Tippy's ears quivered and curled in her distress. This witch was a guest of Master Severus, and guests were to be treated as family, even if they weren't Family. That was a Rule. The Rules weren't learnt by rote so much as they were impressed upon young house elves until they'd absorbed them into the very fibre of their beings, and it was nearly impossible to break one.
But she is changing the wards of the Household, and Master Severus isn't saying to Tippy that this should be.
Tippy wanted to tell Master Severus about the problem, but he was with his Harry. His Harry was very important to the Master; the Master loved him. It was important that the Master be happy, and his Harry made him so. Tippy didn't think it right to disturb their rest.
The thought that Master Severus had said before to lock away the guests, all of them, knowing as he did that Tippy would feel bound by the dictates of hospitality to prevent the guests from knowing that they were locked away by calling a traditional Sleeping upon them, gave her pause; could that mean that this witch, the only one left now, wasn't a true guest? It wasn't hospitable to call a Sleeping upon a guest, after all.
Thinking this made Tippy uncomfortable, as if by her very thoughts she were criticising Master Severus, so she placed her hands behind her back as she levitated before the hearth and squeezed her fingers, hard, while she contemplated the Blaise and the Hermione's locking in, which had been ordered by the Master, she knew, so that they would make the babies.
It always confused Tippy how witches and wizards sometimes didn't know when it was time to be doing that, but then, witches and wizards weren't house elves and allowances had to be made.
Tippy was proud to be a good house elf, but she was in turmoil about the Rules—one of which was "Protect the Household"—because of the Greer's fire-call. The Greer was like family to Master Severus, even though she wasn't Family.
And the Greer is scared and wanting help.
"Protect the family and friends of the Household"—that was another Rule, but which Rule was more important, the one about protection of the Household, or the one about protection of the family and friends of the Household? Without the Household, there could be no safety for family and friends; without Family, there would be no Household.
Of course, Tippy knew that her problem couldn't be solved merely by deciding which Rule mattered more; she suspected that both the Household and any family and friends of the Household were of equal importance to Master Severus, but a house elf couldn't be in two places at once, at least, not for very long.
Snape Manor was not a safe household; bad things had happened to the Harry there, and he was being protected by Master Severus. Tippy knew that the Harry needed his rest, that he had not slept well until the previous night, so it might harm him if he were disturbed, and it would definitely not be hospitable to disturb him by seeking to know the Master's wishes about something that Tippy felt a proper house elf should know how to manage.
The Greer is wanting help for a friend.
Weighing the needs of one near-Family member and her friend against those of one friend-guest who already felt like Family and, therefore, like part of the Household, was very hard. Family and Household were much the same unless the house were empty and thus, merely a household. With the Master and his guests present, and his Family member, too, Tippy's duty wasn't clear, and this upset her because of what this witch, who might not be a guest or a friend, was doing to the wards.
The Household and Family is one. The Greer is family to Master Severus, which is the same as being Family. The Greer is needing help. A house elf's duty is to help always—that is being the First Rule.
Even if it meant leaving the physical household—after taking steps to safeguard the Household—Tippy knew that she had to obey the First Rule. Doing so would be dutiful, and Master Severus had never ordered her not to leave Snape Manor in the course of her duties, so Tippy wouldn't need to punish herself for leaving it.
Her decision made, Tippy called a Sleeping upon the witch whose status was so vexingly uncertain, suspended entry through the wards, and locked the Blaise in his room. Master Severus had asked that this be done before, so Tippy felt that it would be right for her to do it again in order to preserve the sanctity of the Household while she was away.
She didn't dare interfere with Master Severus and his Harry; to do so would be beyond her duty.
Thus prepared, her ears rising in relief, Tippy made for the Greer with a decisive pop!
"—sure it would work!"
Molly clucked at Ron's misguided excitement. "Your friend's custody situation is terrible, dear, and I'm very sorry for him, but the clocks don't work that way. I can't make one without a bit of everyone's hair or skin to charge the charms."
Ron's shoulders rounded downwards as he thrust his hands into his pockets and scowled. "Oh, I didn't think of that."
"I'm really very sorry, dear, but the best you can do for your friend is to be there for him. Who is he? A player of yours?"
Molly turned back to her worktable so that she wouldn't look sharply at her son; she could tell that he was lying to her. But there's been no news of a missing child, so I expect that this father friend of Ron's has been told by the Aurors not to discuss matters. I hope his poor little boy will be all right. What kind of mother steals a child from his father?
