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August 24th, 2002: Level Four, Ministry of Magic

Ding!

Mustard yellow robes twitched behind the lift gates, which promptly unfolded into the white stone hallway. The shriek of metal hinges made Remus cringe, like the crank of the lift gears, the fluttering of the memos, the stench of the Floos. Commuting to work that morning flayed his tender nerves.

His change the other night had been a rough one.

Steady on, old man. He thanked the blessed dimness of the lower levels as he stepped into the corridor. But even the reverberating clack of his shoes heels beat his brain around his skull.

Meeting eyes with the receptionist, the werewolf summoned a sorry, close-lipped smile. He neared enough to see recognition knead her wariness into smooth indifference. The sense of many peeling stares multiplying infinitely faded into the shape of a young secretary jotting notes in a binder.

Today, she wore rosy red with a pink dahlia clipped to her lapel.

Oh, flowers. That's new, he thought woozily, smiling wider. She graced him with an acknowledging nod, and perhaps a quirk in one cheek. Was that a smile back? He pressed a hand to his chest, truly touched.

"Good morning, Janice! I see you're in early," he greeted a bit too loudly. They both winced. His voice echoed off the walls and the glass embassy door, inducing an odd motion sickness which made his middle cramp.

"Hardly early, Mister Lupin," Janice answered, covering an ear and rolling open a drawer. She spoke and found business to tend to in the files there. "It's quarter ten. You're over an hour late."

Remus chuckled and tried to look casual while he took a breather. He leaned, panting, with a scarred hand against her desk. "Am I? Goodness, I should hurry in then."

"Miss Granger called ahead that she would come in late as well. She asked to return this to you should you arrive first."

She handed him a book from the drawer—ah, "The New Witch's Broomstick: Magical Eroticism in the 20th Century." He laughed again at Hermione's thank you note Spellotaped to the cover. Her curly handwriting stuck strategically over a cartoon witch in flagrante with the devil. Remus smiled down at the book, tickled by where time had brought him.

"What am I teaching these days, eh?" The new skin on his fingers shone pink with the lady's dahlia. He shook his head and thanked Janice as he passed.

The hike to his office was laborious, but he managed to drop behind his desk before the fireplace pinged. He rubbed a hand over his face and grinned tightly, accepting his first meeting of the day.

By noon, he and Mastersbane, a thirty-two year old half-goblin, were elbows deep in ministry archive requests, having grappled with wording for over an hour.

The goblin sat mystified, comparing several sheets, gnashing pointed teeth, eyes red-rimmed and swollen. His anxiety peaked with Remus' attempts to console him. So, the werewolf restrained himself to folding his hands on a pile of shredded parchment, waiting patiently for his charge to calm down.

He'd grown to like Mastersbane over the weeks since taking his case. The adult son of a Gringotts manager and a curse breaker, he was unfazed by Remus' lycanthropy, which put the older man at ease. In return, Remus strived to find him closure.

Since childhood, the goblin was ridiculed as a hybrid Squib, made to split time between various, unsatisfying odd jobs to make due. In truth, he was a sensitive soul, an aspiring poet, who upon perfecting his first sonnet, saw it glow and take physical form. Bane came decorated in tiny, chirping stanzas that fluttered like fairies from ear point to nose tip to shaking shoulder. It had been a month now trying to register him as a wizard.

"I just don't see why it's not here," he sniffled into a dripping handkerchief. "How did I never receive a letter, I just! Don't understand!"

Remus quietly offered to dry his handkerchief, but otherwise let him cry it out. A limerick danced from the goblin's cuff to whisper in his ear. He swallowed a grin, finding the rhyme rather tawdry.

There is a theme today, it seems, he joked, letting the poem rest on his desk. "Bane, I hope you can believe that at the time, your father felt he did you a service. 1981 proved a deadly year for half-humans like yourself. Disposing of proof of your birth likely protected you."

"Don't tell me I'm lucky! No schooling, no career, can't inherit, nothing for thirty years."

Remus let his eyes flicker shut. Bane's wrenching outcry stirred up his migraine, carving the moment into glaring light and piercing sound. Oh, what the werewolf would give for a headache potion—or a sudden onset coma.

He thought of Mastersbane's traumas and pulled himself together. He had been there, many times, within the last year in fact. He lost his job teaching. He almost lost Teddy. He could help.

