bethbethbeth: (HP Beholder (femmequixotic))
[personal profile] bethbethbeth posting in [community profile] hp_beholder
Recipient: [personal profile] sealcat
Author/Artist: [personal profile] purplefluffycat
Title: Come Back To Me
Rating: R
Pairings: Grey Lady/Bloody Baron, Nearly Headless Nick/Fat Friar
Word Count: About 11,200
Warnings/Content Information (Highlight to View): *As the main characters are ghosts, their deaths - in the literal sense - are a part of the story. The tale does not feature 'character death' in the manner that fic-readers/-writers usually use this term, however; the characters are still very much in existence after they cease being mortal. I hope that this makes sense, and is ok with you, [personal profile] sealcat :-) <*.

Summary: After the Battle of Hogwarts, the castle ghosts are in terrible pain. Convalescing, Severus thinks he might be able to help.

A tale of now, and of centuries past - for to go onward, sometimes one must be forced to look back.

Author's/Artist's Notes: Thank you very much, [personal profile] sealcat, for the opportunity to explore the ghostly characters, and all it means to be a ghost in the world of Harry Potter; I do hope you like the result :-) Also many thanks to [personal profile] bethbethbeth for once again running this most excellent of fests!




"I believe I have found a way for them." Snape's voice was rasping, but his words were clear. Four months, as it was, into his convalescence, his health was still fragile - but that did nothing to stop his indomitable personality from making itself felt at staff meetings - and conveniently forgetting, when it suited him, that Minerva was now Headmistress.

All eyes turned, but it was Filius who voiced the collective reaction. "That's a bold claim, Severus. Many people have studied matters of the Veil, but none have ever-"

"-Well perhaps none have ever been bitten half to death by a Horcrux in scales?"

Filius looked apologetic at that, but Minerva's lips curled behind her hand in appreciation of the waspishness. "-Do go on."

"Yes. Well, the cause of the problem is apparent. The question is, whether Hogwarts can risk losing its ghosts? - Does this staff wish to be responsible for un-haunting the castle?" Severus drew out that question, enjoying the touch of melodrama.

"Rather a break with tradition, I'd say," bustled Horace, "Would look rather shabby in the history books; remove a certain something from the place-"

"-But we can't leave them as they are. That wouldn't be humane!" Poppy fixed both Horace and Severus with a beady stare, daring them both to push an agenda of inaction.

"-Oh, quite, quite. I didn't mean to imply that-"

"Poppy, Horace. Thank you very much," Minerva cut through, bringing silence to the table, "Do go on, Severus."

There came then a certain disdainful quality of sniff. "Thank you. To put it a different way," he explained, "Have you ever wondered why ghosts are tied to a particular geographical location - yet some seem to range further than others?"

A silent pause encouraged the continuation: "Well, apparently not." Severus rolled his eyes. "As we all know, the ghosts are clearly in pain - some of them, quite profoundly so. It seems clear that the pain is recent, present only since the battle, and quite unconnected to any earthly injuries they sport; the Baron and that Gryffindor fool have never been troubled by the wounds that caused their deaths.

"What could be at the root of it, then? - Put simply, the destruction of the castle."

The assembled teachers remained quiet, brows furrowed variously in consideration, consternation, and disbelief. Finally, Hooch asked, "How do you know that?"

"None of your bloody business," snapped Severus.

Minerva seemed keen to keep the conversation smooth. "That is a very interesting thought; thank you, Severus. What do you propose we can do about it? Rebuild, yes. - But efforts are already at full tilt-"

"-And we can't do nothing, until it's finished," chimed Poppy, "They're in agony!"

Snape ignored her sympathetic tones. "There are doubts as to whether new stones would help, in any case. The magic I have in mind is more challenging than merely levitating some bricks. For it to work, the ghosts would have to be forced to remember; to revisit their mortal lives. At present they have no true recall - it's clearly the case."

"That seems rather unfair," countered Horace. "Nicholas de Mimsy-Porpington is often telling us about his execution - he writes songs about it, even."

"And very touching they are, too," deadpanned Severus. "But such aural insults do indeed strengthen my point. Have you ever spoken with a ghost about their life - what honestly happened, not just the caricature of it? They report it as some second-hand tale, with all the exaggeration and vagueness of a picture book. It's not a life-story, it's the imitation of one."

"They are quite devoid of the actual human emotions that they felt in the past. - No matter how much tiresome wailing, or laughing, or chain-rattling they may do to give the impression of such. It's a freeze-frame; sentiment stupefied. For how else could such homogeneity in character persist? Would you not think that after a couple of hundred years, distress would fade, or hilarity would pall?"

"I'd bloody well hope so," said Minerva curtly.

"Quite. The ghosts each exist as merely a personality-shard. Perhaps we see the state in which they died - or perhaps, more usually, just a typical mood from the body of their lives. There is no chance for further development, for finding answers or making good. They forfeited all that when they chose to remain."

The teachers nodded soberly, Snape's explanation ringing true.

"But the pain they're in now - that's real." Pomona's words were quiet, but she spoke with the concern they all felt.

"Yes it is," Severus answered. "And I believe I have a means by which they can choose to be set free."

***


It had taken no small amount of effort to assemble the ghosts; they were not accustomed to the way minutes passed, or to direct requests from the living. Now, however, at the foot of the grand staircase, floated a pearlescent throng, curious and dubious in equal measure as to what the assemblage of professors on the first landing should wish to say to them. They whispered among themselves, hushed and rasping.

"Thank you all very much for gathering here," said Minerva, bringing silence, "And please forgive that which you may see as importunateness on the part of the living. But we are aware of the new agonies that some of you suffer, and we offer a possible means of intervention against them."

She paused, waiting for a response. None came, but a non-plussed vibe from below was quite clear - causing Minerva to become a touch strident. "Well, for any of you for whom this is of little interest, we apologize for taking up your no-doubt precious-and-limited time; do feel free to leave."

The ghosts' whispering resumed more animatedly at that, rising to a petulant muttering from some and plenty of shrugging from others. As voices rose, the Professors shared a disgruntled glance; Severus looked particularly unimpressed. Then, in something of a snit, the crowd thinned - ghosts demanifesting one by one, with an annoyed shake of the head or a gesture thrown to the wind.

When the noise had gone, however, the teachers came to regard the only four ghosts who remained: the Grey Lady, drawn consumptive and faint; the Bloody Baron, swaying and flickering as if his light may extinguish at any moment; the Fat Friar, limping with pain and cradling a useless arm; and Nearly-Headless Nick; shoulders hunched and a glove pressed to his breast owing to the agony therein.

Filius nodded, a puzzle-piece clicking into place. "The House ghosts; of course."

The four floated upward such that they were eye-to-eye with the professors. Nick spoke first: "You say that you may be able to help us, my Lady?"

