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.
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