Disclaimer: I'm not muscling in on JK's turf - just gambolling on it, like a spring lamb, having fun working out the literary and psychological puzzles which she is having fun setting us
#18: Not Raving, but Drowning
[In which trouble is afoot, and matters come to a head.]
He had still something careful in his gait which made her contemplate the word "footsore", but when she tried to ask him about it he flinched away from the question and claimed an unlucky hex to the hip during combat training, which she amused herself by kissing better.
He was working hard at relaxing (a contradiction in terms, if ever there was one) into sex, into being touched: even if he still always needed her to make the first move, and clung to her with what felt more like desperation than joy. He still couldn't bring himself to sleep naked, and he still half expected, at least on a subconscious level, that being seen to be aroused would mean being jeered at and humiliated: but giving and getting affectionate touch shored up his shaky sense of self-worth, and at least sex was a good way of drugging him into sleep without resorting to bottles of purple potions.
Staying asleep, however, was another matter, and it was rare for him to sleep more than a few hours without scaring himself awake. The combined strains of sleeplessness and of his responsibilities to and for the Order were wearing him almost to transparency, and he had taken to putting a Muffliato spell on the bedroom every night, so that neither their love-making nor his sometimes howling nightmares would disturb the couple upstairs.
He hadn't had any more waking flashbacks so severe as to cause him to lose awareness of where he was, but his nights were still an assault-course of horrors which often left him shaking and clawing at himself as if he would tear his own skin off, and even by day any random event - an item in the newspaper, the heated rings on the cooker, a drunken yell in the street - might start up some horrible reminiscence which according to mood he would either choke off and refuse to finish, or state flatly in a voice whose hollow calm was almost worse than shaking and clawing.
Her efforts to comfort him through his twisting, sweating night-time terrors brought closeness deeper than sex and Lynsey knew that she relished that closeness, even as she fretted over its cause: but she was haunted by layer on layer of too-vivid mental images of his suffering. On days when she couldn't stop seeing what had been done to him she had her own ways to distract herself, and she felt the professor's ironic, considering gaze rest on her as she jerked her head to the side, shaking off the vision of his desperate pain, and sought for numbness by listening to bracing music, or singing it over under her breath; by losing herself on the complex paths of coding; by pigging out on curry or by crawling into bed and crashing out until the next time his troubled sleep would wake her.
At least she had managed to persuade him that Nestor and Starbuck weren't going to attack him at a moment of sexual crisis, and the busy little centaurs were always there, pumping and sliding together in the corner, a constant source of inspiration and encouragement. And if, sometimes, he called out another name than hers without even realising it, she held him closer and wished that his love for the sainted Lily could have been reciprocated.
"We still have to find the Hufflepuff Cup, unfortunately, because even if Eleusinia was right about a Horcrux being used up when the bastard undied, we don't know whether it was this Horcrux or another bloody one we don't know about." He prodded the silver device irritably with his finger, and it made an "Eeep!" noise and shuffled sideways on little metal feet. It looked, Lynsey thought, like the bastard offspring of a Victorian teapot and a robotic, steampunk chihuahua. "This thing is meant to be an 'enhanced divination machine', according to Dumbledore's portrait - at least Creevey's photographic version of the portrait is one thing which is working - but the answers it gives are so bloody obscure...."
"What did you prime it with?"
"Jasmine tea - none of your supermarket rubbish, either. Out of it, you," he added to Starbuck, who was watching the silver device with glass-eyed concentration, and the brown-and-white cat turned his back in frozen dignity, and pretended to wash. "I believe the cup may be with the Lestranges - sodding Bellatrix told me herself that our Lord had entrusted her with 'his most precious' unspecified something, at any rate - but where she would have hidden it...."
"I remember you said," Lynsey said, and indeed she could hardly forget it: it had been one of the snippets of potential clues about Horcruxes which Severus had pasted into her mind with an indelible Memory Charm to make it stick, when they had been roaming the woods and he had been afraid that he would die without passing on what he knew to the Order. "Maybe we could get answers out of that thing like with the Tarot - I mean, asking progressive layers of questions and going for a positive or a negative. Try 'Is the Hufflepuff Cup in Britain or not?'"
"All right." Severus repeated the question, and then watched as the instrument clinked and rattled and issued a puff of green smoke from the spout in its lid. "Looks like... a rosebud. In view of the question I'd take that to mean 'In England', would you think?"
"Mmm - seems likely, doesn't it?"
"All right... in the wizarding or the Muggle world?" Clank. Puff. "Hmm." He sat back, frowning.
"What is it?"
"A wand - that's clear enough. But surrounded by... no, crossing a circle. It looks vaguely familiar, but -" As he spoke, Starbuck sidled up to the floating sign and sniffed at it warily.
"It looks to me," Lynsey said, "like a London Underground sign, only with a wand as the crossbar."
"A wizard place surrounded by - or on top of - a Muggle one, then, and something indicating London specifically. The Ministry, St Mungo's, the Leaky, Diagon Alley, Knockturn Alley...." It was a rumination-out-loud rather than a question, but the silver whatnot shuffled its feet, binged again and spat out a stream of smoke which reassorted itself into a straight, slanting line. The cat jumped back, hissing.
"Bloody hell." Severus stared wide-eyed at the diagonal streak of green. "No wonder Dumbledore always bloody-well knew what was going on. The patent for this -"
"Wouldn't want the Ministry to get it, though, would you? If they'd known what we were planning at Azkaban...."
"Bloody hell." The instrument gave a definite boiinnngg and spat out a stream of green-smoke roundels in an assortment of sizes. Severus gave a slightly hysterical laugh. "Looks like we hit the jackpot."
"Coins, you reckon?"
"Gringotts." The mechanism belched loudly, gave off a final puff of smoke and fell silent.
"In a bank vault? That's a bit, well, obvious, isn't it?"
"Obvious, yes." He tapped his nails irritably against the table top. "Arguably, however, it doesn't matter if a hiding-place is obvious, if it is also inaccessibly secure. We know where the Crown Jewels of England are - but it doesn't make them that much easier to half-inch."
"It's called a Sequel," she said, nodding towards the lines of code on the laptop's screen, "I mean that's esS Queue elL, Structured Query Language, but it's pronounced 'sequel'. Most of them are - well, pre-digested pap, they come with easy controls but they only do a limited range of pre-set tasks, but this is Foxpro which is like, deeply user-hostile, but so much more powerful and intelligent...."
Severus pursed his lips and made a slight but definite self-preening movement of the head.
"Yes, all right," Lynsey muttered, "we know it's not the only thing which is user-hostile but highly intelligent and powerful...."
"I wasn't going to say it."
"Yer were thinking it, though." She looked at him, so calm and able by the light of day; no longer the torn and ragged shadow which was burned into the back of her eyes although his own eyes were hollow with exhaustion. "You are good at this, though: I thought you would be."
He nodded thoughtfully, not bothering with false modesty. "I always did prefer to invent my own spells rather than taking my magic all pre-fabricated and pre-digested, and this isn't that unlike doing your own spell-work."
"Arts and Crafts movement, wizard-style?"
"Mm." He leaned back in the chair, turning his neck from side to side to get the cricks out. "Especially as my own work was usually better...."
"It's a thing most people don't understand," Lynsey said, "especially the press: that programming is just as much an art and a craft as making a copper bangle, or a blanket chest."
"I can see that it is, it's very - individual. And isn't The Craft a Muggle term for magic?"
"Yup. Did I show you my latest toy?" She fished out the solid plastic weight, which rested comfortably in her palm.
"Looks like the remote for t' telly, but I take it it isn't?"
"It's a Nokia 5110 - the latest mobile 'phone."
"Oh! Like something out of Star Trek - oh, I want."
"I'll make a deal with you.† You wash your hair every day, and I'll stop eating raw onion sandwiches at bedtime, OK?"
"I thought about saying your name was Doreen," Lynsey said, "but that's a bit obvious."
"Nah." Tonks flexed her shoulders, altering the size of her bust as she did so. "You told me one of these bods we're meant to be meeting for lunch was called May, so I'm going to be April. What do you think?"
"Very nice," Severus said shortly, rather obviously trying not to be caught looking.
The shape-shifter had added about twelve years of apparent age over her base state, swapped her trademark punk hair for a slightly mannish mid-brown crop, and gained several inches around the chest. "I don't know what you two did to Remus," she said happily, "but whatever it was, thanks!"
"Following you around like a lovelorn spaniel, is he?"
"I thought that was more your style," Tonks said sharply, and Severus winced. Lynsey wondered how she knew - but she had already gathered in conversation with the professor that Tonks's mother had been at school with him and Lily for two years, and had been a Slytherin prefect - a prefect who had scandalised the school by sitting her NEWTs while seven months pregnant, and who had been in the same academic year as her younger sister, born only eight months after her and named for the narcissi which were in bloom at the time. "But, yeah," the younger woman said, relenting, "I mean he's got a lot more confidence in the you-know, the, uh, bedroom department - and he actually let me see him being a wolf this time, and didn't go all 'Oh woe is me that ever I was born' about it."
'I'm glad" Severus muttered, then gave her an eldritch smirk. "Since he's my dog now, I have to see to his well-being...."
"So, Gordon," May said, leaning forward over the pasta salad and fixing him with a gimlet eye, and Lynsey noted with approval that Severus responded smoothly to the strange name, glancing up without hesitation and with just enough reaction to seem natural; "Lynsey tells us that you and she are...?"
"Oh, absolutely," he said with delicacy, blotting fastidiously at the corner of his mouth with his napkin. "I couldn't have put it better myself." Tonks snorted lager down her nose, and then tried to look as if she hadn't.
Lynsey was amazed to find that the prof seemed to be enjoying himself, both the edgily flirtatious undercurrent to the conversation, and the exercise in deceit. "Ever since we met," he murmured, meeting May's eyes with innocent candour, "in a small side-room during the Yule moot, our involvement has been very... intense." He allowed his Adam's apple to bob suggestively, causing Eck, who was gay, to go quite misty-eyed. "Almost frighteningly so." Lynsey kicked him under the table, and the corners of his mouth quirked.
"Longbottom," he said abruptly, sinking back into the sofa's soft embrace and taking the weight off his feet, "has asked to be accepted as a full member of the Order of the Phoenix with active duties, instead of just an observer, and that Lovegood and the Weasley girl should be at least allowed to attend meetings. I was surprised that he asked me, frankly - he used to damn' near wet himself if I even looked at him - but I suppose I look like something pathetic to them all now, instead of fearsome."
Lynsey clicked her tongue at him. "He must still see you as an authority figure, or he wouldn't have asked you. Will you accept them?" She offered him a revivifying glass of real ale; he relieved her of it with a languid, black-clad arm and then frowned at her over the rim of it.
"I don't know. Ginny Weasley is not of age yet but it might be easier having her inside where I can at least keep an eye on her and pull rank, than outside doing God knows what without supervision." He took a hearty swig at the glass. "Lovegood - Lovegood is peculiar to the nth degree but she has no nerves to speak of, she sails through life in a state of serene unconcern and her spellwork is excellent. And she is of age, so I suppose... God."
