Title: Under the Spreading Chestnut Tree
Beta Reader(s): melusin_79
(Highlight to View) Warning(s): None.
Note: Many thanks to my wonderful beta.
Summary: "We are only interested in willing cooperation, Mr. Snape."
It didn't smell of anything. Not of wood, not of dyed fabric, not of greased metal, not of red paint, not of the hot steam billowing out of the engine's stack. The automated freshening charms built into the Hogwarts Express took care of that, along with the sweat of young wizards and the tang of familiars roaming the train or fretting in their wicker baskets.
Even the cloying whiff of sticky sweetness when Wilkes bit off the head of a Chocolate Frog vanished almost instantly.
Severus let his head loll with the sway of the train against the angle of the window, a fall of untidy hair hiding the other half of his face. He had been the first to get in the compartment and had taken the place farthest from the door.
"Ugh, Wilkes." It was Regulus' whine. "What are you, five-years-old?"
Wilkes bit again with relish and chomped noisily.
"Hey, have you heard about this?" Mulciber was unfolding the Daily Prophet. "They've raided the Malfoys again."
"What for?" grunted Wilkes through a mouthful of gooey chocolate.
"For harbouring illegal magical creatures." The pages rustled. "Six female, one male, four Thestral foals - confiscated, put in Hogwarts' care. Three juvenile dragons, infected with dragon pox - put down, the stables burned."
"I wish I'd been there," guffawed Macnair.
"D'you think the Malfoys will deem to fly on brooms like us ordinary wizards, now?" Wilkes had finally cleared away the chocolate.
"Don't, Wilkes. Just don't." Regulus' reedy voice was still cracking from puberty. "We all know why you're saying that. Just because you don't have two Knuts to rub together..."
"They're keeping all the money for themselves. They don't give anything to the cause."
"Because they would tell you if they did?"
"Shut up, both of you." Evan Rosier closed his book with a snap.
His uncle had been arrested the week before, under the new anti-Death Eaters laws. Nobody knew where he was being held or what the charges were.
The sway of the carriage mellowed.
"Better change," said Mulciber. "We're slowing down."
There was a rustle of wizards' robes, then the train stopped with a slight jolt. They had arrived at King's Cross.
"Hey, look who's guarding the gate." Wilkes was already out of the compartment and leaning out of the corridor window.
"Dawlish? He's a joke."
"No, the other one."
"Wonder who he's waiting for?" sneered Macnair.
"Move on, Wilkes." Mulciber was pushing through to the exit.
There was a brief hassle while Wilkes went back into the compartment to get his things and Macnair dropped a heavy trunk on his foot. Finally, Rosier got out, too. In silence. The acrid stench of his fear trailed after him for a brief moment, like the train of a bridal gown.
Regulus, who always smelled of clean, freshly pressed clothes, stopped at the door. "Snape?"
Severus didn't move. Kept his eyes closed, his face averted.
Regulus closed the door softly.
The noise of the students jostling and calling to each other was moving gradually away. As they spilled out of the train and thronged on platform nine and three-quarters, the jumble of voices and scraping trunks became an indistinct murmur. It ebbed slowly as the crowd, one by one, passed through the magical barrier.
Severus waited until he could be reasonably sure that Lily had already passed through the gate. For the first time in five years, he wouldn't be going home in the Evans' car, and his mother probably wouldn't be waiting for him. It was all right; he had saved enough for the ticket, and he knew how to use a Muggle train.
He was just reaching for his trunk when he heard the uneven thump of the wooden leg coming nearer from down the empty corridor. He froze with his hand half-curled around the handle of the trunk. Behind him, the door of the compartment slid open.
It wasn't Mad Eye's voice.
It was a woman's.
Severus took a deep breath, pulled the trunk from the rack and turned slowly around.
She had warm, brown eyes, the colour of fresh chestnuts. It was the first thing he saw before he took in the round face, the bobbed hair, the emerald shawl on her shoulders, the short black cassock worn over lime-green robes. A Healer? The crossed wand and bone emblem was nowhere in sight. Surely not the St. Mungo variety.