"Alright," he hushed, sightlessly feeling through parchment. His finger brushed against one note, which tripped away tittering couplets, then another. He pinched the last sheet and held it up.

"So, the archive request—hopefully this is it. It's a long shot, but are you still willing to try? If the ministry can find some record of a great clan welcoming, we can at least prove magic on your mother's side."

"How much does it cost?" Remus caught the hitch in the poet's voice. Ooh, he knew that hurt. Valiant, he peeled his eyes open to grimace somewhat reassuringly.

"Not a Knut. We can waive request fees with proof of hardship." He'd fought hard for that power. It was worth the late night proposals to see the fear release Bane in a sigh.

"It'll be alright," Remus assured him. "If this doesn't work, we can try something else. We'll petition Hogwarts for its records if need be. I know the Headmistress personally, and she's been very accommodating with welcoming lost students home."

This sent Bane into another volley of tears, these ones likely of relief. Remus shepherded the tizzy of living poems while their creator sobbed into his shirt.

The werewolf held the handful of tickling parchment, enjoying the tiny wings beating on his palms.

"You should know," he shared softly, "there are legends of how affinity starts, and it isn't too far off from this. The great houses will tell you it's all great lords and ladies, but oral histories say it only takes one person connecting almost spiritually to create a gift.

"Goblin runic magic and human animism made these little friends. Without a wand and with no training. Your children may all be great poets such that define generations."

Bane shivered and, eyes leaking, considered his hands.

Once alone, the werewolf cleaned his desk and sighed. Finally, quiet, except for the soothing flap of the files returning to their nests. His partner wouldn't be in until the evening, so Remus took the opportunity to lay his head down on the cool wood grain. He slipped into a doze until the next happy ping! woke him up.

"Shit! Y-yes, hullo? Madam Ragnalini, yes, about your crisalide date: I've written to the bank—."

"No, Remus, it's me. Sorry to wake you up—."

"Hermione! Oh, ack, no, you've caught me neglecting my duties. Please come in!" He brushed the cold from his eyes and wiped drool from his chin. She tended to insist he take more sick leave if she saw him in disarray. He greeted the frazzled witch warmly as she rushed in.

"Have you seen Harry?," she gasped. Remus cleared his throat, ears ringing.

"Hm? Not since yesterday, why? Is everything alright?" He furrowed his brow at her head shaking. "What's going on? Is he hurt?"

"We don't know. He's not at Number Twelve. Ron's checking in at the Burrow for him and Ginny. Have you seen this morning's Prophet at all? They're back to calling him mad. "

Remus shook his head and waved her to sit. "I haven't had the chance, although Harry gone and any mention of the Prophet tells me I should be worried."

Hermione slumped into the chair, biting her lip. "A guard recognized Harry from his visits this week and tipped off Skeeter's editor. Then Harry came to Ron yesterday looking a complete mess. The papers are saying he's snapped! He rushed in in robes and slippers, trying to report a Death Eater attack."

He went clammy. "Hermione..."

"Ron says he looked into it and it's probably fake." He sighed and deflated. She nodded, rubbing her arms for warmth. "I know, I still couldn't sleep when he told me, but Ron's sure it's a hoax and I trust him. And then Ginny ran in a couple hours after Harry, injured reeking of magic. She mentioned men in masks…"

"But where could they be recruiting?" He wondered if he and Teddy should move. Could he convince Andy to leave England? And then what about work?

"Who could be recruiting?! They're all dead or in prison!"

"Well, that could just be the ministry line. It's not outside of image management to push." Then he realized her shudder and eased off the panicked conspiracy talk. "But then, if Ron's sure, I'm sure there's good reason."

They fell silent. He matched her frown and struggled to his feet. "I'll help look. You say Ginny's also missing?"

"She had at the reporters and disappeared." She scraped her chair back and mumbled an apology when he flinched. Then she scoffed with disdain, handing him his cloak from its hook.

"Skeeter's started throwing around folie à deux. I bet she thinks she's so clever!"

They gave Janice their apologies as they passed, Hermione slowing to his careful pace. They entered the lift and she pressed for the atrium level, then asked, "Where are you planning to look?"