"It makes me appreciate more why Dumbledore made some of the strange recruitment choices he did. With Black in particular, he was never going to stay neutral and I suspect Dumbledore just preferred to have him on the inside pissing out than on the outside pissing in. And I'm glad I have some authority over Mundungus, even though the little shit tried to lift my wallet last week."
"And Neville?" She sat down carefully beside him, placing her own half-emptied glass on the coffee table.
"Amazing as it may seem - not least to myself - I asked Potter for his honest opinion of his combat work. His assessment was - remarkably professional and unbiased, and tallied with my own recent observations."
"What did Harry say?"
"That Longbottom has, potentially, a great deal of magical force but he has little focus and less confidence, in part caused by some sort of disability of memory. That his defensive spellwork is 'nothing to write home about' but given patience and encouragement it's not hopeless either, and that in an actual combat situation he has nerves of steel, keeps his head and thinks on his feet - which I may say conjured up a very peculiar image." He set his own glass down and steepled his fingers. "Apparently when they had the fight with Lucius and his Merry Men at the Department of Mysteries, Longbottom was unable to spell-cast due to a combination of a broken nose and not having been taught non-verbal casting by any of the useless twats that Dumbledore hired to teach Defence over the years, so he saved Potter's life and overcame Macnair - Macnair!" he exclaimed sharply, almost gagging as a sudden deathly whiteness chased across his skin, before his composure closed down again like a smooth armour "- by poking him in the eye with the proverbial sharp stick" he finished glibly.
Lynsey coughed, almost choking. "Impressive!"
Severus gave the ghost of a grin. "I thought so, I must say - and that was despite his having been Cruciated by Bellatrix-Sodding-Lestrange only moments previously. Also... ironic. Or something. Macnair apparently was trying to throttle Potter and Longbottom saved him - when only a few hours earlier I myself had intervened to save Longbottom himself from a similar fate."
"In - in battle?"
"No - but in the face of Dolores Umbridge, besides whom the face of battle would look almost charming." He turned to look at Lynsey directly, and she saw his own face was suddenly drawn and skull-like. "You tell me" he said rather wildly, "how I can recruit a seventeen-year-old who has made a personal enemy of Walden Macnair? Yet, if this fight isn't Longbottom's, then whose is it?"
"If Macnair is already his enemy, wouldn't he be - well, safer on active duty than not? Make him look less of a soft target?"
"On one level, but - it will also put him in harm's way... but he is of age, and he knows the risks. In fact he's closer to eighteen than seventeen, and comparatively mature - not that he's up against much competition." He pulled a wry face. "As a spell-caster he's clumsy and heavy-handed - you may remember he tried to Stupefy my hip instead of my head, although I suppose making me limp for a week was a result of sorts - but any pure-blood who has the tenacity and sheer bloody imagination to go on fighting after being deprived of magic, and who's prepared to use his hands against somebody like Macnair, is going to have surprise behind him if nothing else...."
Lynsey bit her lip. "I remember you said that Macnair - that he was the one who... who damaged your feet."
"Yes" Severus said tightly, and shuddered violently. "Why?"
"It's just - I don't believe you, about your hip being the only reason you're limping I mean. You're still having trouble - "
"It's nothing I can't handle."
"If you're sure...."
"Yes. Not that - I don't want to - presume on your care." He held up his hand as she opened her mouth to protest. "The strain on you is beginning to tell, I can see it. I ought to - to remove myself, except I can't bring myself to" Thank the gods for that Lynsey muttered under her breath "but that aside I don't want to - to deal with it right now. The...." He made a vague gesture towards his feet. "It's...."
Too much, she understood. "OK - but -" Severus frowned at her, and she spread her hands. "Honestly, you don't have to feel you're making unreasonable demands on me. This is part of what I do, part of being my sort of a witch - it's just making appropriate use of my skills, the same as when you brew migraine potion for me. And you're allowed to expect that people will care about you and want to help you."
"This is not just - a little assistance in passing, though, is it? Why so much care, such - effort put into repairing a, a sour, ill-tempered middle-aged man with a questionable past?"
"Well - it's a witch thing, isn't it - that idea of manipulating people better?† And it's a service to the gods and an act of worship - putting right what evil people have damaged.†† Especially - um, Herne, the Great One, the Horned One, he's a god of male sexuality, so anything which warps that or spoils it for someone is, um, specifically sacrilegious, so putting it right is pleasing to Herne. And it's a way of sticking two fingers up at Lucius and showing that I'm stronger than him."
He jerked his chin up. "Hah - I'm with you on that one, certainly!"
"Short of killing or serious brain-damage, there's nothing he can break so completely that I can't put it right - right?"
"Not even if I were -" she heard his breath catch - "broken beyond sanity, beyond knowing who I was or where I was or what was happening to me?"
"That would have taken longer - about six months longer, probably - but I'm nothing if not persistent and you, my lad, are nothing if not resilient. And, and - one does what one can with what the gods send one. If they set you a task, and you're a witch, you do it: you don't wimp out or, or pretend it was for someone else to do. And there's pleasure in feeling useful, and in exercising skill and knowing that you're doing a good job - you know that at least as well as I do."
"Well - all right. Yes. I can be a job of work...."
"More enjoyable and less mundane than that. There's an almost sculptural element - the same way there is when a surgeon fixes a complex fracture - that sense of stroking all the fragments back into order." As she spoke, her hands mimed the action, smoothing and ordering. "It's a work of art - or of Craft - and you don't stop making a work of art until it's finished. And it's what I do, and - 'I love you without measure', as the song says and, and people should spend time on these things.† There's too many people out there who think that when someone has been - traumatized they should be able to just get over it like that, and if it takes more than a few weeks to put right they get bored and wander off."
Severus snorted. "I could name you several Order members who think I must be some sort of feeble, whining weakling because I haven't managed to brush - all that - off yet as if it had never happened, even though they all heard how they - how I -"
"Filius understands though, and Minerva, Harry - it takes months, years, even decades to fix serious trauma, in oneself or in others, but it can be done. It just takes patience and a steady nerve."
Severus nodded mutely, gazing into the middle distance, and then sighed. "Patience - defined as 'a minor form of despair, disguised as a virtue'."
As sensitized as she was, now, to the rhythms of his pain, she woke to find him sprawled on his back beside her, his mouth twisted in distress and his eyes flickering sightlessly behind closed lids, cringing and whimpering softly "Oh please, oh please, no...." When she tried to wake him he opened his eyes and looked straight at her but his breath continued to catch and break in terrified despair. She grabbed his hand, dug her nails in hard enough to get his attention and snapped "Say it with me! Say it!"
Hypnotized, his lips began to move silently in time with hers.
"Say it - come on - I know you know it - "
"That the topless towers be burnt
And men recall that face,
Move most gently if move you must
In this lonely place.
She thinks, part woman, three parts a child,
That nobody looks; her feet
Practise a tinker shuffle
Picked up on a street.
Like a long-legged fly upon the stream
Her mind moves upon silence.
"That girls at puberty may find
The first Adam in their thought,
Shut the door of the Pope's chapel,
Keep those children out.
There on that scaffolding resides
With no more sound than the mice make
His hand moves to and fro.
Like a long-legged fly upon the stream
His mind moves upon silence."
The Order meeting went on so long that Lynsey was beginning to worry when she saw through the kitchen window the professor's long legs descending the area steps. Drawing the door wide he blew in on a breath of dark air and mist and she could see the excitement humming through his lean frame.
"Whassup?" she said, stepping out into the hall to greet him. "Good meeting?"
"Lovegood - I agreed to Longbottom's suggestion, to let her attend a few meetings and see how well she did, and he was bloody-well right - she had a brilliant idea. She suggested that - well, I can't remember if I told you this but Myrtle Higgins, the ghost in the girls' lavvie where the access-point to the tunnels is, she was killed by the basilisk in the nineteen-forties and Riddle used her death to make a Horcrux. His second, I think - as far as I know he killed his own father earlier than that."
"Anyway...." He shrugged out of his long Muggle-safe coat, hung it up and went to sit at the small breakfast-table in the kitchen. "Lovegood pointed out that so far as we know Higgins's death was an accident, Riddle didn't set out with the intention of killing her she was just in the wrong place at the wrong time, so there's a good chance he performed the whole of the Horcrux ritual after her death instead of -" He flinched visibly and bared his teeth. "Instead of preparing it in advance all but the single, final gesture of release which I saw, half saw him make after he killed Lily, and which, even if I can reconstruct it properly, may be too generic to be used to identify Horcrux creation specifically."
"You mean, you think that what you saw may have been a sort of general 'Run' command which could be used to start any pre-prepared spell?"
"Mmm. I've been looking at -" he flinched again. "Looking at it in Dumbledore's Pensieve, what I saw, after Lils was killed and before the side of the house blew out and I managed to get it clear enough to see that it doesn't seem to tie in with any of the descriptions of Horcrux-preparation in the grimoires we retrieved from the Merchieftainess. Filius thinks that the - Riddle - may have perfected a way of stalling any spell just on the point of completion and then setting it in motion later with a single gesture which is - which is a tremendously useful idea, if true, and I'm furious that I didn't think of it myself, actually."
"Aye, well, I suppose just because he's a deranged megalomaniac doesn't mean he's actually stupid - not in technical matters, anyway."
"Our task would be so much easier if he were, but unfortunately he is, or has been, a very great and very innovative wizard."
"Well, then - it's no reflection on you that he managed to have at least one good idea you didn't - especially as he has, what, about a thirty year head start on you?"
"Uh - thirty-three years, I think. I suppose so. But at any rate, Lovegood suggested that if Higgins became conscious as a ghost more or less immediately following her death, which is fairly common, and given that she is... 'very inquisitive' was how Lovegood put it... well, there's a good chance that she might actually have watched Riddle do it especially as - well, 'ogles any half-decent-looking boy any chance she gets' was the way Potter put it, and Riddle was very good-looking, if you like that sort of thing. Are we cooking?"
"There's still a bit of lamb curry left from last night."
"Good - I'm too tired to be very constructive right now."
"So," Lynsey said, deftly wielding her chopsticks to scoop up a wodge of reheated rice and raisins, "does this mean you have to go back to the school to speak to, mm whatsername, Myrtle or is it possible to bring her here to you? I could set up a sťance, if you think it would help."
"Ghosts are usually bound quite closely to one location, either the site of their death or to somewhere - or someone - which has great meaning for them... but I can't see the Ministry letting us into Hogwarts again so easily. But aren't sťances - well, for contacting those who have truly passed over?"
"Yeah, in general, but you can sometimes use them to contact ghosts who are in the vicinity - not that that helps a whole lot, I guess."
"Well, it might if...." He pushed his plate aside and rubbed wearily at his eyes, flicking back the long skeins of lank hair. "I already sent the doe Patronus to Aberforth, asking him to look into ways of getting Higgins to manifest at the Hog's Head. Apparently she has something of a crush, God help us, on Potter, so if we tell her he's going to be there...."
"Now if he had a 'phone, you could talk to him in real time, discuss it, instead of waiting for him to send a message back."
