Severus had very few occasions to be so, but that night, he was elated. The wards worked.
In retrospect, it was a long shot. As he’d chanted, vying for Hel’s attention, he didn’t hear any goddess’s voice or his family’s dead like he’d expected. Instead, when biting hoarfrost crept up his body and he began to go blind, he weathered a few moments thinking he’d made a fatal mistake.
He hadn’t studied enough or been cautious enough or altogether fell short. Trying to sow something he barely understood, he felt his roots growing cold, the wintry soil unyielding. Hel wanted him. She’d judged him unworthy and pitilessly claimed him to keep.
Severus had expected a tough invocation, but a quick one. That was his arrogance. He’d bounded into his real demise. Still, he pushed on, his awareness of the others fading as he entered a numb grayspace. There was no stopping once he’d started, not with who he’d picked.
Time bent oddly, and he’d only had an impression of wailing and packed earth. He couldn’t see the kitchen, or even his own feet, and wondered when feeling the close, dirt walls if he lie in his own grave.
Maybe the summoning already failed and now he was a nightmarishly self-aware corpse. Maybe all he could look forward to was an eternity of rotting. Bugs and grime and loneliness and...
Well, isn’t this familiar, he had thought, surprised by his own self-control.
He felt far less panicked than he could ever expect. But despite the requisite terror of possibly having died, which he had known once already, this wasn’t his worst scrape.
Yes, this was a great danger to his immortal soul, and for that he was sorry. But so had been taking the Dark Mark, and that proved generally fixable.
Here he could at least speak. Moreover, he wasn’t torn open and choking on his own blood. Strange that his hours in the Shack could prepare him for anything else. Here he’d spent years only a fraction of who he had been, which itself was only the semblance of a man—and all with some purpose.
Severus pushed aside his emotions—cold dread, hot embarrassment, and sinking despair—and kept chanting. Soon wailing rose around him. Drawn out and agonized groans seeped through the dirt walls, driving into him with fury taut as bowstrings.
Ah, Severus realized. The test of self continued as Severus heard his ancestors through the soil.
“The Prince line, reduced to rubbish!”
“Put him down! The arrogant disgrace!”
This wasn’t exactly pleasant to hear from the ghosts of his estranged family. They materialized out of the dirt, teeth gnashing, all yellowed collars and torn frills.
His vision upped its intensity. It tried to convince him that everything since the Shack had been a long and shyly hopeful dream; that he was awake now, his dream dissipated; and that he would be paralyzed again, split open and abandoned, no longer suffered now with all his uses exhausted.
And these were the people he’d join: a legacy of souls nobody would cry for, dogpiled underground, forgotten by the living.
He scoffed at most of it, but a single worry caught him. Did his mother escape this misery? Or was she dragged here to be hated when she died?
He searched the twisted faces for his mother’s and didn’t find it. Could Severus have saved her by burying her by the ocean, out of sight of her family plots?
Or did blood bring them all here when it cooled? Past the dead Princes, he saw Snapes, and beyond them, dispassionate and favored by golden light that cast their shadows with upturned noses into the hollow below—not Potters, surely?
Of course they died too, and famously. So, they would be there in the distance, if they and Severus were truly related. But seeing them broke the vision’s hold on him again. He’d be damned if they were any family of his!
He thanked Merlin that his spite outweighed his terror.
The dead jeered, but he hardly cared for their opinion. He chanted on, meaning them every disrespect.
And then he felt the sting on his cheek, and something collapsed. His grave? The house? No, him, his body. The dead were more real than Severus’s side hitting the floor. But once he fell, the angry spirits piled atop him, and he rolled over and they clawed at him.
A dozen evil hands encircled his neck. The collar of cold broke on his scars, where the nerves were deadened and he prayed that he hadn’t died yet .
It was an unsure thing, but on some level, he was still in the kitchen. He had a chance of surviving, maybe even succeeding.
Severus was glad for Occlusion, which pooled silvery calm about his consciousness. He withdrew into it, far from his body and the vision, and found his own memory of his beseeching as adapted from Trixibelle’s guide. He was sure he only needed one last push.
“Hel, under the earth, She and Her sovereign, a tyrant above the dead: as You rule the crimes of Your siblings, take to them those who would End me.
“Find me unrelenting, or have me. Hone me in your likeness, icy and resolute. Reveal them, or have me laid bare.”
