as the castle is filled with poltergeists, inept teachers, Sirius Black, students, and other such undesirables, it will undoubtedly fall upon me to save the bloody day. I have the raw materials. I certainly have the skill, normally. But—"
Harry said softly, when Snape trailed off, "But you don't look very well."
Snape pinched the bridge of his nose with a hand that trembled slightly. "I seem to be running a fever, yes."
"Will that affect the potion?"
"It will affect my skill, so of course that will affect the potion, stupid boy!"
Harry began to dish up breakfast to give Snape a moment to calm down. He took a few deep breaths himself. The morning hadn't got off to a great start. Thank Merlin — the kettle was starting to whistle. That meant coffee for the surly old— Harry did a mental edit— professor.
Without bothering with something so mundane as flight, Burd Helen climbed up the back of Snape's chair, foot over beak over foot. She reached the top of the high back and began to preen strands of Snape's hair through her beak as the man stared moodily at the piece of parchment. After a while a hand reached back and ruffled her head feathers. Helen nibbled at Snape's hand, pleased with the attention. Apparently she had achieved her aim, because she jumped off her perch.
"Hey! Get out of there, nosy!" Harry scolded. The blasted creature had flapped up into one of the cupboards. From it came rustlings and a "Grrawk!" that clearly said, "Mind your own business, child!" Harry puffed out his cheeks in exasperation. Now he was being told off by some sort of parrot. Said parrot poked her head out of the cupboard. Dangling from her beak was a bag of coffee. Harry caught it as it was dropped and stared up at the parrot, who blinked at him and tilted her head from side to side. "She knows you like coffee?"
"And now she wants to know what you want to drink."
Was Snape having him on? Harry shrugged. "Tea, please Helen." Couldn't hurt to be polite.
Helen rustled around again. Harry tried to see what she was doing, but the cupboard was too high. After a moment, Helen's looked out again, her beak empty. "Rrll?"
"She wants to know if you want Darjeeling, Earl Grey, herbal, or Ceylon tea."
"Tell her 'gumboot tea'."
Okay, Snape was certifiable. Harry decided to play along to keep him in a good mood. "Gumboot tea, please Helen."
Helen came back with a teabag held daintily in her curved beak. She tilted her head to one side. "Brrll?"
There was a decided danger of Harry bursting out laughing. That probably wouldn't make him popular with the parrot — or with Snape, who was sitting with his hand covering the lower half of his face as he watched the performance. "Um. That looks right," Harry said. "Thank you, Helen."
The bird dropped the teabag into Harry's hand and went back to rustling around in the cupboard again. Harry waited. Clunk. Something heavy was being pushed around.
"Get ready," warned Snape.
It was lucky Harry was ready: a jar was pushed through the open door. A heavy jar. Harry's Seeker skills kicked in and he caught it one-handed. It was a large jar of the darkest honey Harry had ever seen.
"Sugar next," Snape commented.
Sure enough, Harry had just put the jar onto the bench when the second jar plummeted. Helen looked out to see that everything was all right, then disappeared again. What now? Harry wondered.
With a brief flurry of wings, Burd Helen returned to her perch behind Snape. She had another teabag in her beak, but this one was reddish-coloured. "Who is that for?" But the kettle was shrilling, and he went to take it off the stove.
Then Helen was at his elbow, taking cups with her beak from the rack between the sink and the stove. Harry wondered if she would drop one, but Snape seemed unconcerned. Rather, the professor was jotting down notes onto a thick pad of paper. Helen used her beak to arrange three cups into a row with the handles all pointing carefully to the right. Then she dropped teabags into two of them. From the dishes drying on the bench, the parrot selected a coffee plunger and matching jug. She waggled her tail and looked up at Harry from her dark eyes, as if to say, "Well, that's my limit. You can take over from here."
"Um, Professor Snape?"
"Hm?" He seemed to be deep in thought.
"She's got three cups ready. I suppose she can't count?"
"She can count quite well. The herbal tea is hers — I don't allow her caffeine."
Harry made the coffee and poured boiling water into the cup with 'his' teabag. He had only poured a little bit into the cup with the dark red teabag when Helen said "Ark!"
"What?" Harry asked her.
"She only needs it filled by a quarter. She does, however, desire one small teaspoon of honey in with her tea."
By the way Helen bobbed up and down when Harry opened the jar, it was clear that she wanted more than one teaspoon. But Snape had said one, and Harry didn't want to poison his bird. "Hey! Give it back!" Harry laughed as Helen dried to drag the lid out of his hand to lick the honey inside. He gave her the spoon instead after he had mixed the honey into her tea. She licked at the remains of the honey on the handle of the spoon enthusiastically with her grey-brown tongue. Harry grinned as he pulled Helen's teabag out of the rich red tea by a tag on a string. "Is there any milk? I'll get it," he added quickly as Snape moved to get up.
"It's in the laundry. There's a cupboard closest to the outside wall."
That made sense. Harry found the milk. It was very cold, as the laundry was on the south side of the cottage, and Harry's breath steamed slightly. There was probably snow behind the wall — Harry was very glad to get back into the warm main room. The carton of milk rattled slightly as he shook it. "I think there's something in here other than milk," he said.
"Ice. Don't worry about it."
But he should have worried about it, Harry thought grimly as cleaned himself up a moment later. He'd accidentally poured the lump of ice into his cup and splashed himself with the tea.
"I'm okay," he told Helen, who was watching him with her head tilted as he fished out the ice and dumped it in the sink. She chirruped comfortingly and for one incongruous moment he was reminded of Mrs Weasley.
"Hot," said the bird. "Hot." She sounded sympathetic.
Snape had made himself his coffee — black with two sugars — and Harry added sugar to what remained of his tea and set about his breakfast. After the time he and Helen had spent making tea, it was starting to get cold. Snape seemed to have got half-way through his before forgetting about it. He seemed intent on his notes now, and Harry wondered just how ill he was. The normally sallow expression was still flushed even though the man seemed calm. Helen sidled over and began pecking at a fried egg on Snape's plate. Almost, Harry used a heating spell, then remembered just in time that not only was he not supposed to be using magic, but Snape didn't know that he had his wand. Harry touched the reassuring solidity of the wand he had in his pyjama pocket. "Is she allowed to eat that?"
Snape started, then looked around. "She can have a little." He held out his hand towards the pot of porridge steaming on the stove; "Acci—" then scowled in recollection as he stood up. It didn't look promising for the potion, Harry thought. Snape was weaving slightly as he moved around the table to give the porridge one last stir before putting it into two bowls. He put a little into a saucer as well as a piece of carrot from the vegetable bin in one of the lower cupboards.
Harry wasn't normally fond of porridge, but during winter it was a food he liked. It seemed to insulate him against the cold. He poured milk on it and sprinkled it with brown sugar.
They ate in silence, punctuated by occasional mutters from Snape and contented bill-grinding from Helen after she had finished her porridge and carrot and wiped her beak on a napkin. She yawned and settled down on the table, content to wait for the two humans to finish and then do something interesting. Harry took the opportunity to study her in closer detail.
She wasn't, as he had first thought, a drab bird. Her feathers were brown-green edged with black over most of her body. Harry stroked her primaries, the feathers towards the ends of the wings, lightly. Helen looked at him and rustled her wings, not quite moving away but suggesting that this was an option should Harry be overly familiar. The primaries were blue on the top surface. But when she had flown to and from the cupboard earlier, he had seen that the undersides of her flight feathers had black and yellow stripes. Hufflepuff colours, Harry thought with a smile he kept private. But the rest of the area beneath her wings, further towards her arm(wing?)pits was coloured a rather pretty scarlet, much brighter than the dark red feathers over her rump. Her eyes weren't black. The irises were dark brown and were rich and surprisingly intelligent in the way they looked back at him— Harry realised he was staring and dropped his eyes apologetically. Then couldn't believe that a parrot had just reminded him of his manners.
"She's not an Animagus, is she?" he blurted out.
Snape looked up, eyebrows raised. "What in Merlin's name brought that question on?"
"Um... she just seems a bit too smart."
Snape didn't smile, but his face relaxed fractionally as he reached over and ruffled the feathers on the back of Helen's head. The bird yawned and half-closed her eyes by raising her lower eyelids, looking at Snape with what Harry would have sworn on his parents' graves was genuine affection. "No. She's just a bird. A very smart bird."
"She's a parrot? I heard her say 'hot' before."
Snape did smile slightly at this. "Yes. She doesn't speak much. She saves it up for the occasions she really needs it. As I said, a very smart bird."
Harry took that as a hint to stop bothering Snape. But he was curious.
"What sort of a bird is she? I've never seen one like her before."
"She's a kea. Possibly the smartest non-magical animal outside the ape family. Keas are native to this country and live in the mountains. She comes down here to the lowlands in winter where the food is better."
"Bacon rind, toast, herb tea with lots of honey... they're omnivorous and they'll try anything at least once." His face became stern but indulgent; a novelty for Harry to see in this particular teacher. "Which is why I take pains to make sure she doesn't get into my coffee."
Yes, Harry could imagine the curious bird on caffeine. "Was she the one who tried to steal my scarf yesterday?"
"I expect so." Snape tickled the bird under her beak. She nibbled on his finger before twisting her neck to make sure that his fingers got the itchy bits behind her ear coverts. "Up to and including the snow-in-the-face, it sounds like her modus operandi. Her sense of humour is somewhat towards the slapstick end of the scale."
"Sounds like a pet for Fred and George."
Snape snorted derisively. "No. She's too independent to make a good pet. And she'd end up playing jokes on them that, knowing their inclination to apply their mediocre knowledge of Potions in a less than intelligent fashion, would result in their achieving the permanent status of giant canary." He smirked. "Now that would be a way of making them appreciate the inadvisability of taking Potions lightly."
Lucky that Fred and George had graduated this year. "So how smart are keas?"
"Well, someone at a university was doing a study on one to try and find out. The bird had been trained to do a complicated series of tricks for a food reward. It was able to repeat this two weeks after being put back into the aviary."
"What else did they teach it to do?"
"Nothing. The bird escaped."
Helen looked up. She gave Snape's fingers one last nibble then jumped off the table and hopped over to the door. She flapped up, grabbed the handle of the door, and hung off it until the latch clicked open. By flapping one wing, she was able to pull it open a crack. Helen plopped down and used her beak to pull the door open just far enough for her to slip through.
There was a chortling "Kee-aa-aa-aa-aa!" and Harry heard wings flapping away.
Snape sipped his coffee. "Someone she knows. Chad or Eru, since she sounded quite happy. Not Death Eaters."
Harry jumped up and ran to the door, delighted that there would be someone else here today. Bad enough staying with Snape when he was well, but he had no idea how to take care of Snape when he was sick, especially if he had to wake him up again. Harry's mind veered away from that thought.
Chapter Four: Here to There
By shading his eyes against the rising sun, Harry made out the approaching pony. There was one — no, two people riding it. They crossed the river in a foam of white-gold spray with Helen circling over their heads. Chad and Eru were up early. Heedless that he was still in his dressing gown, Harry tugged on his boots and ran to meet them.
No, one of the figures was too tall to be one of the boys. Squinting as he they drew nearer, Harry was surprised to see Rona being doubled by Chad. The pony plodded over to Harry and stopped, heaving an almighty sigh, its bottom lip drooping. Rona slid off. "Morning Harry!" she exclaimed, ruffling his hair. "Been up long?"
"Just had breakfast. Hi Chad, you're up early."
Chad grimaced. "Tell me about it. And on a Saturday, too. Mum, I'll go and put the rug on Solly."
"Ta, sweetie." She tucked her arm into Harry's as they strolled back to the house. "Look at you — doesn't Sev let you have proper clothes?"
Harry grinned back at her. She was about the same height as he was now that he was finally starting to shoot up. "Nah. This builds character."
Rona laughed, holding up her arm to Helen, who landed on it and shuffled up to Rona's shoulder in order to start preening her long black hair. "'Builds character'? That's not something I've ever heard Sev say." She checked herself before saying something else, and her face took on more serious lines. "So how is he today? He looked bloody awful when he left last night."
Harry stared at her, open-mouthed. He hadn't noticed anything wrong with Snape until this morning. "How did you know? Uh, he's running a temperature."
"Hmm. He's been overdoing it lately," Rona mused. "He's meant to be resting up and instead he decides to go charging over the landscape. Oh, hey, it's not your fault, sweetie," she added to Harry, who must have been looking as guilty as he felt. He was the reason Snape had been busy, after all. But what had been wrong with Snape, anyway?
"He's meant to be a grown-up," Rona added, "which means that in theory he's meant to be able to take care of himself." She snorted in a manner disturbingly similar to Snape. "Not that he does, the silly bugger."
"What was wrong with him? I noticed that he wasn't around for classes much last term, but I hadn't known he was sick."
Rona ruffled his hair again. "Oh, it's just been a bit of flu. Nothing serious."
Harry didn't quite believe her. Something about her made him suspicious that she knew more than she was letting on. "It wasn't anything to do with Voldemort, was it?"
Rona nearly jerked her arm free. Helen squawked in anger that her perch wasn't giving her a smooth ride. Then Rona patted Harry's hand. "Look, it's nothing for you to worry about, hon'. He's back home now, that's all that matters."
Harry got the feeling she didn't intend to let Snape leave anytime soon, either. He sneaked a cautious look at her. The rising sun added a reddish tint to the strands that Helen had gone back to pulling at, and there was a firm set to the jaw that reminded him fiercely of Hermione on a moral crusade.
"Severus Obadiah Snape, what are you doing letting this boy run around in the middle of winter in PJ's and a dressing gown?" Rona demanded as she walked through the door and planted her hands on her hips.
"Trying to kill him off, of course," Snape replied from the table where he was still making notes, as if astonished she could have suspected him of anything less.
"Oh, that's all right then." She went and kissed him on the forehead. "You're burning up. You should be in bed. Gumboot, Helen; gumboot. Gumboot tea, Helen. Good girl," she added as the bird flew up to the cupboard. "And you," Rona said to Harry, "should be dressed. Go on. Put something warm and loose-fitting on — Chad wants to teach you how to snowboard."
Harry went up the ladder like a charging unicorn. Cool! So that was the weird stuff Chad had had slung over Solomon's shoulders. As he got dressed, careful not to disturb Hedwig's sleep, he heard Snape and Rona bickering downstairs. She seemed to be trying to order him back to bed, he was adamant that he was staying up. Harry caught the word "Wolfsbane" and felt relieved that Snape was taking Dumbledore's request seriously. He wouldn't put it past Snape to leave Remus to his misery.
When he climbed back down, Rona was crossly supervising the dishes magically washing themselves in the sink, while Snape's black eyes glittered mutinously from behind his greasy hair. Helen looked ruffled at the tension and kept preening Snape from her perch on one of his slumped shoulders. Harry could have told her not to bother — according to Sirius, Snape hadn't washed his hair for anyone so he wouldn't for a parrot, no matter how smart it was.
They were arguing in whispers.
"I'm not a complete novice, thank you Severus," Rona said in a stiff voice.
Snape leaned back, causing Helen to scold him. "It's not that. The potion is incredibly complicated. I'm one of the few people who can make it, and if—"
"Oh, so I'm too stupid to make your damn—"
"If, as I was saying, it goes wrong by the merest degree of temperature or thickness of the sliced adder's tongue, it blows up in your face. And takes off your skin down to the adipose layer, at which point it begins turning you into soap."
Harry winced, and stayed by the ladder. He didn't want Snape or Rona transferring their anger onto him. Besides, he hadn't realised just what was involved with the Wolfsbane potion.
"But you're going to try it anyway,. Aren't you."
Snape sighed and ran his long yellow fingers through his hair. Helen bit at him as he interrupted her, then climbed around to his other shoulder. Snape ignored the bird. "I don't have any choice. There are children at Hogwarts. Also there is a werewolf who is occupying a vital position in the effort against Voldemort."
"Wasn't being tortured nearly to death by that sick bastard enough for your war efforts?" Rona hissed. "And I suppose this isn't the same werewolf who tried to eat you alive when we were sixteen? The one Dumbledore kept in spite of your nearly dying? I don't know who's more dangerous to you — that bloody werewolf you're about to risk your life for, Voldemort, or that Dumbledore who keeps sending you back for more torture sessions."
They heard Harry gasp.
"Potter!" Snape snarled, his voice low and deadly, his eyes flashing black sparks of fury.
"Uh, I'm just on my way out —"
"Then leave. Now, boy."
Snape looked ready to commit murder.
He nearly fell over Chad as he raced out the door. "What's up?" Chad asked as he steadied Harry.
"Later. Come on."
"Okay. You're wearing loose clothes... good. You've got to be able to move. Now, you take those, I'll take these."
Harry picked up his boots and board. "Eru's?"
"Nah. You've got my old stuff. You can muck about without worrying about the consequences," Chad said with a grin as they marched away to the hills and gullies upland of the cottage where the snow would be thickest.
"That'll be a first for today," Harry muttered.
"Wanna talk about it?"
No, Harry didn't. He was still upset by the whole day so far. They walked without speaking for several minutes until Harry unwound enough to exhale a thick plume of vapour that hung in the still, cold air. "Your mum and Snape were having a fight."
"So? Nothing new." Chad grinned encouragingly. "Everybody still alive?"
"Well, they were when I left." Harry kicked at a tussock. The snow shivered to the ground in a brief rainbow. "But Snape wants to make a really difficult potion and your mum's telling him not to."
"Ouch. Uncle Sev doesn't take kindly to people telling him how to live his life."
"No kidding. But your mum's right. He's got a fever and his hands are shaking."
"Hands have been shaking since he got back?" Chad trailed off at Harry's sharp look, aware that he'd said too much.
"Back from being tortured by Voldemort?"
Chad winced. "You know?"
"I heard a few things."
"Well, this time when he got back the shakes were worse than ever, and —"
"This time? How many times has he been 'recovering from an illness'?"
Chad hiked the carry-bag with his snowboard in it higher on his shoulder. He didn't meet Harry's eyes. "I don't know. I lost count sometime last year." Suddenly he threw the bag down angrily.
Harry blinked. Chad being angry was like being savaged by a bunny rabbit. But Chad was angry now. His cheeks were flushed and his mouth was set in a thin line as he spun to face Harry. For a moment the family resemblance to his mother in a rage was very strong. "What the hell is going on over there? Every time I've seen Sev lately it's only been because he's come back here to lick his wounds. And that's not the half of it..." He wiped his gloved hand over his eyes, which were wet. "Damn. Sorry Harry."
Harry put his bag down and sat on it, motioning for Chad to follow suit. "It's okay," he said softly. "I know what's going on is terrible. Voldemort killed my parents. He's been killing the family of other friends of mine just for being friends with me."
Chad shook his head and grimaced sympathetically. "I've heard a little bit. Just Mum talking to Uncle Wiri when they thought I wasn't listening. They don't want me to know in case I suddenly decide to get involved like Uncle Sev. As if I would..." He managed a shaky grin. But his expression turned sombre again. "Mum's protective of Sev — keeps calling him her little brother." He snorted. "Sev's what, a foot taller than her and at most half a day younger? Anyway, we always know when he's going to be coming home because Mum gets the worst nightmares. She always knows when he's in trouble, y'see, and so when I wake up 'cos she's screaming in the night I know that some heavy-duty shit is going down."
Harry bit his lip. "Rona senses this?"
Chad nodded. "That's why she came up with me. She didn't really want to leave Eru while he's sick, but he's got Maman to fuss over him. Mum knew that if she didn't get up here pronto something really bad would happen."
