Severus led the trek back to Spinner’s End, burdened by his own feet heavy from crashing adrenaline. Sharp rocks jabbed the soles of his feet through his foam shoes, punishing every reluctant drag.
He sucked his teeth, reversing the spell so that he trampled the balding footpaths a smidge more respectfully in thick flip flops, only for leaves and troublesome twigs to worm between his toes and under his arches.
The wizard cursed softly. Narcissa judged his petty predicaments.
“Serves you right for blazing through the forest in slippers and rags,” she said snidely, lifting a pale brow at him in his borrowed clothes and then looking down, watching her own feet.
Beside him, the purebloods tiptoed over Muggle litter claimed by the Cokeworth woods—beetle homes made from crushed beer cans; mulch with loose pages from nude magazines, their eaten glue and rusted staples having gave way. With a clink, he heard Narcissa’s heel tap another bottle of Devil’s Brew sloshing with murky rain water.
She gasped at a pair of discarded knickers in a shrub and gripped Draco’s elbow for dear life.
Severus thought to offer her his arm. Then again, Severus thought she might take it, and refrained, folding in, arms over his stomach.
“This is horrendous,” Draco shivered, keeping close to his mother’s side. “I can’t believe you prefer this to the Manor.”
“Well, we’ve established that our Severus has... unpredictable tastes,” the boy’s mother replied.
The half-blood rolled his eyes. All the rubbish were remains of neighbors that had already left for the cities. There was nothing properly “horrendous” lurking, no sullying, bare-bottomed lush to lunge from the shadows and muss their dubious virtues.
And “our Severus,” indeed.
He bit out, “You both needn’t overstay your welcome, then.”
The pair paused in skirting a mossy boot, and he sideyed them watching him with their shoulders back and brows bunching. Severus grunted and looked down the path toward home.
They were close: he could already see the electric kitchen lights and some faint, fluttering purple peeking under a hole in the hedge. He pushed on, expecting it’d spur the Malfoys into action. It did, and they trailed after him now, huddled closer together.
Severus continued at a louder, irritated clip: “I’ll give you something for your pain, Narcissa, and then you all can kindly bugger off back to your sterile palace. Leave us to our business,” he finished, biting his cheek.
“He said it again,” came Draco’s loud whisper.
Woe betide the fool to ask earnestly for his discretion, the ex-spy thought impatiently.
Severus unwound some to bicker with Narcissa in a long, pernicious stare. They both knew her son lacked any prodigious skill in subtlety. Now she shared his offended tension, and stopped again, the group now spread over the path. She asked in low tones:
“Well then. Who else is in your house, Severus? You neglected to say.”
“Ginny Weasley, for one. I remember, I tried to Stun her and she ran inside. If Potter’s boorish little girlfriend is here, Potter can’t be far behind. She must have warned him!”
Severus considered Draco tiredly, lip curling in disfavor. His tattle-telling nearly cast him back into the abyssal dark, where the illusion could swallow him for a few hours while the wizard returned to his work. Under his frown, Draco only acquired that arrogant lift in his chin that brought out his father in him.
Snobbery, self-assuredness, and hardheadedness—all Lucius’s breeding. Severus itched to pluck the boy between the eyes.
“You aren’t wrong. I did say I’d explain,” he admitted, looking askance at Narcissa, brushing a gnat from the bridge of his nose. “Speaking of unsaid things, however—Lucius. This plan of yours.”
Narcissa cleared her throat and patted her hair. As they’d backtracked from the creek, drying themselves and rationing quiet, he’d asked again: what plan did she say he abandoned? Blinking like she’d woken from a daydream, the woman had flushed.
She returned to coolness eventually, and with disgust for their surrounds, bade he lead them back to his house. She mused about the house from whence she’d no doubt meander home herself to nurse her many hurts.
Had he kept all those books?, she asked him.
Would he take advice on decor? Would he stay in England?, she probed.
He found her affect leagues too girlish given the context. At most, she just seemed prettily embarrassed, creaking ribs, exploded fish, and all. Had it only been a matter of Severus and his beguiling friends, on any other night, he’d be amused.
Like in her classic fashion, she’d put the dangers of the situation aside once her feelings were no longer at stake. This mysterious plot, the Malfoys’ divorce, Lucius devising way off in prison, the attempt on Severus’s life: they were melting snow, only cool enough to pink her cheeks.
If Draco were threatened, he mused, feeling managed.
Narcissa urged Draco to bring her closer so that she could touch Severus’s sleeve. He flicked a look down to the pinched fabric and up to her face again. Her features had smoothed over, like a clear puddle over marble. He could tell it was to ease the way of bad news.
Severus pulled back, waiting.
“I’m prepared to call us even,” she announced, a clean “s” to finish off “us.” “If you truly meant it, that I’m one of your two closest friends—.”
“Don’t make me repeat it.”
“I won’t. I only mean...ahem. You are my only close friend, Severus.”
He snorted. “That’s pathetic, but I’m beginning to suspect I’ll soon say the same.”
“...Possibly. You should know: Lucius...sent his men to kill you. He’s...he’s bragged about it, in his letters. I may have...”
