Percy and Bill pulled Severus out of the cold, brackish water of the barrel; he was still singing.
"We'd best try again," Bill said to Percy, as they pushed Severus' head back into the barrel, only to yank him out of it once more.
"Death will come for you, not me! Death will never de—"
This time, the two wizards held Severus down a bit longer.
"You know," said Bill, "the song's rather catchy."
"Up," Percy insisted, shooting Bill a disgusted look.
"Merlin's balls! What have you been drinking, Professor?" Bill demanded, shoving Percy aside so that he could seize the inebriated Severus by the shoulders and shake him.
"Past cold Death's dire embrace—"
Percy stepped forward, grabbed Severus by the hair, and pushed him back into the barrel.
"Percy, why can't we try a sobering charm?"
"—past the ages to come—"
"Because Severus drinks too much, and—"
"—I will wander the—"
"—he's immune to it," Percy replied, releasing Severus and drawing his wand. "Pull him up."
"—Halls of Ti—"
"While to rack you run!" Bill exclaimed, as Severus fell forward, knocking over the barrel and landing in a stinking, sodden heap in the alley behind the Hog's Head. "Why the hell didn't you cast that sooner?"
Percy sheathed his wand. "Just thought of it, actually."
"Why'd you never mention that the Death Eaters had . . . fight songs?"
"You never asked," Percy muttered, stiffly bending down to turn Severus on his side. "I don't think that was tobacco he was smoking."
Bill laughed. "No, it wasn't. What should we do with the great git?"
"A little respect, please."
"I have a lot of respect for Professor Snape, Percy—he's still helping us even though Fleur's being difficult—but he's ruining himself."
"We can't take him back to the Spellcraftres' Guild like this."
"And we can't leave him here to sleep it off—it's too damned cold."
Percy frowned. "I don't trust him to be alone. Let's get him to my place."
"That's hardly fair. Aberforth mentioned something about your 'always' coming to get the professor. How long have you—"
"Off and on since Harry warded him out of Grimmauld. At least twice a week since Highmaster Spurlock banned him from his lab. Right much every damn morning for a fortnight," Percy replied, with increasing exasperation. "I should probably just start him a tab here, but—"
"It's the middle of October."
"What does that have to do with anything?"
"Nothing but the fact that my sack's freezing to my thigh. Let's go, already."
Percy smirked and stood up. "How did a foul-mouthed lout like you ever win Fleur's hand?"
Bill made a lascivious gesture with his tongue.
"Spare me. Gods, he's heavy. A little help here?"
"A little spell, perhaps? Several cleaning charms, please?"
"Oh. How stupid of me, I—"
Bill clapped a hand on Percy's shoulder. "You're worried about the man. I understand. He's lucky, to have a friend like you."
"Yerwelc'me," Severus murmured, half-waking as his body began to reject what looked to Bill and Percy like everything he had drunk that night.
"Snape, if you start singing again, I'll punch you," Bill warned, drawing his wand, pointing it at Severus, and murmuring a spell.
"That isn't what I meant by respect," Percy said, though he smiled when he did. "What are you doing?"
"Well, no helpful charms, after all—he's been taking some rather interesting magiceuticals."
It took them a long time to clean Severus up and put him to bed in Percy's spare room, but after these tasks were accomplished, Bill asked, "So, what does a man have to do to get a drink around here?"
"Don't you want to get home? I thought Fleur wasn't feeling well."
"Yeah, Mum says the first six weeks or so are usually the hardest, but the wife's the one who sent me off tonight. Anyway, I'd rather spend some time with you, little brother."
Pleased, Percy summoned a bottle of Old Ogden's and two glasses, pouring them both generous measures of the Firewhisky.
"Damn, that goes down like dragon fire!" Bill exclaimed, pouring himself another measure.
"Not if you cut it."
"I like the burn."
Bill smiled. "Good to know. . . . Is there anything else you want to tell me?"
"All that rot Snape was spewing earlier about your having stolen Harry away from him."
"Rubbish. It took me weeks to get her to trust me again. She was that sure I had something to do with his damned Spell of Acceptance."
Bill frowned and leaned forward in his chair. "I don't get that. Harry couldn't bear it, being a witch, so why did she mind Severus helping her so much?"
"You've got it wrong. Harry couldn't bear the thought of never being a wizard again. There's a difference. Severus had no right to cast that spell without her permission. He took away her choice. That's why she won't see him."
"Was that why she spurned you? Because you tossed Snape out on his arse when they fought at St. Mungo's?"