"Yes - a telephone is less messy and inconvenient than fire-calling and more flexible than a talking-glass, especially that - mobile thingy: one of the many ways in which Muggles outstrip us, though not many wizards would admit it. But a Patronus at least will make sure the message is delivered whenever the recipient is there to receive it, like email or a letter, and unlike email or a letter it can't be faked or falsified, you know it comes from who it seems to come from, and it can obey simple commands such as 'Find this named person at this named location, and if they're not at that location then go to the next nearest Order member'." He made a wry face. "That was how I once got a message intended for Hagrid, from a Patronus which - well, which took the form of Remus Lupin in his fur coat."
"You don't use the warhorse as a messenger?"
Severus shook his head. "The doe is the one Aberforth will recognise as mine, and the Death Eaters, should they intercept her, won't, whereas some of them did see the horse. They never knew -" Without apparently realising it, he started to rub at his left forearm, where a palm-sized patch of shiny new skin marked Lynsey's foray into emergency field surgery. "The Mark - it sets up a connection to the - to Him, which interferes with the ability to cast a Patronus. If any of them had ever realised that I still could, that would have landed me on the torture-slab a lot sooner than - than actually happened, because they would have known that I was using Occlumency to shut out His influence."
Lynsey jerked her head, shaking off the too-vivid images of what his landing on the torture-slab had entailed, and put her hand over his where it rested on the kitchen table. "If it was going to happen, then thank the gods it happened when there was an ally there to help you to escape."
Severus nodded once, tightly. "I don't know whether it says something typical about me, or about - about His influence over the Marked, that I ended up with a Patronus who represented my most catastrophic failure and my greatest guilt." He looked up at her then, his eyes dark fire within the deep shadows of his brows. "I love the doe, but she tastes of pain."
"What does the horse taste of, then?"
He smirked his flicker of a smirk. "Pride."
That night he dreamed, she thought, of Lily's death, tangled up with fragments of his own ghastly protracted punishment. After the churning despair and rage, after the frantic clawing and clutching which left Lynsey nearly as battered as if she'd been wrestling with a pony and the blinded, dazed dislocation from the present as she talked and sung him back into his own skin, he ended up lying on his stomach on the bed, propped up on his elbows with his head hanging and his limp, sweat-soaked hair curtaining his face. Lynsey fetched him a glass of water, and he stared at her sideways through the black strands.
"I don't know," he said; "- don't know how much longer I can go on with this. It would be so much easier just to die, and not have to live through this any more."
"But it would be such a waste of a good man," she said softly.
"But what fucking good am I to anybody in this state anyway? I'm just a burden, to myself most of all."
"Quite apart from your utility to the Order, that's just - please pet, don't. Please."
"You're - begging me? Why?"
Still half asleep herself, Lynsey laid her hand along his sharp, stubble-roughened jaw and stared into his eyes with all the will she could muster. "I'm begging you not to take away the dearest thing I have."
He put his hand up to cover hers and stared back, wonderingly - and then half fell, half lunged forwards with a groan and began to kiss her with an edge of desperation, pressing his long body against hers as if trying to fuse himself with her, until she could feel his heartbeat hammering against his ribs.
Kisses aside it was, she realized afterwards, the first time he had actually initiated sex. As he lay collapsed limply half on top of her, still wrapped around and inside her, Lynsey stirred under him, her whole skin alive with the pleasurable contact and her arms around his still-sharp ribs. She felt a surge of affection like a great swinging rise of the sea, deep and wide enough to drown in, and in her sated, dreaming state she stroked his back and murmured:
But he turned his head and gazed back at her, from the fastness of his dark intelligence, and answered softly:
"In the burrows of the Nightmare
Where Justice naked is,
Time watches from the shadow
And coughs when you would kiss."
His silky voice purred through the catalogue of loss which the poem unfolded, and Lynsey remembered unhappily that there was a distinct possibility that if he survived the war he would outlive her by sixty or seventy years, bereaved by his love for a short-lived Muggle as surely as Muggles were by loving a dog.
the sad, lovely voice continued like the unfolding history of loss,
But she put her hand up and ran it through his heavy hair, and answered:
"O stand, stand at the window
As the tears scald and start;
You shall love your crooked neighbour
With your crooked heart."
And they were both, in their own ways, a little crooked and out of shape. A crisis must come, she felt, like a fever breaking, before he could properly begin to recover: but that was a worrying metaphor, because not all patients lasted until their fever broke.
She was beginning to have bad dreams of her own, just to complicate matters, although not ones which woke her sobbing and clawing. She in fact dreamed very seldom, or if she did she didn't remember it: but several times lately she had woken with a blurred, confused memory of seeing Severus dragged from his bed by Aurors or, worse, of trying frantically to save him, either in the caves or in Azkaban, and knowing that he would suffer until he died if she should fail.
Not that she ever did fail, even in nightmare. She always awoke still running madly after some new solution, through a maze of shifting tunnels which led somewhere else on alternate Tuesdays.
Severus had left his copy of the photographic portrait of Dumbledore in the flat, and after he had gone to his work in Diagon Alley and she had cleared up the breakfast things, Lynsey propped it up on the table. The picture was still, a mere photo' of a painting, gilded frame and all, but she cleared her throat and said "Headmaster...?" and after a few seconds the blue eyes twinkled and the austere expression lifted into a smile.
"Miss O'Connor," the scratchy, tinny whisper of a voice said. "To what do I owe this pleasure?"
"Headmaster - sir. Um, hello. I just wanted to ask you if - if the situation were to become... critical, would I be able to use you, this portrait, as a way of summoning help?"
"By 'the situation', do you mean some form of attack, or Severus's condition?"
"Well, both, either, but - mainly Severus. You know that he...?"
"I am aware that - that the strain of all that he has suffered is telling on him heavily, yes."
"Yes. I suppose that if I had to I could find whatever Order member is watching the house, and get them to summon Poppy, but that would take time and, and risk embarrassing him by making the matter more public than it needs to be. The same goes for 'phoning the Weasleys, quite apart from - well, it's a big house, at four a.m. they might not hear the 'phone."
"You are afraid that he might - take some irreversible step?"
"Not that, so much, but - but if it came to it that I couldn't snap him out of it he could have a stroke, or a psychotic breakdown."
The painting of the old man nodded sombrely. "I can certainly ask Poppy - the next time I encounter her - to carry a copy of this photograph with her at all times. There are certainly potions and spells which can be used to enforce calm in an hysterical subject, although whether that would be effective in the case of - traumatic flashback, is it? - I am uncertain."
"Me, too, but - it would be insurance. Some kind of crisis is coming...."
"Yes; I fear matters are coming to a head. Poor Severus... but I may say that you seem to be assisting him very ably. Getting him to recite poetry was especially ingenious: his own pedantry and love of performing will compel him to concentrate on the lines instead of on his emotional disturbance."
"How do you... have you been watching -?"
"On occasion - when the opportunity presented itself. I was - concerned." The blue eyes glittered. "You need not fear that I have been - as it were - spying on the secrets of the bedroom. My own interests in that line lie... elsewhere."
"I remember you said," Lynsey replied, whilst privately vowing to make sure the photograph stayed outside in the sitting-room. "Can I ask you something?"
"Certainly - although I reserve the right to not answer."
"I was thinking," she muttered, "of having a portrait - I mean a moving one - made of Severus...."
"So that if he should, ah, become a casualty you can still have a means of contacting him?"
"Well - that too, but mainly because - well, he's made a lot of enemies, and I would hate to think that somebody might trap part of his soul into a portrait in order to hurt him there. Having a pleasant portrait left in - in safe hands would ensure he had a bolt-hole, as I understand it."
"Admirably reasoned, I feel," said the old man in that faraway whisper, almost at the cusp of hearing; "both the problem and its solution."
Lynsey felt sick, realising that he thought her fear for Severus was justified. "Yes. But then - well, then I'll be trapping him, won't I, the portrait will - he'll be stuck in it for centuries. And he'll have you for company I suppose, and Minerva since she's Headmistress, assuming his portrait is hung somewhere you have access to, but even so he - I wondered if it would be possible for me to be in a moving painting as well, being a Muggle I mean, so I can keep him company. Assuming we haven't split up or anything, and he still wants me there."
Dumbledore looked at her over the rim of his spectacles, and for the first time the portrait looked discommoded. "That," he said, "is an interesting question, and one I will have to give some thought to. But, ah, offhand I know of at least four horses, two dogs and a parrot who have a fully-developed presence in the portrait realm, so it cannot be only wizards who can exist here - although in each case a witch or wizard was also present in the same picture."
Later, she lit a candle in front of the bronze hare on the mantelpiece, and prayed: "Changer, Trickster; world-turner, law-spurner: break down and build up."
"I thought we might have this week's meeting here in St Andrew's if - if that's all right."
"Oh, yes, you know I like to see them - if you're sure it's safe. I don't want to risk you - or me either, come to that."
Severus sighed in frustration, and swiped his hair back with his hands, rubbing at his face as he did so. "I wish I could keep you out of it altogether, but once you've become an item of potential interest for Lucius and that bloody shower, you're safer with the Order than without it. I can't see the bastard forgiving a Muggle for breaking his nose...."
"It was worth it though...." Lynsey said, with a reminiscent smile.
Her lover flashed her a sudden, ferocious grin. "It was a moment I shall treasure till my dying day, whenever that will be; but be that as it may, having Order members here to protect us both may attract attention in itself. I've booked a function room for tomorrow in a pub in South Street: I thought that if we held a meeting here in the town, then if they're spying on the Order it would make them think St Andrew's was just a place where we met, not a - a home. And at least here they can wear robes and no-one will remark on it."
"If you're right," Moody said, glowering into the depths of his beer and refusing to look at Severus, "what about Weasley, here?" He gestured to indicate a rather louche-looking, red-haired young man with an earring and a series of raw-looking ribbed scars across his cheek. Lynsey - whose task this evening was to fetch more beer from the bar and feed sheets of paper to the self-propelling quill-pen which was taking the minutes - surmised that this must be Ron's brother Bill.
"I can certainly find out where the Lestrange vault is, but I would prefer not to deceive my employers," the redhead said seriously, giving the lie to his rough appearance. "They may not be particularly likeable, but they've always dealt honestly with me, after their lights. I also have no desire to be served in a pie - and I'm not sure breaking in is even possible. We can hardly impersonate a Lestrange, since they're all liable to be arrested on sight."
"Are there any rules governing what kind of artefacts customers are allowed to store?" asked Remus, who had possibly never had a bank account in his life before this year.
"No objects liable to damage the bank itself or its employees, or to breach its security - so no unstable explosives, for example." Bill rubbed his chin, absentmindedly trailing his fingers across the scars, which were starred with irregular ginger stubble. "I suppose a case could be made for a Horcrux being a danger to the bank's employees, since we know He-Who can use them to attempt to subvert or possess anyone who gets too close to them." He inclined his head to indicate his sister, who scowled ferociously.
"Could we -" Neville's voice ended on a nervous squeak when he realised everyone was looking at him, but when no-one shushed him he swallowed and went on: "Could we g-get the goblins to denature the Horcrux for us - to remove a danger to the bank, like?"
"Theoretically, no," Bill said. "In practice, possibly yes, if we dressed it up so it didn't look as if they were breaking their word, and offered them something in exchange."
"And what is it that they would want, and that we could give them?" Severus said in his smooth, dark voice. He was leaning with his elbow on the arm of the settle, looking relaxed, commanding and - to Lynsey's eyes at least - very slightly less than perfectly sober. But a little lubrication probably helped him to deal with Moody's combined guilt and suspicion and Filius's loving concern.