"I—." He stopped, head thrumming with painful adrenaline. Remus looked to her abashedly. "I've no clue, actually."

The lift opened to a swarm in the Ministry proper. Hands juggled cameras high above a tide of shaking heads and raised voices. People flooded the security desk, forcing the wizard there to stand atop his chair and ride it over the bucking crowd, howling in terror.

More guards pushed into the atrium, wands aloft, shooting flares into the air and turning the chaos into pandemonium. Bodies crested and crashed against the bank of Aurors forced into action. The two heard thundering feet and tearing robes as the mob devoured itself, drowning out any one word in a cascade of noise.

Hermione slammed the close door button and sent them back below. Remus heard a shuddering racket, gripping his chest before realizing it was him, panting through a full-blown panic.

He fell against the far wall and slid to the ground. Hermione fanned him with her hem, cursing at the scene playing out above.

"Damn! We'll have to go through your Floo." Her feet squeaked when she crouched and he saw she had on trainers. They were scuffed and ground to hell, like she'd had them since the kids' fugitive days.

Hermione bit her nail and swore again when the lift opened. The wizard space restricting the embassy to a single corridor had been expanded again. Their once echoing hall now stretched to house dozens of milling backs. Angry scarlets, deep navies, and royal purples marked the Aurors, secretaries, and other ministry officials mobbing the embassy floor.

They all shouted and complained, demanding to see one Hermione Granger at once. Blocking their path was Janice, plastered to the office door and impressing a steely resolve to end the first wizard who dared touch her.

"YOU ALL NEED AN APPOINTMENT," she hollered over the crowd. The vanguard fell back, frightened, but was pushed forth by the surge of outraged civil servants, screaming for answers.

Remus heart, which had not stopped racing, beat in triple time. He slammed into the wall of sound and felt only pain, from his locking muscles to his splitting head. Grievances pierced the thick air like shrapnel.

"What's this about Death Eaters?! Does Potter think he's some blasted comedian?!"

"He poses as his own cousin and sneaks in to consort with beasts! Where's Granger?! Her den of filth ends today!"

"Move the creature guarding the door! It can't attack us all at once!"

Remus began seeing double as the cacophony reached a climax. He took in a scrap of an apology and then went promptly deaf. He snapped open his eyelids, terrified. He saw Hermione put her wand to her own throat—and roar.

She shook the metal lift. The roar vibrated through his back touching the wall. It no doubt traveled up the lift shaft and spilled onto every level above.

He'd never seen her use the spell, though he heard tell of it from Kingsley. She shook the rafters of the Wizengamot the day she asked for Level Four. Muggles even heard it on the street above. Front page the next day would become an iconic image: young Hermione Granger in her junior robes, Sleakeazy'd mane flying loose of its bun—a young lioness bellowing forth the future.

He was grateful for her Odysseus charm plugging his ears. He didn't favor passing out in the midst of chaos.

"We need Kingsley," he hollered through the deafness, not hearing how his voice carried over the shocked silent siege.

The witch relayed his question to the mass. He read her lips: "Where's—Ron!?"

Remus peered into the mob, sure he misread. However a tall body banged into the lift, spelling the gates closed. Ron, in plain clothes, grabbed Hermione by the shoulders and shook her, yelling in her face. She drained of color and turned to the werewolf, with huge glossy eyes. The man fought his weak grip on his wand and ended the charm, eyes watering at the onslaught of screaming.

"—mus! Remus, there's been a fire! Harry and Ginny, they—!"


August 24th, 2002: Spinner's End, Cokeworth (five hours left)

The attic was hushed except for the occasional clicked tongue and the persistent scratching of a pen. Potter's one page of map had been relegated to scrap paper, Severus having flipped it to sketch ward configurations on the back. The whole, golden register had been whisked away when his borrowed biro dipped "dangerously low" to a margin. Before he could jot down a thought, he'd been barred from the thing, "double battered cousin aside."

"Are you mad?! This's like two hundred years old! No way, I remember what you did to your textbooks," the brat had tsked.

Muttering filled most of the dead air, that and a few wefts of conversation snatched from the floors below. He would eek out a rune and then scribble it out, repeating ad nauseum. He growled and crossed everything out. He couldn't piece the wards together!

Why did I chase the bloody Defense position for years?

