Title: Seasoned Sound
Author: Silver Bells!
Word Count: 15750
Warnings: Seasickness and Splinching. Generally epilogue-compliant, but EWE with respect to Harry and Severus.
Disclaimer: All Harry Potter characters herein are the property of J.K. Rowling and Bloomsbury/Scholastic. No copyright infringement is intended.
Summary: Eight lonely years after the Battle of Hogwarts, Harry investigates an old friend's Apparition mishap and discovers more than he had thought to hope for.
Author's Notes: A request for pre-slash led me to attempt a sexy story without sex. As you can probably tell by the warnings above, I'm not sure how well I succeeded!
"So what do you think of her, Harry?"
Harry's eyes went from Ron's proud face to the squirming bundle cradled in his arms. Rose looked pink and wrinkly and supremely pissed off at having been nicked from her mum's side, and her tiny fists flailed at Harry as if she wanted to pick a fight. Or answer a question, he thought with a grin. She wasn't grizzling yet, but Harry had a feeling it wouldn't be long. "Ron, you did good."
"I know!" said Ron, sounding amazed. "Blimey, it was scary, though. I didn't think I was going to make it through."
A pointed a-hem from Hermione made Harry laugh. "Yeah, you did all right too," he said, shifting Rose a little so that he could squeeze Hermione's hand. She looked tired but radiant - and a lot happier than her cranky daughter - and Harry couldn't help but feel in awe of her bravery, even though he knew he ought to be well used to it by now. She'd forgone a trip to St Mungo's and given birth in her own bed, ordering Ron about the whole time, and by the time Molly had turned up with Harry in tow, it was all over bar the clean-up and a cup of tea. Hermione's organisational prowess never ceased to astonish Harry, and he pressed a fervent kiss to her brow. "She's really cool, Hermione."
She gave him a sleepy smile and took Rose back from him, and Ron snuggled up behind her, burying his nose in her tangled curls. Harry sat beside them, but somehow apart; it made him inexplicably sad to see them like this, like a real family, and he hated himself for being so selfish and stupid. It wasn't as if Hermione and Ron had gone anywhere...except that they had, and Harry missed them desperately already.
"Harry, come to the kitchen," whispered Molly from the doorway. "There's an owl arrived for you from the Ministry."
"How do they always track me down?" he said, shaking his head ruefully as Ron chuckled. Harry stood up and ruffled Ron's hair. "You guys sleep tight."
"Will do," said Ron, his eyes already drooping shut.
Harry followed Molly down the hallway, tiptoeing past the living room where the Grangers were snoring on the couch. In the kitchen he found Elwood, one of the Auror Office's longtimers, shredding a crumpet at the table. Elwood greeted him with a soft tu-whit tu-whoo and passed him the message, but Harry didn't feel like reading it. Molly pressed him into a seat and gave him a buttery crumpet of his own, then sat opposite him, her expression understanding.
"Just say it," said Harry finally, once he'd forced the crumpet down. "I'm being a big baby."
"Oh, Harry," said Molly, petting his hand. "There's nothing wrong with feeling lonely. We all do, you know, almost all the time. If you're lucky you find people who make you forget it for a while."
Harry sighed, thinking back to the way Ginny had only made him remember. He knew Molly sometimes still held out hope for them, even if Harry didn't. "I suppose I'm just waiting."
"What on earth for?" asked Molly, laughing gently. "Harry, it's not like you to sit around waiting for anything."
Harry bit his lip. Since leaving Hogwarts he'd done almost nothing but wait, and he didn't know why. A pair of dark eyes flashed scornfully somewhere deep in his memory, and he pondered this life that one man had made possible for him, the life that he was wasting.
Elwood leant over and gave Harry a nip of reminder, startling him. He unrolled the small scroll he'd been sent and frowned, forgetting his self-pity for the moment.
"What is it?" Molly asked.
"An emergency," Harry replied, reading the note through again. He looked up and met Molly's concerned gaze. "But I'll take care of it. Don't let them know anything's up."
"Mr Harry Potter?"
Harry caught his breath and blinked at the curious face above him. "Yes?"
"You don't sound too sure." The woman's raisin-like face creased even further into a smile. She offered him a hand and he took it, gasping at her wiry strength as she hauled him upright. "An inter-continental Portkey's a bit rough on the system, and you've come an awfully long way."
"Yes," said Harry with greater certainty, as he swayed on his feet. If her accent didn't convince him that he was far from home, then the humidity surely would. He could feel sweat starting to gather at his upper lip, salty and unpleasant, and he dabbed himself surreptitiously with the cuff of his sleeve, wishing he'd thought to wear a t-shirt.
"Bit warm, is it?" the woman asked kindly. "Why don't you take a seat while I find you a drink? Larry's knocked out our power, but I've got chilling charms on everything essential."
She pushed him down into a chair before diving headfirst into a mini-fridge, and he averted his eyes politely from her bobbing bottom and looked about the room in interest. It bore the unmistakeable signs of a Muggle-born healer, strewn as it was with everything from stethoscopes and thermometers to cauldrons and phials; a pair of dragon hide gauntlets lay neatly beside a carton of latex gloves, and a smoky-coloured cat was curled in a bedpan in the corner. "Who's Larry?" he asked, wondering if she meant the cat.
"Who's Larry?" The woman chuckled and tossed him a small carton of milk. "Larry would be that little cyclone responsible for the mess outside. Made landfall yesterday a bit south of here, and now we're all at sixes and sevens. No one's dead, mind you, so there's that to be thankful for, but between the flooding and the Billywigs, the whole region's in an uproar. The Ministry's got most of my staff out in the field, and I understand there's a very unhappy bunyip that's been rousted from her swamp near Babinda and giving the local Misinformation Officers absolute fits."
"Oh. Larry," said Harry stupidly, feeling a blush burn across his cheeks. He didn't recall reading anything about a cyclone in the Daily Prophet.
"As for me, I'm Jane Ord, Healer-in-Charge here at the Cairns Clinic for Constitutional Catastrophes. I'm the one who contacted you. Go on, take a sip," she said, pointing at the milk. "It's chocolate Big M. My favourite. Don't stand on ceremony; I can tell you're dying of thirst, and the chocolate'll do you good."
"Thank you," said Harry, opening the carton and taking a swallow. The milk felt unbelievably good sliding down his dry throat.
"You're very welcome." Healer Ord sat at her desk, folded her hands beneath her chin and regarded him with a thoughtful expression. "I'm relieved you were able to organise transportation so quickly."
"Your message sounded urgent."
"Yes." She picked up a clipboard and passed it to him. "Have a read first. I understand that you hold Mr Longbottom's enduring power of attorney, and that he's also a close friend of yours, so you'd best be prepared."
It was the worst Splinching Harry had ever seen.
"Mr Longbottom was found at his lodgings in
Harry gulped, almost wishing he might be Obliviated himself. Neville looked ghastly, like a mutated Mackled Malaclaw had been having a go at him. Great chunks of flesh had been rent from his body, and what was left was ashen and trembling. Both his legs were gone, the right taken at the knee and the left at mid thigh. His right arm was missing, and the shoulder with it, as though scooped up by Florean Fortescue's biggest dessert spoon. Neville's lower jaw had been torn away, and his tongue as well, and Harry's fists clenched in sympathy as he muttered, "Oh, Neville."
"In over sixty years of practice, I've never seen such a case. The damage to his internal organs was severe, the bleeding...extensive," said Healer Ord quietly. "By fortunate chance neither his heart nor his brain were affected directly by the Splinching, or we would not have been able to save his life. As it is, his condition is critical. He is on a steady course of Blood-Replenishing Potion, but its efficacy is limited by the massive extent of his injuries."
"Oh, Neville, you poor duffer," Harry whispered. He squeezed Neville's left hand as gently as he could, even as the gorge rose in his throat at the sight of Neville's usually cheerful round face, now ripped apart and almost unrecognisable. Nearly eight years had passed since the Battle of Hogwarts, and Harry could still feel blindsided by the bad stuff that just happened no matter how much a person paid and paid. "What have you done to yourself?"
He felt the healer's steadying hand at his elbow. "Normally it would be possible to treat injuries of even this magnitude by reuniting the body with its Splinched portions, but neither my staff nor I have been able to determine Mr Longbottom's Apparitic point of origin. His wand was presumably lost along with his wand arm." She sighed deeply. "Enquiries have been made at his office at the Department of Magizoology and Herbology in
"I don't understand," said Harry, shaking his head in dismay. "He's a good wizard, really good. I just don't see how this could've happened."
"I'm hoping that an Auror of your calibre will have better luck than we've had finding out. I'll be blunt: in the current state of emergency, our resources are stretched to the limit, and Mr Longbottom's condition deteriorates with every moment that goes by. His innate magic can only hold him together for so long. Well over twenty four hours have now passed since his accident and there have been no reports from either Muggle or magical sources regarding the whereabouts of his missing parts." Even as she spoke, she wove her wand with gentle care over Neville's maimed form, and Harry could see Neville's awful, quivering tension ease a little; it gave Harry hope that Neville might recover after all, but Healer Ord's next words curbed his tentative optimism: "In a tropical climate like ours, decomposition occurs swiftly, and I fear that soon a successful reunion will no longer be possible whether the parts are found or not. I can prevent infection at this end, but-"
"Stop," said Harry, his stomach turning over with nauseous dread. He knew the possibilities she hinted at and could guess at even worse ones. Wasn't
"With your permission, I'd like to apply a small dose of diluted Invigoration Draught in the hope of obtaining information from Mr Longbottom," said Healer Ord. She faced him squarely, and he could see the exhaustion and concern beneath her calm expression. "Please understand that this is very dangerous - possibly lethal - given his present state of mutilation. I've been hesitant to take this step while there was still chance of recovery, but time is growing short."
