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"...I will kiss Assistant."

Harry dropped his phone.

 

The announcement on Sunday left Harry adrift for the greater portion of the following week, walking around in a daze that barely receded even during class; he didn't so much as look at his phone for the first three days. Draco noticed; Ron and Hermione noticed; hell, everyone noticed. But, once word had spread as to what'd happened, nobody dared to say anything to him about it for fear of setting him off.

They thought he was offended. That was laughable. At one point he even did laugh. (In Defense. During a discussion of mutilating curses. Merlin, people thought he'd cracked, he could just tell.)

Harry wasn't offended, though, no.

He was anxious.

And why ever could that be, hm? Could it possibly, possibly be that the weight of Harry's situation had dawned upon him, that he was realizing he'd come to associate with a powerful and dangerous enemy, that he'd abandoned his own values so utterly their return had shocked him into silence-?

No, no. It was because the fandom was right:

Assistant and Sir had to kiss. Or the UST would kill everyone in the audience. Harry (as Pyrite) had signed the petition himself.

He just.. had forgotten that Assistant meant him.

But he certainly wasn't forgetting that now. He couldn't forget, even if he'd wanted to; the fandom had practically exploded into Sirssistant shipping ever since Sir announced their upcoming kiss, and Harry was subscribed to a lot of fanfic authors. When he finally got back to his senses and checked his phone, he had well over a hundred notifications for fanfiction alone.

[DM from twixtthetrees: hey pyrite are you around? i wrote another fic look look]

Unofficial Official DL Fanserver, #fanfiction:

[2017-10-02, 10:52pm] itsevanffs: @readers new fic new fic read it here: https://archiveofourown.org/works/....

"The Only Cool Slytherin Server", #fandom-talk:

[2017-10-04, 3:03am] WhiteDragon: THE SIRSSISTANT SHIP HAS BEEN MADE A COMMON TAG ON AO3, THIS IS NOT A DRILL

[3:03am] MalfoysBitch: about time, I thought it already was one

  also why the hell are you still awake

[3:04am] WhiteDragon: Counterpoint: why are *you* awake?

[3:04am] 420BlaiseIt: we're literally all awake draco do you bloody mind

[3:05am] WhiteDragon: What are you guys all doing without me ???

[3:05am] NottYourBoyfriend: Sneaking into the Gryffindor dorms to pester Harry of course, he's not responding to anyone's pings

[3:06am] NottYourBoyfriend: @Pyrite

[3:06am] 420BlaiseIt: @Pyrite hang out with us

[3:06am] MalfoysBitch: @Pyrite

[Pyrite is typing...]

[3:07am] Pyrite: ok fine I am here what is it

[3:07am] 420BlaiseIt: :blurryeyes:

[3:07am] MalfoysBitch: IT WORKED

[3:07am] NottYourBoyfriend: so pinging three times in a row works, noted

[3:08am] Pyrite: seriously what is it I'm trying to sleep

[3:08am] MalfoysBitch: no you aren't you're literally in the clubroom

[3:08am] Pyrite: how did you know tha-

[3:08am] Pyrite: whatever what the fuck do you want I am busy

[3:09am] WhiteDragon: ..u ok m8? this is the first time anyone has talked to you in days

Harry slumped against a smushed-up beanbag on the floor, scrubbing a hand over his face. Resigned, he clicked on the voice channel where the others were all gathered.

"-ten Galleons, Theo, pay up-"

"Okay how did you know I was in the club room, first of all," Harry interrupted Pansy's crowing, "I put up privacy wards and everything.”

"Proximity ward for inbound magical presences," Theo drawled. "And you're the only one of us with the password to open the club room that isn't already hanging out, so, deduction."

"Well, hell," Harry muttered, just loud enough for the phone to pick up the words. "Fine. Let me keep sulking a little longer, would you?"