Dark Arts he knew. Unsavory as it may be, they inspired him. He breathed potions and curses like dragons did flames. Pure defense, especially so passive as wardsmithing was simply beyond his nature.

All of his plans were unexploded mines, an array of fine triggers itching to ignite. His wards in Latvia were mostly anti-theft and privacy. But they were piled in such a way as to destroy everything secured within should he need it.

He'd laid the wards smirking at his funny little joke. Severus scowled down at his work now, annoyed by his limitations. He couldn't continue tearing down houses. Spinner's End can go, but not the people in it. Him and a hairless cat? Who cared! But the others...

He spent his time more fruitfully when dissecting Potter's map. A non-essential riddle, but at least a solvable one.

The wizard sneered, sweeping his failed sketches off his lap. Years ago he might've gone to Vector for equative advice or bothered Flitwick to discuss intents. He could never teach again, but not for the first time he missed ready access to other's expertise.

Maybe he could visit Hogwarts in the future? Ah, but that would mean rising from the dead. Minerva might fell him at the gates. It could've peeved that old battle ax to mourn a living man.

Assuming she bat an eye. Survive the night first, you drip, then consider your career moves, he resolved.

Deciding on a break, he trod over his plans and sought fresh air.

Slap, slap...creaak...slap!

He'd borrowed slippers off of Grace, refusing to resume clomping about in his father's used boots. They clapped against the heels of his feet as he tottered down the steps. He was adjusting them on the first landing when he heard a booming, "I said what I said! Go to sleep, please!"

An angry mop of curls padded toward him, tiny soles pounding through the dark. He heard the storm blow past the master bedroom and beeline for the stairs. Severus struck, gripping the child by the crown. He squeezed her head and spun her around to face him.

She greeted him with a nasty, "Ugh!"

"You don't sleep in the sitting room, girl," he drawled, letting her go. He then bridled at her indignant pout and the sudden pressure on his mental barriers.

Now awakened to the talent for Legilimency, it was fast becoming a nuisance. He snapped at her to speak aloud. The girl only pushed harder. He heard the phantom beeps of the telly game, impressions of birds and sword swinging, and resentment for a surprisingly stern Fred.

That last emotion scribbled over the "please" and multiple chances, and leaped to heated defiance. The double edged sword of speaking in thoughts meant telling on oneself more often than not.

He gave her another shock, now well rested enough to snap his shields down. For the girl it might feel like snagging a sock on a nail—no harm done with some harm lending.

Tread not, he warned, smirking at her fluster. He turned her back toward the bedroom and postured, daring her to run past again.

"Your brother said please. I will not. Try me."

She glared up at him, eyes brimming.

"Marisleny! Bed!" Severus quirked a brow at the full first name. They were past precious nicknames apparently.

The bathroom capping the second floor corridor stood open. Fred, crammed inside, twisted to glare, withdrawing a hand from the sink cabinet. It made the older man step back, curious what would happen should the girl continue to act out.

He didn't see much, however, as she simply loosed a scream of frustration and threw herself into her room, slamming the door behind her. Severus did not care much for that either, but took the little victory. His petty rage from earlier felt paid.

Fred returned to his fiddling by the sink. There was a rattle and a plastic snap, which warned Severus closer. He approached and noticed the headphones nested in the man's hair. A wire sprouted from his stringy locks and fed into a box in his sagging seat pocket.

Severus sucked his teeth. "No wonder he's yelling. They'll grow into his fool head next. Fred!"

He kept on bobbing his head to his music, growling a word or two. By now the screaming vocals could be heard much too clearly to be safe. He'd probably deafened himself after thirty-plus years of obliterating his eardrums.

The wizard snuck up and peered around his side. It rankled that he couldn't simply look over a shoulder.

Whatever Grace puts in her damn food should be outlawed. It restored more of Severus' health than was excusable given his ails, and had raised an impossibly hardy brood. Maybe she should've raised Potter. He'd bloody never die.

He watched his half-brother grip a pill foil and push a pale yellow tablet onto his palm. The man knocked the pill back with a grunt.

When he stooped to drink from the tap, Severus snaked in. Being thinner, he snatched the white box from the cabinet and retreated to a corner, out of reach. He heard a few gurgling protests, but focused on sounding out the name.

"'Rice-parry-done,' what Muggle snake oil is this?"