She was middle-aged, with a full bosom, and managed to look both stately and exhausted, like a mother with many children. There was nothing remarkable about her face except the smile. Its light threw the rest of her features into the shadows.
Moody had caught up with her and was hovering in the corridor, blue eye twitching madly.
"We're here to take you home."
"I can go alone."
"These are dangerous times, Mr. Snape. We'll make sure you're safe."
The train lurched, getting into motion again. Severus steadied himself on the luggage rack with his left hand. He was taller than Moody now, and much taller than the woman. "Where are we going?"
"The Hogwarts Express is going to the underground depot at the Ministry, as usual. There's a Portkey facility there, and we're going to use it." She turned to Moody. "Alastor, could you please tell the driver to stop directly at the Portkey booth, and that we need Mr. Snape's trunk sent on separately by special delivery? Thank you."
Moody scowled ferociously, and Severus' heart leapt. Mad Eye was being dismissed. He held out the trunk, and Moody tore the handle from him and limped away up the corridor, dragging the trunk after him.
The woman listened with her head slightly tilted, then she closed the compartment door, drew the blinds down on the corridor side and sat down on the middle seat opposite Severus. "Sit down, Mr. Snape."
The train had entered a tunnel. The lights overhead turned on; he could see his own image mirrored in the dark window.
He sat down, awkwardly arranging his gangly limbs. Only half of it was for show. His heart was beating madly.
I am getting a new handler. One with the power to send Moody away.
He forced the image of a calm lake into his mind and felt his heart slow down.
The woman was staring patiently at him. Once he had settled down, she put her hand inside her black cassock.
She fished out a small cardboard box.
"Toffee, Mr. Snape?"
He shook his head.
She smiled, popped a sweet in her mouth and stowed the box away.
"We are interested in willing cooperation, Mr. Snape. As you might have surmised," - she gestured to her robes - "I am a Healer, but I do not work for St. Mungo's. The Ministry entrusts me with some of their most... sensitive cases."
She paused to swallow her toffee. Severus dropped his eyes.
"We are worried about your mother's health. She has taken a turn for the worse. She was granted special permission to come and meet you at King's Cross, today, but was too weak. According to Alastor's report, she's stayed in bed for a week now, and your father isn't at home, either."
"Where is he?" The question escaped from his lips. Eileen's last letter hadn't said anything about that, but then it was two weeks ago.
"It seems he's in Armagh, looking after your grandmother Maguire, who is herself seriously ill. There's not much to be done about your mother's sickness, anyway. Not even St. Mungo's can help her. She's wasting away because she has been forbidden to use a wand. Her magic is killing her."
Severus kept his jaw clenched.
"I know what you're thinking, Mr. Snape. The Ministry took her wand and restricted her movements to within a half-mile radius from her stated residence, except with special permission. That decision was taken at a high level, long before I joined the Ministry. However, as a Healer, I can make recommendations. It would help if I could add some incentive to them."
Severus was still looking at his boots.
She leaned forward. "How is your own health, Mr. Snape? There have been rumours of a near-fatal accident at Hogwarts. Did you suffer any injury - physical or magical?"
Here we go. An icy shiver shot up his spine, half terror, half exultation.
"Albus Dumbledore is a great Headmaster, but we have suspected for some time that he may have initiated some potentially dangerous experiments. It would be better for everyone if we could correct them before the situation gets out of hand."
He raised his eyes halfway. Instead of staring at his feet, he was now staring at the Healer's round bosom.
"I can't tell," he said through clenched teeth.
"Ah, it's like that, is it." The tone was kind. "Then, maybe you can let me have a look?"
This time, he raised his head all the way up and met her eyes.
She entered his mind very softly, and he offered only the token resistance that could be attributed to inexperience. She skimmed only the surface at first. He felt the most recent memories stream past: the conversation between his Slytherin companions in the compartment, the stench of the Chocolate Frog, the rustling of the Daily Prophet and, before that, the memory of climbing from the sweltering platform in Hogsmeade ("hottest summer of the century," had screamed the Prophet) into the artificial coolness of the train. She was taking her time, looking at every image, however trivial, with the same patient interest.