[Nevertheless, the shadows under his eyes were evident, and Lynsey saw Harry's green gaze rest on him, measuring and considering....]
"Ownership of the sword of Gryffindor," Bill said flatly. There was an immediate outcry which refused to subside even after he held up the palm of his hand for silence, until Severus rapped on the table with his wand and said sharply "Settle down!
"Explain," he continued, looking at Bill, and the redhead nodded and went into a kind of lecturing mode.
"Goblins," he said, "have always had a very different idea of ownership from we wizards. With the more traditional amongst them, it is their belief that craftsmen - craftsgoblins - retain title to everything they produce, even after a sale, and the object reverts to the maker's family on the purchaser's death. They believe that by willing his sword to his own heirs Godric Gryffindor effectively stole it."
"Godric was no thief!" Minerva protested, as Tonks cut across her: "Did Godric know about this when he bought the sword, or was it an, um, cultural misunderstanding?"
"Thank you, Nymphadora," Severus said smoothly, his eyes fixed on Minerva. "That is the question, is it not? Was Godric Gryffindor a thief, a dupe or merely... ill-informed?"
"Nobody now knows," said the faint, tinny voice of the portrait of Albus Dumbledore. "I have always assumed that Godric bought and bequeathed the sword in good faith, but even that is not to say whether he was misled by the vendor or simply assumed, in his ignorance and arrogance, that a creature as different as a goblin would have the same concept of ownership as himself."
"But it isn't really an alien concept though, is it?" said Hermione in her precise voice. "It's just retaining copyright, isn't it, only over a craftwork instead of a text: just because you let one publisher market your work, that doesn't mean that they can hand it on to another firm without paying you again for it, unless that was specified in the original contract."
"If that's right," Harry said, "could we hang on to the sword but offer to pay royalties for it so long as they promised to let us keep it? So honour is satisfied on all sides, and all that?"
"I don't know," Bill said, frowning. "I don't think that would satisfy the Underminers, the really extremist faction, but most goblins... most of them just want wizards to show some respect for their culture so, yes, a formal acknowledgement of their continued claim to the sword would probably be sufficient."
"We could pay them a chaplet of roses at midsummer...." Luna Lovegood said dreamily. Several people snorted, but Minerva nodded thoughtfully.
"Or any kind of ceremonial token, I imagine, so long as it recognised their continuing claim in a, a significant way."
"Like Professor Snape," Luna interjected, nodding. "He's much better-tempered when people listen to him." Severus opened his mouth and then shut it again, and Minerva glanced distractedly at the blond girl and then continued as if she hadn't heard her.
"Very well: I would have to pass it with the Board of Governors but that should be possible to arrange. But what precisely is it we are asking them to do?"
"To remove the Horcrux from the Hufflepuff Cup," Severus replied; "or permit us to do so, preferably without damaging the cup. Apart from its intrinsic historical value, I imagine the goblins will be more willing to intervene if they can do so without injuring the object entrusted to their care."
Bill nodded. "Then they can claim that they assumed the Horcrux was some kind of magical parasite, like a Boggart, which was infesting the Lestrange vault - or simply deny all knowledge."
Harry grinned at that. "Yeah: they can hardly go to the goblins and complain 'We left a piece of Voldemort in here: where is it?'"
Lynsey noticed that several of those present winced at the name: including Severus, though he responded calmly enough.
"The problem," he said, "is that the grimoires which I acquired from Dumbledore -" he inclined his head to the portrait "- are in agreement that in order to destroy a Horcrux, the object holding it must be put beyond magical repair." This time it was Harry's turn to flinch, slightly but definitely.
Ron held up his hand, a restrained and slightly awkward gesture which seemed designed not to look as if he was raising it in class. "I've been wondering, Sn - sir, what'd happen if we fed a Horcrux object to a Dementor?"
"That is -" Severus gave Ron a sudden, rather beery grin which left the boy looking faintly appalled. "Not bad, actually. I wonder...."
"Well," Bill said, "the goblins probably would allow it access, since it couldn't steal any physical object and probably couldn't harm them...."
"Would the Dementor actually destroy the Horcrux, though, or cause it to die in a way that put it beyond use?" asked Filius in his high voice. "Nobody is entirely sure what Dementors do with the souls they take...."
"If it even peeled the thing away from the cup, that would be an advance," Severus said; "it might give us a clear shot at it without destroying the host object. But we also have to ask whether a Dementor would act against - Him - or not. I will have to consider.... But the first step is for William to persuade his employers that the Horcrux, if it is indeed present, is a dangerous intruder which they can get rid of without breaching their contract with the Lestranges." Bill nodded, looking rather grim.
At this point, Lynsey went down to the bar for more drinks, which required three trips with a tray. By the time she had finished they were discussing the infiltration of the Floo network by suspected Death Eater supporters.
"... could be watching every damned route," she heard Moody growl, and Severus nodded soberly.
"The fact that theyíve been able to tap into the network and add new destinations without Ministry authorisation does imply that they are...." He smiled at Lynsey as she bent over him to set the glasses on the table. "... 'logged on as root', that is to say, that they have infiltrated the Ministry's control system. Or duplicated it, possibly."
Kingsley, who had managed to make his wizarding robes approximate to the kind of African tribal dress which would pass without comment on the streets of London, replaced his lurid cocktail on the table with a click. "I have been cultivating Percy Weasley -" he began in his resonant voice, and there was an immediate outcry from Ginny and Ron although Bill, Lynsey noticed, stayed out of it.
"That wanker!" Ginny cried, and glared defiantly back at Severus when he raised an eyebrow at her.
Ron and Harry shouted together in an overlapping tangle: "You can't!" "He's Scrimgeour's stool-pigeon!" "... pretended he wanted to be reconciled and it was a lie just to get Scrimgeour into the house -!"
"To the best of my knowledge," Kingsley said in his slow, deep voice, "it was the Minister who deceived Weasley about the purpose of their visit to The Burrow, not Weasley who deceived his family."
"Then why hasn't he been back in touch?" Ron demanded, and Kingsley curled his lip at him.
"Because he was extremely angry that his family assumed that he was the one at fault, without giving him a chance to explain himself."
"If Fred and George were here - " Ginny began hotly, and Severus cut across her: "But they are not."
"Why aren't they? You know they're brilliant -"
"Despite their undoubted intelligence," Severus replied smoothly, "I excluded them from these particular discussions for the same reason that I excluded Mundungus Fletcher. We of the Order must sometimes behave illegally of necessity - but members who behave illegally, even brutally for amusement or personal gain are too much of a liability, other than as mere cannon-fodder: and I prefer not to waste lives unnecessarily."
"James and Sirius -" Remus began but Moody, surprisingly, cut him off, his optional eye spinning alarmingly.
"James and Sirius were brave" the old Auror said roughly, "but they were careless; they thought they were untouchable, they let their guard down and it killed them. A secret army needs brave men who are careful, vigilant; not reckless and cocksure."
Severus inclined his head. "Precisely - and offensive as I may find your twin brothers, Miss Weasley, I don't actually wish them dead. Not often, anyway."
Neville raised his hand nervously; when Severus nodded to him he said rather breathlessly "It's, um, more likely that the Minister tricked Percy than that Percy tricked anybody else, isn't it? I remember when he was prefect, he was always a bit - a bit gullible. People were always playing tricks on him," he added apologetically. "Lee and the Twins used to run a book on what they could get him to believe."
"I'd like to think we could get Perce on-side," Bill said, "for - well, for several reasons. Apart from the family issue, he has better contacts than Dad or Kingsley and Tonks, when it comes to getting access to the Taboo protocols, although Kingsley's probably best-placed to look into this business with the Floos. Have you heard back from Aberforth?"
Severus shook his head. "Not yet: but I still think that Miss Lovegood's idea is a sound one. Minerva has brought me Dumbledore's Pensieve so that I can respond rapidly if - when Aberforth manages to establish contact with Myrtle Higgins. If you think, Kingsley, that involving Percy Weasley is the best way forward at the Ministry...."
"But," said Ron, "we know what an arse-licker Perce is: would he actually go against Scrimgeour's wishes?"
His older brother grimaced. "That's a serious point - more's the pity."
"I know I'm not going to be popular for saying this," Tonks said, absent-mindedly allowing her hair to twiddle into gaudy spikes which twisted and writhed together like Medusa's snakes, "but have you thought of actually involving old Scrimmage? It might be less trouble than working round him," she added over the top of a confused outcry from the rest although Severus, Lynsey noted, was silent, his posture become suddenly rigid.
"How can you say that," Harry's voice cut across the hubbub, "after what that bastard tried to do to Professor Snape -" His outflung hand indicated Severus, who glowered.
"Oh," said Tonks, smiling a V-shaped smile, "but I'm sure Sevvie would be much safer if he and the Minister were to be seen to be working together: that way Scrim couldn't do the dirty on him again without losing face."
"She does have a point, Severus," Minerva said thoughtfully, and Kingsley nodded.
"The Minister," he said, "is manipulative, unscrupulous, vengeful, careless of the actual guilt or innocence of suspects if he can spin a good story around them - but he is perfectly sincere in his desire to protect our world from He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. Additionally, he seems rather... preoccupied at the moment, and a lot less certain of his own unshakeable rightness."
"I shall lean on him," Horace Slughorn said smugly, linking his hands across his ample belly.
"Are you tempted to use the Pensieve to - well, to stop the nightmares...?"
Severus hunched his shoulders and looked away from the carved basin. "I told you - no. It's too painful, putting them back. I'd be too tempted not to," he added quietly, "and that way lies madness. And besides - I never know in advance what I'm going to dream about, do I? I'd have to take out half my mind.... And I'm damned," he said, lifting his head and straightening his back in pride, "if I'm going to be a coward and back down."
That night, he dreamed of Azkaban and woke whimpering and licking frantically, like a dog, at the scar which still braceletted his right wrist.
"I've found her!" said the silver goat in its old-man voice, wavering in and out in the bright light from the window. "Come without delay."
On the Saturday morning which was three weeks after their trip to Hogwarts, Severus slipped the Pensieve into the same miniature yet bottomless chest he had used to convey Dumbledore's instruments, and Lynsey slipped it into her duffle-bag. Trailed at a distance by a shabby tramp with one spinning blue eye, they walked along the road to Abbey Court, which was far enough from the house not to immediately draw attention to it, and quiet enough to Apparate from without being overlooked, and then Severus spun them round and in and down and then out again into a Hogsmeade afternoon. Which was raining.
Cursing, Severus waved his wand to shield them from the worst of it, and they squelched up the side road to the Hog's Head where it lay close against the rising ground below the Hogwarts wall. Severus, Lynsey noted, was limping badly. When they entered the old pub, Aberforth jerked his head to them to call them over to the bar, and Harry stood up from the window-seat where he'd been slouching and joined them, with a polite nod to Severus. Many of the customers scattered about the cramped room craned their necks at them as they went past: on several of them the action did not look quite human.
