Harry watched the three of them from the corner of his eye. As he walked arm-in-arm with Grace—she said call her Grace!, he privately cheered—the funereal trio flanking them traded insults and complaints as the rough-hewn family trudged through the woods.
"Ugh, I'm gonna sick up." So spoke the demon lady, Zinnia, Zed. Harry heard her name a dozen times as she chased him around the park.
Freddy had picked her up from the mud and slung her across his back in a fireman's carry. As they picked their way over roots and fallen branches, she dangled woefully over the man's sodden and bunched hood. Harry mostly saw gangly, sweatered limbs and her leaf-littered hair, with one part green, sweaty grimace swinging in and out of view.
He sighed through his nose. In the minutes between shock and buzzing excitement of finding his mother, he strained on the edge of dislike for anyone else. He fought not to close Grace’s eldest out of his heart. After all, he'd just found out he had an older sister!
Just a half-sister. Not much better than a cousin really, pushed an adamant gloom in his spirit.
Zed and Snape had done a horribly accurate rendition of Dudley and his jeering gang back in Privet Drive. Harry had felt every bit the scrawny orphan when bullied, slipping and splatting in the mud.
So much for the mighty hero, he snarked to himself unkindly thinking back to half an hour ago. Now he’d ended up hurting his own pride, and struggled not to make at least a bit of that the sick woman's fault.
I can't bungle having siblings, he coaxed his hardy weed of resentment. It persisted smugly, unswayed.
Okay, well, comparing her to Dudley doesn't help. Granted, he hadn't been afraid of his cousin since he was eight. Years of their relationship boiled down to cautious, but uncowed.
Similarly with Snape. After realizing rather quickly that the man hated him, it was easy for Harry to carry on with courage. He hadn't known the man enough as a firstie to fear his scorn more than any other adult’s. And honestly, once he did know him, upon coming into Cokeworth, he’d leapt on reminding Harry of how much of his scorn the younger man already had.
So it soured Harry's stomach to feel four feet tall, lying in some puddle, rain soaking through to his shirt while being pitied and cackled at. He felt stupid. Panic trickled into kicked and down and smaller than a matchbox.
Harry stared up at the rain, going numb and growing sure that his hopes were draining out of him. Snape having a part should have tipped him off that he'd have no wins.
But then, meeting his mother, forgetting Snape was even there, he looked up and saw...what was it?
Defeat?, he pondered.
"Oh, hrk! Fox, I'm serious, put me down!"
Harry glanced back, expecting to stop, but the group walked on, unbothered. Freddy resettled the woman's weight on his shoulders with a grunt. He then began walking on the balls of his feet, bouncing as he hiked, humming merrily.
"Nobody said to leg it after some kid after rearrangin' all your damn organs," shared the large, grinning man in a sing-song, "It's what you get."
"Fuck y—," but then Freddy bounced her and she landed with a lurching, "Hurgh!," dissolving into tearful cursing.
Harry was caught watching and cringed at the wide, blithe smile thrown his way. While he fumbled with whether he was meant to enjoy Zed's discomfort, Freddy settled into a neutral tilt of lips and a raised eyebrow. He laid his measured gaze on Harry's hands, brushing their mother's side.
The young wizard shied back around, wondering for the millionth time if he was welcome. He was still sore from picking up his things, chin on his chest, struggling to conjure one of Hermione's tight hugs and Ron's outrage on his behalf, and only feeling cold, and hearing rain and awkward silence.
Harry looked at Grace, cheeks burning. "Uh."
Leonine, she bent her neck into the window between them, shouting back at her two eldest, "You can quit gripin' now or walk for yourselves, it's up to you. Freddy, put ya damn sister down if you're gonna be doin’ all that!"
"She can't walk," Freddy replied, patting Zee's muddy calf affectionately.
"Every pissin' thing hurts," Zed complained. Her head swung up to shoot a watery glare sideways, at the older wizard who'd since gone silent. "I thought I was fixed!"
"I don't know what you mean," Snape sniffed, clearly lying. Harry snorted and then quickly looked away.
"Pardon? What was that, Potter?"
Harry faced forward, lips sealed. After a beat, Snape returned to griping about Harry's map, which of course he'd yet to return. He bristled at the man confiscating his precious Potter heirloom—well, a copy of one at least—and finding it lacking.
"If it shows all of Potter's relatives, where are his aunt's ilk?," he growled. "This idiot said blood magic, and I see—but no Dursleys. Potter!”
Harry jumped but didn’t respond.
“Did you draw this map yourself? No, you couldn't write in a straight line if it cured world hunger, no matter how the nonsensical nature of this wretched thing suggests you might’ve. Who did you commission this from, a chimp with a quill? This is rubbish."
No, this is great. We're getting along, we're burying the hatchet, he thought, looking to the sky for forbearance.