"Depends, what are you sulking for ?" Pansy pressed. "Jealous much, golden boy? You could probably get a pity kiss on grounds of being His nemesis and all-"

Harry choked. "Wh- no," he managed, summoning a water jug from the side of the room. "I don't-" don't need that, technically- "-besides, we're not nemeses anymore, I got a skull about it in the mail over the summer-"

"A what," the others blurted out in unison.

"Erm." Harry scratched the back of his neck. "Maybe I should explain that in person if I'm going to explain it at all."

A pause.

"Well, Draco," Blaise said solemnly, "if there was ever a reason to bring Potter into the Slytherin common room, this is it."

"All in favor?"

"Aye."

"Aye."

"Aye."

"Aye. Well that's that then, Harry, get your arse down to the dungeons and explain yourself," Draco announced.

"D’you want to see the skull?" Harry felt obliged to ask. He could call Kreacher for it anytime he wanted; the elf highly approved of his Dark Arts shenanigans.

Even the volume modulation couldn't keep Pansy's shriek of excitement below 'ear-piercing' levels.

 

Several minutes later:

“Sweet-and-sour Salazar that is an actual human skull-”

Harry snapped the lid of the box shut before anyone tried to touch it, suddenly a little self-conscious of having shared this secret at all, much less with the most gossip-prone friends he’d ever had. He snatched a shot glass of Draco’s Firewhiskey off the coffee table and downed it, letting out a sigh at the weak burn. “It’s not exactly a known fact,” he began, darting glances at their surroundings; the Common Room at this hour was utterly empty. “So, erm, any chance I could convince you guys to keep it that way?”

“Well obviously,” Blaise cut in, eyeing him over the rim of his goblet. (Alcohol expert that Assistant was, Harry still couldn’t identify the contents from the scent of the vapors, beyond ‘fruity’, ‘potent’, and ‘probably illegal’.) “No one is that gauche, Potter; we’re snakes, not rats. You say it’s a secret, it’s a secret.”

Harry’s only response was to glance pointedly in Draco’s direction and raise an eyebrow.

“Okay but tell us all about it,” Pansy ordered, sprawling out against Theo’s side. (Theo, for his part, ignored her antics with the air of long experience.) “You said you got this over the summer?”

“Yeah, it was a coming-of-age present.” Harry shrugged, refilling his shot glass. “It’s Trelawney’s skull,” he added, stroking the velvet lid of the box. “She was the one who gave the prophecy about me and S- and Him-”

“Just call him ‘Sir’, Harry, we all know who you’re talking about,” Draco rolled his eyes.

“Wait,” Blaise blurted, “Trelawney was an actual Seer?”

Harry blinked, then facepalmed. “Merlin, I forget not everyone’s in the loop about this.”

“Is anybody?” Theo murmured. “It sounds like arcana imperii.”

"State secrets? S'pose it might have been," Harry muttered, reaching for the Firewhiskey again, only for Draco to slap a bottle of water into his hand instead, the mom friend bastard that he was. He scoffed, but drained it, slumping back in his chair. "Who cares, though? She's dead now."

He spent the next several minutes explaining the whole deal with the prophecy; according to Voldemort's letter, and also Sir's explanation to Assistant which Harry carefully didn't mention, it was officially broken, so it meant nothing if people knew.

(And, frankly, fuck Dumbledore's compulsive need to hoard pointless information. He was probably still hiding things from Harry...)

"-and he'd only heard that much, which was why he killed my parents, although the whole 'failing to kill me' part wasn't really his fault, it was mum's blood magic, which incidentally is how I burned Quirrell to death in first year with my bare hands-"

"You what?"

Harry blinked at Blaise. "Erm, yeah, he was possessed by the Dark Lord's wraith and tasked with stealing the Philosopher's Stone? Hidden on the third-floor corridor? Did no one else know? Don't tell me that's still a secret-"

The Slytherins were still staring at him with a variety of expressions ranging from wariness to reluctant awe. He faltered under the scrutiny, reaching for the nearest bottle off the communal liquor table and conjuring a glass to fill from it. "He tried to kill me first, for the record. It wasn't an ideal situation all around."

More silence.