She leafed leisurely backwards through meals in the Great Hall, students jostling in the corridors, long hours in the Library, classes and nights in the fifth-year Slytherin dormitory. She was intrigued by the boundary marks he had created for his mother's eyes: a bit of twitching, lurid emotional fabric crumpled up to signal 'teenager's room'. She fell into the trap of forcing one open, only to discover a boy fumbling with his pyjamas behind the closed curtains of his four-poster. After that, she moved a bit faster; here he was, passing his OWLs; here he was on the shore of the lake, under the beech tree, and finally they were in the Headmaster's office where Albus Dumbledore was pacing the room in front of a panting, dishevelled Severus before forbidding him to speak about 'the incident'. She looked at that for a long time, turning the scene carefully and examining it from every angle as she would some fragile bone china in an antiques shop, and Severus began to wonder if he had cut too much from it. Then she leapt directly at the damp tunnel under the Whomping Willow and, in reprisal, Severus let loose the full intensity of his terror: running, falling on all fours, crawling, running again for his life. That should deafen her to any nuances.
She withdrew from his mind as gently as she had entered, almost unnoticed amidst the clamour. Severus blinked.
"I'm sorry for what happened to you, Mr. Snape, and thank you for your help. I think I will be able to do something for your mother on the basis of that information."
The Portkey dumped the three of them on the worn rug of the sitting room.
Severus stumbled over an old suitcase half-tucked under the table and almost fell over the armchair. After the aseptic coolness of the Ministry premises, the heat was unbearable, and so were the tightly packed layers of smells: old furniture, damp wool, cold ashes, rank sweat and, through the half-open door to the kitchen, the dull, heavy stink of rotten vegetables.
The window was closed and shuttered. There was one candle lit on the table.
In the half-darkness, he only saw a grey mound on the sofa. Then the mound stirred and, very slowly, moving inch by inch, Eileen sat up. When she had accomplished swinging her slippered feet to the floor, she looked at them in silence. The grey blanket slipped sideways, revealing the threadbare upholstery.
"Mrs. Snape." The Healer was unruffled. "Sorry for the disturbance. On behalf of the Ministry, I have brought something that, we hope, will make you feel better. With the full approval of the Auror Department, of course," she added, without turning to look at Moody.
The look that Mad Eye shot her was pure hatred.
"It's birch with unicorn hair," she resumed, laying down the unmarked box on the table, "and it's brand new." She flipped the lid open, revealing the pale wand ensconced in blue velvet. "With the exception of the test spell used by the wandmaker, it hasn't cast anything yet. Mr. Snape, would you care to perform Prior Incantato?"
Severus swallowed. She'd had the wand on her all this time, even as she was telling me that 'maybe' she could do something. His rage was so incandescent that he fumbled the first Prior, but the second extracted a swarm of spectral canaries from the wand, and the third yielded nothing. The wand was pristine.
"Deletrius," said the woman from the Ministry, and the canaries dissolved in a wisp of smoke. "So it's new, and it's entirely yours. Subject, of course, to the same restrictions as you - not to be used beyond the half-mile radius from your home. You don't have to sign for it. I wish you good health."
Eileen just stared. Her face was the same yellowish white as the wand, skin stretched taut on the sharp cheekbones.
"Your parole officer will still be Alastor, as usual." She smiled, and the musty room was illuminated. "Goodbye, Mrs. Snape. Alastor, on the count of three?"
"I'm going to have a look upstairs, make sure everything's in order," growled Moody. "I can Apparate right back to Auror Headquarters."
"As you wish." She touched the Portkey and was gone.
"Bloody Unspeakables." Moody glared at the place where she had been and trudged up the narrow stairs.
Eileen was still staring at the wand with black eyes like holes. Her arm stretched out.
"No!" The word had escaped him.
It's a trap.
Hand still extended towards the open box, she looked at him.
I will walk into this willingly. As should you.