"I don't know, sir," Harry called back in a deadpan. "It's just an ancient, enchanted treasure from the family I never knew. Y'know, on account of their grisly demise. I think you'd remember that, actually."
"Don't act too smart, Potter. You'll strain a muscle."
Snape held the map a scant inch from his wrinkling nose, worrying Harry amid making his eyes roll. The man's scowls were so fierce he might burn a hole through the parchment: "If it only shows magical relatives, I can excuse it listing the girl, and this ambulatory disaster as of a month ago."
"Oi," disputed Zed.
"But why include Grace and Fred, if—," Snape cut himself off and pressed Harry's mother, "And you're sure none of your brood have ever received a letter from Hogwarts? Besides Potter, obviously."
"We're almost to the house," Grace shared with Harry, completely ignoring the potions master as she patted her son's knuckles.
"You can eat some, then help me look for my bag of old pictures. That's for family, and I been meanin' to have 'em framed. I doubt you'll be wantin' a peek in the albums I've got now."
"Are you ignoring me?"
She smiled ruefully, in private jest. "Of course, those'd be the only photos I've got scrapbooked. Good on ya, Gracie." It was as if Snape had never spoken.
"You, woman! This is a serious matter!"
Harry leaned in conspiratorially. She lent him a curious ear. "I think Snape's trying to say something."
Grace only raised her eyebrows, suggesting that, despite appearances, she hadn't in fact gone deaf. He swallowed a grin, lightened by petty vengeance.
Snape finally growled, giving her up for a loss and turned to Freddy. "When did you turn eleven?"
"Is this a horoscope thing? I'm a Gemini."
"I can and will hurt you. Remember, you provoked me. Zinnia!"
"He was '81, so I must've been...ugh." She gulped, smacking Freddy's bulky arms. "Lemme down, in the bushes! Hurry up, I've gotta take a dump!"
Losing all composure, Harry spat, and bent, chortling into his free arm. Freddy chuckled and jostled her again, making a show of it. Grace sucked her teeth at their antics, but let it go without comment.
"Hold it in, Zeds! We're almost inside."
For the rest of their walk, Harry hesitated to count himself with the back half of the procession. Trailing them through the trees, the smiling giant, the fuming terror, and Snapekept rivaling one another for best Inferi look-alike.
Snape managed a tight lead, with his hollow cheeks, burrowing glare, and the clothes.
Harry's gut heaved, as Grace lapsed into quiet after rubbing at the odd scars on his hands.
"Is this a tattoo?," she asked, pointing at it. He looked down, eyebrow quirked.
"What, oh. No, not really." Realizing suddenly that so many of his stories were upsetting ones, he simply looked back at Snape, who stared unfathomably back at him. "It's just a, erm, yeah, a scar. It's old."
"Alright, and this is?," she followed, tapping his forehead. Harry jerked away and hurriedly parted his hair so it fell over his lightning bolt scar.
"Yeah," was all he replied. At this, Grace turned to Snape, too, with a furrowed brow. The older wizard curled a lip at her, although somewhat half-heartedly, and tucked his nose back into the map.
Maybe because he'd been laughing earlier, and his emotions only thought it fair to knock him down a peg, Harry started flashing back to the tear-streaked mess in the Shack. Snape himself watched him hawkishly over the map's edge while Grace turned away.
The uncanny stack of differences over stark similarities unsettled him. lank sightless eyes had relit with the same old, burning dislike; hair still limp, now graying; spidery fingers twitching against the dingy black of his pants. Harry broke from the prolonged stare, shivering despite layers of charms.
He still looks dead, just older, he thought. It's not what happened, obviously, but...it feels like he never left that place. Merlin, he's a nightmare. The only new thing is the coat, and I mean...
Harry thought on its greasy stains and sighed. He self-soothed with the surety of Grace's elbow locked with his. His birth mother, which boggled his mind to think, felt deceptively solid beside him, given the facts of her: how unreal it felt to be adopted, with close living blood he'd never met.
He recognized her instantly from the sketch and the calendar, as her features hadn't aged much at all over the decades. Smile lines bracketed her mouth, which was now at rest as she'd seemed lost in her thoughts, although her grip on him never slackened.
His mother had pinned him to her side with only that, an elbow and a lean. It felt practiced, unthinkingly skillful, like how Hermione never dropped a book or how Ginny always threw things in perfect arcs. She had a professional grip.
It must've been from years of wrangling kids bigger than her.
I'm someone's kid. Harry wiped his free hand across his mouth, embarrassed for how he must look. Was he too dumbstruck? Maybe. Snape would tell him, if he asked.
But how could he not just stumble along, jaw hanging. She had accepted him so easily! And the wistful sadness, that quiet, forlorn thing he thought they shared the second he saw her picture: it passed between them in such a physical way when her warm fingers touched his cheeks in the park.