There was a public stair next to the bar, with a faded sign and an arrow suggesting it led to lavatories on the left and a bedroom to let on the right, and Lynsey wondered why Severus flinched when his eye lit on it, and looked away, his mouth setting into a grim line. Aberforth gave him an ironic, glittering look before hustling them through a door behind the bar itself and into a small space at the foot of a second, evidently private staircase.
"Go on up," he said gruffly. "I'll join you in a bit." They passed him and ascended the narrow, creaking stair to a shabby upstairs flat. Four doors led off from the small landing at the top; one, half-open, led to a tiny kitchen but Severus tried the other doors, revealing first a bathroom, with a bath in which - as Lynsey's experienced eye and nose told her - someone had recently been making up bran mash, then a glimpse of an unmade bed and finally a fair-sized but dingy sitting-room containing a rickety sofa, a moth-eaten armchair, a small table with four spindly wooden chairs and a Victorian writing desk covered in peeling veneer. At the far end was a small fireplace, above which hung a portrait of a blond teenage girl with the slightly dazed expression of the mentally impaired, painted standing in front of a partially open door and wearing a mixture of wizarding and Victorian Muggle clothes. As they came into the room the painted girl inclined her head and smiled vaguely.
There was a sense of presence, Lynsey could feel it, a waver in the air - but Harry said "Hello Myrtle, it's, uh, good to see you", as casually if he were talking to a living girl. There was no answering sound that Lynsey could hear but a sensation of words in the air, words she couldn't quite resolve but she could feel the intention behind them, which was flirtatious. Severus stared directly at a space by the fire.
"I take it you can hear her - as if she was talking normally?" Lynsey said quietly.
"Yes," he muttered distractedly, and took a step towards the unseen presence. "Miss Higgins - I take it Aberforth told you I wished to speak with you?"
The words arrived in Lynsey's head without sound, encapsulated, like something written in a cartouche.
[He crept. In by the loch. When I was watching....]
"I am aware of your - proclivities" Severus said stiffly, and the unheard voice giggled maniacally.
[...saw you, poking about just now, being nosy - listening at doors - ]
Lynsey could see Severus struggling to bite back a sharp retort. Drawing a deep breath, he spoke with his lips flattened against his teeth, a smile pasted on over a snarl. "At present," he said, "I am interested in you - and in how you died. Your memory could be of inestimable value...."
[ - to you] the presence thought/said angrily, [but I'll still be stuck in a toi-toilet ......body t-to talk to - ] Underneath the first thought, Lynsey caught the wisp of a second thought: no boys with nice bums to look at -
Behind them, Aberforth stepped into the room, the floorboards creaking under him. "You'd be famous," he said in his raspy voice. "Lot o' people would want to talk to you, and if you do it right, the school will reopen and the students will come back."
"That's right!" Harry agreed. "Everyone will want to hear your story and - and maybe you won't be tied to your toilet any more, if you help defeat Voldemort."
Severus gave him an odd, complex look - feeling respectful, Lynsey thought, but surprised to be feeling it. "That's... an excellent point. It might give you -" his lips twisted as if he had bitten on something distasteful - "'closure' and enable you to move on, either into true death if you wish it, or at least to a new location where you will have more opportunities for amusement."
[-pose so] - the contact Lynsey had broke up like a bad telephone connection, then re-formed - [to know?]
Severus sat down carefully at the table and held out his hand to Lynsey, who silently passed him the miniature chest containing the Pensieve.
"I understand from Potter," he said carefully to what, so far as Lynsey was concerned, was wavering air and a half-seen shape in the corner of the eye, "that just before you were - were killed, you heard Tom Riddle speaking in another language, possibly Parseltongue, and then you met the basilisk's eyes and...."
[...died ... like lamps, all glowing....]
"I would like to know, firstly, how soon after your death you - er, regained consciousness."
[...know ... not long ... was still there....]
"Riddle was definitely still there, in the bathroom - you're sure he hadn't been away and come back on a subsequent occasion?"
[No no - my body was still warm - it was creepy 'n' he - he was staring down at me, at it 'n' he didn't know - ] Lynsey jumped as the shrill giggle broke through briefly into physical audibility, like the screech of a gull. [...called me back 'n' he didn't know, he was turning it round 'n' round in his hand an' he didn't know what he'd got....]
"What was he turning?" Severus exclaimed and the giggle spiked again.
[It - in his ring, the Resurrection Stone - but he didn't know.... I didn't tell him, I just watched him....]
At mention of the Resurrection Stone Aberforth sucked in his breath audibly and Lynsey could see that Severus's back had gone rigid, as if he were holding his breath; but he said only, carefully, "And did you see or hear him perform any spell words or gestures, then or later, relating to your, ah, body or to a small book...?"
[...book - oh yes... threw it through me, they did -]
"I'm sure she didn't mean to -" Harry began, but Severus cut across him, quellingly.
"But did you see Riddle himself perform any action with the diary?"
[... pulled a piece of himself out and put it in the book. He thought there were no witnesses but I saw what he did...]
"That was clever of you, and very brave" Harry said, batting his eyelashes at the waver of presence, and Severus nodded sombrely.
"He is a dangerous foe. Do you think that you would be able to put that memory in a Pensieve, so that your - your cleverness would be put to good use? To help destroy the man who killed you?"
[... like that, I'll show him! ... make him a ghost, so I can chase ... ] For a moment the ferocity of the spirit's will twanged through the room like a plucked guitar-string; but then the unheard whispering cut in again on the edge of perception: [... too faint, too far, can't....]
"This is about as far from the castle as she can show herself, I reckon," Aberforth said. "I wasn't even sure she'd be able to come this far. It's only really because there's a tunnel to Hogwarts nearby...."
Lynsey cleared her throat nervously, attracting the attention of the three men (the young, the ancient and the prematurely careworn) and, she felt, of the ghost. "Are you - is she - saying that she isn't physically present enough to, um, manifest ectoplasm?"
Severus raised both eyebrows. "Very possibly."
"Well, uh, I don't really do mediumship - not a lot, anyway - but she might be able to, um, channel herself through me and use me for extra power and a source of, uh, physical material." And added, to Aberforth's sceptical expression, "It's perfectly safe - nearly."
In the end it was no harder than any other clairvoyant session she had done - easier, in some ways, because she didn't have to exert herself so hard to translate for the spirit voice, since her three "clients" could hear it better than she could. She packed herself away into the wings of her own head and let the rather sweaty presence of the ghost girl take centre stage in her speech and motion centres, let it speak and act through her, as she sat at the battered table with the carved bowl displayed in front if her.
As before, when she had stood by Severus as he took back the memories of torture, she saw a confused jumble of excerpts from the images which were being pulled through her, were being wound into skeins of semi-real psychic matter and poured into the bowl. These memories were nearly as disturbing as the others, though in different ways.
There was the handsome boy who radiated chill and who appeared to be talking animatedly to a tap, the memory's sense of him informed by a combination of righteous indignation and covert lust; then the great snake with its eyes that no-one ought to be able to look into and live yet here she was, looking at two shining lamps in Myrtle's memory, green-gold and brilliant and deep as wells, and she could feel them trying to suck her soul out of her body even here, like this.
Then there was a falling into those well-like eyes, a dislocation, moving into the glass-clear yet insubstantial sense of the astral, the beginning of the journey into the realms of the dead which, as a clairvoyant, she had taken many times and always come back from; and Myrtle was coming back too, she was wrenched back and dumped, dead but not gone, into the same Gothic-looking bathroom where the tail-end of the great snake was just sliding out of sight down the pipe in the wall, the chilly boy was staring down at the body of a plump, acne-ridden girl, looking vaguely horrified by the turn of events and rolling a ring with a black stone over and over in his hand....
Then the same boy had gone, had come back clutching a book and a silver knife. He was chanting, performing strange gestures, he cut the heel of his hand and dripped blood onto the book, he was pulling from his forehead strands like the strands which Lynsey was, under the ghost's control, pulling from her own, but whatever the dark boy was drawing out smoked and writhed....
Distantly, as the pictures flashed across her inner eye, her outer eyes saw that the blond girl in the picture over the fire had walked away into the background and was talking to a scarecrow figure half glimpsed through the partially open door - Albus, she realised suddenly, but looking much younger and with red hair. Either Severus or Harry must have brought their photographic copy of the headmaster's portrait with them, giving him access to the house.
"What's he doing here?" Aberforth demanded, staring up at the portrait as Lynsey nursed a rather grubby glass of Firewhisky and tried to shake herself back into her own head.
"Talking to Ariana about her death, as each or either of us should have done long ago," portrait-Albus replied. His voice was much stronger and clearer than when he spoke from the photographs, and his face was radiant.
"And what good's that do? Whichever of us fired the shot which killed her -" Behind the old man, Severus's hand tightened on Lynsey's shoulder.
"But that's just it -" Aberforth's brother replied: "she told me that none of us did!" He turned commandingly to the vague teenager in her Victorian clothes. "Ariana, tell him! There's a good girl."
Ariana walked to the front of her frame, putting her hands up against the inside of the glass. "N'body shot me," she whispered. "I thought you knew."
"But you died - somebody must have -"
She shook her head. "You were all shouting, angry, it was scary - I could feel the magic building, inside of me, you were all shouting and I was 'fraid I'd kill you dead like I killed Mama, I tried to keep it locked up, not to let it out but -" she put her hands up and touched her head, her heart. "Something broke, here."
Aberforth got up, blindly, and began to light the lamps. "You're still to blame, Albus," he said thickly. "If you hadn't brought him into the house...."
"It's the same bloody ring, I know it is." He banged his hand down on Lynsey's living-room table and glared at portrait Albus, who still looked confused and disturbed. "I saw it on your hand old man, and then I saw it on His hand, in that." He gestured wildly at the Pensieve.
"You knew that the ring was cursed, and a Horcrux," the faint voice said, "and I know Horace told you it was a ring which Tom Riddle used to wear when he was his student."
"But you didn't tell either of us it was the bloody Resurrection Stone, did you? Was that why you put the damn thing on?"
"I was - tempted."
Severus drew a deep breath. "To speak to Ariana?"
"Yes. To - to say how sorry I was, if it was me who...."
"If you'd told me what the bloody thing was, I might have been better able to treat you! Where is it now?"
The portrait of the old man sighed minutely. "Inside a Snitch in Harry's pocket, charmed not to open until he goes to meet his death at Voldemort's hands."
"It's probably just as well - I'd be too tempted to use the bloody thing."
"To - to speak to Lily?"
"Yes. Not that I - not that I have much hope she would forgive me," he muttered, looking away and down until the curtains of hair swung forwards to hide his face. "But I would like the chance to - to tell her how sorry -"
"I'm quite sure she knows," Lynsey said, laying her hand on his arm. "She will see you: it's only you directly hearing her answer which is lacking. And I hope her answer would be better than you expect - but if not, you're better of without it."
"I suppose so - God, I sound like Myrtle Higgins."
"She's a peculiar girl: I feel sorry for her, but letting her inside my head was a bit - a bit icky."
"She died on the cusp of puberty, poor little brute: all that sexual tension and nowhere to put it." He flicked his hair back and gave Lynsey a sideways grin. "I remember when I was a student, she used to pour herself out into the loch and spy on the mermen having sex - and on me, when I went swimming. If I caught her at it she'd pretend to shocked modesty, but her gimlet eyes have been glued to my naked arse many a time."