Severus stopped feeling his body. He didn’t mind it, since now he could concentrate without feeling his accruing aches. The wizard couldn’t know that he’d just left his body entirely. He chanted, strong in purpose, doggedly pursuing victory. Meanwhile, Zinnia chased his soul around the kitchen, while Fred fumbled in his hoodie pockets for a light.
“Take stock around my fire and the blood which braves the night. Should one among them not weep for me, so interred, I will return to You. Should one…”
He realized then that Grace may not have started her ritual. Without her enacting her role as head of house, he was screwed. She’d need to stop yelling at him, for one, and light a fire with all of the them in mind. Once they had something of a hearth, their wards could come together.
But if she failed to burn her page, he was dead. If she burned it and didn’t think of him, he was also dead.
Severus hadn’t lied when he said the only danger would be to him. Evoking so many chaotic forces could threaten them all, and so in his design, the only promises of sacrifice were ones he made himself.
But even then, without the others honestly caring about him, he was lost. He entertained that very nasty notion of faith and, lacking other options, had to commit. He relaxed again into calmness and finished speaking.
“Should one among them not seek me, so Unseen, have me attend Your halls until the last life is Yours. But if so, if so, lend me Your strength.”
The dead evaporated. But then, Severus could say now that they never mattered. He hadn’t bothered with a birthright since he was a teen. And self-knowledge and power and belonging, those desires hiding behind heritage, he’d found elsewhere.
Not in Voldemort, or Dumbledore, where he expected it, but then, that might’ve been for the best.
Severus shot awake, swearing. Something fast and heavy slapped the air out of him, and he sat sputtering on the floor. A crack and he heard Weasley’s voice, although he didn’t follow what was being said. He stood, holding his neck, wiping spittle and soil from his cheek.
He took in the room and saw it, the flame. He huffed, surprised. He hadn’t thought it’d be so colorful. Purple: a royal color. He smirked, more than a little smug.
Severus had some time to admire it up close. He tried to see what part of him made it, and assumed the almost black. But then, they all had a bit of unspoken dark to them. The deep shades could just as easily be him or Zinnia, or Grace’s struggles, or Fred’s past.
The house came under attack, but the people in it were fine. They chatted on around the fire, with Severus thinking to goad Grace into speaking. He knew she had the two voices and wanted to hear them for himself. She only looked askance at him and thinned her lips.
Regardless, seeing Grace hold the fire in her hands, and it sparking with all their colors save—he counted quickly—two, he rejoiced. They had a hearth, a spirit to define their household by.
The group itself had grown measurably stronger, since Weasley seemed revived from her injuries. Severus felt fantastic compared to being dead. The worst of it had passed and he could feel the house’s reinforcements. Grace marshaled the awakened powers well.
They weren’t finished, of course. Without Jormungand, enemies could still touch the house past its first defense. And as potent as he suspected Marisleny’s work may be, he didn’t imagine a child as having enough power to stop a determined, fully trained adult.
“You can’t hear him. I can tell you he’s a rich boy who just tripped on his own damn feet.”
Severus turned to Zinnia and couldn’t suppress a fiercely proud grin. She’d done her part, he knew from the flame, and to fantastic effect.
To hear a person in the tree line was by and far impressive enough for him. But she had the attacker’s affect and his movements, all in one. She had the strength and sharpness of judgement.
The wizard had no more concerns for the turn out of the night. Him alone at full capacity assured him that they’d survive. He added to that Zinnia, an offensive force by Muggle means and now imbued with superhuman senses, plus the Swift Wind ward in the sitting room.
With the girl’s work to stun and confuse the attackers, Severus refused to think a whit more on danger or defeat.
He only felt a new kind of excitement building in him. It was one part academic curiosity, the scientific urge to observe this new magic at work. It was also the vibrancy of creation, an artistic passion he didn’t often indulge in without the brace of scholarship. And yes, it was the thrill of power, something he could never deny.
But beyond even that, he reveled in the allure of the unknown. What had they created, he wondered. He chomped at the bit to find out.
Severus strode into the yard, marking the coming softness of dawn on the horizon. Every night lightened into blue, he knew, and in the daytime all this new mysterious power would feel alien. But now during his time, Severus walked into the woods, invigorated by the spells zipping past him.
It was oppressively dark there, the promise of the day lost in the girl’s lightless maze. Severus sank into it, stalking the flashes of red to their source. He laughed when he heard a stumble. It was as Zinnia described. The attacker could barely stay upright, he was so afraid.
“No! Don’t—help!” The assailant turned tail. Their meeting became a hunt.