He paused and withstood the ambient noise, the moonlight showing every facet it could spring from. More tree hollows, breaking twigs, moths fluttering in dew-jeweled webs. All of it overwhelmed his sudden stillness. Narcissa blinked slowly up at him, and he sneered—at a version of her he knew, the wounded cat, consoling a feral beast.
Like the two of them in the adjoined bedroom where Severus unfroze, her sat blinking slowly on a chaise while he clawed into movement.
The cat and the cur.
No, he rebelled.
They weren’t animals. He wasn’t wild. And he wasn’t some poor, precocious boy the couple favored and pretended to raise. Upset of father’s fury, needing coddling from mother like a child laid out of sorts. And Narcissa would never claim he was any of those things.
It was her husband who considered him a pet project. It was Lucius who, had he a dog who bit his feeding hand, didn’t hesitate to beat it. He’d certainly taught his family that frame of mind. However, now here Narcissa was, brushing his sleeve just as much as he could bare, circling the drain to sorry.
She and Severus had grown, if only a little. He fought not to lash out, held fast, and let the knowing happen. Twice in as many days, he let a pillar break.
“Go on. What did you do.”
“I...Lucius no doubt behaved preciously during your visit,” she said, letting go of his shirt. They both looked ahead, her hands folded in front of her.
“Before I wrote him through my solicitors, he’d spent weeks trying to convince me out of any legal separation. He said it was a whim. I told him we both knew it was coming. He quoted money. I said I had my own inheritances from my family, and Draco had his trust.
“He then made appeals to ‘preserve’ our image, complaining about how we would look to our acquaintances if we ended things. I sent him a copy of the Prophet and stopped answering his letters directly after that.”
Severus knew which copy, having it branded in his mind. It boasted her crying face on the front page, with a two-page spread on her family’s trial. Even he didn’t know all her emotions from that day, but he saw them hanging from her shoulders in the photo. And she didn’t offer to describe them, now that they’d been traipsed before the public.
Anyone might understand, even Severus, especially Severus, what that kind of exposure could spoil. Her drawing inward suited him, so he never mentioned it.
But to cite appearances revealed how out-of-touch Lucius had become. He didn’t realize his wife no longer appeared , anywhere or in anything? That she’d rather haunt her own property? Together since they were sixteen and Lucius didn’t sense the change in tide?
“Quick as ever, he resorted to plying Draco.” She spoke quietly the whole time, but lowered her voice further, sparing them all, what? Shame?
“I can guess the rest,” Severus droned. He blinked, realizing he hadn’t for a while.“Your son’s letters featured the Greengrass chit far too much. You’d think he found Jesus. His shift in loyalties scared you, he went to his father, and—let’s see if I can guess it verbatim.”
His voice had tired from his earlier chanting. Still, he managed the impression of cold, lofty amusement presented on calculating calm. It wasn’t too far below his real emotions, whatever they were.
“‘Now, let’s speak plainly as men,’” he said, playing father, “‘we both know your mother has her moods. She simply needs guiding back to better sense, you understand. I only wish I could care for her myself.’”
Severus delivered his next line over to the ashen faced boy, sliding it out of a humorless grin like a bribe across a minister’s desk: “‘Tell me, how has she been doing, Draco? You realize, as you’re my only heir, that I trust your opinion best of anyone’s .’”
Draco, shaken, ducked his head and pushed ahead of them, fists clenched by his sides. Severus dropped his politician’s grin and stared expressionlessly at his rounded back.
Of course Severus knew Lucius’s favorite traps to lay. The man had honed those clever words on Severus himself in their school days. Severus knew how to latch onto a wriggling need for approval. He knew how it looked when one was caught out playing the heart-starved fool.
Compassion sat in him, unused. He hummed and finally looked again at Narcissa.
“So, you realized his plots,” he mumbled, urging her to finish. She tore her eyes from her son, frowning at the scraggly hedge the young man stopped in.
“I did,” she agreed. “He didn’t know—Draco didn’t—as I tried to keep the worst of it private, but Lucius hired thugs eventually, trying to intimidate me into staying.
“They visited the Manor, first lurking on the edge of the property, then bothering the staff, testing the locks at night. We’d find the doors broken open in the mornings with nothing stolen. They did it only to show us we weren’t—that I wasn’t safe.
“I officially filed for a divorce, hoping to just end it, but he—.”
Narcissa took a steadying breath, but coughed, pressing her chest. Severus, hesitating, felt the color seep back into him. He stretched out his arm, nudging her and offering her the brace. She pushed him away, shaking her head.
“Listen—Lucius. I thought he might back down if I used your name.”
He looked ahead again, and started them nearing the house. At least he could get her closer to help she’d likely take after her confession. “That was the plan? You told him I said to leave you be?”
“Well, not in as many words. I simply said we were lovers.”
“Lo—!?” He spun on her, mouth agape. “Lovers!? Wha—we’re not —are you out of your mind? ”
Narcissa rolled her eyes, huffing, and wound her arm in his. Admission made, she used him for support as they closed the gap with Draco. Severus glared at her profile, softened by the moon and as cool, if not as distant. Whatever space they’d had, closing so quickly it might’ve squeaked.
“So you wanted me dead, is what you’re saying?”