A reprieve for his mother: many months of life, maybe as much as two years. Maybe even three. For him, magic out of Hogwarts. Practicing freely. An unregistered wand.
Her eyes, huge with hunger.
The stairs creaked again in between the thumping of the wooden leg.
Yes. He needs to see this.
Her hand closed down.
Mad Eye showed no surprise at the sight of Eileen clasping the wand awkwardly in her fist, like a toddler holding a spoon.
"Your trunk is already in your room, boy," he spat at Severus. "Better check on it." He rummaged about in his robes and produced a leather purse. "Your summer allowance because that's what us Aurors are good for - fetch, carry, and lose limbs." The purse thudded dully on the table: Muggle banknotes, not coins. "But don't delude yourself, Prince - wand or no, you'll always be scum to me."
When the angry crack of Disapparition had dissipated, Severus opened the window to let some air in and check on the Ministry wards - the quaver of the light from the streetlamps confirmed they were up - then he climbed the stairs to his room.
The trunk lay diagonally between the door and his bed. He dragged it away to gain access, and a newspaper slid out from under the luggage. He bent to retrieve it.
It was the Daily Prophet, crumpled, yellowed and dated the 15th of July 1952. Under the title "New Graduates from St. Mungo's Healing Academy," a row of five photos. The second from the left showed a young woman with a round face, kind brown eyes and a warm smile, under the caption "Emmeline Vance."
When he came back downstairs, Eileen had blown out the candle. The pale light that flickered from the tip of her wand was almost invisible even in the dark room.
He coaxed her to lie down on the sofa and tucked the grey blanket around her before closing the window. She fell asleep with both hands clenched around the wand.
Next day, she was already looking better. She spent the morning sitting on the sofa, casting Lumos again and again, while Severus took out the rubbish, aired the kitchen, washed up the stack of dirty dishes in the sink, cleaned the kitchen table and prepared tea and porridge. He hadn't found anything else in the cupboard, so after that, he went out to buy some basic groceries.
When he came back, Eileen had changed into a short-sleeved dress. Her black hair, barely shot with silver, was combed and tied back. The shimmering sun flowed through the open window. The grey blanket lay folded on the armchair.
After lunch, while she rested on the sofa, he set about looking over the house.
The patch of herbs at the bottom of the yard was ruined. Two weeks of intense heat and neglect had reduced it to a few dry, brittle stalks. He plucked them out, got a spade from the shed, turned over the earth and watered it.
He had quite a few seeds and bulbs in his trunk, brought from Hogwarts. Slughorn preferred to pay him in ingredients for his work - those could always go on the school's account - and Moody had seen fit, or had been ordered, to avert his magical eye: nothing had been confiscated while the trunk was going through the Ministry's delivery channels.
On his way back to the house, he noticed a small breach in the brick wall on the other side of the shed. It opened onto the waste strip of land between there and the car park. The yellowed grasses had begun to climb into the opening. He'd fix it later. Anyway, all the houses in their row were empty now; the nearest one occupied was the tobacconist's, Segar and Snuff, on the far corner going towards the town.
He went through the kitchen. The kettle was whispering on the range and, as he put his foot on the first step of the stairs, Eileen called from the sitting room: "Tea in ten minutes." He poked his head through the half-opened door. She was sitting on the sofa, still practicing her Lumos. This time, it was visible, even in daylight. "All right," he said.
Upstairs, he hesitated as he passed the door to his parents' room. It was closed, and he didn't usually go in there, but he had a hunch that it needed airing and cleaning as badly as the rest of the house, and Eileen wasn't yet up to it, so he turned the doorknob.
The air was stale, and he went to open the shuttered window. When the light fell in, he saw the bed. The coverlet was smoothed out, the sheets neatly tucked in under the mattress' edges, the two pillows fluffed at the head. Nobody had slept in it for a long time. He crossed to the wardrobe: it was empty. There were none of his father's clothes, nor of his mother's. As he closed the door quietly, he wondered where she had got her change of dress from.