"..The statue of limitations on manslaughter by magical accident is three years without an open investigation-"

"Speaking frankly, what the hell." Draco knocked back another shot of his Firewhiskey and shook his head, swiping at the loose strands of hair that'd fallen on his forehead. (Harry would never say it, but he had the taste of a total lightweight.) "Just- spill more of this tea, Harry, we need context on your trainwreck of a life."

Harry chose to ignore the way Blaise and Theo were sharing wide-eyed looks, heads twitching in his direction. They wouldn't have been his first guess as to who in the group had an unspoken language, but. "How about second year, then," he went on, trading out the cheap bourbon for a Palate-Cleansing Charm and mouthfuls of the vodka Theo had supplied for the table. It was very smooth vodka, definitely not a Muggle variety. "I actually was Heir of Slytherin on a technicality, but didn't know it until after the year ended-"

"Morgana's tits, Potter, what kind of life are you living?" Pansy's glass of plum wine very nearly spilled, she gestured so wildly with it.

Harry squinted at her. "Isn't it 'Morgana's saggy tits'?"

"What? Of course not, Morgana was fit as fuck-"

"You would say that, lesbian queen," Blaise muttered, startling when he realized he’d spoken aloud.

(Theo choked on his drink.)

Pansy turned up her nose at Blaise. "As the only witch-loving witch in our friend group it's practically in my contract." Then she looked back at Harry, batting her eyelashes in a way that reminded him alarmingly of Bellatrix. "Go on, tell us more!"

Third year, third year... what had happened in third year that was actually news? "We all know Sirius was innocent now, of course," he tested the waters-

They were nodding, okay-

"-and that Remus is a werewolf-"

Pansy made a 'go on' hand gesture-

"-and that they're a couple now?" Raised eyebrows all around. "Oh, okay, well that's not from third year anyway, more like fifth, but yeah, they're my godfathers now. Not much really happened that year," Harry shrugged, holding up the last of his near-empty glass in the firelight. Would it be ungrateful if he complained about their liquor? Sir kept a much better-stocked cabinet-

"Didn't you learn the Patronus?" Draco asked, though he was looking more up at the ceiling than at Harry when he said it. (He was totally watching the room spin; such a lightweight.)

"Guess that's true, yeah," Harry reached for the next-nearest bottle, which smelled like Blaise's glass so it must be pretty good-

"Hey, dibs," Blaise protested, snatching it out of his hands. "Didn't you bring your own?"

Harry sat up. "Oh, I can drink my own? Thought it'd be rude." He reached into his pocket and pulled out one of the rare gin bottles he'd duplicated from Sir's liquor cabinet. Now this was the good stuff-

"Oh god, I thought he was kidding," Draco groaned in Pansy's direction, before flopping his head back to look at Harry. "Potter, how can you drink that swill? It's so- gin-"

"Hm?" Harry was fumbling in his pockets for the other ingredients to a Slytherin Fizz. (He'd been drinking them upstairs, okay, he didn't always carry booze around in his pockets, it was a special occasion-) "But 's tasty. Jus' cause you're featherweight-"

"What?" Draco started to sit up, before Pansy pushed him back into his chair with a lazy spell.

"Don't start bickering," she slurred, "we're listening to the story, Dray, c'mon..."

Harry added a little extra silver leaf on top of his Fizz and kicked his feet up on an ottoman, sipping it. "Ah, that's the stuff," he sighed happily. "Where was I.. oh, yeah, Patronus, whoop-de-doo, d'you know it's not even some special Light spell? It's only 'difficult' 'cause it leans heavy on the Will, everyone in fifth year learned it 'ventually."

"Show us show us," chanted Pansy, who was definitely less sober than she'd managed to seem so far.

Harry probably didn't really need to use his wand for the spell, but it had been ages since he needed to cast a Patronus, he didn't want to embarrass himself. In fact, hadn't the last time been before the summer?

He stared at the wand in his hand for a long minute while the others watched him.

.
..
...