"No, I - I mean yes, you have my permission, I see that the risk is necessary, but," Harry swallowed, then continued, "he has no tongue. How can he speak?"
"I'm hoping he'll be able to write," said Healer Ord with a small, wry smile. She handed Harry her clipboard and drew a biro from the breast pocket of her scrubs. He took it with a tiny smile of his own; they still used quills in the Auror Office. "I'm going to inject the potion into a vein in his groin, since I don't want to chance impairing the use of that arm. Be ready: if he does regain consciousness, it won't be for long."
Harry looked away with a wince as she readied her needle. There was no immediate reaction from Neville when it penetrated his skin, but the draught worked quickly and soon Neville's pleading, misery-filled eyes crept open, meeting Harry's.
"Hey, Neville," said Harry, trying to grin reassuringly at his old friend. He saw, quite clearly, the way Neville attempted to respond with a greeting of his own, the way Harry's name huffed silently from the gaping maw of Neville's throat, and he brushed Neville's hair with shaking fingers. "No, don't try and talk. You're all right, but you've got a bit of a frog in your throat, yeah? Listen, I want to know where you've been, everything you've been up to. But you're probably going to faint on me soon, so I'm going to put a pen in your hand, okay, and what I really need is for you to let me know where you were when you Disapparated. Okay? Do you think you can do that for me? It's really important to me. Serious, world-saving stuff, definitely. Yeah, I know it's your dodgy hand, but humour me, all right? Just think back to where you were when you Disapparated, and write it down for me. Blimey, your handwriting's shocking, Neville, worse than mine. No, don't stop, keep going, I'll figure it out. I've just got to know where you were, so you get down whatever you remember. You're doing great, really gr-"
Harry's babbling shuddered to a halt as the pen fell from Neville's weak grip, and his heart stopped until he saw Neville's chest rise, and then rise again.
"You did well," said Healer Ord, checking Neville's pulse.
"He'll be okay?"
"For now," she said, giving him a weary nod, "although I wouldn't like to give him any further doses. His heart won't take the strain."
Nor would Harry's. He turned the clipboard right side up and stared with astonishment at Neville's agonised scrawl: The Mithridate Preserve may be found at 16? 52' 231⁄3'' S 146? 23' 143⁄4'' E. Below that, each letter shakier than the last, the note urged: KILL THE SNAKE.
"I hope you got something we might use," prompted Healer Ord, and Harry jumped, having almost forgotten in his consternation that she was there.
He tugged the note from the clipboard and shoved it in his pocket, knowing he must destroy it the first chance he got. "I think so," he said quietly. He shook her hand, noting again its strength. "Look after him, please. I'll return as soon as I can."
The Cairns City Library shared its block, all unknowing, with the wizarding clinic. Harry emerged from an innocuous doorway into a strong blast of rain; casting Impervius upon his glasses, he could see cars and earth-moving equipment driving cautiously down the wet, debris-strewn streets. The mess made his heart sink to his toes; if Neville's disastrous Splinching had taken place, as Harry guessed, somewhere near the path of the cyclone, then his missing parts might be anywhere by now.
He moved carefully along the walkway between the enormous fig trees, nudging aside fallen branches until he reached the library's white-pillared entrance. The hour was still early and the library was not yet open - Harry wasn't certain if it would open at all when the town was in such disarray - but a discreet Alohomora gained him entry.
Inside, the library atmosphere was close and dim. There were no people about, but he drew his Cloak from his mokeskin pouch in case of interruption and used Lumos to light the way to the reference collection. An enormous atlas lay upon a lectern, and as Harry turned the cover it fell open naturally to the well-thumbed
Harry had only the dimmest memory of latitude and longitude from his primary school days, but the lines were simple enough to follow, so simple that it took just a few moments to realise, with a stab of fear, that Neville's Secret lay somewhere off the coast of
One of the library computers, coaxed to reluctant life by Harry's wand, provided more information; he tracked down a website detailing the colour-coordinated zoning plans and regulations of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority. If Neville's note was right, it put his Apparitic point of origin on the North West Reef in the only pink Preservation Zone near
"This is hopeless," he blurted aloud. His voice sounded young and very alone in the library's hushed stillness, and he wished very much that Hermione and Ron were by his side and not halfway around the world with their newborn daughter.
Neville was lost at sea.
Harry found a dive shop on the Esplanade that looked wizard-friendly; the small, rune-filled sign in the front window (Be aware, dive with care!) would not have meant much to the Muggle tourists, but to Harry it was a gift: the magical equivalent of a Tourist Information Bureau.
The shop was closed but unlocked, and he stepped inside. Like Healer Ord's office, it was a peculiar mix of Muggle and magic, and a complicated web of charms lay over the stock in compliance with The International Statute of Wizarding Secrecy. The colourful tourist brochures fluttered into movement in his presence, and his stomach turned over to see the great schools of fish darting hungrily about the coral. "Seriously hopeless," he whispered.
"We're closed," a voice sang out from the back room, startling Harry from his growing sense of dread.
"Yeah, I'm sorry," Harry called. He glanced once more at the brochures, gulped, and said, "It's a bad time, I know, but do you have any Gillyweed?"
"Gillyweed?" The shopkeeper, a massive woman in thin, sleeveless robes and a monocle, pushed aside a bamboo door curtain and strode up to Harry, looking him up and down with a doubtful expression. "What do you want with Gillyweed? You're not going diving in that muck, are you? Didn't you notice that cyclone that came barrelling through yesterday? Storm surge like that, I don't care how low the tide was, the reef'll be a bloody soup from here to
Bloody Neville soup, Harry thought, and he had to choke down the hysterical laughter that threatened to escape. "I know, but it's an emergency. I've got a friend who's in trouble. Listen, I've got my broom with me, but something tells me I'm going to need Gillyweed, as much as you've got."
"If your friend's in trouble out there," said the shopkeeper, nodding towards the beach, "then you'll want search and rescue on the job. You're not taking a stick out in that weather. It isn't safe, especially not for a little bloke like you. You'd be blown to bits before you hit the water."
"I'm a decent flyer," said Harry, since he couldn't say so much for his swimming skills; even with gills he'd almost drowned, and that was in a lake rather than a storm-tossed coral reef.
She still looked dubious. "Is this about that young fellow got himself Splinched up Daintree way?"
"Yeah," said Harry, and a sigh shuddered from him. "Yeah, he's one of my best friends in the world."
"I heard about him from Jane at the clinic. She put the word about yesterday. It sounded like he was in a fair bit of strife." She stared at him, hard and assessing. "Look, I'll let you have all I've got - there won't be much call for it this week, that's for a certainty - and if it's not enough you'll have to speak to Hu at the Botanic Gardens; he grows it in one of the greenhouses over there. You can tell him Ivy sent you."
"Thanks, Ivy," said Harry, watching her fill a jar with the slimy, greyish green rat tails that his stomach remembered so well. He was really beginning to regret the chocolate milk.
"Not a worry," she answered, handing the jar over and tossing his silver in the till. "But for goodness sake, you be careful out there. It's not fit for wizard nor beast. And shut the door behind you!"
He shoved the jar into his mokeskin and cast a Disillusionment Charm about himself before leaving the shop, and then crossed the street to the most deserted and uninviting beach he'd ever clapped eyes on. He stared across the choppy water, and up at the furious, leaden clouds, then took out his broom and mounted. The Unplottable section of reef was almost due east, and he had some treacherous flying to do.
He wished he had his Quidditch gear; his jeans were sodden, and the shirt that had seemed so superfluous back at the clinic was now stuck to his skin like raw fillo pastry. He wasn't cold, precisely; he couldn't see the sun, but he could feel it, an invisible irradiation that seemed at odds with the foul weather; his nose was beginning to burn. The wind was capricious, innocent one moment and then smacking him like a grand piano the next, and Impervius proved only a partial shield against the rain. There was no one in sight, neither on the water nor in the air - the cyclone seemed to have closed both the harbour and the airport - and he might almost have enjoyed the solitude and sheer challenge of the flight had Neville's life not been at stake.
The cloud cover thinned as he flew further out to sea, but the turbulence remained unpredictable, playing havoc with his flight time guesstimates. He had well under thirty miles to travel, which under ideal circumstances could have taken him less than fifteen minutes, but the poor conditions cut his speed and the chop made him fight for every inch. Below him the water churned unhappily, and he couldn't help but compare it to the sun-lit aquamarine stuff of his tropical daydreams; Harry was beginning to wonder if Neville had been deranged when he moved to
Well, if he wasn't then, he will be soon, he thought, and pressed on stubbornly. He couldn't imagine how he was supposed to fix this mess, but uncertainty had never stopped him from trying before.