Eileen seemed to get better almost by the hour. Within a few days, she was taking care of most of the household routine. Severus began to have unreasonable hopes. For his share of the chores, he did the errands, any heavy lifting that was needed, and worked on the herb patch. The soil was rather poor, soaked with decades of soot from the now silent mills, but this summer, he was able to give it a little magical help without worrying about the Decree for Reasonable Restriction of Underage Sorcery, and soon the first shoots showed up.
One morning, when he came downstairs, he found Eileen pointing her wand at the book-covered wall opposite the window. It had begun to swing around by a few inches, but it refused to move any further. He had been waiting for her to try this, try her hand at Potions again, but she wasn't yet strong enough to open the door. He pulled his own wand and, together, they made the wall pivot. The hidden lab had shrunk to the size of a broom cupboard, but the cauldrons and alambics were still there. A judicious application of Extension Charms forced the tiny space back to usable dimensions. He scrubbed the cauldrons, but Eileen insisted on cleaning everything else.
She continued, however, to sleep in the sitting room. All her clothes were stowed in the old suitcase, which was now tucked under the sofa. Severus, who, most of the time, got up early, tiptoed to the kitchen past the closed door, behind which his mother slept, and used the breach in the wall if he needed to get out.
Maybe she was still too weak. She hadn't asked, either, to look into his mind as she always did everytime he came back from school.
One morning, when he opened his window, she was already standing in the middle of the yard, lighting her cigarette. She had gone out and as far as the tobacconist's. When she saw him, she looked sheepish. He couldn't repress a grin, and from then on, she didn't hide anymore.
It was a habit she had picked up from Toby - witches and wizards didn't smoke. Unhealthy as it was, it meant she was herself again. She never smoked in the house, however, not when Severus was home, and had never sent him to buy cigarettes.
By the end of the second week, the lab was wholly functional, stocked with the first harvest from the herb patch and the carefully sorted ingredients brought from Hogwarts. They brewed again, side by side, as they had done when Severus was still a child, except that now he was faster than Eileen. They had been working on a Fire Protection Potion, and Eileen was having trouble chopping up the Fire Slugs. It was a classic difficulty and the reason why very few Potioneers ever attempted this brew: the slugs tended to reform as undulating flames almost as quickly as they were cut, and throwing more than one slice at a time in the cauldron could result in a disastrous explosion.
Severus had laid the silver dagger aside and taken up his wand.
"Help me instead of faffing around!" snapped Eileen.
Severus smirked and drew his wand across the Fire Slug. A thin, round slice of blue fire fell apart from the main flame, which squirmed wildly, but couldn't fuse with the lost segment. Eileen's eyes went wide.
"I call it 'Sectumsempra'," explained Severus. "What you cut stays cut, unless you apply the countercharm."
It took only three tries for Eileen to master the spell. Half-an-hour later, as they set the potion to low simmer and cleaned away the table, she asked, "You invented it?"
"So it's not listed at the Ministry?"
He shook his head.
"Excellent," murmured Eileen.
For two more weeks, the weather stayed hot and the sky uniformly blue.
They fell into a peaceful routine. Each day, Severus would awake to the faint scent of Eileen's quiet morning cigarette while she inspected the herb patch, bending every now and then to prune a weed. They had breakfast, then brewed until lunch. After lunch, Eileen rested while he dealt with whatever tasks he had set for himself, or read. Then they brewed again, cast the stasis charms as needed, tidied the lab for the night and had a light supper. Once they had eaten, Severus would go upstairs to his room and read in bed. Through his open window came a far away clattering of dishes rising from the kitchen, then, after a short silence, the sharp, spicy aroma coiling up from the yard: the smoke of the Sobranie Classics, rising like the fumes from a burnt sacrifice.
The stock of potions was growing steadily, and Severus began to think about ways to sell them without attracting too much attention. If the Ministry had closed its eyes until now, he would probably get away with it. Even discounted at half-price, it could provide a useful reserve.
The ritual of brewing stabilized Eileen's magical energy. She wasn't yet strong, but now her flow was even. She got involved with improving the precision of Sectumsempra. The meticulousness was soothing; soon, she could project the spell with the utmost precision required in Potions, which was the thickness of Acromantula silk, and she was better than Severus at gauging the distance to the intended target.