"Um. I don't have any 'pure' thoughts right now," Harry admitted defeat. "Can I just get back to you on that?"

Blaise snorted so hard he started coughing; he wasn't the only one laughing.

"Look, it was Hermione who was the most suspicious in third year," Harry went on, louder, over the snickering; "she got a Time-Turner from McGonagall and only used it to take every elective-"

"I KNEW IT!" shrieked a triumphant Theo, finally dropping his empty vodka glass to shatter it in a million pieces across the floor. "AH, BLAST," he exclaimed, just as loudly, looking around for where he'd left his wand. (It was in his sleeve; Harry could see the end sticking out.)

"Reparo," Harry waved a hand at the mess, impatient to continue his monologue; it reformed into a glass, and he floated it onto the nearest end table, out of range of Theo's elbow. He was focused enough he didn't notice Blaise's flinch at the careless use of wandless magic.

"Now fourth year, that was a clusterfuck of epic proportions," Draco spoke over everyone else when he'd gotten his laughter under control. "Tell us about that, Harry, bet you've got tons of gossip."

"Right, so," Harry assembled his thoughts on the matter. "Tell me you all know Moody that year was actually Barty Crouch Junior?" They did. Good. "He entered my name on S- V- fuck it, on Sir's orders, there was this whole three-in-three-in-three ritual going on to get him a new body," Harry drew the overlapping triangles in the air with a fingertip, the symbol's red glow reflecting in his audience's wide eyes. "An' then me 'n Diggory in the middle of the maze, we grabbed the Portkey - the trophy, I mean, it was a Portkey - and got moved to a setting of magical significance-"

He faltered, because there were parts that needed to be skipped over, here; stuff that was a little too personal. "And, well, Cedric was killed, by Wormtail actually, hell, they probably have a claim on his corpse, but Amos Diggory is an entitled douchebag, ain't givin' him my trophy arm..."

"You won the arm?" Pansy cut in over Harry’s descent into muttering. "Merlin, did you rig the roulette somehow? I put three hundred Galleons into that lotto-"

Harry coughed into his hand. “Got you beat then at seven hundred," he admitted, sheepish. "Hit the 7 key once too many when I sent in the donation."

Although he very well might have rigged the roulette, as she said, if the explanation of soul magic Assistant had gotten still applied. Time, life, death, causality...

Anyway. They all paused for a moment to toast Cedric's memory, which made Harry feel a little better about being so callous over his death, but he'd had years to come to terms with it; the small part of him that took precedence when he was Assistant laughed that he didn't really give a damn.

"Then the ritual happened, or well, it finished," Harry amended, forgoing a second cocktail in favor of just drinking the gin neat. It was Assistant’s favorite. Sir had such good taste. "I got bloodletted for it!" He rolled up his sleeve to show them the scar; it glinted wickedly in the firelight, the notch at the end where Wormtail's knife had wavered vaguely reminiscent of the hook at the end of Sir's wand, if he stared at it long enough.

"Wicked," Draco breathed. The others voiced similar admiration.

"Zero out of ten at the time, did not recommend, I'd just been bit by an Acromantula earlier and was in shit shape, and then there was this whole duel thing after," Harry handwaved the details, "but in retrospect? Very cool."

It was. Assistant had finally come upon Sir's notes for the ritual in the library; with what he now knew of ritual magic, it was clear that Sir must have had to work on it for months before he could even start the preparations. No one had ever been in his situation before; the whole rite had been put together from scratch, painstakingly stabilized with extra runework and secondary rituals, and it had all hinged on Harry surviving the Tournament and being conscious enough by the end to try and fight the bloodletting, which he had only barely been - if he'd passed out from the Acromantula venom, or hell, just agreed to his part in the ritual, the whole thing would have fallen apart.

The near-impossibility of the arrangement, all the little details that had to be in place, astounded him; reminded him that Sir, too, was a practitioner of soul magic, and one far more studied and practiced in it than Harry had had the chance to be. Small wonder that he admired the Dark Lord for more than just his taste in gin (although this was really incredible gin)-

"..Potter? Hellooo," Blaise was waving a hand in his face. Harry startled out of his reverie. "You were gonna tell us about fifth year next, if you finished fourth," the other boy prompted.