Fred wiped water from his shirt. He threw out a big hand, coughing, "Hand it here, now, what're you doin'?"

Severus shook the box. More foil sheets slid around inside, fit for someone's doom. "What is this for? 'Rise-pur-eye-dun.' Is it related to that other rubbish, colonic spam or what else what nearly killed your sister."

"Ris-peri-done," Fred sounded it out, pushing his headphones to hang on his neck. "Quit it, it's prescription. I ain't bout to poison myself, alright, I need it for my shit."

"It's a laxative?"

"No, my!" The Muggle hunched over the sink and guffawed. His laugh echoed—again, that irrepressible good humor. Severus eyed him warily, not seeing the joke.

He sobered up some, grinning and scratching his beard. "Nah, it's a, ah. I dunno if wizards have it, but it's an, uh, heh. An antipsychotic, for hallucinations and junk. I'm schizophrenic."

Fred leaned against the sliding shower door, holding his own wrist. Severus looked at his hands and saw them gloved in odd textures like regrown skin along faded lines of ink. They might've been a tattoos once, but now were unrecognizable.

"I don't…," the wizard started. Fred wiggled his fingers and whispered, "Ooooh!," like a bored teen telling a ghost story.

Then he went on, "It's for 'the voices.' I—did my mum ever tell you how I got the snakes?"

"Poor life choices?"

Fred beamed.

"Yeah, actually! C'mon, I'll introduce you. Yeah, I know you're puss about 'em. They're put up. They can't hurt anyone. In!"

Severus was beckoned from the corner and herded into the small bedroom. He tried to stay in the hallway but Fred swiftly yanked him inside. Several serpents hissed, striking at their tanks upon spotting him. He shivered, already feeling dewy distress break out over his body.

The narrow cot from his boyhood offered the farthest seat from any tank or rack. He stuck his gaze to the old spell burns on the ceiling. He clung to the shrunken rumbles of heavy metal rivaling the din of angry snakes.

"Oh, so you're scared, scared." Fred sat backwards on the desk chair, arms folded on the back. “Christ, what happened to you?”

Severus glowered at him, gripping the scars on his neck, swallowing sour bile. Ropes of keloid flesh rippled against his palm, feeling alien beside the flat skin prickly with many days' stubble.

"These...,” he started, fuming. “I was attacked. By a snake, a cursed snake."

"That? H—they're just animals," Fred tried to reason, but Severus swore and tossed the prescription on the sheets. "Or, or y'know, ya run into a bad handler. Or was it a safari, like a wild—."

"It—damn!" He balled his fists, driven to stand firm. He'd harvested from ashwinders. He'd defanged runespoors. None of the piffling things in the room, including the deer eating demon in the rear enclosure, had anything on Nagini.

Voldemort had personally bred that beast with nightmares. "She was more than just an animal. She was a familiar to a despot. She shared his intelligence, his will, his bloodlust. He saw through her eyes and spoke her tongue.

"I'd watched that monster eat a woman whole for her master's entertainment. And when he finally set her on me, I felt her rip out my throat and inject a poison so potent it paralyzed me for months afterwards.

"I nearly died," he ranted, forehead pouring sweat. "I thought I had. I sat trapped and bleeding in a dark shed for hours, unable to scream or cry, sure that this was it, that I'd gone to hell despite everything. And I couldn't argue unfairness.

"Even if I could, there was no one to convince. The sentence had been dealt. I felt damned and justly so, caught out and abandoned and completely, utterly fucking helpless, a terror I've yet to…"

Severus was handed an unlit cigarette. "How'd you...shit, how'd you get out?"

Seconds passed as did the fervor. As Severus cooled, an evil pain released him, and he shuddered.

"...Friends, came for me, expecting a body. I listened to them bicker over helping me. But they were the only ones to come looking, so." He listed for a while, blank of thought, before putting the cigarette in his mouth.

I have work to get doing, he meant to say. Severus waited for his feet to hit the floor and carry him to the attic. Instead, he looked up, dazed, into someone's worried face.

Fred looked grim. Was that for Severus' sake?

"Odd kinda friends, but it suits," the younger man hemmed. "Hold on, before you light that, lemme open a window. The smoke's bad for the, uh, darlings. Y'want, we can head downstairs."