Severus pushed harder into the dark. He could see the shape of trees and, under the spell, heard the critters bother the pricking nettles. Twigs and the odd bit of litter crunched underfoot as he kept a merciless pace.
The fleeing attacker’s back came closer, although he heard more than saw him as he passed in and out of the illusion. He could pick out the panting and panicked shouts, and dodged the occasional spell thrown to drive him away.
The other man must be camouflaged. Severus was practically on top of him and saw nothing.
Severus stopped. He knew that whine: “Draco!”
“Get away! Get away from me!”
Another Stunner flew from the trees, flying over his shoulder. This one brushed close enough to sting the wizard’s ear.
Severus searched the trees for the boy’s frightened face. He didn’t pick up any hints of anemic paleness or pointed features, which would surely stand out in the dark. Continuing to be unsure—why would that child be here —he wondered if this was a trick. Perhaps the hired killers had assumed the form of someone he knew, to throw him off.
He wouldn’t fall for it. Severus pursued more viciously now, unsheathing his wand and slashing at the shrubbery. All that could be heard besides running creatures and panting was the march of splintering branches and sizzling spellfire hitting on the ground.
The hunt led him into a copse of stooped rowan, by a footpath feeding a creek. He tread lightly, keeping to the shadows. An unseen person ran splashing into the water, screaming with the icy cold shock.
“Finite Incantatem, ” Severus casted.
Instantly, the blindingly blond head covered in smoldering leaves reflected the gibbous moonlight. Severus cursed at Lucius’s son thrashing in a grubby puddle. Draco squawked, tripping on the far bank and crawling, grasping at roots to pull himself up.
Severus scowled, brimming with unspent, violent energy having cornered the wild goose in the chase.
Magic yanked the boy by his ankles and hoisted him into the air. He swung, stunned, and yammering as soon as Severus stepped from the shrubs. He plucked the boy’s wand from the creek and forged ahead.
“Y-you get back! Traitor! Thief! M—You won’t get away with this!”
“Shut your fool mouth!,” he snapped, quickening his pace.
Hissing at the cold water, Severus realized, in all his haste, that he’d gone out still in his slippers. Growling, he made them into shoes and took on the stones on the creek bed. He closed on Draco, grabbing the fool up by his lapel. Spinning his wand, those mud-splattered, short-heeled boots came down to parody standing.
He leaned well into the boy’s ruddy face, and said softly, “A traitor, am I?”
Tearful grey eyes glared back at him.
“Don’t you touch a hair!”
Severus jerked Draco and himself away as a jet of nitrous blue magic cut toward them from the trees. They landed together on the bank, the boy’s pinned feet upending both of them.
He grunted, throwing off the extra weight. He jumped to his feet and faced Narcissa, lip curling. Someone had mentioned her as out to get him. He left Draco there on the ground, petrifying him for good measure. Severus didn’t need him leaping into action to help his mother.
Speaking of, the woman cast another nitrous curse from the rowan. He dodged again, and again, falling back as she threw one spell after another. She looked harried, her usually fine do a shambles, and her robes, much abused, coated in dirt. Bent stays belted her bodice, along with a broad hoof print stamped across her chest.
Severus winced. She’d met with Sleipnir. From her rounded back and labored breathing, he imagined her in considerable amount of pain.
He attempted to cross the creek. She struggled for perfect posture, teeth bared and pink with blood.
The creek exploded. It came down, showering the wizards in murky water, garbage, and a few former fish. Severus was blown back and pelted with gravel.
“You bloody bastard! You con artist! You, you!”
All this for a few ugly paintings!?, he thought incredulously. Using the mist of burning creek as cover, he returned to the woods to watch.
Narcissa staggered across the pit blasted into the forest floor. She fell on her knees, dragging exploded fish off her son’s face. Severus balked at her mournful expression. Had Draco been hurt?
“Are you alright,” she panted, freeing him.
The boy sputtered to life and whispered something, supporting his mother’s side. He narrowed his eyes, even more confused to see Draco was fine. Had she hit her head? What was she tearing up for?
He didn’t know the woman to cry, not in childbirth nor under Cruciatus. If she hurt physically, she hid somewhere, or stood straight and went quiet, cool as a cat close to death. He found it a hilarious quirk, given how she minced no words about things not quite to taste. If she hurt, well, non -physically—and truly, not just for show—she stayed about as quiet. Only if she hurt enough did she lash—oh.
“Oh, please,” he complained under his breath. “This could only be about the damn house. You’re rich, woman, buy a new one!”