Shit, he'd gotten off topic again. Harry conjured himself some water and pulled a box of biscuits from his other pocket to soak up the alcohol a bit. He wasn't ready to completely sober up, but it wouldn't do to underestimate Sir's gin.

"Right, erm, yeah," he nodded when he'd gotten through most of the biscuits. "Well, to finish off fourth, we all know Barty was Moody and that Barty's alive and well now." Good thing, too; he was great fun at Dark Headquarters. Assistant would've hated to have missed out on knowing him...

 

Pansy had stopped refilling her drink around the time Potter wandlessly fixed Theo’s glass, and she wasn’t the only one; nobody dared reach for more booze, not when it could mean missing any of the forbidden knowledge Potter was sharing in his drunken rambling, as carelessly as if it meant nothing at all.

(And maybe it didn’t. He’d started out being shocked at their ignorance, but wasn’t even asking if they hadn’t known these details, because of course they didn’t. The gleam in his eyes now was familiar to any Slytherin: ‘I have prime gossip and everyone will want to hear it’.)

“Fifth year… now that was a lotta Ministry nonsense,” Potter stretched out on his chair, refilling his glass with a swirl of his fingertip on the rim. (How in blazes?) “Polllliticssss…” he rolled his eyes and rolled the word. “Dray’s dad prolly knows how that went down, but I s’pose he keeps his mouth shut, eh?”

Draco nodded, exchanging a look with Pansy. "Yeah. Thought so. Whatever," Potter sighed. "Only time I even got within twenty feet of politics was the beginning of that year, when they called me to sit in front of the entire damn Wizengamot over an underage magic charge for saving my fat fuck of a cousin from a dementor. Didn't go back to that stupid building again 'til the whole prophecy debacle, but that's at the end of the year, we'll get to it in a minute," he waved a dismissive hand, heatless silver sparks falling from his fingertips like rain.

"So. Yeah. Good riddance t'Fudge, may he rest in pieces," Potter sipped his gin in a twisted sort of toast, "wish I'd been savvy enough to just buy him 'stead of arguing at that trial but 's not like anyone would tell me how that works, had t’realize it was an option by myself..."

Pansy exchanged another look, with Theo this time. The longer Potter talked, the more she got the impression Gryffindor's 'Golden Boy' wasn't as golden as they all thought-

Hold the fuck up.

'Pyrite', her brain supplied, and she choked on the water she'd just poured, stifling the coughing fit in her hand while Theo thumped her back. He calls himself fool's gold, that clever bitch-

He'd chosen that nickname and been using it and somehow none of them had ever picked up on the wordplay? They were supposed to be Slytherins! Merlin, it should've been obvious from the beginning, but Potter's over-the-top fanboying and reputation as the Simp of the Server had thoroughly distracted every single person in this room from the discrepancies between his attitude and his background. Were it not for this insane (inebriated) infodump, Pansy knew without a doubt that none of them would have ever even asked.

Harry Potter, the paragon of virtue, the hero of their age, the silly Gryffindor with more brawn than brains-

-versus Pyrite, the debauched fiend, the acteur, the sarcastic, self-satisfied archetype of a modern Slytherin-

Pansy's mind repeated her earlier observation, for emphasis. Gryffindor's golden boy was not as golden as they all thought.

Case in point: "-and ‘riddance to Umbridge regardless of who hired her, though, that was one vote I was really thrilled to win-"

"Wait, you were the winning execution method? 'Martyr'?" Draco blurted out, before his shock began to subside into a wide-eyed consideration that said he was coming to the same conclusion as Pansy just had: "You know what that's a really obvious nickname I shouldn't have been so surprised-"

Because Potter wasn't subtle. But somehow, fantastically, he didn't have to be - like some magic worked in his favor to turn people away from obvious conclusions. Did that even exist? Pansy couldn’t recall any such thing off the top of her head, but it seemed familiar...

