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.
<< Back | Story Index | Next Chapter >>
Back to Top | Stories by Author | Stories by Title | Main Page