Harry thought back to the argument he'd heard earlier. "I think she was probably right."
"Oh well. She's just as stubborn as he is. Which means that she'll demand to help him and he'll eventually see the sense of it — she's great with potions — and they'll take care of each other."
Harry thought Chad sounded like he was trying to convince himself, but decided it would be cruel to push the issue. "You're right. Your mum seems like she can take care of herself."
Chad laughed. "You'd better believe it. When Old Snape died and Mum heard that Sev had come home for the first time in years, she finally decided to call it quits with Eru's and my dad. Called him an anal retentive mummy's boy when he said that she had a nerve leaving him. So cool."
Harry didn't know whether to laugh or not. "Don't you like your dad?"
Chad shrugged. "Mum's part French, part Maori, and part Scottish. We've got some shit-hot wizards in her family line, but Dad's family are English pure-bloods and didn't like the idea of him marrying a mongrel girl from the sticks, let alone begetting children with her. She told them where they could stick their attitude — Mum was pretty wild when she was young and she's always been good with words — and although Dad thought that was really cool at first, eventually he realised that he couldn't go up against his own mum, who's a real old battle-axe. Met her a few times. She's of the old school 'children should be seen and not heard', which completely sucks in a grandmother. So when Sev came back to the cottage she decided enough was enough in Auckland, told Dad to shove it, told her boss to stick it, and opened her own advertising business in Christchurch. She's done well, too. I'm really proud of what she's done and I don't miss Dad. Eru does sometimes, but he'll grow out of it when he realises what kind of tosser our father really is. I did."
Harry wasn't sure what to say about this. Chad's bluntness was almost shocking. "I never met my grandparents. Never really thought about them much, to be honest. I spent more time thinking about my parents."
"Potter? were you related to James and Lily?"
Harry froze. "How do you know about them?"
Chad shifted uncomfortably. "Something I heard once when I probably shouldn't have been listening..."
"Okay, definitely. But the only way to achieve anything around here info-wise is to listen in on your elders. For God's sake, don't tell them, though."
"I won't. But how come everyone knows more about my parents than I do?"
"Well, when they died it was an important event —"
"Sorry, sorry, sorry." Chad spread his hands contritely. "That came out completely wrong. Um. Down this part of the world we're not too interested in what goes on in other places. We have our own magics and charms. It's not quite the same as Europe, even though we've imported a lot of the spell lore. Australia's similar, too, in that it's got a different magic to the rest of the world. But Aussie magic gets really wild... Anyway. We weren't particularly worried about Voldemort affecting us. Some people — Dad's mum, for instance — thought old Mouldy-Wart was onto a good thing. Others, like Mum's side of the family, realised what a psychopathic piece of tutai he was. Either way, everyone noticed and went into various stages of 'surprised' when your mum defeated him— Harry?"
Harry had bent his head forward. "It's the first time anyone has ever said that it wasn't me who defeated him, that it was my mum," he mumbled.
"Sorry, was that wrong?"
"No," Harry declared fervently. "It's completely, absolutely right. She died defending me and no-one other than you has ever said out loud the truth. I can't defeat Voldemort. No one can. Only my mum could've, and she died so that I could live."
Chad placed a comforting hand on Harry's shoulder. "That's what parents do. My dad'd never stand between us and danger like yours did, but my mother would die for me. I know that. I'm scared sick that one day she'll be put into a situation where she'll choose the life of me, Eru, Wiri or Sev over hers. I really don't envy you, mate, but your mum did what she chose to do and she took out one of the worst Dark Wizards in this or any other century doing so. You've got to respect a staunch lady like that. I know Uncle Sev respected her."
Harry wiped his nose. "He did? He's never said so."
"He wouldn't, would he. But I heard him and Mum talking a few years ago. He's still upset that she died. Couldn't stand your father, from what I've heard, but he had nothing against your mum. Promise you won't tell anyone what I'm about to tell you?"
"You know what Sev was up to when Voldemort fell?"
"He was a spy." Harry knew that Chad already knew and was testing to see that he, Harry, really knew.
"Yeah. Well, Uncle Sev had heard that the person who was protecting you and your parents had sold out to Voldemort. He was on his way to tell them that they were in danger when he got caught by the cops."
"Huh?" Harry had a momentary picture of Snape being pulled over and given a speeding ticket. "Oh, you mean Aurors?"
"Magic police? Yeah. Well, because he was the closest source to Voldemort, hardly anyone knew what he was really doing. Maybe only Dumbledore knew. So when Sev was caught— and Mum remembers it because she felt shadows of everything he went through," he added, his eyes darkening "—they wouldn't believe that your parents were really in danger. Some Aurors kept him for amusement value for a while, testing out their skills with questioning suspects, et cetera, and then... well. You know the rest of the story."
"Damn," Harry breathed. He leaped to his feet and bunched his fists, glaring into the sun so that it was its glare which made his eyes water. "Damn, damn, damn."
"It wouldn't help your parents to go after them."
Harry whirled. "No? It'd sure help me."
"Maybe. But how do you think they felt when they learned the truth?" Chad asked in a level voice. "That because of them their friends and colleagues had been killed? Sev said that he never went after them because their own knowledge of what they had done was the worst revenge you could have on people like those."
"I can think of worse." And he could. It would be so easy to use some pretty little curse, spinning and levitating them while they cried out how sorry they were— if Death Eaters could do it, then surely Harry Potter could — No. He sat down, dizzy at the thought. No. Harry Potter had to be above these things, because Harry Bloody Potter had to be perfect. For the first time Harry realised how easy it could be to be a Death Eater. All you needed was just the right amount of hate and arrogance. Just a little of either and he could be much more formidable than some little pipsqueak like Draco Malfoy— Merlin, that thought shocked him back to reality.
"I'm okay. Just— not sure how to take it all. But I know I couldn't do anything to those Aurors. Just hate them with a passion, that's all."
Chad smiled sadly. "Some Death Eater scaught up with the couple responsible, anyway. Used the Cruciatis on them for so long that they went nuts. Apparently they're both locked up in some sort of funny-farm."
Harry's chest hurt. "Husband and wife?"
"Yeah. You know them?"
"I go to school with their son. Neville Longbottom. He's a good friend of mine."
Chad caught his breath. "And is he still a good friend?"
Harry closed his eyes. For a moment the world seemed to spin out of control, snow-white and sky-blue and grey-green.
"Ku-er? Ku-er?" came the call from on high. Then: "Kee-aa-aa-aaaa!"
Helen swooped down and landed on a lichen-encrusted rock. She hopped down and bounded through the snow to Chad and Harry. "Hello," Chad said, stroking the kea's head. "Get chucked out for making a nuisance of yourself?"
Helen pecked his hand and waddled over to see Harry, tugging on his bootlaces when he didn't respond.
"Harry?" Chad asked again.
Harry leaned back, feeling the snow cold through his hat and down the back of his neck. Helen jumped on his stomach and began to march up and down. "Hey! That tickles!"
Helen rolled onto her back and slid off him as he sat up, still chortling happily at finding the boys.
The world had stopped spinning when Helen flew out of the sky. "Yeah," said Harry. "He's still my friend. But it's going to be hard seeing someone and knowing that they're related to people who let my parents die."
Chad nodded. "I can only imagine. But if this Neville's really a friend of yours then maybe you shouldn't tell him what part his parents played in all of this."
Harry looked over at his new friend. Chad wouldn't meet his eyes. "Chad, thanks for telling me this."
Chad looked up, not smiling. "Thanks? For telling you this kind of stuff? You're meant to be here being protected from Voldemort and here I am giving you all the horror stories behind your parent's death! Some friend I am."
"No," Harry said softly. "If your parents had died, wouldn't you want to know what had happened and why?"
"Does this mean you're going to tell your friend what happened with his parents and Sev?"
Harry looked away. "He thinks his parents were heroes. Would it help if I told him otherwise? Maybe I should tell him, but... I'm not that brave. Don't be mad with yourself, Chad. This was stuff I think I— I needed to know in some way. And everyone's always trying to protect me because I'm so young—"
Chad smiled a watery smile. "Don't you hate that?"
"Yeah," said Harry, managing a smile in return. "Come on. Let's try that snowboarding thing."
They picked up the gear again and set off up the slope. Helen followed them, flying from boulder to boulder, sometimes perching in a tree, once trying to ride on the tip of Chad's snowboard until Chad dislodged her with a loud "Oi!" for trying to take apart the silver covering. "They're buggers for taking things to bits," he commented. "Never, ever leave a car or a bike parked unguarded near a flock of keas. They've been known to strip the seals off until the windows fall out. When you put your boots on don't let her near them. She'll rip the laces and bindings off before you can say 'sod off'."
"She was pretty well behaved at Snape's."
"Best behaviour. If she acts up he throws her out the door and ignores her for a day. It's amazingly effective."
"Huh. Back at Hogwarts people would be lining up for Snape to throw them out of class and ignore them for a day."
Chad laughed. "Is he really that bad?"
"Worse. Don't worry, I won't give you all the gory details."
"Thank God. He's family, but I know he can be a bit funny with people he doesn't know."
"Well," Harry said thoughtfully, "given that he doesn't know most of the people in the world, I'd say he's quite restrained for someone who can etch metal with his tongue."
"The insults he works out with Mum can be quite imaginative. Has he used many on you?"
"I'm his favourite target," Harry replied gloomily.
"Don't take it personally. I never do."
"No," Harry said, still barely believing Chad's presumption in the face of Snape. "But if I was half as forward as you my House would be in demerit points for the rest of my life. On my first day at school he took points off for me being cheeky." Harry scowled at the memory.
"Well, you're against Voldemort. He's meant to be a supporter. He can hardly be seen as a benevolent father-figure to you."
At that image Harry laughed so hard he had to sit down. Helen flew back to sit on his knee. "Chrp?"
"I've got to admit, there's not much danger of that," Harry said.
The trio spent the rest of the morning playing in the snow. Snowboarding was much harder than Chad made it look. Harry didn't find it nearly as easy as the first time he'd ridden a broom, while Chad seemed to float over the snow, drawing long, lazy curves in the fresh snow of the gully they'd chosen to play in and sending up showers of ice crystals on the sharp turns. The first thing Chad taught Harry was how to fall over properly, fisting his hands so that he didn't break his wrists. Harry decided to keep that in mind for Quidditch. He certainly got a lot of practise at falling. Snowboarding was also hard work. After a while they took a break and built a snowman, wrote "Voldemort" on its big round belly, and then used it for marksmanship practice with snowballs. Helen did her bit — dropping twigs and rocks on "Voldemort's" head. Her aim was remarkable. Finally Harry knocked "Voldemort's" head off with a well placed snowball that had a rock in it, and they danced around singing "We won! We won!"
Helen rolled around in the snow before hopping over to peck out "Voldemort's" eyes and carrying them back and spitting them out at Harry's feet. "Good Helen," said Harry, very pleased. "Shame you can't come back to Hogwarts with me."
"She's a wild bird," Chad said.
"Nope. It happens sometimes. She showed up the first winter Sev was back. Must have been a late chick and lost her parents before she had a good idea about where the kea food was. Her beak was still mostly yellow, which shows that she was just a young thing. Looked a wreck, too. Skinny and half-frozen and jumping with fleas. Uncle Sev kept her in a shoe box near the fire and fed her until she recovered then let her go. She hung around. She's not stupid — she knows where the human food is. She comes down from the mountains every winter now when she should be part of a big kea flock, and makes a nuisance of herself." His actions made a lie of his scornful words as Chad poked a stick playfully at Helen, who grabbed it and started an eager game of tug-of-war that was resolved when Helen bit off her end of the stick. Harry had a new appreciation of the power of that beak when Chad showed him his end — it was cut as cleanly as if it had been severed by garden shears.
"Yeah. Some guy up at the local station caught a kea and put it in a wooden crate. It bit its way out like a hot knife through butter. So don't let her get hold of your wand."
"I don't have it with me."
"Sure you do. It's in your jacket pocket."
Harry blushed. "Um. I'm not meant to have it. Snape thinks it's with my godfather."
Chad grinned. "No worries. I won't tell. You have a godfather? I thought you didn't have any family left?"
"Sirius isn't family — he was a really good friend of my dad's."
Damn. Chad was a bit too quick at times. Harry had been putting him into the Hufflepuff category, when he should probably keep in mind that if Chad was Snape's 'nephew' he was probably as Slytherin as the next Malfoy. He shook away the thought. It was too easy to classify everyone in the wizarding world into a Hogwarts house. Chad mightn't be a Hufflepuff, but he was no Malfoy. "You know the name?" he asked cautiously.
"I think Uncle Sev mentioned him once or twice. He was meant to be the secret keeper for your parents, but gave the job to someone else to try and confuse everyone. Seems like he confused everyone but Mouldy Wart."
"He got locked up for murder, but he was really innocent."
Chad nodded. "Uncle Sev says that his name hasn't been cleared yet."
"So why doesn't Snape tell everyone that it wasn't Sirius if he knows the truth?" Harry said angrily.
"Hey, don't take it out on me. I don't know why Sev does what he does. I just know that he usually has a good reason."
"Sorry. I wasn't angry at you, not really. I just wish I could— I don't know—"
"Have a normal life?"
Harry smiled wryly. "Yeah." His stomach growled loudly.
Chad laughed. "Well, according to your stomach normal life starts now. That means we've gotta go and have lunch."
Helen rode the updrafts down from the hills and got down before the trudging humans. But she waited outside the half-open door for them, remarkably quietly for her. "She must've been chucked out when she came and found us," Chad laughed. He patted Solly, who had moseyed over to investigate the returning boys for apples or carrots. "Sorry, old fella. I'll bring you some sugar before we go home." Solly sighed, scratched his head on Chad's shoulder and leaving a smattering of white hairs on the black-and-blue checked wool swannie shirt, before wandering off to look for grass.
"Doesn't the horse run away if you don't tie him up?" Harry wondered. He hadn't seen any fences around.
"Solly? Nah, he always seems to know where he's meant to be. Sort of a knack." He pushed the door open and stepped over Helen, who peered cautiously between his feet into the cottage. "Mum! Uncle Sev! We're back!"
"Really?" came Snape's voice dryly. "Stop stating the blatantly obvious and put the kettle on."
"Right-o. Everyone still alive in here?"
"No thanks to that misbegotten parrot," Snape snarled. "She's not with you, is she?" Harry thought he heard a small note of worry in Snape's voice.
"She spent the morning with us," Harry called out. "She's here now."
"Well, keep her out of the workroom," Rona snapped. "This is difficult enough without onlookers trying to add extra ingredients—"
"Too many cooks spoiling the Wolfsbane, Mum?" Chad called out cockily.
Snape muttered something, then said, "Enough of the pseudo-witticisms. Make yourselves useful and make me some coffee. I want it in ten minutes."
Harry couldn't see beyond the shimmering blue light of the door to Snape's workroom, but he could hear the muttered conversation. Snape and Rona seemed intent on their work, but not so engrossed that they couldn't insult each other constantly. Hermione would have gone in and banged their heads together, Harry thought. "What's so funny?" Chad murmured as he cut and buttered thick slices of bread.
"Oh, just thinking about a friend of mine and how she'd be itching to go in and tell them to act like adults."
"I reckon. But to be fair they're only as bad as this with each other."
Harry wisely kept his thoughts on that to himself. "I think I saw some cheese out in the laundry."
"Excellent. I think there's some pickle somewhere, and I saw some sausages left over from your breakfast..."
Chapter Five: All Imperfect Things
Snape and Rona emerged by the time coffee was ready, both looking pleased with themselves, if a little singed around the edges. Helen skulked around the legs of Snape's chair for a little while, then gathered up her courage and climbed up to the back of it. After a few seconds while Harry could almost see her mind working she hopped onto Snape's shoulder and began preening his hair shyly. When he finally lifted a hand and smoothed her feathers, her relief was almost tangible. Harry was astonished at the way her confidence came back to the point where she started strutting from one of Snape's shoulders to the other, holding onto his hair with her beak when she needed help to get there. Chad was smirking into his mug of cocoa so that Snape couldn't see him smile. Harry followed his example. Ron would never believe that Snape could make such a good perch for a parrot. "So how is the potion going?" Chad asked.
"Quite well considering my inability to hold a knife without slicing off a finger, and your mother's well-documented bloody-mindedness when it comes to taking instruction—"
"Speak for yourself, Professor Bloody-minded," Rona muttered through a mouthful of cheese sandwich.
Snape ignored her. "And of course the unfortunate incident involving the Bunsen burner, the entire jar of stink beetle carapaces and a certain kea who shall remain a nameless kea."
Oblivious, Helen had jumped down onto the table and was eyeing Snape's untouched sandwich. Rona shooed her away and pushed the plate closer to Snape, tapping on it meaningfully. He picked the sandwich up but didn't eat.
"Anyway," Snape added, covering his mouth as he yawned, "the potion should be safe while it cools— oh yes." He faced the door of blue light and snapped his fingers. The door slid into the floor where it became a line of blue light that, all of a sudden, snapped out.
"Was that magic?" Harry asked, a bit worriedly.
"No," Snape replied, eyes closing. He propped his head on his hand. The heavy eyelids rose briefly to reveal the same darkness as Harry had seen in Grandmother's Pool before sliding shut again. "Just knowing one extra fact." A heartbeat later, he began to snore.
"—Which is ninety percent of all magic," Rona said. "Wake up, Sev!" she shouted, and flapped a tea-towel at him.
Snape woke up mid-snore, his greasy hair falling over his face. "Hunh?"
"Go to bed. Don't come back until you can sit at the table without falling asleep. Oh, and eat your sandwich. I'll keep an eye on things."
By the way Snape obeyed, Harry found himself becoming very fond of Rona. Shame she wasn't at Hogwarts— the place could benefit from her. Maybe she could get a special job title— 'Keeper of the Potions Master,' or some such.
Harry hardly saw Snape the rest of that day. He emerged from sleep for a short while late that afternoon, his eyes and nose reddened from sneezes, to supervise Rona's handling of the potion. Chad and Harry watched as Rona applied a reducing charm to the now cold potion and used a strange-looking device Chad whispered was called a 'pipettor' to aliquot it into tiny plastic tubes with flip-lids. She made sure the lid of each was secure before marking the tubes with a felt-tip pen and popping them into a small box. "There we go," she said over Snape's sneezes. "Are you sure that an owl can handle this okay? I could always just pop over there myself with it. About time I had a look at that place where you work."
Snape shook his head impatiently, his greasy hair swinging over his eyes. "You know I don't want you going over there."
"Scared I'd start a fight with Dumbledore?" Rona teased.
Snape replied sourly, "Among others. Mostly I don't want people aware that you and your whanau exist."
"I can protect my family."
"You shouldn't need to. Now stop trying to pick a fight with me."
"Sorry." She stroked Snape's hair back from his face and tucked it behind his ear. "Harry, sweetie, could you bring your owl down if you think she's up to the flight?"
"Okay. Chad, wanna come meet Hedwig?"
It was an impatient owl who met Harry at the top of the ladder. Obviously, Harry thought as he sucked at the nip in his hand, Hedwig had been expecting more attention from him after all her hard work. "Sorry if I've neglected you today, Hedwig. I thought you needed the rest after all your work."
"She's gorgeous," Chad breathed, his eyes almost as round as Hedwig's. "You're so lucky having her."
Harry felt his chest swell. "She is, isn't she?" he couldn't help saying. "And yeah, I know I am." He stroked her feathers with the backs of his fingers. "I should tell her more often." Hedwig nibbled Harry's fingers more gently at the praise.