"I might have gotten a bit too enthusiastic about her death," Harry grinned, flushing again in spots that the liquor hadn't already pinked. "I really did tell her so, though, didn't I?" A laugh, a sip of his drink. "Got the lines framed in my room at Sirius' place. Everyone says the room is cursed now."

"Hardcore," Theo supplied, not disapproving.

"Pretty fucking brutal, yeah," Blaise nodded along. (And if Pansy squinted she was sure that his hands were shaking a little, his eyes a little too wide, his posture a little too tight, the tells of his unease-)

"But what the hell was that whole thing at the end of fifth year, then?" Draco demanded, smoke steaming from his nose and mouth. (He'd only just Vanished the contents of the pipe he'd been smoking - behind a Freshening Charm so they didn't have to smell the stuff.) "Father refused to tell me about it."

"Hm, ‘course he did. Well.." Potter paused, staring at the back of his right hand, for a moment; frowned slightly, as though confused; then seemed to mentally shrug and move on. "Sorry, got distracted for a second - this gin's really good, y'guys sure you don't want some?"

Everyone shook their heads.

"Right then, let me sober up a little at least or this part won't make as much sense." He reached into his sleeve and withdrew a tiny phial that made Draco's eyebrows jump into his hairline for a second before he controlled his expression. (Pansy would be asking him about that later. If she remembered.) The smell of vanilla reached her in the half-second before Potter downed it like a shot, then chased it with more of the gin he was drinking.

"Ah, that’s the stuff.. where was I..." Potter - or should Pansy start calling him Harry at this point? - smacked his lips, took another swig of gin, and beamed at them. "Oh yeah! End of fifth year, that was a pitched battle in the Department of Mysteries to get the record of the prophecy between the Dark Lord and I-"

"The one that's now been unravelled?" Theo cut in-

"Yup, that one! Now, Sir couldn't get into Mysteries himself for plot reasons," Harry’s face split in a silly grin, "so he sent me some more of the visions I'd been getting since like fourth year to trick me into going instead, and sent some of his Death Eaters to get it from me once I'd bypassed the wards on the shelves that prevent other people from taking prophecies that aren't about them."

He uncrossed and recrossed his legs, swirling his glass of gin. "A fight broke out, of course, when I realized it was a ruse, and, heh, they should really have secured those shelves better, 'cause we pretty much broke the whole room-"

"'We'?" Draco asked.

"The DA, Drayy~co, do keep up," Harry singsonged. Then he beamed at them all again. "We were the secret club Umbridge was trying to uncover all year! I was teaching Defense practicals since that bitch wouldn't. The livestream clubroom upstairs used to be the DA room."

Pansy.. remembered those rumors, actually, now that she thought of it. Hell, she'd helped track down suspected members when that Ravenclaw girl broke the news to Umbridge; and later, when they'd rounded up a bunch of Harry's Gryffindor friends, she'd helped with that-

"Wait, was that that night?" she blurted out.

Harry nodded.

"How the hell did you get to London in the middle of the night?"

"Thestrals, obviously.” Harry answered, like that was in any way normal, before using that as a springboard to tell the rest of the story. "It doesn't even matter, the point is..."

And honestly? Pansy didn't even have to account for the Heir of Slytherin thing he'd mentioned earlier; she was coming to a lot of conclusions, the longer Harry went on recounting his tale of adventure, tragedy, and drama. It could have been taken wholesale from a work of fiction - the story was fascinating, even clearly abridged as it was.

“-Bellatrix tried to kill Sirius by pushing him through the Veil, and I went apeshit, basically, and chased her to the Atrium where we almost had a duel but I wasn’t even close to her level yet - am now, though-”

(What?)

"-which is when I tried the Cruciatus for the first time but it only sort of worked, which was too bad, I’d been looking forward to it-”

(What?)