"It's such a nice arse, a girl couldn't help looking."
"I'm glad you approve. Really." He had been wrestling with the grimoires again, comparing what was on the page with Myrtle's memory, and was thrumming with tension, but he smiled at her again, a little sadly. "I've done as much as I think I can with the Horcrux spell for tonight: it's not time-critical in any case, because it will take at least another week to get the access we need at the Ministry. Your eyes should at least see what Myrtle Higgins has seen, I think, and I said I'd show you...." Carefully, precisely, he poured off Myrtle's hard-won memories into a flask and stoppered it, and then fetched a second flask from one of his personal shelves and emptied it into the bowl. "I made a copy of this while I was in Diagon Alley - so as not to attract attention to this place by doing active magic."
Although the flask was quite small - a quarter of a pint at most - the contents expanded to fill the great stone basin almost completely, lapping up to the rim in a swirl of white halfway between vapour and fluid. Following Severus's lead, Lynsey leaned down and dipped her face into the shimmering surface, her temple brushing against her lover's as they dived in.
And dived it was: as soon as her eyes were submerged she found herself falling forward into deep water with Severus beside her, looking slightly insubstantial. For an instinctual moment she started to panic, flailing, before realising that she couldn't drown and didn't need to breathe because she wasn't physically here, although she wondered whether her mouth and nose were under this - this - whatever it really was, the substance which was generating this hologram.
That was what it was, she knew: a three-dimensional film strip, which they could observe but not interact with. As Severus took her hand a younger version of himself glided past unseeingly, heading down into the depths, his feet lengthened into flippers and the pink slits of gills pulsing along his neck. The boy was as she had expected, sallow and gawky, his black hair undulating like water-weed, too greasy to separate properly into individual floating strands, and his impressive nose cleaving the water like the prow of a boat: but his young limbs were long and fine, he appeared slender and coltish rather than scrawny and he had, indeed, a beautifully-sculpted backside. Not to mention other parts in which she had an intense personal interest, although she resisted the urge to perv over a boy of fifteen or so - even if he had since grown up to share her bed.
The young swimmer was mother-naked apart from a long, narrow holster strapped to his right thigh. Faint scars already flecked his young back and backside, although nothing like as many or as deep as he would have as an adult, and his left arm was innocent and unMarked.
To the left of them Lynsey could see sun-dappled shallows, the light dancing over flat stones protruding from the silt, but the boy was heading into deeper water and they turned to follow him.
It was a peculiar sensation, swimming without really swimming; halfway between real swimming and astral projection. She was aware of the smooth glide of the water and yet the sensation was distant from her, although her lover's hand on hers was warm and real; they moved their legs to keep going forwards but she felt that it was only habit and they could have flown if they'd wished. A shoal of silver fish darted and swerved to avoid the naked boy, but Lynsey felt several of them swim straight through her as if she were smoke, and the sensation was hollow and tickly, like the proverbial butterflies.
The floor of the loch dropped away beneath them as they swam, the light still glinting dully off stones scattered across a plain of mud from which sprang clumps of tangled black weed. A few pieces of rotting wood lay about amongst the weed, shed by the trees along the shore half visible through the surface distortion, and more fish picked about the fallen branches, looking for bugs.
Severus's younger self grasped at the water with webbed hands, driving deeper, and the man he would become followed him down. The surface was now only a distant glow, while ten feet below them a smooth field of waving, pale green weed stretched away like grass into the distance ahead of them.
Twice Lynsey thought she saw a malign face watching the swimmer from among the long weeds: the second time she pointed to it and Severus beside her murmured "Grindylow". The young Severus ahead of her drew his wand and rolled over in the water, bringing it to bear as a flurry of activity sent several creatures like green, web-footed monkeys soaring up out of the depths to tear and claw at him. For a moment Lynsey was breathless with fear before common-sense reasserted itself: obviously, the boy had survived, or his thirty-eight-year-old self wouldn't have been swimming beside her. Even so, she caught her breath when one of the creatures managed to claw a long score across the boy's calf before it was rebuffed, and a dozen more rose from the weeds, homing in like sharks on the dark trail of blood.
"Don't worry" the Severus beside her said, his voice echoey and unreal, as the gilled boy mouthed an obscenity and slashed at his own leg with his wand, sealing the wound, before drawing a wide arc which caused the water to boil and roll, tossing the Grindylow pack away from him like birds blown by a hurricane. Before the predators had begun to re-orient themselves the slender white shape of the boy had shot away and deeper, gliding smoothly over the descending underwater meadow towards an expanse of black mud.
"They clear the land around the village," Severus's echoing, dreamlike voice said beside her as he swam, "so they can see if anything tries to sneak up on them." As if on cue, a vast, dark shape sailed overhead and to their left; but Severus-the-boy put up his webbed hand and waved to it, and a lazy tentacle waved back.
The light down here was dim: here near the floor of the loch they could see clearly only for a few feet now but in that near darkness they passed by a group of children: the same grey-skinned, dolphin-like merpeople they had met before, appearing suddenly almost in front of them and then disappearing behind. They had with them a tame Grindylow on a lead, and seemed to be encouraging it to dig for worms.
They sculled on into the darkness, following the gleaming white shape of the swimming boy, with nothing beneath them but mud and the occasional scuttling thing, the waterscape featureless and empty. Then in an instant the walls of a stone hut reared up in front of them. As they swerved to avoid its green-streaked walls Lynsey glimpsed through a window an interior dimly lit by some sort of bioluminescent life, neat hammocks of woven waterweed hanging from the beams and a merman skilfully gutting and cleaning a fish at a stone table....
They followed Severus-that-was around the edge of a tangle of huts, some of them with their own small gardens of edible or ornamental underwater plants, to a towering boulder which looked as if it might have been left over from the building of the castle above them. It was painted with scenes resembling cave-art in style, and showing merpeople of both sexes doing battle with a kraken: perhaps Hogwarts' own giant squid, perhaps a monster out of history or story.
The boulder marked the entrance to something resembling a street. As they sailed down it Lynsey could see that the huts on either side tended to be grouped into little courtyards, with navigable alleyways in between, but this was the only clear, fairly direct route.
The younger Severus looked impossibly exotic here among these grey, fin-tailed people, with his gleaming-pale skin and his coal-black eyes, his rangy long-boned limbs and his straight, heavy black locks, so unlike the wild, grey-blond tangle of the merpeople's hair: but few of the villagers remarked on him as he passed. He seemed to be a known figure here.
"Over there," the adult Severus said with a wave of his hand, and Lynsey followed his gesture and saw the same girl she had last seen lying dead on a bathroom floor, here looking definite and three-dimensional and yet mostly transparent, like a statue made of grey glass. She supposed that she could see Myrtle - who was currently spying through a window on the mermen within, her eyes big and round behind her round glasses - this clearly because this was Severus's memory, and he had been able to see her - or would have been had he been facing the right way. As Severus the boy went past, ghost-Myrtle peeled away from her window and began to undulate after him, as if she were part of the water.
They rounded a last group of huts and found themselves in an open space surrounding a rough-hewn statue of a reclining merman: a god or a famous leader, perhaps. His stern face could have been either, but she bowed to him anyway, in case he was Father Poseidon. Spread out around the statue were what Lynsey supposed were market stalls, though there were no tables and most of the wares were restrained in weighted nets and lobster-pots to prevent them from floating - or in some cases swimming - away. A substantial crowd of merpeople - a couple of hundred Lynsey thought - glided from stall to stall with flicks of their wide tail-flukes, chattering together in dolphin voices like the creaking of a thousand rusty gates.
There was not only food on offer, and what might be pets, but belts of fish-skin and splendid-looking rough, tribal jewellery; spears and knives with finely-wrought stone blades; toys and ornaments carved from stone or driftwood and flat slates painted with pictures and with regular patterns which Lynsey took to be writing. She wondered how they managed to paint underwater: the slates could be painted at the shoreline and left to dry in air until the colours were well-set, but the rock at the entrance to the town was a different matter. Oil-based pigment-sticks, perhaps?
Payment seemed to be by barter, and indeed Lynsey several times saw shopkeepers exchanging goods with each other, sometimes selling them on again to an insistent customer a few minutes later. It was, she realised, not so much a market as a mass bring-and-buy sale. They passed among the stalls, trailing behind the naked boy and the ghost, whom the mer people seemed unable to see. It had been strange enough to meet the mer people at the surface, or the goblins and house-elves, but this dimly-lit underwater township was fantastic to Lynsey; she knew that she had stepped into the pages of a science-fiction novel and was looking at a genuinely alien world. It was as crisp and clear as if she had been truly present here, and yet she could move among - and sometimes through - the shoppers and peer at them from all angles without disturbing them, and she knew that if she missed an incident she could re-run it. She shuddered with sudden chill at the realisation that Filius had watched Severus's torture in equal definition and detail.
Meanwhile, the boy he had been had stepped into a quiet corner between two houses and gestured with his wand. "What's he - you - doing?" Lynsey asked, and the man that boy had become snorted.
"Showing off. Or being lazy, depending on how you look at it - it was easier to go to the village empty-handed and then summon whatever I needed from the lakeside, than to swim carrying it."
As they watched, the boy put his hands up to catch a rack of stoppered vials which was descending rapidly through the water. Two mer-girls who had been watching him applauded, and he visibly soaked up the admiration and stuck out his hairless chest, attempting to look more manly. Then he spun around, hearing Myrtle's giggle, and shouted "Oi!"
"It was easy enough," the older Severus remarked, "to be naked among people who were themselves naked and thought nothing of it and I, uh, liked the sensation of swimming nude: but being ogled by somebody wearing clothes was different somehow. More... exposed. Even if she is dead."
"Got to sympathise with her, though - you had a very nice bod."
Behind him the ghost batted her eyelashes at his younger self, retreated to a safe distance and kept on looking whilst pretending not to.
They watched as the boy, muttering to himself, found the stall he wanted and began to barter his vials of potions for a necklace of coarse-cut, honey-gold and yellow butter-amber. "Did you get it?" Lynsey asked softly as the figures around them began to run down like clockwork toys, slowing towards immobility as the memory neared its end.
"Yes," he replied, equally quietly. "It was a present for her, of course."
As the scene faded out, Lynsey distinctly saw the group of children with their tame Grindylow whom they had passed earlier out on the plain, proffering a basket of worms and insect-larvae to a stallkeeper in return for a stone board-game.
"I always liked the sea," he said afterwards, "but I was never much good actually on it."
The memory of the merpeople's village had been beautiful and strange, but it had left her freighted with sorrow, knowing how much suffering and regret was coming to that slender youth - even if his natural resilience and capacity for finding his own amusements where he could had mitigated it.
"A penny for your thoughts, he said, and Lynsey shrugged awkwardly.
"I was just thinking that - well - you know - that he was heading for a rough life, that boy. And he hadn't exactly had it easy up to then, either."
"There was a song," Severus said softly. "I heard it the other day spilling out of a pub doorway on the Muggle side of the St Martin's gate, there were - these crowds of tourists and commuters milling about on Charing Cross Road, people overflowing out of this dark interior onto the street and with them came - this:" - and his clear, sad voice welled up for a moment and hung in the air like the scent of rain.