"Can she really fly all the way around the world?"
"Well, she was pretty tired when she got here, but she made the trip. I'm not sure how she managed to fly over the ocean or how she made the trip so fast, because the letter was dated just yesterday, but Snape gave me the impression that what she did wasn't too unusual."
Chad grinned. "If he didn't say she had been slow, then he must think she's pretty good."
"He's not big on the compliments, is he?" Harry commented wryly. "Not that any of my other teachers are particularly enthusiastic when it comes to dishing out praise to me, but I wish someone had told him the old Muggle saying 'you catch more flies with honey than vinegar'."
Chad snorted a la Snape. "Whaddaya want to catch flies for?"
"Huh. True. Come on, let's get Hedwig downstairs before we get any more vinegar."
After the owl flew away carrying the precious vials of Wolfsbane potion, Harry found he missed Hedwig more than he let on to Chad. As Snape's fever rose and there was no potion on hand to combat post-Cruciatis fatigue, Rona stayed to, as she put it, "Stop Severus from making an idiot of himself."
Harry was only sorry Snape was asleep when Rona said that.
The next morning Chad doubled him down the valley on Solly to collect some things for Rona, and Harry was glad to catch up with Eru and Maman again. Wiri had been called up to the station to treat a sick horse, so Harry was especially careful not to break anything. Helen followed them inside and proceeded to investigate a dried flower arrangement until Maman chased her outside with a broom. Helen went and perched on Solomon instead, and by the time Harry and Chad had packed everything Rona had ordered, the grey horse's mane was one big knot.
"Hell," breathed Chad. "If Uncle Sev sees that he's gonna go crook. Bad Helen!"
When he tried to wave her away from her perch between Solly's ears, the parrot hissed at him. Chad grumbled. "No arguing with her when she's in this mood."
"Would she really bite you?" Harry enquired, having become accustomed to the parrot's kind nature.
Chad brandished an old scar. "When she really wants something, she gets it. And right now," he sighed, "she wants to ride poor old Solly back up the valley instead of flying."
They were halfway back up to the cottage when Helen bit through the leather headstrap of the bridle. "Damn," said Chad. "Not again."
Harry thought it strange, but then he didn't know anything about Muggle horses. They'd never come up in Hagrid's classes, somehow. He would have expected an ordinary horse to go charging away after throwing off its passengers. Solly had just spat out the snaffle bit, heaved one of his patented sighs that expanded his ribcage like a blimp between the boy's legs, and waited for someone to pick up the pieces. After swinging one leg over the pony's neck and sliding down the pale grey shoulder, Chad had picked up the bridle, grabbed the pony by the mane, and led him over to a big rock. The pony stood quite still while Chad scrambled back aboard, then, when given a nudge by Chad's heels, started back on the journey. Maybe all horses were like that, Harry thought, or maybe just the old ones which had been really well trained. Any horse that belonged to Snape would have the choice between being well behaved or being turned into various potions ingredients.
"Bloody bird," was the first thing Rona said when she met them by the river.
"Got it in one." Chad held out the bridle. "Care to do the honours, Mum? I don't have my wand with me."
Rona took the bridle, pushed the clean-cut edges of the leather together, then narrowed her eyes in concentration. "There." She took a look at the mess of Solomon's mane and her lips thinned. "Helen, I presume. I recognise her handiwork."
"Sorry, Mum. Couldn't make her get off. She's having one of her stubborn days."
"Well, she's been around Sev for the last couple of days," Rona muttered. "He kind of rubs off on people."
"Mum... not while he's sick."
"Damn. Forgot the rules."
"Rules?" Harry asked. He had climbed off the pony and was gingerly stretching his legs.
Rona grinned like a shark. "No fun insulting the second party unless said second party is in a fit state for retaliation. And today," she sighed, pushing her thick black hair back irritably, "is not a good day for my little brother."
That was still weird for Harry, hearing anyone address Snape as 'little brother.' "He's no better?" he asked diplomatically.
"No. That potion was hard work for him yesterday. The amount of concentration is phenomenal. The timing and the portions are intricate, and not just that, they're variable. We also had to try some different combinations of elements. Luckily this river is virtually on the doorstep, so we had some formidably-charged water to construct the liquid base."
"How come the water's so special?" asked Harry, eyeing the stream with suspicion. It didn't look unusual. There were ferns growing over on of the steeper banks near where the scrubby, dark-barked trees that held giant insects grew. An ancient tree retained shingle between its tangled roots on another bend downstream. He had drunk from this stream. It had been cold and very refreshing, but not unusual. Maybe the effects were slow-acting, and he'd come out in scales this evening.
"One of the tributaries is the spring in Grandmother's Pool," Chad explained. "By the time it gets here it's diluted to the point where not only is it safe, but it's brilliant for making potions, especially those to do with healing and transformation."
"Transformation like in werewolves?"
"And healing, like a werewolf needs during the transformation," Rona added. "That poor man — going through a transformation every full moon— he could use all the help he can get, I imagine."
"It's pretty rough on him, yes," Harry said slowly, remembering the row he had overheard yesterday morning when Rona had been against Snape helping the werewolf she suspected of trying to hurt him all those years ago. Was she just trying to make Harry feel like she had some sympathy to make him like her? No, he realised that was an unworthy thought. Rona seemed to care little for anyone's opinion. What she did care for, he realised, was her family. And anything that threatened Snape, past, present or future, was something she took seriously. "You don't think he should be put down for being a werewolf?"
Rona and Chad both wore identical expressions of shock. "Do you?" Chad asked.
"No!" Harry exclaimed. "But... lots of people do where I come from. And the werewolf is a friend of mine."
"Oh, Harry, sweetheart." Rona hugged him tight and kissed his forehead. "And you're not even sixteen yet. All the troubles of the world on your shoulders. No, I don't think a person should be executed just for being a werewolf. Especially now as there's a potion to make werewolves safe during their transformations. Come on, you two. I've been baking bread and it's just out of the oven, so forget about the rest of the world for just a little while and have something to eat."
"The good old 'food is love' theory?" asked Chad.
"No, the good old 'you're not too old to have your bottom smacked for being cheeky' theory," Rona snapped back, taking a playful swipe at her son, who ducked behind Solomon.
Through the first falling snowflakes, she led them back to the cottage for warm, fresh bread thickly spread with the dark honey that tasted as rich and strange as the air in the clearing of Grandmother Taniwha's Pool.
"No school for you tomorrow," Rona stated calmly as she served up bowls of thick vegetable soup.
"Excellent!" said Chad.
"So you can do that homework you've been neglecting for the past week."
"Awww..." Chad sounded a lot like Eru in that moment of disappointment.
"Harry, do you have any homework you need to do?" Rona asked him as she passed her son a basket of buttered rolls.
"Actually, it's the holidays for my school—"
"And he needs every bit of them to improve his understanding of theory." Snape was more awake than he appeared. Helen, perched on the back of his chair, had her eyes shut but rustled her beak in her sleep when he spoke. "Especially in the fields of Charms, Defence Against the Dark Arts, and, it goes without saying, Potions."
"Well," Rona said briskly, taking Harry's side with a twinkle in her eye, "Chad's good with Charms and I'm particularly brilliant when it comes to Potions. Defence Against the Dark Arts— well, definitions are different down in this part of the world as to what a Dark Art is, especially as your Northern Hemisphere classifications pertaining to elementals are completely at odds with most of what we learn here— but I guess that seeing as how Sev's a Dark Art all in his own category we could stand him up against a wall and throw things at him and see how he reacts. How about it?"
Harry couldn't quite repress a snigger, and hoped Snape hadn't heard.
"Always a pleasure to have you here," Snape said to Rona in his silkiest voice.
"It is, isn't it. I don't know how you manage without me. Pass the butter, please, Chad."
"Can I ask you a question, Rona?"
"Can you stop him asking questions of things that don't concern him? Now that's the real question," Snape said, but was too tired to put in his usual acidity. Rona patted him on the back sympathetically as he stood up to go outside with the empty wood basket.
"Sure. If I don't like it I won't answer," she said.
Harry felt reassured by her bluntness. "Today when you fixed the bridle you used magic, but you didn't use a wand. Can you do wandless magic?"
Rona took lifted the pendant she was wearing. Harry had noticed it briefly, but not taken much notice. It was a piece of what looked like stone. It had been carved into a spiral and coloured the same green as the feathers on Helen's back. It hung from a silver chain that caught the candlelight and sparkled. "This is jade. You can find it in these mountains. This piece—" she smiled towards the shut door "— Sev found it for me in Grandmother's Pool."
Harry rubbed his nose in thought. "I thought you couldn't swim in that water?"
"I can't. I wouldn't want to..." Rona shivered at the idea. "No. But Sev's been swimming in it since he was a wee thing." She lifted the pendant and eyed it almost greedily. "It's the only one of its kind. Lots of people use pounamu around here — that's the local name for jade — pounamu or greenstone. And mine came from the pool of a taniwha. That makes it pretty powerful." Yes, there was a definite streak of possessive pride in her expression. "I don't need a wand. This gives me all the power I need." She leaned over to ruffle her son's hair. "All the power I want. I don't want to rule the world — just keep my little part of it safe."
"How powerful is it?" asked Harry. "Powerful enough to stop Voldemort?"
"I don't know. It could be, but personally I doubt it. It's keyed into my personality and the specific ambiences generated by the magical topography threading through the landscape. Sev thinks Voldemort would have to come here and directly attack my family, and Sev's not about to put his theory to the test by issuing that bastard — excuse my French — an invitation to visit. Thank God."
"How come Professor Snape" (Harry thought it wise to show some respect in front of Rona) "can go swimming in the pool?"
"To tell the truth, Harry, I don't really know. Grandmother Taniwha seems to like him."
Well, at least the monsters here are reliably crazy, thought Harry.
"Tomorrow you should ask him about the time he tried swimming to the bottom of the pool," suggested Rona.
Harry doubted that he would get a civil reply to such a frivolous question. "He's not... um... keen on me asking him things."
"Oh." Rona seemed puzzled. "Well, in that case I'll make it into a story for you. It's not dark yet, so there's plenty of time to make sure you don't get nightmares..."
"Mu-um!" Chad sounded almost agonised with embarrassment.
Rona winked at Harry, who grinned back. "Children are such fun to tease. Wait until you're a parent, Harry — you'll have a cool time. Well... let's see... how to start? Oh, of course..."
Once upon a time (said Rona), the world was only night. There was the sky and the earth, and nothing could come between them. Then the gods decided that enough was enough and that they wanted lives of their own. Typical teenagers. So the strongest of them pushed the sky and the earth apart. As if this wanton upheaval wasn't enough, the gods decided to go exploring rather than just lying in the sun working on their tans. Some found the oceans, and decided to stay there. Others delighted in the forests and hills. Some joined the birds in the winds that swept over the new lands that had been revealed by the lifting of the sky.
One, the goddess Hine Nui Te Po, found that she missed the darkness, and she forsook the sun and moulded her form into the night, disappearing into caves and shadows during the times allotted to light and sunshine. Somewhere she must have found someone who shared her nocturnal habits, because she had children. Some of these children decided that although they shared her fondness of dark places, they preferred their own small territories where they could give in-depth explorations to specific aspects of rock or river or spring. They became guardians of these places, sometimes becoming very powerful shapers of their environment, sometimes being shaped instead by the forces of trees and wind and water.
But one of Hine Nui's children decided that she would stay close to one of the gateways to her mother. This daughter was a taniwha, a powerful water monster, and she took it upon herself to guard this entrance. It was lucky that she did, because one of the more soft-headed gods had brought humans into this world.
With humans came mortality. Hine Nui te Po, Goddess of Night, was a compassionate sort of goddess, and realised that humans need care at many different levels. So she now took on a second role: Goddess of Death. The gateways to her realm became gateways to the spirit world, and that was a dangerous temptation to the investigative humans. The guardian taniwha simply made the gateway almost impossible to find. Not that it stopped people from trying (Rona added with a cynical grin). There's always some silly bugger who wants to be the first person to fly, or slice bread, or destroy the universe. But this taniwha was old and cunning, and she had a better sense of humour than most of the rest of her brothers and sisters. She enjoyed playing hide and seek with these new human creatures that sometimes strayed into her territory. A few found the pool. Their bones may be at the bottom of it, if there is a bottom. Either way, their families never found a trace of them.
Perhaps she found them a nuisance at first; then she found them amusing. Well, whatever it was that caught her attention, she became curious about them. And when a taniwha becomes curious, watch out! They will wait and watch and then, when they've been still for so long that they've got moss growing on them, they get up, shake themselves off, and make whatever decision needs to be made.
This taniwha, she found that waiting and watching wasn't good enough. One night when it was so dark even the moon was hiding, she came out of her black pool of water and walked on human feet all the night through. And when the sun came up, she found that she had wandered among humans. She stayed with them until she had decided in her taniwha way that the time she needed was done. And then she went home to guard her gate to Death's realm. Perhaps she went to sleep, if taniwha are capable of such a mortal need.
Her curiosity had been satisfied. Humans had taught her what she needed to know about them. But perhaps they had taught her something about herself — perhaps she had learned something about compassion in her time with them.
When a skinny little runaway who had only just had his fifth birthday stumbled into her private domain, she didn't hide the pool. It was snowing and the boy had no shoes and his clothes were thin. (Did Rona's voice turn angry here? wondered Harry.) She watched the boy as he stumbled down through the fern, following the trail of heat. When he first came to the pond, testing it with his fingers to see if it really was as warm as it looked, she did not bite off his fingers as she had done to others in the past.
The boy didn't even bother to take his clothes off. He went straight into the warm water like his life depended upon it, which it probably did.
The taniwha must have been astonished. No human had ever done this. She swam around his legs, never touching, only the faintest silky ripple suggesting her presence, and the boy, half-dead from the cold, would have thought her movements the natural slide of water from a spring.
She caught an ankle and tugged.
The boy barely struggled.
As the taniwha pulled him deeper, she looked up and saw the boy looking down at her. His eyes were as black as her pool, as black as the gate to her mother's realm. They held no fear. In them, the taniwha saw herself reflected with calm acceptance. She let go of the ankle and rose to investigate this strange boy who did not fear her.
The boy did not struggle to reach the surface as she had expected him to. Instead, he reached out to trace her face with his fingertips. The taniwha allowed this. She moved closer to study her reflection in his eyes.
The eyes closed.
Bubbles came from the boy's lips as he sighed out his last breath, sending it up to the surface, the place where he plainly had no desire to return to.
For a moment the taniwha hovered in her still blackness, watching as the boy's face went slack.
Then she sighed her own magical breath into the boy's lungs and held him close to her in the warm water, breathing her breath into him as he slept.
They may have hung suspended in darkness for several days; the boy could never say afterwards. But when he woke up again he knew the world was different. For the first time that he could remember, he had a home. And a guardian. The taniwha had breathed the knowledge of her own magic into his lungs, and that wisdom bubbled in his veins.
When the boy woke properly, the taniwha took him back to the surface. It was still snowing, but in the mist that always hung over her pool the snowflakes dwindled and joined the haze. She built a raft like a bird's nest and curled the boy up inside it, covering him with dry leaves and ferns. When she discovered that the boy was hungry she hunted birds for him and cooked them in a hot spring she caused to start up near the pool — not in her pool, of course; no taniwha would dream of desecrating its home by cooking food in it.
And when the boy was strong again, she sent him back to his father, only with a cloak of feathers and some of her secrets to protect him.
And whenever those secrets weren't quite enough to protect him from his father, the boy would come home again, and sleep in Grandmother Taniwha's Pool.
Rona sat back and Harry realised he had been holding his breath. "What happened to the boy?"
Rona's face darkened. "He grew up, as boys do."
"He — oh, was he Sna- uh, Professor Snape?"
Chad snorted. "Well, that's the general idea. But Mum likes to embellish a bit."
"Oh. So how much is true?" asked Harry, hating, as always, not knowing if the information he had was all of the truth, part of the truth, or the truth through a distorted spy-glass.
Rona shrugged. "Hard to tell. But Sev did run wild when he was young. Went right through these hills and ended up in the weirdest places. Made it right over the mountains through the Arthur's Pass one summer when he was nine — the police brought him home from Greymouth."
So Snape had been causing trouble as far back as then. But why had he been running away from home in the first place? "If I had parents I wouldn't make them worry like that," he said, a little jealous that Snape had taken for granted what Harry had always wanted.
"Yeah, well, if you'd had a —"
Rona cut Chad off with a warning shake of her head. "His mother was dead, Harry."
"Oh — but wasn't he living with your family?"
"No. His father came and took him home when he was still a toddler. And Old Snape was probably too... um... preoccupied... to notice where his only child was."
Harry wondered how Rona made it in the world of advertising. She was terrible at dissembling. "Anyway," she said, keen to change the subject, "I haven't finished my story." She dangled her greenstone pendant pointedly. "Well, another day in another winter the boy decided to see what was at the bottom of the pool. Grandmother Taniwha probably knew what he was planning, but she decided to see how he would manage. So the boy took several deep breaths and dived off the flat rock down, down into the middle of the pool."
First the water was lovely and warm, just like the first time he had swum into the pool. He swam deeper and deeper, the water caressing his skin like silk, the taniwha somewhere nearby but out of sight.
Then the water turned completely black and he only knew which way up was by the way his body kept trying to float back to the surface. It was also boiling hot, and he almost turned back out of fear that his skin would blister. But he sensed the taniwha just beyond his reach, and she had not tried to stop him yet.
He swam out of the hot water and into water so cold he almost gasped for breath. And he still hadn't found the bottom. He must have been incredibly deep, so deep that he was swimming into the hill, but there was no rock for his hands to touch. And all the time he knew that the taniwha was swimming around him, pacing him, waiting to see when his nerve would fail. He gritted his teeth and swum on.
A small cry of disappointment disappeared in bubbles as he saw the first glimmerings of light.
He must have been swimming up!
Cursing himself for his foolishness, the boy swam towards the dim twilight, deciding that he would try to find the bottom of the pool again another day.
In the light he could see movement, and he took it to be the tree ferns swaying in the wind over the clearing. But no — they were people. He could see faces. Some were faces he knew. He reached out to them.
They smiled, and waved to him, signalling that he should go back.
He ignored this, and kept swimming towards them, determined to meet them and stand with them in their sunlight.
But the people shook their heads, and he felt the talons of the taniwha wrap gently around his waist, pulling him back through the cold, the hot, and the warm, back to the world of the living, leaving him gasping for air on the rock like a caught fish.
When the boy finally realised where he was, he also realised something else: two things, in fact. He had found the bottom of the pool. It was the gateway to another place, and from it he had taken two things. In one hand he held a bone flute. In the other was a piece of greenstone.
"And is that true?" breathed Harry.
Rona shrugged. "It sounds a lot better than saying that Sev went swimming one day and found this at the bottom of a pond."
"Oh, I don't know," said Snape, making the three of them jump. A guilty expression flashed across Rona's face. "At least my version has the advantage of brevity." He had come back inside silently with a basket of wood, at what point of the story, Harry didn't know.
"You didn't like my version better?"
"Revoltingly sentimental pap," Snape sneered. "No wonder you do so well selling cat food."
"So which explanation is true?" Harry asked before Rona could start yelling.
Snape scowled as he bent to put the basket down by the stove. "Have you ever heard of Occam's Razor?"
"Why am I not surprised? It is the principle by which the simplest explanation becomes the most likely."