“Obviously not, hence my warning you in several very important letters, which you neglected to read until it was almost too late. Did you even notice that I’d written more in the last few weeks than in the leading six months, year even? And that you’d think me so vapid as to write about gardening!”
He harrumphed and stole back his arm.
“Oh, don’t be petty,” she chided.
He ran through his last exchanges with Lucius and suddenly saw the pattern. The biting interest in his love life, and even the strange ask:
“Take care of her for me,” said in a cell that felt three lifetimes away.
Severus had thought it a request for a friend’s support. What else was he meant to think!? That Lucius saw Severus as his replacement? That the man had been convinced, should Narcissa Malfoy take on a lover, it’d be him, of all people!
“You told Lucius I stole his wife!”
“I’m not my things, Severus. You can’t steal me.” She said, arresting them again. He rolled his eyes and kept walking, only to be grasped by the back of his shirt and tugged back into the conversation like some unruly teen
“I only said it because I thought he respected you! At least, he used to. And if he targeted you, with enough forewarning, you could easily hold your own. I couldn’t possibly expect... whatever shape this is we’ve found you in.
Neither would I, he conceded privately. Granted, most of this is—.
He turned again to the house, and choked on his yanked collar.
“Off!” He shook his friend’s grip, and they stood on the path, scowling at one another. “I won’t hold you: this is worse than my shit apology by far. At least I was sincere. ”
“I’m sincerely upset! See, you’re acting childish. Like I said, if you had written properly, maybe called for once, I could have explained —.”
“You’re blaming me for a situation you’ve put me in? For all this, you mightn’t have even bothered telling me! I prefer not knowing to—lovers!? Bloody lovers!
“Why me, woman? What power could I possibly have over him?! Hell, I recall you being on such glad terms with Potter. He’s been besting Lucius since the tender age of twelve. You could’ve asked him for his connections and left me completely out of it!”
Narcissa stamped her foot and exclaimed, dropped curls flying: “Fine! I misjudged him! I’m sorry that my ex-husband resorted to attempted murder instead of, of—!”
He growled, “It’s what he does, Narcissa! You know that or else you wouldn’t have warned me!”
“I offered to bring you in with us! We could’ve worked together! Protected one another!”
Severus carried on as if she hadn’t spoken, making her go red.
“He either doesn’t care at all or uses what’s at hand to crush his enemies under heel! If he’s not too busy trying to save his own skin, which he isn’t, boxed away in a stone cell under constant guard he’s paying to do his bidding .”
Now you’ve made him my enemy, and I’m so sure it eats away at you, he said in a baring of teeth.
She held her head high, like he was too low even to spit at now.
“Oh, go on, wrinkle your nose,” he mocked. “You won’t escape this stink, not by me.”
“Well, now I wasn’t aware of something. See, I’m admitting it!”
“You don’t get to use my words back at me.” Narcissa started when he turned sharply away. He felt her jump and reach for him again, and shook her off again. “You can replace what I took from you. Even the trust! I mean, look at us! Like nothing happened!
“I was followed home, Narcissa! A home I blew up to escape with my life . I sustained injuries, I had to flee!” They we’re close enough to Spinner’s End that he heard a few raised voices, fading into his own.
“Other people are involved now. Potter—the Weasley girl, those goons attacked her twice . I never wished to see any of them again and now I’m dispensing them bruise balm like I’m a bloody matron!”
She pushed into his space again, holding both his wrists, incensed, but grip loose. Severus couldn’t quite plan for the forceful air curbed by the almost fearful touch. Like suddenly she was afraid to shackle him.
He cuffed her smaller wrists in his, squeezed, and pushed her away.
Narcissa’s breath hitched, and he broke again from anger, the whiplash making him sick. She wouldn’t dare cry? Had he worsened her injuries? She kept closing the distance, but if he hurt her by accident—was she steel or was she glass?
“Who else did I have!,” she snapped, snatching a can from the ground and chucking it at him. He bobbed away, avoiding a splatter of bugs and slime. Most of that flew backwards onto her dress. She harangued the mess she’d made of herself,
“Damn! Gods, who else could I trust?! The Aurors! Who do you think he paid to harass us! Potter? I wouldn’t even ask Draco! Asking someone’s child to save me from my own crumbling marriage!
“I had to tell him it was Death Eaters to get him to act and pray it’d do something! Cause chaos, stay the attacks.
“And I told him not to write you, for both of your sakes! That he did wasn’t my fault! I’ll apologize, I’m sorry, but some of it just isn’t my fault, Severus, same as you!
“It’s Lucius. He’s a poison. Or he’s been poisoned, I don’t know. I’m just miserable, I feel nothing most days but emptiness, and, and yearning and fear! I thought you’d understand—I know you do! I know!”
She gasped for breath. “But your home, and that ugly house, and your friendship with Lucius, even—I shouldn’t have. I took liberties, I assumed. I’ll do what I can to fix what I can, obviously. I’ll pay for damages, replace the books, I’ll have it all done.”
