Harry Potter and the Price of Victory
The boy moved to the next weed, and Severus indulged in a bit of schadenfreude. Potter had thought himself better than anyone. With his money and his connections and his unfounded arrogance about being sorted into the house of courageous fools, he had embodied Pureblood contempt even as he had turned it against Slytherin house rather than Muggleborns and half bloods. But now his son grubbed in the dirt.
“Are you done, boy?” Petunia asked as she came out the kitchen door, her hands on her hips. Time had not been kind to Tuney. She looked old and tired. He remembered when she would curl her hair and paint her nails and now her most prominent feature was her scowl.
“Not yet, Aunt Petunia,” the boy said.
“It’s time for you to start dinner. And do wash. I don’t want that filth touching the food. I swear, I don’t know why we have to be burdened with your presence.”
The boy ducked his head submissively and darted around Tuney to get into the house. For the first time since he’d arrived, Severus felt a frisson of discomfort at the boy’s situation. The child was too short to reach a counter. He should not be preparing food. And his body language spoke not of the humility Albus assumed he would learn but of fear and despair.
Severus could not stay long. Albus watched him too closely for him to tarry somewhere that he had no business visiting. While Albus had kept him from Azkaban, the headmaster did not fully trust Severus. Lily’s death meant that Severus had not gotten what he wanted out of their deal, which was the main reason he had made Severus swear an oath to protect the blighted child now standing at Tuney’s kitchen window. His head bobbed up and down, clearly climbing and leaving a chair as he went about his task.
On the one hand, Severus felt pity for the boy. No Wizarding child should be left in the care of such a magic-hating Muggle. On the other, Severus could not smother the resentments he counted as sins against justice. Lily had chosen Potter, even after Potter had shown his true nature over and over. Lily had died for Potter, died for that wretched child. The Dark Lord and Albus had both promised to spare her and yet she was dead. She perished and that scruffy creature who looked like James Potter lived. The unfairness was bitter on Severus’ tongue.
“Have you checked on Potter recently?” Severus asked.
Albus did not bother looking up. Severus did not rate the headmaster’s full attention. Severus bridled under the blatant disrespect, but he understood what was required to gain the ear of a man of power. He had done so with the Dark Lord and he would eventually do the same with Dumbledore. However, until that time came, Severus had to atone for his mistakes—at least around Albus.
In private, Severus was more likely to blame his house mates in Slytherin for pressuring him to join the Dark Lord. He was more likely to blame the Purebloods and their prejudices, which had made him an outcast in his own house and he definitely blamed Dumbledore’s unforgivable blindness which had left him feeling unsafe when he had attended Hogwarts as a student. Had others not made unforgivable mistakes first, Severus would not have a mark upon his arm.
“Really, Severus, I am concerned at your interest in Harry.” Albus glanced up from his scroll.
“You required me to swear an oath to protect him. Not knowing his current condition makes me uncomfortable. This is my magic that is on the line.” That much was true, even if Albus’s assumption that Severus couldn’t find the boy was foolish. Perhaps Albus didn’t know how to use a Muggle directory, but Severus certainly did.
Albus set his scroll to one side. “Lily’s family and the blood wards anchored to Harry’s aunt provide all the protection required to ensure no Death Eaters find him.” Albus’s eyes twinkled with legilimency and Severus gazed back, carefully placing all his hatred and resentments at the front of his mind. After a second, Albus shook his head sadly. “I had hoped you would get over some of those childish resentments, Severus.”
“If the children who behaved so poorly had been punished, I might have.” Severus refused to apologize for hating James Potter. He was just uncomfortable with how often the pitiful image of young Harry Potter crept into his medications and dreams.
Albus didn’t deign to answer. “When did you last visit the Malfoys?”
“Two days ago.”
“Is there any sign Lucius is encouraging the boy to seek out Dark magic?” Albus unrolled another scroll and scanned the text.
“None,” Severus said firmly. “My godson is far too spoiled and impulsive to be trusted with Dark magic.”
Albus looked up. “Really?”
Severus tilted his head, tacitly admitting that Lucius was not following Pureblood tradition when it came to Draco. “I suspect his mother hopes to make him an unsuitable follower if the Dark Lord returns.”
“Voldemort will return,” Albus said, and a flare of pain ran through Severus’s arm. Curse the man. Severus hated feeling that magical leash tighten.
“Unless Lord and Lady Malfoy change their parenting significantly, the Dark Lord would find Draco unacceptable.” In truth, the Dark Lord would find Draco contemptible, but Draco’s joy at life was a balm to Severus’s soul, even when the little monster was quite tiring.
“I do wish you would stop using that epithet. In the classroom, you must convince the children of those Death Eaters clever enough to remain free that you are on their side, but in here, your word choice disturbs me.” Albus let his power fill the room, and Severus clung to his occlumency shields as his mind spiraled back to another great power who had cowed him with raw magic. It was everything he could do to stay on his feet.
“Enough,” Severus said between clenched teeth. “Your point is made.”
“Is it?” Albus allowed his aura to dim.
“I shall refer to him as He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named.”
Albus sighed, his displeasure clear.
“You know why his name not an option,” Severus said firmly.
Albus’s gaze fell to Severus’s covered arm. “Pain is the consequence of poor choices. One cannot escape that, my boy.”
Severus clenched his teeth. It was amusing how that proverb was true only for Slytherins, not for Gryffindors.
“Have you had any contact with the Greengrass family?”
Severus sighed as he returned to his task. He must give Albus enough information to prevent the Dark Lord’s return without stripping the world of the ancient magics that those Light families found objectionable. “They invited me to their Ostara celebration next month.”
“Any sign that they plan to cast Dark magic? Any Dark artifacts?”
“None that they have revealed to me, but I am a half-blood and not in their confidence the way others are.”
“Voldemort trusted you,” Albus said, and Severus worked to control the wince as his mark once again lashed him, reminding him of all his failures.
“He Who Must Not Be Named valued me for my abilities with spellcraft and potions. These old families need me for little more than tutoring if their children prove inadequate at potions, spellcrafting, or defense against the Dark arts,” Severus said, pushing again to have his teaching assignment shifted.
Watching imbeciles risk their lives and Severus’s with their utter incompetence over a caldron was grating. At least in the defense class, Severus could have the cretins stand to one side and learn from observing the more competent students. One could improve from watching the wand movements of a competent peer. Potions required one to brew and observe, learning from one’s own mistakes. And Severus had precious little time for the mistakes of some of these callow youth. Even the youngest student was old enough to remember the war, and yet they refused to take his warnings seriously.
“Surely you do not want to fall prey to the curse.” Albus had the audacity to sound amused.
“Gringotts employs curse-breakers competent enough to render that excuse invalid.”
Albus’s smile grew. “Yes. However, when one has but one hole in the defenses, one can be assured of knowing the direction from which an enemy will appear.”
While strategically valid, Severus did resent the fact that Albus moved him about like a chess piece. Unfortunately that was unlikely to end any time in the near future. The Dark Lord had been forced out of his body, and that sort of damage would take decades to overcome, luckily for both Albus and the entire Wizarding world. Currently no one was preparing the great champion of Light—the boy who lived.
Severus contained a snort. More like the boy most likely to be Albus’s sacrificial lamb. Albus and Albus alone had the power to challenge the Dark Lord, no matter what story he told others. And when the day came that Albus sent Harry Potter to his death, Severus would go with him. The vow Albus had demanded ensured that. Either Severus’s life or his magic would be forfeit on that day. Harry Potter was, like the Dark Mark, one more leash.
“Is there anything else?”
Albus gestured toward the door. “No, no, my boy. You’ve been quite helpful. Thank you.”
Severus bowed and retreated without pushing his agenda. He was not Albus’s boy. Even when he had been a boy, Albus had not shown him enough care to claim any loyalty, and the one boon Severus had begged for had not been granted to him. He knew that Albus wouldn’t check on the Potter boy. He knew he would not grant Severus’s wish to teach advanced spellcrafting or defense. He knew he had no power at all.
Serving the Light felt distressingly similar to serving the Dark.
Severus knew that was unfair. Albus had never tortured, he had never terrorized a community in order to prove his own power. He had never cast unforgivables until the victim writhed in pain and lost his or her mind. That was Voldemort’s forte.
Albus was simply the master of stripping others of their power. He hoarded information and influence until no one else had any hope of defending themselves. Lucius despaired at the state of politics as long as Albus sat like a spider in the center of his web. However, this was the side Severus had chosen, and he would not change again. The Dark Lord had twisted magic until it was as if all those who followed him had slipped into the Black family madness. Severus would rather endure Albus’s manipulative benevolence than return to serving the Dark Lord.
No. He Who Must Not Be Named. Severus could not slip again. The Greengrasses and Lestranges and Malfoys, the Carrows and the Crabbes and the Notts would all forgive him for not showing proper respect for the Dark Lord because Severus had to play the part of a spy. However, Albus would be far less forgiving. Far less indeed. The Death Eaters might have Dark magic, but Albus had Azkaban, and Severus feared one far more than the other.
Severus was collecting frost-touched henbane under a full moon when his curiosity gnawed at him. He had proved fortunate to find a cluster of henbane with its spiky leaves and pungent odor within an hour, and that left him with time to move unmonitored. He quickly apparated before moving toward Privet Drive.
His curiosity was likely to get him killed—or worse—condemned to Azkaban. However, Severus had never been able to control the flaw. Whether experimenting with spells and potions or attending a Death Eater meeting to understand why his housemates were so taken with the Dark Lord, Severus wanted to understand how the world worked.
He hoped to identify the bedroom of young Potter and see the boy, even if only for a short time. To that end, he walked behind the houses, staying to the shadows cast by poplar trees. However, he stopped when he approached number 4.
The child sat outside in the dark, his arms wrapped around his knees and his body shaking violently. Ignoring the very real danger to himself and his freedom, Severus closed the distance. He was a few feet away before a wary head popped up and the boy considered him with bright green eyes. “Child, what are you doing out here?” Severus asked. He tried to gentle his tone, but the boy flinched from him. Clearly he had failed.
“I can’t go in,” Harry said.
“Can’t? Have you locked yourself out?” Sometimes Muggle children did such foolish things. Of course, Wizarding children were equally doltish.
Harry shook his head, but he said nothing else. Not sure how to handle this, and certain that any call to Albus would end badly for Severus if not the boy, Severus sat down on the step next to him. “Why are you out here?” The child was five or six, but his frame was small for his age and he didn’t have the physical reserves to handle the cold.
“My aunt and uncle are late. They’re coming, sir.” His teeth chattered as he answered. Snape reached into the robes he had transfigured to resemble a jacket and pulled out a square of fabric. Hiding his actions from the boy, he quickly changed it into a blanket and settled it across Harry’s shoulders, adding a warming charm.
“You should not be out so late. Don’t you have school tomorrow?”
Harry clutched the blanket before shaking his head. “Tomorrow’s Saturday. No school.”
“And where are your aunt and uncle?”
“They’re visiting family. They really will be back soon, sir. Aunt Petunia just doesn’t want me making a mess in the house so she asked me to sit out here. Thank you for the blanket, sir.” James Potter’s son was pathetically grateful for a blanket. Lily’s child—the son she died for—had thanking him for a blanket when Severus was the one who had taken his family from him by giving the Dark Lord that prophesy. Severus took a deep breath and organized his mind to minimize that guilt.
“Your family has no right to leave you out here. Have you spoken to a teacher?”
Harry nodded, his mop of unruly hair going every direction and casting odd shadows on his face due to the lights. “I tell them, and they promise to make things better, but it never gets better. After a day or two they always blame me for causing trouble.”
“I’m sorry,” Severus said. He could sympathize with Harry’s situation given that he had endured the same. Adults often made promises to children, but they were nearly as quick to break those promises.
Harry shrugged. “It’s okay, sir. It’s just best if I don’t tell people.”
“That is a rather pessimistic outlook.”
For the first time, something other than misery filled Harry’s expression. “What does pessimistic mean?”
“It means that you don’t expect good things to happen. It means you see the world as bad.”
“But what if good things don’t happen, sir? Am I pessimistic if I don’t expect good things because I won’t get good things?”
“That was a rather articulate question,” Severus had to admit. “I suspect you might call yourself a realist, one who sees the world realistically.”
“Is there another way to see the world?”
“Some people prefer to live in a world of pretend. They think that if they ignore reality, reality will reshape itself to their wishes.” Severus was not surprised when Harry’s expression showed nothing but confusion. He was, after all, a child. Something brushed across Severus’s awareness. As a spy, he had learned to cast wards quite broadly—wards that would warn him if someone’s attention turned in his direction. Severus had no more power to help Harry than Harry had to help himself. So he bowed to the invitable.
He stood. “I’m afraid I must go.”
“Would you like your blanket back?” Harry asked even though his small hands clutched the fabric.
“Keep it,” Severus said. And because he had no platitudes to offer, he walked away.
What game was Albus playing? Adults would not consistently deny reports of a child’s suffering unless some magic urged it. Severus’s own father had attracted the attention of the authorities more than once, and only his mother’s spells had kept the bastard out of prison. So someone had cast a similar spell to isolate Harry from any form of assistance, and Severus had a good idea about who had that sort of power.
Did Albus intend for the boy to be damaged? Such suffering could leave a mark on a child’s magical core. But Albus was not one to dull a weapon that he intended to wield. So what did he hope for? Did he hope to ensure that Harry Potter did not grow up as arrogant as James Potter? More than once Albus had bemoaned the fact that Potter had refused Albus’s protection. He had insisted that he could ensure the security of his family himself.
And that was one more reason why Severus hated him.
However, a child raised in these conditions would not learn humility as much as shame. Albus had some Machiavellian goal in placing the child in this situation. Did he plan to swoop in and set himself up as the grand savior? Another thought occurred to Severus. Perhaps he suspected that Petunia was an unfit guardian and hoped to circumvent any Muggle assistance that could remove Harry from the one home with blood wards. The entire situation was unpalatable, but Severus was not wise enough to untie this Gordian knot.
Severus stepped out of the floo and bowed at the woman standing before him. “Lady Nott.”
“Please, you must call me Sephne,” she said as she offered her hand as though Severus were a lord himself.
He kissed her knuckles before stepping back to a proper distance. “Of course, Lady Sephne.”
“Oh, you.” She turned in a swirl of skirts and strode into the corridor. Severus followed as she led them to the sun room. In the back yard, young Heir Nott played under the gaze of his governess. He was the same age as Harry, yet he was much taller and more solidly built. Severus could not help but compare them. “How have you been?”
Severus did not answer. He was better than many, including Lord Nott who was now in Azkaban. Sephne settled into a chair where she could look out onto the lawn where her son played. “Has that fool sent you?”
“He has,” Severus admitted. “He watches the children who are of an age to attend Hogwarts with the Potter brat. I suspect he knows that the greatest danger will come when Potter has not yet learned to control his magic. Once he is fully trained—likely with additional tutoring to ameliorate the weaknesses in Hogwart’s curriculum—he will be more difficult to kill. He looks to our children to see if any are potential assassins in training.” Crabbe’s and Goyle’s sons were the most likely to fill that role. Severus wished he could hide that from Albus, but their families were too vocal and the boys too willing to embrace the indiscretions of their families.
Her hand clenched before she relaxed her fingers and brushed a spot of dust from her skirt. “And what do you tell him?”
“The truth,” Severus said. “Young Theo is a serious child with no sign of Dark magic about him. I tell Dumbledore that you mourn your husband and would not lose your son to the same horrors.”
“I dishonor our Lord to say so, but your words are more truth than fiction.”
“The lot of a good spy is to twist truth and fiction together until the recipient cannot tell the difference.”
She offered him a small smile. “You are a good friend.”
“A good friend would have gone to Azkaban with the others. I am not a good friend.”
“No.” She shook her head. “Those of us who could escape that fate had an obligation to do so. You more than others. None of the others have as much chance to track the movements of that old fool. Is he still trying to uncover our books and artifacts?”
“He is,” Severus said. “He asked if I had seen Dark artifacts at the Malfoy manner.”
“One must step carefully or trip over them at the manor,” she said with a laugh. Severus agreed. Lucius had so many Dark artifacts and books that the wild magic infected the bones of the home, speeding around the grounds like a storm wind. However, unlike the Black family, the Malfoys knew how to contain the wild power. “What excuse did you offer the fool for this visit?”
“I told him that I sought a potion in your library—a variation on Angel’s Trumpet Draught that would allow me to brew the potion without some of the more difficult to obtain ingredients.”
“And he, no doubt, hopes to catch us with books of Dark magic.”
“If there are any books you would be willing to sacrifice, I could smuggle them out and tell Dumbledore that they represent the entirety of your Dark library, or at least the extent of the Dark materials in your publicly accessible library.”
She closed her eyes in pain before nodding. “Of course. I will choose a few I can yield to his obsession with destroying our magic. Surely I have a few ancestors who had only skill to copy others and so I can give you those to secure your place at Hogwarts.”
“Oh Severus.” Sephne looked out over the lawn where her son laughed as his governess chased him in play. “How am I to raise him? He has stopped asking for his father, but how do I teach him how to be an heir and lord? Lucius has offered his assistance, but I am afraid. I fear that Lord Nott’s conviction will stain Lord Malfoy beyond his ability to politically recover. I would not have him compromised when he has work to complete before our Lord can return. But I am equally afraid that others will decide that Theo is a threat. Lucius is the most vocal of our membership to escape Azkaban, and to send Theo to him to study would be to place a target on my son’s back.” Her lip quivered. She did not care if the Death Eaters murdered the children of others, but she would cry over her own.
Severus was no different. When he developed spells for He Who Must Not Be Named, he had known how the spells would be used. He had simply not cared. The pride of developing a new spell or potion, and the glory of having someone recognize his greatness was more important than the lives lost on the other side. He was a hypocrite. And so was Lady Nott.
“Ask Fedor Abbott for his help. He can train Theo and Dumbledore is too much a fool to suspect a former Hufflepuff of being aligned with us.”
“So only the Light knows loyalty?” Her disdain was thick.
Severus titled his head toward her. “I do have a true favor to ask you.”
She immediately focused on him, leaning forward in her seat. “A favor?”
“Ostara celebrations are in six days.”
She tilted her head toward him.
“Our Lord once mentioned that you possessed one of the last copies of the Fae Vocate.”
She gasped, her hand coming up to rest against her chest. “Severus, what do you mean to do with that text? Not even our Lord dared touch it.”
Severus nodded. “The cost is sometimes far too high, especially because the ritual I hope to find in the Vocate will not allow me to negotiate. I hope to ask the Fae for a boon.”
“A boon? Severus? What are you thinking?” She paled at the thought, and Severus understood her horror. If he asked the Fae for a favor without negotiation, he would be at their mercy. However, he had no other path forward. Every night he meditated to tend his occlumency shields, and each night his guilt and fears crept closer. Potter would not survive Albus’s plots, and then Severus would lose his magic. He would be left a squib at the mercy of a world that wanted him dead, and he would have no way to defend himself. And when the Dark Lord returned, he would be caught between two powerful wizards, neither of whom saw Severus as anything other than a tool. He would not bow to a mortal again, and if that required him to bow to the Fae, he would pay that price.
“I think I am tired. I think our Lord is without a body.” Although never would Severus hope for the Lord’s return. The Fae had to offer a boon that the victim at least wanted on the surface. If they gave him something that he abhorred, it would not trigger the magic that would give them control over him. However, misdirection was necessary if he hoped to gain access to such a powerful piece of Dark magic.
Once again, he was trading his life away for access to another’s power. This time, he only hoped that death would follow.
“Severus.” She leaned forward and reached out so her fingertips brushed the back of his hand.
“I am tired, Lady Nott. I do not see an escape and if my death or my life is enough to purchase an end to the facade, then my life is a small price to pay.”
She smiled at him. “You are the greatest of our Lord’s following.”
Severus shook his head.
“You are,” she insisted. “And I will give you the text you want only because I know the Fae will see it too. They will see what you are willing to sacrifice to save Dark magic, and I know that whatever boon they offer—whether it is the return of our Lord in his rightful body or some other great magic—they will reward you as you deserve to be rewarded.”
That is exactly what Severus feared because he knew his true value. He had become everything Tobias Snape had ever accused him of being. He was petty, vindictive, angry. He hated Dumbledore and the Dark Lord equally. He felt powerless and he snapped at students because he had no other victims. He allowed a child to sit in the cold and dark and all he could think about was how he would lose his magic and with it the last of his protections. If he began drinking, he could call himself a perfect replica of his father.
“Thank you, Lady Nott.”
“Of course, Severus. You know I would do anything for you, and when our Lord returns, you will sit at his left hand with Lucius at his right. Then we will fix everything that has gone wrong.”
Severus wished he could believe that. However, like young Potter, life had taught him to be a pessimist.
Severus had hoped that he would have some privacy for this ritual, but he had not seen so many Death Eaters in one place since the Dark Lord had fallen. Lucius walked the crowd, revelling in his role as the Dark Lord’s second. The others reached out to touch his arm or shoulder, each touch reverent as though reassuring themselves that they had escaped Azkaban as had Lucius. Severus credited incompetence in the Wizengot rather than Lucius’s political maneuvering for that.
“Severus, you have all our support,” Lucius said when he circled back around to Severus’s side.
“I am blessed,” Severus said dryly.
Lucius shot him an odd look before he continued. “If this returns our Lord to his rightful place, you will be the most honored wizard in England.”
Severus doubted that. He was a tool, one that the Dark Lord, Albus and Lucius were all quite happy to use, but once his usefulness was over, they would dismiss him as easily as a broken dagger. “I feel as if I don’t have a choice. The situation only grows more dangerous.” Let Lucius believe that the raid on Morgoth Selwyn’s library had inspired his despair. Severus did feel guilty about not warning Selwyn of the coming raid; however, he could not save every library. He had judged Morgoth’s library as less critical than the great collection in the Malfoy manor. The Dark was more than the Dark Lord, but Albus targeted ancient magics than had nothing to do with the madness of the last few generations.
He tried to focus his thoughts on these larger issues. The Dark Lord could not return and condemn all Dark families to his madness, and Albus could not continue to target anyone with beliefs that did not align with his. And Severus was powerless to effect either. So he kept those problems at the front of his mind as he studied the ritual supplies laid out across the floor of the Greengrass mansion.
“The Fae could demand your life,” Lucius said softly.
Severus wondered what Lucius hoped to accomplish. Every Death Eater in the room would gut him if he told them he had changed his mind now.
“I have never regretting sponsoring you,” Lucius said warmly. Weary resignation swept through Severus. Of course. These men believed that Severus was offering his life in exchange for the Dark Lord’s and Lucius wanted to remind them all that Severus was only a Death Eater because Lucius had argued for his inclusion, despite his half-blood status. No doubt he still expected gratitude for that. If it would not hurt Draco and put both Narcissa and her son in a terrible position, Severus would poison Lucius before undertaking this ridiculous ritual.
“There’s a reason our Lord embraced Severus so warmly,” Karkaroff said grandly. The bugger should go back to whatever Eastern European country he’d been hiding in.
“Of course there is. The Dark Lord knows best,” Carrow added. Rich given that he had argued with equal vehemence not two months earlier that none of them could trust Severus because his loyalties were suspect. Fortunately, few in this group listened to Carrow. In fact, those who would pose the most danger with their fanatical support of the Dark Lord and unwillingness to accept any half-truths were all missing. Bellatrix Lestrange might be in Azkaban, but Clytema Goyle and Phonia Crabbe were free. Free and missing. Old prejudices had returned now that the Dark Lord wasn’t here to demand that his most fawning followers be allowed to attend him. This had become a council of men.
“I must prepare,” Severus said, cutting the conversation short. The Death Eaters retreated to the walls, their silver masks reflecting the candlelight as Severus worked.
He added the dried ingredients to the cauldron and chanted in the old language—the sacred language of the Fae and hidden world. The words tumbled over his tongue after the first half-dozen repetitions, the sounds blending into a near-song. The ritual possessed Severus now. He could break free, but instead he lowered all his occlumency barriers and focused on what he hoped for—an escape route he had not seen. A way to stop the madness that lay on both sides of this conflict. A safe port from the fury the Dark Lord would rain down on all of them if he managed to return. The image of a shivering boy huddling on a dirty step came unbidden, but Severus refocused his mind on more significant issues. The plight of Potter’s cursed offspring was not his concern.
Some great force grabbed his mind and jerked him back to that moment when James Potter and his worthless friends had demeaned him. Again. When Lily had exacerbated his shame by coming to his aid as if he were a helpless child. Severus felt all the burning rage and humiliation of that moment, all of it fresh as if he were, once again, that helpless child. However much he tried to hide in his anger, more alien feelings now attached themselves to this moment. The grief and guilt he’d experienced at the moment where he’d found Lily’s body lay juxtaposed against his fury with Lily for shaming him. He saw her as one who would torment him and the victim of Severus’s own bad judgements at the same time. Her adolescent horror when he threw his words at her blended with her lifeless eyes and bloody hair when he had lifted her from the floor. The vividness of the two feelings was the worst pain he had ever experienced.
And when that pain started to fade, other threads wove themselves into the tapestry. If he had been honest with Lily, she would have known better how to help him. If he had told the Ministry that the Slytherins were recruiting for the Dark Lord, both sides would have seen him as unworthy of their time. They would have called him weak, but he had suffered far worse while chasing an illusion that he could make others respect him. His own pain, Lily’s pain, her death… those were, in part, the price of his pride. He styled himself the Half-blood Prince, seeking to escape his identity as a Snape, and the suffering that flowed from that cut like a knife through his guts.
He was jerked to a new memory with the abruptness of a portkey. Walking through a tunnel. Strange sounds ahead. Potter grabbing his arm. Black’s inane laugh. The terror of his realization that Black had arranged Severus’s death by werewolf. The fury that the headmaster would never punish Black or Lupin or Potter when they had lived to torment him. Those were familiar feelings, but now the vividness of Severus’s own cruelty echoed through that memory. He had gone through the tunnel hoping to find some evidence that would humiliate Potter and Black. He wanted all the pure bloods to know that these two upstanding members of the Sacred 28 were nothing more than delinquents. He wanted to hurt all of them. He had focused so much on his hate that he had never questioned the wisdom of reacting to Black’s taunts. He’d been as big of a fool as any Gryffindor.
Familiar thoughts were invaded, raided, twisted and polished until Severus was screaming as his very soul was unpicked like a poorly laid seam that a seamstress had to undo. Every moment of his life twisted into new shapes, and the worst pain was the realization that some part of this ritual sought to force honesty onto Severus. Given the life Severus had lived, honesty was the most painful torture. Eventually whispered words invaded his thoughts. “Mine,” one said. “Mine,” another protested. “Mine,” “Ours,” “Mine,” “Mine.” A hundred voices argue with each other, but with each repetition fewer and fewer voices called out. Those that remained grew louder until finally one voice shouted into the darkness and then there was silence.
Severus lay on the ground, his breathing harsh to his own ears. No one moved. Not a single robe rustled. Not a single Death Eater tried to claim credit for this moment. Severus let out a long groan as his body registered the pain that danced along his muscles.
“Severus?” Lucius asked softly.
Severus tried to roll to his side. He failed.
“Your robes, Severus. You… never-mind.” Lucius spoke louder now. “Scourgify.” That did suggest Severus had soiled his robes, but he hurt too much to care.
“Is he alive?” Someone asked in a whisper.
“Given the pain I feel, I assume so,” Severus answered.
Hands helped him sit up, but the movement was enough to make spots dance in Severus’s vision. “Drink this,” Lucius urged. Severus recognized one of his own potions—a pain reliever that he recommended after a crucio. He drank it quickly.
“Well?” Someone asked. Severus could not bother to focus his eyes well enough to determine who had asked. “Where’s the Dark Lord?”
“The Fae will provide the boon in their time, not ours,” Severus said, “and there is no way to determine what boon they will offer. They are equally likely to bring back the Dark Lord or strike Dumbledore dead in his office.” Equally likely in that Severus didn’t believe either would happen. However, he didn’t know what the Fae did have planned. He had felt the magic connect. He had successfully completed the ritual and the Fae had laid claim to him. He just didn’t know what his life had purchased.
“And the price?” Lucius asked.
“My life.” Severus didn’t flinch from the truth. Perhaps he was simply too tired to continue fighting for it. After what the Fae had just done to him—to his memories—death hardly seemed worse. Severus finally focused on Lucius—his oldest friend in Slytherin house and in the Death Eaters. The man had a thoughtful expression that had no room for grief. Severus could die and Lucius, the man who had named Severus godfather to his own son, would do no more than calculate potential advantages. This was the outcome of Severus’s choices. And after the Fae ritual, Severus could no longer deny that.
Severus cursed as his toe met his trunk, which had moved into the middle of his room. Severus looked around, wary for hidden visitors. However, he could sense no one. Ever since the Ostara ritual, his senses and his magic had been more sensitive, so he believed he was alone. And yet, his trunk had moved.
Severus returned it to its spot under a table, and he had no more than taken a step back when the truck slid closer again, and this time a soft wind moved his robes. Severus turned, but he saw no Fae. He felt no hands pulling him past the veil into either death or the Fae lands where no human could survive long. However, when he took a step back again, the wind grew stronger and he knew.
The Fae intended for him to travel, so travel he must. The feeling of being at someone else’s beck and call was so familiar that he could not summon the energy to resent their high-handed demand. His fifth years were coming up to their OWLS and his sevenths, their NEWTS. They needed his assistance. However, needs must.
He went to his wardrobe and retrieved his robes before returning to his trunk. The moment he opened it, he felt the magic. It was an extension charm, but one with power Severus had never before felt. The trunk felt dangerous. Dark. Endless. As an experiment, Severus transformed his bed to be narrower and longer and tilted it down into the trunk. The whole of the bed fit without taking any room in the trunk. Most of Severus’s room, including his wardrobe and potions table all fit despite the fact that he had only transfigured them enough to fit into the mouth of the trunk. Severus stood and lifted one side of the trunk, finding that it weighed no more than a book.
This was powerful magic. Fae magic. The headmaster must never know.
Severus pulled his bed back out and considered the many reasons the Fae might have graced him with their magic, and he could imagine a number of uncomfortable situations. They intended him to travel somewhere so isolated that he needed to carry all that he needed—perhaps through Fae lands. He needed resources. More than he could access from Hogwarts.
“Expecto Patronum.” His doe appeared, and Severus took a deep breath to compose his thoughts. He could not send a message to Lucius. Someone could overhear. However, Narcissa had retreated to the company of women sympathetic to the cause—women who likely knew of the ritual. “I need assistance immediately. I am walking to Hogsmead and will be in the Witch’s Shadow.”
The place was unpopular, largely because it was unsanitary, but that would offer them privacy. Not waiting for an answer, Severus called a house elf to deliver a message to Dumbledore. He would not be available for his afternoon class.
After casting a privacy spell, Severus waited in a dark corner of the pub, the smell of sour butterbeer and mold assaulting his senses. When the door opened, a old man with a scarred face came in, but he moved with a grace that did not match his age. Severus had warned Narcissa to control her body language when using polyjuice, but she had not taken his warning to heart. She crossed the barrier of his privacy spell and slipped into the chair across from him.
“What has happened?”
“The Fae have contacted me.”
She gasped and closed her eyes for a moment before drawing herself up proudly. “What do you need from me?”
“They have sent me a trunk with an endless expansion charm.”
“Endless?” Her eyes grew wide, but then she nodded slowly. “We know our magic is a pale imitation of theirs. Of course they could make a charm endless.” That was a belief she had best not repeat in front of Lucius or the Dark Lord. They didn’t want to admit that others had infinitely more power.
“I believe they mean for me to travel beyond the veil.”
“I do not know. But why else would they give me an endless trunk? I must carry with me everything I need for an unknown amount of time.”
“And you must have everything you could possible require to nurse our Lord back to health. If they take both of you beyond the veil, He must not eat the Fae food.”
He must not. Yes, Severus was already lost to the Fae, but the Insane Lord must be defended at all costs from such a fate. Narcissa was a clever and caring woman, and yet she had no sympathy for anyone outside her own family and her Lord. At one point, Severus had thought he was family to her. She had named him godfather to young Draco, but he could see the truth now. She had already written him out of her story and her sympathies. He was a piece who had already been moved off the chess board.
“Can you receive packages by floo without the old fool tracking them?”
“He will know that I am receiving something, but he cannot trace who had sent them or know what is inside those packages unless it is a Dark artifact that sets off one of the alarms.”
“No nothing that projects magic. It must be contained.”
“And how will you explain your absence to the fool?”
Severus had considered this. He needed to maintain the illusion that he worked for each side. Right now, that was his only protection. “I will tell him that I received an anonymous message ordering me to prepare for a long trip and pack all my potions.”
“He will assume we have found the Dark Lord and that you are required to tend him back to health.”
“Yes,” Severus agreed, “but he will not deny me because he will want me to retain the good opinion of the Dark Lord and his followers.”
“But you are the greatest potion master of our age. You could work miracles with your caldron. Why would he risk allowing you to help the Dark Lord?”
“Because he made me swear on my magic that I would protect the Potter brat. He believes that I will betray our Lord in order to save my own magic. That was the price I paid to stay out of Azkaban.”
She offered him a small smile. “But you have already pledged your life. I know you would offer nothing less to the Dark Lord, and if you survive, you will always have a place in my home, Severus. I will use my own magic to honor you forever.” She laid her hand on the back of his.
Severus did not know how to respond to such empty comfort. She did not expect him to survive, but she did expect him to pave the way for the Dark Lord to return. So her promise was empty of meaning.
She pulled her hand back and her body language shifted into the Purebred control that screamed her true identity, even under the noxious disguise. “I will contact the other families and have each send you what they can. I will send you the most dangerous artifacts first so you can hide them at the bottom of the trunk and have food, clothing, shelter and small luxuries to welcome back our Lord sent after.”
“I do not know if stasis fields can survive beyond the veil, so include food that will remain palatable in case it fails.”
She nodded. “Consider it done.” For the first time, her expression did show grief. “Draco will miss you terribly. I am not sure how to explain your absence.”
“And I will miss him. The impudent rapscallion is the only light in my difficult life.”
She smiled. “And mine. If it were not for him, I would offer to go with you. We have accomplished great things together, Severus. I never could have developed my occlumency to the extend I have without your assistance.”
“You were equally helping to me. I was, after all, able to hide my true motives from Dumbledore. I could not have done that without you. However, you must stay and protect Draco. I am doing this for him and the other children,” Severus lied. They were a part of his motive, but he still hoped to find an escape for himself. However, selfishness was an acceptable goal for Lucius, not for Narcissa. “I would have this war end in our day so the children do not have to fight.”
“That is my fondest wish,” Narcissa said. “I shall arrange everything. Materials will begin to arrive in one hour. Do you know how long you have before they shall call you?”
Severus shook his head.
“Then I shall do my best to make sure you have the most critical supplies as quickly as possible. She stood walked away without a backward glance. Severus laid a coin on the table to pay for the drink he had not consumed and then he went outside before summoning his Patronus.
“I am returning from Hogsmead. I must see you at the gates as soon as possible,” Severus said before sending his doe running toward the castle. The headmaster could apparate on the grounds, so he should appear in moments. Rather than waste time, Severus did the same, appearing just outside the castle wards. He waited only three or four minutes before Dumbledore appeared with a loud crack.
“Severus. This is highly unusual. I had to ask Minerva to cover your class.”
“That is your greatest concern?” Severus sometimes wondered if Albus had dabbled with Dark magic himself, enough to suffer a touch of madness, anyway.
“It’s my current concern. Minerva was most aggravated.”
Severus crossed his arms. “I am more aggravated to have been summoned by an unknown Patronus. Someone who walked like a pureblood and looked like a homeless man met met me at the Witch’s Shadow.” Severus found the truth to be the most convincing lie.
“Do you have new orders?”
“I was ordered to pack for a long voyage and take all my potions will me. They will floo me a trunk with a larger expansion charm and said I will receive packages.”
“They have found Tom,” Albus said quietly. When he was distracted, he would refer to the Dark Lord by that name, so Severus assumed Albus had known him before his rise to power among practitioners of Dark magic. Albus pinned him with a sharp look, and the cool fingers of Legilimency slid through Severus’s brain. Severus placed all his fears in the front of his mind. The disguised old man had not said what would arrive through the floo. Severus didn’t know when he was leaving or by what means. He didn’t know where he would go or when he would return. Worse, he had no idea what these people expected of him, and he feared his life would be forfeit at the end of the trip.
“Oh, my boy,” Albus said in his most condescending voice. “I wish I could help you with this burden. I have certain artifacts I could lend you since I believe with all my heart that you will return.”
Severus shook his head. “The risk is too great and I don’t know when I will return.” Severus doubted he would return at all, although Albus did not know about the ritual, so he could not understand the improbability of Severus’s survival. “If we wish to maintain my position, I believe you must keep a certain distance from me.”
Albus nodded. “True. True.” His gaze grew sharper and Severus prepared his occlumency shields. However, Albus did not intrude into his mind again. “If you can subtly poison Voldemort, do so. He will surely be weak, even after six years. However, do not risk your life if there is not a certain path to victory.”
“I do not plan to throw my life away foolishly,” Severus said while mentally adding ‘again.’ He had done that twice already and he had no more lives to give away. “If He Who Must Not Be Named has regained his strength, he will kill me and step over my body to return. I cannot help stop him if I have become one more victim.”
“Too right. You are a wise man, Severus Snape.”
Severus looked down his nose at Albus. He did not need such condescension.
“Wise, but difficult,” Albus added before apparating away. Were not the Dark Lord an utter psychopath, Severus would say that Albus was not worth following. However, given that he knew the flaws of each intimately, Severus would support Albus’s position as long as he could. He just didn’t believe the Fae would give him any choices about who he would support. Since he could not apparate, he walked toward the castle, determined to reach his rooms before Narcissa began sending through supplies.
Severus was levitating a series of live plants held in stasis into his trunk when he felt magic shift. He had weapons and wizarding tents, ward charms and food—so much food. Fine clothing and carpets and blankets. Galleons and books and his entire potions lab. He had unopened packages from half the apothecaries across Great Britain and letters from every Dark family that had stood with the Dark Lord. He even had fine couches and a transfigured four poster bed so that the Dark Lord could recover in comfort.
The letters were enough to send most of the remaining Sacred 28 families to prison if Severus turned them over, but as much as he sided with Albus over the Dark Lord, he sided with Dark families over Albus. It was a careful dance that was coming to an end because he could feel Fae magic grow stronger. The wild sense of storm and lightning and ocean waves crashing against rocks filled the air with power and a freshness that swept away the dungeon smells that Severus had grown used to in five years of teaching and living at Hogwarts. A wave toward his floo disconnected it so Narcissa and the noble families knew he was no longer receiving goods. Then he closed his trunk and clutched the handle.
Between one blink and another, a Fae appeared. They were without gender or age, but full of ethereal beauty and cruel sharpness. Their cheekbones were too high, their chin too pointed, their fingers too long. Severus was trapped in the creature’s gaze as they reached for him. A stinging wind made Severus close his eyes and when he opened them, they were standing in an alley beside a poplar tree. There had been no pulling of a portkey or crack of apparation. There was only a flutter that marked their appearance.
Severus looked around, panicked that someone might have seen him, but no one was in sight. However, Severus recognized this place.
“Potter’s house? Why are we here?”
The Fae held out a three fingered hand toward the house. Severus’s stomach knotted. “Why are we here? What do you want with the Potter boy?”
The Fae repeated the gesture. Severus drew his wand to transfigure his robes into something more Muggle appropriate, but the Fae stopped him with a finger on Severus’s arm. Severus tucked his wand into his robe and sighed. He had made this mess, so he would have to see it through to the end.
“Very well. I will bring the boy out here.”
The Fae folded their hands together in front of them, and Severus took that as agreement. Perhaps the Fae planned to take the boy and leave a changeling. He was old for that, though. With no other choice, Severus went up to the door and rang the bell.
After a few seconds, Petunia answered the door. She stood with her plain frock and scowl and looked him up and down. “What are you doing here?”
“Visiting the boy.” Severus went to enter, and Tuney stepped into his path.
“No. I forbid it. I allowed that horrible man to leave that boy here, but I will not have more freaks in my house.”
Severus looked down at the Muggle and wondered how Petunia and Lily could have come from the same parents. She had always taken sadistic glee in making Lily cry, and Severus had no doubt she did the same to Lily’s son. Before the threat of Azkaban and the statute of secrecy had limited his choices. However, now he belonged to the Fae. They would not give him up for anything as trivial as a law. He leaned closer and offered her a cold smile. “Do not order me or block me, Tuney. You will not like what I will do.”
“You can’t do anything,” she said, her expression mulish.
He drew his wand. “Aguamenti.” Water cascaded over her for two seconds, leaving her dripping and her hair plastered to the sides of her head. Severus pushed past her and into the house. The boy stood next to the kitchen doorway, his mouth open.
“How dare you. How dare you!” Tuney screeched. She stood next to the sofa, water dripping onto her carpet and her face slowly turning red.
“Harry,” Severus said as calmly as he could, “we are leaving. Please get your things.” Severus had spent the last five years teaching adolescents and pre-adolescents. He knew exactly how irrational the creatures were—and how likely they were to misunderstand the seriousness of a situation. Had he not had multiple students blow up caldrons after Severus had explicitly given them direction on how to avoid that fate? So he did not expect obedience. He had both a silencio and a stupify ready to cast if necessary.
“Okay,” the child said before walking to the cupboard door under the stairs. He reached in and pulled out the blanket Severus had given him that night and a handful of what appeared to be plastic toys. Then he stood watching Severus.
Confused, Severus moved toward the stairs, but Tuney was in front of him, poking him in the chest even as she dripped. “You stay out of my business, Severus Snape. I’ll tell someone you were doing magic where you weren’t supposed to. There are rules. I know all about the rules. I’ll get you in trouble.” Her victorious expression made Severus laugh.
She drew back in fear, and Severus stalked her. “I could leave you writhing in pain. I could steal your thoughts, erase you memories. I could cut you open, leaving a wound that would never heal. I could let fire swallow you. And you think I am afraid of you tattling?” He asked incredulously. She clutched her sweater and watched him with huge eyes.
Ignoring her for the moment, Severus returned to his goal. The open cupboard door revealed a mattress on the floor, a rumpled sheet covering most of the stained ticking. Crayon figures on the wall suggested the boy had spent a lot of time in this dreadful place with only a single light bulb to combat the darkness and discourage the spiders that nested in the corners.
Severus had suspected Tuney would treat the boy poorly. He’d known as much as fact after he’d visited, but he had never dreamed that she was capable of such cruelty. Even Severus’s father had never subjected him to this sort of cruelty. The mismatched clothing from charity shops, the neglect and hunger and fear were all the same, but this casual “storing” of a child in a cupboard was a level of cruelty even Tobias Snape had not achieved.
Severus whirled around, and Tuney was white as a sheet and her hands trembled. Good. She understood what she had done.
“You abused Lily’s child. Lily’s only child.” Severus kept his voice low, but she heard the danger because she backed up until she was pressed against the wall.
“I didn’t want him.”
“And had you died and Lily inherited your son, do you believe Lily ever would have treated him like this?” Severus demanded. She broke eye contact. “Lily loved you, even when you were cruel and thoughtless and petty. You were her sister.”
Petunia straightened. “She was a freak,” she spat out.
“And you wanted to be a freak, too. I remember you crying because she could go to magic school and you couldn’t. Do you remember that Tuney? Do you remember how she tried to comfort you?”
She stepped away from the wall. “If you want the boy, take him. You should have taken him from the beginning. You were Lily’s friend. I wasn’t. So take the freak and get out of my house.”
“Gladly,” Severus shouted. He turned and held his hand out toward Harry. For a moment, Harry just looked at it, but then he slid his hand into Severus’s. “Miserable woman,” Severus said as he strode out of the house. He had to slow his steps when the child could not keep up.
The Fae waited by the poplar, outside the property. Severus wondered if the creature could not cross the blood wards or if they wished to avoid alerting Dumbledore. Given that Severus had walked onto the property with the intent of removing Harry and handing him over to the Fae, Severus was surprised the wards had not already summoned Aurors. Harry sucked in a startled breath, but he didn’t comment on the ethereal and dangerous creature waiting for them.
The Fae held out their hand, and Severus tried to transfer the boy’s hold, but Harry clung to him the way Draco would when Severus said he had to leave for the evening. So he was a normal boy after all. With a sigh, Severus surrendered to the idea that he would be pulled along to the boy’s destination. He took his trunk in his free hand and told the boy, “Take the Fae’s hand.”
“Why?” Potter asked.
Severus raised an eyebrow. “Because I am telling you to do so.” That would never have worked with Draco, but Harry raised his free hand to the Fae. A moment of wind and fluttering, and they appeared in a cave. White light reflected through the space and the wind howled past the wide opening. Severus felt Fae magic under his feet, a faint stir that made him feel like he was standing on a thin crust of ice under which raged a storm.