Percy sighed. "No, Harry didn't spurn me. We were never—"
"You're honestly telling me that you're not in love with her?"
"Yes," Percy replied, setting his glass down on the side table with a decisive "snick!"
"All right. It's just that you offered to live with her, and I thought . . . ."
"I can't help what you thought, but Harry isn't—never mind. No need to go down that road."
"What if I want to, little brother?" Bill asked softly.
Percy considered his brother's offer. Perhaps talking about it wouldn't hurt. . . . "She's not Penelope."
Bill's expression softened into sadness. "Penelope. She was the one, eh?"
"She was. She . . . was perfect," Percy answered, fighting back tears.
"Yeah, she was that," Bill said, rising. "Look, I shouldn't have pressed you, and I expect you'll want to sleep while you can. Fire-call for help if you need it?"
Percy stood up and offered his brother his hand. "Thanks. For everything. It's been . . . I've—"
"Me too, little brother," Bill said, pulling Percy into a hug.
Percy allowed himself to relax and hugged back, but then, stepping out of the embrace said, "You know, you should stop calling me that. I've an inch on you, after all."
Bill grinned. "Not where it counts, I reckon."
"Are you implying that my sister-in-law married you for your—I mean to say, is shallow?"
"You're a gentleman, Percy Weasley. And no, I'm not implying that Fleur married me for my prick," Bill replied, laughing. "Where's your Floo powder?"
Getting Bill sorted out to leave took a bit of time because Percy, who was living in Muggle London, did not often make use of his Floo, and he was reluctant to see his big brother leave.
It's been lovely talking to him again, Percy thought, after Bill had left. Even Dad and the twins have been—
A loud, broken groan emanated from the spare bedroom.
Sleeping bastard awakes, Percy thought, going to look in on Severus. "Are you trying to kill yourself?" he asked, leaning against the doorjamb.
"Too much . . . light," Severus complained.
"I've got two candles lit in the lounge. There's barely enough light to see by."
"I agree," Percy replied, entering the room and shutting the door behind himself before sitting down on the edge of the bed. "Your indulgence in appalling behavior has become excessive."
"Stop. Stop lecturing . . . ."
"I should have taken you back to the Spellcraftres' Guild. If Spellen Spurlock were to see how badly off you are, he'd surely kick some sense into you."
"Spellen's fault," Severus spat. "Hoisted my fucking standard, didn't I?"
"You're not making an ounce of sense, you imbecile."
Severus rolled over onto his back and tried to stare balefully up at Percy. "Too dark," he complained.
"Good. I don't particularly want to look at you."
"Damn it, Percy. She won't have me."
"You betrayed her."
"No, what you did was damn near unforgivable. You're lucky you did it to Harry because, if anyone can forgive you, it's she."
"How . . . how is she?"
"Mum and Fred are teaching her to sew."
"She's radiant. Bearing up well. Not at all conflicted about being a witch. Hating you."
"Not good for the baby, hating."
"You should have thought of that before you took matters into your own hands."
"Grieving's not good, either. She's not taking calming draughts?"
"I wouldn't know, but I do know Harry's got it into her head that grief is bad for Justine."
"And hating me's not?" Severus replied sulkily.
"I have every reason to believe she'll fall apart after she gives birth. I spoke to Dad about it, and he called a family meeting."
"A family meeting?"
"Yes. It's the first one I've been invited to in years."
"We've all arranged to be free to assist Harry in whatever way she might need after the birth."
Severus did not respond.
"That doesn't mean she doesn't need you."
"It does. She hates me. She'll never trust me again."
"FUCK! What the hell'd you do that for?"
Percy stood up and pointed his wand at Severus. "You look a right mess, man! You're behaving like a child. If you want Harry to trust you, you'll need to start earning it. Do you think drinking yourself into a stupor every night will accomplish anything?"
"No one needs me. Fleur's pregnant. Harry's a witch. I'm just—"
"An ungrateful ex-Death Eater who's forgot how quickly public opinion can change, for one thing."
Severus, who had been shielding his eyes, peered out from behind his arm at Percy. "What does that mean?"
"The head of the Board of Ethics has suggested to Spellen Spurlock that funding for the Spellcraftres' Guild might be cut if he doesn't 'deal' with you. You're that close to getting the sack."
"Narcissa Malfoy has reason to hate me. Spellen won't listen to—"
"It's not just Mrs. Malfoy, Severus. There have been complaints about your behavior. Articles written. Photographs—"
"—taken," Percy continued, his anger at Severus' recent behavior finally getting the better of him. "If you don't pull yourself together, you'll lose everything you've worked for—and your reputation will be beyond rehabilitation."