Severus mumbled, “You damn well better,” but nodded, waving the white flag. And finally, Narcissa deigned to look apologetic. It read as indigestion, but lain over the deeper, quieter thing, the fragile silence and not the stubborn one, he conceded
“The time lost to his thoughts didn’t help,” the wizard supposed, the words coming gently as if they’d traveled through sunset fields to be heard. Peace, he wanted peace.
“Last we spoke—apparently whilst he plotted my murder—Lucius complained of his worst prison being his emotions. Guilt, I believe it was.”
“I don’t know how you do it, Snape. How can you handle feeling endless guilt without contemplating ending it all?!”
And how had Severus replied? Some reference to already nearly dying and finding it disappointing? Gods, he was glad to find something more to live for.
I will never tell a soul that, he vowed, so I can stand it being true. Something to live for meant something to lose. But known secretly, truly, he was glad.
“Ha! He said he was imprisoned by his guilt? He—!,” Narcissa scoffed hard, loosed a harsh bark of laughter—that, horror of all horrors, evoked Sirius bloody Black. “Merlin, to finally be rid of him!”
She applied herself to coraling her son, snapping the boy from his brooding and taking the lead down the path. He watched the blonde snarl of her head float away.
Tetchiness about his plight aside, it mortified Severus that he missed her. His post-war life had proven pitifully free of machinations, fruitful conversation, any real companionship save his pet.
Again, he missed playing a part in something: for greater purpose, like a home; and for petty foils, shelling secrets, joint misery, understanding.
It felt simple to acknowledge, but he had gained and regained far more than he’d lost in Latvia, or left unclaimed in the Hogwarts dungeons, or had broken in him in the Shack. But from the broken things, he remembered lying there, Lucius a breath away from his face, Severus fading and wordlessly begging and so relieved to know a friend he could’ve sobbed.
“Only you, you impossible berk…,” said with awe.
It hurt. Severus would survive, aware that between himself and Lucius, for once and for some time, it seemed, the halfblood could better find happiness. But he hurt, still.
They were near enough now that he could actually feel Spinner’s End, although through a cushion of something thick. Air resisted him as if, buried in the top layer of ocean, a sagging weight broke into the realer world to wrap around the house.
He overtook the Malfoys and looked back. They reeled back, squinting tightly, hands shielding their faces. They looked bullied by some terrible sight and struggling not to show fear.
“Severus! What is that! ” Narcissa no longer sounded near and clear as she had on the walk. Her voice was muddled.
Wet, boggy air clogged the path, once quiet enough to hear whispering bugs. Now it blasted over them with the dank, rotting smell of peat, sloughing the last shadow of the ocean ward from them. Around them now was only woods, Severus’s yard, and the back of Spinner’s End with the kitchen lights pouring over the grass. All these things and the impression of swamp.
He pushed forward through the bushes only to hear the Malfoys cry, “No!” He turned back again and found them sheet white, wide-eyed and trembling,
“N-nagin—!,” Draco stammered, pointing, only to have Narcissa shove his arm down and cut him short.
“Severus, step back. Come, come back here,” she said, clasping her son’s arm, speaking sternly, patiently.
He had to read her lips by the end, using the moonlight closing in on real sun to shape her words. Her voice, barely above a whisper, squeezed through the heavy air to where he stood, ankle deep in overgrown grass. Even then, he only caught the gist of them.
“Please...step away...back over here…”
“What?” Severus heard someone call him. No, in fact, he heard, “REV,” in ragged, raging tones and faced the caller out of habit. There he saw it.
Yes, Zinnia flung herself through the screen door, stumbling toward him, Weasley at her heels.
More importantly, curved around the house’s side and leading to the street, he saw the massive tail of a serpent at least as tall and twice as wide as a city bus, coiling about his home. Every dark green scale spanned wider than his torso. It out-sized the snake from his memories and his nightmares. Each of those could be swallowed by the other and another bigger than them, and so on for days before approaching the tip of the beast he bore witness to.
Damn. He felt a little faint.
Zinnia fell into him. He raised a cursory hand to catch her, still in the grip of the tail growing steadily larger around his narrow home. Jormungand had notably encompassed the world. Severus had expected a huge serpent, of course he had—of course.
He swallowed bile, feeling his gut churning. The white bread in it repelled up his throat. His limbs were loose, though, as he firmly grabbed his half-sister by the elbows and held her up. Her strength left her when she also caught sight of the snake.
“Fuck! No! Is that!?”
“Merlin’s sack! Snape, is that Harry’s ward!?”
“Potter and the yeti,” he muttered, and then, stricken with terror, he spun to face the house’s other side. The world snake was so large, it could circle the earth and bite its own tail.
Meaning, where the tail sat, the head followed.
“Inside, in! All of you, in!” Severus gestured widely, pushing Zinnia onto Potter’s girlfriend’s shoulder and beckoning the Malfoy’s from the trees. “Quickly!”
Draco braced his mother and hurried across the grass, having to avert his eyes from the beast, going green. Narcissa winced, hand pressed to her hoof prints, and gasped at the true size of the snake as she passed. Severus urged them in, holding the screen door and feeding the lumbering group inside.
Then, eyes snapping to the forest, he saw movement—shadows shifting, small leaves shaken from the hedge.