Lynsey shivered. "I always did think that song was creepy - beautiful, but creepy. I've said it before," she said, "but you have a lovely voice: it's a privilege to hear it."
Severus put his hand up, covering his mouth. "I told you that he - that Riddle - he slit my tongue, and then mended it again so he could hear me beg. That wasn't the only time he - but singing with you, singing with you I got my voice back, it became mine again."
"I'm glad - that I managed to help, I mean - and I hope I've succeeded in giving you your body back too."
Severus sighed. "That's a rather taller order. And seeing him, Riddle, seeing him again like that, in Myrtle Higgins's memory...." He shuddered. "I know intellectually that he was a coward - so afraid of losing his fine looks and his faculties to age that he poisoned what he was trying to preserve, warping himself into that ugly - but I just bloody wish I could stop feeling him touching me." He turned and looked at Lynsey, as from a great distance. "His touch is like ice."
When she woke, it was close to dawn and Severus was tangled in the sheets and thrashing, his eyes shut and his mouth open. As she reached for him he began to howl, horribly, jerking and wailing in rhythmic jolts. The sudden violent noise was overwhelming: overcome by panic Lynsey grabbed his shoulders, calling his name, trying urgently to reach him through whatever he was reliving - no not a rape, she thought, the beat of the insane, interrupted howling was too slow for that - he jumped and twisted under her hands, hysterical with terror, she tried to shake him awake and his eyes flew open but whatever he was seeing it wasn't her, the howl rose to a crescendo, the lightbulb in the ceiling popped and he was going into convulsions, squealing and shrieking like a rabbit in a trap -
As the glass on the bedside table burst, showering her with water, Lynsey thought for a brief moment of calling Dumbledore and getting him to summon help, but then the fierce hard rush of her own competence closed down over her, her certainty that this was something she could do, and left her giddy and drunk with power. Without thinking about it she grabbed hold of his hand and began to sway, chanting aloud above his frantic misery.
"Listen to me. This is my place; no one comes to this place without my permission; I permit nobody to come to this place who would harm you; I will sleep across your door as a hound and no-one will come near you except I permit it, and I permit no-one who would harm you...."
That did seem to get through, enough to make him recognize her as a friendly presence, because he suddenly lunged towards her, buried his head against her chest with a choking sob and then was miserably sick over both of them. But at least he was conscious, after a fashion. Trying not to feel queasy in response, Lynsey wrapped her arms round him and stroked the back of his head, making soothing-scared-horse noises. "What is it? Tell me, pet - if you want to."
He clung to her silently, still jerking spasmodically and sucking in air in harsh gasps, but eventually he mastered his own breathing enough to answer her in a low, grating voice. "Macnair - my feet - they were only light blows and they were spaced out, a couple of seconds apart, and at first you think 'This isn't going to be so bad' but they kept on, and they kept on, for so fucking long...." He choked again and started to cry quietly. "After the first hour or so every blow, every blow shot through me as if my bones, my nerves had turned to molten iron. As if nails were being driven through my whole body with every blow, from the feet up. Down. He had my feet in the air. Trapped on my back like a beetle. Stupid. Ugly. From the feet down."
Holding him close, Lynsey could feel herself shuddering nearly as badly as he was doing. "Lucius and the rest still had their f-fun with me in other ways while he was doing it, but Macnair - athlete, rower, never rested - not even for a moment, not even when I fainted." His normally smooth voice was broken and rough, almost keening. "He just kept on, and on - "
"How long did it go on for?" she asked, dreading the answer but knowing that at this stage what he needed was not to be coaxed out of his fit, but to be encouraged to talk and given permission to cry some of the poison out.
"Don't know - long time - hours - half a day, maybe - Every time," he said, choking, "every time I blacked out Lucius brought me round again and it was still happening - I prayed, I prayed for a stroke to end it but he dropped my blood pressure until I was dizzy and then force-fed me Pepperup to keep me conscious, and Macnair just went on whipping me and the pain, the rhythm got inside my head, I couldn't dissociate from it - by the time the skin started to tear I was foaming like a mad dog, shrieking, pleading, vomiting, shitting myself and he said that he had hardly started - " He clung to her, as damp and sticky as they both were, and she hugged him and rested her chin on the top of his head, rocking gently as tears ran down his face and soaked through her clothes. "He was quite correct" the harsh, choking voice went on inexorably. "You saw the state of my feet - that degree of destruction took him - hours more. I thought I would go mad with it: I'm not sure that I didn't."
"Hush now - you're sane enough to be getting on with. You were never anything less than sensible and competent that I saw, even in extremis."
"But he's in my head - he's in my head, and I can't get him out. In my head it's still happening, it's always going to be happening oh God, oh please oh please, make it stop...." He clutched at her desperately, with such force that she knew he would be leaving bruises. "It will never stop happening."
"Shussh now. Everything is always happening. You are also always singing with me in the dark; you are also always sitting by the fire in the woods; you are also always giving a paper at some conference somewhere - it's just a matter of which 'always' your mind is re-visiting at the time. You are always here with me and I am always holding you."
He tried to nod, but instead ended up heaving convulsively in her arms and retching again. "You know that begging does no good," he murmured against her shoulder, "that nothing you can say or do will make it stop, but you can't hold it in, you scream for mercy anyway even - even knowing how fucking useless it is. And I know now that the whole fucking Order could hear me, the whole bloody way through it, which makes the whole thing so much more fucking delightful." Lynsey tightened her arms around him in a fierce grip, and he tucked his face into the hollow of her neck.
"Hours - hours before he'd finished," the inexorable voice went on, "something in my throat tore and then I couldn't even scream any more, just make these stupid, gurgling, embarrassing noises - but the next day was Christmas Day and He - he Himself - stroked my throat with those cold fingers and gave me my voice back - so they would be able to hear me properly. That was His Christmas gift to me - the ability to scream for him."
Lynsey felt sick and faint with the knowledge of how completely terrible that Christmas had proved to be, but she could do nothing but hold him while he wept, stroking his hair and murmuring "Ssh, ssh, pet, my dear, you have a beautiful voice, in three more days you were singing up power for me...." and feeling like bursting into tears herself, until the tension went out of his shoulders and he relaxed against her, limp and shivering.
After about ten minutes he pulled away from her. In the half-light she could see that tears had run not only out of his eyes but out of his nose, and she winced in embarrassment for him as he tried ineffectually to wipe his face with his hands. "Damn," he said, in his normal bitter, brittle voice. "What a delightful prospect I must be - crying in a bloody pool of sick. I'm sorry you should have to put up with me."
"Don't be an arse - I'm not even going to dignify that little shard of self-loathing with a response. Look at me." When he did so she cupped his face in her hands, running her thumbs symmetrically from the crease over his nose out along both curving eyebrows, and down round his cheekbones to rest on the corners of his long mouth, which twitched upwards slightly in response. "That's better." She leaned forwards and kissed him lightly on the forehead. "Come along my dear - we'd better both get cleaned up."
They ended up sharing a shower together, propping each other up in a way that had nothing to do with sex and everything to do with mutual, companionable exhaustion, and it being easier to soap someone else's back than one's own - although looking too closely at her friend's back provided an unhappy reminder of how much he had to be traumatized about. But he was a strong one, even so, and a nice, solid warmth to lean back against, standing with her spine against his chest and then tilting her head back onto his shoulder so that they were cheek to cheek, with his arms wrapped around her and hot water sluicing over them, slicking his long hair to his skin, his chin coming to rest pointily on her shoulder and both of them half asleep on their feet.
Afterwards, they were so weary that rather than rummage out fresh night-clothes they stumbled back to the bedroom together naked. As they entered the room the professor's eye lit on the centaurs, still beavering away on their shelf in the corner: he clicked his tongue with a "Tchah!" noise and then fell into bed and into Lynsey's quiet embrace, skin on skin, and didn't shy away - which was progress of a sort, she supposed, even if it was only because he was too exhausted to be tense.
When Lynsey woke the next morning Severus was lying sprawled on his face beside her, still half asleep. "How do you feel?" she asked casually - trying hard not to sound as if she was poor-thinging him.
"Stiff," he replied: "and not in a good way."
"Do you want to feel stiff in a good way?"
"Mmm." He gave her that flicker of a smile of his, looking lazily amused, and she put her hand on his shoulder and guided him to roll over onto his back.
She had told him that the quest for pure sensation in sex was an optional extra, and she had meant it: but on the other hand, she thought that he deserved to have someone care to give him a little pleasant sensation for a change. As she trailed her fingertips lightly down across his stomach he sighed and shifted restlessly, responding to her touch almost at once; but at the sight of his own erection his muscles tightened and his dreamy expression became set and taut, still unable, Lynsey knew, to break the connection between being seen to be aroused and being mocked and humiliated.
"Sshh," she said, kissing his bony knee which happened to be the nearest part she could reach, "you're perfectly safe. Safe and admired and lovely, I think so anyway, but if seeing yourself still disturbs you I can hide it from view soon enough, and you don't have to look...."
"No I -" He gave her a crooked smile. "I want to watch, it's very - you know, erotic, and it makes me feel that my - well, that being, um, 'stiff' is acceptable, not bad or or dirty or... or a presumption by somebody too ugly ever to be desired," he finished quietly.
"You are desired, very much. Not just by me, either - May said I was a lucky cow, and I thought Eck's eyeballs were going to come out on stalks. Even Tonks preens herself when you look at her."
"Hah." He wriggled down into a more comfortable position on the sheets. "I just want to be able to be... happy and uncomplicated in bed, like -" He jerked his chin expressively in the direction of the busy little centaurs. "Not that they're in bed, as such, but you know what I mean."
"Yes, I know exactly what you mean. Sshh now." She stroked her thumb across sensitive skin, circling gently until he shifted and gasped, and then bent her head to give him as much pleasant sensation as she knew how.
When her tongue encountered scarring on what should have been smooth flesh - the relic, she already knew, of an inventively awful half-hour involving Bellatrix and a razor-blade - her gut clenched in sympathy; but it didn't seem to interfere with sensation, to judge from his response. It made her smile to see him arch his back and clutch at the sheets, his long hair fanning out across the mattress like black water, and his breath halting and catching softly in a seizure of pleasure rather than fear.
It was fortunate that it was a Sunday, anyway, so that it was possible to have breakfast in bed and then lie-in companionably. Severus insisted on getting up to make breakfast himself, and Lynsey did not seek to prevent him, not wishing to hurt his already red-raw dignity by suggesting that he couldn't cope; so she contented herself with fussing a warm dressing-gown around his bony shoulders.
He still looked desperately tired, his eyes sunken into dark hollows, but he was relaxed and - for him - unusually amiable. They ended up with him lying with his left hand behind his head and his right arm round Lynsey's shoulders, and an expression of dark amusement on his narrow face. Both cats were piled in a hot furry heap against his left side, and Lynsey curled up happily against him on his right, with her head pillowed on his upper arm. After a while he rolled over to face her, smiling, and kissed her with lips which tasted faintly of marmalade, and they drifted into the easy rhythm of love. As they moved together, peacefully, she smoothed his hair and called him "My good lad, my lovely lad" - but he called her "My refuge, my homecoming."