His task seemed so hopeless that the glimpse of a small sailing vessel rocking in the swell below him almost surprised him right off his broom.
His gut told him he was in the right place, and his watch agreed. He descended in a wary spiral, his wand drawn; there was no sign of anybody on board, but the hatches were closed, and he preferred to keep the advantage of surprise for himself. He landed as softly as he could on the gunwale, but the boat rolled beneath his feet, making his arms windmill as he yelped and flailed for balance on the wet surface. At the last moment, when submersion seemed imminent, he managed to ground his broom into the bottom of the boat; he levered himself on board, falling to his hands and knees in the cockpit with a painful thud.
"So much for discretion," he muttered, gripping his wand tightly as the boat rolled again. Having landed with all the grace of a pregnant Ukrainian Ironbelly, he discovered that standing again would be no easy task. He splashed about the small cockpit and put his ear to the main hatch, but he could hear nothing suspicious from the cabin within. As he knelt there thinking, another swell smacked the side of his head against the hatch, making him swear. "That's torn it," he said, and he dragged himself upright and slid the hatch open.
There was no one inside.
It was clearly a wizarding vessel, because the size of the cabin was bigger than the exterior suggested. There were timber cabinets and cases lining the walls of the cabin, a large study area strewn with papers and a well-stocked kitchen, and instead of tidy bunks he found a comfortable-looking four poster bed. The sight of its swaying curtains made Harry's stomach turn over with nausea, and he stumbled backwards into a well-worn armchair. He poked at it cautiously, in case it was a wizard in disguise, but the only yelp was his own, as the boat rolled again.
He closed his eyes, anxious to make the world stop moving. There was strange scent beneath the salt and damp; he turned his bruised head against the chair back and tried to breathe slowly, and his nose filled with the unusual scent, so strong and familiar. It helped a little.
"Come on, Harry, you've got to locate your sea legs," he said to himself in exasperation, but his legs weren't budging. He opened his eyes, but the cabin still seemed to lurch about at random, and its magically enhanced size seemed only to exacerbate the sense of alien unsteadiness. His fingers slipped desperately beneath the seat cushion, as if the next swell might whisk it out from beneath him, and he discovered a small book tucked away underneath. The qualm of guilt only made the seasickness worse, but it was no time to be fretting about Neville's privacy; he tugged the book free and opened it, holding it close to his face to keep the
It was a simple journal, bound in soft dark leather, and its pages were filled with dates and times, ingredients and formulae, in a small, crabbed script that Harry recognised as well as his own.
It was Snape's handwriting.
Harry hadn't thought he could feel any sicker, but the sight of the Half-Blood Prince's well-remembered hand set off a furious hot pounding behind his brow. He rifled through the journal to the most recent page, because it didn't seem possible that Snape could be in the world and Harry not know of it, but the date was March 19, just two days prior - SE bommie checked, visibility poor, query pterois activity - and the year was 2006, and Harry flung the journal away with a snarl of rage.
He struggled to his feet and another wave sent him stumbling into the side of the cabin. "Shit!" he howled, hating Snape and his stupid research and this bloody boat that was trying to finish the job that Voldemort couldn't manage. Sneaky sodding Snape, who'd been placed on this earth to torture Harry only to be stolen away, and if he'd been here all along, living the life of luxury on his stupid yacht off the coast of tropical bloody
He staggered from side to side, knocking his hips against the cabinets and running his knees into every damned piece of furniture on board - the
There was little relief to be had; the taste of salt coated the back of his mouth and filled his nostrils, daring him to retch, and the bow bobbed beneath him in mute encouragement. He felt a pitiful urge to return inside and huddle like a frightened puppy in the comfort of the Snape-scented armchair. The horizon rose and fell about him, and he fixed his clouding focus below the towring, trying to ignore the vertigo-inducing turn of the sky above.
"Get it together, Harry," he told himself shakily. "It's just a bit of water. No problem. If it would just stop for a minute."
His hands were rigid and cramping around the lifeline; he forced them loose, but the fingers remained locked in stiff, shadow puppet poses, and he stared at them in dumb amazement. He had to get off the boat and back in the air. His broom was in the cockpit where he'd left it, and he shuddered; it might as well be on the moon. There was no way he could make it back there. There was no way he could ever move again.
"Get it together," he repeated. He slapped his hands against the deck to wake them up, and hissed when something sharp dug into his skin. The planks beneath him were smooth, slick with rain and varnish, but a small pale object was lodged in the caulking under his right hand. He thumbed it free and stared at it in horror, and then groaned as the boat rolled, sending the object skittering across the deck.
It was Neville's tooth.
"Shit, shit, shit," he moaned, as he crawled after the bouncing incisor. He knew it was Neville's tooth, even remembered the night Neville had chipped it at one of their D.A. lessons; Neville had been so proud of it and hadn't let them break secrecy to visit Madam Pomfrey. Harry snatched at the tooth before it reached the edge, and then shoved it into his pouch, grimacing at the touch of it; it had been a long time since he'd lost any teeth, and he'd forgotten how weird they felt. "That's one found, fifteen to go, Neville. Not to mention the rest of you," he said, staring down at the deck in hopelessness. He couldn't see any blood, but he knew it had been there; the storm had washed everything away. "Just call me the Tooth Fairy. What did you do to him, you coward? Where are you?"
The boat pitched again, and Harry's stomach gave up; he hung his head over the side in surrender and heaved.
The retching continued long after he emptied his belly, and almost a quarter of an hour dragged by in agony before he could lift his head again. Exhausted tears streamed down his face and his strained neck muscles squawked in protest, but although he did not feel anything close to well, the crisis seemed to have passed.
He took off his glasses, amazed that he hadn't lost them, and scrubbed wearily at his face. At least there was no clean-up to do; being sick at sea had its advantages. He cast an unsteady Aguamenti Charm and rinsed his mouth out, then lapped at the water cautiously; he felt badly dehydrated, but he didn't want to set off his stomach again.
"Maybe a summoning charm?" he wondered to himself. "It couldn't be that simple, not with my worn-out luck. Accio, Neville's missing body parts!"
He tried several variations, which made his pouch twitch, but nothing came to hand. "Not even a hand," he giggled stupidly, feeling dazed; he laughed even harder when he imagined a man-eating shark with a belly full of Neville landing in his lap, or perhaps a whole school of tiny fish, flip-flapping about the bow. He could put a Neville jigsaw together and just toss a bucket of Skele-Gro over the lot.
Harry had no idea what to do; it was almost impossible to think, and he wanted nothing more than to lay his head down somewhere still and sleep. He folded his arms on the gunwale and stared out across the water. The boat was anchored near a reef wall; he could see the reef stretching like a shadow beneath the water's surface, dark and ominous. In sunny, calm weather it probably looked beautiful, but to Harry it was a gloomy sight, and it filled him with dejection.
A flash of movement caught his eye and he held his breath, gripping his wand tightly when a small, golden-brown head appeared on the surface. It was a sea snake, he realised, as its nostrils flared open for oxygen, and it was watching him curiously.
Kill the snake, thought Harry, and he started to raise his wand, but he knew he could not bring himself to do it, not without answers, and maybe not even then. He struggled upright, holding fast to the lifeline for balance as he tested his shaky legs.
"Are you unwell?" asked the sea snake with exquisite politeness, swimming closer. "May I be of some assistance?"
She was long, almost six feet, and she moved gracefully through the water, unperturbed by the swell. "I'm just a little seasick," he replied, "It will pass."
"Hmm," she hissed thoughtfully. "The surface can be disconcerting. It may be that you will feel better once you dive in; it is calmer below. Would you care to join me?"
"Thank you very much for your kindness," said Harry. "I am trying to help a friend, and I would be grateful for any guidance you can give me."
"You have a civil tongue," she noted in an approving tone. "I meet very few of your kind, and none have yet returned my greetings. I will help you if I can."
"Thank you," said Harry again. "You say you have met few of my kind. May I ask if you have seen anyone like me recently? Within the last few turns of the sun?"
She looked him up and down in a cataloguing manner, her expression almost as dubious as Ivy's had been. "Not quite like you. Some parts were similar."
'Some parts' sounded...promising, if horrible. It was far more than he had hoped for. "May I ask where?"
"You may ask, and I may tell you," she said. "I may lead you there as well, for my mind has not been easy in the matter, and there is little I can do alone. But it is not my place to interfere in the dark one's business and I would caution you too to approach with care. The dark one is maddened by the storm."
"I will be careful." said Harry. He didn't understand her remarks, but his acquaintance with snakes told him that she had explained the situation as thoroughly as she knew how. "Will you please wait for me while I grab my gear and change?"
"I will." she replied, and he watched her glide about in patient circles while he stripped to his underwear and reached for the Gillyweed.
Growing gills was as painful as Harry remembered, but the ache in his neck dissipated as soon as he hit the water.
It was not as cold as he had imagined - and nowhere near as frigid as the lake at Hogwarts - and he found that the snake was correct: he felt better in the sea. It also felt surprisingly good to have something in his belly again, even if it was rubbery rat tails. He treaded water, taking oxygen in through his gills and flexing his fingers and toes in pleasure as the webbing stretched between them. He was amazed at the difference the salt water seemed to make; he felt as if he might swim for miles, for days, forever.