It was better to wonder about the mother than consider what might have happened to the son, and Molly hoped that Ron wasn't dwelling on such things; he was prone to worry more than was healthy.
"Why don't you go home to Lavender and the boys? You'll feel better."
When Ron left, Molly spent the rest of the morning fire-calling everyone in the family with children, just to be sure of them.
"It's unclear, but we're only just now receiving the first reports, Supreme Mugwump."
"The names that I've provided should prove valuable. Some of them, I've already verified, myself."
"Oh?" another Mugwump asked, leaning over the long table and turning to peer at Albus.
"I've had contact with the mind of a subject in a position to know some of the conspirators. In any case, it shouldn't take that long to glean the rest of them as reports come in."
"No, but just what do you propose we do when we have the information? The International Confederation of Wizards isn't in the business of interfering in the day-to-day affairs of wizarding governments."
A low roll of embarrassed indignation swept the table, and the speaker, irritated, coughed everyone into silence.
"Perhaps it would be better to say that this body should be above such interference."
Albus smiled. "Mugwump Callahan, given your position in the Wizengamot, it's no surprise that you share my views on this matter."
Callahan snorted. "That's rich coming from you, old boy. All you ever do is interfere."
"I do like my cake," Albus replied, knowing that Callahan would understand his reference to what was a private joke between them.
"That is why you grow fat, but such talk will not resolve the issue at hand," another, female Mugwump—the only female Mugwump—protested. "The Ruling Council's current session was suspended last week when two of our members did not appear for the vote. These were, of course, the members responsible for calling the vote on the matter of pure-blood suffrage. We do not fear your countries' . . . inbreeding challenges, but the times change, and Lin and Wu wished to fly with that change. Unfortunately, many amongst us do not share their views, and so they suffered for them at the hands of a hasty few."
"Are you saying that these Counsellors were murdered?" asked Callahan.
"I am saying that they did not appear because all traces of them had disappeared in a manner that defies the legal definition of murder, but the animals responsible for their deaths did not survive long in our climate. Traces of them were found."
"Traces of what? What animals?" someone demanded.
The room erupted into argument until Albus, speaking very softly, said, "Mugwump Xu is correct," and suddenly, all talk ceased. "Let me show you what was found in the bowels of our own, that is to say, the British Ministry . . . ."
Some time later, after refreshment had been taken and the Mugwumps were once again cool enough to deliberate, Callahan asked, "Yes, but why would the Death Eaters be interested in the political decisions of the Chinese Counsel? Our two governments don't influence each other in any significant way, and there have been no reports of Lethifolds being employed similarly in any other—"
Mugwump Xu snorted. "Western wizards do not see the . . . 'big picture'. If my people were to welcome half-bloods in government after millennia of excluding them, it could not help those who sought eventual control of all magical governance. Someone is preparing the way for a monster, someone cunning, ambitious, and not quite sane. Again, it is sorrow that I feel for the problem of inbreeding amongst Western wizarding families."
"How dare you—"
"Enough," Albus said, his voice vibrating with power.
"Apparently not, or you would not need to 'show off'," Mugwump Xu retorted, her eyes gone black and fathomless.
All the other Mugwumps appeared shaken and remained silent as they looked from their Supreme Mugwump to Mugwump Xu and back again.
Albus grimaced, his only gesture in response to the great lady's reminder to him of her power. Mugwump Xu had sat in the Confederation for almost half a generation when Albus had joined it, and she always made him feel like a very small boy—but he was grateful for her presence at the meeting because she was the only Mugwump among them whom the others feared more than they did him.
And today, she and I agree as to what must be done, even if our beliefs about blood purity couldn't be more different.
But that was an argument that Albus knew he would never win, so he turned his attention to the matter before him.
"Mugwump Callahan is right to say that we should not interfere in the day-to-day affairs of wizarding governance, but it is our duty to preserve the stability of the general governance of our countries. The use of Lethifolds and Imperius to remove or influence members of government must not be tolerated. Left to the law enforcement and judiciary bodies of the wizarding world, such threats might not be stamped out in a timely manner. Working together, however, this body can end such a threat. I rise now to call the vote."
Mugwump Xu rose last, but rise, she did.
Alastor knelt to examine the recalcitrant goat that refused to leave the exercise yard behind the Hog's Head and return to the barn, irritating Aberforth.
"Leave 'im out here if the daft bugger won't go. It's all the same to me."