He came to himself and saw Marisleny planted in the yard, gaping at the tail. Severus yelled her name and she looked at him, sending him cold feet sunk in the mud, scratching grass, fear.
A palm on Narcissa’s shoulder as she tripped past him, he sent the girl wind on one’s face, running, the overheated house, safety within walls; his ire. She squeezed her eyes shut, picked up and ran to him at full speed.
“Stay put!,” he barked at her as she dashed past, running over his feet.
Severus then brandished his wand, locking the back entrance with a strangled breath. The various locks clicked and some air sucked away as the doorway sealed shut.
He surveyed the room and snapped at Zinnia, “Your mother!”
“She’s in the living room,” Marisleny piped up.
He matched her stare, and heard the creeping ring of the wards on the full moon. He then saw Fred, in the corner by the pantry, pop out of view, and the wards rang louder, and his already pounding heart began to race.
Severus passed by the girl into the kitchen, mumbling down to her as he did, “Control your emotions.”
And she glared up at him, and like the remembered wards, old memories rang, and he was in his dungeon office, jars of pickled specimens lining the walls, everything stone instead of wallpaper, his collar strangling, his anger sharp as shearing glass.
Except he felt the heat in Spinner’s End, growing as he entered the hallway, tumbling down his box-lined hall, hitting his one side. And he knew the girl glared tearfully, replaying her brother’s vanishing as the wards squealed louder over his thudding chest.
And the brother that vanished was his as well, doing what Severus told him. In the girl’s mind, Fred disappeared, and Potter, who had ferried her dutifully back, leapt into the same corner and disappeared after him.
And the Potter he scowled down at now, this one was younger, and however strangely, asked for help. And even when the Potter Severus loathed had needed help—the boy, never the father, and damned had he tried—even then, it had been the one thing Severus didn’t deny him, forever fueling his irritation.
Clearly, where the boy had taken himself, Severus need follow.
“Idiot,” he hissed, rushing to the living room for Grace.
He thought to stop and tell the girl—something, he figured, anything comforting. He settled on skidding to a halt and looking at her, at them all, crowded in the doorway. So many shining eyes, watching him, perhaps even trusting him.
“...Wait there,” he managed, turning away again.
“Wait!,” cried Zinnia, who then growled in frustration at his continued leaving. “Arsehole! Did ya bring the fuckin’ assassins inside!?”
“Severus!,” Narcissa demanded. “Who are these people!”
The man ignored them, powering into—the ruins of his sitting room.
Grace stood in the middle of it, staring and still as her youngest had been in the yard. The hearth flame towered over her, over him, shooting upwards in a geyser of purple flame, catching the ceiling and rug on fire. Even the near black flames in the inferno hurt to see, as the light they cast burned deep as cave dark.
Stone sunk his gut to his grass-painted soles. He was positive she’d done fine, brilliantly at that! Grace had been lucid and bright, quick as ever, if entranced by the flame, as they all had been.
She’d carried it well! He didn’t think it would overpower her, didn’t even imagine it was possible! Nowhere in Hearth of Steel did it warn of a ward fire consuming its host.
Perhaps she wasn’t a witch, after all, he posited. But then, the flame wouldn’t light!
Holding either side of the doorway, he stepped into the living room, toeing a flame. It felt hot, but failed to burn him, being only a margin warmer than Floo fire. Emboldened, he forged ahead, immediately pouring sweat.
The fire grew hotter as he approached, yes, but still bearable, or so he thought. As he neared Grace in her surrounds of destroyed suggestions of furniture, melted glass, shredded books, his exposed skin dried and tightened as the flame sapped moisture from the air.
She made a desert compared to the bog outside. Flames withered the paper and wood splinters as fine as sand, washing over his feet, baking him.
And all the while, Grace stood and cradled the burning flame, fixedly watching the morning come over the wrecked street.
Severus came close enough to brush the sleeve of her nightgown before screaming, her scalding skin forcing him back.
The greying woman turned to him, eyes beaming purple as the flames. She blinded him, and he covered his face, such that he only heard her echoing voices lament.
“The house...she’s killing it.”
As if rising to agree, a smog of Dark residue engulfed him, vibrating and sweet. Severus choked on the powerful hatred. The heat from Grace’s fire beat it back, burning the violent magic off so mercilessly, it keened as it curled into smoke.
He wondered then if the damage Narcissa had promised—razing his home to the ground—had been somewhat fulfilled.
Through the blaze, the fore of Spinner’s End fell away around what once was the wide front window. His sitting room crumbled into gravel and open air, becoming bowed and dented lampposts warped by the rippling heat.
The hearth fire continued to billow around him, washing strips from his uncovered skin, hurting but not burning. Only wand work could explain the charred curtains and pitted floor.
If the house was a body, and the killing magic an infection, the fire Grace made wouldn’t consume. It was a fever. It’d cook until Narcissa’s sick was gone.
“This is all we have, and she’s killing it.”
“She—I know her, she—it was a misunderstanding,” he tried to explain. They had magic, Narcissa had money. They could rebuild and replace. He needed Grace to believe on some level that with magic, not all but more things at least were fixable.
But then he saw the pictures—the melted scraps of them—decorating the rug between the flames. Severus recalled leaving Potter to fall asleep with the bag of photographs on the table.