The sea snake swam to his side and touched his nose in greeting. "Put your head down," she said, "before you are ill again. The dancing world at the end of the water will trick you." She slipped beneath the surface, and he duck-dived after her, anxious not to lose her.
Visibility was not good - the cyclone had kicked up enough sediment from the sea floor that the water mirrored the grey sky above - but his wand lit the way and the sea snake dropped her pace to match his; he was able to follow the undulating line of her body before him without fear. Great schools of fish swept about him like lightning-filled thunderclouds, and he could see the distant dark shape of a shark drifting across the seabed below, but Harry found his pace in the smooth roll of his hips as he swayed after the sea snake through the open water; here was the stillness he'd craved above, like a stillness that travelled with him even as everything was in motion.
The snake led him to the reef wall and he gaped in wonder at the hanging carpet of coral; it was like stepping into Diagon Alley for the very first time, like being a kid again and finding out that magic was real. Iridescent blues and pinks and purples, golden oranges and browns; the colours, even dimmed as they were by the overcast sky, were staggering and unreal, and his companion seemed almost plain in comparison. Some corals looked feather-soft and fragile, some thick and leathery; others looked jagged, as thought they might tear him to pieces if he dared swim too close.
The sea snake wound her way along the wall, her flattened, leaf-like tail steering her unerringly until they came to a gap in the coral large enough to accommodate Harry. He followed her through, joining the throng of fish that flung itself about the shallower corals like peak-hour
The further they swam, the softer and more intermittent the gnawing sound grew, and he realised, looking about him, that the number of fish was slowly decreasing. The coral still looked plentiful and appetising - he saw little sign of storm damage - but it was plain that there was something wrong, and soon even the smallest and most cunning of the fish had all but vanished. Their path narrowed; when the sea snake paused and circled back around him, he thought they had reached a dead end. She raised her head to look him in the eyes, and although the scales beneath her closed nostrils seemed to form a gentle smile, her tone was serious. "The dark one's nest lies in the hollow beyond this wall."
He was surprised at how the water softened her sibilance, and astonished that he could make himself understood in turn as he whispered, "How do I get through?"
She waved her tail towards a spectacular brittle outcropping of coral further down. "There is a pass down there, small and narrow; you must be careful not to scrape your soft scales. The spill of blood excites the dark one."
"What is the dark one?" asked Harry, tightening his grip around his wand.
"I don't know," she replied, "and I thought I understood all those who dwell here in my feeding grounds. I will go no further, but I will not be far away if you call. Approach with care, and keep your fang unsheathed; you may need it."
Harry watched her swim towards the surface for air and almost wished he had the same excuse, but his gills worked with a stolid regularity that defied his all-too-human inclination to hyperventilate. Instead he dived lower until he reached the encrusted coral overhang.
The way beneath looked very tight; to the sea snake it probably seemed spacious, but to Harry it didn't seem possible that a human body could fit through. He adjusted the pouch about his waist, making certain it was secure, then tucked his arms close to his sides and dived inside.
The going was good at first, and he slipped through the entrance without mishap, but there was no living coral in this place, tucked far from the sun's light, only the friable, mostly dead remains which scratched and snapped at his skin. A particularly sharp spur snagged the back of Harry's underpants, just as the end of the shaft came in sight, and he gurgled out a curse as he was jerked to a halt. It was difficult to gain any leverage in the cramped space and the sodden snarl of cotton and elastic only tightened as he tried to wriggle away. Finally he lurched free of his knickers, leaving them behind, but his flippered feet dashed clumsily against the top of the tunnel, breaking the fragile coral until it began to rain about him.
His momentum lost, Harry shoved his wand between his teeth and pulled himself along the shaft with his hands, trying to escape the avalanche before it could bury him. The webbing between his fingers tore as he fled, but he gritted his teeth against a scream and extricated himself from the downpour into the more open water beyond. The gap disappeared behind him, filling with coral debris, and he was relieved to see the milky light of day somewhere far above him; if all else failed, at least he might still fly free of this place.
His relief was short-lived; as he took his wand from his mouth to heal his bleeding hands, a tremendous weight slammed into him, smashing him against the coral wall. He felt a bone crack and dropped his wand with a gargled howl of surprise and pain. A panicked, wandless Accio brought it back into his grasp, and when he straightened from his reflexive crouch, he found a tremendous black reptile coiling before him.
I'm guessing this is the snake Neville meant, Harry thought with a gulp. It wasn't a sea serpent, as far as his dazed eyes could tell; sea serpents were supposed to be placid creatures, harmless to humans, while this snake looked bent on killing him. He'd also read that sea serpents grew to over a hundred feet in length, and this snake was maybe a quarter of that, more like an over-sized anaconda. For a brief, hysterical moment he wondered if it was an anaconda, lost far from home, and then two great wings flared out in warning beneath its head and it struck at him again. There were four stumpy legs above the snake's anal plate, and they looked both absurd and lethal.
Harry ducked the attack with difficulty, firing off a stunning spell as he kicked higher towards the surface. Stupefy seemed to bounce off the snake's tough scales, and he thought he might be in some deep trouble, but the snake did not chase after him. Harry cranked his Lumos to high beam, trying to see what was going on, and he found the snake staring up at him with wild, threatening eyes, clearly readying itself for attack but just as clearly reluctant to leave its nest unguarded. The lower length of its body was coiled protectively about something, perhaps a clutch of eggs, but it spread its wings to block his view, swaying about like a cobra.
Harry wondered if it was even a snake at all, but rather a wyvern; he'd never heard of a wyvern living underwater, but then he hadn't always paid close attention in Hagrid's classes either. The wings were true bird wings, even feathered like a duck's, and that didn't mesh with anything he knew of dragons.
Harry pressed a cautious hand to his side, where it felt like several ribs had been staved in; it didn't hurt as much as it might, since he had gills, but it still hurt like hell. As he did his best to set the bones with his wand and wished very much that Healer Ord was there to do it for him, a sibilant mutter reached his ears, the words frantic and slurred: "Stay away get away no closer no closer won't let you hurt us won't let you hurt him stay away get away."
So it is a snake after all, Harry thought, legs and all..
"I don't want to hurt anyone," he called out hesitantly, not sure if she would hear him. He was almost certain now that she was female, and broody, and not very inclined to view him as anything other than a threat.
"It's talking is it talking why is it talking," she muttered, flapping her wings in an agitated manner.
"I can speak your language," said Harry, "and I truly don't want to hurt anyone. I mean no harm to you or your family."
"Like him it is like him but it speaks do I answer does it lie will it listen what do I do."
"I promise I'll listen if you will do the same," said Harry. He sensed neither hunger nor animosity in her tone, only fear. "You seem really worried about something. Maybe there's a way we can help each other."
"I can't help no one can help he is no one to anyone only mine what do I do."
"Please let me try to help you. Are you hurt?" Harry peered at her, but she seemed healthy; her dark scales shone, her eyes gleamed and she looked well-fed. He tried not to think about what that might mean for Neville. "Were you injured during the storm?"
"The storm oh the storm must help him do not hurt him."
"The storm is over now," said Harry. "Well, mostly, anyhow. It chased the sun across the land. You're safe now."
"No place safe for mine." Her wings drooped as her words calmed, slower with hopelessness. "He will die. What do I do."
"You let me help, that's what you do," said Harry. "If you've done all you can, thought of everything, and things are still bad, then don't be scared to take someone's help. I learned that the hard way a long time ago. Will you let me be your friend?"
"Friend." The word sounded strange from her tongue, as if she had never said it before. "Friend helps. My friend. Help mine."
"Yes," said Harry, wondering what on earth he was getting himself into. "May I swim a little closer?"
She watched him, her eyes wary, and as he dived to her level, she sank lower. Her home was a cosy grotto lined with leathery brown coral, but he did not take his eyes from her. Her plump coils wove like a basket about her nest, and as she shifted and slid, a human arm drifted out beneath her. Harry gasped and reached for it, and the legserpent closed her jaws around his hand, gentle but admonitory.
"Sorry," he said, forcing himself to back down. Her tongue flickered at the cuts on his hand, and his heart almost stopped, but she released him unharmed. He watched as she nosed at the arm as if it was a wayward child, trying to tuck it between her coils, but it drifted free again, and he couldn't help himself; he grabbed it about the wrist and tugged. The arm held fast and the legserpent hissed a warning, pushing him away with her tail before nuzzling again at the arm. It turned at her touch, revealing webbing between the lax fingers and a Dark Mark etched upon the skin.
Harry had no idea what to do.
The legserpent writhed anxiously about Snape's body. Her hold on him was cradling rather than constricting; she fussed like a mother, or a lover.
Harry couldn't tell if Snape was dead or alive. He didn't even know which option he preferred, but he had walked away from Snape once, and he wouldn't do it again.
Snape's arm kept floating towards him. Beseeching him.
"Please let me come close," he said finally, and the legserpent's gaze was solemn. "I really do want to help."
"He will die. What do I do. What will I do."