"You're supposed to keep an eye on him as well as the others, man—and he's been stamping on this bit of rags—"
"Should've sent the bastard to Azkaban—or killed him, as was reported."
Alastor grabbed a stick and poked at the goat, scowling. "Don't think I didn't try—I miss the old days when we did kill necromancers—but it seems that someone convinced the good Minister that this particular bastard wouldn't stay dead."
"I could make a stew," Aberforth suggested, grinning. "He wouldn't survive my cookery."
"And end in Azkaban yourself for murder? There's a thought."
"Well, I've customers to prepare for. I'm going insi—"
"Fuck. Why you miserable blighter!"
"What now?" Aberforth demanded, moving to stand over Alastor and the goat. "Oh, hells. Did you know he'd be able to do that? Because I didn't sign on for this, and seeing as how I'm not allowed my discipline charms any longer, I don't know how to deal with it. Most of 'em settle in quietly."
Alastor glared at the trampled, blood-covered gnome, who was struggling to crawl away even with half its brain hanging outside its head, and then turned and Stunned the "goat." It was his duty to monitor certain prisoners, ones too dangerous to mix with those in Azkaban who had visiting privileges or who might be released. Morecrafte was one such prisoner, and the worst of them.
Orders or no, I can't have this one resurrecting gnomes he's killed, himself. It isn't right, and he might just manage to free himself.
It was a good thing, he decided, that he was the one writing the reports to Marchbanks about the "special" prisoners. No one would ever know what he was about to do. He was just glad that Morgan hadn't shown up for their bi-weekly pint. He didn't quite understand the boy's enthusiasm for his old grandfather's job, especially as Morgan showed no sign of wanting to be an Auror himself, but explaining the goat situation would have been tricksome.
"Put the stew pot on, Aberforth. I've got a bit of butchering to do."
"Now that's more like it! Just see you put the poor wee gnome out of its misery."
"Done," Alastor replied, Stunning the gnome and then setting it aflame.
Dragging Morecrafte into the barn, he didn't notice the small eyes upon him, hidden as they were by the shrubbery around the fence.
It was ridiculous that a castle should feel claustrophobic, but so it did. Evessa had never cared for waiting. She'd passed the time by breakfasting, having tea with the infuriating Headmaster, wandering the school, and eavesdropping from the corridor outside the Potions classroom on a late morning lecture that had sounded more like how to poison than to avoid being poisoned. And then, much to her consternation, she'd missed Professor Lupin. She'd expected him to emerge with his students, but it seemed that there was more than one exit to the room.
The damned ghosts were of no use to her in her search for Narcissa, and the house elves refused to tell her where Lupin's private quarters were. With no true desire to manage the vexing staircases again in what would most likely prove a fruitless search, Evessa decided to walk into Hogsmeade after a quick re-application of the glamour that had altered her nose and hair colour since before she'd arrived.
She'd had no wish to advertise herself as Severus' relative; it would have sent rumours flying among the children and given them something to write home about, which was something to be avoided.
Making her way to the entrance, she spied a small green serpent slithering lazily to coil up before one portrait and then another, almost as though it were taking an interest in the art.
Now to whom do you belong, you poor neglected creature? she wondered, lifting her skirts to avoid its coming into to contact with them as she passed it. Noticing the wear on her hemline, she thought, Perhaps a bit of shopping is in order. Gladrags does have an establishment in town.
Evessa certainly wasn't about to let Hogwarts' house elves anywhere near her robes; they couldn't possibly be as skilled with a needle as was Tippy.
Gladrags, was, however, the last place that she'd have expected to find Narcissa's beau.
"Thank you, Professor Lupin. Your order will be ready come Monday."
A clotheshorse. How odd. Narcissa described him as being a simple man.
Evessa couldn't possibly introduce herself to Lupin under the circumstances; her questions for him required discretion and she didn't look herself, so she set about examining racks of robes until he'd left the shop and then casually made her way to the counter to spy on his order form. She wasn't Narcissa's friend, not exactly, but as she and Narcissa were women of the same class and had both made poor marriages, it seemed her duty to learn more about the spending habits of someone who might wish to enrich himself by his association with the younger witch.
"Madam, may I be of assistance?" the clerk asked, approaching her.
"Forgive me, but was that Remus Lupin you were just helping?"
"Oh, you know the professor?"