He’d caught him mid-handing the Weasley girl a snap: a river lined by reeds.
Ah, the river bisecting the park. Factory run-off soaked the soil there. A gate had gone up some years ago to keep stupid children out. No one would remember that the park used to run down to the highway.
Or, well—Potter couldn’t remember anything. The whelp had never lived in Cokeworth. What’d he care about a river? He’d never been.
The boy had tried to hide the picture from Severus. However, he’d also been too tired to feel the man lean over his shoulder.
“Weird, right?,” said Potter conspiratorially.
“Guess everyone’s little at some point,” Weasley shrugged, and the couple bent, heads obscuring the photo.
The older wizard left them to it, needing to think on security. Fred and Grace were already mumbling about heading to bed. Marisleny played her game, and Zinnia was downstairs. The two professional pains listed over, beginning to snore.
And amid all of them spread Grace’s pictures, hers and her mother’s, and his mother’s, and older than that.
Made salient to him just then was the title of the giantess, Loki’s troll-wife, mother of monsters, witch of the Ironwood. Composing one of Grace’s towering voices was Angrboda, the Bringer of Grief.
“You…,” he trailed off.
Hearing him, she drew her head back and more fire, burning white and lavender, ran down her cheeks like tears. Grace stared at her conflagration as it carried through the collapsing bookcases and danced up the stairs.
The dark passageway lit up amethyst and imperial. She poured up the stairwell and, from what he could tell by the brightening ceiling, progressed along the upper floors.
Fwoosh! A tendril of fire ventured into the hall. Fever raced up the entrance.
Severus bounded past the seeking flames, the corridor growing brighter as he ran. He heard the gaggle of outcries and was speechless. Where could they all go? The yard, with the snake—but the house—it all seemed dangerous. Surely any of these things were meant to protect them? But could he bet lives on that?
The women surged forward, only to see the fire and turn, shrieking. Zinnia threw Marisleny on her back, screaming as she fought with the back door, “The fuckin’ boys! Jesus fuckin’ Christ, please! Where’s Mum!?”
“She—!,” he panted, waving his wand over the fire. A patch of it went out with a huff and reignited. “I’ll find them! Go!”
He’d sooner they chance the serpent than the fire.
He went to unlock the door, but with a bellowed, “ Bombarda! ,” Weasley blew it off its hinges. The kitchen window splintered and the house shook. Mashed wood and twisted mesh sailed into the grass outside, trampled underfoot as the people fled.
Stumbling into the kitchen, he froze, conflicted, and swearing, backpedaled to snatch his mother’s portrait off the hall wall. Eileen Prince stared at him, sad features lit up purple.
Only as he shoved the frame into Draco’s hand, snapping at the child to take care of it, did he suddenly wonder when the portrait had been hung. Severus first seeing it in the hallway, of course he recognized it. He remembered not only the subjects but the picture itself.
Except right then at the least opportune moment, he also remembered only ever seeing in a photo sleeve, tucked in a book of recipes. Someone had dug up the photo, enlarged it, framed it, and hung it on the hall.
Grace, maybe Fred—they were the caring types.
The man watched Draco carry it out. Fire climbed the legs of his jeans, hot without hurting.
Alight, Severus fought to stay calm, and strode to the pantry. He crouched, searching the cupboards, and called into the basement, hoping for a glimpse of pink wool or wrinkly skin. He wrestled some composure when he found himself in engulfed in flames for an entire minute, to no terrible effect.
He didn’t dare to even think of anywhere besides that kitchen, however. The fact was he felt covered in Floo fire, and didn’t need it whisking him away. Similarly, he felt the fever wash his body, searching for more of Narcissa’s Dark magic. He quailed to think what it’d do if it settled for burning out his own instead.
“Come on, you,” Severus breathed. He strained and sucked his teeth, scooping his cat out from under the sink.
She certainly didn’t appreciate her handling by the flaming man. Opening the cracked window, he dropped the thrashing sphinx outside. He listened for the rustle of her paws hitting the ground. After a few seconds, he saw her dart for the far bushes.
Returning to the pantry, Severus cursed at the lack of two idiot, dark-haired men. Something upstairs groaned, pressing him to think faster. Weasley’s spell wouldn’t keep this old shack standing.
He reached out into the dead spot in the rapidly lighting room. Heat waves parted like light around a black hole, and his fingers hit—cloth? A t-shirt? No—it moved away.
He turned his hand experimentally, feeling clamminess, despite his fire-cloaked arm suddenly ending at the wrist. No numbness, no pain, so it hadn’t been severed. Only a brush of humid air—ah, the shirt again! He grabbed, going in up to the shoulder.
Dammit, the wearer escaped.
This could just as well be a stranger or a spirit, he cautioned, and thinking better, slid his arm back out of the space.
The flames on it were doused and stayed that way. Severus smelled stagnant water, although his sleeve was still dry. The groaning upstairs collapsed into a terrible crack, sprinkling down grit. The wizard feared Spinner’s End might finally come down. With everything the old house had gone through this week, it wouldn’t surprise him by caving in entirely.