Snape had taken a bucket to get water from the river before Harry realised that the Slytherin Head of House hadn't actually answered Harry's original question. He looked at Chad, who shrugged and went to help his mother with the dishes.
Chad had forgotten to tell Harry that he'd brought some chocolate up to share with him until after dinner, when he remembered that he had something that would do for dessert.
"Oh, damn!" was the first clue that something wasn't right.
"What?" asked Harry.
Chad was up in the attic. He had gone up to get his homework and a book to help Harry with a Charms problem. He poked his head out of the trapdoor, his face flushed. "That bloody bird, is what! She's been in my bag."
"What did she get?"
"Half the bar of chocolate I brought up for us." Chad swore again, and the head disappeared. Harry heard him scuffling around upstairs, then Helen flew down through the trapdoor onto Harry's shoulder.
Not sure if this was such a good idea as that beak looked extra sharp next to his ear, Harry stayed still in case Helen decided to bite. She jumped onto the table and began playing with the salt shaker. The lid came off and salt poured over the table.
"Oh, Helen." Rona flicked the bird with a tea towel. "Honestly."
Helen grabbed the tea towel and tugged on it. Rona pulled back. Helen skated along the table top, her claws sliding on the polished wood. "Let go, you stupid bird."
Helen jumped off the table and swung from the tea towel. Rona lifted her up to eye level. The kea hung upside down by her claws and pecked at Rona's nose playfully, chuckling her kea laugh. Then, as the bedroom door opened and Snape emerged after his nap, Helen let go and dropped to the floor. She bounded past Rona and Harry towards Snape. She was moving quite fast when her claws tangled in a sheepskin rug. There was a brief flurry of wings and wool.
Muffled kea curses came from inside the rolling ball of rug and bird.
Snape stared down at it. "Has some idiot let her have caffeine?" he said suspiciously.
"Um... that would be me..." Chad said from the trapdoor. He looked reluctant to come down. Harry couldn't blame him.
Snape looked exasperated as he nudged the lumpy sheepskin with his foot. It squawked. "An explanation might help your case," he growled.
"I had some chocolate in my bag. I forgot about it. It was all zipped up and everything, but Helen— well, I guess she wanted to see what was inside my bag. And she knows what chocolate looks like. Um. She took the wrapper off quite neatly."
"Oh yes, that makes everything all right." He bent down and unwrapped the parrot. "That was a silly thing to do, Helen," he muttered. "You and chocolate are a dangerous combination."
Helen seemed to disagree. She shook out her feathers and muttered dark kea-thoughts on sheepskins that caught in claws. Harry heard her say, "Hot," in a very disgruntled voice that sounded exactly like a parrot version of Snape before she recovered and went to attack Snape's ankles.
Snape ignored her and went to sit at the table — a tricky feat as Helen had her beak hooked in one of his socks and was trying to pull him outside. Every step Snape took dragged her across the floor on her back. "Bloody circus," he snarled.
"Well, at least you're getting the floor swept," Rona said. "When you're finished there, drag her along the shelves. They need a dusting."
Snape reached down and picked up the kea, placing her on the table. "Did you do this?" he demanded, pointing at the mess of salt.
Helen laughed and attacked the accusing finger. Snape sighed and gave in, tickling her belly while Helen mock-fought him, biting and kicking. "You're a disgrace," he told her. Helen just chuckled and bit him.
"Sorry," said Chad, who had come down from the attic.
"I should think so. She's nothing but a danger to herself and everything around her when she's this hyperactive. Plus all that ghastly food can't be good for her." But Snape's stern tone was at odds with the way he was playing with the parrot.
Harry sat down at the table. "Will she be okay?"
Snape nodded. "Once she gets it out of her system. But she'll be in a mean mood tomorrow. Don't get too close to her — her bites will be serious."
This was rich coming from Snape, but Harry appreciated the advice. He studied his teacher as Rona and Chad joined them at the table. Snape was still looking bad despite the rest. There were dark circles under his eyes and the lines on his face were deeper. The thin lips were paler than usual and set even more sternly. "Do you think Hedwig got back to Hogwarts all right?"
Snape looked up from the kea. "I don't see why not," he said less harshly than he usually did when talking to Harry. "The potion won't have weighed her down too much."
"Will the potion travel well? I remember that you used to tell Re- uh, Professor Lupin to drink it while it was still hot."
Snape shrugged and then winced as Helen's bites got too enthusiastic. He pushed the bird away. "Although I've made some modifications, the basic potion is still more efficacious if freshly prepared. Unfortunately for Lupin, that is less than practical, me being on the other side of the world and unable to use magic," he added bitterly.
"Why aren't you allowed to use magic?" Harry asked, frowning. "I mean, it's obvious why I can't, but you should be able to."
By the way Snape glared at him, Harry knew that he'd stepped over some boundary. Oops, Rona and Chad were sitting right at the same table.
Strangely enough, it was Rona who answered. "It's because Sev's been sick. It's not really safe for him to do magic right now."
"So why can't you do magic, Harry?" Chad asked. "Is it to do with why you're hiding out here?"
The twin glares of rage from Snape and Rona caused even Helen to pause.
"Just what," Snape began in his most dangerously soft voice, "have you two discussed?"
"Um... um... just a little bit about not doing magic..." started Chad.
Everyone jumped when Snape banged his fist on the table. Helen flew up to the cupboard and pulled the door shut behind her. "DO NOT LIE TO ME!"
"Sev!" Rona sounded quite shocked. So was Harry.
"This is not a game, Mister Potter. This is not something you can solve by skulking about Hogwarts corridors with your little friends under an Invisibility cloak." Snape's rage had turned icy. "Dumbledore has seen fit to send you here for me to look after, and I am..." Snape shuddered, as if so angry that he couldn't find the words. "I am not strong enough to protect you. I can hide you from Voldemort and his Death Eaters, but I can't protect you from yourself. And as I have been forbidden from locking you in a cave and lowering you food and water in a bucket I am relying on your non-existent powers of discretion. I don't want you here. I don't want you in my house. And above all else I don't want you endangering Rona and her family."
Harry sat very still. "I won't endanger them," he whispered, feeling very pale. His heart was beating too fast as he stared back into Snape's feverish eyes.
"You endanger them by your very presence," Snape whispered. "Where you go, people die."
Painfully, Harry sucked in a breath.
Rona clapped her hands and the sudden noise broke the tension. "Harry, Chad; toilet, teeth and bed," she commanded.
In a daze of turbulent emotion Harry felt Chad grab his arm and drag him off to the washroom. Chad was trying to talk to him, but Harry could hardly hear him through the ringing in his ears. He hated Snape so much. He hated his sarcasm, his unfairness, the fact that he was Slytherin, and the way Snape hated everyone Harry loved. Most of all, Harry hated how what Snape had said was true.
Rona came up to tuck them into bed. "Goodnight Harry," she whispered, kissing him on the brow. "Don't take to heart what Sev said just now. He's feeling scared, and when he's scared he gets vicious. But he shouldn't have said what he did."
Harry bit his lip. "But what he said was true, wasn't it? I'm putting you and Chad and Eru and... and everybody into danger."
Rona sighed and brushed his hair back from his forehead. "If he was that scared he wouldn't have let you come here. He takes his job seriously, sweetie. And his job is to protect the students under his care. I know he doesn't seem like the sort of person you can rely on but when push comes to shove he'll do anything to protect you."
"He doesn't want to."
"He's spent most of his life doing things he hasn't wanted to do," she said sadly. "It hasn't stopped him from doing them to the best of his abilities. And right now he's worried that his abilities aren't up to scratch. He's been very ill. Voldemort knocked the stuffing out of him and he was lucky to escape with his life. Now he feels useless, and not just that, when he finally gets a chance to do something to hurt Voldemort by keeping you safe his health lets him down. He's sick and he's scared and he's very, very angry. But he shouldn't have said what he said."
"But it was true."
Rona frowned. "Are you saying I can't protect my family? Because if you are you've got a few things to learn."
"No, I didn't mean that..."
Rona ruffled his hair back up again. "I know. But I don't want you to worry about us. Have you done any magic?"
"No. And I trust you not to. Wand magic is completely banned around here at the moment. It's too easy to trace. That's why Chad and Eru aren't allowed their wands. That's why you were made to leave your wand at home. Even Sev's put his wand down somewhere so that he won't be tempted to use it when he wakes up from one of his bad dreams... What is it, honey?"
Harry shrugged, not wanting to say.
Rona must have guessed. "Sev told me about yesterday morning. He was very upset over it. And I can tell that he scared you... No," she added before Harry could deny the truth, "I know you got a fright. And I don't blame you. You forget that I've known Sev for a long time now, and I know that he can be pretty scary when he loses control."
"Oh yes; you're not the only one who's seen him on a bad day," Rona smiled. "I just wish you hadn't found out like that that the best way to wake up our Sevvie is to stand back and throw things at him."
Harry found himself grinning. "That's really what you do?"
"Upon my word." Rona crossed her heart solemnly. "I have a special collection of tennis balls I bring with me just to wake him up. Ten points if I hit his nose. Tell you what, wake up tomorrow morning early enough and we'll take it in turns to bounce tennis balls off his head. The one who wakes him up doesn't have to do the dishes. Okay?"
"Okay." Harry snuggled down under the blankets as Rona tucked him in. He yawned, suddenly feeling very sleepy indeed. It had been a long day. "Thanks," he added.
"No worries," Rona replied. "Goodnight, Harry. Goodnight, Chad... Blimey, that boy's asleep already. Sleep through World War Three, as my mother used to say."
Harry must have been tired. When he said, "Do you miss your mother?" he was shocked by his rudeness. "Sorry," he said, blushing. "That was... I don't know."
"I know. You're tired," Rona said gently. "And yes, I still miss her very much."
She didn't seem upset by the questions, so Harry asked, "How old were you when she died?"
"I was eight. I remember her funeral... It was cold. Sev came down for the funeral. There was no way he would miss saying goodbye to her. He'd walked all the way down with no shoes. His dad didn't like him seeing other people. I remember that my dad took Sev home after the funeral and Old Snape was really mad when he saw us. The next time I saw Sev, he'd been cursed by his dad with greasy hair. Weird, I know, but Old Snape seemed to think that if lack of shoes didn't stop Sev from visiting other people, making him ugly would. You don't have parents, Harry, but isn't it better to have lost parents who love you than to have parents who hate the fact that you're alive? Sev did everything he could to spend time with Mum, even down to getting cursed for going to her funeral. He only went to his own father's funeral to make sure the old man was safely in the ground and, if I know my little brother, to spit on his grave. I'd hate to have been made that hard so early on in life.
"My mum died when I was young, but every time I think about Old Snape who lived until I was nearly thirty I think how privileged I am to have had a mother who loved me. And loves me still, I'm sure, wherever she is." She sighed. "Now I'm just getting morbid. Get some sleep, sweetheart. And remember that despite what Sev might say, it's good to have you here."
Harry tried to say "thank you," but found that his throat had closed up. He nodded instead. Rona kissed him once more and kissed her sleeping son before she climbed down the ladder.
Harry fell asleep and dreamed about his parents smiling at him from the bottom of a pool. It was peaceful down there and he could hear beautiful music. The taniwha sang to him.
He woke up as Chad rolled over and jostled him. The dream had been lovely. But he could still hear the music, and someone was singing softly.
The trapdoor was open. He shuffled over to it on his belly, careful not to wake Chad, and looked out.
A lamp was giving out a soft yellow light. Rona was in one of the chairs near the stove, singing in a language Harry thought might have been French. Accompanying her on a bone flute was Snape. Helen was perched behind him watching his long fingers move over the holes. The soft music rose and fell eerily. Harry crawled back into bed and listened until he fell asleep.
If he dreamed, he didn't remember, but he woke the next morning at peace with the world.
Helen was angry at the world the next morning. After shredding a box of teabags and knocking the milk over, she had been thrown outside before she could put herself utterly beyond redemption by destroying Snape's Blue Mountain Troll coffee. "That's what comes of indulging wild animals. Let her find herself some proper kea food this morning," Snape said as he closed the door. He surveyed the mess of tealeaves on the floor. "I wonder what Trelawney would make of that."
Harry, who was making himself useful with a brush and pan, raised a hand to his forehead and said, "The Grim, Professor Snape... 'tis the Grim! Certain death will occur to all who were born in winter under Saturn's baleful influence!"
"Yes, that sounds familiar. But you forgot to add that the death will be a lingering one, fraught with misadventure and certain financial ruin."
"Funny, she's never mentioned financial ruin to me. Normally just the certain doom."
Snape frowned. "I suppose she likes to tailor her dire predictions to the individual. Ah well, never let it be said that Hogwarts doesn't provide the best of educations."
"Sarcasm! You must be feeling better," said Rona as she came in with a basket of wood. "I want your washing."
"I beg your pardon?"
"Washing. What part of that don't you understand? You, Sev, are on the wagon magic-wise, and Harry and Chad are likewise out of commission. As the only active wiccan in the house I hereby sacrifice myself for the greater good of communal cleanliness. So get out all your grubby laundry and I'll do a load. You too, Harry."
"I didn't get you that greenstone for you to be a washerwoman," Snape grumbled as he went into his bedroom.
"No?" Rona shot back. Snape ignored her.
Harry went up to get his washing, glad that he wasn't going to have to do it himself. He'd hated doing laundry at the Dursleys'. "Can I help?" he asked.
"Nope," Rona assured him. "Take Chad outside for some exercise. It's so hard getting him up in the mornings."
Chad was still in bed. Harry had to drag the covers off him. "Go 'way," Chad muttered.
"Oh, come on. I want to get outside. Snape's feeling better but he'd probably be even happier if I was in another country. So I'll have to settle for being out of the house."
Chad yawned. "Don't take what he said last night too seriously. He was just letting off steam."
"Does he usually let off steam like that?"
"Well, okay, maybe not. You've got a point. After me letting Helen get into the chocolate last night it would probably be best if we were both out of his hair. But I'm not going anywhere until I've had breakfast," he added stubbornly. "I don't care who's house this is — I need my breakfast. Sev'll just have to cope with me until then."
"It's your neck."
Harry and Chad were just cleaning up the dishes after lunch when there was a knock at the door. Snape looked up from the book he was reading. "Don't answer that," he said, standing in one fluid motion. The predatory stance was spoiled when he knocked over his coffee mug. "Damn."
Rona said, "Sit down, Sev. I can handle this. It's probably just Wiri, anyway." She glared at him when he opened his mouth to argue and opened the door.
It wasn't Wirimu.
"Sirius!" Harry shouted in joy.
"Black," Snape snarled.
"Sirius Black?" Rona asked in a fair imitation of Snape's silkiest voice.
"Uh... don't believe everything you read in the papers," Sirius Black said.
"I have no idea what you mean," Rona said with a sweet smile that didn't fool Harry. How it fooled his godfather, Harry couldn't guess.
He got no further.
Rona punched him in the face so hard Black almost did a back-flip. He fell backwards into the snow. Rona dived after him.
"Mum!" Chad yelled. Harry was too frozen with shock to react. Then he ran outside, bouncing off Chad as they collided in the doorway.
"Not now, sweetie, Mother's talking to the strange man," Rona said in an artificially calm voice. She had Sirius in a headlock. Black was a strong man and he was struggling hard, but he couldn't break her hold. His face was turning purple and his eyes bulged.
"Mum!" "Rona!" Chad and Harry were both shouting.
"Rona, stop!" Harry pleaded. "He's not the one who betrayed my parents! It was a mistake!"
Black tried to nod. "Mistake..." he croaked.
Rona was still smiling sweetly as she shook her head. "I know he didn't betray your parents, Harry. This is about something... older than that."
Harry took a sharp breath and looked over his shoulder.
Snape was leaning in the doorway, ankles crossed, smiling coldly as if this was the best thing that had happened to him in years. Perhaps it was. "This is about the Whomping Willow, isn't it?" Harry guessed.
"This is about the way he tried to murder my brother," Rona said, still in that calm, sweet voice that chilled Harry.
Rolling his eyes towards Snape, Black tried to say something. All he managed was a small gasp. His eyes rolled back in his head until all Harry could see were the whites and his legs kicked.
Harry whirled to tug on Snape's arm. "She's killing him! Make her stop!" Chad, too, was begging Snape silently.
Snape glared down at him then sighed. "Much as this little show is entertaining me, I don't think it is proper to kill people — and here I stretch the term to its limit — in front of children. Let him go, Rona."
She glared up at him. "He tried to kill you."
"And if I decide to return the favour I'll do so myself. You don't need to sully your hands by touching him," Snape replied smoothly. "Let him go. You're setting your son a bad example."
With an exasperated snort, Rona let go. She stood up and satisfied herself by kicking Black in the ribs. He coughed and started to breathe again.
Harry rushed forward but Rona stopped him. "No, Harry." He twisted angrily out of her grasp and knelt to check his godfather.
There was a small crackle of magic as he shook Black's shoulder. "Sirius...? Are you all right?"
Harry helped him sit up.
"Snape..." was the first coherent word, followed by: "You greasy piece of slime. What the hell are you doing setting your pet Rottweiler on me?"
"I? It was your natural charm, Black. You always claimed to have a way with the ladies. I see now what that way is. Inciting them to homicidal rage may not be the textbook way to get a date, but if your method works for you, stick to it. I for one applaud the results."
Black shook his head and staggered to his feet with Harry's help. He massaged his throat. "Getting girls to do your fighting for you now, Snape?"
Snape shrugged. "It's much more amusing seeing you get beaten up by a woman half your size. Now tell me your business and get out before I let her kick your arse for the second time."
"I've come to get my godson," Black rasped.
"Scared I've been torturing him?" Snape sneered.
"Yes, you filthy Death Eater."
There was a moments silence.
Snape said, very quietly, "Better a Death Eater than someone who lets his friends die because he's incompetent."
Sirius lost any colour he had regained and lunged for Snape.
The world went black. There was a thunderclap, and when Harry could see again, Sirius had gone. "Sirius?" he shouted. "Where are you?"
"Over there," Snape said coldly, motioning with his head to where a pair of boots protruded out of the snow behind the bushes at the edge of the wards. The boots twitched.
Harry ran over when he heard his godfather moan. "Sirius! Are you okay?"
"Only if I'm not Sirius Black..."
Harry dropped to his knees in the snow. "You can't be too bad if you're making jokes. What's wrong?"
"Severus Snape is alive. Other than that, life is just grand." He sat up and clutched his head. "Ow. James? Where did we go last night?"
"Oh. Well Harry, be a friend and help me up. I had this terrible dream that..." He squinted over to where Snape, arms crossed, was glaring at him. Rona's glare was almost as fierce as Snape's. "Oh, bugger. It was true, then. Snape's got a girlfriend."
"Um, she's sort of his sister."
"Really? After him I'd've thought his parents would have sworn off sex."
Harry helped him up for the second time.
"We have to talk."
"It's starting to snow and I haven't eaten for nearly two days."
"How is that my problem?"
Sirius cursed under his breath so that only Harry could hear him. "So aren't you going to invite me in, you inhospitable bastard?"
Snape's lips curved in his almost-smile. "Since you beg so prettily, of course you can come in. I suppose you want to eat from my table, too?"
Harry helped his godfather inside. Rona's look was so hate-filled he was amazed Sirius didn't spontaneously combust under it.
Chapter Six: Lost and Found
"There was nothing wrong with Remus' Wolfsbane potion." To everyone's relief Sirius got right to the point. "Dumbledore never sent you a letter."