“Where are we?” Severus asked.
The Fae glided away. Severus followed him to the mouth of the cave. They were high in the mountains and in every direction icy crags covered the land. This might not be the land of Fae, but it was the sort of place where frost giants and dragon ruled and where wizards were unwelcome. At least he was free of Albus and the Dark Lord. Since the wind whipped shards of icy through the air, Severus abandoned his plan to follow the Fae. He turned to see Harry had pulled his blanket around his small frame and he was shaking.
“Silly dolt. Ask if you need help.” Severus returned to the child, casting a warming charm, first on Harry and then himself.
Harry nodded, his breath thick white vapor in the frigid air.
Severus went to one knee the way he would when Draco was being particular obstreperous. “Are you warm enough?”
He nodded again.
“Do you need anything?”
Harry bit his lip for a moment before he whispered, “What happened to Aunt Petunia?”
Severus snorted. “Nothing. She deserved punishment, but we shall both have to live with knowing that she will never suffer anything more than having water dumped over her head.”
Harry offered a small smile. His gaze darted toward the mouth of the cave, and Severus turned to see the Fae return. It moved like a predator, with such grace and power that Severus fought an instinct to flee. It held out a hand, a glowing red gem resting against his palm. Severus cautiously took the stone. It had a rune carved on the curve of the cabochon, but not one Severus recognized. The Fae moved to the center of the room and held out a hand, palm up. The rock trembled and then a circular platform rose under him until it formed a large table, three feet high and twelve feet across. Then a smaller circle of rock rose in the center of that.
The Fae pointed at Severus and then Harry before pointing to the rock circle. Severus held his hand out and Harry took it without hesitation, allowing Severus to help him onto the table. When Severus put the red gem down in the inner circle, the Fae gestured for him to touch the rune. After years of upbraiding foolish Gryffindors for touching magic they did not understand, this was his punishment. With a deep breath, he rested his finger against the stone, and his magic flowed through the rune so it glowed.
“Harry, come touch it,” Severus said.
“What is it?”
“What kind of magic?”
Normally Severus would applause someone who asked questions before rushing into a spell, but these were not normal circumstances. “We are guests of the Fae. As guests, we do not have the option of refusing their requests, so kindly touch the stone, young imp.”
“Okay.” Harry reach over the lip of stone that separated the table from this smaller basin. When he touched the rune, his magic echoed across the room. As soon as that was done, Severus pulled the boy away because he realized this was a circular eschara—a sacred fire pit, only one that the Fae had elevated.
The Fae touched the rune, and a bright fire burst to life, and a wave of magic rolled through the cave. The walls smoothed until the polished stone revealed vivid colors and veins of precious metals. Narrow crevasses became grand doorways with carved wooden doors and the ceiling sparkled with hundreds of crystals embedded in the stalactites like abstract chandeliers.
A hearth stone. It was said the oldest manors had one hidden somewhere under a sacred fire. As long as the fire burned, the house would stand. Lucius claimed Malfoy manner was under the protection of such magics and that was the source of his ability to convince others that the Dark Lord had forced his allegiance. The oldest families even claimed that when they left Rome and the Etruscan empires, they brought their homes with them through hearth stones that allowed them to recreate abandoned manors.
Severus blinked at the magical fire, feeling the heat of it soak into his bones. He turned to ask the Fae for their next task, but he realized he was alone.
Or no. He was not alone. He was in an isolated cave that was meant to be his home with Harry Potter. He panicked. Severus was not too proud to admit it. He had no idea what to do with such a young child.
“What now, sir?” Harry asked.
Severus took a deep breath. What indeed.
Severus’s gaze fell on his trunk. “We unpack, young fool. What else does one do after one has moved?”
Instead of taking offense at the insult, Harry’s face lit with joy. “We’re living here now? Without Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon?”
“Do I appear to be the sort of man to endure the company of those two cretins?”
“Then you have your answer,” Severus snapped. Merlin’s balls. Never negotiate with the Fae. Severus stepped down off the table which was now clearly a circular bench intended to give them a place to sit near the fire. He needed to explore before he decided to unpack. And hopefully that would allow him to get some distance from the child the Fae had apparently foisted upon him.
Severus levitated his chest into the kitchen. While not as grand as the kitchens one might find in a manor, it was easily three times the size of Severus’s own. Considering the amount of food he had brought, he would need the storage. He moved to the pantry and began levitating the supplies into place. He quickly found that the cupboard had an expansion charm so that if he had multiple items, all extras would disappear behind the one in front.
“Aunt Petunia said magic wasn’t real.”
“Your aunt is a dunderhead,” Severus said. Harry stared at him with large eyes. Harry smaller than Draco, and Narcissa despaired that Draco was the smallest boy of his friend group. Severus assumed that meant Harry was much too small for his age.
“Can I do magic?”
“Not until you are older.”
Severus took a deep breath. He had asked the Fae to stop the infernal war—to offer him some third alternative where he could escape the clutches of both benevolent dictatorship and utter madness. This was their solution. Clearly they expected him to raise Harry to be a force powerful enough to challenge Dumbledore and the Dark Lord. Either that or they expected him to hide the boy until both wizards died of old age. Either way, Severus had to be a better teacher to Harry than he had been to his students at Hogwarts. True, his role was equally involuntary, but this time he would face more than Albus’s disappointed expression if he failed.
“I’m sorry, sir. I’ll stop asking questions,” Harry said when Severus had been silent too long.
Severus turned and found Harry had already slipped off the kitchen stool and appeared ready to find a cupboard he could hide in. There were only eight rooms in this Fae fortress and three of those would only open for Severus—the library, the potions room, and the office. That left Harry with few choices. But more importantly, Severus did not wish to create a child that was afraid to ask questions. Their fates were tied together. This child must grow strong enough that when he was a man, he could face down unspeakable power that cowed Severus.
“I appreciate your questions,” he started. Harry blinked at him, clearly not convinced. Severus patted the stool and then sat in the one next to it. Harry moved slowly, but he did settle back into the seat, his suspicions still evident. “I am not a nice man,” Severus said. “And I am unaccustomed to children. I am often going to do or say things that you will find difficult. I will try to do better, but I have spent many years being as disagreeable as possible, so I may fail many times.”
Harry frowned at him, studying with such intensity that he could be practicing legilimency for all the focus he brought to the task. “You’re nicer than Uncle Vernon,” he finally declared.
Severus snorted. “I suspect that is a low bar. And to answer your question, every wizard is born with a magical core, but that core must grow. Right now, your core is growing and unstable. If you tried to practice magic you could lose control or damage your core.”
“Lose control? Like make my teacher’s hair turn blue?”
“Perhaps. Did you do that?”
“Do not shrug, child. You have a voice. Use it.”
“I’m not sure, but I think so.”
“That is called accidental magic.” Severus wondered who in the ministry had cleaned up that mess and erased the appropriate memories. If Harry was already having those sorts of accidents, that implied he was powerful and he needed the guidance of a witch or wizard, and Dumbledore had left him with Muggles. The greater good, Merlin’s ass. Severus disliked the feeling that this keep was a prison—a spacious and comfortable one, but a prison nonetheless. However, now that he was out of Hogwarts he was starting to suspect that had been a prison as well, as had Petunia’s home. Dumbledore had placed all his chess pieces in well-disguised prisons where he could control them. Severus would rather be owned by the Fae. He focused on Harry, who watched him curiously. “Accidental magic happens because your capacity to hold magic grows slower than your actual magic.”
“So when can I practice magic?”
The official answer was eleven, but if Severus had to teach Harry to not just defend himself but challenge the most powerful wizards of their age, he had to be more flexible. “Some magic, like potions, you might be able to practice as young as nine or ten. Some magics, like ancient runes, will need to wait until you are eleven or twelve. Maybe older.”
“So I can’t do anything now?” Harry looked at the floor and was the picture of despondency.
“You can do many things now,” Severus said as he considered the skills the boy must have before he began to practice. “Maths will prepare you for arithmancy. Gardening in that large greenhouse off the grand hall will prepare you for herbology. Cooking and learning knife skills will prepare you for potions. Learning mindfulness and meditation can prepare you for legilimency. Latin will make many subjects such as charms and spell-crafting easier.” Severus had always argued that Hogwarts should offer primary school classes to young Muggleborn so that they developed prerequisite skills, but his voice had been discounted. However, Harry’s education was his his hands. To know that this child was his and his alone was a heady and terrifying feeling. He considered the other skills that Harry would need to survive Voldemort and his followers.
A twinge of guilt caught Severus under the ribs. He must prepare this child to fight against people he knew. This child would challenge Voldemort, and therefore he must remove Lucius and Avery and Travers from the field. And by the time Harry was ready for that fight, their children would likely have joined the battle. Little Gregory Goyle and Theo Nott, Dinae Carrow and Pansy Parkinson and all the others. Severus just prayed that Narcissa was strong enough to keep Draco out of the coming battle.
“In addition, you can study history and strategy. Great wizards and risen and fallen, and by studying their lives, we can learn from their successes and failures.” Harry blinked. Perhaps Severus had provided too much of an answer for a six-year-old child.
After a long silence, the boy focused on the part he had understood. “Math can be magic?”
“Math can lead to magic later. Are you good in math?” Severus prayed the child was not a complete dolt.
“I can count to a hundred, but sometimes I need someone to help me in the middle,” Harry said. “And I can add and mostly subtract, but that’s harder.”
“An excellent start,” Severus said. He considered the jars of foods, all with their shimmering stasis spells. “Count as I place the jars away, and show me how you can count.” Severus levitated the jars more slowly. Harry tried to go from thirty nine to fifty and eighty escaped him entirely, but he could, with some redirection, count well enough. “Adequate,” he said. The moment the word came out, he wished he had offered something more appropriate—something that would encourage the child. However, despite the lackluster nature of Severus’s compliment, the child beamed at him.
“Can you count by twos?” Severus asked.
“What does that mean?”
Severus decided to forgo magic for a moment as he picked up a jar of chocolate treats. He showed it to Harry before he put it in the pantry. He picked up a matching jar and said, “Two.” Severus repeated that until he got to twenty. Harry’s forehead wrinkled as he watched. Now Severus would find out what he had to work with. If the child could learn a new skill quickly, Severus might be able to turn him into a battle mage capable of surviving.
“Your turn,” Severus said. He picked up his wand and began levitating the jars in place.
“Two. Four. Six. Seven.”
Severus pointed to the previous jar. “That was seven.”
Harry ducked his head. “Eight,” he corrected himself. They continued until twenty. Harry had struggled once they reached double digits, but he had persevered without an excessive need for correction. When Severus paused, Harry asked, “Why would I skip numbers?”
Harry was too young to discuss mathematical groupings, and Severus did not want to force the boy to learn skills without understanding the reason. That would create an adequate student. Severus had found his students were far more likely to pass their OWLS if they didn’t understand some of the underlying concepts. Students who did would enter tests with the fallacious belief they could choose whether to stir thirteen or sixteen times depending on the strength of the hensbane provided. Merlin save him from headstrong students and arbitrary OWLS.
However, Harry would not survive if he were merely adequate.
“Come. Let’s move to the library.” Severus left the kitchen and entered the long corridor that ran along the backside of the grand hall. The library, potions lab and office were all deep into the mountains, but glittering stalactites provided lighting. Harry followed, his too-large sneakers slapping against the marble floors. Severus needed to retrieve the clothing and transfigure it to be smaller. There was a great irony in the ancient and noble families providing the most luxurious garments only to have them worn by Harry Potter.
The library was a long room with heavy mahogany shelves that went so high in the air a ladder or magic would be required to reach the top. Severus was grateful the room appeared to be warded so Harry could only enter with Severus. Severus pointed to the table just inside the door. Take a seat, please.” Being polite required an effort that Severus could only hope grew easier over time.
He pictured the scroll bag he wanted and reached into the trunk, his fingers immediately finding the strap. Severus pulled it out and set it on the floor next to Harry. Each scroll stood on end, tucked into an individual pocket inside the square bag. “Count these, and if your number is correct, I will tell you the secret of counting by skipping numbers,” Severus said.
“What if I’m wrong?”
“Then we will have lunch.” Severus raised an eyebrows in challenge, and Harry considered the bag the way a curse-breaker might an Egyptian tomb. Leaving the boy to his task, Severus began to sort the titles from both his own library and the packages that had been sent to him. Unsurprisingly, he had an excess of volumes on healing magics. More shocking was the sheer number of books on Dark magic. The families had parted with rare and valuable family tomes, risking having them destroyed if they were found in Hogwarts. Albus wouldn’t have even needed to fight with the Wizengot about whether the books should be destroyed or held in isolation with the Unspeakables. They had put a lot of faith in Severus’s ability to bring back the Dark Lord. He placed those volumes on a high shelf deep into the library.
“Thirty-two,” Harry yelled out as enthusiastically as any Quiddich fan.
Severus returned to the table.
“Did I get it right?” Harry squirmed in his seat.
“You did.” Severus sat next to him on the other side of the scroll bag. “Now watch.” Severus touched the first row and whispered, “One, two, three, four,” before loudly saying, “Five.” Then he touched each row. “Ten, fifteen, twenty, twenty-five, thirty.” He watched as Harry’s eyes grew wide. “Thirty-one, thirty-two,” Severus finished.
“You did that so fast! It’s magic.”
“It’s counting by fives.”
“Can I do that?” Harry asked as he touched the scroll bag reverently.
“Eventually. You start with counting by twos.”
Harry nodded with an enthusiasm Severus was unaccustomed to seeing in students. Severus wondered if he should push a little harder. Now that the wonder was fresh, this might be the best time to start him on written work.
Severus pulled out a quill and ink pot as well as a blank scroll. “If you write you numbers, one to fifty, I can show you how to start practicing counting in groups.”
“With that?” Harry looked askance at the quill.
“Yes.” Severus trimmed the nib and the plumulaceous barbs before showing Harry how to dip into the ink and write.
“It’s so hard,” Harry said as his number 2 vanished under a blot. Severus cleaned the scroll with a wave of his wand.
“It is,” he agreed. “But it teaches precision. When you are brewing potions, which will be the first magic I will teach you, you must be absolutely precise in every movement. You cannot twitch the stirring stick or your potion will not carry as much magic as it should. Writing with a quill will teach you control.”
“Control?” Harry considered the quill unhappily.
“Magical control,” Severus said, hoping to bribe Harry the way his once bribed Draco with chocolate.
Harry narrowed his eyes and glared at the quill, but he picked it up and began his numbers again, more carefully.
“One to fifty, please,” Severus said before he returned to sorting his books. Having an endlessly expanding trunk was quite a boon, but now Severus had to unpack a keep’s worth of furniture and supplies. He had brought enough food to last for two or three years, perhaps longer since a child would eat less at this age. However, they could not stay in this mountain until the boy was in his twenties or thirties and prepared to take on the Dark Lord. Severus only hoped the Fae planned to refill the pantry when the food ran out or this would be the least effective insurgency in the history of rebellions.
Harry sat on a pillow on the grand hall balcony, watching the storm outside the shield. Severus always told him to think of nothing when he meditated, but he found it easier to think about his home. When he focused on the icy winds and the howling snowstorms that surrounded their warm keep, Harry felt the peace to the marrow of his bones. Let him feel the magical fire of their eschara behind him and the blinding winter light on his face, the world settled around him.
Severus said he would have to eventually meditate without the crutch of his favorite spot or his favorite pillow or his favorite view of the storm-swept icy crags. However, he also said most eight-year-olds couldn’t meditate at all. So Harry knew that Severus’s complaints were just words. He complained a lot.
Harry only worried when Severus got quiet—like the time Harry had tried to control his accidental magic by pretending a stirring stick was a wand. Severus had gotten very quiet and very angry and he had lectured Harry about all the damage he could have done. At least that’s what Harry thought he said. When he got angry, Severus used words that Harry didn’t understand.
A breeze fluttered around Harry, surprising him because no matter what the weather, their keep was always warm and still.
“Brat, what did you do?” Severus called. He sounded exasperated. Harry knew that word because Severus used it often enough that Harry had looked it up.
“Nothing,” Harry called back. He stood, but the moment he turned, he froze. A man stood in their great hall, which was round and a room and not a hall. In two years, Harry had never seen anyone other than Severus, which he liked. He remembered Uncle Vernon and Dudley and Aunt Petunia well enough to know that he never wanted to be around people again. But now this strange man was here.
He was tall—too tall. And he wore leather that shimmered like the memory Severus had shared in the pensieve, the one when Severus had visited a desert and the sand seemed to shift with the beating sun. Harry preferred snow.
Severus appeared at the door to the back corridor. The moment he did, he stopped, drew himself up and then stepped into the room. Harry raced for Severus, feeling safe only when he was behind Severus’s robes. Only then did Severus bow.
“My Lord,” he said.
Harry’s mouth fell open. Severus never called anyone lord except the False Lord. He was the bad man who tried to tell everyone that Wild magic was Dark magic. Severus wouldn’t let Harry read those books. They were so old that the bindings cracked and Severus had to lift each page individually. But Severus had explained it. Bad people used Wild magic, so good people got confused and thought all Wild magic was Bad magic. But it wasn’t. And the spells that proved it, like the patronus spell, were renamed Light magic even though there was no such thing. Sometimes Harry’s head hurt when he tried to understand it all, but Severus felt very strongly that the False Lord was not Dark, only bad and he shouldn’t be a lord at all.
But now Severus offered that title to this strange man who was too sharp and reminded Harry of the illustrations he’d seen of vampires and veela. He looked cruel. Harry pressed himself to Severus’s back, but he was also prepared to run for the library if a duel started. He wouldn’t get in Severus’s way if he had to fight.
The strange man gestured, an odd, circular motion where he opened his three-fingered fist to show his palm and then a girl stood there. She had reddish brown hair and her eyes were swollen from crying. Her dress was ripped and a long red scar started at her collarbone and vanished under the neckline.
“Dinae?” Severus asked. She looked at him, looked at the strange creature holding her hand, and then threw herself forward, toward Severus.
Severus opened his arms, and caught her, and a hot flash of jealousy shot through Harry. Severus was his. He didn’t want some strange girl coming here. Severus stood, and he had the girl—Dinae—braced on one hip the way he used to carry Harry.
“If I am to feed both, we need more food, or I have to be able to apparate away to buy food for us. And children need more than a warm place to live. They need a room to play in, where they can run safely, and books so they can study magic that is appropriate for their age and practice reading with stories they like. Harry is progressing well with gardening, and he needs more challenging plants in the greenhouse. Severus’s back was stiff, the way it had been when Harry had played with his improvised wand. Harry wondered if he was angry with the stranger.
The stranger slowly closed his fists, tilted his head to the side and disappeared, leaving behind a small breeze that made a scroll on the side table roll onto the floor.
“Harry, that was a Fae.” Severus had the sort of calm he got when something was in danger of exploding in the potions lab.
Shock robbed Harry of breath for a moment. “Really?” he whispered. He didn’t really remember the one who had brought him here. His memories were fuzzy.
“Did you expect them to look human?” Severus asked.
“A brilliantly articulate answer,” Severus said dryly. He went to the sofa and sat with the girl on his lap. She looked a little younger than Harry, so probably seven or so. Or she was small. Harry used to be small. Severus said he was growing like a weed and if he didn’t stop, Severus was going to stop transfiguring his clothes and make him run around naked. He was probably joking.
“Harry, this is Dinae Carrow, of the ancient and noble house of Carrow. Dinae, this is Harry Potter, of the ancient and noble house of Potter.”
The girl sniffled and looked up. The red scar on her shoulder was even more vivid up close.
“Dinae, what happened, child?” Severus said. He used to use that voice with Harry when he had nightmares, and there was a little part of Harry that didn’t want Severus to talk to someone else in that tone. But he could tell that Dinae needed it. Someone had hurt her.
She cried harder, and Severus wrapped his arms around her and rocked her. “Dinae is a year younger than you, Harry. I imagine she has not begun potions yet, so you can teach her, assuming, you obnoxious scalawag, you can refrain from turning all the equipment in my potions lab into inadequate wands for your personal amusement.”
Dinae’s cries stopped and she looked up, her eyes wide. Harry knew that expression. He knew what it meant to be afraid of an adult’s anger. He moved closer to show her that Severus was safe to be near.
“He doesn’t mean it,” he explained. “Or he probably does because he got really frustrated because I was stupid in the potions lab, but when he’s angry, he just gets quiet and lectures with all these big words and then locks me out of the library. I can go in the library without supervision now, except when Severus is mad at me.”
Severus raised an eyebrow at Harry.
“I’m Harry,” he announced.
She hiccuped. “Dinae Medusa Carrow, of the ancient and sacred house of Carrow,” she whispered.
“That’s a big name,” Harry said.
She blinked at him.
“Child,” Severus said with the sort of enforced calm that he thought was reassuring. It wasn’t. “What happened?”
Her hands flew to her lap and her lower lip quivered. “He told me to be quiet or he would make me,” she whispered.
“Merlin’s balls,” Severus muttered, which was unfair. When Harry said that, he got his dessert taken away. “Well, come along, and let’s get you some chocolate and something to drink.”
“Pumpkin juice?” Harry asked hopefully. They didn’t have much left, so Severus only allowed Harry to have it once a week.
“If Dinae would like,” Severus said as he took her hand in his and led her to the kitchen.
“Where are we?” She asked.
“My home,” Severus said. “No one can come here except the Fae and in two years, they haven’t bothered. I promise no one will find you here.”
“What’s it called?”
“What do you mean?” Harry asked as he sat on a stool. They used to have two stools, but now they had three, and Severus hadn’t had time to transfigure anything into a stool. Strange.
“Magical homes have names,” she said. “Malfoy Manor. Carrow Bright. Grimmauld Place. Goyle Hiddens.”
“I suppose you could call this Potter Keep,” Severus said.
“No,” Harry said. “I like keep. We are a keep. Severus did a ritual to ask the Fae for a place to be safe, so this is like a castle keep, only the whole mountain is the castle wall and our tower is too high for anyone to reach. But Severus wished for this, so it should be Snape Keep.”
“I’m certain I don’t want anyone to remember the name Snape,” Severus said darkly. Harry knew Tobias Snape had been unkind. He sounded way worse than Vernon, and Harry knew he wouldn’t want a nice home to remind him of Vernon and Petunia and his stupid cousin. However, Severus had two parents. Using the pensieve, Harry had seen Severus’s memories of his mother.
Eileen Snape née Prince had read stories that made Harry wish he remembered his own mother as vividly as Severus remembered his. She cooked with Severus and whispered secrets in his ear. Harry remembered the feeling of Eileen Snape’s hand around Severus’s the first time they went through a floo. Harry had explored Diagon Alley through Severus’s memories, always at Eileen’s side.
“You’re a Prince as well as a Snape. It can be Prince Keep.”
Severus made a sour face, but Dinea smiled. “Prince Keep. I like that.”
Harry smiled. Maybe Dinae would be an ally. Sometimes it was frustrating to be alone with an adult who always had to be right. The worse was when Severus would cross his arms, say, ‘Fine, if you think that is a good idea, try it and see what happens, disagreeable little imp.’ He always used the same tone of voice, and when he did, it always meant Harry was actually wrong and Severus was right. It would be nice to have someone side with him instead of being alone with Severus who would wait until after Harry had failed, raise an eyebrow and ask, ‘Are you now satisfied that I am right and you are utterly wrong?’ Severus could be so annoying.
Severus handed Harry a glass of pumpkin juice. “The pantry has been replenished. Why don’t you go check the keep and see if any other changes have been made,” he suggested.
“Can I go in the potions lab?” Harry squirmed in his seat.
“Absolutely not, you manipulative little miscreant.”
Harry sighed. Sometimes Severus was no fun. Taking his pumpkin juice, he slid off the stool and ran to check out his bedroom.
Harry found lots of changes. The short corridor behind the kitchen had a new bedroom between his and Severus’s and the hall now led to a large cavern with a soft sand floor and charmed trees that moved without wind and a swing from one of the branches. And that had a door to the main corridor. Harry ran to check the potions lab door, but it was still locked against him. Unfair. However, the main corridor had grown longer on both sides—on one side connecting to the new play room and on the other connecting to the greenhouse. Prince Keep had all kinds of changes. Harry ran through the grand hall, back toward the kitchen to tell Severus all about it.
However, when he opened the door, Severus sat on the floor with Dinae in his lap. She sobbed uncontrollably, like Harry after a nightmare. Severus looked up, his face infinitely sad. Harry backed away, closing the kitchen door softly. He’d tell Severus later.
“Sev’ris!” Harry called out. Severus had no idea when it had happened, but he had developed a finely tuned sense of panic when Harry got that particular tone in his voice. Casting a quick stasis spell over his potion, he hurried out into the great hall. The last time, Harry and Dinae had been pretending that the various chairs and couches were icebergs and attempting to leap from one to the next with absolutely no regard to what would happen if a small and fragile bone were to strike a marble floor with any velocity. Fools. Both of them were fools.
When he reached the hall, there were no sobbing children or hysterics. Far more terrifying, there was only Harry and Dinae standing around one of the coffee tables and staring at it.
“What are you scalawags up to?”
Harry pointed to the coffee table. “Look!” The moment Severus did, his heart fell to the pit of his stomach.
A wand sat there.
The dark rich wood of the handle was scarred with tiny lines that looked suspiciously like Fay runes. In the center of the wand was a brilliant red gem that, were the wand human-made, would compromise the integrity severely enough to make the wand unusable. But nothing about this wand spoke of human hands crafting it.
“Can I have it?” Harry asked. The child was not yet ten, and yet his greed for that wand had stripped him of all common sense—Severus could see it in Harry’s eyes.
“I want it!” Dinae protested. Giving Severus two children was a cruel trick, even for the Fay.
“Neither of you can have it,” Severus said as he crossed the room in a few great strides.
“But you already have a wand,” Harry complained. “It isn't fair for you to get two wands.”
“Don't argue with me you obstreperous little brat. You have not had your tenth birthday and a wand is traditionally the gift of one’s eleventh birthday.” Harry crossed his arms over his chest and narrowed his eyes. The expression did not disprove Severus's claim that the child was obstreperous.
“What have I always told you about magical objects?”
Both children have the audacity to roll their eyes at him. “Don't touch them,” they said as if by rote. Severus would take comfort in that answer if he believed the children would follow that stricture.
“No one may touch it until I have done a full diagnostic to determine whether it poses a danger to any of us.” Both children were clearly unhappy with his answer.
Severus brought his wand close to whisper the diagnostic spells, but a surge of magic shoved his hand away, nearly tearing his own want out of his grip. Before Severus could recover, Harry darted forward and grabbed it, swinging it through the air.
Green sparks flew in an arc, and Severus grabbed Dinae and pulled her away before some excess of accidental magic reduced both children to a bloodied pulp. “That means it's mine!” Harry shouted.
Severus never should have shared his own memories of going to get his wand. Despite the fact that his own foolishness had contributed to this bad behavior, Severus would not tolerate the children acting like dunderheads. He put Danae behind him and considered Harry with the professorial glare that had sent many a first-year potion student crying out of the dungeons. “Did I give you permission to touch that?”
Harry clung to the wand with both hands. Severus stepped closer. “Did I?”
Harry gave a minute shake of his head. “Do you believe that you are so special that you can handle magic without any training? How would you feel if Dinae died because you did not listen to sensible precautions when faced with unknown magic?”
Harry looked at Danae and drew himself up as tall as he could. The child was three weeks shy of ten; that was not terribly tall. Severus used every inch of his height to stare down at Harry. “If you were to seriously injured Dinae, do I have any way of seeking assistance? How would you feel if you and I were trapped here watching her die because of your foolishness?”
Tears began for real, and Severus let out a breath as he finally got through to his headstrong ward. “It felt like mine,” Harry whispered.
Severus rubbed a hand across his face. “And it might be yours. But we do not take risks. All we have is the three of us, and we do not risk each other's lives or make ridiculous Gryffendor errors out of hubris. Now put that wand down immediately.”
Harry slowly complied, setting the wand down on the coffee table with great hesitation.
“You will go to the library and get Monarchies Wandcraft, Lore, and Warnings from the lower shelf,” Severus said. “If this wand is yours then you will only get it after you have written me no less than 10 inches on all the ways an unwary wizard can cause harm to himself or others through stupidity in the handling of a unfamiliar wand.”
Looking very much like a puppy that has been kicked and then left out in a storm, Harry went.
Severus called after him, “If you attempt to make your essay longer through abominable handwriting, then I will make it 16 inches. Am I clear?”
“Yes, sir,” Harry said before he darted out of the hall.
Danae had watched all this with wide eyes. She waited until Harry left the room before she turned big eyes towards Severus and offered up her most pitiful pout. “If he's in trouble, can I have the wand?”
Snape hated that this child had learned to manipulate at such a young age. Eight years old and she was already attempting to take advantage of Harry's fall from grace in order to get herself the items she coveted. Perhaps Harry would be a Gryffendor and perhaps his ridiculous need to hold both Severus and Dinea close was proof of his Hufflepuff nature. However, Severus had no doubt which house Dinae would have been sorted into. Severus gave her a look as cold and dismissive as the one he had just given Harry. “Do you believe the wand is yours?”
“It could be,” she said she looked at the wand with envy in her eyes, that alone told him that she knew it was not hers.
“And what will the Fae say if they return and find that you have claimed the treasure they intended for another?”
“They might've intended it for me.”
“Impertinent brat. They are Fae. They are creatures of wild magic and raging emotion. Do you feel some overwhelming and wild need to pick up this wand?”
“If you take something that belongs to another, you need to defend it. If you pick up that wand, if you claim a wand that the Fae have clearly intended for another purpose, then you are telling me that you would fight the Fae and Harry and me to retain possession of that wand. Are you willing to do that? Are you willing to challenge all of us to get your way?” Danae's lower lip started quivering. The Carrow family had done her no favors in her early upbringing, not when she lived at the mercy of the Fae. “Foolish child,” Severus said wearily. “Choose a book and go to your playroom and read. I do not want to see you until I call you out.”
She cast one more covetous look at the wand and then darted away through the kitchen doorway. Merlin, what had he done to deserve children? Severus did suspect that his years of serving the False Lord as a Death Eater might have tipped the karmic scale somewhat.
With both his children out of the way, Severus turned his attention to the wand. He hovered his hand over it and felt the magics coil, preparing to arm themselves against him. Clearly, he would not be taking into it into the lab. Instead, he cast a number of spells to reveal any traps that might lie in its magical core or the runes that decorated the exterior.
He was not an expert in wandcraft, but he could tell that the wand was powerful. From the way the magic shifted, it had at least two magical cores. No human crafter would ever attempt to balance two different magical cores in one wand due to the inherent instability. However, no human had produced this wand. Severus could not tell if the two cores lay above and below the inset gem or to either side, but he could tell that the gem provided some form of focus for the power.
This was not a child's weapon, and the idea of handing this over to Harry made Severus feel old down to the marrow of his bones. Severus had thought he had had more time before he had to begin the more serious aspects of magic. After all, the ministry outlawed giving children a wand until they were 11. That was the minimum age for a child's core to be stable enough to work with, and even then many young wizards and witches struggled to perform even the most basic magic in their first year. But the Fae had offered this obscene a gift to a mere child. No. Not a gift.
For Harry, a gift would be an afternoon playing tag through the playroom. It would be sharing a memory through the pensieve. It would be sitting up with him after he had had a nightmare and reading his favorite book.
This wand was not a gift.
This wand was the Fae sharpening the weapon they had chosen. They were preparing Harry to move onto the battlefield before he was grown. Severus had suspected it earlier. The magic that ran through the keep was wild and strong and soaked into everything, including Harry and Dinae. And him.
Never before had Severus felt so helpless. Harry was nothing to them but a weapon, and Danae either a second weapon who would quickly get her own obscenely deadly wand or a child chosen for her dark core and her disposability to be a companion who could ease the loneliness of Harry’s life.
Despair pulled at Severus's soul until he sank onto the couch and stared at the offensive wand. He had vowed to protect Lily's child, and just like he had failed Lily, he had failed her child. Severus had sought an escape from the trap he had built for himself and in doing so he had delivered that little boy to monsters who could not even understand humanity. How many times would Severus trade someone else's life to save his own before he learned that he was beyond salvation?
The sun slowly sank, casting long squares of light across the marble floor. A ray struck the gem and a red glow not unlike the light of a hex encircled the wand.
“Lily, what am I supposed to do?” he whispered. “They are clearly going to put him into a position where he needs that wand to live. But if I give it to him, the minute I see you in the next world, you are going to curse my soul to oblivion, and I won’t stop you.” Severus wasn't sure how long he had sat staring before Harry stuck his head in.
“Severus? Are you mad?”
“Utterly furious,” Severus said honestly, although most of his anger was at himself. Harry came over and sat next to Severus on the couch. At Harry’s age, Severus had been trying to escape his parents’ touch. Both his father's anger and his mother's stifling guilt left him cold. However, Harry was not him. Harry slipped his hand into Severus's, embracing Severus’s hand and his own ridiculously Hufflepuff nature. If the child ever put on the Sorting hat, the damn charms would break as it tried to figure out if Harry would fit better with the naïve badgers or the idiot lions.
“If it's not good for me, I don't need it,” Harry said softly. Severus studied him. Were Danae to say that, Severus would know exactly what she was thinking. Her manipulations were almost charming in their utterly artless way.
Harry was more of a mystery. “Are you saying that because you're trying to convince me to forgive you so that you can claim the wand, or do you mean it?”
Harry bit his lip. “The wand feels like mine.” His fingers twitched. “I really want it, but if you tell me it's not for me, I'll listen to you. I always listen to you, Severus.”
A dark laugh slipped free. “Child, you never listen to me unless you have already attempted it 17 ways for yourself, and you have given up any hope of finding a solution that does not require my assistance.”
Harry turned red.
“Did you finish your essay?”
Harry held it out to him. The handwriting was small and neat, so he had not attempted to circumnavigate the rules. “I didn't know it could be that dangerous,” Harry said, and that sounded like a genuine apology.
“We are alone out here. If you cause more damage to yourself or Danae than I can heal, then I will have to watch you die.” Sometimes Severus wondered if he should show Harry just a few of those memories. He wondered if he should let Harry catch a glimpse of a man crying out for mercy or a woman whose blood spilled out in gory chunks from an abdominal wound. Maybe Severus had made magic too much of a game. Severus let his hand hover over the wand. “Do you know what it means for them to give you this?”
Harry shook his head.
Severus pinned Harry with his most serious expression. “Anyone who gives you a weapon this fine expects you to use that weapon to fight for them.”
Severus wished he had that answer. He had thought it might be the False Lord, but Severus had found Dark Art books in his trunk that he could not imagine any family parting with, not even for Voldemort. They talked of the first wixen and a time when Fae and Goblins vied with human magics. Severus continued to study manuscripts so old that the pages would crumble to dust without stasis spells, and Severus still didn’t have an answer. “When I was young, I wanted something very badly.”
Severus considered his answer. There had been so many things he'd wanted—revenge, respect, power, a chance to exist without fear smothering him. But Harry was not ready to hear that answer. He would probably never be ready to hear that answer, nor would he understand it unless Severus chose to show the boy everything he had done. And if he did that, he would break the trust between them. Living in a Fae keep, Harry's magic might be growing wild and dark, but he didn’t have enough evil in him to fill an inkpot. He would never understand Severus. So Severus shared the only answer that had even a small chance of making sense to this strange child he had been saddled with. “I wanted to learn potions. I wanted to learn more that I could at school. I wanted to be a potions master.”
Harry's eyes lit with pride. “And you are,” he exclaimed happily.
“Yes,” Severus admitted. “But the person who paid for me to obtain that weapon asked me to fight in battles that I did not want to fight in. But when you accept a gift, sometimes it obligates you to do things that you regret later.”
Harry frowned as he considered the beautiful wand in front of him. “Do you think I will regret getting a wand?”
Severus suspected very much that he would. But given their precarious position inside a Fae prison, he also suspected Harry would regret it if he did not. He sighed. “I don't know Harry only you can answer that.”
Harry frowned, the wrinkle between his eyes deepening in concentration. “I really want the wand, Severus,” Harry said. “I know what I did was super dangerous, and I promise I will never again wave it around, and I will listen to you, and I will follow your instructions just like I follow them in the potions lab so that I won't put you or Danae or myself in danger. I double promise.” The whole time he spoke, his gaze was focused on the wand, almost worshipfully.
Severus had no hope of keeping this from Harry, and if he tried, the Fae could punish all of them.
Severus sighed. “If you do not listen to me, being locked out of the library will be the least of your concerns. I will cut you into pieces and use you in my next potions experiment.” Severus knew that had been the wrong tactic to take the moment the brat’s lips started to quiver in a barely poorly disguised attempt to not smile.
“You can have it after I have checked your essay, and not before, and do not make me regret this leniency.”
Harry quickly concealed his emotions beneath a mask of obedience. Picking up the essay, Severus started reading. At this point, the most he could do was read as slowly as possible and hope Harry lost interest. That was about as likely as Albus Dumbledore flying in on a herd of thestrals and offering them a ride to Hogwarts. But at least for the next few minutes, Severus could pretend that he had a way of protecting a nine-year-old child from embracing a Fae-made battle wand.
Harry grunted as Dinea landed in the middle of his stomach. “Wake up. It’s your birthday!”
“Oi. Get off.”
She threw herself to one side of the mattress and started poking him in the shoulder. Harry considered rolling over and sticking his head under his pillow, but once Dinae was worked up, she wouldn’t let him rest. He could suggest she go bug Severus, but the man might kill them both. “Merlin’s toes, you’re annoying.”
“The magic flashed, but Severus says I can’t go exploring without you.”
“It flashed?” That woke Harry up. He loved their mountain keep. He did. Maybe Severus was cranky, but he never abused Harry or made him go hungry. Maybe Dinae treated everything from wizard chess to tag like a competitive sport requiring all rivals to be obliterated, but she never hit him. Well, not really, although she did have very sharp fingers for poking. But overall, Harry knew how much worse he could have it—how much worse he had it with the Dursleys before Severus came.
However sometimes it was a little boring. But if the magic had flashed, something had changed. The Fae had left new books or changed something about the keep.
Harry narrowed his eyes when he saw her practically vibrating out of her skin. “You think they left you a wand.”
“I’m ten now.”
“It’s my birthday.”
“Yeah, but eleventh birthdays are for wands, and you already have one. It’s my turn.”
“You’re not getting presents on my birthday.”
“I am if the Fae and Severus say I am.” She rolled out of Harry’s bed and ran out of the room, leaving the door open as he yelled at Severus, “He’s awake. Can I go explore now?”
“No, little jackanapes. I will have you scrubbing potion pots ‘til your fingers cramp if you ask me that one more time.”
Harry got out of bed and pulled on his robe before racing through the playroom into the back corridor. If something had changed on his birthday, he wanted to find it. A door slammed behind him, and Harry laughed at Dinae’s indignant yell. Even better, Harry could see a new door ahead—a wide double door that led to a new room beside the library and behind the greenhouse. Harry threw the door open and stopped in awe.
This was the biggest room yet. In the center was a wide flat spot nearly half as big as the great hall, all covered in green moss. Around it stood weird shapes and stairs that went nowhere and charmed trees that leaned drunkenly and weird piles of wooden boxes stacked precariously. In the far back stood several shapes that looked like straw people holding weapons.
“What is it?” Dinae asked as she came in behind him, her outrage at not finding the room first forgotten under the curiosity.
“It’s a dueling room,” Severus said.
“Dueling? Like Wixen dueling with wands?” Sometimes he and Severus would play tag with color-staining hexes or pants-falling hexes, but they didn’t do anything like dueling, not like in the books where the insulted wizard always challenged his rival in the middle of a grand field, and each would choose a second, and sometimes one of their seconds was really a girl in disguise who liked the wizard and sometimes the duel was broken up by the real villain of the story riding in on a dragon. Harry loved those books.
Severus looked around. “Exactly.”
“Merlin’s rune stones,” Dinae said reverently. “A dueling room like in a palace.” When Harry turned to talk to her, he saw a strange look on Severus’s face.
The expression vanished. “Happy birthday, young brat. Now, let’s get food in you two before you become more disagreeable.”
Harry followed Severus back to the kitchen where he was making pancakes and sugared fruits. While Dinae prattled on about all the books she’d read with wixen duels, Harry watched Severus. He didn’t like the Fae gift. He probably hoped that he could keep Harry here forever, always learning and never going into battle. But Harry wasn’t stupid. First the Fae had given him a wand more powerful than Severus’s and now they’d made him a dueling room.
Something was coming.
And Severus knew something about it.
After breakfast, they all settled into the great hall to share favorite pensieve moments. As usual, Dinea was taking too long, and Harry’s gaze wandered to the balcony. The shield charm that protected their keep never failed and never needed reinforcing. It kept out the wind and cold while making it look like the room was open to the frozen mountain ranges. But something looked different.
Harry got up and wandered closer to the balcony. “Severus, what’s that?” he asked. The balcony had a weird bulge that stuck out away from the mountain.
“Get back,” Severus said as he strode past Harry, wand drawn. Harry backed away, catching Dinea by the arm to make sure her curiosity didn’t get ahead of her common sense. Severus stopped at the charmed barrier and pressed his hand against it.
Normally the charm acted like glass, keeping anyone from falling off, even if the someones in question had been playing magic carpet by running as fast as possible before jumping on rugs and trying to slide across the marble floor. Harry had hit the barrier hard, and it held. But now Severus was pushing slowly through it. The winds whipped his hair around his head, and his shirt was pulled free of his trousers. If he’d been wearing his potions robes, he might have flown away like a great bat.
Severus turned, now facing the charm wall, but on the opposite side. Fear clawed at Harry and he took a step closer. Severus stepped back inside the barrier.
He cast a warming charm on himself and stepped closer to the fire that magically warmed their whole home. “It’s an apparition point.”
“Like for travelling?” Harry asked.
Dinea clutched Harry’s hand painfully tight.
“Do we have to go somewhere?” Harry asked, his chest aching. He wasn’t ready to fight, and he didn’t want to leave home now.
Severus frowned at this for a moment before his eyes grew large. “I’m not taking either of you back to those people. Ever. They do not get to have you.” The ferocity in Severus’s voice made the fear knots in Harry’s stomach ease, and Dinae stopped trying to strangle his hand. “However, what happens on a wizard’s eleventh birthday, Harry?”
Harry looked at Dinae for help. She knew more about the milestones since he had to learn about wizarding culture from books. But the brat looked away.
“That’s when the Hogwarts letter comes, but this is Fae land. Not even a magical owl could reach this place, and even if they could find it, they couldn’t get through that weather.”
“Yes, what else?”
“That’s when witches and wizards get wands, but I already have mine.” Harry frowned, trying to figure out what else happens at eleven.
“That’s when heirs claim their first title,” Dinea said. “Before that, your parents can say you’re the heir, but you have to go to Gingotts and register it, and the magic has to judge you worthy because sometimes the person the Lord or Lady chooses isn’t compatible with the family magic.”
“I should take points for not letting Harry figure that out on his own. No one likes a know-it-all. However, that was well-explained, so we shall overlook the faux pas,” Severus told Dinea.
“I have to claim an heirship?” That was also very common in wizarding books, but if Harry was an heir, why had he been living in a cupboard with Muggles. That didn’t make any sense.
“You do,” Severus said. “You are definitely heir to the Potter estate, but the old families are all interrelated, so you may have one or two other heirships to claim.
That was exciting. That made this the best birthday ever. He got to go to a wizarding bank and having his magic tested and he could be an heir. And in the books, once someone found out they were an heir, they could take revenge on everyone who hurt them. Harry wouldn’t really hurt Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon, but he could scare them a little. Or a lot. They weren’t nice people. “Can we go now?” Harry asked.
Severus sagged. “Harry, you have to understand something. People will know you’re alive because your name will not have vanished from the extended genealogies of a number of families. And I had no right to take you from your Muggle relatives.”
“I don’t care about that.”
“I rather think the Aurors will,” Severus said dryly.
Aurors. Wixen police. Harry had understood that he’d been kidnapped, but until this moment it never occurred to him that the police would consider that a crime instead of a rescue. They would take Severus to jail and Harry would go back to the Dursleys. Harry’s vision started graying, and he started breathing faster as his lungs couldn’t get enough air.
“Breathe, foolish child.” Severus caught Harry around the shoulders and pulled him down onto the couch, sitting next to him. “I’m not going to let anyone take you. The False Lord himself taught me to duel, so if anyone tried to take you away, they would regret ever seeing the wrong side of my wand.” Harry grabbed Severus’s hand and clung to it.
“Then why did that show up on my birthday?”