"Yes," assented Minerva, "Professor Snape will explain."

All eyes turned to Severus as he began. "If you will submit to it, I shall perform a charm that will take you back to the experience of your mortal lives. Only by once again feeling that which brought you here, will you have the opportunity to unbind from these stones that have been so badly wounded."

Far from grateful, however, the ghosts looked appalled at the notion.

"To go back - to that?" wheezed the Baron.

Nick shook his head upon its stump. "Not a gentlemanly proposition, if I may be permitted so to say, sir."

"Doesn't sound very jolly..." The Friar seemed particularly distressed, his usual happy mien disrupted by worry.

Severus rolled his eyes. An impasse, then. Well, if they won't be helped...

"-I agree to it." The Grey lady's cool, clear voice rose above the others' dissent. "I see that it is the only logical option."

The other ghosts looked at her in alarm, but then respect. "Really?" They chorused, "Do you think we must?"

"Yes," she answered, simply. Then she turned to Snape. "We must relive - our whole lives?"

Delighted that someone was at last talking sense, Severus switched to business. "No, that will not be necessary. It will instead, I believe, be a patchwork of moments. Disjointed, they may be, but ultimately united by the common motif - whatever that is, for each individual - which binds you here, heart and soul. Providing my incantations are accurate, you will then be given the choice - once more."

The Grey Lady nodded, processing his words. "Very well." She floated forward, just a wand-length from Snape. "Let it be done. Come, all you who will join me in this."

The Baron and the Friar shared nervous glances, and Nick began to quiver. Slowly, though, they all inched forward, joining the Grey Lady.

Snape nodded in satisfaction, and drew his wand. With it, he described circles about the ghosts and began the spell, deep in concentration: "Vivae Eterna, Redidivivus..."

The ghosts' expressions became glazed; eyes unfocussed as if in trance. Their light pulsated for a moment, in rhythm with the movements of Severus' wand. He held them there, gathering power and their submission to his spell; harnessing it for the next step.

"...Redidivivus Velum, Retra!" An almighty swish sent the light from each ghost spinning upon itself. Translucent eyelids slid closed, and outlines began to fade. The forms of people gave way to merely glowing volumes of air: soul in its purest form.

- And then, the professors watched in surprise as something unexpected happened. Each cloud began to move toward another, edges touching gently and light intensifying with the overlap - far brighter than the sum of the individual glows. The lights grew yet stronger, and the spectators then realized these souls were to merge: the Gryffindor with the Hufflepuff and the Slytherin with the Ravenclaw.

***


Snake



They had crept to a hunting lodge in the wilds - not far from the castle, it was true, but private and secure; nestled like down among twigs in the thick of the forest. Sigar had apparated there early - to light the fires and lay out a feast of game and fruit - all the while the ring weighed heavily in his pocket. His breath started and quivered like the birds, and his hand tapped impulsively to where that precious little circlet seemed to burn a hole through his robes. He had rehearsed it once, twice; a thousand times. Surely he could not be mistaken? He knew Helena as he knew himself; they loved one another, albeit - damn those landowning traditions - in secret.

Yet, he thought, twiddling the wrought metal with sticky palms, how could I presume to be worthy of her? Her beauty was surpassed only by her intelligence - sharp and cool, she could pin him in an argument as a collector might spike a bowtruckle to parchment. What could he offer her in return, save for his admiration, his service, and the Slytherin name?

If she were to say yes, Father would be pleased, Sigar knew. Salazar had a weather-eye to the future, as always, and a union between the thinking houses would be welcome - especially as tensions with Godric were worse than ever. Helena was a pureblood, a beauty, and an heir - what could be better?

The crack of apparation made Sigar's heart leap in his chest, and resolutely answer: Nothing. No-one could be more perfect. Turning, she eyed him from behind her travelling cloak - forget-me-not blue framing dark hair and a mischievous quirk to her lips.

"Helena! I..." He tumbled toward her, words failing, wanting to embrace her but somehow holding back, feeling strangely formal.

She laughed then - at his expense, but not unkindly. "Sigar, dear. Don't look so nervous. I came prepared." And then, holding his gaze with her own, she let the cloak slither to the floor to reveal magnificent wedding robes - silver and blue with sea-pearls and beads of sunlight. "My answer is 'yes'."


***



Raven



Darling, sweet Sigar. Helena beheld her lover in sleep as the early-morning rays crept into the lodge and she swept the locks from his brow. It had taken a moment to convince him that she was in earnest: bubbles of joy floating from him along with half-indignant 'how did you know's and 'are you sure's. But that was perhaps why she loved him so: ever readable, his happinesses and woes and ambitions were written out in bright-bold ink. A charming book for bedtime reading - and, he made her happy, did he not? It would surely be folly to try to find a man with whom to argue when here was one who could make her smile.

Her legs ached sweetly from their love the previous night - a bed of furs by the fire, the scent of willow-wood tangling in her hair as his long, curious fingers, upon her and inside of her. Helena stretched and slid to her feet, pressing a kiss to Sigar's cheek though careful not to wake him. Her grandmother's matrimonial robes still glistened as they hung by the door, the crystals winking in conspiracy at her secret happiness. With a quick shrinkage and stowage charm, they were safely away; returned to her Mother's closet before their absence would be noticed.

- Which brought Helena to the next task of the morning: telling Mother. Her perspicaciousness demanded that this would be another little gift for Sigar. He did so dislike arranging, and asking - and the nervous waiting that precedes each answer. Thus, she would go ahead and do the whole thing: their parents might be shocked - displeased, even, for all she knew - but by the time he returned to the castle, the elves would be brewing to celebrate the engagement and at least some people would be raising a glass to their health and offspring.

Apparation took her to Hogwarts' gates - disarmingly plain, although Helga had been speaking about installing statuary of some daft kind - and her sure steps soon led on to the castle entrance and into Ravenclaw tower. Helena paused a moment as her hand touched the smooth, white stone. A sibling, it was, this tower - or the closest Helena had ever known to one. They had grown together throughout Helena's childhood, both shaped and nurtured by Rowena's sure hand and in her immaculate image. Perfect, pale, and just a touch brittle, they were both widely admired and seldom approached - for, so she had been told, Ravenclaws were not for merest mortal men.

But as among many siblings, there was a seam of rivalry there - a small, bitter fault-line that unerringly ran from Helena's earliest memories through to the young woman she now was. Other children had Mothers who would rock them to sleep, or play outdoors... and perhaps Rowena had done, Helena would not swear otherwise.