"It doesn't matter what I do—Potter's no doubt shared her sad tale of my 'treachery' with everyone."
"Finite Incantatem!" Percy cast then, before lunging at Severus and punching him.
Hung over as he was, however, Severus had sensed the attack coming, and he subdued Percy with relative ease. "You little shite. You might try fighting fairly."
"I'd never win," Percy spat.
"Why did you attack me?"
"Because Harry hasn't told anyone what you did to her! People have just assumed that she asked you to do it, which has gone a long way toward getting them to overlook—"
"Right," Severus said, releasing his hold on Percy and rising unsteadily from the bed. "I'm for a
slash and a shower,
and then . . . ."
"What?" Percy demanded, rubbing his jaw.
"I don't bloody know. But something."
"It's a good idea, Harry," Ginny said, handing her the letter back. "For one thing, it'll get you out of the house. You've been holed up here since your birthday party."
"I like it here. Dobby's done wonders with the place," Harry said stubbornly, staring at the letter and remembering how smug Fleur had been. Severus gets her pregnant to make her leave me alone and she starts talking nonsense about every child deserving a sibling, "especially Weasley children." Ungrateful bitch. "Besides, I've had enough of Severus' interference. This is probably just some trick to get me in with a mind-healer. Why should I go?"
"To a mind-healer? I can think of a lot of reasons. Greengrass wasn't that bad, was she? I mean, she did help you."
Yeah, a fucking Slytherin helped me deal with another one's mess, Harry thought, resenting the fact that she had found it, if not easy, possible to talk to Daphne when she could not do the same with Severus. The bastard didn't even try to talk to me about it! "I'm not seeing Daphne again. I'm not possessed, I'm not crazy, and I don't panic every time I have to put on a bra anymore. There's no point in seeing her."
Ginny compressed her lips and hummed, rolling her eyes. "But there is a point in talking things out with Severus, isn't there, in at least getting his apology?"
"Who says I want his apology?" Harry asked crossly, tossing aside the letter and then adjusting her bra strap. "God! I think I'm . . . leaking."
"Well, Healer Spriggs has set your due date for the first. That's only three weeks away. Your body's just preparing for—"
"I know what it's doing," Harry said, pushing herself up from the sofa with some difficulty and walking toward the door. "I need to change. I'll be right back."
"Add another nursing pad!" Harry heard Ginny call to her a moment later.
Another one? I'm already wearing two in each cup! Harry thought, throwing her blouse and soaked bra onto the floor of her room as she searched her wardrobe for other attire and considered the contents of the letter she had received that morning.
It had read:
Dear Miss Harry James Potter,
This letter is to inform you that Severus Tobias Snape desires to perform the Ritual of Reckoning before you at noon on the fifteenth day of December, two thousand three, whereby he may submit his trespasses against your person to the Record of Acts and call judgment upon himself to be decided by you and the Arbiter Wizengamot, or by the Arbiter Wizengamot alone should you elect not to be present.
All Rituals of Reckoning are recorded in the Record of Acts and sealed until both the Reckoner and the Concerned Person or Persons have died, and all save the Concerned Person or Persons are bound not to speak of the matter.
Should you wish to be present for the ritual, return this letter to its envelope, re-seal it with wax mixed with a drop of your blood, and it will serve as your Portkey to the Arbitration Hall at the appointed time.
Yours in service,
Clerk of the Arbiter Wizengamot
"What's Severus playing at with this reckoning thing, anyway?" Harry asked, rejoining Ginny.
"I suppose you'll have to go if you want to find out, won't you?"
"Thanks for answering my question. You were a help."
"Look, the ritual's an old tradition dating back to the time of the Founding. It used to be that when people committed a crime and weren't caught, they could submit themselves to the Ritual of Reckoning as a testament of their intention to change."
"That's stupid. It seems like just a way for someone to relieve himself of a guilty conscience."
"I suppose so, but it's also a pretty spiffy way for someone who might otherwise be driven to desperation to make a fresh start," Ginny replied, popping a biscuit into her mouth and chewing it slowly, as if preoccupied.
"What is it?"
"You seem awfully . . . calm."
"Spriggs keeps insisting I avoid stress. This letter doesn't help that, but I'm trying."
"Harry, are you—"
"I don't know yet."
"I don't know if I'm going to the ritual."
"No, I didn't mean that. I was going to ask if you'd been taking any sort of calming draught."