“Clearly the Fae want to make sure that you claim your family magics.”
“So we have to go?” Harry looked at the apparition point with horror.
“Eventually, yes,” Severus agreed. “But we are Slytherins. We solve problems through stealth and intelligence, not by rushing into a problem without thought. The Fae have provided both a dueling room and an apparition point, but there is no magic requiring us to us either right now.”
“How does that help?” Dinae asked. Harry was glad she did because panic was making his brain move slow.
“I’ve told you that the world foolishly gives Harry credit for the False Lord’s fall.”
“But you said that was most likely blood magic my mother did as she died,” Harry said.
“Most likely. Lily was brilliant with charms, and even though she was Muggleborn, she had as wild a magical core as any Pureblood family. She could have set up blood wards, ready to fuel them with her own death. A willing sacrifice related by blood would be magic that would impress even the Fae.”
“My uncle would kill you for saying that about a muggle-born,” Dinea whispered.
“I knew your uncle, so I am quite aware,” Severus said dryly. “However, as your uncle is a fool and he could not negotiate with the Fae if his life depended on it, I don’t care,” Severus added. Harry knew she was frightened because she never brought up her family. Never. Severus put an arm around her and pulled her closer.
“Wait,” Harry said, “if the Aurors know I’m alive and they know I have to claim my heirship before time runs out…”
“And we do not know how long your family allows for that ritual, only that the Pureblood families always used blood magic and that is, by definition, finite.”
“They’ll be waiting for me today. It’s my eleventh birthday, so today they’ll have everyone looking for Harry Potter.” Harry smiled slowly. “But if we wait a few weeks, people will get tired of looking. And no one would have their heirship limited to a few weeks because these sorts of blood magics started back when people rode horses from town to town. The families wouldn’t want an heir disqualified because a horse broke a leg on the road.”
“So we wait until the advantage shifts to us,” Severus said. “I can assure you that the Goblins are no friends to the Aurors, so as long as we can get into a bank unnoticed, they will stay out of anything as petty as a human kidnapping. We may yet make a Slytherin out of you, brat.”
“He’d be Hufflepuff,” Dinea said. That was not a complementary tone.
Severus sighed. “Probably.”
“Hey! Loyalty and hard work are good things.” Harry poked Severus with his elbow. “And you, missy, owe me a penseive memory, something birthday worthy.” Harry might have to wait a few weeks, but he was going to get to see a real wizarding street. Even with the delay, this was still the best birthday ever.
“It’s about time for you to head back to your dorm, young man,” Professor Sprout said.
Neville sighed. “Yes, ma’am.” He finished smoothing the soil over the seeds he’d planted and took off his gloves.
Professor Sprout came and sat on the edge of the raised planting bed. “Mr. Longbottom, is everything alright?”
Neville shrugged. “Nothing’s wrong.”
“But is anything right?” She pressed.
Neville looked at her. “I wish I’d been sorted into Hufflepuff.” His grandmother had gone on and on about how his parents were Gyrffindor and how he was destined to follow in their footsteps, but he didn’t know anymore. He wasn’t good at anything except herbology and he didn’t fit in with the others.
“Is something wrong with Gyrffindor?”
“Are the students being mean?”
Neville loved Professor Sprout because she cared about stuff like that. “Not really. I mean, I just don’t fit.”
“Most of us feel like we don’t fit when we first come to school,” she said kindly.
“But Dean and Seamus turned into best friends overnight. And Ron is always getting teased by his brothers, and if I sit too close to him, Fred and George tease me, too.” Of course, the teasing usually took the form of tongue sticking toffees and color changing hexes that made him purple. Ron yelled and threw food and threatened to write their mother, but he didn’t seem to care enough to make them stop, and Neville always felt like he was in danger when when he sat near Ron. “And Hermione is so serious. I don’t do well in other classes, and she’s always trying to tell me what I’m doing wrong, and she makes me almost as nervous as the teachers do, and I just don’t have a place.” The common room was supposed to be a safe haven, but the only place where Neville felt safe was in the greenhouse.
“Oh dear. Well, you are always welcome with me, dear,” she said.
Neville smiled at her. “Thank you.”
“I happen to appreciate a young man who can plant seeds a consistent depth and tell a weed from an herb, so you are always welcome. But right now, you have to hurry to avoid breaking curfew.”
Fear shot through Neville. “Right. I’m going.” He grabbed his bag and ran for the door. At the door he stopped and turned around. “Thank you Professor Sprout.”
“Any time, my dear.” She smiled before she returned to her pruning.
Neville followed the line of shrubs toward the castle, but a shadow caught his eye. Something was coming out of the castle. At first, Neville thought it was a professor—maybe Professor McGonagal coming to find out why he wasn’t in the dorm. But then the shape twisted and jerked into lines that weren’t human. The shade scrabbled over the ground, always in the shadow of the shrubs, and fear made Neville’s insides turn to ice and made his knees weak.
He took a step back, and something cold washed over him. The shade straightened and stepped into the light. It was Professor Quirrell; however, the professor had never looked at a student with the raw fury Neville saw in his face now. Neville took another step back. “Professor Quirrell?” he said, his voice quivering.
The professor offered him a cruel smile. “How unfortunate for you,” he said. But then the world started to shimmer and blur.
The world shifted between one blink and the next. Neville was in a cave with a ceiling that glittered with crystals and a huge fire that burned in a raised fire pit. Luxurious couches sat in clusters around it, and charmed musical instruments lined the far wall, which was made of polished stone with veins of gold and silver threaded through. It looked like someone had crossed Marble Cave in Chile with his grandmother’s formal parlor, only it was grander than either. The setting startled him so badly that he didn’t notice the man standing next to the fire at first.
“Hello?” Neville said. The man took a step closer, and something connected in Neville’s brain. The black hair, the hooked nose, the long and cruel face. Posters with this face still hung in Diagon Alley. He pointed at the stranger. “You. You’re Steveneus Snape.”
“Severus Snape,” the man corrected, his tone dripping with contempt. He took a step forward, and Neville took one back and finally remembered to pull his wand out of his pocket.
“Stay away. I know who you are. You’re one of You-Know-Who’s followers. You murdered Harry Potter!”
“You-Know-Who?” Snape crossed his arms over his chest, looking utterly unconcerned about having a wand pointed at him. He probably was. He was one of the most feared Death Eaters ever. He was a renowned dueler and a potions master. And he was a famed occlumens. He had even lied to Professor Dumbledore, convincing him that he was loyal to the Light before he killed Harry Potter and disappeared. There was a reward of like a billion galleons for information leading to his capture. Snape sounded amused as he said, “I take it that the wizarding world moved on from calling him He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named.”
Neville retreated more, stopping when his back touched a ward that made his flesh tingle. He glanced over his shoulder and shock made him whirl around. He was standing on a balcony protected by a shield charm. Outside, the world was glittering and white and sharp. Jagged, snow covered mountains stabbed the blue-gray sky and the wind picked up tuffs of snow and swirled them through the air before dropping them back to the earth. Neville had travelled widely with his Grandmother, but he had never seen any place as wild and beautiful or as deadly. No wonder Snape had escaped the Aurors.
Suddenly remembering that Snape was at his back, Neville whirled around again and raised his wand to defend himself. Snape still stood there, arms crossed.
“How did I get here?” Neville asked.
“The Fae,” Snape said. He moved toward the fireplace, and Neville followed with his wand. “The more interesting question is why the Fae would have brought you here.”
The last word vanished under a shout of “Expelliarmus!” from the side. The spell hit, and Neville went flying the length of the balcony and his wand clattered to the marble floor. Snape darted forward, grabbing the wand, and Neville crouched on the floor, utterly helpless and at the mercy of a Death Eater. He thought about his parents—how they sat in St. Mungo, their minds shattered by Death Eaters’ torture. His vision grayed and he started to shake. They were going to kill him. And he hadn’t gotten off a single spell.
“Child, quiet yourself,” Snape said. Neville realized he was sobbing. Snape was going to torture him if he couldn’t stop. Despite that, the sobs continued.
“Harry, bring a calming draught. Dinae, do stop staring. I believe you have work to complete.”
“But our game.”
“Consider it a draw,” Snape said. He knelt down next to Neville, and Neville shied away, but he was trapped in a corner, the shield charm and the wall of the cave preventing retreat. Neville wished he could throw himself off the balcony and die from the fall or the cold, but he wasn’t going to get that mercy.
“Here you go,” a boy said as he handed Snape a potions bottle.
Snape held it out. “Drink.”
Neville shook his head. “You’ll poison me.”
“To what end? Are you a threat I would need to poison?” Snape asked. Neville tried to swallow, but his mouth was too dry.
The boy with wild hair sat on the floor next to Snape. “I’m Harry,” he said. Neville glance over, and suddenly he was too shocked to cry. The boy had a lightning shaped scar on his forehead.
“Harry Potter?” Neville asked softly.
The boy smiled. “That’s me.”
“As you can see, I have not murdered Harry.”
“Not even when I spilled girding potion on your scroll,” Harry said brightly. He gestured to the bottle in Snape’s hand. “It’s just a calming draught. Severus gives them to me when I have a nightmare.”
“But… you’re dead,” Neville whispered.
“Um, not really,” Harry said. “The Muggles who were raising me were abusive. Severus knew my mom, so he took me away from them.”
Neville looked at Snape. He looked more like a killer than someone who would save a child. And the potion in his hand could be a poison. But Harry Potter said it wasn’t and said that Snape had saved him. Caught between two realities, Neville couldn’t decide what to believe.
Snape rolled his eyes. “Taste this, please, Harry.”
“But I’ll be too tired for practice.”
“As opposed to allowing a child to live in terror. Yes, I am terribly concerned about your dueling practice, inconsiderate brat.”
Neville hadn’t expected a Death Eater to be sarcastic… or to use “brat” as an insult.
“Fine.” Harry sounded aggravated, but he took the bottle and sipped it. “Standard calming draught,” he said as he held the bottle out to Neville.
Neville never would have taken a potion from someone like Severus Snape, but this was Harry Potter. This was the boy who survived a killing curse. He took the bottle and sipped at it, nervous that he might fall down dead or this might be a potions version of a crucio spell. However, it tasted like the calming draught his grandmother sometimes gave him.
Snape turned his attention to Harry Potter. “Evaluate your performance during that… adventure.”
“I didn’t panic, and I pulled Dinae to safety behind the sofa as soon as I realized someone was shimmering in.”
“And I performed the Expelliarmus correctly. He dropped his wand.”
“The spell was not necessary given that our visitor does not appear overly threatening, but I would rather you overreact to a threat than underreact. However, what critical error did you make?”
Severus sighed. “Where should your opponent’s wand land when you use that spell?”
Harry winced. That was the exact same expression Neville got when his grandmother lectured him over some mistake he’d made.
“In my hand or at my feet, somewhere that my opponent can’t easily get it back.”
“Exactly. We will be practicing. You’ve had your wand a year longer than Dinae, and you still do not control the direction of the expelling force.”
Harry hunched over. “Sorry.”
“Do not be sorry. Be better. This time you threw a spell at a child that the Fae delivered into our care. At some point in the future, you will need to use that spell against an enemy who will take advantage of your foolishness. Do not get into habits that could, one day, cost you your life.”
Harry looked up from under his shaggy hair. “I’m sorry, Severus.”
Snape huffed. “And yet you do not change your behavior.”
“Severus! There’s a new bedroom!” A girl with auburn hair ran into the room, her bare feet slapping against the marble. “But it’s on the opposite side of the keep. It’s by the greenhouse.”
Neville’s eyes widened. They had a greenhouse?
“Check to see if our supplies have been replenished,” Snape ordered, and Harry got up and headed for an ornate door on the other side of the room. “Dinae, introduce yourself.”
Dinae straightened up. “Very pleased to meet you. I am Dinae Carrow of the ancient and noble house of Carrow.”
Neville knew this. His grandmother had drilled it into him. “Well, met, Dinae Carrow. I am Neville Longbottom of the ancient and noble house of Longbottom.”
“Another of the sacred 28,” Snape said softly, and then he said louder, “Dinae, show Mr. Longbottom his new room while I check to see if the apothecary supplies have been renewed.”
Dinae held out her hand to Neville, and he took it on instinct. She pulled him to his feet and practically dragged him toward a door. “None of the bedrooms are large, but they’re so pretty with the stone walls. You seem to have a vein of turquoise through yours. I just don’t know why your room is on the opposite side of the keep from where us and Severus sleep. That seems silly.”
Being on the opposite side of the keep from Snape seemed reasonable to Neville. The only thing that would be more reasonable would be if he were back at Hogwarts, but until he could get home, he planned to spend as much time as possible on the opposite side of the keep from the most famous Death Eater in history.
Neville allowed Dinae to pull him into a library with a large dark wood table taking up a good deal of the floor space just inside the door. “You can sit next to me,” she said as she pulled him around to the far side of the table.
“Dinae is excited to have someone new in the keep. It’s been a while,” Harry explained. Neville still couldn’t quite get over that he was talking to a living, breathing Harry Potter.
“That’s okay,” Neville said. “How long have you guys been here?”
“Ages!” Dinae said, her voice full of tragedy.
Harry shot her an amused look as he grabbed two scrolls from an organizer set on the nearest shelf. “She’s only been here three years. Severus and I have lived here for five.”
“Yeah, but when you turned eleven, you got to visit the outside world, so that resets the clock and you haven’t even been here a whole year, and I’ve been here three.” Dinae made everything sound so dramatic that Neville had to resist the urge to smile. He suspected she might hex him. “I can’t wait until I turn eleven and I can visit the outside.”
“Wait. You aren’t eleven?” Neville looked at her confused.
“Not yet. Why?”
“But you have your wand.” Neville had been a little envious when she’d pulled out her wand and levitated his school bag to the top of the dresser in his new room. The room had been beautiful, but what really surprised Neville was how many of his possessions were in it. And it hadn’t just been his school books from Hogwarts. His bedding from home and some of his favorite clothes and even his stuffed leaping toadstool that he’d slept with from the age of three—it had all been in his new room. Maybe someone had wanted to give Neville some comforts from home, but it made him feel worse because it felt like he was going to be here forever.
“So what if I have a wand. You have a wand. Harry has a wand.”
“Harry and I are eleven. You can’t get a wand if you’re not eleven.”
“Correction, Mr. Longbottom,” Snape said as he walked in the room, “shops controlled by the Ministry of Magic will not sell a wand unless the intended user is at least eleven. Since this is a Fae keep and the Fae provide for our needs, including the children’s need for wands, the Fae can provide wands at any age they find appropriate.”
“But… isn’t that dangerous?” Neville bit his tongue he shouldn’t be questioning the Death Eater who was holding him captive. But still… every kid asked for one early, and every parent explained all the ways someone could damage their magical core by straining it too early.
Snape crossed his arms over his chest. “Are you questioning the magical acumen of the Fae, Mr. Longbottom?”
“No?” Neville hated how unsure his voice came out.
Snape rolled his eyes. “You two have your assignments. Mr. Longbottom, have you started studying Arithmancy?”
“That’s a third year elective. I’m only first year.”
“And many ancient families teach their children the fundamentals of magic before they attend Hogwarts. But I shall infer from your answer that you have not. Have you studied algebra?”
Dinae pushed her scroll toward him, and he could see mathematical problems with letters mixed into the equations. “This is algebra. I hate it,” she said.
“Dinae!” Snape’s voice carried so much condemnation that Neville cringed just being in the same room with it. Snape sighed. “I shall see how fast you can complete your times tables and we shall go from there.” Snape pulled a new scroll from the shelf.
Neville had not impressed anyone with his work. He’d gotten all the answers, but only after counting on his fingers, and Snape had assigned him to draw boxes to represent each answer on a times table until he could envision the numbers when he saw a multiplication problem. Neville blushed, humiliated that both Harry and Dinae had witnessed him struggle with multiplication when they were so far ahead of him. Dinae shot him a smug look, but then she’d had a quarter of her sheet erased and she’d been sent back to fix her errors. Harry, on the other hand, was so focused on his arithmancy charts that he didn’t seem to notice. Math was hard.
Potions was harder.
Neville practically shook as he cut the dittany for the strength potion. It didn’t help that Snape stood behind him, watching the entire time. Harry and Dinae got to work on their potions without the extra attention, and Neville was deeply envious. Potions was never his best subject but Neville was fairly sure he would fail even herbology if Snape watched while he tended the plants.
“Mr. Longbottom, control your knife. At this rate you will remove your own fingers.”
Neville fumbled and the knife slipped out of his hand and nearly landed on Snape’s foot.
“You will be doing all chopping for lunches and dinners until I say otherwise, Mr. Longbottom,” Snape said. Considering they weren’t even at school, that sounded a lot like a detention, but Neville wasn’t going to argue with a Death Eater.
“Um, Severus?” Harry asked. Neville looked up, and Harry was backing away from his cauldron. “What could make a wideye potion develop purple streaks, and is this something you need to vanish before it blows up?”
“Thank you for checking the safety of your clearly inadequate work,” Snape said. Neville tried to shrink in his seat. “What was the last ingredient you added?”
“Since the discoloration is a streak and not consistent, what can you deduce?”
Harry moved closer to his cauldron again, studying it. “Something got in there and it’s causing a reaction, but there’s not enough of the contaminate to ruin the whole potion.”
“And what would that something be?”
Harry frowned. “I’m not sure. The contamination could be anything, but since I just added billywig stings, it could be billywig wings.”
“If you know this and know how to test your hypothesis, why are you bothering me instead of testing for the presence of billywig wings in your potion?”
“Right.” Harry drew himself up and went to the shelves to pull more ingredients. Neville didn’t even recognize some of the supplies he brought back to the table.
“Mr. Longbottom,” Snape said, “have you stirred that potion the requisite four times or several dozen?” Neville froze. With a sigh, Snape waved his wand and the potion vanished. “Begin again.”
Neville went back to cutting dittany while Harry used a mortar and pestle to grind several ingredients together. He then added it to the small amount of his potion and the combination turned bright red. “I have billywig wings,” Harry said. “If I slowly add leek root until the color returns to normal and reverse the direction of the stirs while I do, will that neutralize the contamination?”
“It will. Ten points for correctly addressing the problem, Harry.”
Dinae spoke up. “What if my cure for boils is too yellow? I think there is something wrong with my porcupine quills, Severus.”
“There was, and you could have corrected it had you asked me fifteen minutes ago when you added your crushed quills,” Snape said. “Ten points from you for attempting to hide a problem with your work. These potions are intended for human consumption, Dinae. You cannot produce an inferior product and hope it does not kill someone. Start again.” He waved his wand and her potion vanished too.
Neville thought potions was going to be the hardest part of the day.
Until they started charms.
They moved to the great hall and Snape laid three eggs on the ground. “You must levitate your egg to the balcony. Your egg must remain within one inch of the ground at all times and if you crack your egg you will not only lose but you will clean the floor without magic. Take out your wands. Begin.”
Neville’s hand shook as he cast his wingardium leviosa. By the time he finished the incantation, Dinae’s egg was already moving toward the balcony and picking up speed. After a few dips and wobbles, Neville’s egg slammed into the ground, splattering raw egg everywhere. Dinae easily won the race with Harry sending his egg across the finish line a minute later.
“Perfectly adequate, Dinae,” Snape offered.
“Bad luck,” Harry said. “It’s okay. We can practice the spell together until we can beat her.”
“You could practice forever and I’d still be better,” Dinae said.
Neville felt like a squib that everyone was pointing to and laughing at because he was trying to do magic. He was so miserable that he didn’t notice Snape standing in front of him for several seconds. “Mr. Longbottom, where did you get that wand?”
Neville clutched his wand. “Ash with dragon heartstring. It was my father’s.”
“Was it? And where did you get the wand?”
Neville looked toward Harry to see if he understood why Snape was so interested, but Harry looked as confused as Neville felt. “My grandmother gave it to me. My father was a well-respected Auror, and he battled with this wand many times.” Neville swallowed as it occurred to him that his father might have even fought Snape.
“That makes the wand a valuable keepsake, but why in the world would you choose to try to usurp the loyalty of an ash wand?”
Snape closed his eyes for a second. “Ash, Mr. Longbottom. Your wand is ash, a wood well-known for being loyal to only one wielder. If that wand sat in your family vault for a few generations, the wand might choose another user, but it is equally likely that the wand would demand a century or more before working for another witch or wizard. Why did your grandmother not insist that you buy a new wand?”
“She wanted me to use my father’s wand.”
“She demanded you use it?” Snape’s voice rose in anger and Neville took a step back. Snape took a deep breath. “Mr. Longbottom, I apologize, but I must insist you give me your wand.”
“Why?” Neville clutched his wand tighter.
“Now, Mr. Longbottom.” Snape’s voice was hard, and fear shot through Neville stomach. He might have tried to escape, but the keep was too small to hide anywhere. He put his wand in Snape’s outstretched hand. “I apologize for this, but we must communicate to the Fae that you absolutely must have a new wand. You have a powerful core, Mr. Longbottom, and you will likely grow even more powerful the longer you are here. However, much of your magical power is being absorbed and dispersed by this wand as it fights you.” Snape snapped the wand, and Neville cried out.
“I can repair the wood, and restore the appearance so you may keep this as a keepsake of your father, but you need your own wand.” Snape repaired the wand and handed it back, but Neville could feel the difference. The warmth was gone. The magic was gone. Now it was just a piece of wood, two halves of a wand glued together with a spell. Neville started crying softly.
“Perhaps it is time for lunch,” Severus said before he cast a quick cleaning spell to remove the egg.
“Hey, let’s go to the playroom,” Harry said.
“We can play Stop-Go!” Dinae said.
“Dinae Carrow, stop assuming that everyone wants to share the company of a brat. Come and help me prepare lunch.”
“I thought Neville had to do the chopping.”
“Now, brat.” Snape pushed the girl toward the kitchen, but Neville was too miserable to care.
Harry wrapped an arm around Neville’s shoulders. “Let’s go sit on the swings. Come on.” Neville allowed himself to be led to the playroom with its sand floor and swings hung from the branch of a tree sculpture.
For a time, they swung quietly, Harry matching his speed. “I want to go home,” Neville confessed. He’d been unhappy at Hogwarts, but he was miserable here.
“Make him let me leave. Please,” Neville begged. He could see that Snape liked Harry. He’d do it for Harry. “I promise I won’t tell anyone that I saw him or tell the Aurors about Prince Keep or anything. Promise.”
“If Severus could take you home, he would. But this place was built by the Fae, and we don’t have any way of leaving. That’s why Severus gets so angry when we put ourselves in danger by doing things that could blow up. You should have seen him when I broke my ankle playing leapfrog with the couches in the grand hall. When stuff like that happens, he can’t go get help. He can’t take us somewhere to see a healer. It’s just him and us.”
Neville pressed his lips together and fought back an urge to cry again. “He broke my wand.”
“He feels really bad about that. He never cancels a punishment once he issues it, and he cleaned up your egg and everything. From Severus that’s like a dozen apologies.”
Neville gave Harry an incredulous look.
“No, really,” Harry said. “Severus has a secret language. When he says you’re adequate, that means you’re brilliant. When he calls you inadequate, that means you’re average. When he calls you an utter dunderhead who would forget to breathe if breathing weren’t hard-wired into the human brain, that means you made a mistake. I’m pretty sure having to work for the False Lord messed up something in his head.” Harry shrugged.
“But my father’s wand.” Neville stared down morosely. This was the worst day of his life, second only to yesterday when he’d been kidnapped by a Death Eater.
Harry dragged his feet through the sand to stop the swing. “Have you seen my wand?” Harry held it out. It was beautiful, but the center was carved out, leaving a space for a red gem. It didn’t look substantial enough to be a regular wand. It looked like one of the fancy ritual wands that was only used to bless the altar on Yule or Ostara, not something a person would use to do magic.
“The Fae left it for me. Severus says it’s really powerful. Human wands only have one core, but Severus says he can feel two cores and both are interacting with the stone. He said no human could ever make this.”
“I would rather have my father’s wand,” Neville said even though Harry’s wand was amazing. His grandmother was never going to forgive him for letting his father’s wand be broken, assuming he ever saw her again.
“Neville, the Fae brought us here. Dinae and I were both in really bad places, and Severus had asked for a way to get out from between the forces of Light and Dark, neither of which were being very nice to him. And it sounds like you might have been in trouble with Professor Quirrell. But the Fae don’t give people things to be nice. They aren’t like that.”
“What do you mean?”
Harry leaned all the way back in his swing, hanging onto the chains to keep from tumbling to the ground. “I think Fae are like your Slytherin. They believe in taking care of themselves, and maybe they assume everyone else should be able to do the same. Or maybe they think that by not being nice, they’re forcing humans to solve their own problems. Severus rarely gives us answers in potions class, not because he’s evil but because he wants us to figure stuff out on our own and he knows that as long as he fixes our problems that we’re not going to learn now to do that. That’s the Fae.”
“But you said they saved all of us.”
Harry sat up. “That’s the thing. They wouldn’t save us for us. They saved us because they want something for themselves. Dinae hasn’t figured it out yet, but the Fae have given us battle wands and the keep has a private dueling room and they gave us Severus. All the time he talks about how he doesn’t know how to handle children, although he is way better than my aunt and uncle. But the Fae didn’t pick him because he knows how to be a parent. They probably picked him because he’s a dueling genius and a potion master and he can teach every kind of magic from arithmancy to alchemy.” Harry leaned closer. “But I’ve caught him having to look up arithmancy formulas to check my homework, so maybe that’s not his strength.”
“Are you saying the Fae want you to fight?” The idea made the pit of Neville’s stomach turn cold.
Harry nodded. “Severus said I’m not allowed to fight until I’m seventy or he’s dead, whichever comes first. I’m not sure the Fae are going to let me wait that long, so I’m working as hard as I can to make sure I’m ready. But now they put you here too. And Severus says your magical core is really strong, but if you have to fight, you can’t have a wand that doesn’t work for you.”
“You think I’ll have to fight?”
“The Fae saved you, just like me.” Harry started swinging again.
Neville wanted to deny it all. He wanted to pretend he could go back to sleep and wake up in his own bed tomorrow, or even the dorm at Hogwarts. But what Harry said made sense. Neville knew he hadn’t used any wizarding form of travel to reach Prince Keep, and the Fae never got involved in human dealings unless it benefited them.
“Who will we have to fight?”
“Probably the False Lord.”
Neville froze. “You mean… you mean You-Know-Who?” His voice cracked and the last word came out a squeak.
Harry shrugged. “Maybe. Probably.”
“But he’s dead. You already killed him.”
Harry’s look was full of pity. “Then why wasn’t there a body? Why did Dumbledore tell Snape he had to keep pretending to believe in blood purity when he’s a half-blood? Why did Severus’s Death Eater friends talk about how they had to prepare for for the time when their ‘Dark Lord’ returned?” Harry made finger quotes around Dark Lord, although his tone made it pretty clear he didn’t have a lot of respect for You-Know-Who.
“Oh, Merlin,” Neville whispered.
“And I didn’t banish him from his body the first time. The nearest Severus can figure, my mother had a blood charm ready and when she died, she transferred her energy into it to protect me.”
“But she was a Light witch and blood magics are Dark. She wouldn’t have done that.”
“You have so much to learn,” Harry said, and then he pushed off from the ground so his swing soared up into the air.
This was officially the worst day ever.
Standing in the middle of their greenhouse with the crystals above glittering brightly, Harry mourned the loss of another shadenut bush. “What am I doing wrong?”
Neville came over and looked down at the brown, shriveled remains. “You watered it too much. The roots have to dry out between watering because they attract mold. The dry kills the mold. Your plant’s roots never dried, so the mold pretty much ate the plant from the bottom up.”
“You couldn’t have warned me?”
“And get another lecture from Severus about how I couldn’t do your homework when you were a grown man trying to keep a plant alive long enough to harvest potion ingredients?” Neville’s voice had a touch of amusement, and Harry glared at him. Neville raised both hands as if to hold Harry off. “And you could have asked. If a plant is not doing well, giving it more water is not always the solution. In fact, it’s often not the solution.”
Harry sat on the edge of the raised bed, his shoulders hunched. “Severus is going to be cranky.” Of course, that meant Severus would grandly announce that Harry had lost points, which was useless because they didn’t keep track of points. But still. Harry hated disappointing Severus. “I’m so good at potions and defense and even transfiguration. And I’m pants at herbology.”
“I’m great at herbology and my potions are improving, but my math is embarrassing. We all have strengths and weaknesses.”
“I’m not great at maths, either,” Harry said. If he could give up arithmancy, he would. In a heartbeat. However, Severus said that a respectable wizard had a solid understanding of all forms of magic. He even made Harry study the different forms of divination and the advantages and disadvantages of each. “Sometimes I feel like there’s so much to know that it won’t all fit in my brain, ya know?”
Neville sat next to him. “I usually feel like that. You and Dinae know so much more than me that sometimes I feel like a squib sitting in a Hogwarts classroom waiting for someone to figure out my secret.”
Harry caught Neville’s hand in his and squeezed it. “That’s not true. You’re brill at herbology and even Severus called your shrinking potion adequate the other day.”
Neville smiled. “He did, didn’t he?”
“I’ve learned more in seven months here than I have my whole life. Slughorn always ignored me in potions class, and I melted a few cauldrons because I was rushing to finish before the period ended and I lost track of what I was doing.”
“That’s dangerous in potions.”
Neville nodded. “I know. And I tried to not blow anything up. I heard that last year, one of the students had a potion explode and twelve students ended up in the hospital wing. That teacher didn’t come back this year, that’s why we have Slughorn. He was the potions professor before Severus and he came out of retirement.”
“And if the Fae are only taking children who are in danger, that means Quirrell is willing to kill his students. I don’t have a high opinion of Hogwarts’ teaching staff.” Harry was glad he’d never had to go. He’d always had his own space, even if it had been a cupboard under the stairs, and he wasn’t sure he would have felt safe sleeping in a room with other boys. Anything could happen when a person slept. And from what Neville had said, he would have been rooming with Ron Weasley who was the center of most of Fred and George Weasley’s pranks. Like Neville, Harry was private and he didn’t want everyone staring because he had green skin because of some stupid prank. Ron sounded nice enough, but Harry would have avoided him just to avoid being ground zero of sibling pranking. Prince Keep was way better than Hogwarts. And he hadn’t needed to wait until he was eleven to start learning. That was stupid.
“Professor Spout was great and I liked Professor McGonagall who taught transfiguration.”
“Two out of how many?” Harry asked.
Neville didn’t have an answer for that.
“Besides,” Harry said, “they teach weird stuff about dark magic. There’s no such thing as dark or light magic.”
Neville frowned, but at least he didn’t change the subject or leave. He usually did when the topic came up, and Harry understood. Neville had been taught wrong his whole life, and it took time. Harry waited to see how Neville would react. For a long time, he just used his fingers to draw furrows in Harry’s planting bed. Harry waited. Severus always said you had to listen to someone’s concerns before you could convince them to change. He said the False Lord’s greatest talent was in listening to prospective recruits and then telling them exactly what they needed to hear. Of course, his words had been lies, but the strategy was still valid.
“What about the Unforgivables. Those are dark.”
Harry considered addressing Neville’s real objection—the cruciatus curse. However, that was a wound too deep for him to poke the first time Neville showed a willingness to listen. “One of my favorite books is about a prince who falls in love with a duke. But his father, the king, wants him to marry this princess and have a dozen children to carry on the family name. So the king tricks the duke into accepting a challenge to play wizards’ chess, with the condition that neither of them could resign. They had to play to the end. The duke didn’t know the king had a life size board where the two opponents took the positions as kings.”
Neville leaned closer. “So the king would have his chess piece advance until they checkmated the Duke, and because wizard chess means the pieces bash each other, the Duke would die, assuming he lost.”
“The king was a champion player,” Harry confirmed. He’d loved the book. He’s sat up with a lumos spell on his wand, reading so late into the night that he had botched his algebra exercise the next morning and Severus had been crankier than usual.
“What does this have to do with the Unforgivables?”
“The prince cast a silent imperious curse. He guided the Duke until he checkmated and killed his father. Then the Prince and the Duke declared their love to the whole kingdom and they planned a lavish wedding after the Prince’s coronation.”
Neville blinked at him, clearly struggling with the story. Harry let him sit for a while before he continued. “When I started trying to brew veritaserum, I really struggled. I could make a passable potion, but I couldn’t make mine as powerful as Severus’s, and it wasn’t stable for as long. He kept telling me how to flick my wrist and trickle magic through my wand to encourage the ingredients to bind to one another, but I didn’t get it.”
Neville’s eyes grew wide. He wasn’t stupid; he saw exactly where Harry was going.
Harry nodded. “I asked Severus to use the imperious curse to show me how my hand and magic should move during the spell.”
“What did he do?” Neville asked in a voice full of horror.
“He looked at me like you are right now,” Harry said. “And he told me that I was an unmitigated fool and a blunderbuss and an unforgivable scamp who was going to drive him to his grave early and that one should never make such an offer.”
Harry shrugged. “After I produced three more caldrons of weak veritaserum, he finally agreed. Having him move my hand and feeling what he did helped me understand what he was saying in a way words never would. If someone did that to me without my permission, I would hex their balls off. Or whatever parts girls have that are like balls.” Harry frowned. Girls must have something, but he didn’t know exactly what. Every time he’d asked Severus, Severus said he was too young to think about such things. “However, when imperious is used to teach or to protect innocent people, it’s not such a bad spell.”
Neville still considered him with something approaching horror.
Harry looked at his dead shadenut bush and vanished it before smoothing the dirt to create an improvised writing surface. “What dark spells do you know?”
“Blood magic,” Neville said without hesitation.
Harry wrote BM in the dirt in one quadrant of the cleared space. “But inheritance spells are blood magic. Are those dark?”
“Yes, but they were cast a long time ago when it didn’t matter.” Neville frowned. Good. He’d realized the illogic in that argument. If dark were evil, it would be wrong across the board. Time wouldn’t matter. “What else?”
Harry added AK, CC, and I in the same quadrant. “What else?”
Harry added an L in the same quadrant. “Expelliarmus can make a wand change allegiance, and dark wizards use it a lot. Is it dark?”
Neville frowned. “No, not really. Either side can use it.”
Harry added an E at the center of the top, near the other letters but set off a bit. “What about patronus?”
“That’s Light,” Neville quickly added. “I love that spell.” Neville should. His griffin was gorgeous as it flew around the keep. Harry’s bison would charge after it, but bison versus griffin was never a fair fight. Still, the two patronus would charge each other until both boys were laughing and the spell would dissolve into shimmers of light.
Neville frowned. “I want to call that dark because erasing someone’s memory is really bad, but I know the ministry uses it to make sure muggles don’t remember seeing magic. I guess maybe that’s in the middle.”
“So, in the middle closer to the dark side?” Harry compromised.
“But didn’t Dumbledore use legilimency to help the Light win the war? Are you sure it’s dark magic? Maybe we should move it next to obliviate, dark but sometimes necessary.”
“Okay,” Neville agreed. They added more spells, fidelius charm and fiendfyre and protego. Then Harry started bring up less powerful spells: accio and lumos and diffindo. These went on the bottom as spells that were less powerful and more useful day to day. No one cast the high-powered spells every day, and many witches and wizards couldn’t cast them at all.
Harry considered the mess they had made in the dirt. The top was crowded with letters across the spectrum—mostly light, neutral, mostly dark, really dark, unforgivable, perfectly light. They all crowded together and many had required debate to determine where on the scale to put them. On the bottom were spells a person could cast without feeling any emotion. All they took was focus and practice.
“The distinction between light and dark is so confusing I don’t know where to draw a line,” Harry said.
“That’s why there are only three Unforgivables, even though people frown on blood magic.”
Harry nodded. “But I can draw a line here.” Harry drew a line separating the powerful spells on the top from the practical spells on the bottom. “This distinction is clear.”
Neville frowned as he considered the scratchings in the dirt. “But…”
Harry pointed to the top, all the spells from the killing curse to the patronus. “Wild magic. Unpredictable and powerful and driven by emotion. We can’t choose the form of our patronus or decide how the killing curse will manifest. Severus said he’s seen it stop a person’s heart or rip a person’s chest out. It’s unpredictable, although it always kills.” Harry touched his scar. “Almost always kills.”
He pointed to the bottom. “Calm magic that pulls from the pool of magic in the earth. No emotion necessary, and every person who casts it gets the same result. A wizard can put more or less magic in to change the amount of light in a lumos, but a lumos is a lumos. There’s no unpredictability.”
“But…” Neville opened his mouth, closed it, opened it and then his frown deepened.
“I’ve got to get my arithmancy chart done before Severus gets cranky,” Harry said as he left the greenhouse. Neville needed time to think.
Harry was surprised to find Severus standing in the corridor. He draped an arm over Harry’s shoulders and escorted him back toward the library. “You might have made an adequate Slytherin,” Severus said. Harry was fairly sure he’d never received a better compliment.
“No fair teaming up,” Dinae said as she stood in the dueling room, huge yellow and blue hexes covering her.
“I thought Slytherins considered alliances a smart strategy,” Harry said as he peaked around the set of stairs he was using for cover. He wouldn’t put it past her to act like the game was over and then hex both him and Neville until their teeth were stained green.
“Not when I’m not part of the alliance!” Dinae practically shouted.
“You and Neville teamed up on me yesterday!” Harry shouted back.
“And he refused to team up with me today!”
“Because Harry had already asked!” Neville added. He was flat on his stomach on one of the platforms, taking the high ground to get a better angle on her.
“Oh.” Dinae crossed her arms. “Will you team up with me tomorrow?”
“Yep,” Neville said as he stood.
Dinae brought her wand up and hexed him with such a strong spell that Neville’s chest and face turned violent green. “Then I yield for today,” she said before Harry could get her with a blue color-changing hex.
“Brat,” Neville said, echoing Severus’s favorite term of endearment.
“Don’t assume an injured enemy is out of the game until they yield,” Harry said with a shrug.
“Never count me out,” Dinae said darkly, “even after I yield.” Then she gave a prim little curtsy and pranced out of the room, her face still yellow and blue.
“Harry! Severus! Neville!” she yelled a second later. Harry and Neville exchanged one look before they raced for the great hall.
Severus was ahead of them, his wand drawn. Only then did Harry remember to draw his own wand and Neville followed suit. They found Dinae standing at the bottom of a spiral staircase that had appeared in the great hall. Ornate scrolls and stylized dragons decorated the railing as it rose up impossibly high and disappeared into the ceiling. There must be hundreds of steps up into the dark hole that had appeared.
“Stand back,” Severus ordered as he approached cautiously.
“But the Fae gave it to us. We should explore.” Dinae had still not pulled her wand.
“Or it is a challenge and they want to know if you are too foolish to invest any further in your care and magical training, addle-minded little scamp. So allow me to go first and have your wretched wand at the ready.” Severus cautiously climbed a few steps, and then magic took over. The stair spun, sending Severus up into the hole and to the new chamber above.
“Severus!” Harry threw himself forward, catching a stair and clinging to the railing as he caught himself on the railing. He barely held onto his wand as the magical stair threw him up and up. By the time the spinning had stopped, Harry was clutching his wand and trying to avoid throwing up. The stair dumped him into an enormous cavern. All four sides were open to the storm outside, but the corners of the room were giant stone arches that held up the ceiling where stalactites glittered. Harry had seen a picture of a pavilion, and that’s what this looked like, only it was large enough to fit entire houses inside. And the ground was a thick layer of sand, like the playroom.
A few seconds later Neville appeared, and Dinae came a minute or so after that.
“Foolish children. I had not yet cleared this space,” Severus complained, but his words had no real fire behind them. Harry suspected that he appreciated that all of them would support him if he went into battle. Yeah, he complained that none of them were allowed to fight until they were seventy, but he’d had to stand alone too much. From the stories he’d shared, Harry didn’t think either the False Lord or the ridiculous warriors for the Light had supported him.
Something shimmered, and a ghostly figure appeared on the far side of the chamber. It wasn’t a Fae but a man. He had red hair pulled back into a ponytail and broad shoulders, and he was chanting over a steaming caldron. Harry didn’t know the ritual, but Severus must have because he stepped forward. “What favor would you ask of us?”
“None for myself,” the man quickly said. “I ask for one of your creatures.”
“Explain,” Severus snapped, sounding as angry as Harry had ever heard him. The red-haired man kept his gaze on the floor as he spoke.
“I have been trusted with a dragon, a creature of great beauty, but she rejects the company of her kind, and as she grows large enough to fight, she is a danger to herself and others. I ask that you find her a place where she can be safe.” The man swept his hand and a dragon appeared behind him, clearly trapped in spells. The dragon was beautiful chocolate brown with black ridges along its back and on its wings, and brilliant emerald green scales surrounded its eyes, but it thrashed in its bindings and Harry could feel the fire trapped in its body. It wanted to burn the world.
Sound came slower. The rustling of the dragons wings, the low growls and hisses, and slowly Harry realized that he could hear words. Curses and threats and demands for freedom before she destroyed the world. The dragon was definitely a she.
“I will reduce the human to ash and sit on his remains,” she snarled.
Harry moved forward, but he only got one step before Severus caught his arm and held him. “He is asking for a favor. He wants us to find you a place where you can be happy,” Harry told the dragon. He could feel the shift when he spoke parselmouth to the illustrated snakes in his books, and he had that same feeling now—like the words slipped from him instead of him pronouncing them.
“Who are you?” she asked at the same time the human asked, “You can speak draconish?” in a shocked voice.
Harry ignored the human. “I’m Harry.”
“All humans are hairy. You have entirely too much hair,” she said.
Harry ignored that misunderstanding. “What is your name?”
“I am Slashstrike, but the human I liked called me Norbert. These humans call me Norberta.”
“My friends call me Harry, but my whole name is Harry James Potter. Potter is the name of my family.”
“What is James?”
“Some people just have two names, and my parents gave me that middle name because it’s my father’s first name.”
The dragon had stopped fighting her bindings, and she cocked her head to consider Harry. “Then I am Norbert Hagrid Slashstrike.”
“May I call you Norbert?” Harry asked.
She raised her head the small amount allowed her by the binding spell. “You may. I will call you Harry but that does not mean I will not eat you later. I can eat someone, even if I use a friend name.”
“Agreed,” Harry said. “The human who brought you here says you are unhappy.”
“I want to go back to Hagrid. I don’t like dragons. They don’t scratch my nose or compliment me, and I don’t like them. They make me want to eat them and their young.” Harry thought this dragon must be Dinae’s spirt animal because they did have a similar sort of mercenary streak.
Harry focused on the man to force human language into his tongue. “Can she return to Hagrid?”
“No, My Lord,” the human said as he bowed deeper. Having someone bow to him made Harry deeply uncomfortable.
The human hesitated. “Um, she wouldn’t be safe and I’m pretty sure she would kill a lot of people. Too many people,” he added after a second.
Harry felt a pull toward the dragon. He looked at Severus before pulling away from his tight grip. Severus’s lips were pressed into a thin line, a sure sign that he was furious, but something pulled Harry toward Norbert. Severus released his hold, but when Harry stepped forward, Severus moved with him, standing just at his back.
“The Fae have made a place for you with me, but I don’t know if you’ll like it.”
She tilted her head the other way. “Will I have to live with other dragons?”
“Will I be able to hunt?”
Harry considered the storm raging outside the shield charm. “I don’t know if you want to. It storms here a lot and it’s so cold that the air is like ice.”
“I carry my own fire. I don’t care about cold.”
“Then you could hunt. I’ve seen herds in the distance, but you would have to be careful to not get caught by the Ice Giants.”
She jerked her head upward. “Could I hunt Ice Giants?”
“They would hunt you back,” Harry warned.
“Acceptable.” Norbert seemed to consider that done, but Harry had other conditions. Maybe he would have jumped at a chance to own a dragon when he was young, but now he was more cautious.
“You can’t hurt my family. Even if you’re angry and you want to burn them to ash and sit on their remains, you can’t hurt them at all.”
“Are they annoying?”
“Um, yes,” Harry said. “My sister is going to try to get you to kill people she doesn’t like. She might even draw you a map and ask you to burn her family to the ground. She’s violent that way.”
“Then she is reasonable,” Norbert said. “Where is this reasonable human?”
Harry turned around and held out his hand. “Dinae, come here.”
Dinae looked at Severus before she moved cautiously forward to take it. Harry pulled her closer, feeling Fae magic shimmer around them. “This is Dinae Medusa Carrow,” Harry introduced them. Norbert tried to reach forward, but the magical bindings pinned her in place. Harry flicked his wand in her direction, slicing the magic so she could shuffle forward. Norbert thrust her nose forward and snorted Dinae’s scent.
“She’s beautiful,” Dinae said reverently. She crossed the veil to scratch Norbert’s nose, and behind them, Severus gasped.