"I know," Snape said, pouring himself another coffee. Sirius looked at the pot hopefully, but Snape ignored him.
"So when did you work that out, O Master of the Ineffable?" Sirius growled.
"Right about the time Harry touched you and activated a flare charm."
"Oh damn..." Sirius breathed. He had gone ashen. "So I've just..."
"Allowed Voldemort to triangulate Harry's position to within a few square meters" Yes. But don't worry; it'll take him at least three hours of fairly complicated Arithmancy to work out where exactly we are. Biscuit?"
"Damn you..." Black controlled himself with difficulty. "Harry, when you opened the letter, did you notice anything?"
Harry had been thinking about that too. "Yes," he said quietly, his heart like lead in his chest. "There was a small shower of sparks. Just like when I touched Sirius," he finished miserably, looking at Snape.
Snape seemed preternaturally calm. "Yes. I guessed that there would have been an earlier one from the letter when I saw you touch Black. Black's information that the Wolfsbane was untampered with makes me think that your owl was sent by an agent of Voldemort's." He sipped his coffee. "You might as well stop hiding your wand, Mister Potter."
Harry blushed. "I, uh..."
"Don't worry. It may be to our advantage that you have it after all. Now that Black has led Voldemort to us we will need all the advantages we can get."
Sirius hung his head. "We can Disapparate out," he mumbled.
"No," Rona said, speaking for the first time. Her voice was flat; angry. "Didn't you feel it? There's an anti-Apparating bubble closing in on us. We'd need to walk through it, and it's got a diameter of at least fifty kilometres. I felt it hit one of my old wards down by the town. We can Apparate within it, but that just gives someone as powerful as the some of the followers Voldemort must have a trail to follow." Snape nodded when she looked a question at him. "So Apparating isn't an option. But we can't stay here, Sev."
"No. We have to leave, and leave now."
"Glad you agree. We're going to my place."
For the first time Snape's face showed animation. "Like hell we are!" he exploded.
Rona sat back in her chair. "We are going there," she said with a quiet intensity, "because the first place your old friends will look will be houses with people in them. And my son and my brother and my grandmother are in the nearest house and they don't know what's coming their way."
It was quickly settled. Snape would drive them down in the car. Solomon would follow them down. But there was a slight problem.
"He's moulting." Snape brushed his hand across the pony's shaggy coat. It came away with a mat of white hair. More white hairs floated in the breeze and attached themselves to Snape's black cloak.
Rona groaned. "He can't be. It's too early."
"All the magic in the air... he knows something's going on and he wants to be ready for it."
"But it's too early."
Harry and Chad watched from by the car a few meters away, not wanting to draw attention to themselves after the charged atmosphere earlier. "What's happening?" Harry whispered.
Chad shook his head. "Solly's moulting early. That's bad."
"What do you mean, 'moulting'?"
They were interrupted by Sirius. "I've put those bags of yours in, Snape," he announced. "Let's go."
Snape went to the car, but only to get a small, white container that rattled from the glove compartment. "Rona, you'll have to drive them. I'll lead Solly down."
"What" Snape, you maniac, get in the car and —"
"Come on kids," Rona said briskly. "Into the car. You — Black — get in the car."
"But Snape —"
"Will do what he has to. Get in."
Perhaps remembering the earlier headlock, Sirius obeyed. Harry watched from the window as Rona spoke briefly with Snape. She kissed him on the cheek and ran to the car. Harry thought he saw her brush something from her eye.
As the car drove away Snape had tipped out something from the white container and was feeding it to Solly. Harry watched until they were over the river and went around a bend. "Will he be okay?"
"Sure, Harry," Rona said. "He's going to be fine. We'll get to my place and put on the jug so that he can have a decent cup of coffee when he arrives. He'll need it. Solly's going to need his attention this evening."
"Do all horses need special attention when they moult? I only know about owls. Oh, and maybe cats," he added, remembering the times Hermione's cat Crookshanks had left great meadows of hair over his bedspread.
"Dogs," said Sirius.
"Oh, that's right," Rona snapped. "You're an Animagus. Turn into a dog and go for a wander around these parts, please do. Farmers shoots mangy strays."
Sirius grinned like a wolf. "I noticed. I dodged a couple of bullets on my way up. People around here don't know quality when they see it."
Seeing another argument about to explode, Harry opened his mouth to deflect the anger. Chad beat him to it. "How did you find your way here, Mr Black?"
Sirius looked taken aback by the politeness of address. "Uh — I used a phoenix to talk to Harry's owl. Then I Apparated along the direction she had taken, took my Animagus form, and followed the landmarks the owl had in her mind to locate Harry."
"I didn't know you could communicate with an owl like that," Harry remarked.
"You need a phoenix. And a smart owl," Sirius added, winking at Harry.
"I met the owl. She's awesome. Could you talk to any bird through a phoenix?" Chad seemed to be taking the existence of phoenixes quite easily. Perhaps he had come across them before.
Sirius gripped the back of the front seat. He was sitting next to Rona, who was taking the corners too fast and had a set, angry line to her jaw. As the sun set behind them her eyes grew darker, the anger in them reminding Harry of Snape. He hoped the professor was all right with the pony.
"Some birds," Sirius was saying, "like owls are easy. Most are like sparrows and blackbirds — not worth bothering with. Ravens are sly and gulls are philosophical."
"What about parrots?" Harry asked.
Sirius raised his eyebrows. "I guess you could ask one if it wants a cracker."
Rona stepped on the brakes so hard the car skidded to a stop.
"I'm sure she's safe, Mum," Chad said. "You know her; she avoids strangers."
"Only when they're out of food," Rona growled. "Show her a Death Eater with a ham sandwich and she's found a new bosom buddy."
"Who's Helen?" Sirius mouthed at Harry.
"Helen's a local parrot," Harry explained. "She's sort of Snape's pet."
"And Uncle Sev wouldn't want us worrying about her," Chad said pointedly to his mother. "She can take care of herself."
Sirius opened his mouth to say something bad about "Uncle Sev," Harry just knew it, so he said quickly, "Sirius, don't you think it'd be a good idea to transfigure into your Animagus form? There are people who might think you're an escaped convict."
"He is an escaped convict," Rona muttered, shifting the car into first gear and pushing down hard on the accelerator. "The sooner he goes back to Azkaban the better."
Harry and Chad gave their respective guardians a poke in the shoulder each and exchanged apologetic looks that said: "Adults. Can't live with them, can't get a babysitter for people their age."
"Sirius? Would it be a good idea or not?"
"I've never met an animagus," Chad said. "That's so cool. What sort of dog do you turn into?"
"Damn," said Sirius, laughing. "You two are spending much too much time around that sli- ah, Slytherin. Since when were Gryffindors as manipulative as you're proving to be, Harry?"
Harry shrugged. "It's a knack. So?"
"Oh, all right."
The next second, a big, black, shaggy dog was sitting in the passenger seat.
Rona screeched and the car nearly went off the road. The dog yelped as its head hit the dashboard.
"Sorry, Rona. Um, it seemed like a good idea. He'll be fine, I promise..."
Rona muttered dark things about Good Ideas.
The sun went behind the Southern Alps and all of a sudden it was a very heavy twilight.
"Rona, I wish you'd stop bringing strays home."
"Sorry Maman. I'll take him down to the pound tomorrow. Or the vet, and have him fixed."
Rona was enjoying this a bit too much, Harry worried. She really seemed to harbour a deep resentment towards his godfather. Maman sighed, and went into the back bedroom to check on Eru.
Wiri crouched down to rub Sirius' jowls. "Nice looking chap," he said. "Looks strong. Too big for sheep, but if you crossed him with something short and stocky you could get a good pig-dog."
Sirius whined a little, his tail going between his legs as he rolled his eyes pitifully at Harry, who was trying not to laugh. "Er, I think he got top in his class," Harry said.
"Really" What class was that?" Wiri asked, curiosity lighting up his hazel eyes. He really did care about animals, Harry realised.
The dog nodded.
Harry tried not to laugh. "He's a wizard. An Animagus."
Wiri jumped back. "Oh, I am sorry, sir. I didn't mean to offend you." The dog's tail wagged and he grinned a doggy grin to show that no harm was done. "What's his name?" Wiri asked Harry.
"Ur... Joe." Harry didn't want a repeat of the scene where Sirius got nearly choked to death. "Joe Smith."
"Original name for a wizard, I guess," Wiri said doubtfully. He patted 'Joe' on the head once more and stood up. "Where's Sev?"
Rona said, "Coming down with Solly. Do you have any more of your pep pills?"
"Oh no — Solly's not started moulting, has he?"
"You got it."
Wiri looked grim. "Bad time for it. Harry, Chad, get out and put some hay down in the cow shed. Make it a thick layer; we're expecting snow tonight and lots of it."
Maman came back out to report that Eru was still sleeping and that they weren't to wake him as it had taken her so long to get him to sleep in the first place. She checked the boys' scarves and hats. "Be quick. I'll have some hot chocolate for you when you get back. With marshmallows. Keep warm. Eru's still sick and I don't want either of you two coming down sick as well."
"We'll be fine," promised Chad, hugging his great-grandmother.
Harry hung back, then hugged Maman when she held out her arms to him. She smelt of magnolia flowers and wood smoke. He wished he had a great-grandmother of his own to hug.
Sirius followed them out. As the door closed, Harry heard Maman query, "What's really going on tonight, Rona?"
In the cow shed Harry imitated Chad, pulling reams of hay off bales and shaking them out to fluff the hay out into a thick, comfortable layer on the floor.
"There," Chad said. "Might be a good idea to bring in the old oil heater and some blankets."
"Can you use a heater in here?"
"An oil heater, sure. But you've still got to keep an eye on it just in case the hay gets too close."
"No, I mean, doesn't it mean using magic?"
Chad gave him a look so ancient it could have been fossilised. "We use electricity here, Harry."
Harry grinned sheepishly. "Sorry. I get so used to Wizarding folk living so completely separated from Muggles that they don't even know what electricity is."
"Well, in this family we try not to get too reliant on our magic." Chad shuffled backwards from one of the stalls, dragging out a battered old oil heater. "Plug it in, will you? Should be a socket under the shelf where the jug is."
Harry found it. "Do you want me to put the jug on?"
"Good idea. Never know when you're going to need hot water, and Uncle Sev might need to dissolve some of the medicines before giving them to Solly."
When Harry tried the tap, nothing came out.
"Probably frozen," guessed Chad. "Just pack the jug with snow, eh?"
"Okay." Harry went to the door where Sirius, still in his dog form, was watching the night creep up out of the valleys. After filling the jug Harry crouched next to his godfather and put his arm around the shaggy shoulders. "Any sign of You-Know-Who?" At this stage Harry wasn't about to tempt danger by saying Voldemort's name.
The dog whined softly and shook his head.
"Good. I've got my wand — have you got yours?"
The dog nodded.
"Snape said we'll probably need them. Is there any way we can get a message to Dumbledore? I suppose we should wait and ask Snape." The dog growled softly at the name. "Yeah, I know," Harry said. "But there's some strange magics in this place. He might know how to use them best."
The dog snorted. Then, at Harry's disapproving look, he swiped the boy's face with a long, wet tongue.
"Eyew!" Harry lost his balance and fell over backwards.
There was a cough from the shadows and the dog stood, growling softly as he moved between Harry and the stranger.
"Yeah. I came out to see your dog..."
It was Eru, wearing slippers and a quilt. Wrapped up with him was a teddy bear. Its button eyes peered glassily at Harry. "Hi, Eru." Harry patted Sirius on the Animagus" shaggy shoulder. "You should be in bed." Eru's face was flushed, his eyes too bright and a little glassy like the bear's.
"Mum's upset and she won't tell me why. Where's Uncle Sev?"
"He's on his way down with Solomon," Harry said as calmly as he could. Even Eru, sick as he was, could tell that something was wrong.
"Eru! What are you doing up?" Chad's exasperation was more from worry than anger; Harry could tell that he wasn't happy to see his little brother wandering around.
"I wanted to see Harry's dog. And where's Uncle Sev?"
"Well, here's Harry's dog. And Uncle Sev's leading Solly down because Solly's started moulting."
Eru started to cry softly. "Why isn't he here? Mum's been gone so long and now she's back and Uncle Sev's not here. What's wrong with Solly?"
Chad put his hand on Eru's forehead. "Let's get you back to the house," he said, adding; "Harry, bring your dog back inside. Leave the jug for the minute."
Eru was still weeping softly. "Wanna see Solly. Wanna see Uncle Sev..."
"I know. He'll be here soon."
"Wanna see him now..."
Chad picked up his brother, teddy and all, and carried him back inside where Rona took him into her arms and whisked him off into the bedroom.
"Is he okay?" Harry whispered to Chad.
Chad sat down on the couch and looked at his hands. "He's running a high temperature. I think he's hallucinating a bit — he's pretty distressed. But Uncle Wiri can treat him if Sev can't. I thought he was okay when we came up on Saturday morning, but he's not good now. Mum'll have to sleep with him tonight just to keep him calm."
Harry sat down next to him carefully and Sirius put his muzzle on Chad's knee. Chad, forgetting that it was an Animagus, stroked the dog"s silky ears. "We're going to need help tonight, Harry."
Chapter Seven: Big My Secret
Sirius with his canine senses was the first to hear something different. He looked up from his place on the rug by the door, and woofed softly to alert the other people.
"Stay inside," Wiri commanded. He opened the door, and Harry caught a glimpse of his wand in his back pocket before Wiri's jacket swung to cover it. While it was reassuring that he had the protection of magic, it also alarmed Harry. Wiri must be worried. It was the first time Harry had seen a wand in this country other than his own.
Wiri's shoulders relaxed. "Sev. You took your time."
Harry didn't hear Snape's reply.
Chad pushed past Wiri. "How's Solly?"
"Not great. Cow shed?" Snape's voice asked.
"Yup. Harry and I put down hay. The heater's on so you won't freeze, and we boiled the jug. Maman's been making hot chocolate and you can have some with marshmallows if you like, but if you'd rather then you can have some coffee. Maman made some biscuits too. Do you want to come inside or shall I bring something out to you?"
Harry was at the door peering over Chad's shoulder, and he saw Snape smile tiredly. "I'll take Solomon to the barn. Coffee would be good, thanks, Chad. Wiri — have you got some more pep pills?"
"I left you heaps in that container. You can't have used all of them."
Snape's smile turned cynical, his pitch-black eyes glittering strangely. "Yes, well, one for the pony, one for me..."
Wiri planted his hands on his hips. "Severus Snape..."
"I know, I know, but tonight I'm going to need a little something extra to help me help Solly through." Snape turned to lead the pony around to the back of the house and ignored any admonitions Wiri might have wanted to make.
Slipping past Wiri, Harry followed. Sirius trotted at his heels.
Snape ignored them, too, as he led the pony into the prepared stall. Solly heaved a great sigh. The pony's legs were trembling a little, and his head was low. He also seemed to be having some trouble breathing.
"What is it, Potter?" Snape's voice lacked the usual scorn. He sounded tired; almost apathetic, Harry thought with a sinking in his stomach. It was as if Snape had given up hope of seeing the morning.
Harry decided not to ask about Voldemort, as he'd intended. "Can I help?"
Snape hesitated, head bowed over the pony's back so that his hair shaded his expression. Then he pointed to a box in the corner by the door. "Get some brushes. Soft brushes. And a blanket."
While Sirius sat in the doorway and watched the night, they put the blanket over the pony's loins and brushed until all the white hair made it look as though it had snowed inside.
Harry was fairly sure that horses shouldn't moult like this. It seemed that every swipe he took with the body brush ended up clogging the bristles with hair. Snape had showed him how to use the metal currycomb to clean the body brush, and Harry quickly fell into a routine of using the two brushes. Focusing on something other than the destruction of evil was soothing. Harry brushed and brushed and brushed. Snape was working with the brushes too, but his expression suggested that he was thinking hard, turning various possibilities over one at a time, discarding one after another. At some point Chad came in with coffee and hot chocolate. Harry paused for a drink but was glad to get back to work. Stopping brushing the pony meant thinking about things he really didn't want to think about.
"Chad, tell Rona that my flute is the green bag. She knows the combination. I'll need it, as well as some matches."
Chad looked puzzled, but went back to the house with Snape's request.
A minute later, Rona brought out the flute. "Sev, you can't mean to...?"
"It's the only way to get a message out through the barrier."
Harry stopped brushing to watch.
The flute was pale and looked ancient. It looked like bone. Harry stayed silent, knowing that if he said anything he would just annoy Snape, who seemed to be concentrating fully on what he was planning to do.
First, the Potions master took out a piece of paper and scribbled a message on it. After rolling it into a cylinder, he inserted it into the flute.
One match should have only scorched the bone flute a little.
It flared up like magnesium.
In that blinding light Harry thought he saw a heron unfurl white wings, sing one clear noiseless note that bypassed his ears to hang in his mind like a crystal bell, and take flight.
Then all he could see was the after-effects popping like Christmas lights in the backs of his eyes, and all he could hear was the laboured sound of an old pony trying to breathe.
After a moment, he heard Rona ask, "Will it work?"
Snape replied, "It's all we've got. They're all around us. I can feel them like I can feel the Mark burning on my arm." He was interrupted by a deep groan from Solly that made even Sirius whimper.
Rona pulled Harry back as the pony collapsed. "Sev?" Her voice was high.
Snape settled down in the hay with the shivering pony. "Go inside. There's nothing else to be done for now. He just needs some peace."
Rona arranged blankets over man and pony silently, then gestured to Harry with her head. Harry followed her out and back into the house. He only looked back once — Solly was stretched out in the hay with his head in Snape's lap and Snape's long fingers combing gently through the silver mane.
It was warm inside, a completely different warmth to the organic heat of the cowshed. Maman was sitting in her chair. On the couch next to her was Chad, quietly reading aloud to his great-grandmother from a local Muggle newspaper. They looked up as boy, woman and dog entered.
"How is he?" Maman asked.
"Tired," Rona replied succinctly. "Both of them. Solly's way too early. Sev's been taking the same blasted pills he's giving to the pony."
A snort from Maman. "Silly boy. He should know better. He's going to be a mess tomorrow. Now sit down here and tell me exactly what is going on."
Rona complied, giving more detail than Harry would have credited her with knowing. She told her grandmother everything except, Harry noted, Snape's Death Eater past. Somehow Rona seemed to skirt that issue, telling the truth so that Snape's connection to Voldemort was never a consideration. Harry and Chad listened quietly, knowing that if they made a peep they'd be sent into the kitchen. At some level Harry knew that Rona was poised halfway between the maternal instinct to protect the boys and the intellectual knowledge that they were almost adults and that, if the worst happened, they needed to know what and why they were fighting. Any interruption from the boys might have them tipped them back into child status.
At the end of the narrative Rona sighed and raked her hands through her hair. "He's burnt the flute Grandmother Taniwha gave him and sent for help. I hope..." She trailed off into silence.
For long minutes there was only the crackle of the fire. The silence was shattered by an unearthly keening that made everyone except Maman jump.
It was just the wind.
Maman reached out and patted Chad's hand. "Grandmother Taniwha is stirring up in her hills. Can't you feel it? She's sending us the snow. She's building us a wall of snow to hide us. She won't let her own people be hurt by some crowd of fascist hocus-pocus merchants. We're safe here."
In her own way she was as comforting as Dumbledore. Even Sirius crept forward and rested his muzzle on her knee.
"And who's this handsome fellow?" Maman cooed.