It existed there now, sandwiched between Harry's resentment and small fears, and Grace's far-off, commanding silence.
Harry was back to reeling at the idea he could be adopted. Except actually, that was simple to accept alongside Ginny's logic, that James and Lily remained his parents in any definition.
What floored Harry now was being family. He had never believed himself family to anyone without some doubts. He looked nothing like his aunt, or his cousin, nor the Weasleys, who took him in just like family, and whom he hoped maybe one day to call his in-laws.
However, he and the girl, Laney, resembled Grace so strongly that he worried intermittently if he was being had.
Was it a trick, Polyjuice or glamours, or maybe pure coincidence? What could make three complete strangers look so completely alike?
When he stretched, he saw the girl tripping along ahead of them, clutching the short bat in both arms. She kept herself apart from the chatter and minded the woods. From just a silhouette, Harry could see so much of his child self. She preceded them onto the worn, cobbled street.
Then Harry was back looking over his shoulder, studying Snape who muttered ominously at the map. Beside him, Harry's half-siblings fought to keep the eldest in line. The three were so frightening in their likeness, like altered versions of the same person: except for Freddy's honest good vibe negating his fearsome exterior.
It's just genetics. The idea shouldn't mean much, but it made his heart race. To not stick out for once? For taking after someone not to cause heartache? Like those nights with Erised, Harry could stand in that forever.
But then arose the next, harrowing question: if he and Grace were family, as were Snape and Grace's children, who was the ex-spy to him?
"Crucio! Damn bitch!"
The curse cooked the air as it blazed through Ginny's hood, barely missing the skin of her cheek. She shouted wordlessly as it spread over the enchanted fabric, lighting up the cowl in burning red.
The witch dove right and spun into a barrel roll, yanking the cloak off while throwing a blind Stunner to her left. The robe clasp, catching at her neck, pulled the hood back over her nose and mouth, and choked her with a spray of hot sparks and cloying, sizzling air.
I have to lose them before Cokeworth!
Without the time to check her map, she banked right again to avoid an acid teal hex reeking of burnt hair. No, in fact, it was her hair that was burning! Unable to shake the cloak, which had been cursed to the point of ignition, Ginny cursed and slashed with her wand, cutting the cloak in two.
Pieces of robe fluttered away, the wet, whip-quick winds now buffeting her ears and body, snuffing out the tiny fires on her suit. Luckily it lent her some spell immunity, or else the searing lick of Cruciatus that singed her hair would—
"Move, moron! Bombarda!"
Her broom bucked and shuddered while to her left, an assailant's broom exploded in white light, too slow to dodge his partner's straying attack. The weedy man screamed as wood shrapnel tore off mask, robe, and skin.
Instead of falling away, giving her room, he fell toward her as the pincer move the two attempted became one man grabbing at her Cleaver's handle while the other plummeted toward the ground.
Still he managed to blow a fist-sized hole through her broom bristles, sending her into a spiral, having collected himself enough to curse her one last time before Apparating midair.
Ginny pulled up in a sharp incline, glad for a sporting broom designed to combat fouls. The wood broke the other man's grip, who held on with a feral snarl, the slanted handle crashing into his face with a whap and a crunch.
The mask flew off, revealing the portlier man's drink-swollen nose, broken and spraying blood into the wind. She recoiled, feeling the sick droplets hit her face.
"I'LL KILL YOU," bellowed the last man. He meant it in his glare, and was also far from the first Death Eater to threaten her life.
Ginny screamed with the effort of fighting the wind, her pummeled arm wanting to give, her ribs on fire. Barely gripping her wand, praying the ripping slick air wouldn't take it. She cursed him as he spun upwards and she careened into the forest below.
She crashed through the canopy, fortunately with only a few scrapes, curled on her injured side. Wheezing, she peered up at the broken branches illustrating her fall to earth. Above her, her Cleaver teetered sadly on one such branch, snapped in the middle, bristles more scrub brush than broom.
"Dammit," she breathed. Then a crack echoed through the trees.
"Where is she?! Find her!" Booted feet trampled over the ground nearby.
Swearing, Ginny bent her fist backwards and spelled herself invisible. The camouflage spread slower than usual over her, starting at her chest, it being all she could reach. As it oozed its chilly way over her face and hands, she rolled onto her stomach, and crawled on her belly toward a hollow log.
Ginny moved cautiously but quickly, wincing all the while. She huffed at the terrified look of a hare seeing only legs creeping through the ferns. Those melded into the twigs and mud just as she dragged her body into the dead tree.
Please nothing bite me! Please nothing bite me!, she chanted silently, spitting out spores and detritus.
