Chapter Notes: I think this is my favorite chapter. Thanks to Samael the Kind for letting me borrow Dula, his very charming creation. Dula was perfect for this cameo appearance.
Charlie Weasley's Floo remained unanswered for another week, a fact which cost Snape fifteen pinches of Floo powder that he could not replace. What kind of man takes an entire week's holiday from work at the most quiet time of year? he grumbled internally, though the fact that it was quiet precisely because most people were visiting home and family escaped him.
On the eighth day, Potter reappeared in the Great Hall and Snape cursed the fact that he could have saved his Floo powder if he'd used his head. Reckoning that the party must be over if Potter had left, he tried Weasley's fireplace once more. This time a man answered--not Weasley, but another draconist by the weathered look of him. "I wish to speak to Charlie Weasley," Snape said bluntly.
"He is in the hatchery. Perhaps I can help you."
Snape swallowed hard. Politeness was always difficult to interpret. Either this git meant to trick him, or had no inkling who he was. Judging by his accent, which seemed vaguely Slavic in origin, Snape surmised the latter and responded in kind.
"If you are willing. I am... a Potions Master. I have heard a bit of history about Miss--about Pendragon. I would like to try to help her."
"Ah, of course. You have heard that Charlie's magic seems to penetrate the black curse. I am afraid, sir, that many have already explored that avenue and turned up nothing of use. You are surely welcome to try, but you must not get your hopes up. Will some hair suffice?"
The man had an elegant, aristocratic bearing that reminded Snape of Lucius Malfoy. For that reason alone, he suppressed the urge to roll his eyes and make a snide remark. "No, not hair, thank you. I have a theory that the relevant link is draconian magic, not the blood she shares with her uncle."
The man frowned. "Oh. Pardon my presumption. Then what is your need, sir?"
Bugger. This prat is even more polite than the Blond Bastard. Snape felt acutely embarrassed--a most unfamiliar sensation--by his need to beg for supplies. "I am looking for... dragon egg shells." Might as well ask for something difficult to come by; perhaps I won't look like a completely pathetic little leech.
The other folded his arms and peered at him thoughtfully. "A valuable commodity. Perhaps you must speak to Charlie after all. You have not offered your name, and I don't know you, sir. I do not give such things to strangers, even for the benefit of little Pendragon."
Gritting his teeth, Snape replied, "Of course. If you could tell 'Charlie'--"
"Tell me what?" A new, louder voice echoed through the chimney. An unmistakable Weasleyesque red head appeared at the hearth, its cheery grin disappearing as it recognized the face in the Floo. "What the hell do you want?" he spat. The other draconist looked utterly scandalized, but Snape felt at home at last.
"I want to help your niece, Weasley, if you can bite back your contempt long enough to hear my request."
Weasley's face soured, but he composed himself quickly. "Harry told us you... pushed the scars back," he said grudgingly. "With Dark magic, of course, Merlin-only-knows what the long-term consequence will be--"
"Considering that the immediate consequence was death by asphyxiation, it seemed like a reasonable alternative at the time. Did Potter also explain that I would like to try my hand at some potions for her?"
"He mentioned it. And that he wasn't sure she trusts you enough to take them. Which I can completely understand, mind."
It was Snape's turn to speak grudgingly. "I'm working on that."
The other wizard, the one with dignity and upbringing, finally found his tongue. "Charlie, who is this man? Is he a Potions Master or not?"
"He's a traitor, Dula. A murderer from the Great War. But yes, he's the Potions Professor at Hogwarts."
Dula did not try to hide his startled frown, but like a true patrician he continued to speak with a cool, even tone. "A war criminal. He has paid the price for his crime, yes?" Weasley nodded, averting his eyes. "Obviously. One does not betray their way into such a position. Minister of Magic, perhaps, but not a professor at Hogwarts." Dula's eyes crinkled with mischief as both Weasley and Snape broke into cynical grins.
"You know, one of these days you're going to be wrong about something, and I really hope I'm there to see it," grumbled Weasley at last.
"As you have said for years, Charlie. Now, will you trust this man or not? It's freezing in here and I would have the fire back in 'heat' mode if you can end this bloody argument."
As Weasley turned back to the Floo, the snarl returned to his face, but his voice remained level. "Meet me in Diagon Alley tomorrow at the Apothecary. I have a delivery to make at one o'clock. We can discuss it."
Snape knew he would regret it in a few hours, but he would not be caught dead in London or anywhere else carrying a picnic basket. Tossing his last Sickle grudgingly in the glass bowl on the bar, he stomped through the Leaky Cauldron without regard to the stares, still munching on the remnants of an apple. It would be his last meal for the next thirty hours.
Weasley was already standing in front of the Apothecary, and glared at Snape through the sleet as he approached. "Given up on punctuality, then?"
"I assumed you would take a bit of time to complete your business. If I must spend the night here, then the later I arrived the better."
Weasley ignored the comment, clearly unconcerned about Snape's whereabouts once they parted ways. "Dula said you're looking for eggshells. Interesting that you need the most expensive materials. Why do I have a feeling, Snape, that you're handing me a bill of goods about helping Pen, just to get your hands on something you can't otherwise get?"
Snape's teaching robe was not made to keep out the wind, and he folded his arms tight across his chest in an effort to warm his fingers. He walked as he answered, hoping to find a more sheltered spot to stand and argue.
"Perhaps I am, Weasley. You know what an accomplished sneak I am. It would be just like me to rush to Pendragon's side just in time to spare her from suffocation--and of course, cleverly positioning Potter to witness the act--all to create the illusion that I'd like to help the girl so that I might obtain dragon eggshell gratis from her uncle. By Jove, you've sussed me out. Clearly I lost my edge in Azkaban."