Rona looked ill.
Sirius looked up at the old woman soulfully and wagged his tail just a little as she fondled his ears.
"What a nice doggie. With him to protect us I'm sure we're safe."
The tail went thump, thump, thump on the floor.
Wiri came out of the kitchen, wiping his hands on his jeans. He grinned when he saw Maman and the dog. "Associating with criminals, are we?"
Rona glared at him. Wiri shrugged. "What? No-one will be coming up in the storm that's starting. His secret's safe with us."
Maman looked up sharply. "Would someone like to tell a helpless old lady what the hell is going on?" she demanded, her voice threaded with cold steel.
Wiri ignored his sister's hissed, "You and your big mouth..." "What I mean," he said, "Is that this dear old chap with his head in your lap isn't a dog. He's an Animagus. Not called Joe Smith, either. Honestly, Harry..." He gave Harry a hurt look. "We're all friends here. It's a very bad time for secrets. And if Sev doesn't tell us it's okay to skin Sirius Black and use him as a dogskin cloak then it's preferable he makes himself useful as a human. We may need all the wands we can get."
Harry couldn't believe how calmly Wiri took all this. It was clear Chad took after his uncle more than anyone else. Seconds later, a rather disgruntled Sirius Black (human) was sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of Maman.
"Do you have to take this so — unseriously?" Sirius demanded.
"I think you mean 'flippantly,'" said Wiri, helping Black to his feet. "And I'm taking this all very seriously. So seriously that I'm not letting you and Rona keep going on with whatever little game it is that you're playing." But Wiri did seem more amused than anything. By the defensive way Sirius was standing, he was expecting Wiri to throw a punch at any second.
Harry stood up. "Uh, Sirius, this is everyone. Everyone, this is Sirius Black. My godfather."
That got quiet Oh's from Wiri and Maman. Wiri extended his hand. After a moment in which Sirius tried to work out the threat, the two men shook hands. "As you're Harry's godfather, I guess you're more than welcome in our house. Can I get you a beer?"
Sirius seemed to be trying to fight a nervous twitch. "Uh — yes please. A beer would be great right about now."
"Can I have a beer?"
"No, Chad, but you can have some more Milo if you're wanting something to drink. Harry?"
"I'm not thirsty, thanks."
Sirius bowed to Maman. "Sorry to have fooled you like that." He took her hand and kissed it. Rona's expression soured further as Maman smiled as graciously as the Queen.
"You're forgiven. It's not every day a handsome man has his head in my lap. If I were ninety again you'd be in trouble." She winked and patted his hand.
Harry had never seen his godfather blush before. Chad sniggered.
Realising a retreat was in good order, Sirius sat down on the couch next to Harry and slung his arm around his godson. When Wiri handed him a tall glass of beer, the Animagus buried his nose in it.
There were many things to talk about, not least the present situation, but nobody seemed to want to break the quiet. It was, mused Harry from where he sat curled up against a dozing Sirius Black, as if speaking of such things would make them real. Much like the popular antipathy towards naming Voldemort. Harry began to doze too.
There was a thump on the roof followed by the terrible screech of claws sliding across corrugated iron.
Harry jolted upright.
"Relax," grunted Chad as Harry's elbow caught him in the ribs. "It's just Helen looking for Uncle Sev. Keas aren't much for flying at night, but she'll find him."
Sure enough, Harry soon heard the satisfied gurgle of a kea who has discovered what she wants.
The fire had burned down and Rona had gone in to check on Eru when the door opened and Snape came in with Helen on his shoulder. He looked awful.
"How's he doing?" Wiri asked immediately.
Snape nodded. "He'll be fine. Right now he's sleeping. Tomorrow—" he hesitated, as if tasting the word for a hidden jinx "—tomorrow he'll be up and about again. The boys will have their work cut out for them just trying to keep up with all his energy."
A snore from Sirius turned into a snort as he woke up confused. "Death Eaters?"
Wiri grinned, not necessarily with humour. "No Death Eaters here, mate."
Some people are never at their best when waking. Sirius was one of them. "No? What about the one who just came in?" he growled back.
"Wake up, Sirius, it's just Sev."
Harry had a terrible feeling about this, and not just because the scar on his head suddenly sent a jolt of pain through his skull. Snape was wearing a frozen look on his face that was from more than the snow outside. Quickly Harry elbowed Sirius in the ribs.
"Ouch, careful there, Harry. Snape's the one I'm talking about. Okay, ex-Death Eater, but in my opinion—"
"Your opinion," Snape bit back frostily, his eyes glaring death at the Animagus, "is hardly worth inflicting upon us."
Sirius snarled, "People have a right to know about you just like you think people have a right to know about Remus being a werewolf—"
They were interrupted by a walking stick being banged on the floor.
"What," said Maman icily, "is he talking about? Wirimu?"
Wiri just shook his head, baffled. Harry was surprised — didn't these people know about Snape's past?
"Severus... what is this man saying?"
Snape stood there dumbly, his eyes black pits in his ashen face. He backed up against the door as Maman moved close to him and leaned on her stick. "Severus Obadiah Snape — explain what this man has just accused you of."
Harry's stomach had a terrible cold feeling clenching inside it, as if he had swallowed a packet of Ice Mice.
Snape grabbed Helen. Helen squawked at the indignity. Her squawks turned to outraged shrieks which were quickly muffled as Snape stuffed her in a cupboard behind the coat rack and threw the bolt on the door. Furious thumps, shrieks and scratches ensued within.
"Will you deny it, child?" Maman's voice was soft with heartbreak.
Snape never moved, his eyes not leaving the old woman's face. He didn't even blink when she raised her hand and cracked the flat of it across his face.
Harry gasped, and heard Chad echo him. Sirius gripped his shoulders tight when he tried to get up. There was an extra angry screech from the cupboard.
"You know what Grindelwald did to my husband — and now you follow his heir?" Maman spoke quietly and there was the faintest tremor to her voice. Snape was pale except for the red mark where he had been hit.
He wasn't fast enough to pull back when Maman's hand shot out and grabbed his left wrist. A look of panic crossed his face and settled in his eyes as he tried to break free, but the old woman's grip had the iron strength of bitter fury.
She pushed up his sleeve and spat like a cat.
"There. There. You — you dare walk into my house — into my family — when you wear the mark of this — this filth. How dare you."
He was cut off by a back-hander across the other side of his face that knocked him back against the door and made even Sirius gasp.
"Get out. Get out. Find your filthy Death Eater friends and get out of my territory. My curse on all of you." She spat in his face.
Snape twisted his wrist free like it was burning and stumbled backwards out the door into the darkness. Harry caught a last glimpse of him wiping his face as snowflakes danced in the light from inside before the door slammed shut.
It was several long moments before anyone remembered to breathe.
"Maman," croaked Wiri, sounding as thought he had only just remembered how to speak.
"Did you know?" Maman demanded. "Did you know?"
Wiri shook his head. "I never even guessed."
Chad was crying softly, his eyes wide with the realisation of betrayal. "Not him," he kept saying. "Not Uncle Sev. He's not like Dad..."
Harry slid out of Sirius' grasp and, before anyone could stop him, shot out the door.
Outside the temperature had plummeted. It seemed almost too cold for snow, but big, fluffy flakes were falling from the sky, catching in the moonlight and spinning in the light from the open door. They fell into Harry's hair and melted on his glasses. Not far away, they had begun to shroud the tall, black-clad figure that stood like Death in black robes.
"Professor! Professor, wait!"
Snape had walked a little way down the road to where he was standing. His palms were open to the night sky. Strangely, the snowflakes didn't fall into his hands, although they did zig-zag dizzily above them, as if there were twin vortexes of energy spiralling up to the sky.
"I'm busy, Potter," he muttered distractedly.
Harry stopped. Like a prickling on the back of his neck, he could feel the rising thrum of magic. Without looking around he heard his godfather jog up behind him. "Snape? What the hell do you think you're up to now?"
He was ignored. Harry reached back and found his godfather's hand and squeezed it. Wonder of wonders, Black took the hint and didn't ask any more questions. He, too, sensed magic at work, turning his head and sniffing at the air.
Harry felt it first in his feet. Then, out of the corner of his eye, he saw the magic. Its sensing was like the first little ripples of an earthquake; moving in towards the house, rebounding and coming back until they formed a standing wave encircling the house. Something about it was familiar, but it took him a moment to place where he knew the magic from.
They were the wards from Snape's cottage.
There was a moment of uncertainty, then they snapped into focus, earthing themselves around the house and sheds.
As soon as Harry realised this, Snape's shoulders sagged and he stumbled to his knees. Harry ran to grab his elbow. "Professor? Are you alright?"
Snape coughed to clear his throat. "As alright as I need to be."
"But your house?"
"Has served its purpose," Snape snapped back harshly. "The wards are needed here."
"Snape, what did you just do?" Sirius was standing in front of them. He offered his hand, but Snape ignored it, leaning on Harry a little instead as he struggled to his feet.
"I've placed some protection around this house. It's set to prevent anyone from moving through while they bear malice to the inhabitants. Any of the inhabitants," he added wryly, "so that makes it about the only place in the world you, Black, would be safe." He waved a hand mockingly. "You can thank me later. Just make sure your godson and everyone stays inside. Help should be arriving soon, but I don't know when. I'll try and create a little distraction in the meanwhile."
"I can't believe I'm saying this," Black muttered, "but come back inside with us. I'll try and explain to them that—"
"Oh, like that ever helped me. I think you've done enough explaining for one lifetime. Harry, if anyone should happen to break through, get to Solomon. Take Chad and Eru — the horse can carry three. He'll take you wherever you want to go. To Hogwarts. To the dark side of the Moon. I don't care where — just tell him where to go and he'll take you. And make sure Helen stays inside the cupboard. I don't want her following me. She's too trusting."
He shook off Harry's hand and started walking.
Snape spun in a swirl of black cloak and snowflakes that shone like flecks of bone. "Get inside the house, Potter, or you'll be losing more than points for Gryffindor!"
Harry blinked. That was all it took for Snape to disappeared into the night.
"Shit," said Sirius.
Harry thought that summed up the situation quite nicely.
Chapter Eight: The Sacrifice
Back inside, a quiet but deadly argument greeted them.
Rona had taken floor centre with Maman.
"You knew?" Maman clutched at her walking stick so hard her knuckles went yellow.
"Of course I knew! I also knew to the day when he turned against that putrescent pod of pus. I know who he is, which—"
"You know nothing, stupid child! You let him waltz in and out of the house, you let him teach my great-grandchildren Curses and God-knows-what foulness, and you say you—"
"I know him. He is my brother. I have known him since the night he was born and the Iceman and Solly brought him to this house with the blood of his dead mother fresh on him! My mother treated us like we were both her children and I never, ever saw anything wrong there! Mum loved Sev like he was her own, and now you—" Rona paused, choking with rage. "Damn you, damn you for sending him out there unprotected, and damn you, Wiri for not stopping him from going!"
Wiri cowered as his little sister whirled and pointed a shaking finger at him.
Rona spun to face Sirius Black, her face contorted with sick fury. "And damn you to every hell, Sirius Black, for forcing him to choose Voldemort when he was a boy because he had nowhere else to turn. You'd better hope," she hissed, "that the Dementors catch you and suck out your soul. Because if we make it through this night I will put your every aspect through such torments that they'll make the Cruciatis look like a romp in the park for what you have done to my brother."
"MUM STOP!" It was Chad. His face was streaked with tears but his hands were balled into fists. "STOP FIGHTING STOP FIGHTING STOP FIGHTING!"
Like a hammer on a crystal glass, it broke the tension.
Everyone stared at him. "We can't fight now. We have to stick together. Even if — even if Uncle Sev's gone, we still have to look after ourselves. All of us."
"He's right," Harry said. "Professor Snape told us to stay here. He's moved the wards from his house," he paused at Rona's sharply indrawn breath, "and put them around here. He's gone to create a distraction, but he won't need to bother if we keep yelling and attract every Death Eater in the area."
Four pairs of adult eyes glared at him, but Harry stood his ground, knowing he was right. He just hated the terror in Rona's eyes when he had said 'gone to create a distraction.' She had known instantly what Harry finally had to admit to himself: that Snape had gone out knowing that he would die. That Snape had known he would die ever since Sirius Black had shown up the unwitting carrier of a location spell.
That he cared less about dying than about Maman's opinion.
Oh Merlin, Harry thought. Another one who'll die because of me.
There was a terrible splintering sound.
For one heart-stopping moment Harry thought Death Eaters were coming through the wall. Then the cupboard door sung open.
Helen spat out the lock.
As she eyed the shocked gathering she looked angry enough to bite through metal.
"Don't let her go!" yelled Harry, remembering what Snape had told him.
Wiri grabbed the multi-coloured blanket from the couch and threw it — too late.
Helen spread her wings and glided out into the kitchen.
"Damn," Rona said with feeling. "You boys catch her. And be careful. She's in a hell of a mood."
Harry and Chad each took one end of the blanket. As they tiptoed into the kitchen Chad whispered to Harry, "I feel like some sort of apprentice matador."
Harry nodded, trying not to laugh. Not that Helen hadn't heard them coming — she was probably waiting somewhere where she could drop something on their heads. But by staying quiet he had a better chance of hearing how the argument was progressing in the living room.
He could hear angry voices, but they were whispering. Harry sighed and concentrated on finding Helen instead. One thing at a time...
They looked under the table. They looked under the sink. They looked in cupboards (Helen was clever enough to close them behind her), up in the shelves, behind the curtains and in the sink.
The kitchen was kea-free.
Harry pointed to one of the doors that was open a crack.
"Bugger. I think she's gone into Eru's room."
"She won't hurt him, will she?" Harry worried.
Chad shrugged, turning helpless eyes on him. "Hard to say. Eru's not in his right mind. What if he tries to use her like a teddy bear?"
Harry winced at the thought. "We'd better check."
Chad pushed the door open. It was dark inside. "Eru? It's me, Chad. Y' okay, mate?"
"Chad?" Eru's voice was sleepy.
"Yeah. How you feeling?"
"I don't feel too good. I keep seeing things. Bad things. Chad, make them stop."
"Shh, I will. Don't worry, it's just that you're sick. You'll get better soon and they'll all go away."
"No they won't, 'cos they'll have happened..." Eru sounded like he was going to cry again.
"Nah, nah. Hey, look who I've brought to visit you. Harry. He's come down to see how you're doing."
"Hi, Eru." As Harry's eyes adjusted to the dark, he could see Eru's bed. The small boy was swamped under a huge quilt. Eyes gleamed above him. By looking carefully just to the side of the eyes Harry made out Burd Helen perched on the headboard. "I can see Helen."
"Yeah. She came in and jumped on my bed." Eru giggled. "She pecked my nose and said 'hot,' then she jumped up there. She's in love with Uncle Sev so she thinks she's my aunty. But she knows how to stay the right size. If she marries Uncle Sev will she remember to stay the proper size, or will she try to get really big and crush me like the frogs keep trying to?"
Eru didn't sound good.
"Do you reckon Auntie Burd Helen will stay there if you ask her to?" said Chad. Harry crossed his fingers.
Eru sat up. Helen preened strands of his hair gently away from his sweaty forehead. "Chad, where is Uncle Severus?"
"Um... he's gone out."
"He doesn't have his wand."
"Yes he does," Harry said. "He always carries it." Hang on, didn't he leave it somewhere where he wouldn't unwittingly reach for it while he was sick?
"No," Eru said in a firm voice, "he doesn't." His voice rose. "Chad! He doesn't have his wand! The snakes will eat him if he doesn't get his wand!"
Chad sighed. "Eru, this is New Zealand. We don't even have snakes in zoos. He's fine."
Eru ignored him. His breathing was getting harsher. He reached into the drawer by his bed and pulled out a wand, which he showed to Helen. "Helen. Severus doesn't have his wand. Take my wand to him."
Helen took the wand very gently in her beak. When she twitched her head a few sparks came from the end. Harry and Chad, who had been preparing to rush forward and get the wand, paused. There was a strange gleam in the bird's eyes that wasn't entirely due to the sparks from the wand. Harry wouldn't put it past the kea to know a few spells.
That moment was all it took.
Eru opened the window, letting snow and a cold gust of wind in.
And letting Helen out.
She dropped the wand on her way out, to Harry and Chad's relief, and Eru's dismay.
"Burd Helen! Come back! Burd Helen! Uncle Sev needs a wand!"
But she was gone.
Eru was crying. Chad went over to comfort him. Harry sat on the end of the bed, watching the brothers. "She'll never find Snape," he said. "Even if she had his wand for him she'd never find him in all of this."
Chad nodded. "Especially if he's gone to the Taniwha's Pool. Not even Helen can find that."
Harry felt the first spark of hope for his Potions master. "Would he be safe there?"
Chad nodded again, but in the dark room Harry couldn't see his face to tell if his friend really thought there was anywhere Snape would be safe tonight.
It took several stories and Harry (to his enduring shame) had to sing the Hogwarts School Song, but eventually Eru was asleep again and Harry and Chad wandered back out into the living room. There seemed to be some sort of temporary armed truce going on between the three warring factions (Wiri was Switzerland) that had resulted in a frosty silence. Harry and Chad stood there awkwardly, until Chad broke the silence. "Umm — we'd better check that Solly's okay. He might have — I don't know, drunk all his water."
"The blanket could have slipped off," added Harry.
Rona looked thoughtful at the mention of Solomon. "All right," she said slowly. "But keep an eye out for each other. Come back and tell me if he's feeling better."
"Yes, Mum," said Chad quietly. "Come on, Harry."
Harry was very glad of the excuse to get out of the house for a bit. The tension inside was almost palpable. There was a white layer on the ground now that crunched under their feet. A snow-laden gust of wind tried to knock them over as they trudged to the cowshed and Harry re-wrapped his scarf, thinking about Helen as he did so, and hoping she had found somewhere safe for the night.
In a way, Harry thought dazedly as Chad opened the door of the shed, Helen had found a safe place.
"What the hell...?" Chad sounded just as stunned as Harry felt.
There, larger than life and glowing like the moon, was a transformed Solly. At least, Harry presumed it was the old pony. There had only been one little white horse in here, after all. But this — this was something else"
"Well," said Chad, sounding relieved, "at least Solly's back to normal. But you, Helen, what do you think you're doing?"
The parrot contrived to look both guilty and defiant and she sat high on the pony's neck. She was holding something in her beak.
"Lord," breathed Chad. "She's got Sev's wand. She must have seen him hide it."
Helen ruffled her feathers and bobbed up and down angrily. She squawked as Solomon tossed his head, and dropped the wand.
Chad lunged for it, but Harry was quicker.
Helen's claws were tangled in the pony's mane and she was swearing in Parrot.
Harry spun around, the wand in his hand, to see Chad aiming his own wand at Harry.
"Give it to me."
Harry shook his head, his heart thumping high in his chest. "No."
Chad's wand trembled. "I said give it."
Harry shook his head harder, backing away. "What would you do with it? Take it to Snape?"
Chad's mouth tightened in anger, and for a moment he looked a lot like his mother.
"That's what you were going to do, isn't it? Did you know Helen would go up to the cottage and get it?"
Chad sighed, his shoulders sagging. "I didn't know that. But — you remember that time we were talking about our mothers? How I said Mum would die for any one of her family?"
Harry nodded, feeling very uncomfortable at the memory.