Something wiggled along her midriff and squealed angrily. She thanked every god she could name that her suit covered her up to her collarbone.
"I'm sorry for wrecking your tree," she whispered down at the squealing thing. Whatever it was burrowed under her stomach and let her be.
She had wedged her entire body into the log when footsteps stomped around above. Someone wore and kicked as they wrongfooted a hop over her. Ginny wiped spider silk from her eye and squinted through the huge splits in the wood.
Black robes, skinned knuckles, is he—and then a bloodshot eye peered in. She held her breath, and waited. The Death Eater, one she couldn't recognize for the life of her, eventually moved away, cursed, and dropped his full weight on the tree.
"Piss! Damn! Potter's girl got away." His complaint was clear through the huge split, through which Ginny could see his leg bouncing in irritation.
His bouncing shook the log, causing all manner of skittering and buzz. The jittering wood sprinkled dirt and a few busy, exploratory beetles into her hair and nose. The witch squeezed her lips shut, disgusted.
"This shite isn't worth what he's payin' us," the thin man barked. "Look at this! I'll have to regrow my whole fuckin' face!"
"You fhucked thats up, thats and the fhuckin' owl." This voice was nastier, nasally and whistling, like every tooth in its mouth was loose. This must have been the other man, the one whose nose she broke.
He kicked his partner's makeshift bench.
"Ghet up! Fhind 'er! She knows our fhaces! Whe're ghonna kill this binch, 'fore she wharns Shnape!"
"Episkey. There, you sound bloody ridiculous." Skinny shuffled his feet, which were out of sight. "You're just wantin' payback for lettin' some girlie tag you. Who cares, let her go. She'll think we're Deathie scum, papers go wild. People'll see they still need us and we get off the shite shift—well, not us, us. We just get paid for bringin' him Snape's head."
"Ack!" Stout snorted and hocked a deep-red loogie on the ground. "Fuck you, we'll charge more after we nab her.
“'Cause if that bitch gets to her rookie brother, we're done for. And I ain't tryna be in the jail with the scum, so you better. Get. Up. Before I get you up!"
Ginny sucked air through her nose, head fitting to burst as she'd forgotten to breathe. Whoever these men were, they were only posing as Death Eaters. Of course they knew her and Ron, if they knew Harry from the papers, but that begged the question of how they knew Harry through Snape.
They're hired hitmen, she thought, and amateur ones, if I had to guess. She could give herself some credit with being a good fighter. However, her escaping two grown men twice told her they weren't exactly seasoned killers.
And whoever hired them has it out for Snape. He must know Harry and him are connected.
They were probably instructed to stake Harry out for Merlin knew how long or for what reasons. Stout said to catch Ginny before she warned Snape, as if she knew why and what of. She couldn't help but think that, as well as amateurish, they also weren't terribly well informed.
"Hey!," Skinny whined. "See, I think I Splinched my bloody toenails! Aw, I'm askin' for double!"
Whoever was paying them had settled. Even then, the pair had some tricks.
If they can Apparate while falling, they're not your average wizard. She went rigid as the log rocked. Skinny stood up, grumbling about his feet, while Stout pushed him to keep searching. After a few minutes, and a few more, when she heard nothing, Ginny cast a wordless Revelio and confirmed the coast was clear.
Doubling back, they're also not really fighters, she mused as she crept backwards on to soft ground. They don't know the field and can't hit moving targets.
She shook dirt and bugs from her hair as her mind worked. Revelio was a basic spell for people fighting in terrain. They had learned it from the likes of Hermione and Moody, who always planned for hidden enemies and ambushes. It was standard fair to anyone used to spell fights to check for people.
These two fought like all their enemies had been nailed to the floor.
Besides that, they had no clue how to fight around each other, especially not on brooms. One man blew the other up! How they hoped to kill Snape as they were when Voldemort hadn't was frankly a mystery. They must be relying on numbers and brute force.
Stout, the marginally more skilled one, had only clipped her once. She had been stood on a roof holding Hermione's injured barn owl. Ginny figured they must have shot it down at a far distance, but she had reached it and the letter before they could retrieve it.
They must've spotted her slight ripple, seen the bird move, and shot.
She sat back on her heels, holding her ribs. At the time, she thought she saw camera flashes and landed on that roof. Now she believed she must have confused the spells going wide for paparazzi. Then while she stood there, stunned at the state of the owl, she'd caught a blasting curse to her side.
She shot one back, and Apparated home. Finding Harry missing, she hunted him through London until she saw him whizz away at the city limits. Knowing him, she guessed where he must've gone.
Their pursuit of her since then had been merciless.
And they hadn't traveled along the same route as Ginny, having only found her again halfway to Manchester. Without the owl, they must've had a map of their own.