"No." He felt Fred's eyes on him as he grunted, flexing his hands and glancing around the room. "Talking about it...did something."

Reliving that night and returning to comparably teeny things: it didn't make this his favorite room, no. But the Slytherin gleaned some esteem from meeting these snakes' tiny, caged eyes. Severus was bigger. Maybe not stronger, but smarter, possibly faster. None of these pets could really bother him.

Longbottom killed the real monster, and like that, the spell was broken. His limbs were light as he resettled, crossing his legs, going lax, resting his hands on his stomach.

He'd survived.

"Well, alright then," Fred snorted. "Go ahead, big man."

His brother opened the window and produced a neon Bic. Severus blew clinging smoke out to evening, fanning to help it go. Fred changed the tape in his "Walkman," playing it full volume to send some thready riffs his way.

"This has to be American," guessed the wizard, discussing the song. "Or else the nineties were a completely parallel universe."

"They were, but no, yeah, this's from New Orleans. It's a change from the classics, but it's good. I can't believe you've never owned music! You've got a little ear for it, mate."

"Nn." He pulled from his dinner and coughed. He answered while slapping his chest, "Wh—ha! What money? What store? I didn't touch real money until twenty...one? But by then I'd had a notorious trial and gone into teaching, damn papers shouting down my appointment. I don't blame them now, but then?

”Besides, I had no wish to play Muggle, and no good wizard would sell to me.”

Severus paused.

"It just dawned on me. I don’t think I enjoyed anything but work and misery until…," he considered his cigarette. "This. Until this bloody smoke. No, in fact, not until your mother's soup."

"Oh, yeah, Mum can throw down. But really!? Miserable all this time, and you're how old?"

"Forty-two."

"Forty fuckin' two! No fun till ya forties, what a bleedin' trip." Fred shook his head, amazed. "I had too much fun, I guess, but none at all is wild. Look, how's about we all survive, kick hitman arse and throw like a party or summit later?"

Severus snorted. "Stupid. Hell of a party you'd throw. Your music is a health hazard. I don't believe you've mentioned even drinking once."

"Sober eight years!"

"Sounds less like any party I’ve been to and more like a group nap. Except for these." Severus picked up the Muggle medicine and gave it over. "For the 'voices.' I didn't know your doctors could treat that."

"Yesss," Fred said, dragging out the 's' as if leaking air. The wizard jumped when a few of the snakes hissed and slithered in response. He squinted into the boa's box. It wiggled its forked tongue and puffed almost curiously, nose poked out of its coils.

"Do magic doctors have this? I mean, do wizards have mental," Fred twiddled fingers by his temples, "Yeah?"

Severus reluctantly pulled his gaze from the boa once it tucked its head into its hide, long body following after: "Absolutely, yes. Some have gone famously insane—but it's all Cheering Charms or padded rooms over there."

"That's fuckin' outrageous."

Confident the snakes were quelled, he tipped his cigarette as a gentleman would a hat. "We suffer for the art. Plus, we have government recognized Seers and all, so I suppose 'hallucinations' seem a Muggle ailment next to all that."

"Garbage to ignore your problems, though, if a wizard can do—what can ya do, exactly?"

"Anything," Severus smiled coldly.

Fred fidgeted with a notebook while he ruminated on this fact. Some of the polish had rubbed off his shining attitudes. It seemed the state of magical mental health care really weighed on his heart. 

Severus watched and smoked until his cigarette was done. He stubbed the butt out on his slipper and pocketed it to throw out later.

"Don't keep it! There's a bin right there."

Severus looked at the trash, overflowing with balled and crumpled paper. It looked like sheet music for the most part, most of the notes crossed out. Apparently, he wasn't the only one lacking in inspiration that night.

"So when did you start hearing voices?," he asked instead, flicking a tune off the pile.

His brother hummed and tapped a beat out on the chair. "Depends on which ones you mean, I guess. Like, some voices went in and out since I was a kid. I heard 'em clear as day for a while and then not as much in London, a lot since I got clean.

"It isn't always a problem problem for those, since they don't ask for anythin' dangerous. They just tell me, uh, I dunno."

"You hear them now." Severus nearly checked the room for anyone but them and the reptiles. He restrained his silly impulse.