"Is - is he alive?" he asked, wondering if he understood her tenses properly. A snake's sense of time was different from a person's.
"His heart beats," she said, flicking her tongue at Snape's chest as if to reassure herself, and then curling around him once more
"May I approach?" asked Harry. "I would like to hear for myself."
"It is a wonderful sound," she said, as though she was considering the sense of his request. "But it slows."
"Perhaps I can find a way to speed it up again."
"He will die," she said again, but she did not prevent his approach.
The legserpent loosened her coils to allow Harry access, although Harry could tell she was reluctant. He wasn't overjoyed himself. It was hard to stay still long enough to examine Snape, and the legserpent ended up slinging her tail around Harry's waist to keep him steady. Her legs felt like baby elephant trunks against his skin.
Snape was deeply unconscious; it was disconcerting to see him so helpless, so much like the last time. His skin felt clammy and when Harry checked his heartbeat, it was slow and erratic. Snape's hair was tied back; Harry discovered a gill on one side of his neck, flapping listlessly in the water, and a mess of scar tissue on the other that made Harry look away with a pang.
Snape wore a simple dive belt and nothing else; Harry went through the pockets and found weights and phials and strange experimental instruments, but no Gillyweed. "All gone," said the legserpent, who was peering over his shoulder and apparently reading his mind.
"When did he finish it?" asked Harry, trying not to think about how thin Snape was, how vulnerable.
"Last dark," she said. Then, as if revealing a shameful secret, she added, "He wept."
"Bloody hell." Harry knew Gillyweed lasted longer in sea water, but he wouldn't like to test it, not beneath a coral reef while a cyclone stormed overhead. What had Snape been thinking? Even now the gill slit was beginning to seal shut, sickening Harry with the thought of what might have happened, what might still happen. "I have to get him back to his boat. He needs air, now."
"Can't move," she said.
"He can't move? Or you won't let him?" demanded Harry.
"Can't move," she repeated, tightening a coil across Snape's shoulders.
"There's no time to argue the toss," said Harry, exasperated. "You're right, he's dying, and the only thing that'll solve a problem like that is oxygen." He thought furiously. Snape's gill was nearly gone now. If the legserpent would let him, he could drop the weights from Snape's belt and take him up to the surface, but without the Gillyweed's influence Snape could very well end up with the bends, and they were an awfully long way from help in an Unplottable location. Meanwhile, Harry still had to breathe through his own gills and would be next to useless to Snape up top, even more useless than he felt down here.
"No time," the legserpent agreed. She sounded impossibly sad as she shifted Snape in her embrace. Harry could only guess how long it had been since she had taken a breath for herself.
"I've got to try feeding him," said Harry. He tucked his wand behind his ear and pulled his own supply of Gillyweed from his pouch, stuffing a small piece in his mouth and chewing it as hard as he could into mash. He stared down into Snape's face, so lean and pale and familiar, and then he took it between his palms and considered the strange, unknowable life that was within his hands. He thumbed gently at Snape's bottom lip - it seemed almost unbearably intrusive to be touching Snape like this when there was nothing that Snape could do to defend himself - and sealed his own mouth to Snape's.
Harry couldn't even pretend to himself that this had anything to do with his saving people thing. This was a kissing Snape thing.
There was no response; Harry realised that he was braced for a hex - would have welcomed it - but Snape was still, and helpless, and Harry felt terrified. He worked his tongue inside Snape's mouth, passed over the precious Gillyweed, and then forced Snape's lips closed. Snape's jaw felt stiff and stubborn, rough with stubble. Harry held him by the chin and stroked a coaxing hand along his neck, trying to wheedle a swallow from him, but he remained silent and motionless.
"Obstinate bastard," Harry muttered, feeling an urge to choke the life into Snape.
"Yes," the legserpent hissed in agreement. Her tongue darted anxiously across Snape's face. "Please. Make him live."
"I can be obstinate too," Harry assured her. He slid two fingers between Snape's lips and pushed the small lump of Gillyweed back, as if he was feeding a baby crow. Harry wasn't sure how far to force the issue; he didn't want to make Snape gag, nor did he want the Gillyweed lodged down Snape's windpipe, even if the legserpent would be able to perform one hell of a Heimlich maneuver if worst came to bloody hopeless. When he'd pushed as much as he dared, Harry removed his fingers and replaced them with his tongue once more, raising Snape's mouth to his own.
Snape remained unresponsive, heedless of Harry's tongue, his petting, anxious hands; Harry could not induce him to swallow. Come on, come on, Harry thought, hoisting Snape higher into the crook of his arm; he raked a hand down Snape's throat, over the protuberant adam's apple, over and over, until he wanted to weep with frustration while the legserpent writhed like agony about them both.
Harry caught at the thick sodden tangle of hair at the back of Snape's neck, pulling at it viciously. He bit at Snape's bottom lip and made it bleed. His fingers moved across Snape's thin ribcage, tickling at the skin and then scratching it, and then he burrowed into Snape's armpit, twisting the hair about his fingertips and tugging hard. All the while his tongue worked against Snape's, persuasive and possessive. You lived for me once, he thought, growing frantic with distress and anger, and you can bloody well do it again.
He felt it before he saw it, the weak flutter of Snape's eyelashes against his cheek. Harry lifted his mouth from Snape's and found Snape's eyes half conscious, half closed, yet a thousand times more alive than the last time Harry had stared into them. Please, Harry thought, and then he slurred it in Parseltongue, and the legserpent added her own pleas, until Snape's eyes widened and his mouth moved.
He coughed. The lump of Gillyweed was spat from his mouth and Harry shoved it back in, slapping his hand across Snape's mouth. He braced the hand at Snape's nape, feeling the lurch of Snape's body as his dark eyes grew wild with panic, and Harry forced Snape's eyes to his, staring him down. "You'll take what I give you and you'll swallow it all," he hissed. "This is how it's going to be."
He covered Snape's mouth with his own once more.
The gill formed fast. Harry held Snape as he thrashed weakly in pain, and the legserpent swam in restless circles about them, nudging at them both with her great snout.
Once Snape began to calm, Harry tried to move back, but Snape snatched at him with feeble fingers, and Harry took his hand, pressing their webbing together. Snape said something, but it was only bubbles and nonsense to Harry.
Snape's face betrayed profound incomprehension, as if he couldn't believe Harry was there, and Harry wondered if there had been any brain damage. As Snape's respiration quickened, his eyes cleared more and more, but his body remained mostly lax, jerking and tensing with occasional spasms. His expression grew more pained even as his transformation was finished, and with both eyes and hands he seemed to yearn for something just out of reach.
"He hurts," said the legserpent, flickering her tongue across Snape's whitened face.
"Can you tell what's hurting him?" asked Harry. He couldn't see any obvious wounds or breaks, and if Snape's back was injured, then Harry might have already done him more harm than good.
"His foot is hot," she said. She supported Snape as Harry swerved about in the water, and dived for Snape's feet. He took Snape carefully by the ankles, and felt immediately how swollen the right one was. Snape let out an agonised gurgle, and the legserpent crooned to him as Harry lifted the right foot.
There were four puncture wounds in the fleshy part of Snape's foot, with four small spines still protruding from his skin. The heat of infection was pouring off Snape, and
Harry grimaced in sympathy. He fished about in Snape's dive belt while Snape watched him with harrowed eyes, and when he found an empty phial and a small pair of pincers, he showed then to Snape with a questioning look. Snape gave him a fitful nod.
Harry bent low over Snape's foot and pried the spines out one by one by the light of his wand. They came out freely enough - they looked like knobbly needles with silver and pink and black stripes - and he dropped them in the phial for later examination. He debated putting his mouth to Snape's foot and sucking the venom from the wounds - and he felt astonished by just how much he wanted to - but the poison had undoubtedly dispersed throughout Snape's bloodstream long since; it would explain not just the pain but the partial paralysis.
Harry couldn't imagine how frightened Snape had been feeling.
"I want to take him up to the surface," he told the legserpent. "I need to speak to him. Will you help?"
"Friend helps," she agreed, touching his nose. "Take my wings."
Harry swam beneath Snape, dumped the weights from his belt and wrapped an arm around his chest, holding him close and secure. The legserpent rolled about them, and once Harry had buried his free hand in her thick scapular feathers, she undulated slowly towards the sky, careful not to dislodge her two passengers.
At the surface, the water was still choppy. Harry had forgotten that not even one hour had passed since he had first dived in; it seemed like centuries had gone by, given over to panic and wonder.
The legserpent hovered above them, sucking in great gusts of air as she spread her wings over them like an enormous black umbrella. Harry treaded water as he juggled Snape in his arms and tried to keep their mouths under the water; talking around the Gillyweed would not be easy.
"Try not to speak. Nod or shake only," he gasped against Snape's ear, before gulping for more water.
Snape nodded his understanding. His webbed fingers bit into Harry's forearm, even as his legs dangled weakly below.
"Are you okay?"
Another nod, tempered with a jerky shoulder shrug. 'Okay' was a relative concept.
"Anything I can get you from the boat?"
Snape shook his head.
"Anything to stop the 'weed?"
"Do you know what happened to Neville?"
A pause, and then another shake.
"You lying to me?"
A vehement shake, and then an elbow in his sore ribs.