Yet these were not her recollections. Rather: waiting patiently for an hour to speak while Mother wrote in runes; learning to calculate the angles at which stone must be cut to build a perfect spiral; her birthday forgotten because it was the day of the Saturnian eclipse; never feeling wise enough, good enough, bright enough, up to her Mother's standards - no matter how hard she tried or how much she learned. And after all, how could she? Mother's wisdom was of the ancients; handed down in that tiara-set orb. It was unrealistic to strive, or hope to be Rowena's match - Helena did at least understand that much.

- Which was precisely why she was marrying Sigar. To have a real, feeling husband by her side - perhaps to move away, to trade, to meet people - would be a different path, and one she could tread with independence and vigour. Surely, that would be better than forever having books as companions and existing merely as a cheap imitation of the Kingdom's cleverest woman?

Thus steeled, Helena knocked on the door of her Mother's study, and entered when there came a calm call so to do. Rowena was - as ever - seated behind her desk, its filigree legs supporting a prodigious pile of parchment, and seven ink wells assembled in serried rank, charmed to never run dry. "Helena. What can I do for you, so very near to the start of the day?"

Deciding to ignore the gentle chiding at her more usual lack of early-morning activity, Helena opted to speak directly; she wanted to do this swiftly, and without distraction. "Mother. There is something most dear to me that I must tell you."

"Hmmm? So what is that?"

She took a deep breath, bracing herself for lots of questions, and details to be uncovered. "Sigar Slytherin and I... are to be married."

Far from the interested - or, at least, polite - reception that Helena had expected, however, her Mother's face drained of colour. She swayed upon her seat, struggling to keep upright; her voice was ragged and choked with shock. "No, you cannot."

Helena launched into the rejoinders she had prepared. "Mother, he is not of great intellect, I know - and he is yet to own land, so our forebears would not approve - but he is kind, and full of life, and I l-"

"-You cannot!" The outburst brought Helena to silence, eyes narrowed in puzzlement and an unsettling feeling starting to squirm in her stomach.

Then, Rowena spoke again, deathly quiet. "This must not be, because Salazar Slytherin is your Father. My daughter, I am so, so very sorry." Rowena's eyes welled with tears, and she reached out clumsily across the desk, looking to embrace her child.

Helena's throat, however, was thick and rigid with something colder and stonier than tears. Without breath, and glued to the spot, she stood impassive as her childhood memories crumbled into lies and her dreams of the future washed away before her; a great white hole opened in her mind, into which everything of importance seemed to flow and be lost. She knew not what was left of the young woman standing there, a laughable creature, now.

The pause extended painfully, Rowena beckoning, Helena giving no response.

Finally, Helena spoke. Her words were stiff, but enunciated with the precision of a dagger: "Whore of a snake."

And with that, Helena Ravenclaw slipped away from the study, away from the tower, and away from the great castle she had always called home - taking with her, her Mother's precious diadem as chattel in revenge for the pieces of her heart she had left behind.


*****



Snake



It had been eight long months since Helena's disappearance, but the hurt and the rawness in Sigar's heart still raged as if no time had passed at all. There had been no note, no letter from afar - just the cold patch on the rug where he had expected to find his love when he woke that fateful morning, and then a suffocating silence from all in relation to her whereabouts or well-being. It was almost as if Rowena Ravenclaw had never had a daughter; as if he had dreamed the past two years of secret courtship and the woman he wanted to marry.

The ache in his breast knew otherwise, though, and he could not sleep for the incessant questions: Was she safe? Was she ill? Why did she fly? Did she not care for him? Did she not love him as she had promised?

Life could have continued in that way, Sigar festering within the castle without hope or release. He did his work - planning for construction of the seventh floor - but barely; slowly and so riddled with mistakes, the elves had taken to ignoring his scrolls almost entirely. Things came to a head, however, when the letter arrived: his estranged cousin had died, and the Barony of Wulfwood thus passed to Sigar. He was to travel to Anglia within the month, now a landowner and a Lord.

How extraordinary it was. Sigar had waited his entire life for this news - trying Father's patience when he had become fully-grown but still could not be of the use that had been promised. It should have been a relief - perhaps even an excitement - but no thoughts of accession could break his melancholy. For what use was a feudal crown without the fair brow upon which to place a circlet, at his side? What use were riches when his soul felt impoverished beyond measure?

Salazar, naturally, was keen for Sigar to begin his usefulness forthwith. The Wulfwood estate was plentiful in fey-folk and rare ingredients for potion-making. Harvested properly, it would do much to swell the Slytherin coffers and power-hold - not to mention the lore of the mighty snake that was said to reside in those grounds.

As always, debt weighed heavily upon Sigar's shoulders. He was grateful to Father - naturally he was, when the alternative would have been the same violent death as his poor true parents, or an orphaned pauper's existence - but the knowledge that his life had been a bargaining chip, and his name a dangerous subterfuge, could not help but sting. It was safe now, though; the murderous branch of the family were all dead. Once again, he supposed that he ought to feel pleased.

But on the eve of his voyage, fate changed its hand once again. Sigar was sitting amid his packing cases, gaze unfocused and thoughts beset with the woman he had lost. Father entered, his voice tight and his expression uncharacteristically guarded. "Sigar, you must go to visit Professor Ravenclaw in her chambers. I need not remind you that she is very ill."

To Sigar, this made no sense. "What? - But why?"

"Just go. At once!"

It was not a tone with which one could argue. Thus, Sigar found himself scurrying along corridors and up flights of stairs, then gingerly entering the bedroom of a woman who had not been seen in the Great Hall for months.

Rowena Ravenclaw was very pale, and suddenly looked much older than her typical comely form. Her dark hair was streaked with prominent grey, and shadows haunted both below and behind her eyes.

He coughed slightly to announce his presence. "Professor. You wanted to see me."

"Yes. Thank you for coming, Sigar." Her words were taut with effort. "I shall be brief, and I ask that you do not question how I come to know the basis upon which this request is made. But, as my life fades, I ask a very great favour of you."

Sigar raised his eyebrows, encouraging her to continue.

"I believe that you are perturbed by my daughter's disappearance?"

He blanched then, wondering of what he was going to be accused. "I really do not think traditions of landowning and courtship are relevant, now; do not fear. No, the service I ask of you is this: to make it such that I can see Helena again, before I die – but to remain respectful of her decree. Will you journey to her, and bring her back to me?"

Sigar's breath caught, all the months' desperation welling up within him at such an idea. "Of course! Yes. I would like nothing more. But... I do not know where to look..."

At that, Rowena handed him a scroll that was by her side. It was a map, stretching from regions polar to Persian. "She is here." Rowena tapped upon an 'X', which flared red at the touch. "Do not wonder as to the means by which I can track her, thus, but the map will respond if she moves. Suffice to say, she has something of mine - and in a way, this is fortuitous."