They seemed shocked at the time, then enraged. And just now, they hadn't mentioned Harry ahead of her, so possibly hadn't even seen him leave first.
They already know where Snape is. They were after him, she realized. I might've just bought them some time.
Wincing, Ginny stood and regretted letting the men get away. She could have eventually followed them to Snape. It possibly happened for the best, as it would be impossible to tail them silently through the brambles, and she had no doubts about the pair being dangerous.
If they got her a third time, she might be done for.
She dug around for her map, and realized it had been in her cloak. The Chaser slapped a palm to her forehead, believing none of her luck. She could Apparate back to London and get another copy. But she didn't how she'd return to this random, nameless patch of woods, and didn't want to risk it being unlisted.
Well, I know I'm not far from Cokeworth, she thought. She had crashed fairly close by.
Considering her only option, she followed her wand north to a delivery road. As soon as her feet hit gravel, she rallied and took the road at a painful jog, in search of a highway.
Ginny wandered into a manicured residential area as the road curved into a cobbled street. She passed a rain-speckled gazebo, stepping under to escape the weather. She took a minute to catch her breath, surveying an intersection of well-tended, white houses and quaint shops ahead of her.
Bidding on help, she headed toward the shops.
Muggles with bright umbrellas darted in and out of doors. She resumed apace an elderly couple waving down a cab nearby. The witch passed in front of the building they'd left.
Her stomach growled and she groaned, drawn to the door, which was propped-open to allow an outpouring of tinny radiator heat and the smell of frying bread.
She looked up at the hanging red sign. It dubbed the place the Railview Hotel, although it more resembled a bed-and-breakfast. Regardless, Ginny felt her battered body all at once, and wondered when she might rest.
On the wall hung a brass placard touting its favor by the Cokeworth Tourism Board. She had jogged clear into town.
"I probably could ask for directions. No point in getting more lost," she reasoned. Her ravenous stomach gurgled in agreement.
"Of course you'd think so. Focus, you."
She tiptoed into the front door, squeezing past a family of four juggling bags onto a cart. Stealing a look about the close, carpeted lobby, a child's complaints covered her cold shiver and sneeze.
She met eyes with a calico cat loafing on the front desk and startled. The cat's ears bent toward her as she shushed it playfully. Its tail gave a lazy curl as it stared on with slitted, green eyes.
"Where's the bathroom?," Ginny mouthed at it, creeping invisibility up to the desk. The calico rumbled, permitting a scritch under the chin, making the receptionist chuckle.
"Playing with ghosts again, muffin?," the woman chuckled, giving the animal a pat. Ginny snuck past, glimpsing the sign to the ladies' room by the stairs.
Once in a stall, she transfigured one wall into a full-length mirror. She then undid her camouflage and took stock of her appearance. Ragged and bruised, a little charred as she expected. Harrumphing, Ginny set to work with glamours and freshening charms, turning her clothes Muggle, her hair short and brown, her face bland and unmemorable.
Then she tucked her wand into the waistband of her new tights and gave herself a thumbs up. She strode out to receptionist again, moving slowly to lessen her limp. "Excuse me?"
The woman at the front desk folded her hands neatly. Ginny noted the cat hair on her blazer cuffs and smiled.
"Yes, how might I help you today?," she greeted sweetly.
"Yeah, I'm looking for somewhere nearby. Do you have any maps of the area?"
"Oh!" The woman chirped. She reached over the desk and tapped on a plastic shelf of brochures. "If you're interested in local indoor attractions, given the dreary day, we have a pamphlet of our towns most popular spots, riiight...here! Where in particular would you like to go?"
"Oh, um." Ginny unfolded the pamphlet being handed to her. She saw a top-down map of the town, with the downtown area circled, and stars by various restaurants and a museum.
Nothing, of course, marked the wizard part of town, where Snape might have been hidden. Instead, she saw the edges of the residential parts she passed through. This bit listed eastward towards the huge, closed-down mill.
The labor board hosted tours of it, apparently. Around it, the artist had simply rendered bushy trees and crooked squares for houses. Aside from the mill, there were no dotted foot paths, stars, or helpful banners. Just street names in tiny, cramped letters.
Well, it's a shot in the dark, but, she mused.
"This helps me, I think," Ginny thanked the receptionist. The woman looked on cheerfully. "I'm in town for my...uncle! But I forgot to save his address. Thanks."
She turned to leave and bent double as her stomach loosed another, mighty growl. The woman tittered, and pointed her to a table with hot water, tea bags, and little packages of crisps.
"Please take some! They're for guests," she smiled. Ginny nodded appreciatively and set upon the spread.
"Hopefully that'll tide you over. Where do you think you'll be going? I might could recommend some lunch places by there, if it'll be a while with your family."