Okay then, Harry thought, I guess we wait.
Molly was right; Harry just wasn't made for waiting.
Snape was heavy and awkward on his arm; his head fell forward in the water, and Harry's drooped with it. He rubbed his nose against Snape's shoulder, disturbed at how cold and shocky Snape's flesh felt, but when he used his wand to warm the water around them, the waves kept stealing the heat away.
The legserpent looped around them in perpetual motion, and Harry had reason to be glad of her strength; her dark coils proved a bulwark they couldn't afford to lose. "I've just got to take him below for a bit," he told her finally, feeling beyond exhausted by the effort to keep his eyes above water, but when he let his body relax and drop, Snape thrashed like a madman in his arms, gargling, "No, no!"
"It's all right, it's okay," Harry mouthed against Snape's skin. "I've got you. You're safe with me and I'm not letting you go." He jostled Snape around to face him, tucking Snape's brow into the crook of his neck and thrusting a leg between Snape's thighs. The legserpent rolled about them like a life buoy, and Harry kept a hand upon her at all times, relieved beyond measure by the smooth slide of her scales beneath his palm.
With his other hand he held Snape fast to him. They shared the same water, their mouths so close they were almost kissing, and the feel of Snape's slow respiration bubbling against his lips was inexplicably comforting to Harry. Snape's leaden arms dropped about Harry's waist, his fingertips at rest in the dimple above Harry's arse, and for all the cold and misery, Harry could feel his face heating with embarrassed joy.
They floated for hours, and Harry waited.
Harry's gills wore away first. He threw his head back and took a deep breath of air, gasping as he felt it burn through his lungs, and Snape tensed beneath his arm and dug his fingers into Harry's back. Harry nuzzled Snape's ear above water and whispered into it, "I'm not leaving you," and Snape calmed.
It was much harder now to support Snape. Harry slung an arm over the legserpent and let her keep all three of them afloat, but the seasickness crept back as they drifted about in circles, and he was fast reaching the end of his endurance. The legserpent flapped her wings gently, cooling Harry's face, and he sipped fresh water from the tip of his wand. The hazy, wonderful thought of mounting his broom and flying away filled his vision, but he couldn't do it, not when Snape lay so trustingly against him.
"Everything'll be all right," he whispered into Snape's ear, again and again, and was answered with a purring rumble against his neck; Snape was asleep. Harry rubbed his cheek across the top of Snape's head and pressed absent kisses into his hair, beguiled by the realisation that what he'd taken below for a snarled mess was actually a healthy head full of dreadlocks; the climate agreed with Snape.
When the change finally came, Snape slept right through it; Harry simply hoisted Snape's head higher against his shoulder until he felt steady breath brush his skin.
"He lives," said the legserpent, snuffling at Snape's still cheek.
"Yes," said Harry, stroking Snape's locks. They were only just starting to dry in the drizzly air.
"He lives for you." Her tone was considering, and she watched them intently.
"I hope so," said Harry. A swelling crest made him clutch Snape closer. "I need to fly him to land now."
Her head cocked to one side in a disturbingly human gesture. "I can fly."
The weather was still rough. Harry looked at her wings doubtfully; for himself he wouldn't mind risking it, but not for Snape. "Are you sure?"
"I want to fly," she said. She lifted Harry's arm from her body with her tender mouth and then draped it across Snape's shoulders. "Your place is safe for mine."
They chased the storm west across the
The legserpent touched down in the Esplanade Lagoon, an artificial pool that sprawled at one corner of the city foreshore near the harbour. The lagoon saw tourists safe from stingers and kept the mangroves and mudflats safe from tourists; Harry knew it must overflow with visitors in finer weather, but today, as the water surface rippled and churned in the wind, the lagoon remained deserted except for them.
The legserpent dipped her head, and Harry clambered off onto the sand by the water, dragging Snape off after him. The sand was gritty against Harry's damp, naked skin, and he huddled Snape closer to him while the legserpent stretched above them and shook out her wings, preening at her wet feathers. Perched upon her stout legs, she towered above the woven steel fish sculptures that dotted the lagoon. She flicked her tongue at them cautiously before turning her attention back to Snape. "He's cold," she said, nosing at Snape in a disquieted way.
Snape's skin was tanned to rich olive, but it bore a chalky, unhealthy cast from his underwater ordeal; he was hypothermic. Harry shivered with exhaustion. He dried them off with his wand and then pulled his Cloak from his pouch, wrapping it around them both. The legserpent moaned when they disappeared, and Harry crooned to her in Parseltongue, assuring her that they were still there, still alive.
Snape too responded to Harry's voice; he shifted his head upon Harry's shoulder and pushed a chilly nose beneath Harry's ear. "Are you awake?" asked Harry.
"No," said Snape. The velvet voice that Harry remembered seemed hoarse with both exposure and disuse, and it still gave him goosebumps.
"Me neither," said Harry. As tired as he was, his head was humming with questions, but he knew he had to put them aside and get Snape to safety. "Probably not the best time for a row, huh?"
Snape's only answer was a soft sigh as he slumped into deeper sleep, and as worried as he was, Harry couldn't help but smile. "This just isn't like you, you know," he whispered; there was no one about, but he couldn't help but feel that Snape's dignity must be preserved. "It's not like me either. Maybe you're getting soft in your old age. Maybe I am too. It figures we'd get along best with you dead to the world; I suppose I've known that any time these last eight years. Hopefully you'll be snapping my head off again once you're a bit more up to scratch and I'll be biting right back. It'll be like you never died at all."
Harry sat back on his heels, rocking Snape absently as he gathered his strength. He couldn't have lifted his own weight for his own sake, but he'd carry Snape as far as they had to go, and further.
They made a strange parade through the city streets. Harry wore a pair of polkadot jeans transfigured from a stray bikini top he'd found tangled in a palm tree, and he flashed in and out of invisibility as he bolstered Snape in his arms. The legserpent tottered behind them, ducking beneath the shop awnings as she followed Harry's bare feet. There were more people about now, swapping storm stories and inspecting the damage, but the Disillusionment held, as did Harry's arms. Luckily the clinic was close.
Harry convinced the legserpent to stay outside, and left her fossicking amongst the fig trees for stray fruit bats. The clinic's corridors were still deserted of staff, and he dropped the Disillusionment. He found Healer Ord in Neville's room, wearing a worried expression; Harry had almost forgotten just how wretched Neville looked.
"I didn't hope to see you again so soon, Mr Potter," Healer Ord said, looking up him in surprise. She paled when she noticed the partially visible body draped in his arms.
"It's not good news," Harry panted as he placed Snape on the empty bed next to Neville's. He shoved the sheets back and tucked Snape beneath them, stripping away the Cloak so that Healer Ord could examine him properly. Snape moaned a soft protest and Harry pulled himself up onto the bed, stilling Snape's head between his hands. "Hey, hey, no bellyaching. It's all right, I'm still here. I just had to grab the doctor for you." Harry dragged his eyes from Snape's face, glanced at Neville with a grimace, and then looked up at Healer Ord and whispered, "I haven't actually found poor Neville's bits yet, and now I've got another patient for you. I'm so sorry about this."
"Don't stand up, you look exhausted," she said gently. She rummaged in a pocket and passed him a Freddo Frog. "No need to speak softly; Mr Longbottom's still unconscious. You eat that and let me see this patient of yours."
"Thank you," Harry mumbled, stuffing his mouth with chocolate. It felt like he hadn't eaten in centuries, and his stomach lurched but held steady. "He's got hypothermia for sure; going by the last journal entry I found on his boat, I'd guess he was trapped underwater for a couple of days. The last of the Gillyweed was wearing off when I found him out on the reef."
"You're right, he's hypothermic," she said, nodding her head as she examined Snape. She shook out a magically-heated blanket and covered Snape with it. "Continuous Gillyweed use is inadvisable. Unless transformation to a fully human state takes place between doses, the mind becomes increasingly fish-like. An aversion to air takes hold, even once air becomes absolutely necessary for survival. I've seen divers fall prey to this delusion before."
"I don't think he was deluded about anything," said Harry, thinking of Snape's desperation to remain at the surface. "I don't think he meant to be down there so long at all. It was just an accident." He rummaged in his pouch and handed her the phial he'd kept. "I took these spines from his foot. Whatever it is, he was in a lot of pain and he couldn't seem to move properly. I thought it might have been a stonefish."
"You're close," she said, looking at the phial curiously. "It's a lionfish. He must have stepped on it. That's unusual; they're much more mobile than stonefish."
"Lionfish? That's what it's called? Really?" asked Harry. He looked down at Snape ruefully. "Why am I not surprised?"
"I certainly am," said Healer Ord. "Lionfish stings are extremely painful, but not actually lethal unless the victim drowns. He must have had a particularly adverse reaction."
"He must have," Harry agreed. "He's the kind of person who scoffs at Cruciatus."
"Only to be felled by a fish," said Healer Ord. She lifted the sheets over Snape's feet to look at the puncture wounds, then worked her wand in a series of curlicues that saw the swelling start to decrease before Harry's eyes. "I hope you didn't touch those spines with your bare hands, Mr Potter. The venom can remain active for several days."