Weasley halted right at the edge of a building; the wind whipped bitterly down the alley through Snape's robes. "You know, I wouldn't put it past you. You've certainly cooked up more twisted schemes in your time."
"You don't know the half of it. However, I'm afraid my glory days are over and I am reduced to sincerity. I might be able to help the girl, Weasley. Such an effort could create a mote of goodwill for me in the Wizarding world, that I might walk the streets of London without being spat upon by strangers. Does it comfort you to learn that ultimately, my motives for helping her are selfish?"
"Actually, it does. At least I can believe that part. What's your plan, then?" Thankfully, they continued to walk on at that point.
"I doubt that I can remove the curse, but I may be able to weaken it. I'm fairly certain I can stop the pain."
"All guesswork, of course; you'll have a wholesome alibi if none of it works. So tell me, why should I just hand you a valuable eggshell when, for the price of it, I could hire a dozen potionists to work on Pen's problem?"
"Because none of them would be me, Weasley. You can search the globe and you will not find another with an intimate understanding of Black magic. I know this; I watched all of my contemporaries die in Azkaban." Well, mostly; old Hilarity Giggle, the most unsuitably-named witch he'd ever met, had succumbed to dementia and could no longer find her way to the laboratory, much less brew a potion.
Weasley wrinkled his nose in contempt but kept walking.
"If it's a matter of cost, a scale would suffice, I'm sure," Snape continued. "For that matter, a trimming from a claw or a vial of blood would do. Far be it from me to deprive you of the profit on an eggshell, even if it is on Pendragon's behalf."
That got a reaction. Weasley halted, grabbing him by the elbow and leaning in close to his face. "How dare you? You know damned well this isn't about profit! I'd give a hundred shells to help Pen."
"Then perhaps I should ask for one hundred instead of one. How much audacity would it take to convince you of my intentions?" Snape was glad for the rush of anger; perhaps Weasley would think he was trembling with rage instead of shivering.
The two men locked each others' gazes for a long moment, until Weasley set his jaw and turned back, wordlessly, toward the Apothecary. "Come on, then. But I swear, if I find out you've misled me, Snape..."
"Yes, yes, I'm quite filled with dread."
They walked back in silence and Snape's shivering began in earnest; his clothes were quite soaked through from the slushy rain. The warm air in the Apothecary felt good for a moment, but it soon became painful as Snape's frozen fingers awoke and recognized how severely they'd been insulted by the cold. He would have given anything to be able to stop shaking, but Occlumency was limited only to his thoughts, not the automatic reactions of his body. When Weasley returned from the delivery bay, he jerked his head in surprise at first sight of Snape.
"You look like a drowned rat."
Snape rolled his eyes but did not speak. Why give the bastard a chance to hear my teeth chatter?
Shouldering a heavy pack, Weasley held out a leather pouch, watching him with narrowed eyes. Snape snatched it as quickly as he could, but speed could not disguise the tremulous path of his hand. "Why aren't you wearing a coat, Snape?"
"Supply and demand, Weasley. I was sent to Azkaban in the summertime. No coat in, no coat out. Quite simple." It was hard to sound snide when your breath rattled around in your chest and mouth as though being stirred by hummingbird wings.
"And they don't pay professors anymore at Hogwarts?"
"One cannot make Black counterpotions out of coats, Weasley. Good day." Snape didn't want to hear another word. It was bad enough knowing that the contents of that pouch could easily buy him a coat, a meal, and a warm bed for the night; the last thing he needed was Charlie Weasley gloating about his poverty.
The wind felt like it would cut him in half as he stepped outside, but at least the rain had stopped. He might get away with loitering in the Leaky Cauldron until his clothes were dry, although they would expect him to buy something. Snape pondered whether to return to the Apothecary and sell a few chips of that eggshell, but he knew it was foolishness. The trade in dragon materials was highly regulated and he could easily end up back in Azkaban. He recalled that Albus used to have a lovely warming spell, and Snape wished he had taken the time to learn it.
The pub was crammed with young people. There was a live performance of some popular band going on in the main room and they were charging an admission fee just for the right to go inside and be crushed by the throng. Snape pressed his way to the Muggle entrance and stepped back out into the wind with great relief. Crowds were intolerable after Azkaban. He'd seen too many people drop dead from a "shiv" thrust anonymously into their thigh, tipped with a poison that he himself had most likely brewed in the dead of night in his cell, in exchange for a fresh orange.
He had just turned the corner onto Shaftesbury Avenue when he heard footsteps pounding up behind him. "Professor!" Snape tucked his wand back in his sleeve; it was only Weasley. He spun around, hating the other man for delaying him yet again in the freezing cold, but his admonishment stuck in his throat. Weasley's breath was forming puffs of mist in the air as he held, at arm's length, a long, lined, woolen cape.
"Here," he panted. "It's Dula's. He insists."
Snape eyed it suspiciously. "Your friend... does he intend to send a magistrate to detain me for stealing cloaks?"
"How about stolen dragon matter, you tosser? No. Dula is both wealthy and generous. He also believes that war criminals are so named only because they happened to side with the loser." Weasley looked away as he said it, but he continued to hold out the cape. "Take it. You can't help Pen if you freeze to death in Muggle London."
"Tell your friend... that I thank him." Snape took the cloak without another word and stomped off, hoping that if he had not expressed sufficient gratitude, Weasley would improvise an appropriate supplement.