"I do, and . . . well, his birthday's coming up," Evessa said, feeling certain that the young woman could have no way of knowing that this was a lie if it, indeed, was one, for she had no idea when the man had been born. "When last we spoke, Remus was bemoaning the state of his wardrobe, and I thought I'd buy him something to help him cut a dash—but if he's just placed an order . . . ."
"Seeing as how you're the gentleman's friend, I'd be happy to show you what he's ordered. I warn you, though," the clerk said, reaching for her notes, "that he's essentially purchased an entirely new wardrobe for himself—but I'm certain that I can assist you with your gift-giving ideas."
"I'm sure you can, my dear."
"I can't quite believe it, Neville. They said he might . . . . I'm sorry that I wasn't here—and Tonks? Is she all right?"
"Hermione, Tonks hated the man," Neville said, trying to decide how much to tell her as he brought the curry he'd prepared for lunch to the table. "You should eat. You're not looking well."
"I didn't mean—"
"For the curry, not the comment. I wasn't being sarcastic. I'm sure I don't look well."
"What is it? Did you argue with Blaise again?"
"No, nothing like that. I haven't spoken to him since he left for Snape Manor. It's just, well, a lot's gone on in a short period of time, that's all."
Tell me about it, Neville thought, frowning at his food. I can't believe I listened to Malfoy, but perhaps his names will prove useful.
"So, I take it that all is forgiven where Laura's concerned?"
Hermione's eyes widened and she lowered her fork in response to his snapping at her.
Damn. She meant the dinner I missed, not . . . . "I'm sorry. I am. It's just . . . having Malfoy here was trying."
"Perhaps you should sleep," Hermione suggested.
"Can't. Got a call from the Hog's Head. Aberforth Dumbledore's suddenly developed a desire to be shot of his gnomes. I've agreed to collect them."
"How did he know that you deal with gnomes now?"
"Mad Eye drinks there."
"Ah. Was Auror Moody . . . ?"
"Upset that Malfoy died? Hell, no. He was thrilled. They were all thrilled, if a bit irritated by the paperwork it would mean."
Hermione laughed ruefully. "The departmental paperwork is a right pain."
"I'm surprised that you weren't called back to duty."
"Officially, I was never on duty with regard to Lucius Malfoy, and now that he's dead, I think it would be safe for me to resume my Eligible duties as soon as Severus and Blaise think it's reasonable for me to return to Snape Manor. I hope you won't mind my being here for a day or two more?"
"Of course not."
"Excellent. In the meantime, I think I'll do a bit of reading about the properties and uses of dragon's blood. Boot's written the most fascinating article abou—"
A newspaper flying out of the Floo and onto the hearthstone interrupted Hermione.
"Well, that's odd. It's a bit early for the afternoon addition of the Prophet," Neville said, rising to retrieve it.
"You don't think word of Malfoy's got out yet, do you?"
As Neville touched the paper, it sprang into the air, unrolled, and proclaimed, "This is a Daily Prophet special edition for nine February two thousand six: BELLATRIX LESTRANGE CAPTURED!"
Neville felt himself pale at the news; he didn't quite know how to feel about it.
Harry arched up into Severus' hand and moaned, squeezing his own around Severus' prick. Desire and need and heat—he felt these things radiating from Severus, and he felt compelled to absorb and reflect them in turn as they stroked each other in tandem; it was as if they were one flesh, experiencing sensation and emotion as one body, one heart, one mind. The room glowed with a blue passion as Harry's magic rose to caress Severus' own unseen aural manifestation, and even though Harry didn't quite understand what was happening, he knew that it was right.
I can feel you, Severus, all of you. So open. So much, so much love.
For you. It's, I'm for you.
Yours. I, I'm for you.
Always, Harry thought, as Severus thought it, too.
Harry couldn't speak as he felt Severus' orgasm as if it were his own; the pleasure was too new, too strong. Dazed, he was dimly aware of Severus' string of verbal expletives warming his neck as his husband—and where had that word come from?—fell against him in sated exhaustion.
Diffuse but palpable, twinned but individual, as well, Harry could feel their magic swirling around and through them, even as the energy ebbed back to a resting state.
After everything, could it truly have been so easy? Harry thought, attempting to speak of it. "That . . . that was a—"
"—magic-fasting," they both said.
"But not . . . a Binding," Harry panted more than said.
"Sod a Binding," Severus declared, before taking Harry's mouth.
Their kiss, Harry felt with his own lips as the effects of the fasting faded, but he couldn't mind it; he'd never felt closer to anyone in his life.
He was finally home.