"I think, uh." She popped open a bag of salty snacks, shoving some in her mouth. Offering a self-conscious grin, she unfolded the map with her free hand. She hunted down the street she had in mind. It slithered to the edge of town, beyond the mill, ending at the cusp of shaded woods.
"Spinner's End," Ginny finally answered, washing down the crisps with too-hot tea.
The woman's smile wobbled. The witch saw the cheer slide several inches down her face while her eyebrows shot up to her auburn dyed hairline.
Looks like I guessed right, she thought. She thanked her again for her help, leaving with all the snacks she could carry.
Severus grabbed the boy by the collar before he skipped into Severus' house. Potter sputtered, turning to give the former professor his most aggravatingly baffled look.
Severus glowered. He loathed that oafish expression. He hadn't missed it at all, as laughable an idea as missing any part of Potter was. However, if they had to speak, he might more have preferred defiance, disinterest or that sudden, inexplicable loneliness—anything but Potter looking any dumber than he already was.
He sent the rest of the group in first. The girl had long since disappeared into the living room. Potter made to follow, like he had erstwhile forgotten Severus' grip on his t-shirt.
I cannot believe I owe this nitwit my life.
No, he dissented. I owe Lucius and Narcissa. Potter is an auxiliary support, at best.
Without whom, argued a third voice, neither friend would have the resources to restore your best health. This apparent noise of reason wielded a Dumbledorean cadence. Given the ex-spy's new knowledge of the man's sins, Severus shook himself.
The others, Fred and Zinnia, filtered in around them. Grace stopped just inside the doorway, demanding an explanation. Severus sneered. As though she and her long-lost brat haven't chatted merrily the entire walk home.
"Potter, fetch the register." The boy ogled Severus, whose frown carved deeper into his face. More imbecilic shock. He needed the boy gone from his home. "Well? You've been so arrogant as to brag about your many treasures. Bring it here!"
"Are you serious?," Potter squawked, face flushing. "I talked about one measly book!"
He wasn't wrong. In a transparent play at modesty, the boy only mentioned that the infuriating map originated from the Potter family register, left to him, the bloodline's sole heir. Severus was sure Potter frothed to boast of his other countless treasures, once he convinced them of his humility.
The bitter man could only imagine the rambling wealth that had surrounded the brat since the war—lands, gold, jewels, and a loving catalogue of a grand blessèd heritage.
Grace stood by, gritting her teeth. The older wizard eyed her, surprised she hadn't continued to intervene. With more care, perhaps, than he might have unobserved, he threw the boy away from the door, and pointed upwards, aiming west.
"Go," he snapped. Then he grinned with black humor. "With some haste, Potter. Lest you miss these darling chats with dearest mother."
Finally, a less gormless facade. Potter screwed up his face in a crimson-cheeked grimace. Severus let loose a spitting, "You're wasting time. You'll be let under my roof when you bring me something of some worth," and crossed his arms, undaunted.
The boy gasped, wounded, and vanished. He spun with such petulance that it sprayed wet gravel as far in as the hall. The sasquatch let out a low whistle, scratching his beard. A faint flush told him Zinnia had by now sped off to the toilet.
"If he doesn't come back," said Grace breathlessly. "I swear on everythin' I love..."
Severus winced, glad his back was to her. To whatever end, she seemed nearly afraid to join him at the threshold. Curling his freezing fingers into fists, he mumbled back, "You could've stopped me at any point."
"Could I." He grew nervous as a minute, then two ticked by with nothing else said.
He expected the nebulous, newborn closeness she'd assumed of him to wither. Severus tapped his foot, head and bones aching, and waited for all semblance of connection to crust over and fall at their feet.
She was testing me, he realized. It must have been why she finally let him lead. The rest of the minutes until Potter's return, Severus spent resisting his own gravity. He worked to exude impregnability, imagining himself as strong as the iron basement wall.
Except he bucked. Sweat collected in the creases of his fists.
"Maybe," Grace broke the silence.
The floorboards creaked and she was right behind him. He jolted at a hand touching his hunched back. It balled up his shirt, knuckles grinding into the knobs of his spine.
"Maybe, you should fuckin' mean it when you apologize for dead friends," she bit out.
She pulled back and he braced for a blow, chest tight. None came. They stood apart in the doorway, sagging when Potter finally popped back onto the curb.
"Sorry," the boy sulked, gripping a cloth-wrapped something under his arm. It knocked against the broom still slung across his back, pushing him forward. "I've got it here, but please take care of it. I just got it a couple days ago, and—.”
"Keep it, we don't need it," Grace barked, giving him her palm.
Potter fidgeted, eyes affixed on hand. He then meekly reached out and held it, letting his mother reel him in.
"S'time to eat."
She cut Severus a poisonous, narrowed eye as she ushered the boy inside. "Don't ever turn him away from me again."