“Very reasonable,” Norbert concluded. Harry urged Dinae to step back, but she fought him. However, Severus grabbed her by the back of her shirt and yanked her away.
“Neville,” Harry said. Neville stepped forward, his back stiff with fear. But he didn’t back down to the challenge. “This is Neville Longbottom.”
“He smells of fear.” She didn’t come as close.
“You terrify him.”
“How unusual to find so many reasonable humans in one place.”
“And this is my Severus,” Harry said. He stepped to one side to let her see Severus, and he edged forward, his wand out, and his hand on Harry’s shoulder.
“Is Severus your nest mother?”
“Um…” Harry had no idea how to explain their relationship in dragon terms. “My nest mother died and the nest mother who took over was really bad, so Severus decided to steal me out of her nest.”
Norbert tilted her head to the side. “Good. Dragonlings should be stolen if the nest mother is stupid.”
Harry changed his mind. She was definitely Severus’s spirit animal. “Can you promise you won’t hurt them?”
“There are too few reasonable humans. I will not harm any who live in your nest. Can I see where I would live?”
Harry looked around, not sure how to help her cross over to their side of the shimmer. Not sure he was doing the right thing, he reached through the curtain of magic and pulled. She took a step forward, and her head was suddenly in the room with them. She looked up at the high ceiling and the deep sands. “You said it would be cold,” she said.
“It is out there,” Harry pointed out into the storm.
“Where do your reasonable nestmates live?”
Harry pointed at the railing that marked the top of the spiral stair. “We live down there. You would have the sands to yourself, although we might visit if you allow it.”
“The choice is mine? I could choose whether to allow anyone to visit? I could be undisturbed when I was not in the mood for nose scratches and compliments?”
“Of course,” Harry assured her. No one would argue with a dragon who wanted privacy. Well, Dinae might, but Severus could ward the bottom of the stairs. Norbert stepped forward, more of her body passing through the shimmering veil until she was fully inside Prince Keep’s new dragonry.
“This is acceptable,” she said. “I am tired from stupid humans caging me. Leave me alone.”
“Right away,” Harry said. He turned to promise the man that they would take care of Norbert, but the shimmering veil was gone. And Prince Keep had inherited a dragon.
“She wants to be left along for a while,” Harry said.
“But I want to pet her,” Dinae protested.
“Obstreperous little dolcop, do not annoy me right now when your muddleheaded brother has insisted on risking his fool neck by touching a dragon. My heart is going to fail me by the time I teach you fools how to avoid danger instead of running straight into it like idiot Gryffindors. Get yourself downstairs now, before I decide to use your nose as potion ingredient, little rascal.” Severus herded her toward the stairs.
“What is he saying?” Norbert asked. Harry translated and a thin plume of smoke rose from her nostrils. “Very reasonable for a human.” Neville had already retreated, and Severus got Dinea onto a step so the magic stair case whisked her downstairs. Now he stood beside the stairs, clutching his wand and clearly waiting for Harry.
“She likes you,” Harry said.
“Yes, the goal of my life is to be liked by a Norwegian Ridgeback, a species second only to Hungarian Horntails in their insatiable need to kill and maim. Get downstairs, brat.” Severus grabbed Harry’s shirt and hauled him onto the stairs. Maybe that hadn’t been Severus’s life goal, but it didn’t change the fact that Norbert approved of him. And she should. Severus was pretty great. After all, Aunt Petunia hadn’t even let Harry keep a garden snake he’d found under the rose bush and Severus was letting them keep a whole dragon. That was kinda awesome.
Theo sat in his corner of the Slytherin common room, watching Draco hold court with Goyle and Crabbe. Every once in a while, someone would look over at him. The rumors were circulating around the common room, even though his home life shouldn’t matter to these people. Most of these students had some connection to marked Death Eaters, and the marks were growing darker. If war came, most of them would get dragged into the conflict.
Why was his family drama more interesting than the possibility that the Dark Lord was going to use them as fodder in a new war? Did none of them worry that the heir of Slytherin had returned at the same time that marked Death Eaters were exchanging looks and talking about how Severus Snape had cleared the way for the Dark Lord?
Blaise sat next to him. “Draco has a new favorite target.”
“Lady Nott is not his business,” Theo said. Of course the woman who raised him hadn’t been Lady Nott—not technically. She and Theo’s father had killed the Lady Nott. That was old news to Theo. His aunt had revealed the sordid history not long before Theo started at Hogwarts, but he had hoped that some other drama would distract his fellow Slytherins. Last year, Longbottom’s disappearance and then the disappearances of both the charms teacher and the defense teacher had kept everyone busy forming theories. Everyone knew the defense position was cursed, but having Flitwick disappear so soon after Longbottom created a stir. Even before that, the Nott drama had been secondary to the daily routines of school and complaints about the Hogwarts’ inadequate curriculum.
However, Draco was now rehashing Theo’s home life to cover for his own mistakes. Not long ago, he had been telling everyone that he was the heir of Slytherin, declared it proudly in the common room and had been indiscreet enough that even the other houses had heard whispers of his claims. When students, particularly mudbloods, were petrified and waiting for the cure, claiming to be the heir had been exciting. Draco treated it like a game, even though more serious players for the leadership of Slytherin had moved cautiously.
But ever since Penelope Clearwater had died, Draco had been scrambling to find something to usurp Draco’s spot in the limelight. Theo just didn’t want to be the sacrificial lamb. However, he was also afraid to go up against Draco. He had too much influence over the rest of the house to challenge.
And Theo had too much to lose.
“My mother would have given yours advice on how to avoid being caught.” Blaise offered a quick smile, an easy camaraderie that invited Theo to share his thoughts. They had both been raised by women known for killing. The Nott wet nurse had slept with Lord Nott and taken over Lady Nott’s role. Blaise’s mother had killed husbands and rivals enough to build an empire. However, Theo knew that Blaise only wanted to ingratiate himself and gain information—either for blackmail or to convince himself that committing murder for social gain was normal. Maybe then he could excuse his mother’s actions. Theo didn’t respond.
After a while, Blaise retreated.
Pansy Parkinson and Daphne Greengrass settled nearby and Theo hoped their presence would chase others way. Theo watched the girls while pretending to read. He couldn’t understand Pansy. She had a pretty face, but she went out of her way to downplay her beauty—eschewing make up and wearing her hair in the most unflattering ways. Sometimes she pulled it back in a simple band to keep it out of her eyes, but other times she walked around looking as if she’d forgotten to comb it after getting out of bed.
Daphne made more sense to him. Her lips were reddened and subtle shades of gray on her eyes made her blue irises more piercing. She didn’t look painted, but still… she had a subtle hand with a make up brush and he admired that. He envied that.
When he’d been young, his mother—his wet nurse—had let him sit in her lap while she applied her make up, and Theo had itched to touch it.
Across the room, Blaise settled next to Draco, and even though their low voices didn’t carry, Theo knew they were talking about him. People kept glancing over, but Theo kept his gaze on his book.
“I had heard Theo is gay, so perhaps his father blamed his mother for that disgrace. It would be a motive,” Blaise said loudly enough to Theo to hear. All the blood drained from Theo’s face.
“Nah,” Draco said. “He spends too much time staring at Daphne for that to be true.”
Theo looked up at Daphne, and she gave him a smug smile—certain that he wanted her the way most of the boys in Slytherin wanted her. And that smugness also made it abundantly clear that he would never get her. He didn’t have enough to offer, not with his mother long dead and rotting and his father still fighting the DMLE’s continued efforts to put him back in Azkaban.
“Maybe he’s trying to figure out how to copy her skill at attracting boys,” Blaise said. He smiled cruelly, well-aware that his shot had hit a vital organ.
Theo snapped his book closed. “Perhaps you care too much about how others attract boys—a flaw you inherited from your mother. After all, I have heard that she has been spending an inappropriate amount of time with the very Muggle Minister of Economic Development. Perhaps his wealth makes up for his lack of magic when it comes to your mother’s bed.” Theo counter-attacked with his most damning information, and Blaise shot to his feet, his hand on his wand. Theo pulled his own wand, holding it at his side. Slughorn would kill him if he started a duel in the common room, but at least that death would be metaphorical. Blaise looked angry enough to literally kill.
So the rumors were true. There was no other reason for him to get so emotional. Draco looked from one to the other with unvarnished glee. The little monster would probably bounce up and down and clap like a demented toddler if they tried to kill each other in front of him.
Knowing that he had backed both himself and Blaise into a corner, Theo strode out of the common room, slipping out of the dungeons and heading for the north tower. He couldn’t go to Slughorn. Blaise was free from the taint of the Death Eaters, and Lord Nott… wasn’t. Theo’s father was one of the Dark Lord’s oldest and most ardent supporters—less vocal than Lord Malfoy who took the Dark family’s agenda to the Wizengot, but much more active behind the scenes. Slughorn made clear his disdain for Theo and his father.
But Slytherin wasn’t safe for him anymore. Blaise would do anything to take revenge for such an accurate attack, and Theo had too many vulnerabilities. Hogwarts seemed to understand his need to escape, shifting staircases to ease his way.
Maybe the heir of Slytherin would solve his problem by killing him. Then he wouldn’t have to continue this tap dance between his house mates and his father and the expectations of everyone who looked at him knowing he was the son of *that* Nott. And the heir *would* kill him. Maybe the other Slytherins felt safe, but Theo knew his heart was as stained as the blood-traitor Weasleys. Theo was a body traitor. He had tried to deny it for a long time, but he knew the truth, and if the heir of Slytherin could see into his heart, he would know too.
Theo reached the north tower, his stomach in knots and his head throbbing. He was supposed to be Slytherin. He was supposed to know how to navigate the world and make reality bend to his needs, but all he could think was that he was just too tired to continue. He would throw himself off the tower except the windows were charmed to prevent that sort of solution.
Theo knew it was a coward’s escape and not a solution, but his heart still longed for death. Living was too hard. The air trembled, and Theo whirled around, his wand up as he expected to see Blaise step out from under a disillusionment charm. Instead a creature stood in the middle of the tower room. Tall. Imposing. It had the high cheeks and delicate brows of a woman but the broad shoulders and strong chin of a man. That should have looked wrong, but it was perfect. This creature was perfect.
It held out a hand, and Theo didn’t hesitate. He accepted the wordless offer.
When the vibrations cleared, Theo found himself in a fortress, one clearly owned by a Dark family. A sacred hearth dominated the center of the room, raised to make it more prominent. On the far side was a staircase with dragons caught mid-flight depicted in iron and the walls displayed streaks of precious metals that only the richest of families would have been able to resist mining. Theo’s father would have destroyed the whole fortress to get at that wealth, but Theo thought this place was far too beautiful to sacrifice for something as vulgar as galleons.
A man dressed in black hurried into the room, pushing open masterfully crafted double doors carved with a wilderness scene. He stopped just inside and bowed deeply.
“My Lord. Do I take it I am to care for another child?” The air wavered and the creature vanished without answering.
The man sighed and studied Theo.
“I am not a child. I am almost thirteen,” Theo said firmly. He was not a child. The man stood and raised a single eyebrow in Theo’s direction. It was clear he was unimpressed. Theo gasped. “You’re Professor Snape.” Theo’s father often talked about how Snape was proof that good blood could overcome bad. Despite having a Muggle father, Professor Snape had embraced his heritage as part of the Prince family and had sacrificed his life to help the Dark Lord return. Many of the old families had begun to soften their hatred for half-bloods because Professor Snape was such a great man. One could not hold him up as the epitome of service to the Dark Lord while denying that other half-bloods could be good servants to the Dark.
“I am not a professor.” Before he could say more, children came in. Two were unfamiliar, but Theo recognized the third.
“Longbottom?” Theo couldn’t hide his shock. Some rumors had him dead, some by Quirrell’s hand and some by Flitwick’s. Others insisted that Longbottom hadn’t vanished from the various family trees of those related to the Longbottoms, and those people claimed he was being held captive, either as a hostage against the Dowager Longbottom’s vote in the Wizengot or to exact some long and painful retribution for his parents’ actions during the war.
“Nott!” Longbottom sounded happy as he tucked his wand into a wand holder and stepped forward, offering a hand of friendship. “Well-met. Do I assume you were also on the verge of losing your life?” Longbottom sounded almost amused by Theo’s predicament.
Theo drew himself up and sneered. “What business is it of yours?”
Professor Snape stepped between them, and Theo shifted his gaze to him. Snape could be an ally. Theo would make him an ally. If he had only one person in his corner, he could survive anything.
“Children, return to your tasks.”
“But Severus,” the girl complained. She stared at Theo with knowing eyes that made him keenly uncomfortable.
“Now, brats,” Severus said firmly. The boy with wild hair caught Longbottom’s hand and pulled him away, herding the girl in front of him. Theo watched while they retreated, closing the door behind them. Only then did he turn his attention to Professor Snape.
“Is the Dark Lord here?” Theo wasn’t sure he wanted the Dark Lord to return, not when Theo had secrets that would get him killed. Or worse. However, if this was the Dark Lord’s refuge as he recovered, then Theo would do anything necessary to remain in his good graces.
“Do you want to see the Dark Lord?” Snape asked. HIs voice was oddly devoid of emotion.
“Of course.” Theo tried to put as much enthusiasm as he could into his answer.
Master Snape studied him, clearly trying to judge whether Theo was worthy. But he had more right to be here than Longbottom, whose parents had fought against the Dark Lord. “Come,” Snape said. “Sit with me.”
Theo quickly moved to obey.
“Every child brought here has come from a situation of…” Snape hesitated. “They were not all in immediate danger, but they were all in situations a young person should not have to handle alone. Do you know who brought you here?”
“No, sir.” If he had to guess, he would say vampire, but no description of a vampire included such ethereal beauty.
“They are Fae. This is a Fae stronghold—Prince Keep.”
“Your family’s stronghold?” Theo guessed. He had heard that the former Lord Prince had refused to acknowledge Snape but this was an ancient family home. Some of the Dark families had them, homes tied to magics so old that it seemed to soak into your bones when you were there too long. This felt like that.
“No, this place is only a few years old.”
Shock robbed Theo of words for a moment. No modern craftsman, no matter how talented, could make something this ethereal, this wild. This keep with its wide windows that overlooked snow-covered mountains belonged to the old world. “How?” Theo demanded before his common sense could remind him that he had no business making demands of a man as great as Master Snape.
“Because the Fae wished for me to have a place. They wished for me to provide a magical education for those children they chose to remove from the world. Why they would wish to do so is a secret the Fae have kept to themselves.”
“But the Dark Lord?” Theo was confused.
“Is not here,” Snape said. “I cast a Fae circle asking for guidance, for an escape from the conflict between Light and Dark. This was how the Fae chose to answer my request. So I belong to the Fae as much as this keep does.”
Relief washed through Theo. Until this moment, he had not realized how much he wanted to live and how much he feared the Dark Lord and the heir of Slytherin would not allow him to do so.
“I assume that means you have no love for the Dark Lord,” Snape said dryly.
Theo froze. Master Snape was famous for his dueling skills and potions. He could kill Theo as easily as the Dark Lord. “Of course I do, sir. My father, Lord Nott, has supported our Lord from the moment he began his rise to power.”
Snape chuckled, and the hair on Theo’s arms stood on end. “Your father is a narrow-minded bully who would take any excuse to hurt others. Is the bastard still in Azkaban?”
Theo blinked, not sure how to navigate these political waters. Snape must be testing him. Theo strengthened his occlumency shields and sat up. “My father is free from his false imprisonment and ready to return to his Lord’s side.” That was true enough. “He has told me many stories about your great service.” Theo calmed the storm of his thoughts.
“I could care not less about your father’s opinion. How is your mother?”
Theo choked off a sob.
“Child?” Snape turned all his attention on Theo, and Theo imagined those dark eyes could see into his innermost soul. After all, this was the master occlumens and legilimens who had fooled Dumbledore into believing he had changed sides. Theo hid his most shameful secrets as deeply as he could, allowing only the more mundane scandals of the Nott household to rise to the surface of his mind.
“My mother has been dead since I was a child. The woman who cared for me was a wet-nurse who rose above her station.”
Snape sucked in a quick breath and then he moved closer before he grabbed Theo’s hand. “Whether Sephne Nott was the woman who gave birth to you or not, she loved you with all her heart and soul. She was your mother,” Snape said fiercely. “Never doubt that and never doubt that anything she did, she did to protect you. Nothing more.”
Theo tried to hold back the dam of emotion that threatened to overwhelm him. “My aunt… she publicly challenged…” Theo stopped.
“And of course your father was too much the self-serving coward to stand up for the woman who had dedicated her life to the Nott family,” Snape said with disgust. “Sephne never cared much for dueling, and her parents could never afford her the education that would have prepared her. I can well imagine how it ended. I am sorry.”
That broke some final bit of control Theo had and for the first time, he cried for the woman who had raised him, who had chased him about the manor threatening to eat his feet only to scoop him up and tickle him when she caught him. He cried for the woman who had held him when his father had been sent to Azkaban and held him when his father returned so full of rage that Theo had been a convenient target for his emotions. He cried for his mother.
And Snape held him. He rocked back and forth, his strong arms around Theo and for once Theo didn’t care about alliances or projecting strength. He cried.
“Remember, if the lesson is too much, you may go back to your room,” Snape said, his hand resting on Theo’s shoulder.
Theo straightened up. “I am an excellent student. I will do you proud.”
“I know you will.” He hesitated before he added, “Neville is entirely too Gryffindor and Harry has the questionable trait of channeling Helga Hufflepuff any time relationships are involved. Seek out the company of young Dinae Carrow. She is most likely to understand your dilemma, and remember, a good Slytherin trusts actions over words. Watch how the children act and decide for yourself whether anyone here is an ally to the Dark Lord.”
Theo wasn’t sure what that meant, but he understood that he had to make better political moves than he had at Hogwarts. He needed to find where both the formal and informal power lay and then he had to ingratiate himself to that power. At Hogwarts he had avoided Draco despite his father’s influence and then insulted Blaise who had hoarded enough information to make his own power base outside his mother’s authority. He wouldn’t make the same mistakes again.
For a moment, they stood there, and Theo soaked up the tacit offer of protection Master Snape’s hand promised. He hadn’t felt safe since his mother died, and how he felt a whisper of that foreign emotion. Then Snape opened the door to a library and stepped inside, his body language shifting into something professorial, even if he claimed he was no longer a professor.
“Homework,” he demanded. The three others placed scrolls at the head of the table while Snape retrieved papers from the shelf behind.
“Neville, you are closest in education to Theo when it comes to maths. Show him your work in algebra and then work with him on these problems.” Snape placed two papers in front of Neville and gestured for Theo to sit next to him. Harry moved to the other side of the table next to Dinae, and Theo slipped into place.
Snape looked down his nose at the only female at the table. “Dinea Medusa Carrow, if you do not start asking questions rather than making broad assumptions when completing your arithmancy charts, I will ban you from visiting Norbert for a month. Redo this chart, obstreperous little whelp, and if you do not ask me the relevant questions to obtain the information you actually require, you will regret it.”
Dinea winced. “Yes, Severus.”
Severus put an arithmancy chart in front of Harry. “Adequate,” he said. Harry beamed. Then Severus put a second chart in front of him. “Again, this time without referencing Lilbucket’s Compendium.” That made Harry’s joy vanish. With a sigh, he pulled the paper closer.
Arithmancy, and without a reference. Theo was shocked. Harry looked roughly the same age, but that was the work of a fourth or fifth year student. Maybe even sixth. No one did arithmancy without looking at the references until they were preparing for their NEWTS. Theo had to set that mystery aside to focus on the work he shared with Neville. Theo remembered Neville as embarrassingly bad. He had melted cauldrons and his transfigurations were never more than partial. But in the previous year and a half, something had changed. Where Theo had hoped to prove that he was superior, he struggled to grasp concepts that Neville appeared to master with ease.
“I was pants at this for a long time,” Neville whispered. His reassurance drove Theo’s resentment until he had to clench his teeth to avoid damaging alliances that might prove useful. Snape looked up from where he was correcting papers.
“The magic of the keep changes us,” Snape said, although Theo didn’t understand how that related to his inability to understand how to find a missing number where only a letter existed. This closely related to arithmancy, and it was important for him to master, but his brain could not grasp the concept.
“What do you mean?” Harry asked.
Snape turned to Theo instead. “If I told you that Harry had mastered basic arithmancy and now hoped to master the ability to do charts without references and that he was starting to apply the theories in arithmancy to charms, what year would you assume he was in?”
Theo glanced over at Harry. He was applying arithmancy to charms? Theo was impressed despite himself. “I would assume he was studying for his NEWTS.”
Snape nodded. “So, six or seventh year?”
“And what if I told you that Dinae had mastered both wordless levitation charms, had mastered basic warding and understood arithmancy, even if her lack of good sense often interfered with her ability to produce an accurate chart?
“Maybe fifth year.”
“Had they gone to Hogwarts, Harry would be in his second year and Dinae her first. What if I told you that all the children could produce a patronus at will?”
Theo’s eyes grew wide. He looked around the table, but all the others looked back, seemingly unaware of how amazing that was. “That’s upper level magic. Most adults can’t reliably perform that spell, or even unreliably perform it.”
Snape nodded. “We are standing on Fae magic. Each of us has been changed and continues to change due to its influence.”
Harry pushed his chart to one side. “Are you saying we wouldn’t be like this if we were studying anywhere else?”
Snape ran his long fingers along the grain of the table. “You inherited parselmouth.” Again, Theo stared. Could the boy be a nephew or child of the Dark Lord? Is that why Snape had told him to watch carefully? “However, no wizard for at least two hundred years has mastered draconish.” Theo was too shocked to even react. Harry could speak to dragons? When would someone even have the opportunity to do so?
Harry blinked. “Merlin. Really? Two hundred years?”
“I suspect the reality is much longer and the most recent wizards to claim the skill had talents that lay in lying rather than speaking draconish. And Neville’s family has never had a parselmouth in it, and yet he has spontaneously become a parselmouth and developed a passing knowledge of draconish. Your family magic is changing, expanding due to your exposure to Fae magic.”
Looking around at the table, Theo wondered what that meant for him. These people didn’t need him, not if they had that sort of magical power.
“Is that why Norbert can understand English now?” Dinae asked. “I should go and explain it to her.”
“You should complete your work, manipulative imp.” Snape turned to Theo. “When you have been here long enough for the Fae magic to soak into your bones, you will be equally powerful. The Fae clearly disapprove of how the False Lord leads the Dark and that old fool Dumbledore leads the Light.”
Harry cleared his throat. “I think they’re pretty pissed about dividing magic into Light and Dark in the first place,” he said.
“I’m not surprised,” Neville added. “It’s dumb. Either the magic is driven by emotion or logic, but if the terms Light and Dark made any sense, none of the Death Eaters would be able to cast a patronus.”
“And the Light wouldn’t use forbidden curses in crowded alleys where they hit as many civilians as Death Eaters.”
“The Ministry might qualify as evil, even if they are not Dark,” Snape said. “Now, back to work, all of you. If I am to be tortured by having to grade your inadequate efforts, I require quiet.” Severus returned to marking the papers, and Theo leaned closer to Neville. “Who’s Norbert?”
Arithmancy and math gave way to defense, and they moved into a well appointed dueling room, far larger than the one at the Nott Estate. Obstacles lined the edges of the room, no doubt to allow for a more realistic battle experience, but the center was open as if for formal duels. Rather than using cushioning charms to prevent injury, the entire floor was thick with moss. On the far end, dueling dummies had been set up, each with a different weapon.
“Harry, you’re first,” Snape said. Harry pulled an ornamental wand and moved to the center of the room as one of the dummies lifted his weapon and a second pointed a finger as though it were a wand. Snape moved to the side of the room closest to the second dummy, and Dinea took the side nearest the first. She lifted an ax that matched the dummy’s, and Theo realized these were golems rather than static targets.
“We should get out of the way,” Neville said before he dragged Theo up some stairs and cast a shield spell stronger than anything Theo knew.
“Begin,” Snape said, and immediately, wordless spells few at Harry. He blocked several while dancing back away from Dinae’s ax-wielding golem. Harry didn’t move like a child. He moved like a warrior—with all the deadly grace Theo’s father demanded of Theo, not that Theo had ever managed to live up to his father’s expectations. For long minutes, Harry cast spells that crashed into the golems’ shields while ducking around platforms and sending crates crashing toward the dummies. Snape and Dinae advanced on him, relentless in their attack.
Harry cast a “crucio” on Dinae’s dummy, and Theo sucked in a shocked breath. The curse didn’t touch Dinea, but the golem fell to its knees and twitched like a real victim. Snape redoubled his efforts, using his own golem to send vividly colored curses to crash against Harry’s shield.
“Avada Kedavra!” Harry yelled. That was the first curse that either he or Snape had said aloud, and Harry’s wand flashed with the emerald green of the most forbidden of all the curses. The light slammed into Dinae’s golem, and after a second, it exploded apart, raining straw down on the dueling room. Harry turned his attention to Snape’s avatar. Theo was terrified of this boy who could throw a killing curse as easily as an levitation charm, but Snape had more skill than Dinea. His golem danced about the dueling chamber, trading spells. However, the golem lost ground with each passing minute. It reacted a half second too slow because the spells that transferred the magic from Snape to his golem had a slight delay.
Harry pressed his advantage.
Dinea climbed the stairs and sat next to them. “We’re bored. Someone kill someone,” she yelled. It distracted Harry, and Snape jumped on that moment of hesitation to throw a stunning curse so strong that he lifted Harry off his feet and dumped him to the ground several feet behind where he started.
“I did not need your help, brat,” Snape said as he repaired the two dummies and sent them back to their starting positions.
“If he’s fighting the Dark Lord, he’d better be able to focus,” Dinae said without a hint of apology in her voice.
Theo stared at her in shock. Fighting the Dark Lord? No one fought him.
“I have asked you not to use that name,” Snape said wearily.
“Fine. False Lord.” Dinae rolled her eyes.
Theo blinked, wondering if they had all been infected with some great madness. Snape walked over and woke Harry. “Be glad I did not allow your sister to hex your skin green again.”
“He looks better green,” Dinea said.
Snape crossed his arms over his chest. “If you are so interested in being in this fight, come down and take your position at center, brat. Neville, you have the second golem, and I expect you to show more initiative than last time. Rushing an opponent blindly shows an utter inability to understand even the most basic tenets of battle. While I expect inadequacy from you, I will not have you blunder from one point to another on the battlefield endangering not only yourself but everyone else on your side. And let me assure you, right now you are more of an asset for Dumbledore or the False Lord than you are for us. Your incompetence is going to get one of us killed.”
Neville winced. “I’m trying to get better.”
“Try harder. Your current level of effort is pathetic.” Snape turned his back and returned to his spot on the wall while Neville moved to a green circle opposite him. Neville chose the sword, and the golem with the ax stepped back and the one with the sword took his place.
Harry was breathing hard when he came up the stairs to sit next to Theo. “That hurt.” He rubbed his chest.
Theo should keep his mouth closed. He didn’t understand the politics of this place, and in such a situation, silence was the only protection. A new fight began, and Theo could see that Dinea didn’t have the power behind her spells that Harry did. However, she was quick to take advantage of the terrain, and within a few minutes, she took out Neville’s dummy with a cutting curse that took off his lower legs.
However, before she could turn her attention to Snape, he had cracked her shield and leveled her with a stunning curse. Theo had never seen a woman duel. He knew many Light witches fought, but Theo’s father said that a witch’s true obligation was to the defense and protection of her Lord, children, and manor—in that order. He didn’t believe they should step onto the dueling field at all.
But Snape was equally brutal with Dinae and Harry. He clearly expected both to fight. Nothing made sense.
“Whose side are you on?” Theo asked Harry. He knew he shouldn’t ask. It wasn’t as if Harry was obligated to tell him the truth, and Theo was making himself vulnerable to a lie by asking.
Harry smiled. “Magic’s side. I think this whole war is crap, and I hope the Fae will give me a chance to call all of them out on their stupidity. I plan to channel Severus and call them all inadequate bumblers who would forget to put their heads on their shoulders in the morning if they were not already attached.”
Theo blinked. Harry sounded so damn pleased at the thought of insulting the Dark Lord to his face. “Who are you?” Theo asked, afraid of the answer.
Harry’s smile grew wider. “Harry Potter. Voldemort killed my parents and Dumbledore abandoned me to an abusive home. I plan to have a lot of things to say to both of them. He hopped up to his feet. “I’ll take on Neville, Severus. I want to throw a few offensive spells.”
“Keep in mind you are casting against a person and not a golem. I do not have the equipment to heal him if you get overly enthusiastic in your casting,” Severus warned.
“Yeah,” Neville said, “no killing me.”
“Wuss,” Dinae threw over her shoulder before she climbed up the stairs to join Theo at his perch as the others took their spots for the new round.
When she sat down, Theo asked, “Is that really Harry Potter? The Harry Potter? The boy who once survived a killing curse?”
She shrugged. “Sure. Why?” She looked over at him. “Did you know him before?”
Theo was fairly sure his brain had stalled somewhere during this conversation. Harry Potter. Potter was supposed to be dead—murdered to clear the way for the Dark Lord. Murdered by Severus Snape. Theo watched the former hero of the Light throw curses at Longbottom until Longbottom’s shield failed and he went flying. Then Harry helped him up off the ground. Both of them were stained with moss and dirt and sweat and smiling like loons.
“Come on. Let’s see if Severus will let me introduce you to Norbert,” Dinae said as she caught Theo by the hand and dragged him to his feet. “There is nothing as awesome as a dragon.”
Severus was reading in the great hall when Theo eased into the room. He was starting to spend more time out of his room, but he clearly feared being around the others. Sephne would weep to look at her beloved Theo, haunting spaces rather than filling them. Severus imagined the Nott home had not been kind to the child.
While he rarely mourned the life he had left behind, Severus did miss some people. He missed Minerva’s blunt and scathing assessments of the various defense teachers Dumbledore brought in each year. He missed Narcissa’s sly humor and Draco’s childish enthusiasm. And he missed Sephne Nott’s pure heart. She had been fooled into following the Dark because the Dark Lord and Lord Nott made promises that they did not fulfill. However, despite her poor choice of alliances, her loyalty and devotion were unassailable. She had loved nothing in the world as much as Theo and to see the boy now made Severus wish he could go back in time and steal Theo away the moment Sephne had died.
But none of them could change the past. Perhaps the Fae could, but that was a boon Severus didn’t dare ask for.
“Where are the others?” Theo asked.
Severus sighed. “Since brooms appeared and the play room shifted, they have spent every free moment flying.” Severus did not approve, but he was the tutor, not the parent. The Fae had made that clear. “There is a broom there for you.”
Theo shook his head.
Severus set his book aside. Perhaps he wanted private tutoring to improve his defense skills. Severus had never thought he would see a student less competent on the dueling field than Neville, but Theo had proved him wrong. The boy never seemed to know where his own limbs were and when paired with a partner, he inevitably tripped his own ally. However, admitting an incompetence was difficult, so Severus prepared himself for a long wait as Theo tried to find the right words.
Instead, Theo brought out a book of his own and settled on a couch near Severus. After a few moments, Severus returned to reading. The boy might be trying to make an alliance, but that did not feel right. The other children were far closer to Severus than Theo, and he knew that. It was far more likely that he wanted something and had not found the words to broach the subject. Severus had finished a chapter on the potioner’s experiments with basilisk poison before he brought up the one topic that might cause a young man to lose all ability to communicate.
“I have seen you watch Dinae,” Severus said, his word carefully devoid of any condemnation.
Theo’s head snapped up and he lost much of the color from his face. Severus remembered the days when the mention of a pretty girl’s name could turn him in circles. Even now, he shied from those memories because the girl he had loved had never been his to love and his own foolishness had destroyed any chance he could have kept her as a friend.
“There is nothing inappropriate in noticing Dinae. However, she has been hurt, so if you are interested in her, you must be careful, both to avoid damaging her further and to avoid her striking out at you. When one has been denied power, sometimes one becomes rather… prickly.” Severus frowned, not sure how else to explain the possibility that Dinae would abuse a lover to avoid being abused first.
“I… but… Merlin. No! I have no interest in Dinae like that.” Theo was now brilliant red, so perhaps Severus had misjudged the situation. However, the reaction was far too strong to be anything other than the first stirrings of attraction. Perhaps the boy watched Dinae out of jealousy.
“Neither of the boys are interested in her. She is a sister to them,” Severus noted.
Theo frowned. No other reaction. Sometimes children were such a puzzle. And while Severus enjoyed mysteries in the potions lab, in small humans, they were rather more frustrating.
“What do you mean? Why would I care if the boys like her?” Theo spoke too quickly, so Severus had the tail of the problem.
He shifted in his seat. “I thought perhaps you were attracted to Harry and you watched Dinae out of jealousy, but Harry calls her his sister. She is not an obstacle if you want to seek a relationship with Harry.” Severus did not want a jealous Slytherin trying to damage the children’s current relationships to make a place for himself, especially when they might have to live together for a very long time. At the very least, the children would be together for all of adolescence.
“But… No. I’m not gay!” He said the last word with all the condemnation another Slytherin might use to say ‘mudblood.’
Severus kept his voice firm, but he tried to avoid any tone of condemnation. “We have spoken of the perversion of wild magics and the ways that a wild-core wizard must respect the power and the freedom of magic.”
Theo nodded. “Yes, of course, Master Snape. The magic is wild, and we ride it. But we have to control ourselves to avoid falling into the same sort of madness that plagues the Black family. Trying to control magic or others is a trap as much as sinking into the addictive nature of wild magic. I have taken your lessons to heart, Master Snape.”
Severus had assumed he had. When Severus had declared that Theo could not cast the most powerful wild magics—from patronus to crucio until he had mastered occlumency to a degree that Severus found adequate, he had not argued. He had thrown himself into learning. But this prejudice toward two wizards finding love suggested Severus had failed to explain the underlying truths of that rule. One controlled oneself and nothing else. Certainly one did not control where another found affection. “Your tone suggests that you find something objectionable about two wizards finding love.” Severus raised an eyebrow, silently challenging Theo to explain himself.
Theo stammered a half-answer that was so garbled that Severus could not understand more than three words.
“Child,” Severus said, “people who are not in Slytherin mistake the nature of power and ambition. Not all of us have the raw talent to command power. To continue seeking that which we have no talent to touch is not ambition—it is idiocy. Instead, most of us seek power another way. We find someone who is powerful, who offers to make us a part of his or her success. In elevating this person, we elevate ourselves. Not every Slytherin leads. Even the great Merlin knew this fundamental truth of power and he attached himself to King Arthur, creating an alliance to achieve success where he could not on his own.”
“Why are you telling me this?” Theo asked in a whisper.
“Because Harry is powerful,” Severus said. He had known that already, but seeing Theo’s reaction reminded him that not everyone would see Harry as a child to support from behind. Some witches and wizards would want to stand at his side. “Power is seductive, and if you are attracted to Harry, that is very normal. That is arguably the most Slytherin reaction.” And one Severus should have seen coming. Harry had just turned thirteen, as had Neville and Theo. They were coming to an age where marriage alliances would come into play, and while Dark families vehemently disapproved of same-sex marriages, they were legally and magically binding.
“I’m not interested in Harry.” Theo insisted.
“Neville then?” Severus asked. That was more surprising. In his years at the keep, Severus had developed mage sight, so he knew how powerful Neville’s core was, but he still struggled to control it. From the outside would be a less commanding figure.
“What? No!” Theo’s voice broke.
“Then what ails you, child. I cannot help if I cannot understand,” Severus finally snapped.
“I want to be Dinae!” Theo shouted back. Anger had clearly loosed his tongue more than he had intended because he slapped a hand over his mouth as his emotional control suffered a catastrophic failure.
“Explain, Mr. Nott,” Severus said. Nott was as respected a Dark name as Carrow, so he did not understand the deep well of envy that clearly drove Theo.
Theo shrank into the corner of the couch as if he could vanish.
Severus sighed and moved to Theo’s couch, sitting near the boy. He forced himself to project calm before he asked, “What part of Dinae’s life would you have?”
Theo was curled tightly.
“We are Slytherins. We do not hide from our desires, and I know you are strong enough to be honest with me and yourself. When you learned the cost of a Fae wand, did you not snap your own wand?”
“You’ll hate me,” Theo confessed in a small voice. Severus cursed the boy’s father for opening a child to such a fear. When Sephne had been in charge of raising the boy, Theo had enjoyed Draco’s unshakeable belief that he would always be loved.
“I once believed the False Lord had a beautiful view of the world. He promised that wild magic would be free and I would be elevated above all other potion masters because I was wise enough to follow him. He vowed to change the unjust laws passed by the Wizengot and usher in a new age of magic. That lie convinced me to do terrible things, to participate in atrocities that make me wonder if I deserve to be forgiven. Despite that, Harry and Dinae love me. So I know beyond a doubt that they will never hate you. Given Harry’s Hufflepuff tendencies, he would be more likely to love you if he knew you suffered such self-doubt.”
Theo gave him an incredulous look, and Severus shrugged. “Harry vacillates between Gryffindor impulsiveness and a Hufflepuff desire to protect others, and Neville is the same. Those of us with more realistic views of the world must simply accept their eccentricities. Now, what about Dinae’s life do you envy?”
“I want…” Theo swallowed, and Severus waited. The boy must decide for himself whether he trusted Severus enough to share his secret. Theo kept his gaze on the floor as he said, “I want to be a girl.”
“Why?” Severus asked. If Theo believed being a girl would save him from being Nott’s heir, he would be disappointed to learn that Nott’s need for a blood heir would trump his sexism.
Theo looked up at him. “I am a girl. I mean, I feel like a girl. I feel like my body is…” He bit his lip.
This was an issue Severus had not expected to encounter. “Would you prefer me to call you Ms. Nott?”
Theo’s eyes grew wide. “Really?”
“Of course,” Severus said. He paused. “But I am also well-known for losing track of details that do not include potion ingredients. If I make a mistake, you must correct me every time. I will be cross if you allow me to persist in an error such was referring to you as male.”
“Okay,” Theo said slowly. Severus would have to police his own language because she clearly was not emotionally prepared to defend himself.
“What else would you like to change?”
“Everything,” Theo said darkly.
Severus considered that. “Do I assume you mean that you wish your body were different?”
Theo gave a rough laugh. “Wishes are not magic.” She said the words in such a hateful tone that Severus suspected she was echoing her father.
“No, but we have magic. Polyjuice can change a person’s gender, and blood magic—specifically blood adoptions—are known to create genetic changes. Using those two as a starting point, I should be able to find some magical solution to your problem.”
“Really?” For the first time, the despair that seemed to haunt Theo cleared.
“Of course. And if you would like to explore having a female body temporarily, I have hairs from several dozen women and I can begin a polyjuice potion. It will take some time to complete it, but I can brew enough for you to reapply the potion and allow you to remain in female form for several weeks.”
“You appear to be relying far too heavily on that word, Ms. Nott. Conversations usually require the use of multiple words.”
Theo cleared her throat. “Master Snape, would you please brew the polyjuice potion?”
“Of course I will, Ms. Nott. Let us go to the lab and decide which hair to use. After all, this will be your new body for a time, and I do not want to choose a donor you find disagreeable.” Severus stood and waited for Theo before moving toward the lab. “Do you plan to keep the name Theo or change to another name?”
“I hadn’t thought about it.”
“Norbert is female and prefers a male name, so do not assume you must change it. The choice is yours, Ms. Nott.”
Severus wished all the children’s problems could be solved so easily, not that finding a permanent ritual or potion would be easy. This was a challenge that would demand all Severus’s skill as a potion master, but those were the sorts of puzzles he enjoyed.
“ Theodorusia,” Dinae suggested.
“Too old fashioned.” Theo didn’t want to sound like someone’s grandmother. Without comment, Dinae kept flipping through her book of famous warriors.
“Theodosia,” Harry said, but then he added, “although she was sorta well known in Muggle history, so some people might assume you’re making a political statement.”
Theo put her feet up on the table. “I don’t mind making a political statement, but I don’t want to spent my whole life being one. I would prefer a name that wasn’t too Muggle.”
“I understand.” Harry leaned back and pulled one leg under him. People should be allowed to be people—not get turned into political statements. “Can you imagine if I had grown up in the wizarding world with everyone staring at me? I’m so glad they think I’m dead and that they’ve moved on. I can just be Harry.”
Theo nodded. “Exactly. That’s exactly what I want. I want a name that let’s me be myself,” she said. She wore a male body right now to let the residue of polyjuice potion clear her system, but before she took the permanent cure, she wanted a name that could be hers. All hers. And she didn’t want her name or her sex to be the center of attention. She wanted to just be a woman. Merlin. She was going to be fourteen soon. That meant that her father would be able to start making tentative courtship agreements if she were home. Weird.
“Howenthea, like the herbologist who studied mountain plants,” Neville said. Of course he had chosen a book of herbologists. He was such a sweet swot when it came to his plants.
Theo sounded the name out. “Howenthea. I feel like I’m saying ‘how in the hell.’”
“That’s a no-go,” Harry said. “What about Nethea? Short. To the point. She was a map maker who charted the Ice Giant territory north of Norway. That seems appropriate.”
Theo considered it. “It has possibilities.”
“Lorntheaba,” Dinae said as she flipped another page in her book.
“Another good one,” Theo admitted. He didn’t ask her who Lorntheaba had fought because the last time, Dinae had given them a blow-by-blow description of one of the goblin rebellions. Theo had felt like he’d been back in Binn’s history class. Those were not good memories.
“Are you going to go by Theo or Thea?” Neville asked.
Theo considered her options. As much as her male body didn’t feel like hers, her name did. She had always been Theo. But Thea did sound more feminine. Sure, girls could go by Theo and have short hair and wear pants, but after forcing herself to live as a male for so long, Theo enjoyed indulging her feminine side. She liked her long, wavy hair and her skirts and and her make up. She and Dinae had both developed a deft hand with colors, and Severus was surprisingly patient with creating new cosmetics for them.
“Thea,” she declared. That felt right. The others just nodded. Not even Dinae seemed to think that Thea’s sex was shameful or a reason to manipulate Thea, and Dinae was the most Slytherin of them all. Severus liked to claim to be Slytherin to the core, but Thea had doubts about that.
“L’theamay, the alchemist from the 9th century,” Harry offered.
“Oh… that is good.” So many options. Thea had so very many options now.
Severus stood above the dueling field and watched as Neville and Thea attacked the dueling dummies. Neville had become passable. At least he wasn’t tripping Thea, but he was not one that Severus would put on the battlefield. Of course, the children were still fourteen, so they had time to grow into their talents. Still, Neville had a gentleness that didn’t match well with the idea of battle. Of course, Severus knew full well that those who love as deeply as Neville could prove dangerous when cornered.
The Dark Lord’s forces had targeted the Burrow once. Arthur Weasley had fought well, as had Gideon and Fabian Prewett, his brothers-in-law. Dolohov had shared the memory with the other Death Eaters, but the reason he had shared it was not because of anything the men had done. When the Prewett brothers had fallen, Molly Weasley had come out of the house throwing such dark curses, wielding such powerful and wild magics, that Dolohov wanted the rest of them to beware of the woman.
Severus suspected Neville might share Molly’s temperament. If his family were in danger, Neville might turn that powerful core of his into a weapon to level his enemies. Unfortunately, that did not help him in training.
The real surprise was how much Thea had improved now that she was in a body that matched her spirit. She whirled around, throwing curses and dodging attacks at such a speed that Severus would no longer allow her to fight actual opponents. Other than Neville, the others were too advanced to risk having them throw magic against each other. In fact, the day would soon come that Harry, Dinae and Thea would be too strong for the training dummies to provide any challenge.
Severus had no more than had that thought when Thea exploded Harry’s dummy and Dinae’s with one well timed curse.
“Merlin,” Neville said, “that was awesome.”
Thea offered a perfectly executed curtsy. “Thank you, kind sir.”
“It was amazing,” Harry said. “Do you want to go a round with me?”
At one point, Severus had suspected Theo Nott of having a crush on Harry. Now he suspected the tables had turned. Severus wondered if Thea liked boys. If she did, she had a pathway to a rather profitable marriage there.
“Sure,” Thea said brightly. The air shimmered, and a half second later, a Fae stood in the middle of the dueling grounds. Severus shot to his feet, certain that he was about to inherit another child. However, the Fae was alone. It slowly looked around, studying each of the four children before it turned it’s gaze on Harry. Then the creature moved with exaggerated slowness, offering a formal bow.
Harry looked up at Severus.
“They are offering to duel with you,” Severus explained.
“With me?” Harry asked. “Merlin. I can’t fight a Fae.”
“You can’t win against the Fae,” Severus corrected him. “However, you most certainly can fight one. And given that you must eventually fight either the False Lord or Dumbledore, I would suggest you take advantage of learning to engage a more powerful foe.”