On the last day of July, however, Eileen made several mistakes during the morning preparation of the ingredients and snapped irritably at him. He disposed of the spoiled materials and managed to get another series properly ground, sifted and weighed beforehand for the afternoon work. However, after lunch, he had barely mixed the bubotuber pus into a wormwood decoction when Eileen, who had been reaching for a jar of ingredients on the shelf, dropped a shrivelfig into the greenish liquid he was stirring. The potion curdled instantly, sticking like a black clot at the bottom of the cauldron.
She left without a word, stomping away to the kitchen. Severus heard the door to the backyard slam shut and, while he was scraping the cauldron, remembered that he hadn't smelled the smoke of her ritual cigarette before breakfast, nor after lunch.
When he had finished cleaning, he slipped quietly out through the front door and went to Segar and Snuff's.
"A pack of Sobranie Classics," he demanded.
Mr. Segar scowled at him. "I've already told your mother I don't stock them anymore. There's not enough demand around here. Hell, there aren't enough people around here."
He had guessed right. The next tobacconist was at the junction of Duke Street and Coronation Street, and that was way beyond the radius allowed to his mother.
He hesitated a moment. He wasn't sure Eileen would appreciate his getting her cigarettes; also, he'd have to pass by the old playground at the end of the street. He could see the top of the swings' frame from where he stood.
There was no one in sight, though, except a black spaniel, who sniffed happily at something in the gutter, wriggling its bottom to the sky. As Severus passed him, the dog abandoned his query and ran to sniff at his jeans. Severus shooed him away. The dog fell two paces behind, but continued to follow, wagging his tail.
Severus shrugged. The spaniel looked uncannily like the Evans' dog, but it had no collar, and his muzzle was beginning to turn white. Anyway, it would hardly be the only black spaniel in town.
He passed the playground, deserted under the heavy sun, turned right then left again, giving a wide berth to the Evans' house. The spaniel continued to tag along, weaving through the traffic that got denser as they approached Coronation Street.
There was a white van parked in front of Havana House, and the spaniel paused to sniff under it. Severus bought three packs of Sobranies - they should last for a while - and tucked them in the back pockets of his jeans. When he came out of the shop, the dog was still absorbed in whatever he was scenting, and Severus sped up, hoping to get rid of the animal.
He had just passed the pillar-box at the corner of the street when he was lifted by the blast then thrown down like a ragdoll.
When he came to, he was lying on his back behind the cast iron postbox. The dust was settling, and the red pillar was the only intact thing he could see when he tried raising his head. There was no more white van; the cars that had been parked next to it were a heap of twisted, charred metal. The front of Havana House was a silent, gaping hole.
Then someone, far away, screamed.
Severus' first reflex was to check he still had the wand in its holster, but as he tried to slip his hand under his T-shirt, he felt something warm and limp weighing across his chest. It felt like a soft doormat, soaking wet.
He sprang to his feet, and the spaniel, slick with blood, slipped from him and fell away slowly, like an unstuffed toy.
He needed to get out of there fast.
The first ambulances passed him, sirens wailing, while he was on Duke Street, and he sped up as much as he could without attracting attention, but nobody stopped him.
Eileen noticed at once, not that the blood was very visible on his black T-shirt, but the stench had filled the sitting room as soon as he had closed the door behind him. She went pale like chalk, vanished the shirt, made him put away the wand in its holster and checked him over for wounds. He had a couple of shallow cuts across his chest and deep-blue bruises on his back, but nothing was broken. She sighed in relief and took a step back, still clenching her wand. "Sit down. I'm going to get some dittany."
He rummaged stiffly in his back pockets and fished out the three cigarette packs.
Eileen's eyes went from his hands to his face. Then, without warning, she plunged into his mind.