But then he stared at the ceiling, eyes narrow, expression fierce. Acid ran to his belly when the groaning resolved into men’s shouts, and the crashing very obviously became stomping from heavy-soled boots. The roar of fire couldn’t mask the panicked yelling of people unexpectedly caught in it.
Four feet, two men , he counted, backing slowly from the pantry. He heard another crack and shot his glare to the backyard, into the trees.
At first, he didn’t see anything, but he glared harder, and harder still, burning like the fever to punish the intruders. Severus knew who they had to be—wizards, from the cracking Apparition, and if they were at his house on that night, they were Lucius’s thugs.
They were the only thing that night that Severus truly hated. The shadows in the bushes from earlier, which may have been deer or more ghosts, were neither.
He could see the two men now. One hovered, gangly, arms limp, face peeling and swollen, teeth bloody as he snarled. And the other grungy slab of a man seethed, frazzled and frayed, nose buckled, beady-eyed and unraveling—like Lucius’s own squatting bloodlust had raided the grounds.
This second man’s glare and Severus’s connected through the cracked glass, although only Severus seemed to know it.Through him came a chill that hit the heat and made the air pop. A cold puff blew sweaty hairs from his eyes and his vision sharpened, again, more than the lean into new details.
Severus realized the difference between sight and Seeing.
“Hel, under the earth, She and Her sovereign…”
Another frigid breath prepared his eyes, and he Saw. He knew the men. A pair of Aurors, like Narcissa had said, the ones who ferried the Azkaban boat. Partners, but not friends. Evil without ambition, only broke and with a grudge. Not enough valor for Aurors, too much time spent near a prison without earning it.
They were unafraid of killing.
But the thin one killed for curiosity, like a toyless child threw stones into a pit: to boredly guess its depth. He sent the conveniently criminal into death ahead of him. He harassed them into fighting and threw them into the sea. He watched them flail, petrified them, let them float, made them sink.
Severus thought of the few times Draco visited his father. Had the boy been a bit more pugnacious instead of just snide, each grey-water float could’ve been his last.
He Saw the way the rangy Auror glanced at his partner and shrunk away. He’d realized what Severus could See, being that the other man killed from his soul. Hel would want them both, but this one, She would savor. This man felt either nothing or rage, and rode the latter away from colorless apathy as far as it would go.
“ Sectumsempra! ”
Peeled lips recovered gapped teeth and a scabbing jaw slackened. A fist like a cinder block raised a twiggy wand and flexed. Severus hissed when his curse clipped a lock of Narcissa’s hair as it chopped past, the blonde tress jolting and spinning away into dust.
Too close! It landed true, though, splitting the squat man open like a watermelon. Blood splashed the tree trunks. A great deal spilled into his partner’s mouth, who loosed a horrified cry.
The gurgling scream alerted the others. They edged away from the woods, shouting themselves, pushing the youngest behind them.
Well, almost all the others retreated. Zinnia twisted to look at Severus through the glass. She nodded at the trees and lifted an eyebrow, questioning.
Severus muttered, “For the police,” knowing she’d hear him. Rubbing her mouth, the lanky woman hunched, patting her pockets.
The clarity faded, and Severus wavered, alone in his body again. He surveyed the room sleepily and found a toppled, blazing chair for the kitchen table. He bent over, righted it, taking a seat with a dirt deep groan. He then leaned back, thumping his head on a shelf, and decided against thinking for a while.
His brain rattled and puffed along pitifully. He let the flames take down to the basement, lazy in considering the pantry while the fire wound down along his skin. The dead spot rippled, and he squinted, irritated.
Just like the brat to vanish behind any Fred. If only it was as simple as Potter stealing off for the Burrow, he mused. The purple flames puttered like the muffler of an old car.
“What the hell…,” Severus wondered aloud and—oh. He saw the sasquatch right in front of him, waving blindly in the dark.
He couldn’t place where the dark came from, particularly. But he pressed his forehead to the table, relieved. At least the man was well enough wherever they had gone to look a damn fool.
Severus slipped into sleep with the banking inferno. Outside, dawn broke free into day.
“See, ya keep sayin’ there’s trees here, but I’m not feelin’ anythin’. You can say if you’re havin’ a laugh, Harry, I’m not mad.”
“I thought I felt my shirt catch on a branch or something earlier. Sorry...”
Harry sat on his hands with his chin on his knees. He twirled a cowlick, gaze affixed on the paper floating in front of him. Annoying as he found it, the poem had no major issues. It was like Snape has given them the most innocuous ward, save the picture.
He mouthed the words for the fifth time.
Great Serpent, coil. The currents of this world wind also.
Great Serpent, bite. Hold tightly onto the earth.
Great Serpent, the ocean takes, and carries old gods to new soil.
Great Serpent, buried in shipwrecks, be patient, hold fast.
Raise your head, Great Serpent. A great house sits beside it.
I bid you clasp.
“Tell me how you read it again?,” he asked Freddy, yawning.
The huge man sighed, “Sure, from the top,” and quit groping the endless night. Harry tried to describe the ocean to him, saying that they could probably find the regular world underneath it. He’d gone on to spend however long waving about, hoping to hit something—anything.
He fished out his assignment and scratched his head.