Harry swallowed heavily. “Can I have backup?”
The Fae turned slightly toward Thea and offered her a second bow. “Oh, yeah,” Thea said happily. She brought her wand up. “Dinae, Neville, get behind Severus’s shields because I plan to throw everything into this fight.” She gave Harry a dangerous grin, and he answered with one of his own.
Up until now, Severus worried about how the world would treat his children, but if the Fae themselves were going to train these four, Severus suspected the world might be in more danger than his children. Severus smiled. For the first time in his life, he had chosen to attach his ambition to the right power.
Harry stared at the stalactites that hung from the ceiling of the dueling room, his body aching from the last hit. Fighting Fae was not smart. But the fact that the Fae kept showing up for dueling practice made Harry suspect that their time was running out. Maybe Severus thought the war would wait until Harry was seventy, but Harry was starting to worry that he wouldn’t make it to his 17th birthday.
Dinae looked down at him. “You okay?”
“Peachy,” Harry said as he rolled to one side and groaned. At least he had lasted longer than the others, although Thea had come a close second. She was killer with a wand. She was actually awesome at all sorts of things.
Dinae gave him an incredulous look. “You seem half-dead.”
“Dinae Medusa Carrow!” Severus snapped. He came over with a potion, and Harry accepted the offering. The potion eased most of the aches. Often the Fae had vanished by this point, but they continued to stand on the dueling floor, studying Harry.
Severus turned to the Fae. “I don’t believe it would be wise to have the children continue practicing. Human bodies are fragile.” Leave it to Severus to call out a Fae. Harry just hoped Severus won this round because Harry didn’t feel ready to fight a soggy piece of bread, much less go another round with a Fae.
“I feel fragile,” Neville said softly. The side of his face was still reddened from the spell that had hit him when his shield failed.
The Fae stepped forward, forcing Severus to move aside. Severus frowned, but he retreated to the stairs. With a sigh, Harry pushed himself to his feet, ready to fight again. “Thea, do you want to fight doubles this time?” Thea was perched on the stairs, but she got up, ready to fight although her braid was half undone and strands of hair hung in her face.
Harry expected the Fae to move back into position to either attack or defend, but instead they stood still.
“Um, shouldn’t something be happening?” Thea asked.
“I don’t know.” Harry looked over to Severus, but he seemed as nonplussed as the rest of them. Harry rubbed his forehead as the first threads of a headache pulsed.
“Harry, are you okay?” Neville asked. He moved to Harry’s side and grabbed his elbow. Harry didn’t know why until he realized he was listing to the side.
“Move!” Severus yelled as he ran across the dueling clearing. He reached Harry’s side the same time that searing pain ripped through Harry’s skull. He screamed and fell to the ground, writhing as his body became painfully hot. He was burning alive.
“Sev’rus!” Harry cried out, and Severus was there, holding him tightly.
“Neville, fetch a fever-reducing potion. Dinae, pain potion. Neville, a beazor.”
All three ran out of the room, but Harry had trouble focusing on them. Flashes of a night superimposed themselves over the familiar curves of the dueling room. Gravestones appeared and then vanished like ghosts. “Severus, I’m seeing things.”
“Fevers cause hallucinations.” Severus brushed the hair back from Harry’s forehead, but when he touched Harry’s scar, the vision grew infinitely more vivid. A rat-faced man stood near, his glee leaking out into the night.
“Bone of the father, unknowingly given, you will renew your son!” He lifted a white bone. Harry blinked, and time slipped past, but when the weird man spoke again, Harry opened his eyes. “Flesh of the servant, willingly sacrificed, you will revive your master.” The man lifted a knife and cut off his own hand. Harry screamed and tried to crab walk away from the horror, but Severus held him tightly, whispering promises that everything was going to be alright, but nothing would be alright again. Nothing. “Blood of the enemy, forcibly taken, you will resurrect your foe,” the weird man said. He pulled out a square of blood-soaked cloth. It was a garishly patterned bit of clothing, maybe the front panel of a wizard’s robe that had been torn off. The rat-faced man added it to the caldron.
The man picked something up. No. He picked Harry up. Harry felt himself move into the air, and then he was moving down into the caldron. He was going to become a part of the potion.
Harry screamed in terror, and the vision broke. He was sitting in the dueling room, his head in Severus’s lap with the others kneeling around him. Harry blinked, and a shadow appeared on the far side of the room. A man with a deathly white complexion and snake-like features rose from a caldron. He raised his hands over his head and the pops of apparition filled the air. Black-cloaked figures in silver masks crowded near. Jubilant. Harry had seen those masks before in Severus’s memories. Those were Death Eaters.
Severus tried to urge Harry to drink a potion, but Harry grabbed Severus’s wrist. “No,” he said. He needed to see what was happening. The rat faced man danced about like a fool even though his arm ended in a crude amputation. The Fae touched Harry on the head, and the vision broke. Harry was free of that place and all the horrors that were gathering in it.
Harry looked up at the Fae. This is what the creature had been waiting for. They wanted Harry to know that Voldemort was back. He had found a ritual to return him to a body. Harry knew it was coming. He had always known. But he hadn’t thought he would be fifteen years old when he had to face this. He wasn’t ready. He absolutely wasn’t ready.
Harry wanted to shout and rail and point out that Severus always said that he wasn’t allow to fight wizards out for world domination until he was at least seventy. However, the fight had come. Harry had trained hard for nine years so he would be ready. They had all trained hard, and Severus and the Fae had given them every possible advantage.
The Fae stood and then vanished in a shimmer.
“What was that?” Dinae demanded.
Harry looked around at his family. It didn’t matter that he didn’t share blood with any of these people—he loved them with all the Hufflepuff devotion that Severus always accused him of embodying. But his love couldn’t stop the coming war.
“The False Lord is back,” Harry said calmly. “The ritual just ended. He has his body again.”
Severus lost most of the color from his face, as did Neville. Thea pressed her lips together and radiated fury, but Dinae shrugged. “There’s five of us and one of him. And we have a dragon. So, do we go kill him now or later?”
Hermione clenched her teeth as Professor Umbridge loomed over her. Hermione had always had the highest level of respect for her teachers, but she wished she could hex Umbridge… something nasty and long-lasting. Maybe the twins could come up with an appropriate revenge.
“I don’t hear an answer,” Umbridge said.
“These are my notes on the textbook.”
“And yet, the textbook does not mention the Unforgivables.”
“I know,” Hermione said carefully. “I am comparing the theories in Slinkhart to what we learned last year.” Hermione was proud of herself for not mentioning that last year, defense had been taught by a Death Eater in disguise. That always aggravated Umbridge. Her and Minister Fudge wanted to stick their heads in the sand, but Crouch had gone on a suicide mission to get Professor Dumbledore’s blood. That probably meant You-Know-Who was back. And students were learning sodding useless theory when another wizarding war was on the horizon. Hermione had never been so frustrated, and she had tutored Ron through potions.
“Last’s year’s curriculum was not approved or appropriate. Detention.” Umbridge strode away, her heels clicking on the stone floor. She whirled back around and pointed a finger at Hermione. “All week, Ms. Granger.”
Draco Malfoy cackled, the little troll.
“Yes, ma’am,” Hermione said between clenched teeth.
“And destroy those notes,” Umbridge demanded.
Hermione took out her wand and issued a brusque “Incendio.” She must have put a little too much emphasis on the word because the notes went up in a fireball that sent other students scrambling away.
“Watch it, Granger,” Malfoy snapped. “Some of us are trying to focus on this excellent text we have been provided.”
Hermione turned around and nearly set Malfoy’s excellent text on fire next. However, she was too mature for that sort of petty retaliation. She would find a better way to make Malfoy sorry. So she settled into her seat, only then noticing that Umbridge was staring at her with an open mouth. Hermione smiled. “You told me to get rid of the notes, ma’am.”
“Two weeks of detention,” Umbridge snapped.
Hermione settled back in her seat and took out a new scroll. She was playing a long game; she would be here long after Dolores Umbridge was gone. Hermione was going to make sure of that.
Bill knelt down as he considered the broken-down house with Dark magic seeping from every nail and board. “I don’t think you should be here.”
“Too bad Billikins,” Fred said. Or maybe that was George. Hermione still had trouble telling even after four years of being best friends.
“We promised Dumbledore that we’d help you out so you don’t get killed,” the other twin finished.
Bill stood and gave the three of them a weary look. “All three of you should be in school right now.”
“As far as Umbridge is concerned, we are,” Hermione said brightly. “Besides, it’s the weekend. Are we right? Is there a horcrux in there?” Hermione had found this place, but the evil that surrounded it was too much for them, and too many people in the ministry were watching Dumbledore. Borrowing the twins’ older brother seemed like the next best option, but if he was going to treat them like children, Hermione would find someone else to help. They didn’t have time to wait for the adults to get their acts together. And she wasn’t going to stand by and let Voldemort and his ridiculous blood-purity prejudices force her out of the magical world.
“Come off it, Bill,” George said, “we’re seventeen now. If we don’t want to stay in school, we don’t even have to.”
“We would have left already only someone’s got to help out.” Fred looked at Hermione.
She knew they worried about her. This was their NEWTS year, but she would have to get through sixth and seventh years with only Ron to back her up. Luna too, but still. Ron was a great friend, but he wasn’t all that keen on getting involved in the war and Luna was… Luna. Hermione suspected she was either a seer or she had been mentally damaged, but either way, she wasn’t great at helping her watch her back when she had to share classes and hallways with slimy Slytherins.
“If you quit school, Mom is going to kill both of you,” Bill said.
“She’d have to catch us first. So, does that seem like the sort of place You-Know-Who might have hidden a bit of his soul?”
Bill ran his fingers through his hair. “Yeah, it does. But the wards on this place… I don’t know if I can undo this spellwork.”
“I’ve studied reciprocal curse-breaking,” Hermione said. “I don’t have the experience to be the lead partner, but if you take lead, I can reinforce your casting and hold the backside of the spell open so it can’t trap you.”
“You can…” Bill looked at his little brothers before turning back to Hermione. “That’s the sort of skill one only develops when going for a mastery in curse-breaking.”
Hermione crossed her arms over her chest. “I’m motivated, and Professor Dumbledore himself taught me the technique. I can hold my own.”
“That’s our Hermykins… always breaking the curve.”
“Going above and beyond.”
“Impressing the masses.”
“Enough,” Bill said, holding up a hand. “Assuming I take you at your word that you’ve been trained, this is still something I would rather tackle with Professor Dumbledore. Or at the very least, we should bring in another curse breaker from Gringotts.”
“We’ve explained the situation,” Hermione said, her temper fraying. She used to be so level-headed, but year five was trying her patience, and it wasn’t all about the OWLS. “Dumbledore is being watched, and Fudge doesn’t want to even consider that You-Know-Who is either back or on the verge of returning. And we absolutely can’t tell anyone else about the horcruxes. Our only advantage is that the Death Eaters don’t know we’re looking for them, so they haven’t doubled down on any security. If just one horcrux ends up under a fidelus charm, there’s literally no way for us to win the war. The Slytherins will be able to bring him back again and again until our side is worn out.”
Bill rubbed a hand over his face. “This is a horrible idea.”
“Horrible? Yes,” Fred said.
“And yet still better than any other idea,” George finished.
“Fine, but if we all end up ghosts, I’m going to say ‘I told you so’ until someone exorcises us,” Bill warned.
“Deal,” Hermione said before the twins could say something to aggravate Bill.
He crouched down near one of the boarder stones that defined the magical footprint of the house and he started chanting. Hermione listened to his voice, low and soothing, like waves trying to trickle through the cracks of the curses to pry them apart. When she had the pattern of his work, she added her own chants to his, reinforcing his work and allowing him to move to the next step while she maintained the pressure on the first line of the wards. Fred and George took positions behind her, moving with her as she followed Bill. He moved steadily toward the house, his chanting shifting was he encountered new curses—new wards, and Hermione chanted with him, letting herself flow with the magic.
This had been the hardest magic for her to learn. It wasn’t about the precision of the incantation, but the ability to let magic flow around her. To swim in it rather than to direct it. But there was no form of magic that existed that she couldn’t master, and she had tamed her own need for control until she could ride the magic, dancing with the power.
Bill had reached the door when Hermione felt rather than heard the hesitation in his chants. A second later, he fell silent.
“Muggle-born curse,” he shouted. “Run!”
Hands grabbed Hermione as if to pull her clear of the shack, but then a brilliant white light enveloped her and the whole world vanished under tingles and stars.
Hermione landed in a cave rich with old magic, and she had her wand out before she could draw a breath. A fire warmed the enormous drawing room, casting ominous shadows across the polished stone walls. A man came in, and Hermione cast a “Stupify” before he cleared the doorway. She expected to catch him off guard, but he whirled away from her curse, billowing robes making it hard to target his actual body. Still, she tried. She followed up with “Incarcerous” and “Locomotor Mortis” and “Expelliarmus.”
All the cover was low—couches and tables. She threw herself behind the nearest couch as a flurry of wordless curse flew past.
“Relashio” a male voice called just as a woman called, “Sectumsempra!”
“You impudent, careless little oaf. That was our sofa, and you are cursing a guest.”
“But she’s cursing us.”
“Not with anything lethal, brat.”
“If she hits me, I get to hit her back harder.”
The exchange distracted Hermione, and she didn’t notice a figure crawling around the far side of her sofa before she was caught in a stunning spell.
- - - - - - - - - - - -
“Hermione, how are you feeling?”
Hermione floated toward consciousness, her head throbbing. She risked opening one eye. While she expected to be tied in some dungeon or maybe chained to a wall, she was in a cheerfully decorated bedroom with burgundy bed curtains that reminded her of Hogwarts.
“Hey,” a soft voice said.
She turned her head and studied the young many sitting beside her bed. He looked familiar. Sort of. She frowned.
“It’s me. Neville,” he said.
The minute he said his name, Hermione could see the similarities between the handsome and self-assured man sitting next to her and the classmate who had vanished four years ago, but she never would have made the connection on her own. “Neville? Neville Longbottom?”
He grinned at her. “Hi, Hermione.”
Hermione sat up. “Where are we?”
“Prince Keep,” he said.
Hermione searched her memory, but she came up blank. But honestly, that was a secondary concern at the moment. “How did I get here?”
“The Fae,” Neville said.
“The Fae don’t kidnap people. Well, not adults. And there hasn’t been a confirmed case of a changling for almost three hundred years. Some experts argue that our world has drifted away from the Fae world, far enough to make it difficult for them to even cross over to our Earth.”
Neville smiled. “I’ve missed that brain of yours.”
Hermione narrowed her eyes as she tried to figure out if he was making fun of her.
“And I don’t know whether the Fae can just appear on their own, but someone cast a spell looking to escape the cycle of war between the Light and the Dark, and we think the Fae hijacked the ritual to work their own agenda.”
Hermione rubbed a hand over her face. “Who would be stupid enough to invite the Fae into their business?”
When Hermione looked up, her mouth went dry. Severus Snape, the most famous Death Eater of all time, stood at the open doorway to the bedroom. Hermione looked around wildly and realized she had no escape. The only other door stood open, and it showed a small bathroom. There were no windows, no escape routes, and the room was small enough that she didn’t have good cover.
And her wand was gone.
“Did you get our couch fixed?” Neville asked as though he were talking to a man and not a monster.
Snape’s gaze never left Hermione. “Unfortunately, that particular spell is designed to create irreparable damage. We are now short one sofa. Perhaps you can introduce us.”
“Oh, yeah,” Neville said. “Hermione Granger, this is Severus Snape. Severus, this is Hermione Granger, a muggle-born witch from Gryffindor and probably the smartest person I’ve ever known.”
Cold fear coursed through Hermione. Severus Snape—The Severus Snape—now knew that she was muggle-born. While Hermione wasn’t ashamed of her family, she didn’t want to advertise it to Death Eaters. Of course, being in class with Draco Malfoy meant that most of them probably already knew—another reason why Hermione was determined to stop the racist asshole Dark Lord from rising to power.
Snape tilted his head toward her in a mockery of a bow. “Ms. Granger.”
“I was just telling her that the Fae had brought her here, but I don’t think she believed me,” Neville said.
The corner of Snape’s mouth twitched. “Given how you reacted to seeing me, Neville, I had assumed she wouldn’t take you at your word. In fact, I assume, Ms. Granger, that you have the erroneous belief that I murdered Harry Potter in order to clear the path for the False Lord.” He stepped into the room. “Therefore, let me introduce Harry Potter.”
A young man with wild, curly hair and sharp green eyes followed Snape into the room. “Um, hi. Merlin, this is always so awkward. Will this ever stop being awkward?” He ran his fingers through his hair, and for a moment, his lightning-shaped scar was visible.
“Yes, it must be terribly awkward to have others believe you are dead, as opposed to having the world assume you are child-murdering monster who longs for the return of the days of chaos and torture. My heart bleeds for you.” Snape’s sarcasm made the young man roll his eyes.
“You can’t be Harry Potter. He’s dead,” Hermione said softly.
“Okay, here’s the thing, how do people know that?” Harry asked. “The Carrow family haven’t removed Dinae from her heirship, so they clearly know she’s still alive even if they don’t know where she is, but you guys who came later are one hundred percent sure I’m dead. Haven’t any of you checked the magically updating family trees?”
That sounded like he was accusing Hermione of being stupid. She sat up in bed. “Of course we would have checked family trees, only none of us can get to a family tree that includes you. You are the last member of the Peverell and Potter families, so those family trees are locked in Gringotts. You are a Black on your father’s side, but the only surviving Black is a Death Eater in Azkaban, and you’re distantly related to the Lastranges, Averys, and Rosiers, but they’re all Death Eaters and we can’t exactly ask if you show up on their family trees. Besides, you’re so distantly related to those families that you might not appear on it.”
The supposed Harry Potter blinked at her. “How is it that I have that many surviving family members and I still ended up with magic-hating muggles?”
“I believe she did mention that most of those families follow the False Lord,” Snape said. “Your immediate family died in the last war. I believe your father outlived two siblings and a cousin.”
“I’m not buying the ‘false lord’ business,” Hermione said. “I don’t care what you say. I am not going to help you take down Dumbledore. So, if this is some mind game you’re playing, you can stop. I’m not stupid. I’m not going to believe you just because you say you aren’t on You-Know-Who’s side.” She pressed her lips together.
“Ms. Granger,” Snape said, and he sounded a lot like McGonegall when she was talking to Umbridge. Hermione took offense to that. “The Fae have charged me with your safe keeping. I am entirely unconcerned about your personal opinion of me or my actions; however, I will not have my sitting room furniture endangered, so please refrain from any further attempt to hex the members of the household. It will not end well for you.” With that, he was gone in a swirl of robes.
Harry Potter stepped to one side to let him out, and a new face peaked around the corner. “Is it safe?” a young woman asked.
“Yep. Hermione is not going to throw any more curses,” Neville said cheerfully.
“Dinae will be disappointed,” the woman said as she came in. She had long, wavy brown hair—the type Hermione had always envied—and she wore colorful skirts that fell mid-calf. Harry Potter smiled at her, but she didn’t seem to notice. Hermione already hated this new woman. She was like the other girls her age in the dorms—always attracting some boy’s attention and then toying with them.
“I’m Thea,” she introduced herself. “I’m the most recent member of the family, since the Fae grabbed me about two years ago, so I should say that I understand how you feel. It’s disconcerting to get yanked out of reality and dropped in a Fae stronghold. However, the Fae only grab us when we’re in danger. I was considering ways to kill myself.” She shrugged.
Hermione opened her mouth, determined to say something wise and supportive, but what came out instead was, “But you’re gorgeous.”
Thea blinked at her. “Is that supposed to mean something?”
Humiliation stained Hermione’s cheeks red. “I mean, it’s just that girls that look like you get all the attention. I don’t know why you would kill yourself.”
“Because Slytherin politics and my father’s idiotic pure-blood bullshit was more than I could take,” Thea said. She didn’t have any apology or shame in her voice, just a cold certainty that she hadn’t been able to endure more. For the first time, Hermione wondered how many of the Slytherin children felt that way. Not Draco, obviously, but she wondered if Crabbe or Bulstrode or any of the others every contemplated dying to get out from under their parents’ thumbs.
“I’m so sorry.”
“I’m not.” Thea offered a brilliant smile. “I got to come here. Here is pretty great, but fair warning, you shot hexes and curses at Severus, so Dinae is going to make it a mission to pay you back for that.”
Harry Potter winced. “Maybe I should talk to her.”
“You’re not going to talk her about of being angry,” Neville said.
“Hell no. Dinae is plotting revenge now,” Thea offered.
Harry Potter’s eyes grew wider. “I definitely need to go talk to her now. Hermione, it’s nice to meet you. Welcome to Prince Keep, and no matter what Severus says, don’t worry about the sofa. It was ugly anyway.” He hurried out of the room, and Hermione was left with Neville and Thea.
“So, what’s been happening since I left?” Neville asked.
Hermione blinked at him, not even sure where to start.
“Let me get this straight,” Neville said. “Quirrell had the False Lord’s sorta-ghost stuck to the back of his head? That’s why he was going to kill me?”
“We thought he had killed you,” Hermione said. She couldn’t believe she was sitting at a kitchen counter with Neville Longbottom. “When McGonagall and Flitwick challenged Quirrell when he was trying to steal the philosopher’s stone, they killed Quirrell’s body, but You-Know-Who went sailing through the castle walls and up into the air. That’s how Dumbledore knows for sure that he’s still out there. And since Barty Crouch attacked Dumbledore and sent his blood-soaked robes somewhere, the Death Eaters might be using that blood to bring him back to life right now.”
“Too late to worry about that,” Harry said. “The Fae gave me a vision last year. I watched Voldemort crawl his way back to being mostly alive, although his face is all snaky and definitely not right.”
“Merlin,” Hermione breathed. She wasn’t sure she could trust anything that was happening here, but right now, she didn’t see why they would lie to her. She was clearly trapped here, even if she wasn’t sure she believed their story that they were trapped as well. And Snape was keeping her wand somewhere. She suspected it was in his office, but he kept the door locked, and Hermione had never been great at wandless magic. In short, she wasn’t a threat. They could keep her here forever. “I have to get back. I was on an important mission.”
Snape looked over, one eyebrow raised. “Yes, Albus would have entrusted a critical mission to a fifteen-year-old witch who should be studying for her OWLS. When one lies, one should at least endeavor to make the lie believable.”
Dinae Carrow cackled. Hermione didn’t like that little brat. She reminded Hermione of Draco.
“I was working with three adults.” Calling the twins ‘adults’ was pushing the definition of the word, but they were seventeen, which made them of-age in the wizarding world.
“Then they can complete the mission without you.”
Hermione pressed her lips together and fought with an urge to kick Snape. He was quickly challenging Umbridge on her list of people she most hated.
“I want to know how no one figured out that Tom Riddle was possessing a student,” Thea said. Apparently she had been there during the heir of Slytherin disaster, although Hermione didn’t remember her. To be honest, she didn’t pay much attention to the snakes, and seeing how much Neville had changed, Hermione could have sat behind Thea in potions and not recognize her.
“It wasn’t like anyone knew what You-Know-Who had done back then.” Hermione said.
Snape put his sandwich down. “What is the relationship between the False Lord and Tom Riddle?”
Hermione froze. Voldemort’s real identity was a closely guarded secret. She hadn’t meant to let that slip. She hurried on with her story. “You should have seen the trouble Riddle caused in Year Three. You would think a reanimated sixteen-year-old would get eaten in the Forbidden Forest, but he managed to survive and turn Hogwarts into his own hunting ground. That was our most deadly year. The Tri-wizarding tournament was a cake-walk compared to year three.”
Snape narrowed his eyes. “Your attempts at misdirection are obvious and pathetic. Do I assume that Tom Riddle is the False Lord’s birth name?”
“That sounds awfully muggle,” Harry commented.
Dinae frowned. “The False Lord hates muggles.”
“Which proves nothing,” Snape said. “Many psychopaths nurse a deep hatred for themselves.”
“But if Tom Riddle is his original name, how could his young self come back?” Harry asked. “I mean, I thought his old self was still floating around as a wraith when this younger version set up camp at Hogwarts after stealing Ginny Weasley’s life force. How does that work?”
Snape pinned Hermione with a sharp look. “An excellent question. How did young Mr. Riddle return to the world if the False Lord still existed as a wraith?”
“I don’t know,” Hermione said. “And I never said Tom Riddle and You-Know-Who were the same person.”
Dinae snorted. “It’s a little late to deny that part.”
“Dinae,” Thea said softly. Hermione was glad she had someone on her side. She would have thought Neville would jump to her defense—they were both Gryffindors in what felt like a house of Slytherin. But he continued eating his bean soup, largely unconcerned.
“What?” Dinae asked. “She’s not even good at this stuff.”
“Enough young scalawag. Do you really believe that I require your assistance in this matter?” Snape demanded. “Tend to your own business unless you want to scrub caldrons.” Hermione flinched from the harsh tone. At the very least, Snape was verbally abusing young people who had apparently been placed under his care when very young. At eleven, Neville would have been safe from internalizing Snape’s abuse, but Harry and Dinae would have been so much more vulnerable if they’d been taken as young as they reported. She could not understand why the Fae would trust Severus Snape, not that Fae were particularly concerned with the long-lasting damage abuse did to survivors.
“No offense, Hermione,” Harry added, “but you are rather bad at lying. You should probably just tell the truth before you get more tangled in your lies.”
Snape turned on Harry. “Did I not just finish telling Dinae to tend to her own business? Why would you believe I would welcome your interference, obstreperous young brat?”
Neville leaned closer. “After a while, all you can hear under the insults is ‘I love you, so stay out of this so I can protect you from your own curiosity.’” He grinned across the counter at Snape.
Snape’s expression turned thunderous. “Do not get smart with me, brat.”
Neville’s smile grew wider.
Hermione pressed her back to the wall, horrified at the scene below. Harry and Thea fought side by side, curses and hexes flying as the two tried to land hits on the Fae that danced just out of their way. All three moved like no one Hermione had ever seen before. Sure, second year there had been that short-lived dueling club where McGonagall had put Lockhart on his back in one second flat. However this… this was controlled carnage. She was almost sure she’d even seen an Unforgivable or two fly at the Fae. But she had to be wrong about that.
“We’re perfectly safe up here,” Neville promised. A stray hex hit Snape’s shield and the whole thing glowed pink for a moment.
“Scared?” Dinae taunted.
“A wise person would fear getting in the middle of that fight or even being on the periphery of it,” Hermione answered. She was scared, and that was not cowardice—it was having a healthy respect for the combat ranging across the practice field.
“That is the single most intelligent comment you have made in the last week,” Snape said.
Hermione opened her mouth, but she had no idea what to say. Snape had included her in daily lessons, teaching her more about potions and spell-craft in a week than she normally learned in a month. However, he disarmed her a dozen times a day in defense lessons and he made no secret of reading Dark books on soul magic, searching for the answer she refused to give him. And while she expected him to paralyze her and stare into her eyes to take the information directly from her mind, he never did. She didn’t know how to take Snape. As time passed, she had trouble seeing him as the Death Eater history claimed he was, but he was also teaching ridiculous concepts, like that Dark Magic didn’t exist.
Hermione had seen the evil Voldemort brought into the world. She knew Dark magic existed, and calling it Wild magic was just putting a fancy name on evil in order to confuse others. Evil thrived when people allowed themselves to be deluded and clung to false hope. Umbridge and Fudge were proof of that. However, Hermione had to bide her time until she could escape.
Below, the Fae shimmered out of existence, reappearing behind Harry and Thea, disarming both and sending them crashing to the mossy ground before they could turn. With a startled squeak, Hermione headed for the stairs, but Neville leaned back and held out his arm to stop her. Either that, or he was trying to trip her. She didn’t think he’d do that, but he was a very different Neville than the one she had know first year. For one thing, he believed the lies about wild magic.
“They’re fine. The Fae have never caused a real injury. That’s why we spar with them.”
“All of us except her,” Dinae said with a cruel smile in Hermione’s direction. “She can still duel with Severus because she couldn’t throw a dangerous curse if her opponent invited her to.”
Hermione’s face grew warm. Hermione looked to see if Severus would stop the taunts, but his attention was focused on the practice field. Hermione looked down to see Harry helping Thea off the ground.
“I want to learn that trick,” she said.
“We would all love to do that,” Harry seconded. He was out of breath, but he sounded more excited than upset about the Fae cheating to win the match. He turned and bowed to the Fae, but the creature watched, oversized eyes focused on Harry and Harry alone. “Are we going again?” Harry asked. He glanced over at Thea before flicking a quick look up to where Dinae, Neville and Hermione sat with Severus. The Fae took a step closer, and after a second, Harry said, “Oh. Okay, well go for it.”
Hermione frowned, not sure what that meant. Thea took a step forward. “Should I stay or go upstairs?” She asked as she brushed twigs and moss off her dress. Hermione had always thought that women who fought in dresses were vain, but watching Thea, she realized that she had a harder time predicting where Thea would jump because she was in a skirt. That probably explained why most men dueled in robes.
Harry’s body language shifted. He tilted his head to the side and his back almost undulated as he turned to face Thea. He bowed deeply as the Fae drifted to the wall.
“Oh, it’s going to be like that?” Thea asked. She brought her wand up. “Neville, master of the shield charm, light of my dueling life, would you like to come down here?”
“You got it.” Neville jumped up and hurried down the stairs, his wand already out. When Neville hit the dueling grounds, Harry exploded into action. He threw curses and hexes silently, his body twisting out of the way of the counterattacks. But it didn’t look like Harry. He moved like the Fae. Then Harry shimmered, his body vanishing. Thea threw herself forward, twisting around even as Harry shimmered into existence behind her. She shot off several curses, none of which landed, but Harry didn’t break Neville’s shield, which he had shifted to the rear the second Harry shimmered.
“What is happening?” Hermione asked as she moved closer to the edge of the platform. They traded more spells before Harry shimmered again. Thea and Neville shifted their defense to the rear, but Harry reappeared to the side. Neville couldn’t move his shield fast enough, and he went down in a tangled heap of limbs. Thea threw wild curses, scattering them across the field until not even Harry’s inhuman grace could avoid them, and he shimmered out of existence again. This time he returned a few feet to the side, and caught Thea with a spell that felled her.
For a second, Harry stood, his head tilted to one side as he considered his fallen friends. And then in a blink, he was back to being Harry. “Okay, that was awesome!” he said before he went to wake Thea and Neville.
“I’m next,” Thea said before she’d even picked herself up off the ground.
“What is that? What is going on?” Hermione put her hands on her hips and squared off against Snape.
He gave her a weary look as if she were the one being unreasonable. “That, Ms. Granger, was the Imperius Curse.”
Hermione’s blood ran cold. “What?”
“I want in on this,” Dinae said as she ran down the stairs.
“Is she… Do you… Are you really going to let people you care about get put under the Imperius curse, one of the worst curses known to wizarding kind?” Hermione’s voice was growing shrill, but she couldn’t contain her horror. Harry Potter came up the stairs and sat next to Snape, watching the action below.
“That was incredible.”
“Can you duplicate it without assistance?” Severus asked.
“I don’t know. If we can practice a few more times, probably. It’s a great way to travel. Miles better than side-along apparation.”
“You’ve done that once in your entire life.”
“Which is how I know I hate it,” Harry said with a shudder.
“Brat,” Snape said softly.
Hermione’s fury was growing. “Are we going to talk about the bloody Imperius Curse?” She shouted.
Harry looked up at her. “It’s a great way to learn a new skill.”
Hermione could not form an answer. They had broken her. One week here, and she could not form logical arguments. These people should all be remanded to the permanent ward at St. Mungos.
Harry kept talking. “Did you know the Cruciatus curse was originally developed as the cure for the Draught of Living Death?” Harry asked.
“And the Blood Curse of Living Death,” Snape added.
“Yeah, that.” Harry leaned forward as an Imperiused Thea danced across the field, destroying Neville and Dinae. Hermione winced when Neville went down again, but she didn’t feel any sympathy when Dinae got a curse to the face. The action shifted again, and now Neville moved to face off against the other two.
“But…” Hermione looked down and now Neville had the alien body language as he flowed around the field.
“It’s okay,” Harry said. “You’ll get the swing of it.”
Hermione had no idea what that meant, but she didn’t want to be here long enough to get the swing of anything. The rest of them were insane, and Hermione feared she would lose her mind if she stayed much longer.
“Is this the place?” Harry asked. Neville and Thea spread out to either side.
“It looks like it,” Neville said. “I didn’t get a good look in her mind because I was trying to be subtle, but yeah, this is it. The last thing her friend said is that he hit a trip-ward for a muggle born. My guess is, she would have died if the Fae hadn’t pulled her out.”
Thea moved to the side and crouched down to study the wards and curses. “There could be traps for half-bloods, too. Maybe you should stay here, Harry.”
“No,” Harry said firmly. “If Severus is right, and this is a horcrux, we need to get it, and I have the fastest reflexes. I’m also the one with the most proficiency with parselmouth.” Harry looked over at his friend. “Sorry, Neville, but you know it’s true.”
“I’m not offended,” Neville said. “And I can see where you might have an advantage against the spells of another parselmouth, but Thea’s right. The two of us are pure bloods. We might trip fewer traps.”
“And good old Tommy was a half-blood. My guess is that his blood supremacy bullshit started with pure bloods who made fun of him.”
Thea snorted. “He was Slytherin. We don’t make fun of housemates; we emotionally cripple them,” Thea said darkly. Harry winced. He hated the thought that ambition and a desire to change the world had been warped into something evil. Slytherin house was the bastion of the old guard, so it should be the house of Fae magic and dancing in the moonlight, not children trying to hurt each other.
“That’s even more reason to suspect there may be traps for pure bloods,” Harry said. “Maybe he pretended to be from one of the ancient houses and to deify blood purity, but deep down, he has to hate pure bloods, too.”
“That’s a safe bet,” Neville said, “especially considering that the younger version of himself hunted pure bloods as much as muggle-born once he was out of that diary. I am so glad I was not there for that disaster.”
Harry kind of wished he had been. Horcrux Tom had killed several kids before he’d been stopped. And it sounded like the politicians had kept Hogwarts open despite Dumbledore’s protests because they didn’t want to admit that the situation was out of control. Maybe Harry couldn’t have stopped any of it, but he would have wanted to try. Unfortunately, like Severus, he owed his life to the Fae. They had taught the three of them to walk the Fae path—to shimmer, but Harry had no doubt that they would find the Fae path closed if they abused it. The Fae had a plan, and Harry had to trust them to share it when the time was right.
Until then, he would do whatever was necessary to make sure the pieces were arranged so he could kill Riddle when the time came.
Harry was looking forward to that.
“Thanks, Neville,” Hermione said as she leaned against one of the random stairs that lined the edges of the dueling room. She wasn’t used to being behind the other students, and she was starting to understand why people got so frustrated with her. It didn’t feel great to be the last person to get the right answer when Snape asked a question or be the slowest to produce a shield.
“No problem.” Neville tucked his weird-looking wand into a wrist holder.
Hermione sat on the closest step and pulled a leg under her while she studied Neville. “You’ve really grown. I remember back when you couldn’t levitate a feather.”
Neville laughed. “That was a lifetime ago, but yeah. I guess I have grown. I keep thinking that when all this is over, I’m going to go visit my gran, and she’s not going to recognize me.”
Hermione hoped his grandmother was still alive. Regent Longbottom hadn’t been seen in public since the year after Neville vanished, although she would have access to the family tapestry, so she would know he was alive. Hermione hoped that the woman didn’t assume Neville had suffered the same fate as his parents. Knowing his background, knowing how strongly his family had always supported the light and Dumbledore, Hermione didn’t understand how he could believe some of the lies Snape was peddling.
Neville studied her back. “You know, you’re learning this stuff faster than I did… faster than Thea,” he offered. There was the Gryffindor urge to help others. He hadn’t been totally corrupted.
“But I’m so far behind.” Hermione nearly wailed the words, and then she ducked her head, embarrassed. “I suppose class rank really isn’t the goal here.”
“Nope. Learning enough magic to avoid death by False Lord is the primary goal of Prince Keep.” Neville seemed largely unbothered by the thought of going to war. Ron would shuffle his feet and his gaze would dart off to the nearest shiny object. Fred and George would get a determined glint in their eyes and press their lips together. Even Dumbledore would grow quiet. But Neville talked about the coming war with the same ease that he might describe the weather.
“Do you want to come meet Norbert?” Neville offered.
Hermione nearly choked at the thought. “No. I’m good. Really.” Maybe Snape had taught the others some Dark magic that allowed them to avoid death by dragon, but she would rather avoid their so-called dragonry.
Neville shifted before he sat on the step next to her. “Are you good?” he asked in a serious tone, one that invited her to trust him. Sadly, Hermione didn’t. He’d had been around these Slytherins too long. Even Harry Potter was nothing like Hermione would expect from a Light family. He laughed when the duels devolved into Unforgivable curses. He offered Dinae a high-five after a particularly cruel comment. He was as much Slytherin as the others, which wasn’t surprising given that Severus Snape had raised him. If the Fae were behind this, they had a lot to answer for.
“Uh-huh.” Neville didn’t pretend to believe her.
“Neville, do you believe all this stuff about wild magic versus dark magic?”
Neville drew a deep breath and seemed to consider his answer. “Yes,” he finally said. No arguments, no justifications or excuses. Just yes.
“Why?” Hermione couldn’t understand how he could be so duped.
Neville chuckled. “I’m tempted to draw a chart and start mapping out spells,” he said, which didn’t make any sense. But then he leaned back against the railing and asked, “Since you were raised muggle, I suppose you know all about World War II.”
“Yeah, but I’m surprised you do.”
“Severus went through a whole tactical defense and warcraft phase,” Neville said with a shrug. “I see some of Hitler’s ideology in the False Lord.”
“A lot of it,” Hermione corrected him. “The self-aggrandizement, dragging a whole world in chaos, the use of terrorism. Hitler knew that bombing runs would never break England’s defenses, but he bombarded London just to terrify people and force them to give in to his demands. That sounds a lot like the sort of terroristic raids the Death Eaters love.” Hermione had often bemoaned a lack of muggle education at Hogwarts because wizarding kids could stand to learn from the mistakes of history—and not just wizarding history.
Neville nodded. “When the Allied forces invaded the continent, do you think they did it feeling joy in their hearts?”
“Joy? When they picked up their guns, did they feel joy?”
Hermione crossed her arms. “What are you trying to get at?”
“I’m fairly sure those men were angry, and they wanted to punish Germany for the war. I think they had the same sort of anger and vengeance that fuels the Killing Curse.”
Hermione’s temper flared. “No. Don’t even suggest that righteous anger and vicious racism of the Death Eaters is anything alike.”
Neville held up his hands. “You misunderstood me. I’m not saying the purpose is the same or that they are morally equal. I’m just saying that both feel like they have a right to take vengeance. Of course the Death Eaters are wrong. So very wrong. I mean, Hermione, look at who you’re talking to. My parents didn’t deserve what happened to them. No one deserves that. But the Lestranges and the British troops and the Aurors and the Germans—they all felt anger. Given magical ability, each could wield the killing curse, and some would argue that the British in World War II and the Aurors should have used it more.”
Hermione narrowed her eyes.
“You can’t define emotions as good or bad. People call fear bad, but my fear of the False Lord will keep me from running into danger when I am the least proficient with offensive spells. Anger is negative, until anger motivates all of us to hone our skills so we can stop the False Lord. Shame makes an abused child hide their real emotions, but it can also motivate us to not act dishonorably. You can’t divide emotions up into good and evil when the reality is that every emotion can be either.”
“And so, logically, I should believe that spells are equally impossible to divide,” Hermione snapped, unwilling to let him dance around his conclusion. She would rather cut to the meat of the argument. “Except that some spells are evil. The Death Eaters don’t use Imperius to teach skills; they take over people’s free will. They make people commit atrocities.”
“Which is atrocious,” Neville said, “but the Death Eaters are to blame for that, not the curse.”
Hermione narrowed her eyes. “You sound like an American arguing for the right to own a ridiculous number of firearms.”
“Really?” Neville’s eyes grew wide. “I’ve never talked to an American, about firearms or any other topic. But my point still stands. The curse is not to blame, the person casting it is.”
“And if the curses are banned, then there is a clear line in the sand that people cannot cross. The minute you allow people to justify their actions, they will push the ethics of the curse farther and farther.”
Neville nodded. “That’s a good argument, so it might be wise to ban the curses in all but the most critical cases—things like instructors teaching advanced techniques that rely on fine muscle control. Everyone else would face Azkaban if they even attempted the spell. I imagine it could be licensed the way apparating is.”
“Maybe that would be an interesting debate topic in the Wizengamot, but nothing you’ve said justifies the evil the Death Eaters have done.”
“You’re right,” Neville said, “nothing justifies the evil they’ve done. I would never argue otherwise. My parents deserved a life. Harry didn’t deserve to lose his parents, the muggles who were tortured didn’t deserve that. The Death Eaters are evil and all of us are committed to stopping them.”
“Yeah, like a Carrow wants to stop evil.” Hermione knew she was being unfair because the Nott family was even more Dark, but Thea had clearly broken away from her family but Dinae… she hadn’t.
Neville gave her a disappointed look. “I know you’re smarter than this,” Neville said. Harry and Thea had finished their duel with the Fae and Neville walked onto the dueling circle without casting a look back at Hermione.
Hermione was reading Vitalizi’s Art of Magick Most Grand when Severus came to sit next to her on the sofa. His presence made her skin crawl. He was the embodiment of all the evil she had fought against since coming to Hogwarts. But he was also the sarcastic man who cooked pancakes and threatened to transfigure all of Dinae’s clothing pink if she did not control her temper. The two versions of Severus Snape clashed in her head until she had a terrible headache every time she interacted with him.
And unfortunately, that was a lot since she was so far behind, academically speaking. He had tutored her in every subject, and had introduced her to new subjects like wandlore, spell crafting, advanced curse breaking, and dark magic. Of course, he always called the last one wild magic or Fae magic.
“Have you completed the reading?” he asked, even though she was in the middle of the book. Of course, she had finished and was now reviewing in order to clarify her ideas, but she resented that he knew her well enough to recognize that.
“I am not finished studying the specific arguments.”
“Which arguments are giving you trouble?” Severus sounded so calm, as if he wasn’t trying to brainwash her to abandon Dumbledore and his ideals. However, Hermione was not so easily swayed.
If he wanted to play this game, she could play it. More than that, she could win it. “The author posits that the ancient families have Fae blood, and that the inbreeding maintains a certain level of Fae magic, which allows them to wield the dark spells.”
“Wild spells, Ms. Granger,” Severus said.
She narrowed her eyes, and did not correct herself. “However, I am able to access these dark spells just fine. The argument for blood purity is, therefore, factually inaccurate.”
“The overall argument, yes,” Severus agreed.
She blinked, suspicious about why he would have yielded so easily.
“However, the connection between Fae and the ability to cast a wild spell is not necessarily invalided.”
Hermione snorted. “Muggleborn here. That contradicts the whole theory of blood purity.”
“You keep referencing blood purity, but in the wixen world, what is more significant than blood?”
Hermione frowned. Blood was the key of most of the darkest spells, and even the cornerstone of most goblin magic. Blood carried a person’s magic, and even one drop was a powerful dark magic ingredient. She frowned. Blood was important because of what it carried, not because of the red blood cells. “Magic? You think there’s magic purity?” She wasn’t sure how that was different than blood purity. It sounded like another distinction with no difference. Voldemort would consider her a mudblood either way.
“Not pure as much as connected to the Fae,” Severus said. “I suspect that is why the old families continued the Fae traditions such as Yule and Ostara far longer than the more progressive families. They hoped to maintain a connection to the other world.”
“The Potters and Longbottoms have always been Light families, and both Harry and Neville can perform these spells, so that contradicts your theory.”
“I grew up with Frank Longbottom and James Potter. Both celebrated the old holidays. Frank even petitioned to have them reinstated at Hogwarts, although he lost that fight.” Severus grimaced.
“Okay, but there is still me. I don’t fit your pattern because I have perfectly muggle parents and grandparents and one very non-magical uncle we don’t talk about. There is no Fae blood in me, and yet I am learning all these spells you insist are inaccessible to wixen who have lost their connection with the Fae.” She crossed her arms, certain that she had the winning argument. If the difference between light magic and dark lay in a person’s connection to the Fae courts, then she wouldn’t be able to touch any dark spell. But she could. She was learning everything Severus could put in front of her, even when she questioned the morality of learning a cutting spell that would resist healing. Of course, her morals wouldn’t keep her from using it on Death Eaters if they came for her or her family, but she still, in principle, objected to such dangerous magic.
“You are remarkably talented with wild magic,” Severus said. “You are learning far faster than any of the other children.”