If he’d known it meant that much to her, he would’ve only sold the silver. Maybe a vase, she wouldn’t miss one. Severus had been legally dead! She could understand needing funds to make his own way.
He chanced creeping closer and grimaced when she screamed. She spun around and blasted the creek again, spraying clay everywhere.
“I ask you to return one stupid favor, and you...”
And there she went, crying again! He heard a delicate sniffle and coughed, discomfited. Luckily, she hadn’t heard it.
Wrapped up in her moment, she snatched a comb from her hair and threw it away. It hit a flat stone and shattered, and like flipping a switch, Narcissa sagged onto Draco’s rigid shoulder, giving over to a gothic despair.
Severus couldn’t fathom it. Stealing pretty nonsense and heading out on his own: what else could she expect from him? He wasn’t a perfumed Krup with a bow on his tails, to wait loyally by the door till she came home.
Hell, until Wednesday, “home” was a filthy, four-letter word.
Opting to approach silently, he walked heel-to-toe down the slope. He came as close as the hem of her robes, which he rolled his foot onto and pinned to the ground. He waited for her to pause in her sobbing.
It took a minute for her to finally dab at her eye and wrinkled her nose at her wet fingers.
“Narcissa,” he greeted firmly.
Draco shouted, gripping his mother’s arms. Narcissa tried to leap away but was caught by his foot on her skirts. The robes were embroidered brocade, and held fast when he leaned his full weight on his heel.
“Damn you!,” she spat, leveling her wand with his head. Draco hesitated and then followed her lead, training his wand on Severus’s chest.
He frowned and crossed his arms, done with the dramatics. Both Malfoys looked seasick. Narcissa, at the very least, leaned dangerously to one side and needed her injuries treated.
“If you must,” Severus sneered in lieu of asking. Then he silently cast a shield charm and waited to be hit.
His stoicism threw them off their guard. Tugging futilely at her hem, Narcissa glowered at him and hissed for Draco to try disentangling her.
Severus stared down at the pureblood scion hovering over his nondescript, foam shoe. It was no finely tooled dragonhide with brass eyelets and finished laces, but he’d be damned if the boy laid a finger.
“The audacity,” Narcissa muttered, taking after her dearly departed sister. “Filthy halfblood!
“Careful,” he warned.
Draco glanced between the two of them and backed away from his foot. Severus approved of his good sense. Narcissa did not.
“Draco, I have been captured!”
Severus sighed, dropping his arms. “No, you’ve been erratic. Cut the hem, hex my foot, Apparate—strike me down! I’ve done nothing to waylay you except stand here and frown.”
He motioned to his foot and made a show of lifting it. He placed it square against his other one and spread fingers, mouthing, “Wow!”
Narcissa swayed. Draco pushed her upright, and it soured Severus’s stomach. He hadn’t thought of her when he set up the wards. On one hand, he was glad they worked. However, “too well” was a phrase to seriously consider.
“If we are done here, you might as well come inside,” he suggested. “We could heal—.”
She spat at his feet. Severus raised both brows at the glob, taken aback. The prim woman deplored such vulgar gestures. What did he do? Did he sell a family heirloom?
“I’ll curse that rat-infested hovel until it’s less than what you left me!”
“Yes, as you’ve lived so pitifully in your great mansion enshrining centuries of accumulated wealth. I only stand before you in my dead father’s clothes and Transfigured flip flops, but of course, yes, Narcissa, how I weep for you.”
“It’s not about the bloody money!”
“Mother, please,” Draco mumbled, reaching across to grasp her wand hand. It trembled. “I think, maybe…
Severus only watched the exchange, wishing a bit too minorly that he could better hold his tongue.
“Gods, calm down, woman.”
A curse blistered the air, sailing past his cheek. The knife cut he’d healed with dittany peeled open again but didn’t bleed. The small vessels had welded shut.
He rephrased expeditiously, “I only mean...we should do this in a more, well, secure place.” He cleared his throat under her scorching ire. “There are hired wands after me—.”
“I know, you idiot! I warned you about them!”
“That—yes, you did. I know you did, in your pretentious, coded letters.”
“Pre—you have a lot of nerve calling other people pretentious! They were coded for both of our benefit, even though you barely responded! And I assumed they were read. Well! Now I know they were!”
She stabbed him with her wand, not enough to break skin, but certainly enough to bruise.
“I told you about trouble brewing weeks ago, and how did you repay me, Severus? You threw over our entire plan, sold everything, and vanished!”