"She wants me to tell her how Solly is. And like he is—" Chad waved towards the horse "— he can go anywhere. He can take her to Uncle Sev. And wherever Uncle Sev is, you can be sure he's thinking something similar to Mum, that he has to protect us by drawing Voldemort away from the house. So that means that Mum would be going up there where there are Death Eaters galore. She's tired and she's not thinking right. Sev wants her here, safe with us, but she's... I can't explain. She's ashamed of what Maman did. She feels like she has to redeem us somehow and... and she loves him very much. Maybe not more than she loves me and Eru, but she loves him as family and she'd do anything to keep him safe after all she's felt him go through the last year. Ever since they were sixteen she's been wanting to make his life right for him and, and, and she'd feel that they could fight Voldemort together better to protect us and... oh, this isn't the time to explain. Even if I could. Even if I really understood what it was all about." Chad looked hard at Harry. "But let me put it like this. If you could choose, what would you do? Would you let your mother die for you again?"
Harry flinched. "No. I'd" He lowered Snape's wand from where it had been pointing at Chad. He swallowed thickly. "No. I wouldn't."
"Then give me the wand."
By way of reply Harry tucked the disputed wand in his robes. "I'm going. You stay here."
Chad's face flushed angrily. "You don't even know where you're going."
"All I have to do is get on Solomon and—"
Chad smirked, something he must have learned off Snape. It was a Slytherin thing, certainly. "And what? You don't know how to ride a horse. But I do. If you get on Solly's back, all I have to do is whistle and he'll lie down and stay there."
It was Harry's turn to go red with anger. Before he could reply, Helen launched herself at him. "Hey!"
A flurry of feathers later and Helen was back sitting on the horse's head with Snape's wand in her beak.
Harry would have sworn on his parents' graves that she was smirking.
"Well," said Chad.
They both reached the same thought at the same time: each found himself looking down the wand of the other boy.
"Damn," both said before any real magic curses could be cast.
Then Chad started laughing. "We poor fools who are about to die..."
"I don't remember anything about fools in that quote."
"Then there bloody well should be. Come on, Harry. There's been enough fighting for tonight. Let's keep it for those who really deserve to have their arses kicked."
"Well," grunted Harry, as Chad gave him a leg-up onto Solomon's back, "I for one don't intend to die." He shifted around on the broad, white back. After moulting, the horse's coat seemed extra slippery.
Chad climbed up on a bale of hay then vaulted up behind Harry, reaching around his waist for a double handful of mane. "Good for ya. Hold onto that thought." He clucked his tongue and the reborn Solomon pranced out of the stable, two boys and a kea holding tight to the silver mane.
Harry wondered later if they left hoofprints. By the way Solomon seemed to fly over the snow, he doubted it. But whenever he dared look down at the flashing hooves he saw snow spraying out in glittering silver sheets. The moon was high in the sky and almost full. Everything was black or pale silver. The only light came from the moon and the speeding pony. The speeding, glowing pony.
"Won't they see us coming?" Harry whispered back to Chad. It seemed sacrilegious to speak any louder.
"No," Chad replied. "Solly doesn't want anyone to and he can put a bit of a glamour on himself and us. Just a little notice-me-not, but it's effective at long range. Still got your wand?"
Harry reached to check just in case. "Definitely."
"What's it best at?"
"Huh? Oh, I'm not really sure. It's got a phoenix tail feather as a core. I'm still working out what that means. What about yours?"
Chad drew it out of his pocket. "Fantastic for illusions, summonings, and psychologically based spells. The really ancient magics, y'know. Tanekaha wood. The core's three strands of plaited pooka hair."
"What's a pooka?"
"You're kidding me? What do they teach at your school?" Before Harry could snap back a reply, Chad continued, "Well, right about now we're sitting on a pooka. My wand's core was taken from his tail and the wood was taken from the tree my placenta was buried under."
"'Placenta'? Does that mean 'afterbirth'?"
Harry tried to think of something to say about placentas being buried under trees other than yuck, and came up a complete blank. "Pooka? so Solly's not a horse?"
"Sort of. I don't know much about them. Sev's never said how come his mum ended up with one. It's always been a bit of a — whups."
Solly's muscles bunched beneath them and the boys hung on tight as the pooka hurtled over a fallen tree. Helen was holding on with her beak, now, too. Harry winced a little at the landing and reminded himself to ask Hermione what she knew about pookas. If he ever saw Herm- He stopped that thought. He would see Hermione again, and Ron.
Merlin, right now he'd be happy to wake up to a bright new day and see Snape...
In front of them the silver ground gave way to a dreadful, blank, blackness. Harry shut his eyes and felt Chad's arms tighten around his waist in terror.
Solomon leaped into the void.
For a long second there was a horrible lightness in his stomach as if it were trying to come out his ears.
Then they landed.
"What in the name of...?"
"Lord! Aurors, Lord!"
"I wondered how things would get worse..."
Harry pulled his face out of the snow at this last, unpleasantly familiar voice. He smiled despite himself. "Professor...?"
The smile disappeared in the next instant as, "Ahhh," hissed a high, cold voice from nightmare. "I was just asking your dear Potions master where you were, and why, here you are. At my feet, no less. How blissfully ironic."
Sycophantic laughter at the words.
Harry looked up despite himself. Into the pair of red eyes that had haunted his sleep for years.
Voldemort. Surrounded by — let me see — oh, no more than half a dozen Death Eaters. Wonderful.
When Voldemort lit the end of his wand to better illuminate his new victims, Harry saw the black-robed figures with their white masks were arranged in a rough semicircle. In the centre the snow had been trampled around a shapeless black bundle. The bundle stirred, and Harry realised that he had found Snape.
The Potions master looked as if he had been badly made out of wax. His eyes were slightly unfocussed, and he swayed as he tried to sit up.
There is a smell to certain spells. Harry had smelt this one on himself after his last encounter with Voldemort. Cruciatis.
Snape stunk of it. "Professor...? Are you all right?"
"Oh, he'll be much better now that you have so kindly consented to join us. I won't need to torture him — well, not quite as much."
Again the laughter.
"Such loyalty from a Death Eater, Mr Potter — and not for me. How disappointing. He held out remarkable well on your behalf and here, all this time, I was thinking he hated you."
Harry wanted to say He does, but couldn't see how this would help anyone.
Nothing would have swayed Voldemort, anyway. The tall creature spun to the crouching Snape and lashed out with one booted foot, catching the man in the face and flipping him over on his back. Harry heard an enraged kea-squawk, but Voldemort ignored it, perhaps thinking it just another night creature.
"How delightful; you seem to have brought me another toy, Harry. I was rather hasty with the last spare you brought for me. My followers will take much enjoyment out of this one."
There was murmured agreement from the cloaked figures. When two or three made to step forward, Voldemort held up a hand. "No," he purred. "They are mine. Watch and learn."
Harry looked around. Chad was kneeling between Solly's forelegs, holding one wrist that looked sprained at best but possibly broken. He was staring at Voldemort in horror.
Snape lifted himself onto his elbows and tried to shake some of his hair out of his face. "That boy is here by mistake," he husked. "Let him go."
Voldemort crouched, briefly graceful in the motion, and peered closely at his renegade Death Eater. One claw-like hand reached out in a tender gesture to stroke clinging strands of hair out of Snape's eyes. Snape shuddered, but managed not to cringe from the touch. Harry tried not to gag at the thought of those mad, red eyes burning into him, but Snape's gaze didn't waver from Voldemort's face. Not even when the Dark Lord trailed a fingertip through the blood running from Snape's nose and brought it up to his mouth.
Voldemort licked up Snape's blood as if it were a new kind of nectar.
Harry could hear Chad trying not to vomit.
Voldemort spoke; softly so that Harry had to strain to hear. "Your blood is sweet to me, Severussss — Have your beloved potions imbued it with such succulence, or is it novel to you?" He dipped his finger again into the rivulet running down Snape's chin. "I will take my time in savouring it. I will see if Crucio brings out more of its subtle essences. If given gladly under Imperio, will it blend itself with Nagini's venom to raise me to new levels of invincibility... Although I cannot find another Potions master of your calibre, there are many who flock to my banner who will want to experiment with your life-essence.
"Perhaps I shall sedate you and keep you cocooned in my grasp while I encourage them to find out if your mastery can be bottled and transmitted to my faithful." He paused to lick his finger clean again. "Either way, my sweet-blooded Severus, your life will be lengthy and given only to my glory. So-oo," he continued more matter-of-factly, "why do you concern yourself with a pair of misbegotten brats when all you can achieve is yet another demonstration of my disappointment in you?"
"Because," Snape rasped, his voice long since gone under the Cruciatis, "I am obliged to give you fair warning. Those boys are here and protected." He still seemed to be having trouble focussing his eyes but maybe he was providing just enough of a distraction for Harry to get out his wand? Damn. It was caught in his pocket. Quietly, carefully, Harry's fingers set about untangling it from the material.
Voldemort chuckled and smoothed Snape's greasy hair lovingly. "Yes-sss. I can see what a good job you have done of protecting them. And are still trying to do."
He stood. "Do you really think I don't know about the message you sent to that old fool Dumbledore?" he snapped, his sibilant voice becoming more clipped. "He's hours behind us. Especially now that young Mr Potter and his little friend have, in a fit of youthful impetuousness, come to rescue you." He smiled at the frustrated agony that twisted Snape's face. "Still, boys will be boys. Let us make sure they never become men."
He turned his red eyes to Harry. "Your blood is in me. The counter-curse your mother provided is in me. No more wasting time. Time, Mr Potter, is no longer a friend to you." He lifted his wand.
Harry readied himself to dodge. His wand was ready in his hand — he just needed a distraction—
Snape grabbed at Voldemort's ankle and sank his teeth into Voldemort's his leg. "Aah!" The alarmed Dark Lord kicked out viciously. Snape yelped, his blood speckling the snow.
Harry threw a binding charm but it was blocked effortlessly. The feedback from Voldemort's wand stung Harry's fingers and spun Harry's own wand away into the snow.
Ignoring Harry for the moment, Voldemort snarled and kicked out at Snape again.
Snape caught the kick on his arm and tried to trip his assailant, but fell face-first into the snow at his feet as Voldemort stepped back easily.
In the whole world, the only colours were from Voldemort's eyes as he prowled in a circle, glaring down at the prone man, and Snape's blood, almost black on the snow. Snape coughed as if he were trying to bring up a lung. Harry's own ribs ached in sympathy.
Voldemort looked rattled. Quite probably no-one had ever tried to bite him before. "Enough of your antics, Severus! Avada Kedavra!"
A rushing noise accompanied by a flash of green that was now too, too familiar to Harry flew from Voldemort's wand towards Snape.
"No!" howled Harry, enraged. "No! I won't let you do that again!"
He felt something build up behind his scar until he thought his head would split. He almost wished his head would split, just to stop the pain. But in that moment before his head burst he somehow threw that power out from himself towards Snape.
A wall of red and gold light shot up around Snape and as the curse hit it, it rang with the pure voice of a phoenix.
The killing curse bounced away into the darkness. One of the Death Eaters cried out but was cut off abruptly.
With his stomach clenching and light-bulbs exploding at the backs of his eyes, Harry collapsed, bile burning the back of his throat.
As he fell he caught Snape's eye. The man looked as though he weren't quite sure if he was still alive, but knew that somehow Harry had had the power to save him. Harry tried to smile at him in encouragement, but his face was numb. It was as if all the power he had somehow found within himself to make that protective wall had taken the force from his muscles with it when it left his body.
And now he had no idea how to bring it back.
I'm sorry, he mouthed to Snape.
Snape closed his eyes and nodded. He rubbed his cheek against the snow and Harry heard him sigh.
All Harry could do was watch helplessly, tears burning in his eyes, as Voldemort stepped in for the kill.
Again he heard the words and the rushing sound. Again he saw the green light. He wanted to cry out but even his voice had gone numb.
There was the flash of red from the underside of a kea's wing. The sweep of air brushing past Harry's cheek as Helen, Snape's wand in her beak, swooped.
A sharp crack! that sounded like a stone breaking and the soft thump of a feathered body falling into the snow.
Disbelief. Utter, utter disbelief. No. That can't have happened.
I'm dreaming. Please, please, let me be dreaming.
Then there was the acrid ozone reek of anger rising from the ground.
The physical stink of this alien anger catapulted Harry out of his stunned numbness and into fumbling around in the snow for his wand. "Ah-ha!" As he gripped the smooth wood he felt the magic come back to him and, with it, his strength. Harry took a deep breath.
He heard two other voices along with his own shout: "Avada Kedavra!"
Saw three streams of green light shoot from Snape, Chad and himself towards Voldemort.
Saw Voldemort try to block three unblockable spells at once.
Felt the mist rise.
Saw the stars blotted out by a darkness that had been old before Night.
Heard the angry voice that made the hills tremble:
Who has spilled the blood of my child? Who has brought death to my home?
Chapter Nine: The Promise
In the dark all was confusion. There were the frantic voices of Death Eaters calling out for their master. Some sounded familiar — Harry made out Wormtail's voice and grimly aimed his wand in that direction.
But when he tried to cast the full body-locker spell his words were eaten by the angry darkness.
I say again: Who has spilled the blood of my child? Who has brought death to my home?
"Grandmother? Grandmother it was the man who has the venom of Nagini in his veins," came Snape's voice, dry and cracked. He sounded as if he were trying not to cry, but he was alive. Harry almost trembled with relief.
The night seemed to gather and refocus its attentions.
Harry blinked. He could see again. Moonlight had never seemed so bright.
The darkness had churned within itself to provide an arena. In it could be seen Chad, Solly, and Voldemort. Chad's face was the colour of whey but he managed to give Harry a weak facsimile of his normal smile. Harry tried to smile back, but wasn't sure if his face was working properly. His body felt sluggish, as if it wasn't in its proper place somehow.
Voldemort was in the centre of the arena. The three Killing Curses circled him, darting at him like angry wasps and bouncing back. Whatever was holding them back, Harry couldn't even guess at, but he thought Voldemort was just as startled at being alive as Harry was.
Solly shook his mane and yawned, unperturbed so long as Chad didn't move from the safe spot between his forelegs.
Shrunk back from Voldemort was Snape. His hair was back to hanging dispiritedly over his face. Blood dripped from his hooked nose and was spattering the snow. At first Harry thought his hands had been hurt by the way the Professor kept them tucked against his chest, but then he realised.
Oh, no. Not her, too.
The night breathed in.
It wasn't something Harry could describe, more like a prickling up the back of his neck that told him something was happening.
That, and the smell of roses.
The darkness coalesced into a tall form.
Black hair flowed down, becoming robes that were woven from the very essence of night. It travelled down and on into the shadows. It was the shadows. Harry blinked and tried to focus on the face that was crowned by a wreath of white roses.
Face and hands were visible — pale as the full moon.
Were there eyes? The night seemed to find a resting place where eyes should be. Those eyes were where the night sheltered when the sun came up and then, when it went away again, the night would return, filled with all the fears and the glories that came during the still hours of the mind and were forgotten upon waking.
The woman turned those eyes on Harry.
He winced as they saw straight into his soul. In them were none of the kindnesses Dumbledore granted when he saw you and your motives stretched out for his scrutiny. Dumbledore, for all his age and powers, was human.
This creature was not.
She could wear the form of a woman, but no human had ever had eyes like those. The closest Harry had seen to them had been Snape's blank, black eyes.
She knew the fears and the glories. They held no secrets from her. She was sister to many of them. She was the daughter of Night and Death.
All this Harry saw and understood in the split second she examined him. And he knew, too, that she had consented him this knowledge.
She looked away and her pale lips parted.
Snape bowed his head, unable to meet those eyes.
She glided over the snow as if she had no feet. She left no footprints: the snow was swept clean as if it had only just fallen. She reached down and put a delicate finger under Snape's chin.
Child. Still you hide from me.
Is it right that a child should fear his ancestress?
She tilted Snape's bloodied chin so that he faced her. Her eyes caught and held his. Harry saw the wet trails of tears and he saw Snape tremble. He did not hear Snape's whispered reply.
I am patient. I am patience. All that is lost returns to me. There was nowhere so far you could go that you could not return to me. I am only pleased that it was not death that brought you back.
Snape flinched as if she had struck him. "It was not my death." He held out the bird's body. "Is this justice?"
Harry swallowed against the hard lump in his throat. Helen. He thought he heard Chad sob and when he looked over the other boy was wiping at his face fiercely with his good hand. Solly lowered his head and blew a gust of warm air down the back of Chad's neck.
The daughter of Night and Death stroked the cooling feathers with a long, bone-white finger.
I do not concern myself with justice, she said, but not unkindly. I am Guardian. And you are of my blood through the human man I loved, and thus my conscious link with the peoples of this land. Finally you have returned. That is what concerns me. And here, with you, are creatures that have damaged you. They seduced you from your rightful place. They poisoned your thoughts. Your soul you managed to poison on your own, but they supplied you with the toxin.
They tried to claim you.
They did not know you already belonged to Me.
She drifted over to touch Voldemort's shoulder, and the green lights circling him shattered and dissolved in the snow.
Voldemort himself was trembling, those mad, red eyes rolling in terror.
Somewhere Harry found room to feel a small, vicious pleasure at Voldemort getting some of his own back.
This is the source of the blight. He has bled you and marked you, and merely destroying his body will not dispose of his malice.
She held out her hand. Dazedly, Snape tucked Helen's corpse against his chest with his right arm and held out his left hand. She pushed up his sleeve and let the moonlight show the blemish of the Dark Mark against the ghostly white of his skin.
She covered the skull and snake with her palm.
It hissed. Snape bit his lip until there was fresh blood on the snow, but he didn't cry out.
When she removed her hand his arm was unmarked.
It is done. And this time you will remember to whom you owe your loyalty, my child. You will continue the line that binds me closer with the people who live with this land. I have cleared the path for you. Her voice was stern, now. I will take your past and put it where it cannot escape to cause further mischief.
She turned and glided away. The moonlight followed her and when she floated up on the large, flat rock Harry knew at last where they were.
Grandmother Taniwha's Pool.
Was it only a trick of the moonlight, or was the pool empty? There seemed to be a yawning gulf that made the eyes ache and the mind wince.
He didn't have time to work it out. The shadows flowed around and past him, becoming part of the woman's robes before plunging in a black waterfall into the pool.
Harry saw empty masks and faces flow past like drowning men in a raging river. Some of the faces were recognisable, twisted in fear though they were.
A short, balding man with a silver hand reached out to grab at his cloak. Harry hit the silver hand with his wand. A flash of blue light and a startled yelp, and Wormtail let go and disappeared back into the river rushing into the pool.
The woman did not dive into the water, as Harry had been expecting her to. Instead, she merged with it. Only then did Harry properly understand. He had been expecting scales and teeth and claws. He hadn't been expecting Snape's great-great-great-grandmother.
She was the taniwha.
And the taniwha was the pool.
The ebony waters of her hair rippled softly at her last words:
Your past is gone, child, and love such as Helen's must be rewarded. As Death's daughter, I can give you and she this: Your future.
She was gone. The night resonated with her passing.
Harry gasped as if air was a new thing.
He knew Snape had been holding Helen's corpse. But now, in his arms?
Harry stumbled towards Snape, vaguely aware of Chad doing the same thing.
There, in Snape's arms, was the body of a naked woman. At first Harry thought she was dead. Then there was the sudden gasp for air and flutter of eyelashes.
Snape, too, seemed to come back to life. Not letting the woman go, he managed to shrug out of his cloak and wrap her in its warm folds. As he drew her close to his chest, the woman's eyes opened. They were dark brown, and hauntingly familiar.