"-and then Sir appeared and so did Dumbles and Sir briefly possessed me and dared the old goat to murder me right there if he wanted to stop me-” he coughed, “-stop him, rather - and I finally figured out the Occlumency I'd been studying all year and pushed him out of my head! Then they had a pretty wicked Transfiguration duel between the two of them in the Atrium," Harry stared wistfully into the fire, reminiscing. “Until some civilians showed up, at least. Obviously that was when the news broke to the rest of the world that, you know, Voldemort was alive. Not a lunatic after all then, was I?” He giggled.

There's a lot to unpack here, thought Pansy faintly in the following silence, so let's just throw out the whole suitcase.

 

Little did the students by the fire realize the error in their choice of meetingplace for this subject matter.

They could not be expected to know, unless you asked Mad-Eye Moody (who expected everyone to meet his standards of paranoia) - but privacy wards, and the lateness of the hour, were not nearly enough to keep them from being overheard here, the way they were elsewhere. For the Slytherin common room, and its adjacent halls and corridors, were all encased within a net of surveillance wards and artifacts the likes of which were normally only seen in ancient family estates-

And all of these fed into the scrying-mirrors and listening-instruments of the Head of House, Severus Snape, who could and did check in on his students throughout the night.

So it would be no surprise that Severus had, upon listening to some of Harry's rambling, recognized from his observations the mannerisms of a different wizard: an equally-rambling, alcoholic, too-savvy Dark wizard with whom he was regrettably acquainted-

-or two, rather-

-and, knowing that Potter wasn't being possessed thanks to a very specific ward in the array, would come to the other obvious conclusion, quite in line with that of his seventh-years, just a little more informed.

In other words, he would absolutely recognize Assistant.

But - as time, and fate, and circumstance would have it yet again - Severus Snape was not in his office tonight to monitor the dungeons.

Where on any other night, after finishing his late-night patrol of the castle, the now-Defense Professor would be settled in his office chair in nightrobes and those fuzzy Gryffindor themed slippers Minerva had bought him last Christmas, self-inking red quill in one hand and mug of brandy-with-tea in the other...

...it just so happened that this was a night he was not in the castle at all.

Rather: he'd expertly thrashed Filius, Minerva, Pomona, and Madam Hooch in poker on Sunday, winning a week's freedom from the night shift. On Monday, he'd spent that free time tearing through a backlog of paperwork; and today, the night between Tuesday and Wednesday, he skipped dinner in the Great Hall to luxuriate in a hot bath, before pushing aside his teaching robes and pyjamas in favor of a different outfit hidden in the very back of his wardrobe, still wrapped from when it had been delivered from the tailor's.

Granted, not too different: it was still black, after all. But there was nothing dramatic and flowy about this outfit; nothing plain and utilitarian in the lavish satiny shine of the shirt, cut just-so to flatter shoulders and arms toned from intensive potions work, with glinting onyx buttons that fastened only so far to leave his collarbones bare for the gossamer-thin silver chain that lay across them. This shirt he tucked into the high, trim waist of neat-pressed trousers, cinched tighter by a broad dragonhide belt as was the current fashion (and of a convenient size to hold his utility kit in enchanted pockets), which only exaggerated how the trousers tightened appealingly across his backside when he bent to lace polished brogues over fine silk socks patterned with curling silver poison-ivy vines.

And there was nothing concealing, nothing armored, about it: in the mirror, tying lengthened hair back with a ribbon at the nape of his neck, Severus looked bare. He could never appear like this in public.

But, as was rather the point, he was not going to be in public.

And since he wasn’t, Severus carefully, relishingly, rolled up each shirtsleeve to the elbow, where a strip of fabric fastened it in place on one more button. This final touch revealed, on one arm, numerous scars from ritual bloodletting; and on the other, as vivid black against his sunless skin as the clothes he wore, the sinister coiling shape of the Dark Mark.

Severus looked at his reflection now, and smiled.

And then he strode through the Floo to Spinner’s End, from whence to Apparate.

The Death Eaters were gathering, and never more would he be one to miss the call.