Sigar nodded, mind cantering on impetuously. There was no time to lose! - He should have left already... A glance at the map told him there was a long way to travel: south-east, past the lands of the Gauls and the Visigoths, past even the lands of the Romans. Not knowing the places, he could not apparate to them, and he doubted that foreigners would be welcome to Floo between castles abroad. He would have to take ships, and fly; it could take weeks.

All impatience, Sigar took the map and folded it roughly. "I will go. And if breath remains in my body, I will find her."

He was heading to the door when Rowena called to his heels: "Thank you, Sigar. - And go steadily, young Slytherin."

For a split-second, Sigar paused, feeling the uncanny urge - after all of this time in the castle - to correct her. I am a Wulfwood.

Haste triumphed, however, and he dispensed only a brisk nod before tearing back to his quarters, throwing packing cases aside to bundle just the merest essentials. On his way out, he stopped at Salazar's potion store, and grabbed an entire flagon of Wakefulness Draught. Uncorking it, he tipped the vessel back and drank very drop: to hell with the side-effects, he would not sleep until he found her.


***



Raven


Helena could not be sure why her escape had taken her to Albania. Perhaps the family ties were strong after all; when fleeing from her Mother's empire, her grandfather's lands had pulled at her heart. Or perhaps the diadem had chosen for her?

- It scared her, sometimes - pulsating as it did, in the dark. She felt unqualified to wield it and the great knowledge stored within... and also resentful. For what use were all the facts in the world when none could offer a feeling, an embrace, or a kind word?

Having said that, the jewel had served her well since arriving at the village. Language was not the problem it might have been, and she had accumulated a meagre but adequate existence in the months that had passed: this little cottage, some work teaching the village children, and enough trade to obtain that which she needed.

It was on a Sunday that Sigar came: the dusk creeping from the trees, and all quiet - hens locked in their coops for the night, children best-behaved at home, the peasants at their broth and their prayers. Helena was in the yard at the time, sweeping the benches for the next day's lessons. She jumped when a man lurched toward her.

"Hel... Hel-en - a!" Speech slurred and eyes drugged wide, his hair was a terrifying mane of mats, his robes torn and dirty.

She squinted, not quite believing it was the man for whom she cared. "Sigar?"

-But he did not respond. Instead, he continued to shout, grabbing at her, agitation radiating from every line in his contorted face. "You must come, now! Quick, now! Now, now..."

"Shh. Calm down, please." She had to get him inside; needed to treat this terrible fever. Helena turned toward the house, beckoning him to follow.

"No!" He jumped past her, blocking the way to her door and her wand, "Do not leave me! Not again, don't leave me, don't leave me..."

"I'm not leaving you. We just need to go in and-" Helena gestured forward and tried to move again, but Sigar caught her by the hand, then the shoulder, then the throat. He started to tug, and squeeze.

"Sigar, stop! That hurts..." She tried to struggle free, but it was no good; his strength far outweighed hers.

"No! Don't leave me again!" His hands tightened with each word. "I want you, need you, love you, love you so much, love you..." And on each declaration his grip became stronger; holding and possessing that which he so desperately sought.

Helena couldn't breathe. Her limbs were flailing with all their strength, but it was no good. Her throat was crushed beneath his fingers; she couldn't cry out, couldn't make him stop.

"Love you, love you, love you..."

The last gasps of air were going now; the world was fading.

"...love you, love you..."

The day went dark, all was numb. It was over. And then-

-She felt herself stepping aside from the spot where Sigar was wringing her body limp - regarding it, almost impassively.

A new type of panic crossed his face, then. The woman he was holding collapsed like a pile of twigs, and he stopped his mumbling to gasp, then to cry out in anguish.

Behind her, something stirred. Helena turned around to see a huge bird - black, with intelligence in its eyes, and large enough to ride; it seemed to beckon her to climb upon its back...

-But her attention was caught by the scene playing out before her. Sigar still had her shell about the throat - sobbing, and squeezing and shaking and screaming-out without words or sense. Helena could not stop gazing at him - especially when his actions turned from violence to tenderness; he changed to rock over her, cradling her form and kissing her brow in distraught passion, as if he could bring her back to him.

Then he unsheathed a dagger. What was he to do with it?

The bird cawed, impatient. Helena felt as if she ought to go to it, but could not tear her eyes from Sigar, beholding the blade, bringing it closer to his chest...

At that moment, the bird flew away, without her.

-And as the breeze from the beat of its wings buffeted her cheeks, the world about Helena drained of its colour; everything became subdued and distant, as if viewed through smoked glass. Her agitation paled, too. Panic and urgency fled, replaced by a calm, serious sadness that settled and took hold as if it could never again leave. She was no longer watching, merely floating; existing.

Then, came the pull: Helena felt a very desperate need to be physically rooted lest she dissolve into the air itself; to have matter as well as spirit. Her body, lying there limply on the grass, seemed impossible; quite irrelevant.

Instead, then, her heart tugged to those cool, familiar rocks - her sibling, the tower. It felt true and right, and the only place she could possibly be.

The Albanian countryside melted around her, and her flesh knitted with granite and mortar, alabaster and flint; imbibed and mixed, pulled together as one. She would not stray, or leave, now. - Leave the place, or leave the quiet melancholy that was written in stone about her soul. For better or worse, Helena Ravenclaw was home.






Lion



Nicholas first saw the boy in a cloud of candlelight and incense, holy words swirling about the air amidst the flick-flick-flicker that illuminated the face of an angel in the choir stalls. Immediately, he was rapt.

It was Ascension Day, 1489. The cool of the chapel was welcome respite from the clammy heat that sat like a toad on the marshes in this part of the country. Nicholas was visiting Lords of the new immigrants in a commissioned act of diplomacy; it was hoped that these wizarding folk from Europe might shed some light on the ongoing tension with Muggles - but so far, Nick was not impressed. Terribly terse bunch, they were - mouths set as stiffly as their ruffs, perched either side of him in the gallery. He thought it unlikely that their ideas would stretch to the harmonious.

Oh, but the harmony before his eyes! Nicholas would swear he had never beheld such a lovely creature as the young man: wreathed in golden curls and emitting a glow of such particular rosiness it made every apple and every flower he had ever touched look limp and sallow by compare. He fiddled with the psalter - palms twitching and gaze swimming over the Latin without notice - and then, somewhere within him bubbled a resolution of such strength and suddenness it made him all a-quiver and shocked that he could ever be so bold.

Yet, the more he dwelt on it - there, in prayerful silence and holy smoke - the more he knew it to be right: he had to meet that angel. He had to know him.

Resolution was all very well, however - but transferring it to reality was somewhat trickier. The service ended and his hosts slid to their feet, shepherding him along the aisle, through the vestibule, out of the friary. He scanned the crowd, looking past the gaggle of peasants and into the choir - seeing his boy there, desperate to make eye contact. A push, an excuse-me, and he was closer - close enough to see the drape of the young man's robes and the ink-stain on his thumb - close enough to smile and bathe in the wondrous glow of a smile returned, golden and open and so very beautiful. But now, to speak - what to say? His heart could discourse forever, so he felt, but there was the heat, and the press, and the tsk-tsk of the Danes should he stray too far from their keep...