Snape swallowed audibly. "Helen?" he croaked.
The woman smiled. One hand reached out from the cloak to stroke his hair back from his face and rub away one of the tear-tracks. "Yes," she said, and closed her eyes, still smiling, as she laid her head on his shoulder. Harry and Chad knelt in the snow. Harry put his hand on Snape's thin shoulder and looked at Chad. Chad met his gaze with one of astonished disbelief. We're alive, he mouthed. Harry nodded back, still dazed and doubting, and squeezed Snape's shoulder gently. Snape didn't notice; he hugged Helen tight and rocked her in his arms, his hair hiding his expression, his shoulders shaking beneath Harry and Chad's hands.
In big, soft flakes, the snow began to fall again. Harry and Chad huddled closer to Snape and Helen, both boys trying to shelter the grown-ups from the cold.
Solly was the first to notice when the Minister for Magic and the Aurors arrived.
"There they are!"
Fudge. Damn, thought Harry after the moment it took to register whose voice that had been. Could things really go from pathos to bathos so easily? What the hell was the Minister doing here, anyway? He looked up and scowled at the small, plump man. To think that Fudge had once seemed kindly?
"Children, get away from that Death Eater!" Fudge snapped.
It was a little disturbing how Snape didn't seem to notice. His attention was held entirely by Helen's sleeping face.
Harry and Chad exchanged a look of complete understanding. "The Death Eaters are all dead," Harry tried to snap back, but his voice wobbled annoyingly from tiredness and came out a bit squeaky. Damn, and he'd thought he'd finished with his voice breaking at least two years ago.
"Don't be a foolish child," Fudge blustered. "That's Severus Snape, and he's —"
Chad stood up. Harry was amazed at how calm he seemed; Chad was barely showing that his arm hurt. "I know exactly who he is," Chad said, his voice so frosty Harry was amazed icicles weren't coming off it. "But I don't know who you are. You — whoever you are — had better have a good reason for trespassing on my family's sacred ground."
Harry bit back a grin. Maman seemed to have rubbed off on Chad at some point.
"I — of all the — you — what the Dickens?!"
Under the moonlight Fudge seemed to be turning purple.
Something broke inside Harry. He could feel tears building up behind his eyes and threatening to overflow.
Maybe it was the end of all the tension. Maybe it was the fact that the creature who had killed his parents and hated him all his life was trapped in the netherworld of Hine Nui Te Po. Maybe it was the realisation that, for the first time in his life, he, Harry Potter, the Boy Who Lived under other people's orders, was free.
Maybe it was the sight of Cornelius Fudge, putative Head of the magical world, insecure and incompetent head-in-the-sand man that he was, gaping and gasping like a blowfish out of water.
Harry fell backwards — flop! — into the snow. "A-ha ha ha ha haaaaaa!" His laughter was so loud it must have rung from the skies.
He subsided into giggles and sat up again, taking off his glasses so that he could wipe tears and snow from his face.
Fudge was muttering something about "clearly unhinged by the stress..."
"You okay there, mate?" asked Chad.
Harry looked around.
There were the Aurors in their golden robes. There was Fudge, blowing out his cheeks in indignation. There was Chad, concern in his dark eyes as he stood protectively over his uncle. Harry sobered immediately at the sight.
There was Snape, cradling Helen and stroking her face tenderly as if there was nothing else in the world.
And there, beyond them all in so many ways, was the midnight pool of Grandmother Taniwha.
If Fudge tried to touch Snape he would find out for himself just what had happened to Voldemort.
Harry smiled a little at the thought. It was good to know that even though incompetence and mediocrity would try to trip up the people who wanted to get on with doing the correct thing, at the end of the day there were larger forces at work.
He rested his eyes on Snape.
And, Harry thought in his most private heart, the place where he kept his mother's memory alive, sometimes all it took was love to vanquish evil.
Well, love and a pissed-off grandmother protecting her family.
On the other hand, the Aurors probably hadn't done anything other than support Fudge. No reason why he should stand by and let them get eaten by a taniwha. A wise course of action might be to calm things down before primordial forces got stirred up again. Maybe he should do something?"
He decided to play a hunch.
"How can you prove Professor Snape is a Death Eater?" Harry asked, secretly proud of how calm he sounded.
"He has the Mark on his left forearm," Fudge said, his eyes darting back and forth between Snape and Harry. "As you well know, Mr Potter — you saw it only a few months ago, as did I."
Harry had to repeat himself twice before Snape replied with a drowsy "Hmm?"
"Professor Snape, can I just see your left hand for a minute, please?"
Chad's glare said to Harry: I hope you know what you're doing.
Harry bit his lip. I hope I know, too.
It was awkward. Snape didn't want to move his arm from holding Helen. Chad managed to resettle the sleeping woman and took Snape's left hand, pushing back the sleeve.
The moon shone down on clear, unblemished skin.
Harry breathed a sigh of relief. "As you can see, Minister, there is no Dark Mark."
"It's a trick!"
"Now, now, Cornelius. I think young Harry here has made his point." This voice was amused with a healthy amount of pride thrown in for good measure.
"Headmaster?" Harry couldn't believe it. "Headmaster Dumbledore?"
He didn't wait for a reply; he shot to his feet and raced across the clearing to the tall figure who stepped out from the shadowy trees.
And then he tripped.
Harry would have sprawled flat on his face, but Dumbledore caught him. "Well, Mr Potter. It's not everyday I get such an exuberant reaction from my students." Even in the moonlight Harry could see how his blue eyes twinkled with pride. "Well done, Harry," he breathed. "That was well played." He lifted his head. "I believe I have acted within the terms of our agreement, Cornelius. Severus Snape, as I have been telling you all these years, is not and never will be a Death Eater. Now please be so good as to stop slandering my staff."
Fudge went so purple Harry thought he was having an aneurysm. Cool. He'd never seen anyone have an aneurysm before. The Minister rammed his bowler hat down firmly on his head, tried to say something, failed, and Disapparated with a sharp pop!
Dumbledore brushed some snow out of Harry's hair. "Voldemort is dead," he said mildly, apparently to no-one, but the Aurors were listening so intently the air fairly prickled. "And I'm sure there is a good story behind it. One that involves, unless I am mistaken, the sudden appearance of ladies without much in the way of clothing. Severus, child, do you really think this is the right time of year to be camping without a tent? Severus? Severus?"
"...is in shock." Dumbledore shook his head and continued slowly, as if talking to a backward child. "Severus. I got your message. It's thanks to you that we got here, although a little too late for the fun and games, it would seem. Why don't you bring your new friend back to Hogwarts? I have a Portkey with me that —"
Well, that was a definite reaction, decided Harry, startled into stepping back by Snape's fierce snarl. "Professor, Helen will catch her death of cold if you stay out here."
Snape seemed to notice Harry for the first time. "Potter? What are you doing here? I specifically told you to stay at the house."
"Yes, sir," Harry replied with great patience, considering how tired and frozen he was. "But that won't stop Helen freezing."
Snape blinked at him owlishly, and Harry wondered how many bouts of the Cruciatis he had sustained, and how many the Longbottoms had had before they went insane? Funny, he didn't have that anger thinking about them that he'd had just this morning. Voldemort was dead.
"He's gone. It's time to get on with living."
Harry didn't realise he'd spoken until he noticed that Snape was looking at him with a more focussed gaze. It took even longer to realise that Snape's expression was a smile.
"You sound just like Rona," Snape said softly.
That idea seemed to bring the Potions master completely back to reality. He looked down at Helen and frowned. "She can't stay out here," he said decisively. "And what in Hades are Aurors doing standing around in this, of all places? Want to take up swimming?" he added nastily.
There was some foot-shuffling amongst the gold robes. "We came with the Minister," one said. Apparently monsters weren't as scary as Snape in a foul mood. Harry could sympathise, but didn't. The Aurors had been too late to do anything except cause trouble. And he couldn't help thinking about what Chad had told him about Snape and the Longbottoms...
"I don't see him. If he's buggered off then maybe you should, too."
"Really, Snape! We came to help!"
Snape snarled one of his patented snarls. It wasn't made any the less effective by him being on his knees and with his face covered with his own blood. Maybe it was the inky blackness of the pond that never froze, but the atmosphere of the clearing took a sudden chill that had nothing to do with winter. There was a mist rising off the black water that swirled towards the Aurors.
"Like you've ever been any damn' help." He clutched Helen tighter; the former kea frowned slightly before yawning and rubbing her face against his chest. Snape spared her a look of concern that was all the more startling by the way the gentle expression abruptly turned malicious as he turned his attention back to the Aurors. "Where were you when this boy's parents were killed?" Snape barked, tossing his head towards Harry.
Oh oh, thought Harry. The brakes were off now.
Snape's eyes were feverish with old grudges. "Oh, that's right. You were standing around watching while I was being tortured and ignoring the real reason I'd come to you. Checking with Dumbledore would have been the work of a minute, but no, you had to play your little games. In the meantime Voldemort waltzed in to Godric Hollow and AK'd anyone within range."
"Now that's a—"
"A little too accurate? A little too honest? A little too real? The only person in that room who was capable of rationality was tied to a chair and bleeding while the imbeciles stood around and patted each other on the back and congratulated themselves on capturing a jolly tricky chap, and wasn't it a job well done? Did you go down to the pub later for a few butterbeers and a bit of extra-smug back-slapping? Oh, Deacons." He shook his head mock-sadly at one on the Aurors. "By the way your feet are shuffling it seems you did. Tsk, tsk. I seem to recall you betting five Galleons on when I would break," he added mildly. "You never were able to collect on that, were you." Then, like a silk tearing, his voice roughened with hatred.
"Pray to whatever deity you hold dear that I don't publish my memoirs," he hissed. "Because if I ever do you'll be going down further and faster than Voldemort did five minutes ago."
There was utter silence.
Dumbledore cleared his throat. "Well," he managed. "Now that we all know where we stand, why don't we go and stand somewhere else warmer that has hot cocoa and marshmallows. Come back to Hogwarts, Severus."
Snape staggered to his feet, still holding Helen. Her bare feet dangled from the folds of his robes. He staggered a little, but stayed on his feet, angry, defiant and proud.
"We're going home," he said simply. "Come, Solly."
The pony went and lay down at his feet.
Snape sat astride the grey back. "Chad? What's wrong with your arm?"
"Nothing Uncle Wiri can't fix. I've got to get back to Mum. She'll be worried sick about what happened. I'll tell her you're okay."
"I'll see him safely home," Dumbledore promised.
"Yes," Snape said, his voice back to bland. "You will. Or his mother will be unhappy with you."
Dumbledore, in his wisdom, did not answer this beyond a nod. "Harry can come back to Hogwarts with me."
"—Or stay here, as he chooses," Dumbledore added, not missing a beat.
"I'd like to go back to Chad's. Si- My godfather—" Harry looked around, but all the Aurors had vanished. Fat lot of good they had done, he thought savagely. "Um, I'm sure he'd like to see you again, sir."
Dumbledore's smile was pure sunshine. "It's mutual, my boy. Severus ... will you be safe?"
Snape ignored the question as Solly carefully gathered his hooves under him and stood, being more concerned with not sliding off the rear of the pooka.
Snape nestled Helen more securely against him and replied, "Solomon will take us home. Make sure the boys are safe."
The pony walked off into the night. Harry fancied he saw the silver tail swish once like a victory flag before the falling snow swallowed them.
Dumbledore strode over to Chad, who was watching the pond ripple. The mist had died away after the Aurors had left. He looked up when Dumbledore put his hand on his shoulder.
"Is it really over?" Chad asked.
Yes, wondered Harry. That was my question. Its been all my life. Is it really over?
Dumbledore stared for a while into the pool before he answered them and the rest of the wizarding world.
"Yes," he said. "There is no return for Voldemort."
"Good. Let's go home."
The snowstorm was inexplicable, unexpected and lasted for two days. What was so very odd about it was that forces beyond normal (normal by the standards of witches and wizards, that was) prevented Apparating. It was, Dumbledore said during one of his long conversations with Maman, akin to the anti-Apparating wards set up around Hogwarts. Maman had replied that she remembered a storm like this just after Grindelwald had been defeated, as if the natural world were somehow re-asserting itself; shaking out the Dark Magic like a dog shaking rainwater out of its coat. Dumbledore agreed, and that had led to a lengthy competition of Who Lived Through the Worst Storm (AKA "I remember the winter of eighteen ninety-three when the chickens laid frozen eggs"). It made a change to their more technical discussions once Dumbledore found out it was Maman and her late husband who had done the ground-breaking work on linguistic development in abandoned children of the wizarding world. Maman (who thought Muggles made better parents than wizards simply because the social pressure to raise children within acceptable parameters was so much stronger for Muggle parents) was a great proponent of specialist magical toys that helped re-establish neural links in the brains of children whose development was impaired due to...
Harry tuned out at that point. A conversation about children who were so badly neglected they couldn't grasp basic grammar made him uncomfortable. It reminded him too much of the Dursleys. It was also a subtle dig at the back of his mind, an awareness of that brief loss of control he'd had when Fudge had shown up after the taniwha took Voldemort. Clearly unhinged by the stress, Fudge had said. But Harry refused to give credence to any opinion Fudge might have, and tucked that memory away in a deep place and distracted himself by talking with Chad about the differences in what they'd learned about magic. That was much more interesting than thinking about Cornelius Fudge.
By the end of it Harry was getting a severe case of cabin-fever. He, Chad and the recovering Eru (who seemed to have forgotten all his clairvoyant fever-dreams) had played Hide and Seek until Rona became annoyed with Eru for hiding up in one of the kitchen cupboards and breaking her favourite plates; they had played Wizard Monopoly one too many-times ("Portkey straight to Azkaban, do not pass Go, do not collect 200 Galleons"), and were sick to death of playing chess with the regular, Muggle chess-set.
Harry was watching Rona and Sirius play chess when Dumbledore tapped him on the shoulder. Harry almost didn't notice. He was feeling drowsy from the fire, and it was pleasant how Sirius and Rona had focussed their mutual dislike (Well, okay, he thought: mutual loathing) into something a bit more formal. Rona won most of the times, which meant Sirius had had to do most of the dishes without magic, which in turn meant more broken plates for Wiri to mend.
"Mr Potter. I believe the storm is letting up. We should be able to return home within a few hours."
"Home?" Harry's heart faltered. He'd come so far — the other side of the world, a lessening of the Mutual Revulsion Society he and Snape shared, Voldemort's death ... He'd seen a pooka moult. He'd seen a taniwha lose her temper. He'd seen a dead parrot turned into a live woman. He'd even — and no-one outside of this strange country would believe him, he didn't doubt — he'd even seen Severus Snape smile. So why did returning to the Dursleys' seem so horrific?
Dumbledore eyes as they looked over his half-moon spectacles at Harry were very blue. "Yes, Harry. Home. Hogwarts. You'll be safe there now."
"Yes, Harry. Hogwarts is your home now, if you want it to be, of course. You'll be safe there — no more Voldemort. And I can divert the Rita Skeeters of the world from the gates," he added with a smile.
Harry couldn't speak for relief. He looked over at the couch where Chad and Eru had fallen asleep. Maman was sitting by the fire knitting and pretending not to notice Rona and Sirius bickering. Wiri was out in the kitchen mixing up some unspeakable goo in the sink. This, homey as it was, was not his home. After several long moments, he said, "There's someone I have to see before I go."
Dumbledore nodded and patted Harry on the back. "In your own time then, Harry."
Harry smiled back gratefully. Now he just had to think up a good excuse to see Snape again...
"Um. I brought a present up for Helen."
Snape arched an eyebrow. "Chocolate."
He was standing blocking the door into the cottage, his arms folded, but his usual stern manner spoiled slightly by the faint air of concussion he still carried. Harry tried to look solemn. "Yes, sir. I know how much she likes it ... and caffeine."
"It's a big bar."
"Yes, sir. And it's energy chocolate."
Snape's expression was a blank. "That was very ... thoughtful of you. In a strange and twisted way."
"Thank you. I did put a lot of thought into it."
"I seem to have been a beneficial role model for you after all."
Harry winced. "Is that revenge for the chocolate?"
Snape smiled an inscrutable smile but chose not to answer the question.
From inside a female voice called out, "Severus? Is that Harry?"
Snape sighed and stood aside to let Harry in. Harry blinked to accustom his eyes after the harsh sun-on-snow of outside. There, sitting at the table drinking a cup of tea, was Helen. It could be no other. Her eyes were the same colour as they had been when she was a kea, but her short hair was a dark reddish-brown. She looked over at him and smiled, her face lighting up in a way that turned her looks from the passably pleasing into more than passably pretty. She stood as Harry kicked off his boots and walked in. She opened her arms and Harry grinned as she laughed and hugged him, wrapping his arms around her and hugging her back until he lifted her off the floor. She felt warm and vital and very, very much alive. She was everything Voldemort was not. He stepped back and looked down at her. "Hello, Helen."
She patted his cheek affectionately. "Harry-chick. It's good to see you safe. Severus said you would be, but I always like to see these things for myself." She smiled again, which set off a dimple in her cheek. "Sit down and let me show you how much easier it is for me to make tea."
Harry laughed. "I'm glad you haven't changed too much."
"Oh, you'd be surprised," Helen said as she put the kettle on the stove. She muttered something and the quiet murmur of the flames grew louder. Harry raised his eyebrows and looked at Snape, who ignored the unspoken question.
Helen held out her hand to Snape and drew him over to sit at the table, kissing his hand once before she let it go. "Will you be staying with us again?" she asked hopefully. "I like having children around. It makes me feel like part of a family."
"Uh..." Harry looked sideways at Snape, whose eyes were black and cold and definitely not welcoming. Me in Snape's family...!? "—I really have to get back to Hogwarts."
Snape relaxed marginally.
"Oh, but it would be lovely to have you a little longer..."
"Helen," interrupted Snape, "the boy has places to go, people to see. It's a busy world out there."
"So why don't we go with him?"
Harry bit the inside of his cheek at the way Snape's eyes widened in horror.
"Oh, all right, all right," Helen grumbled, rolling her eyes. The kettle was boiling and she poured hot water into a mug. "But don't expect I'll be wanting to spend all my life on the side of a mountain, Husband Mine."
"Far from it," Snape replied smoothly. "But you've only been human for a few days. Grandmother gave you what human information she could but there's still so much you need to become comfortable with."
Helen eyed him slyly then winked. "I'm becoming comfortable with certain aspects of human behaviour."
Snape actually blushed.
Harry bit his cheek again. It would have been suicide to laugh.
Helen, apparently, was still not well enough to tramp about through the snow, but Snape walked Harry down to the river and levitated both of them to the far bank. Unspoken but there like the morning mist was the impression that Harry was being moved onto someone else's territory and, by inference, was to be someone else's problem.
Snape looked over Harry's shoulder and frowned. "Either there is a mangy cur that is overdue for a bullet between the ears wandering up the road, or your godfather is getting worried that I've dissected you for potions ingredients."
"Um. I think he's getting worried. Um." How in Merlin's name did one get out of an awkward situation like this? Snape was absolutely not the hugging type. "Um, I just wanted to say thanks."
Snape raised his head and narrowed his eyes, but in speculation rather than malice. "Live your life. Get on with things, as Rona would say."
"Yes, Professor." Harry smiled. "You too."
Instead of waiting to hear Snape's reply, he turned and jogged back down the road to meet Sirius.
Voldemort was dead.
He was alive and going home to Hogwarts.
It was going to be a beautiful day.
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