The attack was so brutal that he staggered, but she was holding his whole awareness in a steel grip while she scoured it. She had never yet been so ruthless; it was nothing like the touch of the woman from the Ministry, or even Dumbledore's deft probing. She went through the haze of the explosion like a spear, tossed aside the comfortable days of brewing together, stopped a very brief moment in the train compartment where he was sitting with the Healer, then cleaved through all the distractions he was throwing in her way until he found himself facing the Headmaster again in the circular office, and she saw the seam immediately, grabbed the thread and pulled so hard that half of it unravelled before he pushed back with the force of despair.
The sun behind the high window of the Headmaster's office darkened, and the frame of the window contorted and shrank until it was the front door of the house in Spinner's End at evening, and here, on the doorstep, his mother was kissing his father while he carried a small suitcase in his hand.
The image shattered away. He was in the sitting room again, naked to the waist and breathless, facing his mother. She was breathing hard too, but her wand was pointing steadfastly at his forehead.
"He asked you to work for him, and you refused."
"Yes," he answered, wondering how much exactly she had seen. "Father is not coming back, is he?"
She lowered her wand with a sigh. "You will return to Hogwarts and accept Dumbledore's offer."
"You need to keep on his good side. Accept the Legilimency lessons as well. You need them."
"I'm working for the Ministry." No point in telling her about Malfoy.
"Fool! How do you think that woman knew about the incident?"
They glared at each other.
"Severus, you must play the game. Play them against each other and hide behind each of them in turn. You have to stay alive, Severus."
Then she added very softly: "Please."
He looked away first. Without a word, he picked up his wand and holster from the table and went quietly upstairs.
It was already dark, but he didn't turn on the light in his room.
The window overlooked the yard. He went to close it, despite the heat. He didn't want the smoke from his mother's cigarette, if it ever rose again, to reach him.
After he had tilted the latch, he stood for a long time with his forehead resting again the glass pane. At long last, he saw the flicker of the lighter. It briefly outlined Eileen's cupped hands and the lower part of her face before they sank into the shadows again. Only the tiny red glow of the stub was left floating in the night.
He turned away from the window, undressed in the dark, dumped his jeans and underpants on the chair, fastened the holster under his arm and threw himself on the bed only to gasp as his bruised shoulder hit a hard object. He lifted himself onto his elbow, dug the thing out and recognized, by shape and feel of the worn covers, the Advanced Potions textbook.
He couldn't throw it on the floor, and he couldn't rise to put it on the desk. His limbs felt like lead; the very air in the room was crushing him. He fell back on his crumpled sheets, eyes closed, left arm folded against his chest. The book came to rest in the sunken place above his sternum.
It felt oddly comforting in its stillness: a simple, lifeless shape, just laying there. The square edges, pressing against the swell of his ribs, rose and fell slightly with each breath. He took a deeper inhalation just to test the feel of them, and felt his heart slow.
As he stilled in body and mind, the book seemed to come alive. It pulsed quietly, at first in rhythm with his heart, then in place of his heart, taking upon itself the toil of living. As he opened his eyes, the book gave a slight flutter and fell open, its white pages splayed over his chest.
He knew the invocation, but he wanted to see the meandering letters traced in fire ink by the Prince who, in a long forgotten language, had devised the spell calling forth his own Lilith from the unknown abyss.
...and, however much it beseeches you to give it a face, do not yield, for it will exact terrible vengeance.
The bright pinpoint light of the Lumos slid on the creamy thighs straddling him, the patch of curls, the proud torso. From the base of the neck up, the luminous skin disappeared into a pillar of thick, black smoke, spinning lazily into the upper shadows of the room.
His free hand rested on a silken thigh; it burnt like ice. The succubus gave an expert wiggle of the hips: the burning ice spread throughout his body, and he felt the tendrils prodding in his mind, the pressure to grant her a complete form. "No."
The creature lifted itself and fell again, encasing him, and with each stroke it tugged at his brain and marrow, interrogating, looking for a face to wear, and with each stroke he thought "No," until the ice flowing through his veins thickened to stone.
He felt the heavenly flesh astride him dissolve again into heavy smoke, twisting lewdly against his belly in a last caress. He was out of danger.
He was alone in the dark. He was safe.
I sold you and you sold me
(George Orwell, 1984)