Nick breathed deeply, knowing it was momentous, feeling unequal to the task. "You're ravishing," was all he managed, "May I write to you?" - Before scurrying away in the throng of damasked nobles, tongue glued to the roof of his mouth in panic and joyous transport.


***



Badger



The march of the bells still marked out his day, but Benedict had to confess that the beat of wings now gave his week shape and rhythm. Sometimes, a letter would arrive in the early morning - still murky-dark now the evenings were drawing closer and a chill tingled in the air - but often he would have to wait until after Eucharist: counting down the hours following Matins, tending the kitchen garden and the still - all the while scanning the sky for that noble grey-tufted owl and the precious wax-sealed words tied to his talons.

If he had stopped to think about it, Benedict might have wondered whether it were allowed. The monks could correspond, of course - some of them had family, or friends from before. But there was something so special, so moving about this correspondence; the words caught his breath and resonated for days afterwards in his heart - in a way he had been taught should be reserved for just the Holy Book.

Perhaps he would have been made to feel guilty, had he discussed it with the Abbot. But then again, the others generally regarded him as a part of the furniture; being orphaned to a friary aged ten was not the same as choosing that path, after all, and the atmosphere seemed to make the difference clear. Benedict did believe the scriptures - of course he did, how could he not? He was grateful for the gift of life and the suffering of our Lord.

Yet, he had also not known anything but these chaste stone walls and tranquil gardens, and was without the means to leave. Benedict sometimes wondered what life outside the friary might be like - and these letters painted such fantastical pictures in his mind of where he might go or how he might live and with whom he could be - it was difficult not to be swept up in vain hopes and daydreams.

Then he became fearful, however. The rough, vernacular tongues of the surrounding farmers made alien sounds to his ears, and their harsh work was a puzzle. Only the nobles understood Latin and Greek as the monks did; the calming, mellifluous words of the ancients, and the courtly French they spoke over supper. He would be mocked; reviled out there - for his learning despite his poverty, for his gentleness and uncalloused hands; the fact that he could not hunt with a bow or fight with a sword but could brew and was skilled with a skillet. Having always been a stocky lad, his frame was round and soft now that he was pushing twenty-five: buttocks as curved as the large globe artichokes he grew and belly rich and sweetly plumped with pots and pots of honey.

Here, though, they were kind to him. His indulgences were accepted as harmless and he had found a niche in the kitchen - roasting and chopping, and baking for feast days with pride and passion.

It was about these things that he wrote to Sir Nicholas - the kind, wonderful gentleman who had befriended him that summer and whose letters gave shape to his weeks. His daily thoughts and observations were peppered with questions, however: where did Nicholas live? What did he do? Who were his family? Which languages could he speak and how did he learn? Benedict's curiosity and admiration knew no bounds, and if he weren't so excited to hear and be told, he might have been embarrassed at his forwardness.

Pruning the rosehips that morning, and gazing upward, Benedict seemed to make a small, grey dot appear in the sky almost by force of will. Moments later he had sated the owl with kitchen scraps and torn apart the wax, a beatific smile spreading across his face as he began to read.

My Own Dearest Benedict,

I cannot say how pleased I was to read your last letter! Your recipes sound truly excellent and I am very glad that they were received with praise at the Feast. I certainly don't blame you for trying all thirty-two potential types of pie; fear not! It is surely that attention to detail that gives you such mastery of your craft.

But aside from your cleverness, my Lamb, it is your wonderful spirit that shines from the pages and brings me such joy. Friaries may have a higher-than-usual concentration of such goodness - I cannot comment upon that - but never have I before met a being who brings such sunshine in his every word and act as do you. It is so refreshing, cheering, and so very wholesome to be as lucky as to know you - in this world around me that seems to be going to the dogs.

The Frenchies are at it again, I fear, my Pet - and the Danes turn out to be no better. I keep being sent from Court like a ball in a cup into their lairs to find things out - and I'm pretty sure they don't like me one bit; miserable bastards. Muggle relations are getting worse. There might be a takeover from the Malfaoi faction any day soon, and I want nothing more than to play no part in it, and to be with you.

Which brings me to the main point of this letter, if you will indulge me so, my sweetest Benedict? After these long months since Wessex, I simply must see you again. This time, without your companions. It may seem peculiar to you, but my life prior to the time we met seems pale and bleak in comparison to such a promise. Ever since the moment I glimpsed you in song, you and only you have occupied my waking moments and fuelled my dreams during slumber.

If I arrange it with your Abbot, will you come away with me, Darling boy? I am friends with the headmaster of the wizarding school in Scotland, and he will accommodate us both for a few days. There will be much you may be interested to learn, and so very much I wish to say to you. Will you please grant me this kindness?

In fondest regard,

Your ever-loving Nicholas.


***


Lion


Nick arrived at Hogwarts early, humming merrily as he dusted the Floo powder from his robes and he took in the old place, stepping from the great fireplace. It was good to be back. Fond memories bubbled to the surface: playing Quidditch on the pitch, winning the cup for Gryffindor, making fast friends for life within those chambers - as if it were yesterday! He was seized by a spring of nostalgia and hope, and felt a broad smile spreading across his face. Perhaps, with relations down South going to pot, this could once again be home. The thought was a most cheering one.

It was in such spirit that Nicholas greeted his friend, the headmaster, as the latter came into the hall. "Milkweed, old chap!"

"Mimsy! They said you'd come ahead of schedule."

"Oh, I do hope you don't mind. Just couldn't wait, you know."

"Not at all, not at all." Demetrius Milkweed was just a touch older than Nicholas - pushing forty - but they had played Quidditch together in days of yore, and their families came from the same landowning circles. As all good boys knew: such bonds were for life. "Why don't you come up into my study, and we can have a chat, eh?"

Nicholas nodded, and followed through passageways and up spiral stairs, all the while discoursing animatedly on House-spirit and the old days. Demetrius joined-in heartedly. Having assumed a headmastership at a relatively tender age, he had the countenance of a man older than his years - streaks of grey encouraged as opposed to cropped back, robes of sober colours and none of the contemporary fashions - but when he was with Nicholas, all of that was forgotten; they were almost lads again.

"...and then he said, 'I don't know about you, sir, but my Aunt breeds them in Devonshire!'"

"Ha ha ha! That's marvellous!"

"Yes, it is, isn't it?" The pair alighted in the study, and Demetrius offered Nick a chair, "But tell me, my friend, what can I do for you today? Your letter seemed to be asking about a job, and then there's your chum who will be joining us later on - what's afloat, eh?"