“I am not a child, and I would prefer you to stop speaking to me as though I were.”
He looked down his nose at her. “Ms. Granger, I have socks older than you.”
“According to you, you have not had access to shops for ten years, so that is not surprising.”
The corner of his lip twitched, and Hermione felt a twinge of righteous glee at having won that point.
“Be that as it may, your success means that either Vitalizi’s argument is invalid or one of the premises are untrue.”
Hermione narrowed her eyes, suspecting a trap even if she couldn’t see one. “Yes,” she agreed slowly. “And since the premises appear true, I maintain the argument is invalid.”
“Unless a premise is false.” Severus held out a scroll. Hermione took it, wondering if she should cast a few reveal charms before opening it. However, she still wasn’t sure of her new wand. When she cast, the results could be unpredictable, so she avoided using her wand when her emotions were riled. She simply unfurled it. Her mouth fell open when she read the spell.
“You can’t be serious!”
“It would explain why you have such an innate connection to wild magic and why Prince Keep is changing you faster than the others.” Severus lifted an eyebrow.
“I am not a changling!”
“Perhaps not. You could be a halfling or simply Fae-touched. If a changling is not exposed to human magic, they may never release their own. So perhaps one of your muggle grandparents is a Fae who never learned to access their magical core.”
The very idea was so preposterous that Hermione wanted to laugh in Severus’s face. Her. Part Fae. Hermione Granger—the great champion of muggleborns everywhere. Not only was the idea stupid, but it would invalidate the work she had done to make other students accept people like her. Muggleborns. Mudbloods. The idea was anathema to her.
“I would have thought you would have relished the chance to prove your premises correct and to, therefore, invalidate Vitalizi’s entire argument,” Severus said softly.
“Manipulative old bat,” Hermione muttered as she pulled out her spell knife to nick her finger and perform the simple chant.
“I have been called far worse,” Severus said without any heat in his words.
As Hermione chanted, she felt the river of magic rise up around her, throbbing, pulsing, swelling into a flood. When she practiced reciprocal curse breaking or dark magics, the river would sometimes rise around her so she felt she was swimming in magic, navigating the currents. But now she was drowning it. And the currents had become rapids. Bits of reality sparkled around her, like a painting on glass that had been shattered so she could only see fragments.
She saw a woman crying. A doctor’s office. A man holding his wife. The scene focused on a thick plant that hung from the doctor’s ceiling in front of his window. Outside a car park waited under a cloudy sky, but she focused on the crystal tucked lovingly between the dark green leaves.
“I’m sorry,” the doctor said, “but this last loss nearly took your life. There is always adoption. You could give a child a good home.”
The woman looked up and Hermione trembled when she saw her mother’s face—younger, tear-stained and in pain.
“Monica, maybe a baby isn’t meant to be. But we can still be parents. We can still raise a family. We can adopt a dozen children, and each will love you more than the previous.”
“Wendell,” she cried, and Hermione felt it. She felt the moment when magic pulsed. Something wild and joyous broke free of that plant and that tiny crystal, and when Monica and Wendell Granger stood to leave the fertility clinic, the wild seed went with them. Changlings weren’t stolen children. They were children gifted to the world.
The magic surged and once again Hermione was lost in the current, reality shattering around her so that she caught pieces of it. Her mother laughing about the impossibility of Hermione’s hair and how every leaf and twig in the yard would tangle in her unruly locks. Her father swinging her around in a circle as the wind sang to her. But then the magic grew dark as if a cloud had crossed the sky.
Hermione saw a woman sitting in front of a battered backyard grill. She chanted slowly, inviting the Fae into her home as she burned herbs to honor them. Inside the house, a man yelled. “Eileen, where’s dinner?” The woman whispered a quick prayer for the Fae to protect her sweet Severus. She picked up the baby and hurried inside as the man yelled again.
The voices who had attended Eileen’s prayers felt a shadow pass as a child slipped out of the world and onto the otherworldly path that only humans could follow when they died. They slipped into the home and looked down at a plump child laying on her stomach. The child was pale and perfectly still. A long finger touched the body and joy and love rushed into the corpse. Hermione saw a painted flower on the side of the crib with “Lily” underneath.
They could not stop human anger from touching Severus, but they could give him joy. That would answer the prayer and build another delicate thread to connect their world to the human world they loved to explore. Each Fae changling and halfling and quarterling, each answered prayer and touched child was one more thread, one more slender bridge on which they could slide into the world. Each allowed magic to flow into the human world. If those threads broke, magic would slowly fade away, and the Fae would lose all those children they had cast out into the world to learn and grow and return to the courts with that knowledge. So often the children chose to walk the path of the humans who passed, but some returned home. They would maintain the bridge for their children.
The world spun, and this time she saw not a slender filament but a solid bridge connecting human lands to Fae. A fire burned brightly in the center, and Hermione realized she was looking at Prince Keep. She could see herself laying on the floor, Severus holding her gently. Thea and Neville and Harry all crowded around, their worry palpable despite the fact that Hermione had never been able to read people. Others’ emotions had always been a puzzle that she couldn’t quite decipher.
But now she saw the bright panic in Neville and the deep well of concern in Harry and the fear that wrapped itself around Thea. She could even taste Dinae’s terror that Hermione would die, leaving a dead body to rot in their keep and her fear that Hermione would live and continue to upend the family that she clung to.
Severus was hers in a way that her birth family never had been. He held her when other adults had badly hurt her or ignored her pain. Harry was hers. He played with her and learned with her and never told her that she wasn’t good enough if she didn’t show enough grace or impress the right guests. Neville was hers because he was gentle in a way that hadn’t been possible in her old life. He was proof that if there was a day when she wasn’t strong, her family would still love her because they loved him. And he was proof that she was worth love because even when she was mean, his shield charms always protected her first, even before himself. And Thea was hers because she would listen to all Dinae’s fears. She knew they were real. She had suffered the same horrors at the hands of family who had twisted power and fear until they were a weapon to use against children. Thea understood her. Thea was hers. They were all hers. And Hermione threatened her family.
Hermione’s heart ached as she realized how much Dinae loved and how that deep well of love fueled the hate she felt for Hermione who had come into her home and refused to listen. She was so very afraid that Hermione would turn this home into the sort of battleground her birth home had been. Hermione had started to silently cry before she slid back into her body.
“Deep breaths, Ms. Granger. Take a moment to center yourself.” Despite the fact that the ability to read emotions was slipping away, Hermione could hear the concern. She was a child, and Severus had never been protected as a child. He wanted to do better. He wanted to be better. And he was frustrated with himself and the world because he rarely knew how to achieve that goal. He was so deeply frustrated.
With a final gasp, Hermione was back inside her own body, looking up as everyone stared down at her.
“Merlin. Are you okay?” Harry asked.
She stared at him. She had seen his mother. Lily Evans had died, and a Fae had joined the world, not as an answer to the Evans’ prayers—they had never known that their birth child was gone. Lily had been a gift to answer Eileen Snape née Prince’s prayers. Severus and Harry had been linked since before Harry’s birth. Hermione struggled to sit up, and Severus helped her back up onto the couch.
“Do I assume I was—once again—proven correct despite the obstreperous denials of a child younger than my socks?” Severus asked, one eyebrow raised in a challenge.
When Umbridge had challenged Hermione, Hermione had wanted to set the woman’s stupid pink suit on fire. However, she had to admit that Severus might have a point. He was magically brilliant, and after seeing the Fae-reveal spell in action, she couldn’t deny that she had been wrong and he had been right.
“My mother carried me, but the Fae created her pregnancy.”
Severus’s eyebrows went up and Neville whistled through his teeth. “A full changling?” Neville asked. “Merlin, Godric, and all the wizards on high. That’s amazing. And all those pure-bred nobs never knew you have the purest blood of all.”
“Not blood,” Severus said. “If she had Fae blood, she would look like one of our visitors. She has Fae magic.”
“Harry’s a halfling,” Hermione blurted when everyone’s gaze had been on her too long. Maybe it made her less than nice, but if she had to deal with this new reality, then Harry did too.
Hermione lay on the moss, looking up at the ceiling of the dueling chamber. She knew that winning against the Fae was impossible. Obviously. Still, every time she ended up on her back or worst, unconscious, she got more frustrated. It would help if they would offer a shimmer lesson again, but that opportunity had passed months again, back when Hermione had been childishly holding onto simplistic theories about good and evil.
She rarely thought of herself as an idiot, but that had been idiotic. And now she couldn’t shimmer. Oh, Harry tried to explain, but it didn’t help, and humans couldn’t use the Imperius curse well enough to teach something that complex.
On the other hand, the other four could shimmer and it didn’t help them at all. In fact, Dinae and Neville were flat on their backs next to her.
“Ow,” Dinae said. Even two months ago, she wouldn’t have been willing to show that much vulnerability, so Hermione counted that as a success.
“Double ow and raise a potentially sprained shoulder,” Hermione said.
“Sorry. The shield fell too fast for me to warn you,” Neville offered.
Dinea groaned as she stood. “Not your fault.”
“Um, it was my shield, so it kinda was,” Neville whispered. Dinae punched him in the arm before going back to the steps and sitting down heavily. Harry and Thea moved to the dueling ring as Severus reached Hermione and offered a healing potion.
Hermione sat up and gratefully took it. Sometimes she wondered if the training was excessive, but then she considered how much wild magic Voldemort had on his side. Most of the dark families were terrified that magic’s connection to the Fae was being strangled, and it was, so even families that abhorred the blood purity bullshite were standing with the only Lord to embrace wild magic. And the worst part was that Hermione didn’t know how another war would solve anything. How did cutting your enemy down in battle translate into finding a way for wild magic to exist without those who abused it turning to world domination?
“Better?” Severus asked.
“Much.” Hermione stretched her sore shoulder before she got to her feet. The Fae had been standing silently aside, but when Hermione tried to retreat to the stairs, the Fae intercepted her. They stared into her eyes, and the cool prickle of their attention down her spine. They took a step closer, and Hermione felt the pressure in her mind like a polite knock on a study door.
“Of course,” Hermione said, hoping this was a lesson in shimmering. The Fae slid into her mind, and Hermione relaxed into the hold. The Fae pulled a short, silvery blade from their robes, and Hermione’s hand reached out to take it. Then her body slid into battle stance against Harry and Thea. She had switched to fighting in skirts, and the Fae took advantage of that camouflage, shifting her weight to one side in preparation for a feign and redirect.
Hermione felt the silent power of a shield spell fill her and then move into her left hand, where she held the sword. Where wood transferred magic, the metal held it, locked it between the molecules in their neat matrixes. Harry and Thea attacked in a flurry of spells, and Hermione cast silently with her wand, holding her sword up in front of her to block their assault rather than dancing through the hexes. Thea and Harry shimmered out of existence, and Hermione cast a new shield and shifted her blade to rest against the small of her back as she whirled around in search of her opponents. Thea was attacking from one side and Harry the other. Hermione faced off against Harry, twirling through his silent curses, while the shield at her back absorbed Thea’s.
One slashing blow with her wand and Harry went flying backward. Her body spun to deal with Thea and Dinae and Neville threw themselves into battle. Neville’s shields were too much for her to take down without making herself vulnerable to Thea, so Hermione’s body attacked the other woman, stunning her before focusing the battle on Neville and Dinae. Dinae was throwing killing curses and slashing curses that could have decapitated Hermione in a heartbeat, but the Fae knew how to move the body—how to twist and dance between each danger. And Hermione now knew how to use a sword to carry her power, and how a sword worked different than a wand.
Neville’s shield fell, and one blasting curse incapacitated both him and Dinae. Hermione stood, her head slowly tilting. It was the oddest feeling to have the Fae control her body, but she trusted them. It was ironic that she trusted a creature that every book described as fickle and dangerous. However, she understood them. They didn’t value her survival since her death would free her to choose between moving onto a human afterlife or a return to the Fae courts. However, they did value protecting the connections between Earth and the Fae realm. They valued the mission—stop Voldemort from corrupting wild magic and stop Dumbledore from accidentally cutting Earth off from the source of magic.
Control returned and Hermione blinked. “Wow,” she said as she considered the silver-gray sword in her hand.
“Were you using that sword to cast a shield spell?” Neville asked. He had the most powerful shield spells out of any of them, so of course he would focus on that.
“Yeah,” Hermione said, breathless at the idea that she could maintain two spells at once—one offensive and one defensive.
“Okay, I want to do that,” Neville got up and walked up to the Fae, waiting for them to take control. The next hour or two passed with the Fae presenting each of them with a blade before training them in how to push magic into the sword and hold it there while fighting. By the end, they were all sweaty and exhausted before Severus stepped onto the dueling grounds.
“The war is clearly coming. The children have outstripped me, so I must develop my dueling skills.” He took his wand out and snapped it in two. Hermione flinched. The Fae had delivered a wand for her without snapping her old one, which she considered a great blessing. Her new wand had infinitely more power, but she would have cried if Severus had snapped her wand the way he had Neville’s.
Watching Severus snap his wand made it clear that he would do anything to win this war. Considering that he had spied on Voldemort for Dumbledore, that should have been obvious, but hearing those stories from the war were not the same as watching the wizard snap his own wand.
The Fae tilted his head to the side, and Hermione could see the way Severus’s whole body had gone stiff. Slowly, the Fae reached out to claim the two halves of Severus’s wand. The Fae held it so that the two broken halves met in the middle, and then they closed their fist over the break. When they opened their hand again, Severus’s wand was whole. The Fae held it out toward him.
When Severus took the wand back, his hand was shaking. “At least teach me to fight. You have never trained with me.”
The Fae took a step backward, and Severus took a matching step forward. “I need help in order to fight beside the children.” The Fae blinked at him. “They are children,” Severus said. “They should not carry the burden of their parents’ and grandparents’ mistakes. They don’t know what they face. This is my war. My fight.” Severus’s word came faster and faster.
“Severus,” Harry said gently. Severus glanced over, and with a shimmer, the Fae vanished.
Severus let loose with a string of profanity—both muggle and wixen—that made Hermione blush.
Harry moved to his side and put a hand on Severus’s shoulder. Severus whirled around and grabbed the front of Harry’s robes. “I will not lose you. I lost Lily because I was too much a coward to risk my own pride. I thought your idiot of a father stole her, but the truth is that I discarded her, and I will not do the same to you. I have raised you. I have loved you. I will not allow the Fae to send you into this war without me. And if I must beg, then I will.” Anger shone through his features, and a cold shiver went down Hermione’s spine.
“Neither of us can make the Fae do anything,” Harry said softly. “And I love you too, so I will do anything to come back to you so you don’t have to blame yourself. I promise. I’m not the idiot Gryffindor you sometimes accuse me of being.”
Severus took a shaky breath. “But you are not Slytherin enough to protect yourself first.”
“Then we’ll all protect him,” Neville said as he moved to Harry’s side.
Dinae moved to his other side. “Personally, I’m Slytherin enough for all of us, so I’ll kill the False Lord and every one of his followers with my bare hands before I let any of us die.”
“Here, here,” Thea added as she moved to stand behind Dinae.
Hermione felt like an intruder who happened upon an intensely private gathering, but then Neville held out a hand toward her. “We’ll protect each other, won’t we?”
Hermione stood a little straighter. “We will. We will all survive together.” She took Neville’s hand and let him pull her closer.
A single sob slipped free before Severus schooled his features. “I could never understand Lily’s death. I swallowed my pride and begged the False Lord to spare her, and he had promised he would, only Dumbledore returned with tales of her sacrifice. I didn’t understand how she could stand there and allow herself to die, but I understand now. I know why a mother would choose death over losing her child.”
Harry wrapped his arms around Severus. “The False Lord learned to regret going up against Lily Potter. After all, Fae, even changlings with their powers limited by human form, are powerful creatures. But now we have a changling, a halfling, and a lot of old, wild magic. We’ll win, Severus. I promise, we’ll win.” Hermione found herself in the middle of an awkward family hug. Someone’s elbow was in her side and someone kept getting tangled with her hair, but she didn’t care. She hugged whichever family members she could reach with all her strength.
“You ready?” Harry asked.
Hermione nodded. She wasn’t ready, but if the Fae had sent them a dragon, and she had to assume that meant they needed to work with the dragon. Her terror had no place in that calculation. She was a Gryffindor. She knew how to put her fears aside and do whatever was necessary. She had landed here because she was willing to steal a horcrux from Voldemort, so she could face a dragon.
“She’s going to throw up,” Dinae said with a touch of malice.
“I am not,” Hermione said as they gathered at the bottom of the staircase.
“Ignore her,” Neville said. “And keep in mind that Norbert can understand English, so don’t insult her.”
“No, I won’t. During our third year, Draco insulted a hippogriff and then acted like an utter prat when Buckbeak snapped at him. I would never insult a magical creature. And if I did do something that stupid, I wouldn’t blame the animal. Draco tried to have the hippogriff executed because he had to whine about a little scratch.” Hermione took a deep breath. If Norbert took offense to something Hermione said, she would get more than a scratch.
Thea gave her a searching look. “I am not a fan of Draco Malfoy’s. In fact, he was the biggest reason why I was contemplating suicide. But if he was injured by a hippogriff, that had to be horribly painful.”
Sometimes Hermione had trouble believing Thea had been a Slytherin, and other times… well, this was one of those other times. “Quiddich players had bones get broken in a dozen places, and they were at dinner in the Great Hall two days later. Draco whined for weeks and made me and Ron dice his potions ingredients for him because he was suffering.” She rolled her eyes at the memory of his dramatics. “He was an utter git.”
Thea moved to subtly block the entrance to the stairs. “You can’t compare a Quiddich injury to a hippogriff.”
“Yeah, because the Quiddich injuries at that school were worse. Everyone said there were cushioning charms on the field, but I was constantly amazed that no one died during those games. Well, at least until the Hufflepuff/Gryffindor game during my third year. That was ugly.” Hermione shivered as she remembered the horror that had been young Tom Riddle’s campaign of terror against Hogwarts. The rest of the wizarding community had been saved by the fact that he had been too young to learn to apparate before putting his consciousness into that diary, but the school had suffered for his inability to travel. But no one outside the school had put in the effort to stop him until he had targeted purebloods. Maybe Dark magic wasn’t evil, but a lot of the purebred families were.
Case in point—some of the Slytherins had been entirely too quick to throw their support behind the supposed heir of Slytherin.
“Hermione,” Thea said softly, “a hippogriff is a magical creature, so any wounds would have resisted magical healing. Even if Madam Pomfrey could get the skin to knit together, the nerves and muscles would have remained damaged.”
“Really?” Neville asked.
Thea nodded. “A big part of the Nott wealth comes from bicorn and streeler farms. They’re both valuable for potions ingredients, but my father explained that injuries caused by magical animals are resistant to magical healing. He made sure I always had older tenders to protect me if I went near the animals. So if Malfoy was injured…” Thea paused. “Malfoy had probably never felt pain that couldn’t be immediately soothed with a potion.”
“That makes sense,” Neville said. “If you hear the cry of a young mandrake, you’ll be knocked unconscious for several hours and rennervate won’t wake you up. Magical plants and poisons are much more resistant to potions and spells than their muggle counterparts.”
“I bet that’s why Severus always keeps a bezoar around when we’re working with anything poisonous.” Dinae hung on the railing with a bored expression.
“It’s easier to absorb the poison than counteract it,” Neville said. “I remember Draco, so I have trouble feeling much sympathy, but I imagine it was hard for him to suffer when his parents had always sheltered him. I never understood that. I thought Slytherins believed in strength and self-reliance.”
Thea shrugged. “I think the Malfoys planned to rule the world, so I don’t think they expected Draco to need those skills,” Thea said, but her tone made it clear she didn’t approve.
Hermione frowned as she thought back to those days when Draco had swanned around the potions room with his arm in a sling. He hadn’t appeared to be in any pain. If anything, he had made a production out of milking the injury for all it was worth. “Maybe,” she said. “Can we get the dragon introductions out of the way before I lose my nerve?”
Dinae snorted. “I thought Gryffindors were reckless, impulsive, and too stupid to lose their nerve.”
“Excuse me,” Hermione demanded, but Dinae vaulted over the railing and landed on the spiral staircase, which promptly whisked her up and out of sight. Hermione might understand Dinae better now, but she was still a rude brat.
“Let’s go see Norbert,” Neville said, and he caught Hermione’s hand and pulled her onto the spiral staircase. The ceiling of the main hall was two or three stories tall, so Hermione had expected a dizzying trip, but by the time she reached the top, she was barely holding in her urge to vomit on the warm sands of the huge cavern where the staircase dumped them. Thea and Harry followed, but Hermione kept her eyes on the huge dragon that eyed her warily.
“Hermione, this is Norbert Hagrid Slashstrike,” Harry said. “Norbert, this is Hermione Jean Granger, the most recent person addition to Prince Keep. I’m a halfling through my mother, but Hermione is a full changling.” He finished his introductions and then stepped aside so Hermione was face to snout with a dragon. She had deep brown scales that had a greenish iridescence that caught the light when she moved and vivid green scales around her eyes. Terror rushed through Hermione’s body when Norbert took in a large breath and then snorted.
Norbert grumbled, and Harry laughed. “You are impressive. You can’t be surprised she’s scared. Most reasonable people would be terrified of you.”
Dinae hurried forward and started scratching Norbert’s nose. “It’s so unfair that you and Neville understand draconish. I would give anything to understand Norbert. She’s so amazing.” Dinae rested her cheek against Norbert’s muzzle near a line of black ridges that went up the center.
“We all have our talents, and herbology and languages are mine. You are the best in the group at charms, and you’re the fastest.”
“Yeah, but you’re the best at shields, too. If you do three awesome things, I should get a third, too.”
“I have a feeling Severus would tell you to work hard and develop a third talent,” Harry said with a laugh. “Besides, I only have two special skills, too. And of my two skills, I didn’t even get the full language upgrade. I just talk to certain animals.”
“What? More animals than snakes and dragons?” Hermione asked.
Harry nodded. “I’m the only one who has aviltongue. Birds.”
Norbert grumbled something.
“Of course draconish is more valuable. I’m sure that’s why both Neville and I developed that skill. Birds are so unbearably common.” Harry scratched Norbert’s nose.
“No one would call Norbert common,” Hermione said. Norbert tilted her head so one of her eyes was focused on Hermione. “You are stunningly beautiful. I didn’t think I would ever get to stand this close to a dragon, and it’s hard to focus on your beauty when all I can think about is how venomous your teeth are and how quickly I would die if you even scratched me with one. Not that you would need to scratch me because Norwegian Ridgebacks have the hottest fire of any dragon species. Some people think Hungarian Horntails are the most dangerous dragons because they’re quicker to attack, but the Norwegian’s fire is almost thirty percent hotter. It rivals fiendfyre in its destructive power. It can turn bone to ash, although I don’t know why you’d want to because that would make it hard to eat your prey. Oh Merlin. I should stop talking now.” Hermione slapped a hand over her mouth.
Twin lines of smoke trailed up from Norbert’s nostrils as she grumbled something in draconish.
“Really?” Harry asked with obvious glee. Neville looked equally excited.
“Is she in a mood to give us a ride?” Dinae demanded as she looked from one to the other. Harry nodded.
“A ride?” Hermione’s heart got lodged somewhere around the base of her throat.
Thea leaned close. “Please tell me you excel in sticking and warming charms,” she whispered.
“Of course I do,” Hermione said, offended that Thea would even ask her about such basic skills. Hermione watched as Dinae climbed up Norbert’s shoulder. There was no saddle. There were no straps. They were going to ride a dragon through the constant ice storms that surrounded this place, and only a sticking charm would stand between her and her death.
“He’s not here to help you,” Thea said. “Are you sure you have that much faith in your charm work?”
Hermione straightened her shoulders. “I excel in I charms.” She shot Thea a smile. “I am a changling and naturally brilliant.” When Hermione was younger, her parents had taught her to avoid coming across as arrogant, and her experiences at Hogwarts had reinforced that lesson.
However, Prince Keep was different. Here everyone laid claim to their powers openly. Hermione held her breath to see how Thea would take her proclamation. Thea was the first female friend Hermione had ever had. She had liked Ginny before she’d died in the Chamber of Secrets, but Ginny had always been withdrawn and fragile, and fragile personalities did not do well around Hermione. Luna was the same. They liked each other, but being in the same space wasn’t comfortable. It was different with Thea. Hermione wanted Thea to like her.
Thea flashed her a bright grin that made Thea even more beautiful. “Then let’s test your charms with a tour of the neighborhood on dragon back. Oh, and don’t mention this to Severus. He knows we go out, but he says we’re going to give him gray hair or make his heart stop working.” Thea rolled her eyes. “He’s so dramatic.
Severus had several books on transfiguration open so he could check Harry’s latest essay. Harry and Dinae were doing such advanced work that Severus could no longer teach them from his own magical knowledge. The situation was aggravated by the fact that some of these books had magical theories and practices that Severus was almost certain didn’t exist in the British education system. Of course, he was not an expert in areas such as transfiguration or arithmancy, but he thought he remembered the most significant tenants from his days of studying for his NEWTS. After all, he had tutored most subjects to the less talented Slytherin in order to earn money for his potions ingredients.
However, the books in Prince keep offered fascinating new insights—or perhaps old insights that had vanished due to time and the Light’s efforts to eradicate anything dangerous. Either way, the children’s education now required him to learn with them. Unfortunately, he was not changing as much as the children. Soon he would have to step back and allow them to explore magic without him as their guide in any subject but potions.
Perhaps Severus’s connection to the Fae was too distant. The Prince family had never been particularly devoted to the old ways or powerful, and Tobias Snape’s blood could have compounded the problem. The man was the antithesis of the Fae, and Severus knew he had too much of his father in him. They both held grudges too long and for too little reason, and both of them took too much joy in degrading others. Severus had worked hard to overcome that flaw, but that sort of selfishness could still be partially blocking his ability to absorb the magic of the keep.
It was also possible that Severus was too old to adapt to Fae magic as easily as the children. Thea and Neville were progressing well, but they would never catch up to his first two children who had come here when they were still so very young. At this point, Harry was working on the equivalent of a mastery in both potions and defense against dark arts and Dinae was at the same level with her charms. Both could have earned an O in their NEWTS for transfiguration, arithmancy, wand lore, ancient runes, spell crafting, alchemy, and herbology a year or two ago.
Severus was starting to feel superfluous. No doubt the Fae’s refusal to train him to fight exacerbated his feelings.
Magic flashed through the keep, and Severus had his wand out and raced for the great hall. Harry and Thea reached it at the same time, moving together to cover each other as they came through the door to the greenhouse. A pale young witch in a fashionable cape crouched over her companion with her wand held up defensively. The wizard she was trying to defend thrashed on the floor and begged for water in a pitiful voice. Severus’s one Fae-given gift of mage sight showed that his magical core was fading
“We’re here to help. We can help you,” Harry said, and at the same time, Thea threw a disarming spell that made the witch’s wand fly up into the air and land at Thea’s feet.
“What poison did this?” Severus asked as he hurried into the room. He didn’t wait for an answer. They had to get some potions into the boy if he was to survive the hour. “Harry, antidote to endless thirst and a crucio recovery draught. Thea—”
“Bezoar, I know.” They both rushed from the room. Dinae and Neville stood to one side, but the second Hermione came into the room—wand at the ready—she hurried toward them. “Fleur! What happened?”
“‘ermione! You’re alive. We were told the curse of the Gaunt killed you!”
“A curse will kill this young man if you do not focus,” Severus snapped. Dunderheads. Young people were all dunderheads… with the exception of the ones he had raised, of course.
Fleur’s pale gray eyes focused on him immediately.
“What happened to him?” Severus demanded. Thea dropped to her knees at Severus’s side and pushed a bezoar into his hand. Severus eyed the young man’s desperate thrashing and chose to magically transport the stone into the boy’s stomach. The chance of choking was too great otherwise, and unlike potions which depended on having the greatest contact with human tissue, a bezoar could do it’s work without coating the esophagus.
“He drank a potion.”
“Obviously. Where? Under what conditions? What did the poison look like? Smell like? Do you know any ingredients?”
“Oh Merlin, is that Cedric?” Hermione asked, as if the boy’s name had any relevance to the current situation.
“Answer my questions, child!” Severus bellowed. Hermione and Fleur both flinched, but the boy on the ground was too distracted with his own pain to notice. He didn’t even notice when Harry tilted his head back and poured the endless thirst antidote down his throat.
Fleur gave them a quick description of the poison, the cave, the infiri, and the refilling cup. Severus realized too quickly that he was dealing with one of his own potions. He had made this elixir for the False Lord when Voldemort had wanted to protect something precious. At the time, Severus had felt only pride in having his Lord turn to him for solutions. He’d been the biggest dunderhead of all given that he had never asked what was to be protected or who was at risk. Back then, Severus had not cared. As long as the False Lord had praised him, he had disregarded the danger to the rest of the world.
But luckily, he had been paranoid enough to not only brew an antidote but to place it in stasis. After so many years, it had likely lost much of its efficacy, but hopefully it would be enough to save the boy’s life.
“Get him to drink the crucio recovery draught,” Severus said before he hurried to the potions lab where he had his personal projects in the farthest corner. Severus removed the precious vial from stasis and hurried back out. “I shall have to brew more in case this has degraded too much to be a permanent solution, but it should stabilize him until I can make a fresh batch.” Severus handed the vial over to Harry who had the Cedric boy’s head in his lap. The moment Cedric drank, his thrashing quieted, although he did softly cry as Fleur brushed his hair back from his face.
“Cedric Diggory, you do not have permission to die on me,” Fleur said as she stroked his hair. Between her thick accent and the quiet sobs that slipped out every other word, she was difficult to even understand, but the boy’s hand came up to grip hers.
“Where?” His voice was raspy and his muscles still twitched.
“A Fae stronghold. Is all I know,” she looked toward Hermione, likely expecting answers, but Severus had found the witch was far better at asking questions than answering them.
“How did you know this place was Fae?” Hermione demanded. So predictable.
“I am quarter Veela. We have our own sacred covenants with the Fae. I know their magic.”
Severus stood. “I shall leave Ms. Granger and the others to catch you up. I need to brew a fresh batch of antidote in case the vial I gave you proves inadequate to the task in the long run.” Severus made eye contact with Harry, and he gave a subtle nod. He would collect any information these newcomers offered and bring it to him. Severus had found that his own reputation as the greatest of the False Lord’s followers and the first among Death Eaters made it difficult for others to trust him.
Severus had to trust his children to take the lead on this. As the children grew up, he would have to do that more and more, even if Severus absolutely hated the idea.
After hearing the entire story, Harry looked at the locket sitting in the middle of the table. Fleur had handled the item like it was a horcrux. She’d taken it from a curse box that hung from her belt. However, Harry knew what those felt like, and this thing had no magic to it at all. “It’s not a horcrux.”
“Of course it is,” Cedric Diggory said. His hand shook where it rested on the table, and he had drunk four glasses of water. Harry hoped Severus finished a fresh caldron of antidote soon.
“I don’t care if it’s a horcrux or not,” Hermione said sharply, “I’m just horrified that you drank poison to retrieve it from the cup!”
“Hey, I’m the Triwizarding champion—the Hufflepuff hero—I couldn’t stand back while certain underage witches risked their lives trying to retrieve horcruxes. The Weasleys were heartbroken when you vanished. Bill blames himself.” Cedric reached across and rested his hand on Hermione’s. Harry didn’t understand the relationships here, but maybe that was because he had lived essentially his whole life in the keep. But from reading books, he was almost sure that a man shouldn’t hold hands with one girl while having another girl looking at him like he hung the moon in the sky.
Hermione rolled her eyes. “That’s stupid. Bill warned me before the curse even went off. He should know that something other than one of the False Lord’s curses caught me.”
Cedric pursed his lips. “He did say there was a strange surge of magic, but he couldn’t tell if it was your own innate magic trying to shield you from a massive curse or a secondary curse hidden by the first. But you have to tell him you’re safe… him and the twins. And Dumbledore, of course.”
Harry watched Hermione carefully. She had been part of Dumbledore’s schemes, and he didn’t know how much faith she still put in the manipulative old man. Neville had slid far enough into her mind to know that she wasn’t faking her change of heart about wild magic not being evil, but she had natural mental shields he hadn’t wanted to challenge, so he hadn’t explored her loyalty farther than that.
“I wish,” Hermione said sadly. “Prince Keep doesn’t have a way out except for shimmering, and even then, the others will only do that with express permission.”
Harry exchanged a quick glance with Thea. He hadn’t thought she knew they could shimmer out of the keep. Every time he thought he had a handle on Hermione, he discovered that he had underestimated her again. He knew that Severus was still furious about Dumbledore sending an underaged witch out to find horcruxes, but in the case of Hermione, that might have been justified. She was one resourceful witch.
“What is it, this shimmering?” Fleur asked.
Hermione looked at him, so Harry explained. “The Fae taught a couple of us to do it. It’s like you unfocus your mind and then step to the side and slip between the particles of the air. I wish I could explain it, but it’s just as if you let the world shimmer and glow and then you focus yourself on being somewhere else.”
Fleur sucked in a quick breath. “You walk the path? The Fae path? They say that the Fae can pull you into their world forever if you step foot on the path.”
“Probably,” Harry agreed. “But the Fae have protected us so far, so I’m not worried.”
Fleur shook her head. “No. You do not understand. The Fae do not offer to help others. No. This is not their way. If they tempt you onto the path, they hope they can trap you. Their curiosity know no end and they seek to see the world through our eyes. They are powerful. Admirable. But one must never trust them. No. Never,” she finished firmly.
Cedric reached out and caught Fleur’s hand in his. “Let’s not upset our hosts,” he said quietly. “Besides, I want to know why you’re so sure that this locket isn’t a horcrux.” He focused on Harry.
“I can feel horcruxes. After the Fae brought Hermione here, they sent me a vision of the Gaunt ring she was trying to reach when the curse nearly killed her. We got the ring and destroyed it.” Or at least they had destroyed the curse and horcrux attached to it. Harry had become strangely fond of the black ring, and it was sitting in his bedroom on the shelf beside his bed.
“You know how to destroy a horcrux?” Cedric asked, clearly shocked.
“Sustained flame from a Norwegian Ridgeback dragon does the trick,” Harry said. Cedric’s mouth dropped open, and Fleur’s hands fluttered around her neck as if she was on the verge of clutching some invisible necklace. “It’s not all that hard, but since that locket isn’t a horcrux, it’s a moot point.” Harry reached out and snagged the locket. Cedric cried out, his hands held out as if trying to ward off evil, but Harry clicked the locket open and pulled out a small bit of parchment. He read out loud.
Everyone around the kitchen counter blinked at him. “Who is R.A.B?” Thea asked.
“Good question,” Dinae said. “Anyone have a guess?”
Cedric pressed his knuckles against his forehead like he had a headache. He probably did, and Harry suspected this hadn’t make it feel any better.
“Do you mean, we risked life and limb and the death by a horde of inferi for a false horcrux?” Fleur demanded. Her hair started to stir as wild magic gathered around her.
“I don’t think it was a false horcrux as much as someone else got there first.” Thea pulled the parchment closer to her. “Someone the False Lord knew,” she said. “Someone who died believing that the False Lord had created only one horcrux and that if he destroyed it, the rest of the us could kill the bastard.”
“I bet it’s from the first war,” Dinae said. “This time around, the fighting hasn’t been in public yet, so none of the dunderhead patrol would know to jump ship and turn on the False Lord. They don’t know how bad it’s going to get.”
“Some of them do,” Thea said softly.
Dinae scoffed. “Yeah, but those are the idiots who already stuck by the False Lord the first time around. So, who was on the False Lord’s side with the initials R.A.B.?”
Harry rested his hand on his chin. “Severus said the Death Eaters weren’t allowed to get to know each other. Lucius Malfoy only started to break that rule once the False Lord vanished, so if this guy was dead before Voldemort disappeared, we would never know his name.”
Cedric looked up. “I can’t believe we’re taking Severus Snape’s word for anything.”
Harry ignored the complaint. After all, the wizarding world had the wrong idea about Severus. Hell, most of the time, Harry was fairly sure Severus had the wrong idea about Severus. Sure, he was short tempered and had a vicious repertoire of insults. And if he’d taught long enough, he might have turned deeply, deeply bitter. But under all that, he had loyalty in spades. He teased Harry about being too Hufflepuff, but Severus had pledged his magic to protect Lily Evans’ child because he had never let go of his love for her. Neville talked about how the Sorting Hat had given him a choice between Gryffindor and Hufflepuff and he’d chosen the former because he wanted to make his grandmother proud, but Harry was pretty sure Severus had been given a choice of Hufflepuff or Slytherin. True, he was a twisted sort of Hufflepuff, but all of them had emotional issues. Even Hermione.
“Wait.” Cedric focused on Harry. “How could you tell that wasn’t an authentic horcrux? Do you have mage sight?”
“No, Severus does, but the horcruxes don’t have a particularly strong aura for him to see. I just feel the magic more strongly than others. I guess that’s just part and parcel with being Harry Potter.” Harry grimaced. Fate had dealt him a terrible hand.
“What? You…” Fleur started to breathe more heavily and she stared at Cedric with horror. Cedric, on the other hand, had gone utterly blank. Harry was absolutely atrocious at most mind arts, but even he could feel the ocumency shields snap into place.
“Harry Potter?” Cedric’s voice was slow and measured. “Son of James and Lily Potter? The Boy Who Once Survived?”
“Yes,” Harry said. He knew they’d all been distracted by Cedric’s earlier near-death and had skipped introductions, but this was odd, and Harry had grown used to some fairly strong reactions to his name.
“It cannot be.” Fleur’s voice was heavily accented before she began muttering in French.
Thea shifted to move closer, and Harry appreciated the support. He felt more centered when Thea was there. Even more so than when Neville or Dinae was at his side. It had nothing to do with their relative skills or talents. Thea just calmed him. And with two strangers in his house, Harry felt like he needed that. However, right now, he also needed Neville’s talents.
He glanced over and Neville gave an almost invisible nod. Scooting his chair closer, Neville put a hand on Fleur’s arm. “It’s a shock. I know. Of course, when I first arrived, I was more focused on Severus. I thought I was going to be tortured to the point of insanity and then killed. I didn’t think I was going to be tutored until I could brew a potion without melting the caldron, although to be fair, I’m still not great. But reality and assumptions are very different. Get to know Severus and Harry as people. They’re both pretty great. I would call Harry my best friend.
Fleur looked even more horrified.
“I don’t feel well,” Cedric said. “Is there somewhere I can lay down? And maybe a bathroom? I’ve drunk far too much water.”
Hermione stood. “Of course. I bet the Fae put your rooms somewhere near mine. Come on, I’ll show you the shortcut through the greenhouse and then we’ll find you two some beds.” She gave Harry a concerned look before she ushered them out.
Dinae, Neville, and Thea slid closer to Harry and waited for enough time to pass for the others to be on the opposite side of the great hall. Then Neville whispered, “Dumbledore told them that Severus had done their side a favor when he killed you. Your scar has a horcrux in it, so you’ll have to die before Voldemort can be guaranteed a final death.”
Harry’s first thought was that it made sense. Voldemort’s soul had been so fractured that Harry wasn’t surprised that a sliver had lodged in the wound made by the killing curse. It explained his visions. The Fae could not pull magic out of a muggle stone, and they couldn’t give him a magical talent unrelated to his innate abilities, which explained why he couldn’t do legilimency and why Neville couldn’t brew complex potions.
His second was that Dumbledore had known. Dumbledore had fucking known he had a bit of Voldemort in him and had sent Harry off to an abusive muggle home instead of calling in a team of curse breakers. What game was that manipulative old goat playing?
Fleur gave him an incredulous look. “You believe the Fae will transport you to a place of your choosing because you ask.” Her tone made it clear that she had decided he was an imbecile, which annoyed Severus even more than having people assume he was a murderous Death Eater. At least that had been true in the past.
He looked down his nose at the slip of a girl. “I belong to the Fae, so if it is in their interest to destroy horcruxes, then they will assist.” Severus wished he had decided to wait until the Fae had arrived for training rather than trying to summon one, but his concern was that the Fae who trained the children to fight was not the same individual who had first escorted him to the keep.
Severus dropped herbs into the sacred fire and knelt on the circular bench that surrounded it. “I ask for assistance to reach the cave where you found the two humans. The cave where the poison chalice sits. The cave with the inferi. I need to use the mage sight you have gifted me to find the real horcrux.”
“No apparation point,” Dinae called out, which was not improving his concentration. Someone hushed her. Fleur muttered in French, which was equally distracting. But then magic glimmered and a Fae stood in the room, their head cocked to one side as they studied Severus.
Severus climbed off the bench and bowed. “My Lord. Would you be willing to transport me to the place of the false horcrux?”
The Fae ignored Severus and moved to Harry. A huge three-fingered hand rested on Harry’s cheek for a moment and then Harry nodded. “Got it.” He turned to the others who could shimmer—Dinae, Thea and Neville. “Check my mind for our destination.” He turned to each of the children in turn. That gave Severus time to study their newest guests. Fleur’s mouth hung open, and Cedric had taken several steps back and stared at the Fae with huge, fearful eyes. At least the lad had some sense.
The Fae then moved to Hermione and repeated the gesture. When they dropped their hand, Hermione also nodded. “I’ll explain it to them.” She glanced at Fleur and Cedric. That was curious. Severus would like to probe the meaning behind that cryptic comment, but the Fae held out their hand, and Severus took it.
The world shimmered around them, and then they were in a dark cave. Light reflected off pale water and death magic hung like a cloud. Fae magic might not be evil, but death magic had a stench, a thickness that made Severus’s skin crawl. He would be hard pressed to identify any magic under such a miasma of suffering. But he had to try.
He moved to the plinth that held the cup and studied the weak threads of magic he could see under the fog. Cedric’s magic was strongest here. He had cast an impressive compulsion, perhaps on himself. Odd. Fleur’s magic carried notes of healing. All the other threads were old and fraying.
“Okay, that’s not good,” Harry whispered in a horrified voice. Severus turned to see the inferius climbing out of the lake. “I thought they stayed in the water.”
“Apparently not,” Severus said. He glanced at the Fae, but they seemed uninterested in getting involved. “Fire spells are best. Neville, a shield, please.” Severus tried to keep his voice calm, but masses of dead bodies were crawling out of the water toward them.
“I can do fire. Neville? Shield?”
“On it.” Neville raised his sword and then his wand, and two shields glimmered around them, solid and golden. The temperature even seemed to rise as Neville’s protective instincts overpowered the death magic.
“Fiendfyre?” Thea asked.
Severus drew his own wand, as inadequate as it was. “Absolutely not. That will tire you too quickly and too many of the dead are still protected under the water.” He aimed a blasting curse at the center of the closest Inferius and the creature’s chest was blown apart; however, hundreds took that individual’s place. “We need to hold them off until most are out of the water.” Between one blink and the next, the Fae vanished.
“I can do that.” Dinae cast a killing curse and other than giving the cave an odd green glow, it did nothing.
“They’re already dead, brat.”
“I was hoping that would make them unmoving dead,” Dinae said, but she switched to cutting and blasting curses, reducing inferi into small, quivering chunks that bled death magics until they stilled. Harry added his own blasting curses that shook the very cave and Thea danced around them, casting cutting charms that removed the legs of hundreds of inferi that tried to overpower Neville’s shields. Neville was sweating, but his had a good stance, and his core held under the pressure of holding up two such powerful shields.
Severus put a hand on Neville’s shoulder, lending his magic to Neville. Since he didn’t have a Fae wand, it was the most logical use of his considerable power, but it rankled to let the other children fight while he could not. The battle raged chaos until Severus could only see a solid mass of white, dead bodies pressing against Neville’s shield. Neville’s core now shuddered, and Severus lent all his power to Neville.
“Now, Thea!” he called. Fiendfyre erupted from her wand, and Harry moved to her side, flinging curses with abandon.
“Hotter would be better,” Dinae called. Severus turned to see her cutting off arms that pushed through Neville’s shield.
“Harry, to Dinae,” Severus yelled. He threw more power into Neville, pushing his own core to the edge of exhaustion. However, they only had to hold until the fiendfyre had eliminated the enemy. Harry came around and threw blasting curse after blasting curse until the inside of Neville’s shield was covered in Inferi pieces and Dinae was safe.
“Fall back,” Harry ordered Dinea. For a second, she looked stubborn, but then she retreated to Neville’s side, her hands on her knees as she bent over and gasped for air. Severus watched as her magical core flashed and shuddered before stabilizing. Outside the shield, fiery lions and bears devoured the Inferi, and Neville went to one knee. Despite that, he kept his sword and wand up.
Harry rested his hand on Neville’s shoulder, and Neville’s core soaked up the additional power, enough to make the shield glow gold for a moment. And then Thea called back her fiendfyre, tucking all that rage and fear behind solid occumency shields. The cave was silent. The rotting and burned corpses of hundreds or thousands of bodies lay in a circle around them, with the center of the macabre scene bare rock.