He scoffed, baring his teeth and looking off into the empty road. "As a matter of fact, I do need Potter's book t—."
"Nobody cares," interrupted Fred, leaning in the entrance of the sitting room. Loud tapping and electronic beeps sprung forth from the television. Severus nettled at the man's tried tone, like he was an unruly child.
"C'mon, man, don't push it."
"I mean, he can borrow it." Severus looked down his nose at Potter, who stared solemnly back. The boy's bent arm tensed under his scrutiny.
He could only think it Potter waiting for him to snatch the bundle and stomp it underfoot, with how still the brat became. It sounded forced when the boy mumbled, "If it's to let me in his house, I mean. Really, it's just a book."
"Spare me," Severus growled, slamming the front door shut.
He pushed by the lot of them, passed the girl pausing her flickering games on the telly, and, purely by accident, met her eye. "Avoidant," reverberated from her immature brain to his, and, suddenly ashamed to have less composure than an actual child, he finished his trek to the attic.
He slammed every door he encountered on his path to his room. He slammed the wardrobe door as well, having tossed his coat, boots, and ruined shirt inside. He dragged his arms into a fraying button-up and left it open over his vest.
Then he trembled by the unmade bed, beating back the urge to throw himself on it in tantrum.
"Shit! Shit!," Severus cursed at the rumpled, musty sheets. He wanted to kick and scream.
He took a deep breath, and then one more, laying the furious gasps in a line bordering sanity. He could never say what scared him. Only that needing Potter gone and feeling gifted by his return blurred too much of Severus' sense of right.
He heard a clatter, and felt a cold tap against his ankle. The wizard backed up and swooped down to gather his cat.
She meowed indignantly, but remained flipped on her back, exposing her belly. He saw the marks where the reformed stray once nursed kittens, although what became of them he never cared to know.
What'll you do now, you mewling infant, jeered some hateful part of him—not quite Lucius, not his father either. Simply Severus. Will you cry again?
"Leave me be," he muttered to no one. Glad for her patience, he stroked his cat's long belly until he calmed.
Severus descended the stairs sometime in the early evening. He tried not to notice that he hadn't been called to dinner, although if he ever had before, he had ignored it. He stopped on the landing at hearing a burst of raucous laughter.
Oh, enough, he chastised his coward self. They'll hardly run you out the house!
Unless Potter has turned them against, needled his ever present counterpoint. Severus didn't even grace the thought with a response. He had spent hours cradling a hairless loaf to recovery from his own poor attitude.
He felt certain that the meanest one in the house was himself. He refused to let a bit of rejection rattle him.
Severus pressed on. He entered the sitting room with chin held aloft. The laughter faded as he came to a stop at the end of the coffee table, fist on hip. He swept the room to measure the handful of reactions.
He found Zinnia notably absent, with all else present, huddled around a pile of photographs. Severus glanced down at them and away, flicking his gaze from the bookshelves, to the overhead fan, back to the pictures, and then the game console, turned off and seemingly cooled.
Potter held fox-edged parchment, growing visibly uneasy, even with Severus catching him mid-grin.
The older man narrowed his eyes at the boy. What joke might he had cooked up at Severus' expense? The Hedgerots gathered round to have a hardy laugh at him, stuck up in the attic after a fit.
"Rev!," barked Fred with a beam of excitement. Severus turned to him, one brow raised. "Harry says ya used to poison children!"
"I didn't!" Potter threw up his hands, eyes bugging out behind his wire frames. "I did not say that!"
"He said you wanted to poison children," supplied Marisleny in the chair.
She hadn't joined her family on the couch. Instead, she separated out her own pile of pictures to peruse at her own space. Severus tried to parse the theme. They were mostly snaps of animals and people-less scenery.
It annoyed Severus to find himself relaxing.
"Yes, it was one of many dearly held wishes," he quipped, unfurling his fist. "I petitioned, but it must’ve been a policy issue, as the Headmaster never approved."
"That's Dumbledore again," inquired Grace. Severus paused in looking at her, and then pushed to, to cover his weakness.
Her words felt disproportionately mild. He wondered if she told her newfound son about Albus' separating them. From the boy's vapid nod, he knew she hadn't. They traded a frown and subtle nods.
"Knowing him, he probably got a kick out of you asking," Potter followed before clicking his jaw shut. Severus raised his other brow at him. Right, poisoning children. How had that come up? No tirade condemning his evil ways? Potter only resumed showing Grace his scrap of parchment.
The boy then mumbled, "You could've chanced a go at couple teachers, though, honestly. Save us all the trouble."
"What was that? Surely you don't mean to suggest I'd harm a colleague, boy."
Each measured the other up. "Well, sir: Lockhart."
"Hm." The man approached the bookcases, keeping the couch in his periphery. Potter shrugged, but did the same.