Nick took a deep breath. "Well, Mimsy, old fruit. The thing is this. You know it's ghastly in England at the moment, don't you? Muggle violence on the rise; everyone acting scared. Well, I'm getting pretty tired of being go-between for Court and the foreigners; it's just no bally fun. So I was wondering if you might have a gap in your teaching staff? You know I've worked with whippersnappers before - quite like it, truth be told."

Demetrius smiled broadly. "You champion! I was jolly well hoping that might be it."

"Really?"

"Yes! I'm one man down for the autumn - and it's right up your street: games and Quidditch. What do you say?"

Nick couldn't quite believe it had been that easy. "Well, yes! Of course, I'd love to. Thank you so very much."

"Think nothing of it. After all, you'll be doing me a favour." He offered a hand, and Nicholas shook it with vigour. "But now tell me about your young companion."

"Ah, yes." Nicholas' eyes went a little misty at the mention of Benedict, from boisterous pleasure to adoration. "I was wondering if there was something you could do, Demetrius; he means an incredible amount to me. I haven't raised it with him, yet - not full on, at least. You see, he's magical."

"Well, clearly you think so..."

"Very funny, Milky. I mean, he's a wizard."

"Of course. And?"

"Well, I'm not sure he fully appreciates all that means, you see. Benedict knows he's a wizard, but doesn't seem to set much store by it. It's just a little distinguishing feature along the lines of having green eyes instead of brown, or small feet as opposed to large ones - not the significance that you and I know should be ascribed to it.

"He's fallen foul of the old Christian-Wizardry pact of 1039, I fear: 'the call to Hogwarts is not to disrupt closed religious communities'. Poor Benedict was noviced to a friary just before his eleventh birthday, so has missed out on the teaching we took for granted. I've done my best not to rub that in, but... I'd so like to give him a chance. The monks seem a decent lot, but he can't be squirreled away there forever with Muggles and the odd chap who started like him but now doesn't have any magic left - I just couldn't bear to see it."

Demetrius took all that in, considering. "That's jolly rough." He frowned. "But you know we can't school an adult..."

"Of course. I wasn't meaning, formally."

"I see, yes." Another pause while he thought. "There is the grounds-keeper, of course, and the caretaker - I daresay they learn an awful lot just by being here, all the while contributing valuably... You say that Benedict is a good cook?"

"Oh yes!" replied Nick with passion, "He's wonderfully talented. An absolute gourmet chef, and very hard-working with it - will stay up all night to get something just right; to make it better than before. He paints beautifully, too."

Demetrius nodded, a plan seeming to take shape. "Well, splendid. Mmm. -And does Benedict know why you are bringing him here?"

Nick shuffled, slightly uncomfortable. "Yes and no. I told him there were many things I wanted to tell him and to show him. - Aside from my heart, that is." He gave a wry smile. "But I didn't want to put any pressure on him. It would be his choice, after all."

Demetrius made a sympathetic noise. "Of course. Well then, let me meet the lad. I'll see what I can do."

Nicholas thanked him again, and they went on to talk of other things - all the while Nick's heart was doing somersaults at the very thought that not only was he to see his dearest boy again in a few hours, but that - if Benedict wanted to move and change his life, and learn - it might just be possible. Permanent, even. The notion was more than Nick had dared to hope, and he felt as if he might float to the ceiling in excitement and wonder.

*


At the appointed time, Nicholas went to wait by the Floo in the hall. Benedict had said that he had travelled by powder before, but that was years ago; he might be disorientated, and Nick was desperate for Benedict's introduction to the true wizarding world to be a pleasant one.

He need not have worried, however: Benedict arrived full of laughter, giddy with the newness of it all and insatiably curious. They toured the castle buildings, delighting in the moving staircases, the portraits who talked and the Great Hall's mesmerizing charmed ceiling. Then, to outdoors: the lake - even with a glimpse of the merfolk; the Quidditch pitch - where Nick preened with a few, only slightly rusty, manoeuvres; and the boundary of the forest, collecting strands of unicorn hair from a knot of brambles.

As the filaments gleamed in his fingers, Benedict paused, seeming absorbed in thought. Finally he turned to Nicholas, joyful expression now serious. "Thank you." He smiled, sincerely. "Since knowing you, I feel as if my life has begun afresh. It's daunting. But I am pleased for it."

Delighted, Nick was unsure how to respond. He was almost bubbling-over with the urge to cry 'Then stay! Come and live with me!' - but his better sense ruled against it. He had, after all, been alone with Benedict for only one scant day. The scores and scores of letters treasured safe in his bureau might suggest that they knew one another well; they had shared news, and humour, and heartache, and had poured out onto the page hopes, and dreams and fears from the very core - almost as if the pen animated itself. But was that sufficient? Can one truly know another through their prose? Instead, then, he hesitated. "I am so glad," would have to do. "Now, let me show you Gryffindor tower, eh?"

Benedict nodded, and there was an amused - almost indulgent - glint in his eye. Nick wondered whether his own hopes really were so transparent.

As they walked back to the castle, Benedict resumed his questions. Alive with insight, he seemed naturally to get right to the heart of a thing: How is it made? But what is it for? Why is it shaped like that? How do you make it work? Even with a fully-fledged wizarding life at his back, Nick had to confess he did not know all of the answers. Indeed, it was almost embarrassing!

-Yet, of course, it wasn't at all, because he somehow uncannily felt that he could never be embarrassed with Benedict. A lifetime of posture and appearance, of silly, Courtly protocol, seemed to just slip away; it was mere window dressing, and that was not needed here. He could just be himself with Benedict - one young man to another.

The answers that Nick did provide were appreciated, though - each fact stored away with a nod and a certain solemnity, just as Nick had imagined Benedict when he had spoken of illuminating manuscripts, mixing spices in the mortar until just-so, or poring for hours over the codices.

As they talked, Nicholas could not help but be struck by the fact that Benedict was just as beautiful as the picture captured all those months ago in the chapel, and carried in his mind ever since. Curls glinting in the sunshine as brilliantly as the unicorn-hair, and complexion smooth, rosy and glowing, he was the very picture of radiance and promise. Indeed, that vision was only enhanced, now that he knew the man behind the smile and the heart within those demure monastic robes.

-And oh, and how he wished to gently peel away those robes! Nicholas scolded himself when he caught his mind skipping to such thoughts. He desired Benedict - by Merlin, yes! - but he determined to be, above all, a gentleman - the impulsive forwardness of his introduction quite aside.

They dined in hall, Benedict conversing with the professors and guests with absolute poise; years at the friary had conferred a considered eloquence surpassing so much of the vacuous talk Nicholas heard at Court. When Demetrius asked what Benedict thought of the food, however, there came a pause. "Jolly nutritious, I'm sure," Benedict demurred, "It's quite amazing what one can do with porridge..."