"I was careful," Harry assured her.
"Unlike your friend here." Her wand traced the length of Snape's body with a diagnostic spell, and she frowned in thought.
"I think he's just had a bad week," said Harry.
"More like a bad decade," she said, as her eyes widened at the preliminary results that her wand revealed. "This man's body contains more toxins than my wand can even recognise. Why don't you see if you can't wake him up, Mr Potter, while I make him a warm cup of
Harry thought about kissing Snape awake. He thought about it very hard.
Instead he pulled one of Snape's absurd dreadlocks, and he pulled it very hard. By the time he'd pulled it eight times, once for every year Snape had avoided him, Snape was awake and livid. And then Harry kissed him.
It wasn't the stuff of fairytales. Their lips were salt-dry and their mouths tasted of Gillyweed, and neither one of them was particularly well practised in the art of kissing. Then Snape's tongue found the smudge of chocolate at the corner of Harry's mouth, and Harry's fingers caught about a fistful of Snape's hair, and it was better than a fairytale, because it was warm and strange and real, so real that Snape bit him and turned his head away in fear, so real that Harry knew exactly how he felt.
"Ah, good, you're awake," said Healer Ord as she bustled back into the room, and if she noticed their discomfort, she did not mention it.
Harry took the steaming mug from her hands and blew on it; a taste test hurt his bruised lip, but it wasn't so hot that it would hurt Snape, and he urged Snape up by the hair and made him drink. "It's just chocolate," he said, when Snape tried to resist, and then he pulled the mug away when Snape's thirsty gulps grew frantic, whispering, "Slowly."
He drew Snape's head back down to the pillow while Healer Ord felt his pulse and listened to his heartbeat; Harry wondered if they were as erratic as his own. "Better than you've a right to, young man," said Healer Ord, and Harry was shocked to realise she was talking to Snape; to her they were probably both young. "Now if you'll explain to me why you're stuffed with poison, I might know how to proceed with your treatment."
"No treatment," Snape croaked. Harry could have hit him.
"You'll have pain management at least, whether you like it or not," said Healer Ord sternly. "Don't bother arguing, I spiked your Milo."
"Oh," said Harry, who had just taken another sip.
"Not to worry, Mr Potter," she said, giving him a grim smile. "I believe those ribs of yours could do with a little pain relief too."
"You're probably right," said Harry, but he made Snape finish the drink instead.
While Harry rubbed a thick yellow bruise-healing paste into his sore chest, he listened intently as Snape outlined to the healer his programme of self-administered acquired immunity to poison.
Mithridatism, Snape called it, for Mithridates the Great, the king who gained a tolerance for poison by consuming it. Snape's rough voice barked out clinical explanations and Harry understood very little of it, although Healer Ord nodded in comprehension and asked apparently sensible questions about things like fibrinolytic toxicity and controlled consumptive coagulopathy.
Just shove a bezoar down their throats. Harry heard all the things that Snape did not say: that the experiments had begun long ago in a nervous Slytherin common room and a battered old Potions textbook; that the spectre of Nagini had spurred Snape's activities to near suicide; and that Snape's beautiful voice, as Harry now guessed, had been damaged beyond repair by her fangs. This man who spoke so calmly of haemorrhagins and necrotoxins had once bled out before Harry's eyes, for Harry's sake, and Harry had done nothing. Some debts were never repaid, and Harry knew that as well as Snape did. He knew it like he knew Snape.
Everyone knows iocane comes from
"Well, despite your rash experimentation - for which I see no reasonable explanation unless you plan on taking up a position at the zoo - I believe your haemostatic gambling may have paid off in this instance," said Healer Ord in a thoughtful tone as she rubbed a vile-smelling ointment into Snape's sole. Snape had his sweat-sticky brow pressed into Harry's hip, and he was breathing hard through his nose, teeth gritted against the pain. "You're not going to lose this foot."
"Is it bad?" Harry asked her softly, as he dug his fingernails into his chest.
"Just a touch of necrosis, but it's not nearly as dire as it might have been given how long the wounds were left untreated. I believe we've caught it in time. The poison cocktail in his blood's actually working to keep his circulation active in spite of the paralysis and hypothermia," she said, before shaking her head. "I can't say it's the sort of preventative measure I'll be suggesting to any of my other patients."
"Necrosis?" The word seemed to wheeze from Harry's lungs.
"She means gangrene, you idiot."
So you are talking to me, Harry thought. He was glad that Snape still had the energy to nark at him after his long ordeal; the insult was almost a relief. "I know what the word means."
"And it has been caught in time," Snape bit out, adding grudgingly, "thanks to you."
"Gangrene. Wow." He brushed the hair from Snape's cheek, finding flushed skin beneath. "I think I'm going to be sick."
"Then be so elsewhere," Snape snapped, but his face only burrowed closer into Harry's side.
"I still want to look at those cuts on your hands, so don't go anywhere, Mr Potter," said Healer Ord, taking some wound-cleaning potion from a drawer.
"I won't," said Harry. He'd never meant anything so much in his life.
"You're mental, you know that?" said Harry quietly, once Healer Ord had left the room. "I mean I get it, I really do. It's not like you could protect anyone else back then if you couldn't even protect yourself first. And yeah, your methods were sort of extreme - fighting poison with poison - but I guess they worked. You're alive, after all."
"Debatable," Snape groaned. He was shuddering beneath the blanket as warmth returned to his limbs.
"See, you're not so bad off if you can whinge like that," said Harry. He glanced at Neville's still, sad form, and then looked away quickly. Snape had said nothing at the sight of Neville, but his sick expression had spoken volumes. "At least you're in one piece. That's something. I guess a little lionfish has got nothing on Nagini. But I just don't understand why you'd go on like that, messing yourself about with so much dangerous stuff. Voldemort's long gone, and so's his bloody snake - you've got Neville to thank for that, by the way - so why keep on hurting yourself?"
"Don't get any romantic notions about my self-sacrificing nature, Potter," said Snape, sighing into Harry's skin. "At this point I'm just trying to keep myself alive. My tissues will never be rid of Nagini's venom; I made that so quite deliberately. Now all I can do is counteract it with whatever my body will tolerate."
"Which means...swimming in a cyclone and stomping on some poor fish?"
"Not one of my more calculated moves, I admit," said Snape, snorting with a trace of humour. "Was there truly a cyclone? I wonder why Longbottom didn't warn me. Normally he sends out his sea eagle to let me know if the weather's taking a turn for the worst. It's not like him to forget."
"Not when something's really important, no," said Harry. As hard as it was for him to imagine, it seemed evident from the prosaic tone of Snape's complaint that he and Neville now shared a civil rapport. It made Harry feel resentful, even jealous, and then ill with shame at his own stupidity. "He must have come out to warn you himself."
"It seems unlikely. He is a poor flier and a terrible sailor. The one and only time he boarded my vessel, I was cleaning the vomit from the deck for days. I told him not to return."
"He must have," Harry insisted stubbornly. "I didn't notice a broom, but I did find one of his teeth."
Snape's answer was grim. "If Longbottom was foolish enough to Apparate while subject to the vertiginous effects of severe seasickness, he might as well have Apparated while dead drunk: the result would be much the same."
"He's not an idiot," said Harry. "Why would he do something like that?"
There was a tap at the window, surprising them both. Harry looked over and saw the legserpent there; she had probably been watching Snape through the glass all along, and Harry hadn't even noticed, much less said a thing to reassure her.
"Best let her in," said Snape, and he sounded resigned but fond. "Disillusionment doesn't work very well on her; she has her own methods for keeping out of sight."
"You could've fooled me," said Harry. He went to the window and shoved it open against the wind. "Come inside."
Thank you," she hissed, before folding up her wings and wriggling through the window; Harry gave her legs a boost when they got snagged on the ledge.
She moved straight to Snape's bed, slithering underneath and then coiling herself across the base, pinning Snape to the mattress. "I'm quite warm enough, you great lummox," Snape snarled, but Harry couldn't help but notice the way his face softened as she nuzzled earnestly into his neck.
"I'm surprised you can bear to have her so close," said Harry. He returned to Snape's side, and the legserpent allowed him, although she did not loosen her hold on Snape. "I should think you'd be a bit nervy around snakes."
"I can hardly be shed of her, now, can I?" said Snape. The legserpent's head stilled at his throat; Harry realised she was trying to understand his words. "She's not venomous."
"She loves you," said Harry.
Snape huffed in exasperation. "I've Longbottom to thank for her too. He found her egg almost three years ago, cracked on the rainforest floor. A storm had ripped the canopy open, and he could find no trace of a nest anywhere."
"Poor legserpent," Harry crooned, and her tongue flickered wearily.
"Longbottom, dimwit that he is, thought he'd found a runespoor egg. He brought it to me."
"You have been a dodgy influence on him, haven't you?" said Harry, chuckling. "I am an Auror, you know. You shouldn't really be letting me in on your black market dealings."
"I'm not running a damned smuggling ring, Potter. I have research permits from the
"Some cassowary," said Harry, and the legserpent glanced up at the sibilant word. "So then what happened?"
"What do you suppose happened? A wave rocked the vessel and Longbottom promptly dropped the egg and expelled the contents of his stomach upon my bare feet."