A wary look passed through the corners of their eyes, driving them further apart. Severus gave his full attention to the shelves, touching where some books were still misplaced.
"I was referring to your third year. If memory serves, you accused me of poisoning Lupin. Because of course if there is any tool a Defense expert requires, it's the paranoia of a thirteen-year-old boy."
"I didn't know you considered Remus an expert. I'll have to tell him. He'd love to know."
Mind yourself, Severus, he thought, alarmed. You might slip up and start getting along.
Seeking to distract himself from a perturbing laxity of spirit, he cast about the room again, searching for a grievance. He found Potter's bundled book in the coffee table, amid potions texts and holiday cards. Next to a blurry photo of a birthday cake sat another book, also wrapped.
This slimmer one had been thrice bound in a hideous towel and balanced on the table's outside edge.
"What is that," he said, walking up to it.
"From Lena's things. I asked Harry if she'd have a book like his for her people. He gave it a try with some spells and that fell offa the top shelf."
Grace pointed at it with her foot, but made no moves to hand it to him. Severus bent over, gripping the most heavily clothed corner. He glanced around suspiciously.
"Why is it wrapped?"
"He said it'd need blood to open, and no one's with that." Severus didn't care for Fred's casual disgust.
He also doubted that Potter could stumble upon the Prince family tree. Severus' mother admitted to losing it early in her senility. Eileen Snape had cried for days that her no-good husband had hidden it. Her son had to remind her that she'd buried Tobias six years earlier.
She died and he cast every summoning charm he knew to no avail. Whatever Potter knocked down would be an old journal or a recipe book. Severus shimmed the book out the scarf and cursed when metal-edged cover bit him.
The book landed on the carpet with a few droplets of his blood. He swore, waving down Fred's hoots of, "See! What'd I say!" Severus flexed his thumb, embarrassed to flinch from a measly paper cut.
Then the cut sealed itself and he frowned. At his feet, the book swung open and flipped to its middle.
A winter beech tree sprawled across the centerfold. Patterned, skeletal branches toted pale leaves, each decorated in cramped, thin script. He crouched to the carpet, sore thumb forgotten as he stared wide-eyed at the yellowed pages.
He then quickly realized that he had no idea what it said.
"What language is that?," inquired Potter. As always, the boy proved unable to help snooping.
It didn't endear him any that Severus had no answer. It wasn't English on those stripped boughs, even though it shared English letters.
Giving it a few experimental taps, he lifted the book and stood closer to the lights. He eventually saw what he was looking at. He knew from Narcissa that many pureblood witches were given a copy of their family's history as a gift for their husband's library. It kept the daughter connected to her lineage, and aided in the education of heirs.
Severus had never thought his mother owned such a thing. Being disowned by the Princes, what relative existed to gift a Muggle with his mother's pedigree?
Severus himself had never been raised with a great knowledge of either side. He stifled the yawning void in being a singular and defunct Prince. He'd likely never marry, and wouldn't dare curse himself with parenthood. He was likely the last of his mother's bloodline—an endling, a redundant.
He held the handwritten copy of the Prince family tree, and tried to decipher his mother's demented scrawl. His lips thinned. It was gibberish.
"Yeah, her letters was bad, too. Keep it in bleedin'—yeah, I don't want it to cut me. Hand it over."
Severus closed his eyes and held out the book. He felt furnace warm fingers steady his hand. She cleared her throat and started listing off full names and dates.
"You can read this garbled mess," Potter said incredulously. Grace winked at him and kept reciting.
Severus let her go until he heard a name he recognized. He turned and grabbed Potter's bundle, this time not flinching when the thing stupidly nipped his fingers.
Not me, he mocked. The blood magic tingled as it tastes his offering. Severus urged Potter to open the map, rolling his eyes at the bundle's free-for-all method of security.
"Hey, wait, I've gotta," Potter started, as Severus hurried to unwrap and hand him the book.
The lock snicked open while still in the man's palm and Severus snatched it back. He filtered out Potter's strangled outcry like the years at Hogwarts happened yesterday.
The covering cloth, which turned out were pajama bottoms, slackened to reveal ornate, molded gold. Severus sneered at the ostentatious binding. His own homemade tree was housed in moss-green and worm-eaten velvet. At least five inches high, the Potter book dwarfed his mother's malnourished diary.
Severus cracked it open, and presented Grace with the Potter family tree. "Which names are the same?"
The woman looked bored by now, but compared the two illustrations, acting the team player. "Jesus, fine. Not many shared names between ‘em, just—."
"Harry!" They were interrupted by rapping on the curtained window. A voice, likely female, called Potter from out in the street.
Severus flung both books at Potter, who bobbed out of the way.
"You said you hadn't been followed here,” he growled. “That sounds like following to me!"