"Ah, but do you could do better, eh, lad?" It was friendly, but also a challenge. Nick held his breath.

Benedict paused, not fazed, but perhaps weighing his words. "With respect - and certainly not meaning to be immodest, sir - but I think, yes. I'd be delighted to have your view, if you would like for me to prepare something, in the morning?"

"Super, it's a deal!" Demetrius offered his hand, "I've heard great things about you, you know; very much looking forward to it. I'll have the elves make space down there, after breakfast tomorrow."

*


The following morning, Benedict seemed absolutely overflowing with energy. He had woken especially early to survey the vegetable gardens and the stores, and sported several leaves of notes on potential recipes and unusual flavour combinations. By the time they walked down to the kitchens he was abundantly ready, and Nicholas stood well back alongside Demetrius, not wanting to impede but very keen to watch.

Several ideas in hand at once, Benedict set to task, concentrating hard as his fingers moved across the surface with practice and precision. Split, chop, combine and season; puff, dust, flip and bake. Dazzling aromas began to bubble from pots, and presentations of such colour and variety took shape upon platters it was as if the kitchen had never before been awake.

Around him, the elves were wary at first; they were not used to seeing many humans below stairs, especially not working in their domain. Also, though, they were curious, and jolly impressed.

As pink, pointy noses came nearer, Benedict greeted them, and began to explain exactly what he was doing. Deft and creative, he kept up a dialogue all the while: "... And now you see, if you add a pinch of mace the colour will change subtly, but that makes all the difference...

"...these things are usually boiled, but if you slice them very finely, and then mix with honeyed vinegar the texture is so much better...

"...and after half an hour it will come out double the size, but as light as air..."

The elves smiled in awe and pleasure, absolutely delighted to be spoken to kindly by a real wizard - some of the bolder ones even asked a question!

They stood on tip-toes to peer, and a few of them tried to help by washing knives that had been used, or passing ingredients from the other end of the counter-top when they were needed. When he crimped the pastry corners just-so, Benedict even lifted a little elf nearer to the work surface, for a better view.

Watching all the while, Demetrius smiled at that - half to himself, and half to Nicholas. "Never have I seen a more genuine Hufflepuff."

Nick agreed, feeling very proud.

Inhaling deeply, Demetrius seemed to form a decision. "He's a very nice lad indeed, my friend; I can see why you are so taken with him. I think he will do very nicely, here."

At such a remark, Nicholas positively beamed. "Thank you so much, Milky; I'll see what he thinks at once. I'm sure he won't let you down!"

*


It was at the end of their fourth day in the castle that Benedict came to his chamber. All was arranged; a post of Senior Cook had been created, and Benedict was walking on air to have been given the chance. He had asked permission from his Abbot, and had received the kindest of replies: We all wish you very well, my child. You know that you shall always have a home with us, should you ever need it - but I am so pleased that you have at last found your place.

The knock was not tentative. Indeed, Nicholas had to check he was not dreaming when Benedict strode into his room clad only in a white cotton nightshirt and approached him - closer and closer until...

...their lips touched! A cool, sweet sensation; experimental, but the intention clear.

Nick's mind whirled, so full of shock and glory, it took him a moment to respond. Benedict was not subtle, but very earnest, pressing their mouths together as he must have seen young lovers do, in the meadows about the monastery. It was simply too wonderful to be true, and Nick felt almost entirely undone by this simple kiss, from the boy he so cherished.

They parted, breathlessly, Benedict flushed and an expression of awe and triumph written across his features. Nicholas wagered he must look much the same.

"I want to be with you, Nicholas. I am so grateful to you for bringing me here; for showing me the life I could - should - have had... and I want to be a part of it. Really, I do.

"But I want to be here, with you. I have never before felt like this about another - from your writing, and now knowing you in person. Nicholas, I fancy I love you more than I thought it was possible to love."

"Oh, my Dearest..." Usually eloquent - or at least, verbose - Nicholas de Mimsy-Porpington now found himself at a loss for words. Instead he just nodded vigorously, and then managed to choke, "Yes. To everything you have just said: a hundred-fold times, 'yes.'"

Benedict smiled, and they kissed again - with greater intent this time, the passion that Nicholas had been trying to quash burning bright, and his two hands seeming quite inadequate to touch Benedict all that he wanted to; to explore every crescent and curve and beautiful curl.

When they breathed once more, Benedict cast down his eyes, slightly nervous. "I know nothing of such matters, but I very much would like to learn... Though you don't mind... this?" He patted his ample stomach in demonstration, a shade of worry creeping across his brow.

"Mind? Goodness, my Darling! I find you superlatively gorgeous - in every respect!" -And to make his point more fully, Nicholas sped Benedict to the grand four-poster bed and whipped away his nightshirt to cover him in kisses - top to toe, and every inch in-between.

Benedict writhed and gasped as hitherto alien, exquisite sensations coursed across his skin and arousal arched within his blood. His hair a halo upon the pillow, his face flushed and bottom lip held just-so between his teeth, Nicholas was certain that heaven itself could not show him a sight more beautiful. His pale chest and the perfect curve of his belly - soft and relaxed as he lie in pleasure - spoke of innocence itself; pink and milk-fed-smooth, never sullied by unkind remarks or the cut of breeches that are too tight about the waist. Despite his lust, Nicholas so desperately wanted to cherish and protect Benedict from the harshness of the world - to give him love, and a home, and a place to develop his skills - and let him sip honey from his fingers to feed his jollity and let his sweetness never be spoiled.

Benedict's hands were soft but insistent; very soon they were both unclothed. At that point, the need that Nicholas felt reached a new level; the sweet shock of skin-on-skin fuelling his passion further, and he leapt atop, frotting between Benedict's open legs, their hardnesses aligned and the whole thing feeling so very, very wonderful...

Needless to say, such urgency could not last for long. It was inelegant, and sticky, and not at all the slow, sweet seduction that Nicholas might have imagined - but perhaps all the better for it; so very real and true. They had time in the future for sonnets and artistry, after all - so much joyous, bounteous time, spread out before them like a pasture in spring.

Nicholas planted a kiss on Benedict's brow, feeling at last that they had both found their home. Benedict smiled, and snuggled closer. An enormous sigh of content came from them both; after months of frenzied writing, no more words were needed.

It was just when they were lulling to sleep - Benedict curled within Nick's arms beneath the lovely velvet canopy - that Nicholas saw the glint at the window: two men hovering there upon brooms, wearing the uniform of the Danes.

One grinned, showing mirth and gold teeth. "Master'll be pleased. We've got' im!"