Harry started. "Why would you ask that?"
Ginny sighed and stared at Harry without blinking.
"Fuck. Yes, all right?"
"No, it isn't. You know better! Do you realize what—"
"Spriggs said it wouldn't hurt Justine."
"But what about you?" Ginny demanded, her agitation clear as she threw down her serviette and stood up, placing her hands on her hips. "If you've been artificially calm all this time, how do you think you'll feel when you stop—or when the draught stops working for you?"
"Strong emotions aren't good for the baby," Harry answered, through gritted teeth.
"Neither is avoiding them, you idiot!"
"You know what, Ginny? I don't need a nursemaid or a mother or a . . . a—"
"A Severus? Anyone who loves you telling you when you're pissing yourself about? This is stupid, Harry!"
"No," Harry said, seizing the letter and shaking it in Ginny's face. "This is stupid. What does he think I'm going to do? Forgive him, just like that? Tell the sodding Arbiter Wizengamot that I don't mind having my head fucked with?"
Ginny opened her mouth to respond, but closed it again and walked to the window.
"Look, I'm sorry I yelled at you, but I'm tired of being managed."
"I wasn't doing that. I was trying to be your friend."
"Right. I remember your little speech about 'friendship' when you left me."
Ginny turned on Harry, glaring at her. "You're being an arse!"
"You're the one who—"
"Came over all lesbian and thought it would be the right thing to tell my boyfriend! What a bitch that makes me—but at least I said something about my feelings for someone else when we were both conscious and not shagging!"
"What the hell does that mean?"
"You're the one who was calling out someone else's name, you shite. My own brother's name, and I never taxed you with it. I'd say that makes me the better friend."
Harry was gobsmacked, and she felt herself blushing from her toes to her scalp. Shite. I didn't know I'd done that to you. "Ginny, Ginny, I'm sorry. I never meant—"
"Save your half-arsed apologies, you horrid cow. I don't want them. I want you to take care of yourself so that you'll be fit to raise my niece."
"'Horrid cow'?" Harry asked, trying not to smile. That settles it. I really am a witch, aren't I?
"This isn't funny."
"Sure it is. It's absurd. But you're right. I was out of line. I am sorry."
"You're sorry for the wrong thing. You should be sorry for—"
"Belt up about the calming draughts. I'm not going to stop taking them until after Justine is born. Nothing you say will persuade me, so just don't say anything—please."
Ginny ran a hand through her hair and sighed. "Fine. But what about the ritual? Are you going or aren't you?"
"Why should I give a toss about some poxy old tradition?"
"It's more than that. Don't you get it? He's trying to apologize to you."
"I do get that. I just don't care."
"Harry," Ginny said, approaching her, "you know you're in love with him. You know that, so why won't you—"
"Does Millicent tell you how to live?"
"Well, no, not really."
"Does she respect you?"
"Would you love her if she made your decisions for you and treated you like . . . like you were some sort of fragile . . . thing?"
Ginny sat down. "I don't think you're being completely fair."
"Really?" Harry said, falling more than sitting down next to Ginny.
"Yeah, and think about it this way. If you don't go to the ceremony, the Arbiter Wizengamot's judgment will be final. What Snape did was very wrong, Harry, and—"
"—he might be forbidden the use of his magic for it. That could happen. Would you really want that? Do you hate him that much?"
I don't hate Severus, Harry thought quickly, before Ginny's words could sink in. "Wait. The Arbiter Wizengamot, he wouldn't really take Severus' magic, would he?"
"I think the Arbiter's a she, and yes, I do think she might order him not to use his magic. It's happened before."
"It's not like his spell was an Unforgiveable."
"Any spell that alters someone's will so completely might as well be, Harry. You've said as much yourself."
Great. Just super. What the hell is he thinking?
"You can't say you're not happier."
"You mean because I don't try to piss standing up anymore?"
"If he had asked, I might have said yes. If he had asked, I might have been grateful. But he didn't, Ginny. He just did it. He just 'protected' me, did his sodding duty!"
"Careful, that calming draught seems to be wearing off," Ginny said, half in annoyance as she slid over toward Harry and wrapped her arms around her.
"You still smell good," Harry said sheepishly, leaning into Ginny's embrace.
"Hmph. What's that, then? 'Good', I mean?"
Like a Weasley, Harry thought, pushing away a threatening memory of Ron. "Fine. I'll go."
"Only go if you really want to."
"Oh, I want to," Harry replied. Because Severus needs saving from himself, and I want to tell him exactly what I think of him and his "protection."