A twinkle caught Severus’s attention, and he turned to the now-still lake. Another twinkle. Severus moved closer and studied the water. Those were magical cores. “There are individuals in the water.”
“Individual Inferius?” Harry asked, his wand coming back up.
“Individual wixen, but their magical cores are fading,” Severus said as he finally realized what he was looking at. “I’ll lift them to the surface, Dinae, pull them to shore.”
“Got it.” Dinae said. She’d had a few seconds to rest, and charms had always been her strongest subject.
Severus cast levicorpus and a heavy set man in the dusty green robes that had been so popular in the seventies rose into the air. The second Dinae’s magic caught the man, Severus moved on to the next magical spark. One by one he dragged more than two dozen people to the surface, but by the time he reached the last few, their magic vanished before Severus could get them to the air.
Severus closed his eyes, grieving for a moment for the lives had hadn’t saved, but then he turned to study the people who were now beginning to move. One of the children had shoved Inferi bodies aside so the people lay on gore streaked rock rather than the corpses of Voldemort’s victims, but people gasped and cried when they opened their eyes. Most leaped to their feet. Almost all of them reached for wands.
And the children retained their composure. Thea and Harry stood in front with Neville ready to raise a shield, and Dinae watching the rear and sides. Severus realized he did not have a position in this formation. At one point, he had been one of the most feared dueling masters in Great Britain, and now he could not compete with four children.
“What is this? What is going on? Do you have any idea who I am?” A heavyset man in lavender robes demanded. Apparently, this was to be a diplomatic encounter rather than a conflict. Since Severus did not trust the children to handle the situation, he moved to stand between Harry and Thea.
“I’m afraid that I do not,” Severus said. The Fae had not reappeared, and the children would not leave him behind, so clearly there was some task left to complete. Severus often wished he could communicate with the Fae as easily as Harry did, but that was not his fate.
The man blinked at him several times. “I am Deputy Minister Vilince Hambold, second to Minister Iswatch.”
Severus knew that name. Bagnold had taken over for Iswatch after his fall from grace due to Hambold’s disappearance. Many felt that the deputy minister had been the power behind Iswatch for most of his career, so when he had vanished in the mid-seventies, the minister lost all support. Severus could not imagine why Voldemort had imprisoned the official. Perhaps ransom, although if that were the case, he should have traded the man for whatever boon he wanted.
“What? You disappeared three years ago,” a woman said, her voice sharp. “I assisted the Aurors in searching for you by going through muggle records to see if He Who Must Not Be Named had moved you into a muggle area or prison.”
Severus raised his eyebrows, equally unsure how this woman fit into Voldemort’s plans.
“Miliventi Hash?” a surprised voice asked. “By Merlin, I would recognize you anywhere, although you’ve aged. You vanished from your home years ago.” Hash. Severus knew that name as well. She had run the office for the removal of curses. Voldemort had ordered his followers to bring the woman to him because he had been furious at how quickly her department had undone his work at Diagon Alley.
An older woman with brilliant white hair hanging down to her waist turned to the speaker. “Years, dear? Did you say years?” Her voice rose in distress.
Severus cleared this throat. Either his demeanor or the large number of well-armed individuals surrounding him meant that all eyes were immediately on him. “I am afraid all of you have been held in some sort of stasis spell powered by the inferi themselves. When we killed the inferi, the spell must have failed.” Severus gestured to the charred and gruesome remains of Voldemort’s inferi army surrounding them.
Several people looked around, their eyes large.
“We were taken?” A younger man with wild hair swallowed, his Adam’s apple bobbing. “I delegate paperwork for the Central Department. Are you saying He Who Must Not Be Named kidnapped a mid-level bureaucrat?”
“I assume,” Severus said. “We came to retrieve a dark artifact rumored to be hidden here, and we found both the Inferi army and you, hidden under the water.” Severus was starting to suspect that Voldemort had removed effective ministry officers rather than kill them. Most likely he had wanted workers for after he had taken over the government. It made sense to both cripple the current government and ensure that after all opposition was destroyed, he would have the infrastructure to run the government. And if Voldemort controlled the entire country, these people would have little choice but to work for him.
Severus focused on Deputy Minister Hambold since he was the highest ranking official. “Deputy Minister Hambold, may I introduce Lord Potter and Heir Black, Harry James Potter.” He began with Harry since he had accepted the Lordship ring. They had practiced for this. If these four were to become the foundation of a new party—a wild magic coalition that would take over the dark party—they had to know the right people. This was a political opportunity, although Severus was surprised the Fae had recognized it as such.
After slipping his wand into its holder, Harry stepped forward and bowed. “Well met, Deputy Minister Hambold. I am deeply sorry for the years you have lost imprisoned in this place. Your imprisonment is quite unforgivable.” Hopefully Hambold did not take offense to the fact that Harry had kept his blade unsheathed. A wizard would see that as the less dangerous weapon after all. Luckily, his gaze didn’t even twitch in the weapon’s direction as Hambold smiled.
Severus had explained that the first time they met an official or member of a noble house, they would have one chance to make a first impression. Harry’s genuine sympathy had clearly impressed Hambold who bowed in return. “Well met, Lord Potter. I am afraid my imprisonment has left me ignorant of current events, but are you related to Lord Fleamont Potter?”
Harry’s smile turned brittle. “My grandfather, sir. He succumbed to dragon pox and my father fell to the False Lord.”
“My condolences, young man. And my thanks for staging this rescue.” Hambold looked around, and the gathered officials all nodded, although most cringed at the sight of the stacked and severed bodies.
Severus moved turned toward Thea. “Deputy Minister, may I introduce Heir Nott, L’theamay Morgana Nott.” That caused a stir. In normal circumstances, Potter and Nott were not aligned families, but the way Thea and Harry moved in concert suggested a deep tie. Ministry officials would recognize that as easily as a titled lord.
Thea bowed. “Well met, Deputy Minister. I am grateful that Severus is gifted with mage sight to identify the place you were imprisoned and could provide assistance.”
That was quite the political statement. Vehemens Nott was well known for advocating no one’s position over his own. Even before Voldemort had fallen, he had acted more to advance his own position than to support his lord, and now his heir signaled that she rejected individualistic ambition in favor of her chosen group.
“Well met, Heir Nott. I too am grateful for his acumen. Would you introduce us?”
That was a minor breech of etiquette. Severus had no titles, and should have been introduced after the rest of the children, but Thea bowed and complied. “Deputy Minister Hambold, may I introduce Potion Master Severus Snape. He has raised us in isolation so he could instruct us on how to defend ourselves from the False Lord and then assist the monster to a final defeat.”
Hambold bowed lower than manners required. “Well met, Master Snape. I am impressed by your teaching,” Hambold said with some amusement as he looked around at the carnage that surrounded them.
Severus bowed in return. “You honor me sir. My instruction is only as effective as the students’ willingness to learn. I have been honored to teach them, although I have not been their only teacher.”
Hambold tilted his head to acknowledge the statement, although his lack of a response meant he did not agree with part or whole. The next introduction was controversial. Carrow and Longbottom had equal authority in the Wizengamot, but they had agreed to place Carrow first only because the family embraced what others would call dark magic. They would not have others use the primacy of the Potter and Longbottom names to deny that their group was dark aligned, even if they had a different definition of dark. “May I introduce Heir Carrow, Dinae Medusa Carrow,” Severus said with a gesture toward Dinae. He did a double take when he realized she had a chunk of Inferius in her hair. That was disturbingly appropriate.
If the Nott name created a stir, the Carrow name made most of the group shift uncomfortably. Dinae’s family did have a certain reputation, and given what they had done to her, it was one they had earned. However, Hambold was a practiced politician. “Well met, Heir Carrow.”
Dinae offered a perfect bow and the Inferius chunk fell to the ground with a wet thump that made more than one of the gathered group flinch. “Well met. I hope we have found strong allies to assist us in helping the False Lord to the defeat Thea mentioned.”
That was forward, and Severus contained an urge to wince. The child had very little subtlety, and asking individuals who had just been freed to pledge themselves to a cause was pushing past the bounds of polite conversation.
Hambold blinked, likely as caught off guard as Severus. “I could never stand as your equal on the battlefield, but I would be more than willing to lend my administrative skills to that admirable goal,” he said.
Dinae bowed a second time. “Then very well met, Deputy Minister.”
Severus hurried to the last introduction before she could do something more unforgivable. He was grateful they had not placed Dinae’s introduction last because it would be significantly harder to move onto more appropriate topics if that had been the final introduction. “May I introduce Heir Longbottom, Neville Harfang Longbottom.”
Neville bowed. “Well met. I know you have been imprisoned here, but I hope when you return you find your families well, and since we have also been isolated, I would caution you to move with care because we do not know where the False Lord or his allies might be placed.”
“Wise advice, Heir Longbottom.”
“I am just sorry we cannot be of more assistance,” Neville said. Severus did wonder how the boy had avoided being sorted into Hufflepuff.
Hambold laughed. “You defeated an army of inferi. I am eternally grateful for the help you provided. To ask for more feels unreasonable.” Hambold turned to Severus. “Four heirships and one lordship. You are tending an impressive flock, Master Snape.”
More than Hambold knew. Longbottom was also the heir to the Kadpul seat and Gringotts had revealed that Thea was heir to the long defunct Desperan title. Many of the ancient family lines had magical requirements, and Severus suspected that living on Fae territory had changed them enough that they could claim long lost titles. However, that was a secret they had agreed to keep, especially since they did not know how many other old lines the would inherit before they could take their seats in the Wizengamot.
“They are impressive in many ways,” Severus said. A noncommittal answer was all he would offer when he didn’t know these people.
“They are,” Hambold said. “And I feel better about our chances when I know such impressive young people are not only ready to fight on the battlefield but also in the halls of government. And with that, I must excuse myself. I have been gone a long time, and I need to find my family.”
Several others nodded. With a chorus of “Well met” and “You have my eternal gratitude,” the crowd left, apparating out with a cacophony of loud cracks. Most of the people had left when one man with black hair hanging in his face stepped closer.
He looked up and caught Severus’s gaze. “Sev?”
Severus’s knees almost buckled. “Reggie?”
Reggie stared at this unfamiliar version of Severus. He was older—his face lined with worry and his body language utterly alien. Of course, if the story he’d just overheard was true, Reggie had been trapped in the Dark Lord’s net for many years. How many, Reggie didn’t know.
“Severus?” Lord Potter asked. He was young for a lord, but he carried himself well. Reggie could tell he was a man used to getting answers. At his side, the Nott heir stood possessively close. She reminded Reggie of Cissi, the same feminine ice and deceptive grace over a deep well of danger. The Notts were an old family and had, no doubt, crossed with the Black’s many times. Despite that, Reggie was surprised to see so many of the Black mannerisms in a Nott heir.
The Carrow heir carried an even stronger stain of Black. Reggie looked at the youngest member of this assembly, and he saw Bella. He saw Sirius. He saw Blacks who rejected the tight control of their magic and threw themselves into the old and wild power. Something in the way she held her body made Reggie believe young Dinae Carrow embraced her most feral self. And yet, she stood in close alliance with a Longbottom, and one who embodied the calm, deep waters that characterized that family’s magic.
It was an insanely strange group.
Reggie was surprised when Severus offered the young Lord a small smile. “Harry, this is Regulus Arcturus Black.”
Lord Potter’s eyebrows rose. “R.A.B,” he whispered.
“Indeed.” Severus turned to Reggie. “Is it possible that you removed a locket that contained a horcrux from the cup?” He gestured to the cursed chalice.
Reggie took a deep breath and tried to order the panic that crawled through his bones. “Perhaps we can discuss that another time. I have been gone many years. I must find mother.” Before Reggie could apparate, Severus rested a hand on his shoulder.
“Reggie, Walburga has passed. When I took Harry to Gringots to take up his Lordship, the goblins revealed that he is the Black heir and the only surviving member of your immediate family is Sirius.”
Reggie blew out a breath. That was awkward. Sirius had always embraced his emotion to a dangerous degree, enough that—like Bella—the rest of the family had assumed both would lose themselves to the Black Madness sooner or later. And when Sirius had been sorted into Gryffindor, he had turned that wildness against his family and their Slytherin allies. Reggie had been two years behind Sirius and Sev, but he’d seen how vicious Sirius could be. As much as Bella and Walburga frightened Reggie, Sirius terrified him more because he was not an ally. Not anymore.
To protect himself, Reggie had distanced himself from his brother and his brother’s anger, but if Sirius was now Lord Black, he had magical authority over Reggie and the ability to cut Reggie off from family magics. If the war continued, Reggie needed his magic, even that which came from the family.
“I suppose I will have to make my apologies to him for being missing so long.” Reggie dreaded it.
Even before Sirius had been sorted, they’d had a volatile relationship, and Reggie had contributed to that. He had been the younger brother—the spare. That had excused him from duties that had fallen to Sirius, but it had also left him feeling excluded from his own family. As a child, Reggie had not always handled that well. Reggie would have to temper his reactions to his brother. At least Sirius would not ask him to return to the Dark Lord’s service. After having stolen the horcrux and asking Kretcher to destroy it, the Dark Lord would make Reggie beg for death. Hopefully Sirius would allow Reggie to hide in the family home until the war was over.
“He is in Azkaban, and everyone believes you dead,” Sev said.
Reggie blinked, not sure how to respond to that. “Dead?” There were family safeguards against a member faking their own death. Those same spells and artifacts should have prevented his family from assuming he was dead.
“The inferi,” Heir Nott said softly.
Lord Potter turned to Severus. “Could the death magic have hidden him?” Perhaps Severus did not have a lordship, but he clearly had the ear of this young lord. Political careers had been made on less, but Reggie was surprised to see Severus seeking that sort of power. He was always the sort to care more for his potions and spell crafting than the world of the Wizengamot.
“Perhaps,” Severus said slowly. “Reggie’s magical core was cut off by the power of death, so the magic might have assumed he was dead.”
Reggie ran his hand through his hair as he realized what that meant. His mother had moved on to the next world believing that one son had turned on her and the other had died. His heart ached. However, grieving would come later. He had more practical concerns.
“Why is Sirius imprisoned?”
“He betrayed the Potters, allowing the False Lord inside their fidelius charm. The False Lord killed both James and Lily. When he tried to escape, the mutt then killed a dozen or so muggles on the street. The Aurors had quite the task containing the mess.”
For the second time in a short period of time, Reggie’s world was shaken down to the foundation. “He would never betray James.” Sirius loved James—he’d loved James more than his own family, in fact.
Sev nodded. “I know. But I also know that the mutt refused to learn occlumency or control his emotions. I always assumed he had lost himself to the Black madness.”
Reggie’s heart ached. As much as he sometimes hated his brother, he regretted that when Sirius came to his senses, he would know that he had betrayed his chosen family even more completely than he had his blood family. The world had gone mad. Truly mad.
“Reggie,” Severus said gently, “we need to get the horcrux. We need to destroy it.”
“It is already destroyed. I had hoped…” Reggie swallowed. Clearly his hopes meant nothing. Reggie had sacrificed his life to deny the Dark Lord immortality, and the fool Dumbledore had still failed to end the war. Inconceivable.
“Are you sure?” Before Reggie could answer, Severus continued. “How are you sure?”
“I ordered Kretcher to destroy it.” Kretcher would do anything for Reggie. He had regularly flaunted the orders of older family members and endured terrible punishments in order to protect Reggie, so he had no doubt of Kretcher’s loyalty. However, Severus traded concerned looks with the young people who stood behind him. “What?”
“The only way we have found to destroy a horcrux is sustained dragon fire, specifically a Norwegian Ridgeback’s fire, which is the hottest of all dragons. I don’t know that an elf could destroy such an object,” Severus explained.
Reggie’s eyes grew wide. No. That would mean that Kretcher and his mother would have been living in a home with a horcrux. In the time that Reggie had held the object, it had eaten at his soul in a way that matched the descriptions of a demetor’s touch. It couldn’t be that he had exposed his family to such danger. It couldn’t.
Reggie lost his balance and Lord Potter darted forward, catching Reggie a half second before Severus was there, a strong arm around Reggie’s waist. “Breathe, Reggie. It’s possible Kretcher succeeded where we did not. Elves have their own magic. Call Kretcher. Ask him.”
“I can’t from within the cave.”
Severus spoke with a gentleness Reggie had not expected from the irascible man. “The spells were fueled by the inferi. They’ve all fallen. You can call your elf.”
“Kretcher,” Reggie called. Nothing. He cleared his throat and called again. “Kretcher!”
A dirty elf with crusted sores and a filthy, torn tunic appeared. This was not the Kretcher Reggie knew. This was not the devilish companion who would always help him get revenge on Sirius. This was a broken and dying elf, and a sob escaped as Reggie realized he had done this. Kretcher must still have the horcrux. That was the only reason why his elf would be suffering so.
Reggie fell to his knees and Kretcher’s squinted eyes slowly opened to show the bright green gaze Reggie remembered from his childhood.
“Master Reggie?” Kretcher asked, his voice cracking. “Master Reggie!” He threw himself forward into Reggie’s arms, and Reggie held him, hugging him the way Kretcher had once held Reggie when he would cry as a child. “Master Reggie is back. Master Reggie!” Kretcher took a step back and Reggie released him. “Kretcher is bad elf, Kretcher is. Kretcher must punish himself for being a bad, bad elf.” Kretcher wailed the words, and Reggie knew he was one second from doing some terrible harm to himself.
“No,” Reggie said firmly. “You will not punish yourself. Absolutely not. Kretcher, do you still have the locket I gave you?”
Kretcher wailed. “That is why Kretcher must punish himself. Kretcher failed. Kretcher tried everything, but the locket would not be destroyed.”
Reggie pulled him close. “I am a bad master because I did not research enough to know you wouldn’t be able to destroy it. I am no better than Sirius, acting like a Gryffindor in the way I rushed in without ensuring I understood the task.”
“Master Reggie is far better than stupid, disloyal Master Sirius who made Mistress cry and refused his lessons and broke the house by disobeying rules about sliding down the banister. Master Reggie never got mad and kicked Kretcher when Kretcher not be doing anything or give Kretcher orders that make Kretcher punish himself when he cannot obey. Master Reggie is good master.” Kretcher patted Reggie’s hand before he looked around at the others. Then he made a distressed squeaking sound. “Kretcher is worst elf ever. Master will be wanting to have friends to the house and Kretcher has been not working. Kretcher will fix this, he will. He will do nothing except fixing. But Master Reggie,” Kretcher’s ears drooped, “you must not be bringing friends to the house now.”
Severus went to one knee beside Reggie. “The False Lord will learn of Reggie’s betrayal, and I am not sure the house will be safe. I plan to ask the lord of the keep where we have been staying to allow Regulus to remain with us. He will be safe there.”
“Good helper Severus always helps Master Reggie,” Kretcher said softly. Reggie imagined that the elf was remembering the times Severus had tutored Reggie through the more difficult subjects in school. Reggie had excelled at Defense against Dark Arts, and the Dark Arts, although Hogwarts no longer taught that subject. He had acceptable scores in Charms and Transfiguration, but Severus alone had dragged Reggie through Runes and Potions. Without him, Reggie never would have earned his NEWTS.
“Severus always has helped us, hasn’t he? And he knows how to destroy the locket, so if you go and get it, we can finish the job I should done years ago.”
With a pop, Kretcher vanished, only to reappear before Reggie could even stand. He held the garish locket cupped in his hands and held it out like an offering. Reggie lifted it by the chain, feeling the dark magic swirling around him. Reggie had to occlude to avoid being dragged into the darkness emanating from the cursed object. The Dark Lord was truly mad to split his soul in this way. His body might have achieved immortality, but it had done so at the cost of his mind. At least now Reggie understood how the Dark Lord had grown enamored of such vicious atrocities.
“I am ready to ask the lord of your keep for sanctuary,” Reggie said. He expected Severus to use side-along apparation, but Severus took a step back instead.
“They will not appear as long as Kretcher is here. If they are willing to protect you, they will then come themselves to transport us. If they are not willing to grant asylum, they will not come.”
Reggie frowned. That was a strange system—requiring the lord himself to transport anyone who wished to visit his keep. The family must use incredibly strong wards for that to be necessary; however, Reggie trusted Severus, and so he trusted Severus’s unnamed master. “Kretcher, return home. If Severus’s master accepts my request, I will not be returning. If his master rejects my request, I will call for you again.” If Kretcher had not tended the house and wards, it would not be safe for Reggie to appear in Grimmauld Place without Kretcher’s presence. The wards should recognize his Black blood, but that was far from guaranteed if the wards had gone untended. And Reggie knew the sorts of traps his parents had used to protect the home.
“Kretcher be listening for Master Reggie. Yes, he will. Kretcher be listening always.” Kretcher gave a bright smile, and Reggie hoped that the elf could recover from the torture Reggie had unintentionally inflicted on his loyal elf. “And Kretcher be cleaning. So much cleaning.” Kretcher vanished with a pop.
Severus stood. “My Lord—” Severus had not even finished his second word when a Fae shimmered into existence. Reggie stumbled away, panic crawling up his throat. The Black family always called on the Fae and their magic. Every holiday was an excuse to embrace the raw, wild magic and let it sing to their souls, but Reggie had never seen an actual Fae. The creature was beautiful, but there was something sharp and raw and deadly in the beauty that made Reggie want to escape. This was a creature that would dance in his blood and sing to the moon while doing it. This was the Black Madness personified, even if the creature had done nothing other than tilt its head to the side.
“Severus?” Reggie asked as soon as he caught his breath. They should flee. All of them. Fae were not to be trusted. Ever. Yet Severus and his four charges stood firm. That kept Reggie from retreating.
“I cast a Fae circle and asked for a boon,” Severus said softly.
Reggie stared at the man in horror. How untenable had life grown that Severus would take such drastic action? Calling the Fae. That was utterly Gryffindor.
Perhaps Severus could still read Reggie’s expression because his mouth twisted in a wry grimace that practically admitted to his foolishness. However, in the next second, Severus straightened and looked Reggie in the eye. “The Fae have helped train the children. We are committed to stopping the False Lord and Dumbledore’s foolish attacks on magic. I have put my life in their hands.” Severus moved closer. “I trust them, and our keep will provide a sanctuary that even the False Lord cannot breech. Severus held a hand out to Reggie, and Reggie knew if he took it, he was casting his lot not with Severus and his unknown and potentially unreliable allies. The Fae were unlikely to care whether Severus or these children survived the war, after all.
However, Reggie had trusted Severus longer than any other. When Orion had killed Reggie’s familiar after he had failed to score well in Runes, it had been Severus who sat with him. Severus had tutored him, even after Sirius had stolen the spending money their parents had sent him for the term. Reggie trusted Severus more than anyone else in the world now that his mother was gone.
And that was enough for him. He put his hand in Severus’s and the world shimmered away.
Reggie sat on the sofa and considered the magnificence that surrounded him. The rich Fae magic made the hair on his arms stand on end from time to time, but he couldn’t deny the beauty of this keep. Reggie found it ironic that his parents had been so critical of half-bloods, claiming that they lost their true connection to the Fae through marrying muggles, and yet Severus had the strongest claim to Fae magic that Reggie had ever seen.
True, the young people had Fae wands and more raw power, but the Fae had looked first to Severus. The Fae touched the younger people as an adult would touch a child, but they maintained a respectful distance from Severus. The Fae put their faith in Severus and Reggie could see that even in the limited interaction he’d observed before the Fae had vanished and Severus had taken Lord Potter upstairs to ask their resident dragon to destroy the locket.
Reggie could not imagine how they had made an alliance with a dragon.
“So, you stole the horcrux in 1979?” Mr. Diggory asked. Miss Delacour sat close too close for decorum, which might be a tacit invitation or a suggestion that these two were not comfortable in this company.
“I did. And I assumed the Dark Lord would die shortly thereafter.”
“He got exiled from his body on Halloween of 1981, but he’s still around,” Heir Longbottom said. He had invited Reggie to use his given name, but Reggie did not want to allow such informality in his thoughts, not when he was ignorant as to the political alliances. It was clear that Longbottom, Nott, Potter, and Carrow had an unbreakable alliance, but he was not sure how Granger fit into that alliance, and Delacour and Diggory appeared to be outsiders. He understood they had only recently been brought to the keep by the Fae, but the others did not work to include them in conversation as they did with Reggie.
He had to move carefully until he understood these waters.
“It was good of you to stand up against You-Know-Who,” Delacour said. “So many refuse. They fear, and they assume they can run far enough to escape his notice, but just as Grindelwald spread beyond one country, so will he once he has solidified his hold over Great Britain.”
“If the Fae are moving against him, I doubt that will happen,” Reggie said. The Fae were a power no wixen could stand against.
“I suspect the Fae are unhappy about more than just Voldemort,” Granger said.
“Voldemort,” Delacour said with a dismissive huff. “I refuse to call him Flight of Death.” Her French accent deepened. “If one must use a name, I suggest Riddle since that is the name of his muggle father. Do not British traditions call for a child to carry the name of the sire?”
“True,” Granger said. “But I suspect the Fae are equally worried about the Light’s actions. The Fae are making more changlings because the threads connecting our two worlds are fading.”
That made Reggie’s heart race. “Fading? How?” If the connections to the Fae vanished, human magic would disappear.
Thea snorted, and the illusion that she was like Cissa vanished in that one inelegant gesture. “The fact that Hogwarts is trying to eliminate all wild magic would be the biggest problem. They won’t even allow traditional celebrations. It’s all Christmas and Halloween and Easter now. Slytherin used to have private ceremonies in our common room, but the headmaster did something to the wards to dampen the wild magics. We could say the words, but we couldn’t get Fae blessings.”
“You were at Hogwarts?” Diggory asked.
“I was a couple of years younger than you, so you probably don’t remember me,” Thea said lightly, but something in her voice made Reggie wary. She was worried.
“The only Nott I remember was a boy,” Granger said.
“Theodore Nott,” Diggory confirmed.
Thea lost much of the color out of her face, and Dinea scooted closer before catching her hand.
“Was that you?” Granger asked.
Thea raised her chin defiantly.
Diggory looked uncomfortable, but he remained silent. Granger did not. “Good for you,” Granger said in a fierce tone. “Some of the old families have such weird ideas about blood and gender and sex. And not just male-female sex. They think a man has the right to tell a woman that she can’t have sex. So old-fashioned.” Granger scoffed.
“No, they think they can tell a woman who to have sex with and when to do it,” Carrow said. “They think women are to be used, but the first pure-blooded man who tries to tell me what to do with my body is going regret his words.” Carrow pulled her long knife out and brandished it. Diggory visibly shrank back. Wise man. The Carrow family had a reputation for carrying through on threats, and while Diggory was not a pure-blood name, no doubt the young Carrow would happy castrate or eviscerate any man who tried to control her. Reggie wasn’t sure which she was threatening.
Reggie wondered if that meant that Carrow didn’t plan to marry. Sex was one of the purest forms of joy—a wild, unrestrained emotion that had the ability to generate magical attachments. Reggie’s parents had carefully warned him against having sex outside of close, magical bonds that he intended to nurture. No doubt it was that same lecture that had turned Sirius into a libertine with the reputation for bedding every attractive man or woman who crossed his path.
The spiral staircase to the dragonry whirred into motion and Severus appeared at the bottom with Lord Potter following close behind. “It is done,” Severus said. He tossed a twisted chunk of metal in Diggory’s direction. “One more horcrux destroyed. That makes three—assuming that the horcrux that tormented the school during Miss Granger’s third year was destroyed when Albus killed young Tom Riddle.”
“Let’s hope,” Lord Potter said softly. He came over and sat so close to Miss Nott that their thighs were pressed together. Reggie felt the soft strumming of magic from them as the beginnings of a magical bond hummed.
“Let’s get you situated,” Severus said as he turned in attention to Reggie.
Reggie stood. “Of course.”
“I checked our hall. No new rooms,” Granger offered.
“Family hall?” Nott suggested.
“We can check,” Severus turned and strode in the opposite direction as the greenhouse Longbottom had happily showed off.
Reggie followed, surprised that the others did not as well. A family hall suggested that only some of these people considered themselves family. Reggie wasn’t sure if he was more surprised that some combination of Carrow, Longbottom, Potter, and Nott considered themselves family or that someone was left out. Perhaps he would ask Severus later. Or not. Severus had years of life experience while Reggie was trapped under the inferi. Even though Reggie knew that technically he was in his thirties, he still felt like the eighteen-year-old kid who had panicked at the thought that he had helped someone protect a horcrux. The ministry might call the Cruciatus Curse an unforgivable, but it was a child’s spell compared to a horcrux.
“There is a new door.” Severus sounded relieved. “Right next to my room.” He opened the door and Reggie followed him into the space. The room was more than double the size of Reggie’s back at Grimmauld Place, even if it couldn’t touch the extravagance of the old family manners like the one the Malfoys owned. The smooth rock walls were shot through with precious metals, and like in the sitting room, crystals sparkled in the ceiling. However, what caught Reggie’s attention was the view.
In the sitting room, the balcony overlooked icy peaks. Here, the balcony had the same snowy vistas, but in the distance, an icy river sluggishly meandered through the valley. And along the banks, a herd of hrimfaxi grazed on the snow, their white manes long enough to skim the snow banks even though they were considerably larger than thestrals or horses. Their coats ranged from cream to white—some pure and others dotted or streaks with browns or blacks. They almost vanished into the scene, only the setting sun meant they cast long shadows and their white bodies contrasted sharply against the darkness.
“This is strange,” Severus said.
“Strange and beautiful,” Reggie said in awe.
Severus moved to his side. “The herd has returned. They avoided the keep for a while after Norbert came to live with us, but since Norbert has started hunting the ice giants, the herd has been returning more and more often.” They stood, side by side, as the beautiful creatures navigated over the river, gracefully balancing on the floating chunks of ice as the water sluggishly flowed. “Dinae was ready to declare a blood feud against the giants when she saw them hunt the hrimfaxi.”
“I might join her in that feud.”
“Do not encourage her blood-thirsty habits. Between her joy in battle and Harry’s middling occlumency, I worry that the Black madness will spread outside the Black family.” He sighed. “Given that your family’s affliction is better called a Fae madness, I should not be surprised.”
Reggie focused on his friend. “My apologies. What were you saying was strange?”
Severus gestured toward one side of the room. The balcony served as a rough divider between the two halves of the room, and Reggie could recognize the far half as belonging to Severus. The neat stack of books next to the bed reminded Reggie of the way Severus would stack books next to his chair in the library so he could focus on one book at a time. And the robe carelessly tossed in the corner paired with the vials lined up on the desk reflected Severus’s values.
“Is this your room?”
“I hadn’t thought so, but apparently the Fae intend us to share.” Severus gestured, and Reggie turned toward the curtained bed on the other side. A shirt he had thrown across his bed back home was on the bed, and his favorite chair was up against his desk. The Fae had tried to offer him some touches of home, although the empty candy wrappers on the edge of the desk did suggest that they didn’t understand how humans assigned value.
“I thought the next room over was yours.”
“It was. I wonder what it is now.” Severus strode out of the room. He always had been so dramatic. Reggie had always envied that. Severus and Sirius both had a presence that Reggie had never been able to project. He tended to vanish into the shadows during gatherings, no matter how much his mother lectured him about making the right impressions on the right people.
Severus opened the door to a smaller room that was utterly empty. “I can move over here to give you privacy,” Reggie offered.
“The Fae have put us in a room together. No doubt they have some use planned for this.” Severus sounded distant as he studied the empty space.
“I can move out if they make that need clear. You’re an adult. I’m sure you’re past the time when you wanted to share your room as if we were back in the Slytherin dorms again.” Reggie laughed although the dorms had been his fondest memories.
Severus turned and studied Reggie with such intensity that Reggie wondered if he had ever learned Legilimency. “I am the only adult in a keep full of hormonal young people. And we are friends. I have no objection to sharing a room.”
Reggie rubbed the back of his neck. “I feel like I am one of those hormonal teenagers,” Reggie confessed. “I mean, the last thing I remember, I was eighteen and stupid. You’re actually in your thirties.”
Severus scoffed. “I have spend most of my adult life in this keep, locked away from the world. I do not feel my age any more than you do. And you are far less stupid than I was. You turned away from the False Lord. I sold myself first to the False Lord and then to Albus Dumbledore. I chose the two worst men in the wizarding world, and pledged myself to their causes, one after the other.”
“You’ve always been a logical man. I’m sure you had cause.”
Severus offered his most disdainful look, the one he normally reserved for James Potter. How ironic that Severus had the ear of Lord Harry Potter. “In hindsight, my reasons were juvenile and inane.”
“So, a normal teenager?” Reggie asked with a smile. When Severus rolled his eyes, Reggie felt the thrill of accomplishment. The world had moved on without him, but he still had certain talents.
Reggie put the book on the nightstand and tried to sort his thoughts. “How have you handled all this?” He asked Severus.
Severus had already changed into his dressing gown and he sat cross-legged on his bed, a text in front of him. “Handle what?”
Reggie abandoned his bed and moved to Severus’s desk chair, which he straddled backward. “All these new theories. Or old theories. But all this information that flies directly in the face of what we learned at Hogwarts.”
Severus finally looked up from his book. “The attempts to suppress dark magic predate the False Lord or even Grindelwald. Those who don’t seek power are often afraid of it, and wild, Fae magic is powerful.”
“And dangerous,” Reggie agreed as he glanced back over at his abandoned text. Human transfiguration was a topic so taboo that even the Black family library had nothing like it. Yet at some point, wixen had written about the topic in some detail. “What is the final goal here?”
Severus closed his book. “I have no idea.”
“Come on, Sev. You are the ultimate Slytherin. You always have a plan.”
Severus sighed. “Point of fact, I do not. I had gotten myself so tangled in the war that I saw no way out, so I threw myself on the mercy of the Fae.”
“Fae have no mercy.”
“I might have expected to pay with my life,” Severus admitted. Reggie’s heart ached at the idea that such a strong man had been pushed to the point that he wanted to die. Severus had endured the taunts of pure-blood Slytherins and the torments of Gryffindor bullies with equal equanimity, but whatever had come after the war had broken him.
Reggie wondered if that had anything to do with Lily Evans. Or Lily Potter, more accurately. Severus’s magic had danced with Lily’s. Reggie had always wondered if they would develop a magical bond, but then Lily had pulled away. Even with the little mage sight he’d been blessed with, Reggie could see Severus struggling as she drew away and pulled Severus’s magic with her. Someone who could offer his magic without reservation should be revered and protected, and Reggie hated that Lily had never seen what she was doing when she refused to take sides in the war between the Marauders and Slytherins.
But then so few were blessed with mage sight, so no doubt she never realized how fully Severus had loved her.
“I expected to die when I stole the locket,” Reggie admitted. “Death seemed kind compared to what the Dark Lord would do, but it makes sense that if someone had penetrated his security, he would have wanted the person disabled and contained so he could question them later.” Reggie shivered as he thought about what might have happened.
“So, we were both fools?” Severus asked.
“Clearly,” Reggie agreed. He reached out a hand, and after a second, Severus put his own hand in Reggie’s. “I am just glad we survived long enough to make different choices.”
Severus looked bewildered, but he didn’t take his hand back. Reggie could work with that. After all, he’d had a crush on Severus Snape since his third year. And now he didn’t have Slytherins or Blacks around to tell him that he couldn’t have what he wanted. If Thea had the strength to embrace her true nature, then Reggie could do no less.
“We can make any choice we want, now,” Reggie said. After a second, Severus’s confusion cleared and he looked shocked.
“Surely you can’t mean…”
“We are hardly equal in status.” Severus tried to pull his hand away, but Reggie tightened his hold.
“No, you are the chosen of the Fae. The Blacks are a Noble house because we are Fae-touched. And now you, Severus Snape are Fae touched. Tell me, who has a greater claim to nobility, the one descended from a wixen brave enough to stand with the Fae in battle or the wixen who does the standing?”
“I am hardly going to battle with the Fae. In fact, they have refused me a battle wand.” Severus projected despair at those words.
Reggie shifted to sit next to Severus on the bed. “They trust you with their chosen children, Severus. They may not know the relative importance of candy wrappers versus diamond rings, but they love children. And they trust you to protect them.”
“I will be left at home while they fight,” Severus said miserably.
Reggie understood Severus’s concerns, but he suspected Severus was too close to see the actual problem. “If you were there, the others would ignore their mission to stay with you—to protect you. Those young people love you Severus. They would let the world burn if it meant they saved you. That’s why the Fae cannot trust you on the battlefield.” Reggie had seen that much during training. Even in the heat of battle, all the others knew where Severus was. If he stood, they would move out of cover, even when that meant enduring terrible curses from the Fae. Severus was the center of their family. But then, Reggie suspected that Severus had never been the center of the family before, so he didn’t recognize it.
Reggie could sympathize. Growing up, Sirius had been the focus of his parents’ attention—at least until he’d turned his back on the family. And even then Sirius’s betrayal featured heavily in every decision his parents made.
“You overestimate my importance.”
“No,” Reggie said softly. He let his magic out, let it dance across Severus’s skin in invitation. “I don’t.”
Again, Severus looked confused. Reggie leaned closer to press his lips against Severus’s. For now, he left the invitation at that. Withdrawing his magic, he returned to his bed and his text on human transfiguration.
“I’m going to kill those two.” Molly dabbed the tears from her eyes. She couldn’t believe her sons were being investigated by the Aurors. Her sons. Where had she gone wrong?
“Now Molly, you and I both know that they are working to protect Albus and his position,” Arthur offered as he handed her the basket of eggs. Molly started cracking them into the pan. The Aurors’ visit had interrupted breakfast, although Ron and Charlie weren’t stirring yet.
“Albus has no right putting the twins in such a position,” Molly said fiercely. She had already lost her little girl. She didn’t want to lose another child, but now the Aurors were investigating Fred and George for assaulting students. Assaulting. They could get time in Azkaban for that. A band of pain tightened around her heart.
“The twins are old enough to make their own choices.”
Molly slammed her wand down on the counter. “They’re making wrong choices.”
“Molly,” Arthur said, his voice soft with condemnation.
Molly wilted. “I know people have to fight You-Know-Who, and I’ll put my own wand in that fight, but these are my children. I can’t risk another. Not after Ginny. Not after Hermione.” Hermione had first appeared at the Burrow as Ron’s friend, and had then grown closer to the twins as Molly had absolutely forbidden Ron to get involved in Albus’s shenanigans, but she had become another daughter to Molly. At one point, she had thought either Fred or Ron might court her. She was a powerful witch, and Molly knew how power attracted power. But now her second daughter was also lost to this war.
Her two brothers, her two daughters, and now her twin sons were wanted for questioning. Molly had lost too much.
Arthur leaned against her back and wrapped his arms around her. The comfort allowed a small sob to escape. “I can’t lose them,” Molly confessed. She knew the importance of winning this war, she knew she would lose all her children if the Light lost to Voldemort, but still she wanted to gather her children up and shield them.
“There are strange rumors at the ministry,” Arthur said, likely to distract her.
“Oh?” Molly feigned interest.
“Over a dozen people who disappeared during the first war with You-Know-Who have all reappeared.”
Molly whirled around so she was nose to nose with her husband. “What?” If those who vanished could return, there was still hope for Ginny and Hermione, and others like the Longbottom boy.
Arthur nodded. “There are whispers that the Fae are involved in the return.”
“Fae don’t get involved.” While most of the Light families avoided the Fae because courting them came with a certain risk, the Prewetts had never forgotten the Fae rites. She knew what was required to ask for a blessing or a boon, and when the children had been younger, she’d even led them in a few Fae ceremonies. So she knew far better than Arthur that the Fae would never get involved with human politics.
“Still, there are rumors. I heard from two different sources that the group that rescued the victims had Fae wands.”
“Ceremonial wands look just like Fae wands,” Molly pointed out.
Arthur leaned closer. “They fought with Fae wands,” he said in a conspiratorial voice.
Molly’s eyes grew large. No ceremonial wand would work in battle. If witnesses saw jeweled wands in battle, the Fae might have chosen a new champion. Hope planted a seed in Molly’s chest. If the Fae were involved, maybe she wouldn’t have to sacrifice any more children to this war. She would far rather fall in battle herself that suffer the pain of losing another child. Perhaps it was time for her to renew her own vows to the Fae and offer her life for her children’s.
She still had the ceremony she’d taught Lily Evans so long ago, and she had proof that it had worked, even if Severus Snape had betrayed them all by killing the poor boy after he’d survived the killing curse. Yes, that’s what she would do. She looked at Arthur—so proud of having distracted her from her grief.
And she would never tell him. If the Fae claimed her life, he would still have his children to rely on. She could count on them to support their father. But as their mother, it was her job to make sure no more Weasleys were lost to this war. She felt better now that she had a plan.
Vilince leaned back in his favorite chair and considered Albus. The man hadn’t changed in the twenty years Vilince had been missing. Albus looked the same, his gaze had the same sharpness, his fashion sense was just as abominable. In fact, Vilince thought he recognized the orange and yellow monstrosity Albus had worn today.
“I do wish you would take up the mantle again,” Albus said. He had polished his best facade of disappointment, but Vilince didn’t intend to fall for the manipulation.
“I have to get my house in order, Albus. I’ve been gone so long that I didn’t recognize my own grandchildren. I think that is more important than Minister Fudge.” Vilince never thought he would encounter a political leader with fewer skills than Minister Iswatch, but Fudge had exceeded every expectation of incompetence.
“I expected you to understand the critical nature of having good people working in the ministry.” Albus glanced out the large windows. Vilince didn’t bother looking over his shoulder. His wife and daughter had made their own positions clear, and he suspected Vesila would have her children playing in sight of those windows, not only for Albus’s benefit but for his own. She would want to make it clear what Vilince had to lose if he rejoined this fight.
“Has He Who Must Not Be Named made any moves yet?” Vilince asked. During the first part of this war, Voldemort had mercilessly targeted muggleborns and muggles and anyone who didn’t agree with Death Eater policies. This time, the monster seemed to be taking the subtle approach. Other than a dozen Death Eaters escaping from Azkaban, nothing had happened. As far as Vilince could tell, most wixen didn’t even believe Voldemort had returned.
The average intelligence of the wizarding community had not significantly risen.
Dumbledore sighed. “He has grown cautious after his failure. However, do not doubt that he will make his move.”
“I don’t doubt that,” Vilince said.
If anything, Dumbledore looked more disappointed. “More than ever, the ministry needs competent people. If you returned, many of those rescued from Voldemort’s prison would return to their jobs.”
“That is the best reason for me to stay home. They should not feel pressured to return when they have lives to rebuild.” Vilince was lucky that his wife had waited. She had believed he was dead because the family tapestry reported that he was dead, but she had not wanted to take another to her bed. However, he knew a few others had returned home to find that spouses had moved on and in one case, that a beloved child had died. These people needed time—not Albus’s pressure to return to work, even if Albus was right that the ministry was incompetent.
That earned another sigh from Dumbledore. “Your report to the Aurors was lacking in details. Some in the Wizengamot hoped that you would be more willing to share details with me.”
“Some in the Wizengamot?” Vilince was no fool, even if the rest of the wizarding community apparently was. Albus wanted information. And while Vilince might be willing to share it, depending on what he wanted to know, he didn’t appreciate the heavy hand of manipulation Albus employed. Even the twinkle in Albus’s eye was nothing but artifice.
Albus pursed his lips and put his amusement on display. “Perhaps I was also curious. When you were rescued, did you, perhaps, run across a young Mr. Diggory or Miss Delacour?”
Vilince blinked. That was an oddly specific question. “No.”
All emotion vanished from Albus’s face. “No?”
Albus frowned. “I had sent them to that cave to retrieve an item of inestimable value.”
“Be that as it may, I did not see those two individuals.”
Albus appeared to require some time to regroup. Clearly Diggory and Delacour were important to him, for for that, Vilince felt sympathy because anyone in that cave before Lord Potter’s group arrived would have fallen to Voldemort’s army of inferi. “Then who was in that cave?” Albus asked.
“I have given my full statement to the Aurors. If they have chosen not to share with the Wizengamot, that is their choice.”
Albus’s voice rang with power. “Two of my people were trying to recover an object Voldemort hid in the cave. I need to know if they were there. I do not have time to cater to the obstreperous personalities in the ministry. Mr. Diggory and Miss Delacour deserve more than to disappear because members of the ministry believe that ignoring danger is a legitimate defense.” Albus usually hid his darker emotions, always playing at being unflappable. However, this was the wizard who had defeated Grindelwald.
“Albus, I wish I could help you, but I can’t. Lord Potter led the group that rescued us.”
Albus grew absolutely still. “Lord Potter?” He asked in a dangerously quiet voice.