***



Badger


Chubby fingers trembled against the bowl when it was all prepared. Hemlock, from the monastery gardens. Plucked and squeezed, the bitter juices had run freely, forming dark and shiny pools in the mortar - like his tears that would never stop and his faith that was washed to the four seas. All gone now. Please, just let me escape this...

Nicholas' last letter sat adjacent to the bowl, the ink smudged and the corners torn as they had been wrung with distraught, shaking hands.



My Dearest, Darling Boy,

I write this from the garret to which they have brought me, and I fear it shall be my last.

I was inconvenient, apparently. I knew too much for the foreigners' liking. The bastards have no wish to co-operate with Court, it turns out - rather they're stirring up Muggle-trouble, hoping to topple the order.

But that is all covered-up and silent. I'm going down for 'crimes against the church', they say: two witnesses on veritaserum to prove it.

Crimes!

But what crime have I committed, save for love? My own love, have I wronged you? Was I mistaken? If so, I am so very, very sorry, and my soul deserves to burn in hell at the thought.

But I think that is not so. For my regard for you is nothing but pure and right; the very best thing I have ever done, in a life full of silliness and jamborees. I could never regret it, or regret you - not in a hundred-million years.

There is so much we were to do together. Our quarters at the school were laid out, our work planned and contracts signed. And in the holidays, I was to take you to places far and wide - to see the aerial sorcerers of Venice, to ride on longboats in the valleys - and more importantly than anything else, to be always and together forever.

The sadness is too painful! I cannot bear it.

I am so very afraid, I cannot think of the morning when they will come for me. No, I cannot stand it! I must pretend it isn't so...

Thus, I will think on what we will do, and hum to myself all the cheerful songs we will sing together, when I next see you. - Which will surely be soon, my Dear one, t'will surely be soon.

I'll see you at Hogwarts, then, my Darling Benedict, I'll see you at Hogwarts...




Benedict once again began to cry. His sleeves were sopping wet and his face a mess of sobs and tears. He was only supposed to have come back to the friary for a day - to collect his things, and to thank the Abbot properly for all he had done. Then, the letter had arrived; Nick's great grey owl had been wild and touchy, discharging its very last duty, then flying away for ever.

Benedict simply could not endure it. He hadn't the strength to continue alone - not at the monastery as before, now that he knew what else there could be, and certainly not in the new life that should have been theirs, together.

He raised the cup to his lips, still quaking, but resolute.

- And in one swift swallow, the potion had disappeared; turned to snakes in his belly and a fire in his limbs that seared every vein from within, and then... then...

There was a bright light above him, and the sound of a choir. It seemed to call him upward, but that didn't matter. All Benedict could think of were Nicholas' last words:


I'll see you at Hogwarts, then. I'll see you at Hogwarts...








Four figures stood in perfect whiteness; a limbo of such serenity it surpassed even that of nature's passing. They all swallowed, and breathed, and looked - shaking and shocked by the immediacy of it all, and the rainbow-spectrum of emotion that had been reawakened in their hearts. Their minds were vivid-bright and taken-aback; reinvigorated from long years of dormancy and reeling from all they had just relived and seen afresh.

Finally, one of the group spoke. "You are not Salazar's child." It was a statement, not a question, and one that illuminated Helena's face with five centuries of suspended happiness and relief.

Sigar shook his head with abandon and began to shake. "I'm so, so sorry. Helena, can you ever forgive me? I was not myself, and so very desperate to be with you and..."

"'Tis already forgiven." She opened her arms and Sigar fell into their safety, posture relaxing back into the young man he should have been, in gratefulness and joy.

"My dearest boy..." Nick rushed to Benedict, and his embrace was returned twofold.

"Nicholas." Benedict whispered the name as if it were a blessing, and burrowed his forehead into Nick's shoulder. Memory had breached that shell of mild jolliness; they now remembered, and were so very grateful for it.

Nicholas smoothed his curls, clinging tight. "Be with me always. May we now make for ourselves the future that we had planned?"

Benedict nodded, amid snuffles and chuckles of emotion-overflowing, all the while holding and not letting go.

"Come, then." Helena gestured to a huge animal that had appeared at her side: the wings and beak of a raven upon the body of a hound. She meant for her and Sigar to climb upon it.

Simultaneously, Benedict and Nicholas looked upward to see clouds and light, interspersed with the marquees of a country fair - the sounds of apple-carts and entertainers mixed with a the most sublime choir from above.

The couples smiled at one another, their next acts clear.

Thus, they then set off from this place - at last onward, and together.








Severus walked by the lake, the late-March air ruffling his locks and a touch of early spring sunshine glistening on the water. The ruins of the castle behind him looked almost respectable in this light - rough edges were smoothed, and much rebuilding had already been done to hide the scars and horrors that had come to pass.

It also now had a vacancy for four House ghosts. He was pleased for the ones who had gone on, he'd admit - and not a little smug that his invented magic had worked. Severus could not help but feel for the battered towers and flooded cellars, though - now bereft and lonely in their abandonment.

For him, it would not have been the dungeons, and certainly not the Shrieking Shack. No; the tug-tug-tug he had felt in that in-between time was to a small hollow near this very place: the little shelter where he and Lily had picnicked one summer: the very last time he could remember being happy.

The tatters, the snake and the boy had all faded out, and he remembered leaving the shock and the pain behind - feeling quite numb, but very, very tired. There had been a long row of doors before him - a corridor of sorts, all wooden and respectable; the sort of place he'd usually be comfortable.

Severus had felt as if he really should walk along it - to investigate what was there, probably to choose one of the entrances... but something within him was so exhausted and broken he couldn't muster the will to move. Instead, then, the doors vanished, and a grey fog came to fall upon the world around him. There was a sense of dreadful unrootedness - the desperate need to choose a place - and that one treasured memory of a gingham tablecloth and Lily's hair in the sunshine as she passed him an apple...

It was then that the anti-venom had taken hold. Painfully, the fog had lifted, and the world seemed brighter and in sharper relief than ever before. He was in hospital; the red checks and the grass were not there, but a row of concerned faces and a sense of calm, were - as if these colleagues actually cared.

From there, the road to the present day had been surprisingly free of torment. Natural, even. It was incredible: how the world seemed a palatable place now the strains of war and guilt were gone, and he could work hard, but openly. On good days, Severus was almost pleased that he had been given a second chance at life.

He was woken from his thoughts by a movement just to his left. Minerva was at his side; she placed a hand on his shoulder. "Thank you, Severus. That was an extraordinary achievement."

He inclined his head in acknowledgement of the compliment.

"-But don't you harbour any thoughts of replacing them yourself," she continued, half-smiling but deadly serious, "-Now will you?"

Severus regarded the spring day and his friend - and with them crept that strange but beautiful sense of peace that he had been feeling more and more over the past few months. "No; I don't believe I shall."




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