Afterwards, though, he lay on his back with his long fingers laced behind his head, suddenly serious. He turned his face towards her and said clearly "I never, never want to live through last night again."
Lynsey grimaced unhappily. "It was - terrible, even to an outside observer."
He nodded tiredly. "What Macnair did - it wasn't the most degrading thing, by far, nor even the most painful, but it was the thing that took me closest to true madness, because of the - relentless, inescapable rhythm of it. I can still feel it eating into my head like disease - a negative version of the way you used rhythm to break me free, but this was just to break me. Did break me. God!" he said vehemently, "I thought that I was - evil, when I was a Death Eater, because I sometimes hurt people - in combat, when I was eaten up with passion and rage. But to spend hour after hour deliberately driving someone round the bend in that cold, meticulous, passionless way, as if it was some sort of, of foul meditation exercise - without even anything to gain by it, except the pleasure of watching another human-being writhing and squealing in agony...."
His dark eyes were glittering, and Lynsey reached out gently to brush a tear off his cheek. "Try not to think about it, pet."
"No! That's wrong I - I need to think about it, I think. If I try and push it away it will just come back at me as soon as my defences are down - and if you enjoy having me throwing up over you in the middle of the bloody night, I for one don't. I need - need to be able to think about it rationally, to let myself believe that it was something which had time and limit - something which is over."
"All right - I can see that I think. How will you...?"
"I need your help I think - I don't think I can go through it alone. I realize of course that I have no right to ask...."
"Tsk. Stop fishing for reassurance - of course I'll help you. Any way I can."
"Then just - hold me, please. Remind me that I'm not alone."
In a way it was the previous night all over again: him in her arms, gasping and shuddering, and her stroking the back of his hair and crooning to him, calling him my hinny lamb, my beautiful, my raven darling, my lad of parts - but it was all different, because he was wearily calm even as his muscles twitched and jerked to that awful remembered rhythm, and quiet tears rolled down his face.
After a long time he whispered "It still hurts - that's part of why I can't get free of it, I think. I ache, all through my bones: a lot of that is from the Cruciatus, but some of it...."
"Well, then" Lynsey murmured back; "there are things I can do for that, to ease it." She broke free of his hold and moved away, raising his two hands to her lips and kissing the backs of them before letting go. "Wait on - I'll not be long."
She slung a dressing-gown on and went and fetched a selection of blended massage oils from the bathroom: Joints Ease, and Muscle Ease, and Relaxing Oil, which was basically lavender with added bits, and tea-tree and peppermint lotion, which was especially for feet. Returning, she remembered to turn the heating up, since she was going to strip the covers off him, and the day was far from warm.
He was lying face-down as she had left him, shivering and crying in that careful, controlled, silent way. She sat down on the bed beside him, peeled back the sheets and began to work the soothing oils into his muscles and joints, gently flexing his elbows, wrists, shoulders as she went, and digging her fingers in with firm, even pressure. And as she did so she sang softly in Gaelic, "Come on my love, hu il oro," and worked his sore muscles with her hands in rhythm with the song - that same song which she had used to reach him when he was hanging in chains of fire.
After a few minutes, he turned his head to look back at her over his shoulder. "I hadn't realized before," he said sleepily, "but the rhythm - the fall of the main stresses is exactly the same pace Macnair used when he - beat me." Lynsey stopped at once, appalled - but he shook his head in irritation. "No - don't stop. It helps. I can let the music get into the spaces in my mind where the, where the pain was, and that's - soothing."
So she worked her way down the length of him, singing steadily, while he drowsily catalogued all the ingredients in the oils she was using, from smell alone. His calves in particular were tight and hot with cramp, but Lynsey pressed down with her thumbs, loosening all the knots of pain until he lay sprawled across the bed as loosely as an unstrung puppet. She could still see the scar the Grindylow had left him, a thin line of silver tracking across his right calf.
Eventually, she sat bent over his narrow feet, using her fingertips to work cooling lotion into all the complex, damaged little muscles. "That feels - very bloody odd" he said sleepily. "No - donít stop - good odd. Peppermint, tea-tree and - aloe vera?"
"Yup. You have plantar fasciitis on both sides, that's a given, but it feels to me like you have some adhesions here, as well: that's probably half the problem. I really should do this every night until they ease up."
Severus sighed, flexing and easing his long toes under her touch. "Be my guest. Please."
The rose is the heraldic state plant of England, along with the thistle for Scotland, shamrock for Ireland and leek or daffodil for Wales.
"Half-inch" = pinch = steal.
Arts and Crafts Movement - a Victorian British cultural movement dedicated to promoting the value of the hand-crafted and individual product over the machine-made and mass-produced.
"A poke in the eye with a sharp stick" is proverbial in Britain as a thing which other, mediocre things are at least better than, along with "a slap in the face with a wet dishcloth". E.g. "How was your steak pie?" "Better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick." means that the pie wasn't really very good, but it wasn't awful either and it filled you up.
According to Terry Pratchett a true witch says "Someone should do something about this, and that someone is me." But I can't have Lynsey actually quoting that, because itís from Wee Free Men and that hadnít yet come out at this point.
"'I love you without measure', as the song says" - the song in question being Sweetheart Come by Nick Cave.
"Patience - A minor form of despair, disguised as a virtue": from The Devil's Dictionary by Ambrose Bierce.
Dumbledore says that Tom Riddle killed his own father "In the summer of his sixteenth year". I suspect JK Rowling is mixing up "his sixteenth year" with "the year he was sixteen" but it's unlikely Dumbledore would make such an error, so this amounts to a definite statement that the patricide - and therefore probably the creation of the ring Horcrux - happened when Tom was fifteen, during the summer between his fourth and fifth years, before he opened the Chamber of Secrets and many months before Myrtle was killed.
In GoF, Myrtle says that Olive Hornby "went to the Ministry of Magic to stop me stalking her, so I had to come back here and live in my toilet." but there seems no reason why the Ministry should have actually bound her to a toilet, as opposed to binding her to Hogwarts or simply forbidding her to approach Olive, and in any case we know she has a range of probably some hundreds of yards, since she can go into the lake or to the Prefects' bathroom. I assume, therefore, that she only had two options - to haunt the vicinity of the place where she died, or to haunt a person to whom she had formed a violent psychic connection - and the Ministry removed one, rather than chaining her to her toilet as such.
"I'll love you, dear, I'll love you" from As I Walked Out One Evening by WH Auden. You can see the complete poem here.
A chaplet of roses: there are cases on record from the Middle Ages of tenants paying a purely ceremonial rent of this kind - a crown made of roses, a single basket of fish or similar - to a landlord or patron, who had granted them their land effectively rent-free in return for continuing formal acknowledgement of their overlordship.
"Logged on as root" - 1990s expression for a person whose password gives them access to modify the "root directory" C: where a computer's operating system is stored.
Cannon-fodder: unskilled, expendable soldiers whose use in warfare is to be thrown against the enemy's guns and killed or wounded, in order to exhaust the enemy's ammunition before more skilled soldiers move in to the attack.
To "run a book" is to accept and pay out bets.
"For all the roads we have to walk are winding" - chorus of 1995 song Wonderwall by Oasis.
Plantar fasciitis is a painful inflammation of the band of connective tissue which stretches along the sole of the foot from heelbone to toes.
Thanks to Aurette for the brainstorming session which finally got my disconnected jumble of odd scenes and cryptic notes sorted into some kind of half-coherent order so I could get this chapter written.
Barring fatal accidents I will eventually get this story finished. At this point, there are only around six more chapters to go, depending on where I decide to put the chapter-breaks, and I am fond of both the characters and the story. At the same time I am now vaguely dissatisfied by it because the more I analyse the books, the more I realise that my original take on the characters was too heavily influenced by fanon.
I can still just about support the idea of ReallyEevil!Lucius, even though his portrayal in DH has made it less likely and, of course, the long hair is pure Warner Brothers. How we read Lucius depends, I think, on whether or not it was he himself who thrashed Dobby severely for burning the dinner - a point which canon leaves open. If it was, if he beat an unresisting servant half his size with his own hands or wand instead of saying "Go away and punish yourself", then that suggests that he is a physically sadistic control-freak who gets a kick out of hurting victims who aren't enjoying it, and since he is a member of a paramilitary organisation and accustomed to indulging his own whims, he would probably have become the kind of monster he is in this story. OTOH, if it was a more senior servant who beat Dobby, or Dobby's own parents, Lucius would still be a smug, bigoted, amoral prick willing to advance his family by extremely shady means, but we'd have no reason to think he was anything worse than that. Post-DH I am now leaning towards the second interpretation, but I can still just about make a case for the first one.
I've also realised that the idea of the Death Eaters as wholesale recreational torturers and killers owes much more to fanon than canon. The evidence in the books is unclear. We're told that many Death Eaters tortured Muggles, but Voldemort uses the term "Muggle torture" to describe the baiting of the Roberts family, which wasn't much worse than what the Marauders did to Severus: so we don't know if "Muggle torture" in general means bloody atrocities or aggravated bullying. Harry says that Voldemort kills Muggles for fun, and there's evidence of some random recreational Muggle-killings after the Death Eaters take power in DH; but prior to that the only Muggle killings we actually know of were apparently done for practical military reasons, e.g. to exert pressure on the Ministry. We know that the entire families of Order members were sometimes killed in Death Eater attacks but there's nothing in canon to say whether this was a deliberate policy of brutal terrorism, or collateral damage while going after what they saw as a legitimate target.
Every native-born Briton of my/Rowling's generation grew up with terrorism as part of the daily background of our lives, and there were I believe twelve terrorist attacks on mainland Britain during 1996 when JK Rowling must have been working on the first Potter book, including the Docklands bomb in London and the one which took out much of central Manchester: so home-grown terrorism would have been on her mind. Despite the elaborate, grotesque masks used in the films, in the books the Death Eaters' masks are just cloth hoods with eye and mouth-holes, very similar to the masks worn by the IRA, and many specific events and debates to do with the Death Eaters or with the Ministry's handling of them match up closely with similar events and debates in the real world of British terrorism and the British government's handling of it.
Therefore, I now think it very likely that Rowling intended the Death Eaters broadly to parallel real British paramilitary organisations. And with a few exceptions British paramilitary organisations have not, on the whole, made a habit of gratuitous cruelty or of intentionally targeting civilians, although they have often been perfectly willing to kill civilians as collateral damage if they got in the way. There were eighty thousand people within range of the bomb that took out central Manchester, and not a single death, because the IRA warned the police just in time to evacuate the area.
So, I no longer quite believe in the take on the Death Eaters which I have used in this story, and I've also realised that the term "Dark magic" as used in the Potterverse applies to any magic which is transgressive or "alternative" in some way - anything from monstrous evil which warps the very fabric of magic itself, all the way down to Goth lifestyle accessories. I can still just about justify the way I have presented these topics, and Lucius, in this story, but I would hate for anyone to take this story as evidence that this is how Lucius, the Death Eaters and Dark magic necessarily are in canon. It's still a possible interpretation of canon in all cases, but it's not the most likely one.
You can find a page about British cultural references in the Harry Potter books, including parallels between the Death Eaters and real-life British paramilitaries such as the IRA and UVF, and an essay on the nature of curses and Dark magic elsewhere on this website.
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