Vilince narrowed his eyes, wishing he could open Albus’s head and look within. Why would Lord Potter’s name cause such a strong reaction? As far as Vilince could tell, he was a well-raised young man, even if he did have odd alliances. Some would call him wise for aligning himself with families that had traditionally opposed his own. “Yes, Lord Potter led the rescue party, although he had a number of allies with him.” Vilince studied Albus.
“Are you sure it was Lord Potter?”
“I never met the young man, but I often saw young James when he came to the ministry with his father, and the newest Lord Potter greatly resembles both James and Fleamont. I have no reason to doubt his identity.”
Albus touched his forehead. “Did he have a scar? A lightning bolt-shaped scar? Right here?” Albus sounded flustered.
“I believe so,” Vilince agreed. “I was rather distracted by the charred remains of an inferi army, but I seem to remember a scar.”
Albus leaned back, his face white. “We had believed him dead.”
“The world believed me dead. I have found that perception and reality do not always align.”
Albus visibly gathered himself. “Do you have the names of these allies of his?”
Vilince wondered if he was choosing a side in providing that information. Voldemort was not a problem to be solved politically, no matter what Albus believed. Defeating him would require a duel if not an all-out assault, and Lord Potter and his allies had more power than Albus. Their wands were clearly Fae. Any human-built wand that looked like that would be useless. It wouldn’t channel power; it would gather it in the gem and then explode. That’s why ceremonial wands were used only to light the fire on high holidays like Ostara. However, for the same reason, none of them could count on Lord Potter. He was clearly allied with Fae, and that—by its very definition—meant that humans could not count on him or the Fae to solve human conflict.
“The heirs of the noble houses of Longbottom, Carrow, and Nott.”
“Longbottom?” Albus pounced on the name. “A young man with a round face?”
“I would not say the shape of his face was his most significant feature.” In fact, Vilince was more taken with Longbottom’s noble stature and his calm strength. “However, once one has felt the deep well of Longbottom magic, one tends not to mistake it. Heir Longbottom radiated that familial magic. That is why I know the young man with Lord Potter was a Longbottom, although they may have lied about him being the heir.” Of course, there was no reason to lie, but Vilince could admit the possibility.
Albus stroked his beard. “I had mourned that young man as one of Voldemort’s victims.”
“Clearly not. The boy is Fae-touched, and even the Dark Lord cannot challenge the Fae.”
Albus blinked at him, his shock written on his face. Vilince had never managed to create such consternation in the past. “Fae touched in fact or in assumption?”
“They used what appeared to be ceremonial wands to defeat an entire army of inferi. I would call that Fae touched in fact.” If they had that much power without the assistance of the Fae, Vilince would recommend unconditional surrender and crowning Lord Potter as the new wixen king. The Fae had to restrain those they gifted raw power because no human could. And Fae interference would be the only power that could stop Lord Potter and his allies.
“And the heirs to Carrow and Nott were allied with Longbottom and Potter?”
“I know, unexpected,” Vilince agreed. “Unless I have lost my ability to spot shifting alliances, I would say that Heir Nott is well on her way to becoming Lady Potter.”
“Lady Potter?” Albus sat up. “Old Nott’s heir is his son—Theo Nott.”
“Thea Nott is many things, but she is not a son.”
Albus shot to his feet. “Thank you for your hospitality. Welcome home, old friend.” And with that, Albus rushed to the floo without a backward glance. Vilince definitely planned to avoid politics for now because there were deep waters and undercurrents he did not recognize. He only knew that when the Fae got involved, the wizarding world often had to embrace change, no matter how painful.
Dolores stormed down the corridor to Minister Fudge’s office, her heels clicking against the stone floor. He would not stand for the disrespect. She represented the ministry and she would not allow anyone to make a fool of her or the office of the minister. The office stood between the wizarding world and chaos. No one understood that. No one.
She knocked on Minister Fudge’s door and entered before he answered.
“Dolores,” he said, clearly startled.
“Minister Fudge, I require the assistance of more Aurors.”
“More?” he looked alarmed. “Why do you need more?”
Dolores took a breath and smoothed her hair before continuing. “When I attempted to arrest that half-giant, Dumbledore came back onto the grounds and blocked the men you sent. He undermined my authority, and the Aurors refused to arrest Dumbledore. Worse, he refused to return to Hogsmead. We agreed he would stay off the school grounds until I finished his evaluation, but after he blocked the Aurors, he returned to his office. He is still in there. I need a unit of Aurors to drag him out. He is not fit to lead the school.” She took another breath and waited. The minister would side with her.
Minister Fudge wrung his hands. “Dolores, you have to understand that Dumbledore still has a lot of support.”
“He has made a fool of us both with his ridiculous claims that You-Know-Who has returned.”
“Well, he really only said that once. Since then, he has said only that he could return or might have returned. We can’t arrest a man because of a ‘might,’ especially not a man like Albus Dumbledore. He has too many friends.” Cornelius offered her an apologetic smile.
Dolores stiffened her spine. “Am I or am I not High Inquisitor?”
“Of course you are, Dolores,” Fudge assured her. “I don’t know what I would do without you, and your work at the school has been top notch. You are doing an excellent job of making sure the curriculum has been been returned to its previous glory. Top notch. Absolutely.”
Dolores narrowed her eyes. She knew the minister well enough to recognize prevarication. “Then why will you not drag that man out of Hogwarts? He interfered with my authority as High Inquisitor.”
“I need you back here at the ministry, Dolores, and if you’re here, someone has to run Hogwarts.”
“I would be best able to serve this ministry from the Headmaster’s office,” Dolores said firmly. The hand that guided the next generation steered the ship of state. She understood now how Dumbledore had amassed such a network of support, and once she controlled Hogwarts, she would dismantle that support piece by piece. Dumbledore would be left a broken old wizard without a knut to his name or a supporter to listen to his ridiculous stories.
“A few families have requested that you not return next school year.” Cornelius refused to look her in the eye.
“Malcontents. Vermin. If those parents want to remove their children from Hogwarts, the school will be better for it.”
“Lucius is furious that his son was badly burned.”
“I expelled those horrible Weasley twins. I’m sure they set that trap. I cannot be responsible for their parents’ inability to teach those hooligans right from wrong.” Dolores trembled with rage at the thought of those two. She had thought that once Granger was gone that the twins would settle down and begin to act like proper wizards. Instead, they had gone mad. They had sabotaged her work, and none of the teachers had the backbone to discipline them. Cowards. They were all cowards. Dolores had to do everything herself because McGonagall and Vector and the others were so afraid of attracting the twins’ ire. Both Weasley boys should be in Azkaban.
“The Greengrasses and the Carrows say they fear for their daughters’ lives after all four girls spend so much time in the hospital wing this semester.”
“Again, the twins are gone.” Dolores stood a little taller. She would not have those two ruin her plans.
“Yet, after you expelled the Weasley boys, Vincent Crabbe lost his arm. His wand arm,” Cornelius said, horror in his voice.
Yes, that had been a terrible accident, but Dolores knew the twins had set that trap before they’d flown out the front doors of the castle. If the Aurors would have arrested them when Dolores first asked, Crabbe would still have his arm. “I can hardly be held responsible for the malicious pranks left behind by those two criminals.”
“You can’t blame everything on the Weasley twins. What about the disappearance of that Muggleborn student? She was the top student at the school, and she just disappeared. That looks suspicious, especially when you had scheduled her for detention the night before she vanished.”
“I never,” Dolores gasped. “Are you suggesting I did something to Granger?”
“No, of course not,” Cornelius rushed to say. “If I thought you bore any blame, would I ask you to return to the ministry? I know you’re not at fault.”
“I would hope you did know. After all, I wasn’t at Hogwarts when the Longbottom child or Theodore Nott disappeared. I wasn’t in charge when the disgusting little goblin teacher lost his leg or when the Riddle boy was hunting students. Where is all the outrage for the atrocities Dumbledore allowed on Hogwart’s grounds?” She crossed her arms over her chest.
“I know it’s not fair, but we have to deal with political realities. You know that, Dolores. Return to the ministry and let Dumbledore take the blame as Hogwarts continues to descent into rampant hooliganism. When the parents are ready to throw Dumbledore out, we can install you as the new Headmistress of the school. No one will challenge your authority then.” Cornelius gave her a hopeful look.
“You’re asking a lot.” Dolores loved Hogwarts. She was fated to lead that school to greatness.
“I know. I will give you a free hand to handle your own schedule. I know there were a few pieces of legislation that you couldn’t get through before I asked you to handle Hogwarts. You could finish your legislative agenda before having to move to Hogwarts permanently.”
Dolores thought about it. That might be best. She could make sure the Wizengamot had the right tools to protect wixen from the disgusting half-breeds that were taking over, and then she could focus on future generations. “Fine, but I want a new office and a raise.”
“Done,” Cornelius agreed.
Severus was counting his stirs when a shimmer ran through the potions lab. With a quiet curse, he started to cast a stasis charm that would probably not save his potions, but a Fae stepped in front of him. With a wave of his hand, the potion had been returned to it’s original state. Powdered unicorn horn filled one crucible, boomslang blood returned to its vial, the anjelica leaves were once again whole and the flabberghasted leech was once again alive and wriggling. It was such a massive display of power that it left Severus breathless, and yet the Fae simply held out his hand as if the act was not worthy of comment.
Severus was shocked that the Fae had come for him, but Severus didn’t lie to himself about having a choice. He put his hand in the Fae’s and held his breath as the Fae pulled him through the darkness before they stepped out. It took Severus a few seconds to recognize the dark hallway somewhere in Hogwarts.
The recognition made something sharp pull in Severus’s gut. This would have been his life if he hadn’t performed his ritual. This would have been his home and his prison ten months a year. Albus would have been his savior and his jailer. For the few years after being released from Azkaban, Severus had seen the trap he’d stepped into when he’d turned on the Dark Lord to vow his support for Albus’s schemes.
Severus looked at the Fae, but they gestured toward the stairs. Perhaps Severus had been ejected from his home. That made his heart pound. Severus didn’t know the situation in the rest of the world, but he wasn’t prepared to rejoin the fight, not when both sides had claims to his loyalty and his only loyalty was to the child he’d vowed to protect. However, Severus had no illusions.
He started down the stairs, but he hadn’t gone even halfway before he saw a small form huddled against the railing. The child jerked when Severus came close, and Severus recognized the shock of blond-white hair. “Draco?”
The boy unfolded his limbs and stood, although he held the railing for dear life and his breath was ragged. “Who are you?”
“Oh Draco,” Severus said when he saw the boy’s haggard features and red eyes. Draco was the same age as Harry, but he looked ancient and frail.
“Uncle Severus?” The words were full of desperation and fear.
Severus raised his hand to Draco’s shoulder, and a half second later, Draco threw himself at Severus like he had when he’d been five years old and he’d thrown himself at Severus before asking what he’d brought as a gift.
Severus hugged the shaking boy. “What’s wrong?”
“Where have you been?”
“I made a deal with the Fae. They took me away, but I’m here now. Draco, what’s wrong?” Something had to be horrifically wrong for the Fae to get involved. And based on the other children and young adults who had been brought to Prince Keep, Severus suspected it had something to do with the Dark Lord.
Draco pulled away and rubbed his nose with his sleeve. “The Fae? Father said you traded your life to have the Boy Who Once Survived killed in order to clear the way for the Dark Lord.”
“Your father does not know everything.” For some reason, that made Draco shrink away from him.
“He doesn’t know much of anything right now,” Draco said, his voice bitter and dark.
Severus still had a hand on Draco’s shoulder, but Draco now jerked himself away. “What do you want? Why are you here?”
“I want to help you,” Severus said softly.
Draco scoffed. “Are you going to cast the killing curse for me?”
Severus sucked in a quick breath. “That is not something to jest about.”
Draco rubbed a hand over his face. “I’m not joking.”
“Then who are you planning to kill?”
“Bumblebore,” Draco said. If he was afraid to even say Dumbledore’s name, there was a chance he meant what he said.
Severus took a deep breath. He didn’t know what had driven Draco to this point, so he had no right to judge. After all, he had harbored more than one murderous thought about Dumbledore himself, especially after Lily died.
Draco continued in a voice only slightly louder than a whisper. “My father is in Azkaban and the Dark Lord said that if I could not kill Bumblebore that he would have my mother tortured, but every plot has failed. I’m going to fail and the Dark Lord is going to make my mother suffer. I don’t know what to do.” He sank back down onto the steps.
Severus tucked his robes close and sat next to him. “I have known the Dark Lord far longer than you. He does not expect you to succeed in your mission.”
“He doesn’t?” Draco sounded so hopeful that Severus hated to crush that tiny spark.
“He expects you to die, and through your death, he hopes to further punish your father. The Dark Lord always punishes his inner elite far more severely than anyone else.”
“I’m a marked follower,” Draco confessed in the smallest of whispers.
Severus put an arm around Draco’s shoulders. “I had hoped he would never return, and if he did, I had hoped your father would have the good sense to send you far, far away. But since he did not, I suspect you had no choice.”
Draco shook his head. “I didn’t.” He took a breath. “Uncle Severus, what am I supposed to do?”
Severus knew what he wanted to do, but the choice was not his. He twisted around to look up into the darkness above them. In a few seconds, the Fae with their monsterous beauty glided down the stairs. Draco bolted to his feet, and Severus moved to stand between the Fae and the boy.
“I gave myself to the Fae. I belong to them, but they brought me here. I believe they are willing to give you sanctuary, but you have to choose.”
Draco’s voice was nearly strangled as he said, “My mother.”
“The Dark Lord will assume you died and the headmaster hid the evidence to avoid any accusation that he killed you,” Severus said. He was not fool enough to use Dumbledore’s name inside Hogwarts, but he refused to participate in the wizarding tradition of using ridiculous nicknames. “That will be punishment enough to distract him from your mother, and while she will suffer at the idea that you are lost, she will not have to face the Dark Lord’s ire,” Severus promised.
Draco was almost trembling, but when the Fae held out their hand and Severus stepped aside, Draco gave him a hesitant look before taking the Fae’s hand. The Fae held out their other hand to Severus, and in a blink, all three vanished from Hogwarts.
- - - - - - - - -
Severus walked into the kitchen. Diggory and Delacour sat at one end of the table, their heads close as they talked. Thea was leaning against the counter, stealing bits of food as Harry was cooking, and Dinae had her nose in a book of curses. He really should discourage her bloodthirsty tendencies, but they were all going toward war, so her interest was logical.
“Everyone,” Severus said. They all turned in his direction. “I would like to introduce my godson, Draco Malfoy.”
Diggory’s eyes narrowed and Delacour looked curious as Draco stepped out from behind Severus. He had his head up in a pose that he likely thought looked noble. His father had modeled the expression often enough. Unfortunately, both Draco and Lucius looked like prats when they used it.
“Draco!” Thea said happily. Severus was glad his grandson was likely to have one ally in the house, at least assuming he didn’t say something stupid about her choice to change her body to match her soul. Severus hadn’t seen Draco since he had been a spoiled little boy who drove tutors to distraction. He didn’t know the young man he had become.
“I’m sorry. Do we know each other?” Draco asked with an almost flirtation smile.
“I don’t know. We lived together for a year, so I hope we know each other.” Thea laughed. “If someone is sharing a bathroom with Draco, fair warning, he is a bathroom hog.”
Draco’s mouth fell open. “I’ve never… I wouldn’t live with a young woman.”
“Hogwarts?” Harry asked.
Ignoring Draco’s confusion, Harry wiped his hands on a towel. “Nice to meet you. I’m Harry Potter, and before you comment that I’m supposed to be dead, I’m not.” Harry held out his hand to shake, and Draco took it after a second. “Welcome to Prince Keep. Would you like some fried potatoes and bacon?”
“Um… yes?” Draco looked around. “Cedric Diggory. I had heard you vanished.”
“I suppose you’ve vanished as well, Malfoy.” He didn’t hid his disgust, and Draco’s back went even stiffer. Severus rested his hand on Draco’s shoulder in a silent show of support.
“My parents know your parents,” Dinae said when everyone else was silent too long. “I’m Dinae Medusa Carrow, the eldest of the Carrow daughters, but I’m not interested in any suitors, so if you want to chase someone, pick one of the other girls. Or boy. I don’t care.” She shrugged. For the second time, Draco seemed lost for words.
“Subtle, Dinae,” Thea said with an eyeroll. “Since you don’t remember me, I’ll give you a hint. I’m the only child of Surlinian Nott.”
“Theo?” Draco blurted.
“Close. Thea,” she said, emphasizing the last letter. Severus knew her well enough to read the stress in the set of her shoulders. Harry must have recognized the same because he moved closer to her.
“Oh.” Draco sounded lost.
“Do you have a problem with that?” Dinea demanded.
“What? No. I didn’t say anything.”
Dinae snorted. “You weren’t saying it loudly. I want to go duel. I’m going to see if anyone is in the dueling room.” She abandoned her book of curses and pranced out of the room. She was in a strange mood.
“I wanted to get in some flying,” Diggory said. He stood and held out his hand to Delacour. She took it, but that didn’t stop her from watching with undisguised curiosity. Severus hoped his godson would find sanctuary in Prince Keep, but he couldn’t do anything to convince the others to accept him, especially since Severus didn’t know what sort of relationship Draco had with the others in the past. Diggory left the room without looking back.
Regulus opened the kitchen door and stopped dead, no doubt sensing the tension in the air.
“Do you have a problem?” Thea asked in a deceptively soft voice.
“What?” Draco’s voice broke. “Of course not. Don’t be ridiculous, Nott.”
“He’s trying to not have a problem. Cut him some slack,” Harry said. He’d always been the quickest of the children to forgive, not that Severus could really call any of them children anymore. “So, did the Fae bring you?”
Draco looked at Severus as though looking for support. Severus raised one eyebrow. “Yes?”
“The Dark Lord had put Draco in an impossible situation, one where he was likely to die.”
“One of these days, I would love to figure out why they save some people and not others,” Regulus said when the room was silent for too long. Regulus had an ability to smooth over difficult conversations, and Severus was grateful for his lover’s presence. He moved to Regulus’s side and touched his waist. When Severus turned back around to look at the room, Draco’s eyebrows were so high that his eyes were huge.
“Come get something to eat,” Harry said as he turned back to the stove. Severus couldn’t smooth the way for his godson, so hopefully Harry would. After all, the young man would have been a Hufflepuff without a doubt. Then again, it seemed like the only confirmed Hufflepuff in the Keep had decided to keep his distance. Perhaps the sorting hat was not as wise as Dumbledore claimed.
Draco sat on the platform and watched Thea dance through a fight with two Fae. He… no she. It was easy to call Thea a “she” when he watched her, but he still struggled when he thought of studious Theo who would sit cross-legged in the middle of his bed in the Slytherin dorms, reading while the rest of them jockeyed for position in the hierarchy. When he thought of that Theo, Draco couldn’t wrap his head around the choice Theo had made.
He’d given up the chance to be the head of his household.
She’d given up her chance to be the head of her household.
Draco was sometimes confused by people’s motivations. For example, when the Dark Lord had returned, Draco could not understand why his father had ever pledged himself to such a monster. The Dark Lord had enjoyed hurting even his most loyal. Draco had trembled when he’d seen his father crawl on the floor to touch the Dark Lord’s hem. And still, his father had handed Draco over to be marked.
However, Draco could theoretically understand his father. When the Dark Lord had all the power, it made more sense to ingratiate himself to that power so he only had to bow to one master and could retain his power over others. Draco didn’t understand why Thea would give up the advantage of maleness, though. If Granger wanted to be a man, that would make sense.
She was adequate at fighting and brilliant, even though he would never tell her that. If she were a man or became a man, she could become the head of her household and by the time her grandchildren or great-grandchildren were ready for Hogwarts, she could establish a House. If she were a man, that is. While the sexist nature of wixen society wasn’t fair, that didn’t change reality. So he would understand if Granger wanted to become a man. However, Thea made no sense.
Thea shimmered out of existence and reappeared behind the Fae, casting a killing curse before shimmering away. But when she reappeared, she materialized right in front of a stunning hex. She went down in a heap. On the opposite side of the dueling room, Carrow and Granger watched with Harry Potter.
Harry bloody Potter.
That was another thing Draco could not understand. Potter was supposed to be dead. The Dark Lord had praised his inner circle for killing the boy. Draco had been raised to believe that killing a magic child was unforgivable, but apparently the rules were different when the Dark Lord was involved.
“My turn,” Dinae said. She danced down the stairs as one of the Fae woke Thea. Thea groaned as she pushed herself up onto her feet.
“Baby,” Dinae said.
Thea brushed off her skirt, but instead of heading over to where Harry waited, she came to the stair that led to Draco’s balcony. He turned to face her as she came up to the balcony.
“How are you doing?” she asked.
“This place is insane.” That was more honesty than Draco had meant to share.
Thea grinned at him. One of the Fae had moved to the side, leaving her fighting one. “She’s not as good as you are,” Draco observed.
“At offensive magic? No. But she’s better at charms. When we go into the field, she’s the one who has to accomplish whatever task we’ve been given.”
“By the Fae,” Draco said. He still couldn’t wrap his head around the fact that these creatures who were more myth than fact were so involved in Uncle Severus’s life. There were many issues that he was struggling to wrap his head around.
“Do they talk?”
Thea settled next to him to watch Dinae’s fight. “No, but Harry is terrifying good at interpret the images they share.”
Draco nodded. He didn’t know what else to say. Dinae was a lot more aggressive than Thea, but she went down quicker to her one opponent than Thea had when fighting both Fae.
“Damn it,” she cursed when walking off the dueling field. Harry took her place, and Neville Longbottom appeared at the door. Longbottom. Draco remembered him as a pudgy and frightened little boy, not the confident man who strode into the room with a Fae wand strapped to one arm and one of the short blades these people favored on the other. He looked at both balconies before moving toward the one where Dinae was climbing the stairs.
“Can I ask something?” Draco asked. Politeness and strategy suggested he should keep silent, but he had never been good at ignoring a mystery. He would rather offend in private where, hopefully, Thea would forgive more easily than the others. Granger hated him, Dinae was as vindictive as Aunt Bella and Diggory took every opportunity to glare at him, so he definitely couldn’t say anything around them.
“Sure,” Thea said easily.
“Aren’t you afraid that you’ve giving up a lot of power by turning yourself into a woman?”
Thea’s eyebrows went up. “Excuse me?”
Draco huffed. Thea knew what he was talking about. “Men are the head of the households. My mother is from a much more prestigious family as a Black, but she has to follow father’s lead in alliances.” Draco didn’t say it, but that had been a mistake since his father had led them to the Dark Lord. His mother kept her opinions to herself, but she’d never said anything to support the Dark Lord’s position on muggleborns. He hadn’t noticed that until he had been marked. “Don’t you worry that you’ll marry some man that will make poor alliances?”
“Who says I plan to allow a man to make my alliances?” Thea asked.
“But you turned yourself into a woman. You don’t have a choice,” Draco said, his voice rising. Harry glanced up from dueling floor. Draco still couldn’t believe that he had been invited to exchanged first names with Harry bleeding Potter.
Thea sighed. “Draco, what do you remember of me from Hogwarts?”
Draco shrugged. “You were quiet. You read a lot.”
“I didn’t interact with anyone because everyone treated me like a boy,” Thea said.
“I was a girl, even then,” Thea said. “My body didn’t show that, and Hogwarts put me in a room full of boys when I knew I was a girl. I didn’t say anything because I was intensely uncomfortable.”
Draco opened his mouth, but he couldn’t think of anything to say.
Thea turned to the action on the dueling floor. Harry Potter was holding his own against both Fae. He shimmered, cast a curse and then shimmered out of existence. He moved so fast that Draco couldn’t even follow the action. The Dark Lord believed Dumbledore was his enemy, but Draco thought Potter might be able to defeat both the older wizards.
“Really?” Draco finally asked.
Thea gave him an amused look. “Really.”
Draco wrinkled his nose. “Hogwarts made a girl sleep in the same room with a bunch of boys, including Greg and Vince?” Draco knew both had loyalty to the Malfoy family, but neither was decorous around girls.
Thea grimaced. “Those two are a big part of why I hid behind books.”
“If I were a girl, I’d avoid them too,” Draco said. “I still think giving up the advantage of being a man is dangerous.”
“Maybe,” Thea said, “but since I’m not a man, I would rather gain the advantage of being myself. Besides, the man I’ve set my sights on has no interest in choosing my alliances for me.” Thea rested her chin on her hand and looked down as Harry Potter finally fell to the two Fae.
“Oh.” Draco was shocked. First Severus had chosen a male lover with Regulus and now Thea, the last living member of one of the darkest families in the Wizengamot had set her cap for Harry Potter. They were all insane. Draco wondered what his father would think of all this. Thinking of his father made a heaviness press down on his heart. Maybe his father had led the family into a ruinous alliance, but he was still Draco’s father. He was still the man who had stepped forward and volunteered to lead an attack against the Order of the Phoenix just because the Dark Lord had looked at Draco when asking for volunteers.
And his father had gone to Azkaban in Draco’s place.
Draco swallowed as dark emotions threatened to overwhelm him.
“Harry?” Granger said. Harry looked up from his arithmancy formula. He knew he could get runes to transfer mass from one container to another, but he couldn’t get the numbers and runes to work.
“Yeah, what’s up?” Harry pushed his parchment to one side.
“Have you talked to Malfoy?”
She huffed and tucked a curl behind her ear before she sat at the table next to him. “You can’t trust Malfoy.”
“The Fae brought him here.” As far as Harry was concerned, that was all he needed to know. The Fae wouldn’t bring people here unless the rescue supported their position. Harry still had trouble with Fae communication. They would take his hand and slide through time while dozens of possible outcomes flashed before his eyes. Harry had seen Draco a few times. When Voldemort won, Draco had been there with an older man with blond-white hair looking at him proudly, but they stood in the ruins of the wizarding community. Sometimes Draco held his father’s body. Sometimes he held the body of a woman Harry assumed was his mother. A few times Harry had seen Draco torturing people, his face twisted with either fury or fear—Harry couldn’t tell. Once, Draco stood in front of three children who clung to each other, wand up and a woman with a crazy laugh and wild hair threw a killing curse at him.
He had also seen Draco when Dumbledore’s side won. Sometimes Draco shivered in a corner in an icy room. Sometimes he knelt on a stone floor with a Fae circle chalked around him as magic flickered like a dying candle flame. He was often lying in a pile of bodies, his grey eyes lifeless and cold. And once he had cast the killing curse at Dumbledore’s back after the older wizard had vanquished Voldemort. Harry had slid along that reality long enough to see that every thread that followed that moment ended with Voldemort returning and killing Draco. Given the hate that twisted Voldemort’s features, he did not appreciate Draco succeeding when Voldemort had failed.
But the Fae believed Draco had an important part in the fight, so Harry would respect that.
“That’s all you have to say?” Granger asked.
Sometimes Harry didn’t understand her. He respected her, both her skills and her stand against a more powerful force. Her willingness to try to break through Voldemort’s wards on the ring Horcrux deserved mad respect. However, she acted like the fact that he was the Boy Who Had Once Survived meant that he had to act a certain way. For example, she expected that he would politically align himself with Dumbledore despite the fact that the wizard had left him with abusive foster parents and in every reality thread the Fae had shown him, Dumbledore’s policies had led to magic fading from the world. “What should I say?”
“You should say that you won’t let him manipulate anyone or take advantage of his access to Prince Keep. You know the Malfoys and the Carrows have a long-standing alliance.”
Harry frowned. “Are you suggesting Dinae would be easily manipulated or are you saying that you think Malfoy would take advantage of her?” Dinae had made it clear she never wanted to have a man or woman in her bed, so if Malfoy tried to charm her, he would regret his life choices.
“No, but he might try to get the Keep to side with Voldemort.”
Granger crossed her arms over her chest. “Severus, Regulus, and Malfoy are all marked Death Eaters. They hide their forearms, and there’s no other reason during dueling practice to keep the shirt sleeves down.”
Harry blinked at her again.
“And the Carrows have always sided with Voldemort. Alecto and Amycus Carrow forced students to practice Dark Arts at Hogwarts, did you know that?”
“Cedric told me. He had graduated by then, but he kept in touch with younger Hufflepuff students. The Carrows are monsters.”
Given what had happened to Dinae before she came, Harry didn’t doubt that. And because of what her family had done, Harry suspected that she would rather burn her family to the ground than side with them. That might not be a metaphor given how angry she could get. “I don’t think he has the power to influence anyone.”
“Are you sure? You put him in a bedroom in the family section where he has access to her. In fact, all three of the marked Death Eaters are in that back hall, away from the rest of us. You’re the only one who can balance out that dark energy in that hall, and Dinae is in the middle of it.”
Harry stood. “We are all on the same side here.”
“Dumbledore’s?” she asked, her voice bright with hope.
“The Fae’s,” Harry said firmly. “If Dumbledore wins, magic will die.”
She frowned. “What?”
The Fae don’t understand people. They don’t understand why people make one choice or another, but they are masters of time. They can see not one future but a hundred of them. A thousand of them. If Dumbledore wins, he will ban all dark magic.”
“Because dark magic corrupts people.”
“Can corrupt people. Money can also corrupt people as can political power, fame, and a mastery of potions. Do you have any idea the sort of power a potions master wields? And most potions are impossible to identify after they’ve been assimilated by the body. They aren’t like spells that can be reversed.”
“Are you suggesting dark magic is the same as a potions mastery?”
“Yes,” Harry said bluntly. “That’s why I’m not on Dumbledore’s side.”
“So we should help Voldemort?” She took a step backward.
“Of course not! He’s a monster who would kill anyone who doesn’t agree with him. I plan to kill him.”
“Oh.” She frowned at him.
“And the Fae believe Draco is on our side. Just like they believe you are on our side.”
“I’m on Dumbledore’s side,” she said firmly.
“Even if he bans all dark magic and in doing so, accidentally severs the connection between Earth and the Fae lands? Will you give up your magic and return to the Muggle world in order to prevent anyone else from being tempted?”
She stared at him.
Gathering up his parchment, Harry headed out of the potions room. He didn’t want to go back to his room, but maybe the greenhouse would be quiet enough for him to work. Once upon a time, Prince Keep had felt huge, but it was getting smaller all the time.
- - - - - - - - - -
In the dark room attached to the greenhouse, Harry ran into Draco sitting on a bench set into the wall. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to disturb you.”
Draco shot to his feet. “I don’t mind. Please, come in.”
Harry took him at his word and let the door fall closed behind him. The dull glow of crystals set into the walls gave the room an ethereal glow. “Are you hiding?”
“Are you?” Draco countered.
“Yes.” Harry sat on the bench closest to Draco. “Granger was trying to convince me you’re dangerous.”
Draco scoffed and sat again. “I’ve seen you fight. I am not dangerous to you, although I believe I could still take Granger in a fight. I don’t know how I would fare against Diggory or Delacour. But I get the feeling they are not exactly on your side. All three have been Dumbledore’s pawns in the past.”
“I doubt they’re pawns,” Harry said. He’d expected Draco to be less direct, especially given Severus’s explanation of Slytherin values. Then again, Severus had said that Draco had been more Gryffindor than Slytherin as a child. Apparently that hadn’t changed much.
“I think Dumbledore treats everyone like a pawn,” Draco said.
Harry shrugged. “I wouldn’t know.” He was lucky Severus had taken him away before he’d had to find out. “Apparently Granger feels that people follow the political agendas of their parents, and she worries about you being too close to Dinae.”
“I don’t think anyone can tell Dinae Medusa Carrow what to think, so I’m not going to bother wasting my breath trying.”
“Good because she rarely even listens to Severus.”
A grimace twisted Draco’s features for the briefest second, and then he once again presented a calm demeanor. “Uncle Severus never accepted any sort of disrespect from me as a child.”
“Yeah, but Dinae doesn’t care if she has to scrub caldrons for three months straight, so now Severus tries to avoid giving her orders she’s not likely to follow. So, do you think Dinae is at risk to follow the Dark Lord because her family does?”
Draco studied him. “Only his followers call him the Dark Lord.”
A rough laugh slipped out before Draco schooled his features again. “I’m sure Granger has explained that I am one of his followers. I’m sure she delighted in telling you that.”
Harry leaned back and propped his feet on the edge of a planting bed with moonstone mushrooms and fanged maidenhair. “Do you want to follow him?”
Draco didn’t answer for a long time. He had the same sort of haunted expression that Thea used to have. It was like he didn’t see an escape from the trap he was in, but Harry suspected that Draco’s problem would not be solved with a simple—or exceptionally complex—sex reassignment potion. “If I leave here, I won’t have a choice.”
“Then don’t leave here.”
“Do you really think it’s that simple?” Draco cried.
Draco shot to his feet. “My mother is alone with that madman and my psychotic aunt in the manor—ordering her around in her own house. And my father…” Draco’s voice cracked. “My father is in Azkaban right now because he volunteered for a mission to save me from it. He’s being tortured by Dementors when it should be me. He should be home with mother. But he wouldn’t leave me to fail on my own.”
Harry frowned. “What are Dementors?”
Draco blinked down at him. “What are Dementors?”
“I’ve lived here since I was a little boy. There are many parts of the wizarding community that I don’t know anything about. I don’t know what Dementors are.”
A sob slipped out of Draco, and Harry sat up, ready to catch the other man if he collapsed because he looked to be on the verge of it. But Draco caught one of the posts on their corner of the planting bed and clung to it. “They’re monsters, Potter. They are skeletal, wraithlike dark creatures created by some Dark wizard to torment muggles and wizards alike. They say they're bred them from lethifolds and inferi to suck the souls out of people, but the Ministry uses them as prison guards. They suck out every happy memory until the prisoners in Azkaban are forced to live their darkest nightmares with no relief. That’s where the Dark Lord sent my father—my father who was trying to protect me. That’s who Granger thinks I’ll side with because in her tiny mind anyone who has ever used dark magic must be evil. Everyone except her sainted Bumblebore, who everyone knows has used as much dark magic as most old families.” Draco stopped, his breath coming in heaves, although Harry didn’t know if that was from the emotional upheaval or his shouting.
“Are all these Dementors at the prison?”
“How should I know? What do you care?” Draco demanded.
Harry stood. He’d seen flashes of these Dementors, although he hadn’t know what they were at the time. In Fae time slips, the Dementors sometimes swooped down on towns, devouring everyone in their path and leaving bodies limp as rag dolls behind. In other time slips they screamed as dragon fire consumed them. Harry knew which future he preferred.
“I care because it’s time for this experiment to end. How would you like to help me destroy all the Dementors?”
Harry thought Draco would be happy, but he stared at Harry as though Harry had lost his mind.
“Well?” Harry asked.
“Are you quite sane?”
“I’m not sure. But I have a dragon and a team of fighters who need some real world experience on the battlefield. This seems like a fairly obvious solution to me.” Harry smiled.
“Obvious,” Draco echoed weakly.
“Obvious.” Harry stood and slapped Draco’s arm. Now that he had said it out loud, Harry knew this was the right move. The Fae did not approve of the Dementors, and if they didn’t address the problem before the Dark Lord brought Dementors to the battlefield, the death toll would be horrific. Besides, Norbert was getting bored hunting ice giants. Dementors were much more dangerous, and that would make both Norbert and Dinae happy.
Harry just had to figure out how to break the news to Severus.
Severus clung to the rope despite the fact that his sticking charm was more effective at keeping him on Norbert’s back than the rope, which was little more than an illusion of security. He noticed that Draco had an equally tight grip. Severus hated his plan and he hated that Draco was going to be exposed to Lucius at his worst. If Severus could, he would keep Draco away from the prison, but he had few illusions.
If he had any power here, they wouldn’t be attacking Azkaban at all. Unfortunately, he had tied his fate to the Fae and Harry had the closest connection to their agenda. That was ironic given that Granger was the changling and Harry only a halfling; however, Granger clung to her logic as tightly as Severus held the rope.
And she didn’t seem to understand that both were illusions of safety.
Harry cast a sonorus charm and shouted over his shoulder, “Remember, non-lethal charms on the human guards. We only want to stun them so we can deal with the Dementors.”
Norbert bellowed, fire erupting from his mouth before he flew through it. Harry threw up a shield charm with his short sword. They were not the most discreet group, and Harry had refused to hide their faces. So this was their entry into the war proper.
Fear stalked Severus, both for himself and for the children he was supposed to guide. Harry and Dinae were his first children, but he was just as protective of Neville who had grown into a strong young man once he was away from the judgment of others and Draco who Severus had always regretting leaving behind. He was terrified for Thea who would face horrific judgment if the Dark Lord’s faction won and he was even concerned for the three they had left behind—Granger, Diggory, and Delacour.
“You okay?” Regulus asked as he leaned forward, resting one hand on Severus’s hip.
“I hate flying,” Severus shouted back.
Regi laughed as though Severus had made a joke. He hadn’t. He found most forms of flying utterly ridiculous.
Norbert banked to the left, and Severus saw the prison under them. Neville raised his wand and called an incantation to pull in a heavy, rolling fog so only the top of the fortress remained visible. Norbert tucked her wings close and they lost altitude quickly.
Severus swallowed a scream, and Regi pressed himself against Severus’s back. After a stomach-dropping dive, Norbert leveled out and before Severus could catch his breath, she put out her feet and landed with a heavy jolt. Neville was off first, throwing up an impenetrable shield. Harry and Thea took the left and right, leaving the center position for Draco, Severus, and Regulus. None of them had Fae wands or the time practicing as a team. Luckily that left Dinae to cover the rear. Maybe they could keep her from killing anyone.
They moved steadily toward the entrance. Severus would have assumed they had encountered no resistance except that the fog occasionally lit with a hex or curse from either Thea or Harry. Clearly the Aurors were no match for the team because they were inside the damp fortress with no trouble.
“Cast your Patronus. Drive the Dementors out of the fortress for Norbert to hunt them,” Harry said without a moment of doubt. Severus had never heard of dragon fire destroying a Dementor, but Harry had faith in the visions the Fae had shared with him. Severus figured that if worse came to worse, they could retreat.
“Where’s my father?” Draco asked.
“He’ll be near the top where the Ministry keeps high-profile prisoners.”
Draco clenched his jaw and raised his wand even though there were no enemies to fight by the time Neville, Thea, and Harry cleared the path. Severus kept a hand on Draco’s shoulder as they moved their way up the fortress stairs. Severus cast his own moose patronus. It shook it’s broad antlers and charged aggressively forward to help drive the Dementors from the castle.
When they passed a narrow slot window, Norbert lit the night with dragon fire. The Dementors screamed and shreds of what looked like black fabric rained down to the ground below. Dragon fire clearly worked.
Draco started their journey by checking every cell, eager to find his father. But as he looked in at one wretched victim after another, he started flinching from cell doors. After exchanging a concerned look with Regulus, Regulus took the right side of the corridor and Severus took the left. That left Draco to wander between them, looking more pale with every passing moment.
Near the top of the fortress stood an open door with Belatrix Lestrange’s name engraved on the brass beside the door. She should still be here, rotting forever for what she did to Neville’s parents. If they had reached her old cell, Lucius should be somewhere near.
“I found him,” Regi said softly.
Draco froze. Casting a quick charm, Regi unlocked the cell door and then stood to the side. Draco looked to Severus before squaring his shoulders and marching toward the door with his head held high. The arrogant pose only lasted until he saw Lucius.
“Draco?” Lucius’s voice cracked. “No. No, you can’t be here. No. It’s an illusion.”
Severus stood at the open door and looked at the bedraggled man chained to the wall. Draco held him close, hugging him even with the chains between them.
“Severus? No. I’m imagining things. Get a grip. You’re a Malfoy. We do not bend.” Despite the words, Lucius’s voice shook.
“I’m here, old friend,” Severus said. “I have potions to strengthen you, to help repair some of the damage the Dementors have caused.” In a fair world, Severus would have provided the same care for all these tortured prisoners, but Severus was not fair and he did not have time to tend all the sick. He knelt down and offered Lucius the first of the vials. He drank it greedily, not even complaining about the taste as he usually did when Severus brewed for him.
“What have they done to you?” Draco cried. “They’re monsters.”
“Everyone is a monster in war,” Severus corrected him. The Dark Lord was most monstrous than the Ministry could hope to be, but this was not the time for that debate.
“Draco?” Lucius ran his dirty fingers through Draco’s hair. “My beautiful boy. My beautiful Draco.” He started to cry, and Draco gave Severus a wild and terrified look.
“I’m protecting him. The Fae didn’t take my life. They removed me from the battlefield, but I have now taken Draco under my protection.”
“Protection?” Lucius frowned. “I protected him. Our Lord won’t touch him now. He will honor family sacrifice.” Lucius nodded. “That is the old way. Draco is safe.”
Severus handed him another draught. After Lucius finished this one, his eyes were clearer. “Severus?”
Severus crouched down next to Lucius. “Your Lord sent Draco on a mission to kill the headmaster. The headmaster versus your child who has not even taken his NEWTS. Had not the Fae decided to intervene, the Malfoy line would have ended here.” Severus could see his words penetrating the fog in Lucius’s mind.
“Would our Lord dishonor the ancient ways? Would he discount my sacrifice?” Some of Lucius’s righteous indignation returned to his voice. The old Lucius was still there under all the pain and grime.
“Yes,” Severus said, ripping away Lucius’s illusion that the Dark Lord would honor any tradition that didn’t favor him.
Lucius looked at him, and something hard settled in his gaze. “Find me a wand, and I will swear an unbreakable vow to support you and your side in this war, no matter which side that is. I will protect my family.”
“He’s still at the manor. He still has mother,” Draco cried.
Lucius pulled at the chains. “Severus, get me free.”
Severus rested his hand on Lucius’s arm. “I cannot. We are going to escape on dragon back, but the dragon does not know you. You smell of fear and sweat, and she will see you as prey. We can’t take you from here,” Severus said. “I’m sorry.”
“But we’re destroying the Dementors. You won’t have to ever see another Dementor,” Draco rushed to promise his father. “You won’t be tortured like that any more.”
Lucius shook his head. “Nothing can destroy a Dementor. Even the killing curse does nothing to them.”
“But dragon fire is rather effective, which is one reason we brought a dragon,” Severus said. “The Dark Lord will retrieve you eventually. When he does, tell him that the Fae are set against both sides. The headmaster is destroying magic, but the Dark Lord is destroying people who love magic. And in doing so, the Dark Lord has declared war on the Fae. Lily Potter was a changing. Harry is a halfling.”
Lucius sucked in a startled breath. “That’s why she had the power to repel the killing curse.”
“The Dark Lord killed a Fae,” Severus said. “He killed Lily, and he tried to kill at least one other Fae.” Severus did not identify Granger as the second changeling to almost die due to the Dark Lord’s machinations. She was the unlikeliest of changelings, and identifying her would make Lucius doubt everything Severus had to say. “The Fae are gathering their pieces, and they are equally angry with both sides. If the Dark Lord wants to avoid facing the sharp end of a Fae wand, he needs to stop.”
Severus knew the Dark Lord would never change his own plans, but maybe this would convince Lucius to avoid tying his fate to the Dark Lord too closely. Maybe Lucius could get word to the other Death Eaters who might be questioning their choices. Every warrior they could get to abandon the battlefield was one fewer person Severus’s children would have to fight.
Severus stood. “Come, Draco. We need to leave.”
“But what about Father?” Draco clung to his father with the same tenacity he’d had as a five year old protesting when Lucius left to go to the Wizengamot for the day. Back then, Lucius and Severus had laughed. Draco’s desperation was no longer humorous.
“We can’t save him. Even if we removed the chains, we could not take him from Azkaban. He is safest here where the Ministry can’t accuse him of masterminding the slaughter of the Dementors.”
“But…” Draco looked at his father as though expecting Lucius to announce some grand plan that would fix everything.
“Go,” Lucius said. “I love you, little dragon, and I love your mother, so keep yourself safe.” Lucius looked up at Severus. “Protect him.”
Severus nodded. “I will do my best.” That was all Severus could promise. “Draco, we must leave. The Aurors will learn of the attack soon and we cannot be found here.”
“Go,” Lucius said as he pushed Draco away. “Go.”
Severus caught Draco by the shoulder and spun him around before thrusting him toward the door.
He turned to look back at the broken man who had once made such grand promises that he had convinced Severus to kneel to a madman. “I will protect him as much as I can. The Fae have created a safe place. I am hiding him there.”
Lucius nodded. “Thank you.”
In all the years they had known each other, Severus had never heard those words from Lucius. “You are welcome,” Severus said, and then he followed Draco out of the tiny, dark cell.
The Dementors were gone, but none of these prisoners would have a good life. No. They would suffer, but at least now they could keep their sanity and hope for a better day. And maybe a better day would actually come if the Fae could stop the idiocy on both sides of this war.
I might come back and finish, but I think you can see where I'm going
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