“Uh, alright: Hhusttsh ssstsssspth— ow! Bit my thounge!” Freddy frowned, squatting, paper to his nose. “Mm, I dunno, kid, I think I said one of these wrong.
“What’s ‘shipwrecks’ in snake, d’you think?”
Harry guessed and maybe succeeded. It was hard to tell how close “sea nest” was to “ship.” Snakes didn’t have “ships.” And the Parseltongue equivalent to “wreck” seemed to split into a bunch of slightly different words.
His best choice was, “hstrk,” roughly translated to the crunch of bird bones in one’s throat. He could see that being the breaking of a ship’s hull. Possibly.
“I don’t think rewritin’ this is an option.”
“Yeah—no! Snape didn’t even write this properly! Here, I can, uh.”
Harry squeezed his eyes shut, stumped. He couldn’t call himself a poet by any stretch. The quiet stuttered around tapping and humming, and the younger man swayed, realizing the tiny noises fell into a tune. He watched his half-brother mull the meanings over. He seemed to be chewing on a song.
Freddy made Snape’s features curl unexpectedly into a winsome smile. The young wizard startled, clapping his hands to the floor. That was it!
Harry scrambled toward him on all fours. Freddy jumped, hands spread to meet him, face open if a bit puzzled.
“Read it! You! You read it! I’ll take your lead!”
The large man looked at him, then laughed. “You’ll do it if I do it, huh? That’s how ya end up in trouble. You’d know more about all this than me, anyway.”
They both sat cross-legged now, Harry having to look up at Freddy even while sitting down. He nodded earnestly, shook his head, nodded again, dizzy.
He didn’t know much more than the would-be Muggle. They were both, well, in the dark. What Harry knew was to follow his instincts, which right then, perhaps foolishly, insisted that Freddy’s version of the ward couldn’t be evil. This was confirmed when the man ran through the poem again.
“Coil,” which Harry translated as “squeeze,” as in the life from prey, became the wrapping of a mother python around her clutch of eggs.
“Bite,” which he read as “strike,” the killing blow, the sinking of teeth in flesh, became “feed,” the nourishing of one’s self.
Snakes already had “gods,” but “shipwrecks” went from the cracking of bones to the way small birds’ nests can be washed away by rain.
The poem itself was so reserved. When Harry had translated it, the cold reality of Parseltongue in his version made it sound sociopathic. Perhaps he didn’t have enough goodwill for snakes to pull it off.
Freddy did, though. He read, and Harry followed.
The two hit men drowned on their own blood. However, as the skinned one with throat slashed sank into suffocating dirt, his partner, skilled in a powerful rage, clung to just enough life to sight the blasted house down his wand.
He dropped said wand and plucked at it with numb, red-slick fingers. He picked it up and dropped it again. The man’s rage was impressive. He watched the group through the hedge roots, shaking with violence, struggling to attack.
The group whiled the morning away with reunion. First the git Harry Potter left the house, blocking the sun from his eyes. Behind him, a giant, and then a curvy woman dressed for bed. And finally, after so long, out stumbled the persevering filth: Severus Snape. He’d escaped him once, twice, maybe even three times counting the first peel away from the train station parking lot.
The Auror wouldn’t have it again...
He summoned hellfire as hot as he imagined he’d soon burn himself. It took three tries to cast the Fiendfyre, one for, “Fuck,” another for, “you,” and the last, catching one for Snape.
It burst forth like the woods were only so much tinder, racing across the wet yard to consume all of it, all of them. He lost his power and faded, smiling at the women’s screams. Screw the bystanders, child and all. Screw money he’d never see and bloody Malfoys—let the wife and brat burn, too.
Scum, all of them. He sputtered on one, sadistic hack, dribbling red on the grasping earth. He died, swallowed by the ground, before the head of the great snake rounded the house.
Narcissa grabbed her son and spun off as soon as she saw the first beast. Severus fell on his knees.
He had woken up at the kitchen table in his broken and cauterized home. He had walked out into the stark morning, saw the whole party intact, and even huffed, disbelieving. He couldn’t believe they had survived, and he couldn’t believe they might not have.
The ground underfoot gave softly. Everything felt so powerfully new. Then the Fiendfyre—then the snap.
Severus didn’t see much of it in the daytime. Black light drew daggered jaws, the edges of scales, and a colossal throat down which the Fiendfyre disappeared. Smoke leaked out of its working jaws until it swallowed the curse headfirst. Then it wrapped around the house again and blended into the siding.
Kneeling, Severus gawked at Potter. Flat on his arse, the boy stammered back, “Snape, i-it, I think it, uh, it’s f-finished.”
Ah, remember Quirrell?, thoughts mimed to him through mental gauze.
Zinnia sagged, rasping something. Collectively, the rest of them slid to the ground. The grass steamed following the burning dew. It worked them into putty as the lot of them passed out.
With a plastic clicking and a jingle, a hairless cat worked out of a bush. She pulled her sweater off with her back leg, seeing as it was ruined with blood, and purring with stress, curled up against the littlest Hedgerot in the yard. She’d have a new sweater soon if she played her cards right.
Her owner rarely dressed her, having no consideration for a naked cat in the cold.