"Yep, like," Fred pointed to one rack to their right, at the first of six clear plastic drawers, "The rat snake in there, she's been off feed for a couple weeks. Stressed from moving and lots of new smells. Right now I'm hearin', 'Live mice! I want live mice!'

"But it's harmless, that—just chatter. It's not makin' me want to eat the mice myself. So I'll thaw some later, throw it in there, get a little 'thanks.' It's nothing bad."

The wizard sat up straight, incredulous. "You think you can hear the snake's thoughts?"

The Muggle wiped his nose on his sleeve, leg bouncing. "Don't make me feel crazy, Rev. The pills aren't for that, anyway. That doesn't go away. I just listen to music and tune it out, but medicine don't touch that.

"It's for other things, horror movie, brain-on-fire, 'everyone's out to get me' shit. I used drugs for a long time, and it warped whatever I already had goin' on. Pills and not drinkin', that's for the drug voices. To keep me at home."

"A foil of little pills is all the help you get?"

"I got my family, man!," he shouted.

He beat his chest like a wrestler and started punching the air. "They're my superpower! The pets help, too. Way too many macho junkies buy snakes for show. I mean, I ain’t too much better."

He flexed, David and Goliath. Then he dropped his arms and laughed. "But I do take 'em in, get 'em better, keep who—heh, who 'speaks to me.' Takin' care of things, that's what I do. I stay on my meds, I own my shit, and now I can help with Laney and move us to this house—."

"My house," snarked Severus. "That you'd all be under without me."

"That you'd be alone in without us! See, it's fuckin' symbiosis. Snakes and springtails. It's, whatever, it's life. Complicated. Ahh, feels good, all this love!"

"Don't be obscene."

Fred smacked his knee, which Severus pulled out of reach, shocked but hardly hurt. "I don't wanna talk about bad memories anymore, hey. I got another pack off Zed, so here, smoke it up. Just aim outside."

Severus rolled his eyes and watched the younger man round the room.

He realized with residual sick, as Fred passed the glass tanks, that the serpents within seemed to follow him with their heads. He called Fred back to make sure, and as he suspected, the snakes turned their shiny heads, flicking tongues when he crossed the room, eyebrows raised.

Severus leaned on his knees at this point, staring at them, brows furrowed. Then asked, "What do these—would you say kinder?—voices sound like?"

Fred slid the top off of a tank and reached inside. The royal python the man favored slid out from a hide of fabric leaves. It met his questing fingers with a lick.

"How do you mean 'sound'? They're just words. No one's really sayin' them."

Then the Muggle bent his head and hissed into the tank. The python bobbed once and hissed back.

Severus bolted to his feet. "What are you saying!?"

"Ah! What!? Nothing!" The snake flicked at Severus and receded puffing into a cave. "Yeah! Why are you yellin'?"

He thought on the Potter's map, drawn seemingly without sense. It had an inexplicable lack of Dursleys paired with the obvious presence of Hedgerots.

Both Muggle, unless…An image of a grand ward formed in Severus' mind.

It wound a serpentine path around Spinner's End, buried in the smoky dark of the street outside. It looped through the woods, its giant head brushing the treetops and then plunging underground, passing between the feet of a great wolf, striking out and upwards through the gallop of a mighty stallion.

It came to rest by where it began and, yawning, surged forward to take its own tail in its mouth.


"Potter, wake up!"

Harry shouted and tumbled to the floor. He blinked blearily up at the haze crouching over him.

"Wah?" He'd been thrown from a perfect sleep. The couch managed to fit Ginny in between himself and the cushy back rest. Warmth from the borrowed quilt still wrapped his foot, now trapped under Ginny's bottom.

His girlfriend mumbled awake and scratched her fiery bedhead. "Snape? We fight—are we fighting!?"

Both shot up, wands out. Harry fumbled for his glasses while Ginny scanned frantically for enemies. The glasses were dropped onto his head with a curt, "Upstairs!"

Ginny covered his back while he took off for the staircase. Snape had left it wide open, clearing the way for them to shoot towards the fight.

"Where!?," Harry called, shoving on his glasses and propelling up the steps.

"First landing, end of the hall! Quickly!"

Ginny scrambled up behind him, Snape barking directions at the rear flank. The group hurried, Stunners primed on their lips. Their wands sparked bright red. Harry and Ginny skid into a bedroom at Snape's urgent, "Left!"