Plan?, he wondered, peeved. What plan? Purebloods and their ridiculous affectations.
The wizard thought back and couldn’t recall any remarkable scheme. If he were truthful, he could only remember flower talk. He’d followed the saga of her geraniums quite loosely, and beyond that, had been assured that her writing meant she was likely alive and well.
Aware of it all having secret meaning, he would need to study them further to accurately respond.
In either case, he had no part in throwing over whatever plan she had cooked up for them. If his role proved so vital as to sustain the whole thing, maybe Narcissa should’ve followed up in person.
No, don’t say that, cautioned his voice of reason, holding him perfectly still. Don’t ask what the plan is. Don’t treat her like a fool. It will upset her. You know it will upset her. Simply focus on acquiring her help.
She tried to blow me up, he contested.
There, case closed. Severus looked down at his nails, and started digging the forest out of them.
“I don’t know what plan you’re talking about,” he sighed. “If I did, I would admit to abandoning it. You saved my life at risk to your family, and remain one of the only two—ugh, friends —I have left in this world. The only two, perhaps. The least I owe you is honesty.”
Narcissa had simply gone icy. It was Draco viewing him with leaf-littered disdain that really worried him. He expected surprise or disappointment. Dislike seemed a bit much.
“Why lie?,” Draco accused. “You know about my father! You know about the divorce! You probably read my letters as you delivered them, so you know he tried to win me over! Just admit you were scared of him and ran off!”
“I already said I have no idea what you mean,” Severus pushed back. “Lucius mentioned the divorce during our visit and he would give you your way.”
And then he ribbed me for an hour and bragged about how easily he bribed his guard.
Severus was uncomfortable showing Narcissa his back. However, had he been less so, he would’ve left them for Spinner’s End, regardless of if they followed. He had a far less personal attack to prepare for, and had started to look forward to it.
“We can cry about this here, or we can go inside before we’re all caught in the open unawares.” The wizard gave them a couple paces, looking pointedly back across the creek.
Neither pureblood budged. Even Draco seemed genuinely turned against him.
“I won’t beg, but you do need to heal. Had we finished the wards, you wouldn’t be standing.”
Narcissa glanced at her handiwork and back to him.
“Who is ‘we’?,” she asked. Draco tensed, covering more of her body. Severus sucked him teeth. She looked stubborn and defeated, a worrisome combination.
“If you agree to come, I’ll tell you.”
“Then I don’t need to know.”
He prepared for another curse, strengthening his shield. However, Narcissa rested against her son, who led her to a log and eased her down onto it. She gasped as she sat, fingers fluttering over her chest. Perhaps unwisely, Severus muttered a spell in her direction.
The three of them heard her ribs creak and swallowed nervously. Narcissa shivered and closed her eyes.
“I,” Severus tried again, “I obviously broke your trust—.”
“Stop talking to me,” she whispered, rubbing her sternum. He went quiet. “No, actually...tell me.
“You’re a misanthropic ghost with no connections or sense of finery. You wouldn’t know a reputable collector from a Knockturn peddler in a frock coat. So how did you strip the house so quickly ?
“And why return here of all places, when that money could take you anywhere? To mock me…”
Severus looked up. Dawn approached.
“That money is all but gone at this point,” he hummed. “Rent, food, mail delivery, rare books, quality ingredients, this and this and that and another thing.
“I mostly live—lived—on advances from publishers and regular commissions.”
Draco choked. “You spent hundreds of thousands of Galleons in two weeks!?”
Narcissa stopped rubbing, her fingers on her lips. “How…? You don’t…”
She waved, encompassing all of him. Severus quirked a brow, vaguely aware of an insult. Still, he made himself clearer. Only some of his tastes were that costly, and none he could stand satisfying.
“To set it straight, I robbed you nearly four years ago. This doesn’t frame me as any better of a friend, mind. But it had nothing to do with this plan of yours.
“That house was simply insufferable. It wasn’t...I didn’t fit.”
“So, you sold everything.”
Severus nodded, finally feeling the outer wall of his loneliness. It bordered all of him, but looking over, was surmountable. Taking a deep breath, he employed his most unpleasant recourse. He apologized.
“Maybe I should have written you when I was feeling,” he looked away with a sharp sniff, “ alone . I took liberties with your possessions. I am sorry.”
“I don’t care about the things, Severus. I thought you left me.”
They met eyes. Creatures rustled. A fish gasped in the filling trickle of the creek.
“I wasn’t aware.”