"No wonder he never dared go back. I'm surprised he's still alive."
"I'm just astonished she survived his incompetence. She was only half a foot long, and very soft; the hatching was plainly premature. But she took to the water well, and it wasn't long before she was hunting her own food." Snape dragged an arm free and knuckled gently at the legserpent's jaw. "It was quite something to see her first wrestling bout with a manta ray."
"And now she's all grown up." Harry remembered how ferocious she'd been in Snape's defence; his ribs were still smarting. "You know she's reached sexual maturity, right? It's probably part of the reason she's so possessive of you. She's got babies on the brain, and you're all the family she's got."
"I know," said Snape quietly. "I've considered taking her back to the mainland where she belongs, but I fear she'd only return to me. She's become too attached."
"Imprinted," Harry mused. He knew the feeling well.
Harry was almost asleep sitting up when Healer Ord returned, but he jerked awake at her startled yelp.
"It's okay, she's a friend," he told the healer, once he saw how her wand was raised. The legserpent watched the healer warily, ready to strike, and he repeated his words in Parseltongue until she calmed.
"I haven't seen one of her kind in years," said Healer Ord, as she stared at the legserpent's wings in wonder. "I thought they must have all died out."
"Not if she's got anything to say about it," Harry said. "She's been keeping company with Snape out on the reef, but the way she's storming into season, I don't think she'll be staying out on the water much longer. She wants a mate."
And she's not having mine, he thought fiercely, but he had a feeling he and the legserpent had already come to an amicable agreement about that. It was just Snape that would need convincing now.
"Well, she's already started laying in stores," said Healer Ord, brandishing her wand across the legserpent's length in both surprise and satisfaction. "It looks like you found Mr Longbottom's missing parts after all."
"He left meats behind," said the legserpent, giving the unconscious Neville a scornful look that Harry was certain she'd learnt from Snape. "He wasn't using them anymore. Wasteful."
"I'm sure he didn't mean to leave anything behind," said Harry, as he watched the nauseating reattachment process. Healer Ord had found Neville's bits budged up with three reef sharks, a small dugong and a bucketload of trevally in the legserpent's secondary stomach. Neville hadn't fared too badly overall; he might look a bit rough around the edges for a while - and maybe smell a bit funky too - but at least he'd be okay. "You probably gave him the fright of his life."
"Yes," she hissed, sounding proud of herself, "just like a sea star."
Harry wondered just what she'd done to poor Neville to send him hurtling back to the mainland with almost a third of his body missing. "Snape'll be glad to see him put back together again,", he pointed out. "He wouldn't have wanted Neville hurt on his account."
"I hope you are right," she said doubtfully. She undulated about the room, stretching out her empty coils and poking about the carcases that Healer Ord had removed from her belly. "This Neville would have made good eating for him."
"What are you two whispering about?" asked Snape, with a hint of suspicion in his weary voice.
"You really don't want to know," Harry replied, as he pressed a shaky hand to Snape's brow. He was going to have to have a serious discussion with the legserpent regarding her diet.
"Why don't you have a lie down, Mr Potter?" said Healer Ord. "I've got things well in hand here, and you both look in urgent need of rest."
Harry looked about in exhaustion; he was unsure where to go and misliked the thought of leaving the room, of leaving Snape. I'm not letting you go, he thought stubbornly, and then Snape barked, "Just get under the covers," and he did.
He was alone in the bed when he awoke, but not alone in the room; Neville was standing by the window, staring out at the misty sky as he ate a plate of sandwiches.
"How long was I out?" Harry groaned, rubbing the sleep from his eyes.
"Harry, you're awake!" cried Neville. He walked with just a touch of unsteadiness to Harry's side and poured him a glass of pumpkin juice, which Harry swallowed down with relief. "You must be famished; it's lunchtime. You slept the night away, you know. You look a right mess."
"Well, you don't look too bad at all, all things considered," said Harry, grabbing a sandwich from Neville. "How are you feeling?"
"Awfully embarrassed, to be perfectly honest," said Neville, blushing. He sat at the foot of the bed and pulled his knees up to his chin as if he would never let them go again. "I just can't believe how muddled everything got. I'd hadn't even heard about the cyclone until late Saturday - I'd been busy tracking a group of whistling frogs all week - and then when I sent my eagle out with a warning I never heard anything back. Turns out now poor Cyril's at a vet's in Port Douglas with a bung wing, but of course at the time I hadn't a clue. So there I was Sunday, riding through the rain and dashing about Sev's boat like a lunatic looking for him - thinking all the while he's probably shacked up safely somewhere in Cairns, mind you, and just hasn't bothered to tell me - and meanwhile he's forty fathoms below howling in agony and making that sea monster of his completely demented." Neville was shaking his head at the memory. "I almost wet myself when it showed up, Harry, I can tell you that much. It tried to take my head off!"
"She probably thought you were responsible for his injuries," Harry said wryly, once Neville had stopped long enough to take a breath. "But whatever possessed you to Disapparate like that? You must've known what might happen."
"I just panicked, you know?" said Neville, looking shame-faced. "I was sick to the gills, and then that snake appeared out of nowhere and knocked my broom and my wand right out of my hands. All I really meant to do was move out of its reach, and instead I ended up Disapparating all the way home."
"So basically it was just a crazy accident and some weirdly bad timing all round," Harry mused.
"Pretty much," said Neville, sounding glum. "And if you tell Hannah anything about all this, I'll never live it down."
Harry couldn't suppress a chuckle. "You know she'll find out somehow. Neville, you really ought to just stop faffing around here in
"But you're so good at it, Harry!" Neville's gappy smile was wide, reminding Harry that he still had a stray tooth in his pouch.
He fished it out and passed it to a bemused Neville. "No, I think my rescuing days are definitely done. I'm getting too old for all this mucking about," he said. Then, more seriously: "I'm considering leaving Magical Law Enforcement."
Neville cocked his head on his knees, his expression thoughtful. "Have you been thinking like that for a while, or did it just come to you?"
"I- I'm not sure." Harry felt as if he hadn't been thinking about anything at all for a very long time. "I guess it sort of hit me yesterday."
"And hit you hard." Neville picked up another sandwich and bit into it, chewing meditatively before he spoke again. "I'm sorry I never said anything. I didn't realise it mattered."
"I didn't know either."
"I've known all along. It was actually Ab and I that got him away in the first place. Luna helped too."
I could've helped, Harry thought, and the weight of eight years was like stone in his belly.
"He does good work out there, you know. I mean, he'll tell you he's only researching a universal antidote for his own sake, but that's just rubbish. I see all the data that floods into the department in
Because he doesn't know anything else. "Where is he now?"
"I guess you know that already," said Neville. "He said not to wake you."
Harry sighed. "He shouldn't even be out of bed. He can hardly move. He's a complete nutter."
"I couldn't make him stay," said Neville with a shrug. "Never been able to make him do anything he doesn't choose to. You might have some luck, though. I saw the way he was looking at you."
Harry turned his head, unable to meet Neville's eyes. "Did the legserpent go with him?"
"No," said Neville, and Harry felt the bed shudder. "It headed north, and he flew east."
"He's a stubborn git."
"Well, he might've been feeling seedy, but he's still something to see in the air."
"So am I," said Harry, "but I'm really not comfortable on that boat."
"Then grab some ginger from Healer Ord and cross your fingers," said Neville, patting his shoulder. "As for me, I think I'm going to head back to
Harry squeezed Neville's hand. "I reckon you can, too. Give my love to Ron and Hermione."
The ginger helped a little, and the winds had settled, but Harry was still white when he slid open the main hatch.
Snape lay on the bed, watching him.
"It's always going to be a test with you, isn't it?" said Harry. He stumbled inside, slammed the hatch shut behind him, shed his borrowed robes, and slipped beneath the covers beside Snape. "You're not alone, you know."
"She left," said Snape softly, stretching out an arm for Harry's head.
"She'll be back," said Harry. He rubbed his cheek against Snape's sharp clavicle and could feel Snape's nose burrowing through his salt-roughened curls. "She knows where you live."
"Too many do. Longbottom's proving an inadequate Secret-Keeper."
"Oh, shut up, I know you like him really." Harry wrapped an arm across Snape's chest, enjoying the slow rise and fall of his skin. So long as you like me better.
"He's proved useful," said Snape begrudgingly, "at times."
"I can be useful," said Harry. He brushed the pad of his thumb about Snape's nipple, tickling it to stiffness. "Maybe I can milk sea snakes for you. They like me."
Snape took Harry's hand and raised it to his mouth, opening it to kiss the damp palm within. "Potter, I'm so sore I can barely move. How do you feel?"
Harry took inventory of his stomach, and said, "Rotten."
Snape kissed Harry's palm again, and then placed it over his heart. "Have patience, and go to sleep. If you're still here tomorrow, I'll brew you an antiemetic."
"That sounds all right to me," Harry whispered, and he settled down to wait.
Author's Notes: The title is from AE Housman' s A Shropshire Lad. The legserpent comes from George MacDonald's The Princess and Curdie, but owes something to both the Rainbow Serpent of the Dreamtime and Thora Town-Hart's lindworm.
Doctors, sailors, divers and tropical