They dropped into a shooting stance, hearts thudding, panting, raw-edged for battle.

"Hey! What's this!"

Harry staggered, floored. Freddy lounged in a chair next to them, cradling a snake by his face.

“What’s happened?,” he gasped. Freddy shrugged, a forked tongue flicking at his upper lip.

The young hero looked around and found tons of snakes, one huge one and dozens smaller. They were in clean, elaborate tanks designed like miniature deserts and forests. Very pretty, and not a single enemy in sight.

"Aww, see, I told him not to wake ya. Rev, they're guests."

Harry clutched a stitch forming in his side and stumbled to face the hall. Snape skulked in behind them, a thick book under each arm. He plunked the texts on the writing desk for Fred's chair, spinning them to point right. First he dropped a burgundy, fabric-bound encyclopedia.

Then, stacked on that, he placed Harry's—their—the Potter register.

"The hell's this?," Harry wheezed.

"Watch your mouth. Sit over there." Snape gestured to a sorry cot and started flipping through the books.

Harry wobbled, adrenaline still pumping. He looked to Ginny who went to the open window and leaned out, searching the street below.

"There's nothing," she said, confounded, battle-flushed to her collarbone. "Is there no—why—! Sleeping! We were sleeping!"

Snape ignored her and pointed to the cot again, all the while rummaging in his jeans pockets. Harry gaped as he pulled out a pack of cigarettes and tapped one into his palm.

He then stuck it in his mouth, but didn't light it. It just jutted from his lips while the man ran a thumb down the Potter family map.

"Are you still a Parselmouth?," asked the git.

"Wha, I?! Why would I be? It was Voldemort's stuff. He's dead, remember?"

"Oh, goodness, is he?,” Snape drawled, “It must've slipped my mind. I know that, idiot. Have you tried practicing Parseltongue since then?"

Finally, Snape looked at him. For some elusive, unknowable reason, he was annoyed with Harry as if the young man had actually shaken him from a luxurious dead sleep.

Harry couldn't believe it! He dragged his feet to the bed and climbed into the covers. Ginny sighed and followed suit, sitting on his legs.

"What's going on?," she groaned, rubbing her eyes.

"I dunno."

Snape snapped, "Potter! Answer me! Have you tried speaking Parseltongue since the war?"

He groaned and rolled over, pulling the ragged blanket up to his chin. It smelled like cigarette smoke and men's body spray. "Maybe, as a joke. Hsssshh-htshhsssusu. To freak people out, not with an actual snake."

"Fuck me! She's listenin'!"

Harry peeked over. The thick patterned snake unwound from around Freddy's wrist and wavered his way, head aiming for him, tongue flickering earnestly. She anchored her body on the man's arm and smelled Harry, who shrunk into the cot.

"Boy, do you bring foodsssss?," she hissed.

He blinked slowly.

"I guess it stuck," he grumbled, unimpressed. "She says she's hungry."

"I know!," Freddy shouted, eyes wide with awe. "Holy shit, I heard her!"

"You've been hearing her," growled Snape. Then a thunk and a paper shuffle later, "Jormungand!"

Is this a dream? I don't think that bit was English, Harry thought. He switched sides and propped up on an elbow. The snakes complained about the noise—shouting, thumping, squeaky bedsprings.

"Husshhh!"

"Noisy humans!"

"Live mice! Is that live mice? Warm and crunchy!"

Harry didn't miss the skill this much. Regular snakes rarely made good conversation. This wasn't, "rip and tear!,” but he still preferred people—or sleep.

Ginny had crawled between Harry and the wall, curled up and returned to sleep. He gave up half the blanket and was prepared to let her be and follow soon after.

"Don't get too comfortable. You'll be helping me with the wards, all of you."

"Huh?"

Snape stabbed the map with his finger. Harry winced. The map wouldn't care for so much rough treatment. He wondered if he could claim some right as the Head Potter, hide the book from Snape, and forbid the man from touching it.

“What’re you talking about?,” he asked again.

"Every person in this bloody house has magic!” He met the wizard’s eyes, not sure if heard right. The black glittered madly:

“If those two, shoddy goons so much as breathe on one brick, one blasted shingle, I will give up and end myself!"